Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
For a couple of centuries, experts have been trying to decode the infamous Voynich manuscript, that oddity on parchment that seems to be some kind of magic manual full of strange plants and a beautiful script that’s related to no language on Earth. Even America’s most skilled codebreakers haven’t been able to crack it, leading the latest puzzle solvers to conclude it can’t be deciphered at all because there’s no rhyme or reason to it, it’s a hoax, or possibly a big fifteenth century joke.
It is strange all right. You can buy a reproduction, complete with analysis, leaf through it yourself, and try to make sense of the gorgeous medieval script and bizarre drawings, but be assured you won’t do any better than the experts. It’s impenetrable.
I disagree with the critics who declare it a hoax or a grand joke. I bet it’s meant to be art, pure and simple.
They’ve dated the manuscript to 1430 or thereabouts, and because it’s made of fine materials of the day, calfskin vellum and parchment, it wasn’t a gag some scribe threw together to pass a plague year. And when you look at the inkwork of the writing, you understand it was done carefully and lovingly. The guy (or gal?) who made it was creating something of value and wanting it to provoke debate. Not a bad definition of art.
And let’s face it: 1430 was a long time ago. Imagine someone rediscovering a work of our “modern art” in the year 2600, having lost touch with its context. They might think the Warhol soup cans were therapy for a mental patient. Or Damien Hirst’s animals were taxidermy for the rich (though maybe that’s what they really are). An artist who creates something intentionally provocative and unique isn’t thinking about an audience 500 years in the future. She’s thinking about the piece’s reception now. I can imagine the Voynich artist thinking, “This is so awesome. Nobody’s done anything like this before, and I’ll be the toast of the Bürgermeister’s ball!”
Even better, the Voynich manuscript could be art that the creator made just for himself. A labor of love that tickled him and into which he put every ounce of his skill. And it sat for decades on the equivalent of his coffee table in Prague or wherever, until he died and it passed into the hands of some dumb heir who didn’t know what it was and couldn’t sell it because it made no sense.
Sometimes the audience for an extraordinary work of art is one.