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  • Adrian J. Boas

On a Seemingly Meaningless Art

Updated: Nov 4, 2019


Graffiti doodling on the facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Many among us regret the passing of simpler times, times when the sole purpose of a telephone was to communicate with someone. Mobile phones do an increasing number of other things, but it seems that these faculties have come at a cost, most obviously, at the loss of the ability to communicate with anyone who is not on the other end of the line. Observing the now common scene of couples or friends sitting opposite one another in a public place, entirely absorbed with what appears on the small screen in their hands and oblivious to each other, is a sad testimony to the price of technological advancement. The mobile phone has also taken away our privacy, and the possibility of enjoying a quiet bus ride without learning all about the most intimate personal affairs of the person sitting behind us. But no less sad, the mobile phone has taken away all of the wonderful paraphernalia that once accompanied telephones, such apparatus as the phone booth (a loss perhaps most acutely felt in the UK), telephone tokens and phone cards. Another serious loss, indeed, one that constitutes a blow to human creativity, is the disappearance of the phonebook. The vanishing of this wonderful object has had a detrimental effect on the art world, for, as anyone born in the previous century recalls, alongside providing phone numbers these massive volumes were a great source for the art of the doodle.


In the Concise Oxford Dictionary, fourth edition (1951) doodling is defined as "[making] an aimless scrawl while one's attention is engaged elsewhere". I like to term this doodling "meaningless art", as the distracted state one is in when creating a doodle is the opposite of an artist's high degree of concentration of what he or she is doing. But it may be this is not entirely true, for there are perhaps subconscious meanings to these seemingly aimless scrawls, meanings that a psychoanalyst could no doubt enlighten us upon. Imagine what we might learn if we could find out why the writer, illuminator or perhaps possessor of a thirteenth century manuscript sometimes added on the borders of a the beautiful piece of calligraphy an incongruous pattern, a comic figure or scene, or an object that has no apparent relationship to the text. Examples of such marginalia are commonplace.


In the Middle Ages, in the Latin East as elsewhere, there are often displays of doodling found on the walls and floors of buildings, appearing alongside graffiti that has a meaning of sorts, such as a person's name or his heraldry. The charm of these marks is that they are even more personal perhaps than the inscribing of one's name. They are something from within, a mystery of their maker's personality, lost and forever to remain entirely unfathomable.


Graffiti doodle on the facade of the Church of the Tomb of the Virgin, Valley of Jehoshaphat, Jerusalem

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