Art and Gossip

Veronese, “Happy Union” from the Allegory of Love

This weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the big Veronese exhibit at the National Gallery in London, the largest collection of Veronese’s paintings ever assembled outside Italy. For this unique occasion, I did something I normally don’t — I shelled out for the audio guide. It was generally serviceable, and even if the content could’ve been conveyed just as easily in writing, I saw the advantage of being able to look at the painting at the same time as I listened (rather than having to go back and forth from the text on the wall). I felt a strange dissatisfaction, however, which was encapsulated in the fact that only on the commentary for the second to last painting did they mention brushstrokes. We were to understand that Veronese’s technique had changed in some way, and yet our attention had never been drawn to his technique previously (aside from his preference for certain characteristic colors and his skill in portraying elaborate fabrics).

I don’t want to single out this audio guide, because it’s a pervasive problem: the guidance provided for the general public in art museums relatively rarely directs our attention to the actual artwork itself. We learn a great deal about the artist’s life, about the circumstances of the work’s composition, about the representative content of the work, about the various schools or movements it may belong to. What I came here to see is the artwork, and I’m bombarded by facts about everything but the artwork.

The situation is similar when one goes to the symphony — your average program notes will contain 90% biographical information and 10% description of the musical content you’re about to hear. For instance, I once went to a concert featuring Walton’s first symphony, a relatively unknown work. The program notes told me all about how much he procrastinated on it and how it was apparently inspired by a turbulent love affair. I’ve listened to the piece many times, and I can assure you that you cannot hear anything about a love affair in it. What you hear is a bunch of music. Indeed, that’s why I came to the symphony, to hear music — and so why can’t the program notes help me to listen more intelligently to it?

The motivation behind these kinds of supplemental materials is to make art and music more relatable or accessible, but in practice, they cut off our access and fail to train us in how to actually talk with one another about what we’re seeing and hearing. We know all about van Gogh’s tortured life and can discuss that, but then we already knew how to talk about biography and suffering — what we probably don’t know is how to talk about the actual painting in front of us. Everyone knows that Beethoven went deaf, but when we venture to talk about it, it seems as though we’re deaf to the actual music he’s given us.

I don’t think it’s a matter of giving us access to technical terminology, because we all know what a line and a color is, and the majority of technical terminology for music consists in the Italian terms for fairly straightforward concepts (louder, softer, slowing down, etc.). Nor do I want to disallow biographical, historical, or representational information. Nor, most of all, do I want to leave people to wallow in the solipsism of their “personal experience” of the artwork — what I want is to provide tools that will allow people to actually talk about the artwork with one another, to draw one another’s attention to its features and effects so that we can all help each other to see and hear better.

Posted in art, music. 6 Comments »

The Dionysian in Christian art, part 2

Leonardo da Vinci - John the Baptist

Leonardo da Vinci – John the Baptist


What are we to make of the fact that Leonardo da Vinci and his students detected a certain kinship between John the Baptist and Dionysus? The two figures seemingly could not be more different — the grim ascetic preaching repentance and the god of revelry. One could perhaps forgive Donatello his “fabulous,” sassy David, given that David was, after all, a young man whose appearance had drawn God’s eye. (In this case, the stranger choice is Bernini’s older David, captured mid-throw.) How could John the Baptist be portrayed as an androgynous, sensual figure? Did Leonardo simply mix him up with John the Beloved Disciple?

We see this strange sexuality of John the Baptist emerge again in Strauss’s Salome. Here, though, it is a mark of perversion and decadence as Salome incomprehensibly takes John as a sexual object and, after being rejected, willingly collaborates with her mother in his beheading out of vengeance. This strange attraction culminates in a disturbing scene where Salome kisses and carresses the Baptist’s disembodied head. This is very different from Leonardo’s straightforward presentation — where Strauss plays on the very unthinkability of John’s sexuality, Leonardo is able to present it as a simple fact, as almost self-evident.

Nietzsche might see here an acknowledgment of the inherent sensuality of asceticism, the erotic charge of denial. How much greater, how much more durable and even unlimited is the jouissance derived directly from the refusal of jouissance — excessive piety is the greatest of festivals, the carnival that never has to end because it has finally become life rather than the exception or relief from life. If only the ascetic has truly experienced jouissance, then what better figure to serve as the Christian answer to Dionysus than John the Baptist, who is in fact the very threshold of the Christian dispensation itself?

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The Dionysian in Christian art

Raphael - Transfiguration
In The Birth of Tragedy, one of Nietzsche’s most concrete illustrations of Appolinian art is Raphael’s Transfiguration (pictured above):

In a symbolic painting, Raphael, himself one of these immortal “naive” ones, has represented for us this demotion of appearance to the level of mere appearance, the primitive process of the naive artist and of Apollinian culture. In his Transfiguration the lower half of the picture, with the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the bewildered, terrified disciples, shows us the reflection of suffering, primal and eternal, the sole ground of the world: the “mere appearance” here is the reflection of eternal contradition, the father of things. From this mere appearance arises, like ambrosial vapor, a new visionary world of mere appearances, invisible to those wrapped in the first appearance–a radiant floating in purest bliss, a serene contemplation beaming from wide-open eyes. Here was have presented, in the most sublime artistic symbolism, that Apollinian world of beauty and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus; and intuitively we comprehend their necessary interdependence.

It is a truly ingenious artistic decision to include the Transfiguration and the fumbling disciples, whom Jesus finds trying and failing to drive out the demon, in the same frame. I wonder if Nietzsche is missing something here, though — namely, the fact that the composition of the top half of the painting so clearly echoes the crucifixion. Jesus’s hands and feet are positioned in such a way as to suggest that they have been purposefully moved away from the posture of crucifixion, and indeed, the crucifixion would not be out of place in the world of the lower half of the painting. Perhaps Nietzsche’s point is actually strengthened if we emphasize the crucified figure implicitly “behind” the glorified Christ — in fact, it’s difficult to understand why he doesn’t explicitly make that connection.

My trip to Paris

As I’ve mentioned before, The Girlfriend and I planned a trip to Paris for this winter break. In addition to being near-perfectly timed to avoid the catastrophic cold in Chicago, it also proved to be a particularly fruitful moment for me, given that I’ve just spent a semester thinking about art in a focused way. My priority for this trip was the museums, and we wound up hitting the main highlights: the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Rodin Museum. We also enjoyed great restaurants, morning croissants, book shopping, and just walking around — including in the incredible Luxembourg Gardens, which features the magnificent sculpture Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea.

In recent years, I’ve been trying to get away from the model of attempting to “see everything” in a given museum. We all know the drill — we walk along, stop briefly before each painting, maybe read the description card, and then move on. I have tended to opt for more concentrated viewing, faciliated by the fact that the holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago are pretty familiar to me by this point. In Paris, though, I felt myself drawn back toward the “see everything” model (even though this would be physically possible in the Louvre), and I came to see its value in terms of giving a broader context and historical sweep. I won’t remember in detail all the paintings I saw, nor the names and dates of the artists, but I feel I have a better handle on the trajectory of at least one particular national artistic tradition (and on its various by-ways). And that contributes to the appreciation of individual works: simply by following along in the Musée d’Orsay in more or less chronological order, I was able to understand Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe on a much more intuitive level.

I was also shocked by the number of bookstores and their quality. Bourdieu’s Collège de France lectures on Manet had recently been published as a 700-page tome, and several stores I visited had it in a highlighted spot. I was able to get the recently published early Derrida seminar on Heidegger at a place a few blocks from where we were staying, a place that devoted half the store to children’s literature (and where I also bought the first Harry Potter and The Giver in French as gifts for my sister and mother, respectively). Whatever the French government is doing differently in this regard, we need to begin doing immediately.

Finally, I found many differences between French and American culture crystalized in a single point — the use of cash. I hardly ever carry cash in the US, but in Paris it was the most convenient means of payment. The Girlfriend and I both found it appealing as a quick and easy way to do things, but then we enumerated all the things that militated against it in the US: above all the insistence on charging sales tax separately, so that attempting to give exact change becomes a fool’s errand, and the car culture that makes it more convenient to buy everything in one place (both by providing ample storage space for purchases and by making it very laborious to visit several stores for one shopping trip). Perhaps there’s some kind of inner connection between an urban, walkable culture and the use of cash. I don’t know. I’m kind of jetlagged.

Posted in art. 4 Comments »

On the ending of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”

The ending of Kakfa’s short story “A Hunger Artist” is strange, even for Kafka — in fact, it initially makes the story seem like kind of a “shaggy dog” story. After detailing the rise and fall of a professional faster, Kafka stages his death scene:
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in art, Kafka. 6 Comments »

The greatest painting ever painted

The Minotaur 1885 by George Frederic Watts 1817-1904

George Frederic Watts, The Minotaur (1885)

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Kafka as muse

The fine arts course I’m teaching at Shimer is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has inspired countless works of music and visual art. It strikes me that if any more recent figure has the potential to serve as such a productive basis for art, it has to be Kafka. The Trial cries out for operatic treatment. A ballet of “Josephine the Singer” would be inspired. Imagine what visual artists could do with Odradek!

What do you think, readers?

Reflections on teaching fine arts

I’m about halfway through teaching Shimer’s Humanities 1: Art and Music. So far, we have done a couple weeks of intro each for visual arts and music, then started a sequence based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has inspired a large number of artworks in various genres and also includes interesting reflections on the fine arts. In the spirit of Ovid’s often contrived transitions, we have also pursued some side roads only obliquely suggested by his text, including an architectural tour of some buildings in the Chicago Loop that vaguely recall the palace of the Sun described in Book II. I had developed a certain level of comfort with the art and music sections, and introducing a new artform at this late date was kind of a curveball — so the tour was an occasion for some reflection on what the class is really trying to do and what I, a non-specialist, can bring to the table for the students.

The challenge of the course is to find a way of talking about art that is neither purely impressionistic and personal nor overly technical and scholarly. Read the rest of this entry »

Two requests for suggestions

Last year’s instructors of Humanities 1 (Art and Music) developed a new format for the class that is loosely organized around Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a text that has inspired a lot of art and music and is also in large part about human creativity. There were, however, a couple things that didn’t fit as well into that framework, including Svetlana Alpers’ The Vexation of Art: Velasquez and Others. The goal was to provide some art criticism from a woman in a class where it is otherwise difficult to find women’s work to include — and so I ask you, dear readers, if anyone by chance knows of another work of art criticism by a woman that has more direct overlap with art inspired by Ovid. (I know this is a weirdly specific request and probably something of a long-shot.)

In addition, for my elective over Being and Time, I have tentatively decided to begin with a couple days each on phenomenology and hermeneutics, then work through The Concept of Time (i.e., the unpublished book review that is billed as “the first draft of Being and Time,” not the lecture series with a similar title). Given that we’ll be reading through Being and Time in painstaking detail, I thought using his shorter “first draft” would be a good way to get an overview of the project as a whole without biasing them toward any particular scholar’s interpretation of it. A colleague of mine has a good text of Husserl’s in mind, and another has recommended some passages from Gadamer — but I would prefer to use Dilthey if possible, given that that’s who Heidegger is directly discussing. Does anyone know of a good essay or chunk that we could spend a day or two on?

Please note: I am not planning to use any secondary sources for the Heidegger course, so I would prefer that you not make any recommendations of that kind. (And just to make sure: yes, I am aware of Simon Critchley’s online introduction to Being and Time.)

A Note: On Apocalypse, Moby-Dick & Job

[Originally posted over at my joint, but given the meandering path it took into things religious I thought I'd cross-post it here.]

Dear _______,

Your note has made my day, and it’s only yet 9 a.m. It reminds me of a conversation I was having last night with a friend in which I tried to explain why I don’t regard myself as a pessimist, in the face of all contrary evidence and claims by others.  I am, I insisted, under the influence of maudlin-making ale, an idealist who feels there is no place for ideals in the world. Of course, I know this sounds pessimistic through and through, but in my reckoning it is what feeds the Romantic / apocalyptic experience you mention.

The failure of words (& other communicative / artistic media) is necessary to their creative function. My friend and I don’t wholly disagree on this, but he seems more inclined than I to speak of one’s engagement with art as ultimately, if not immediately, disentangled from the world. While I agree that art is not wholly determined by the limitations set in stone, some quite literally, I am allergic even to a conversational nod that it ever stands beyond the fray, disinterested, hands-clean or abstract. You and I agree, romanticism & apocalypticism are indelibly linked, and as such remain inevitably messy. This messiness needn’t necessarily be a flaw, any more than existence as a whole is a mistake. I don’t see a position from which we can make such an evaluation without, in the process, doing much real-world damage. Though this has not stopped us from doing either. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aesthetics, art, Job, Melville. Comments Off
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