Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"The Cold Brilliant Light of Theory" -- further thoughts

In the first gallery at the Galleria Borghese, the audio guide tells the story about a famous horse and rider sculpture, Marco Curzio a Cavallowhich was mounted on the wall, the most visible sight for those entering the Gallery up the main front steps.  It is a Greek sculpture of a horse that has lost its rider.  Cardinal Borghese, the maker of this great collection and gallery, hired Pietro Bernini (father of the soon-to-be more famous son, Gian Lorenzo Bernini) to create a new rider. It is impossible to tell, from a distance, that this is an ancient and a modern sculpture combined. It was common to provide a prosthetic arm or leg to ancient sculptures, to complete that which was lost, in the hopes, through repair, to regain that apparent heroic clarity of the ancient heritage.

The first gallery currently also has four Giacometti figures, originally commissioned by Chase Bank for its plaza in Manhattan.  The whole room here is filled with Greek and Roman statuary of the noblest kind.  But I find Giacometti’s figures to be much more noble than the Greek and roman – Jove, Dionysus, the satyr, and other Roman VIP’s.

Walking Man, has a scarred heart, almost as if someone had tried to break it open and sliced it in the effort. I did not notice the last time I was at the Gallery that the figures have large, heavy feet.  The sculptures are thin, rail-like figures but they are nonetheless rooted firmly in the earth – they look like the heavy basis of Egyptian mummies, or, with feet together,  as some are, like angels in the Torah.

Fragile, strong, but also sad. They seem to be distrustful of heroic ideals, and the kinds of ideals propagandized by the Greek and Roman sculptures in the gallery.

I have been thinking and writing about the basic tension in art and architecture between the pure and convincing, the stalwart and principled versus the “complex and contradictory” as Venturi would say, the unresolved, the questioning, the cautious.  There is our nearby to the Academy one of the greatest examples of the former – Bramante's Tempietto, so uplifting in its proportions and solidity and clarity.  And then, at San Pietro in Vincoli, there is Michelangelo’s Moses, not still, but a figure in motion, Freud argued, insecure and unresolved.  

I have always thought that I gravitated toward the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, those who sing with conviction, the ballad and the soaring melody.  I have gravitated toward the proud principles of the play, Inspector Calls, which has these lines near the end:

Inspector: But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, and what we think and say and do. We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they well be taught it in fire and bloody and anguish. Good night. 

But I have been questioning this of late.  I think of the Michael Frayn play Copenhagen, and the instability and memory and meaning, and about John Cage’s  pieces, Imaginary Landscape IV and 4’33 composed while he was living on Monroe Street on the Lower East Side, and where he opened his windows to mingle the city’s music and his own. In came the indeterminate sounds of this immigrant neighborhood and the still-vibrant industrial waterfront nearby. I think about the essay about the British scientist, Jacob Bronowski and his call – while standing in one of the pools of mud at Auschwitz – to resist certainty and the kind of conviction that ends up killing people.

And I think of the book I read twenty years ago, but has remained in the back of my mind, a touchstone -- Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death.  Becker makes the uncompromising argument that we seem doomed to make mayhem and start wars and kill others in pursuit of victories and achievements that will make us feel like death can be kept at bay, or that life is in fact meaningful.  Are our convictions more frightening because they are more violent in direct proportion to their clarity of purpose?

And then I think of my favorite piece from the Cinque Mostre exhibition at the Academy in the spring of 2014. Mimmo Jodice’s Demetra Opera 1 is a photograph of a broken bust of Demetra – the left half of her check and jaw were gone – which is completed by a white mold, held together by a person’s – the artist’s? -- hand, as if he was giving Demetra a warm squeeze, perhaps a prelude to a kiss.

It is a sweet gesture – an effort to repair the damage and then bring the sculpture alive. But there is something not quite right: the cast the artist made to fit the face, doesn’t quite match, so the lips don’t meet and the face as an awkward skew to it.  Perhaps it was meant for a different repair job.  Or perhaps it is simply impossible to go back.  We try to repair, to bring back the past, to make the past whole again, but like the photograph of the repair, it doesn’t quite fit.   Jodice’s photograph doesn’t have the existential weight of the Giacometti but it too holds its distance from the certainty of marble, and the certainty of ideology.

And now I feel myself swinging back again. I think of Tony Kushner’s character, Prelapsarianov – “the oldest living Bolshevik” – who declares, with great vehemence and sadness in Perestroika:

How are we to proceed without theory? Is it enough to reject the past, is it wise to move forward in this blind fashion, without the cold brilliant light of theory to guide the way?... You who live in this sour little age cannot imagine the sheer grandeur of the prospect we gazed upon.

Can we act with conviction without a coherent analysis of the world and its ills?  When does that conviction become destructive?

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