Liminal Art: The Art of Explanation (s)
In Art History and the Humanities, most scholars and critics speak in broad terms of periodicity (or period-izaton). For the most part period identifications are matters of convenience that aid scholars and students in their conversations about art. Although scholars will, as scholars are wont to do, disagree with each other and sometimes themselves about what art or artist belongs to what period after the Romanesque period. The dates, events, cultures and artists that help to establish boundaries between one stylistic period and another are often problematical in the pre-Modern world; these boundaries become damn near impossible to detect in the “modern” world. The very first problem we encounter is “When did the Modern era begin”? The second problem we confront is “Did the ‘modern’ world end; and if so, why and when?” And the third question that confronts us is “If the modern world ended, what replaced it, and how should we describe it?” [That’s too many problems—I suggest we go to lunch instead!]
I would argue that the modern era (in visual art–at least) began in Rome in the middle of the night circa 1499–1500 or so, when a nervous young man named Michelangelo Buonarotti [Not his full name—but useful enough for us here] snuck downstairs from his sleeping quarters to the small gallery where his sculpture (that was later known as the Pieta) was covered and awaiting presentation to the cranky old Pope, Julius II. Julius was a military man, he knew power but not art; indeed the hierarchy of artists in service to the Vatican under Julius was more like a military boot camp than an atelier. Michelangelo was afraid that the older, more experienced artist Bramante, the Pope’s favorite, would get credit for his creation. So in the middle of the night he crept down to where the statue was kept and carved the following inscription across Mary’s chest on a banner made-shift from her robes: “Michelangelo Fuit Hic” Which translates to “Michelangelo Made This”. He was for all intents and purposes the first artist to sign his work, and thereby the first modern artist (at least in the visual arts). This I believe is the defining act of the early Modern Era; it betokens the quintessence of the age itself: an act of sheer audacity borne of the dynamic tension between “authorship” or “authority” and “uncertainty”.
Even though Michelangelo’s act of signing his Pieta, made him the first modern artist, the Pieta is not the first work of the Modern Era. Nor is Michelangelo’s David. Both the Pieta and the David are works of late medieval art. [Pause for hisses and boos from the art community and scholars with sticks up their asses.] Both works were created at least in part with a medieval sense of compositional organization or presentation. The Pieta presents Mary as almost three times as large as the dead figure of Jesus. Michelangelo himself told us that this difference in size was intended by him to represent Mary’s importance in the church and her symbolic role as the strength of the “Mother Church”.
Throughout medieval art the most important people or themes are represented as disproportionately large compared to other figures in the picture. The David’s head was intentionally large because the statue was once intended to be viewed from below in a public square in Florence, not at street level.
The hands of the statue are disproportionately large compared even with the large head, feet or other features [either that or it is possible that Michelangelo did not believe what is commonly said about men with large hands]. The hands are large to express David’spower as given to him by God; and to remind us that He will defeat “our” enemies. Both works lack classical Greek proportions which dictated that the body be seven and one-half times the distance from the top of the head to the chin. [The hands by the way should be roughly the same size as the face, if the palm of the hand is lined up with the bottom of the chin, the middle finger should reach to the hairline.... As far as penis-size is concerned some experts suggest that when the fingers are folded over the palm, the tip of the middle finger should--screw it--get a tape measure you --pervert!]
Anyway. I would suggest that the first and perhaps most important work of the High Renaissance is also the first work of the Modern Era: The Ceiling Decorations Michelangelo created for the Chapel dedicated to Julius’s uncle Sixtus. The original contract between the Pope and Michelangelo called for him to create decorations depicting the “Zodiac and the Heavens.” Michelangelo came up with the idea to paint stories from Genesis and the Pagan Cybeles and all the rest. Almost all of the figures on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel conform to the Greek ideal of proportions (also called the Greek Canon of Proportions–See Vitruvian man by Leonardo DaVinci.) Michelangelo’s ceiling decorations also conformed to Greek idiom by presenting both male and female nudes (that would be respectively the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods) This was a radical departure for western Christian religious Art. Painters before Michelangelo would paint nudes but only or usually only in the context of pagan mythology.
[Boticelli's Venus arrives on shore naked--but then she is a pagan goddess and what do they know about modesty and Christian virtues? If you look at Boticelli's other paintings his Allegory of Spring for example it seems unlikely that Boticelli was painting from the classical Greek Canon or from life--his women tend to have small tits and huge asses. I'm not even sure Boticelli ever saw a real woman naked....]
In fact, at one point several Cardinals protested against all of the nudity and Michelangelo painted clothes on the figures; then later, Julius saw what he was doing, rebuked the Cardinals, told them basically to mind their own business, and told Michelangelo to Leave the dress on God, but everyone else could be naked…. Luckily when you paint buon fresco the paint bonds with the plaster; when you paint en seco the paint dries on top of the paint impregnated plaster and you can pretty-much scrape it off without doing a lot of damage to the image underneath. When he started the ceiling Michelangelo didn’t know how to paint fresco at all; he sent away to Florence for some friends to come and help him–apparently he was afraid that his friends would take over the project, so once he learned the technique he sent them packing, and tore down the sections they had finished and re-did them himself.
Now if you read about this in most textbooks, if they mention the incident at all, they say that the wooden roof was leaking and that was the reason why Michelangelo had to tear down the sections and redo them. Yeah, right! The text books also don’t tell you that Michelangelo beat his assistants, yelled at them constantly and wouldn’t let them paint anything but backgrounds and clothing. He only got a little sleep, complained constantly in his diary, ate only bread and drank a little wine. and seldom went out. He never married and had one “girl friend” his whole long life.
Most of what we know of him is from his diary, his biographer Vassari, public records, Church records and his will. Personally i think we didn’t get the whole story. I think Michelangelo was as passionate in his private life as in his art–but he, the church and those around him had the good sense to let his private life be his private life because he was afterall, Michelangelo!
Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling decorations were in scope, scale and magnitude the first works of the Modern Era. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was the last painting of the Modern Era. The first work of the Post-Modern Era wasn’t a painting but a play: Waiting For Godot, by Samuel Beckett. Guernica was the last picture painted during the Modern Era. It was painted by Picasso between (according to most sources) 1936 and 1939; it’s subject was Generalisimo Francisco Franco’s systematic saturation bombing of the little Basque village of Guernica. The reasons for the bombing of this sleepy little town were manifold: to frighten the otherwise unflappable Basque population into submission to Franco’s totalitarian regime; to convince Hitler that he (Franco) was at least as ruthless and bloodthirsty as was he (Hitler) was; and to put down the democratic and Monarchic forces that were struggling to regain some sense of order and control in a very confused Spain—These were a just a few of the reasons and perhaps those that were most important to Franco.
Picasso lived in France for most of his early career. He was friends or at least acquainted with the likes of Andre Breton, Andre Salmon, Gertrude and Leo Stein (brother and sister not husband and wife–Leo was the brains, Gertrude was the brawn….) The Stein siblings were important figures in Picasso’s early career and avidly collected his works–until the artist painted a portrait of Gertrude–after which, they seldom spoke [after all, he made her look like—well—‘Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein’]…. Andre Salmon was a good friend who is famous (I suppose) for having commented about Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, that “they should hang the artist and not the picture.” (Although i’m sure that sounded better in French than in English.)
Andre Breton [poet, critic and professional pain in the ass] fancied himself as the leader of the French Surrealist movement, which he saw as primarily a [his own] literary movement and not very much about painting at all. [Largely because when he tried his hand at painting even his cat laughed at him!] Breton actively sought painters with reputations to join his circle [which back in the day did not mean a cellular calling plan, but a semiformal gathering of artists and others who gathered from time to time to drink too much, eat too much, talk too much and make fun of Picasso's bad French accent.] The two painters he sought most were Picasso and Dali. Dali joined the group but was later expelled for not kissing Breton’s voluminous ass or ring or something…. Picasso refused to join at all. (If he were clever, Picasso could have quoted Groucho Marx from Horsefeathers in which the Groucho quipped that ” I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member!” But Picasso wasn’t that clever and instead chose to follow half of the old adage: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog only one”.)
For both painters, their careers could have ended in the late 1930′s without considerably diminishing their importance to or influence on the art world. This is true because Dali’s work devolved into an increasingly self-conscious and masturbatory ejaculation of thematic retreads of his earlier, successful work; and because Picasso painted Guernica.
In my experience students [and others] who either love or hate Picasso, don’t understand his work at all. They don’t know that he painted in as many as eighty different distinct styles; they don’t understand the difference between analytical and synthetic cubism; they don’t understand cubism; they don’t understand how the same man who painted his little sister’s first communion with all of the ceremony and tenebrism of a master of the Spanish School could also paint (albeit years later) his girl friend Dora as a ‘flattened and fanged technicolor harpy.’ [It sounds so good, I must’ve stolen it from someone else—go look that up, won’t you?]
What most students seem to understand from Picasso’s work, is the raw power, anguish and pain that Guernica represents. The canvas is a giant, gaping, bleeding wound in black and white; at about eleven feet high and twenty-six feet long (or so) it matches the scope and intensity of Michelangelo’s Ceiling more so than any other work conceived or contrived by a single artist in the Modern Era. Michelangelo’s masterpiece celebrated mankind’s human and rational apprehension of the creation of the divine order; Picasso’s work is a silent chronicle of mankind’s descent into a chaotic bestial world of madness and tyranny–as illuminated only by a stark and staring incandescent bulb.
Both works are liminal; both artists seemed to sense that they were the gatekeepers at the threshold; but what lay beyond, just out of sight? For Michelangelo there was the hope and optimism of a promise of eternal life (albeit an afterlife tinged with the stench of the Styxx); for Picasso there was only the Abyss. Picasso’s piece proved prophetic, for even if we could dismiss the atrocities at Guernica or in the Nazi death camps as the result of Franco’s or Hitler’s madness–how could we dismiss the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? By what authority could we erase the uncertainties that no doubt lay within the abyss just beyond the Apse wall at the Sistine chapel? just beyond Guernica? just beyond the remnant of a wall at Hiroshima, forever etched with the after-image shadow of a human being, by the iridescent rays of a thousand man-made suns?
If ever there was a play that was worth talking about to an empty room i guess it would have to be Waiting for Godot….
There are a lot of ways to try to understand Waiting for Godot. I believe that it is the first fully realized work of art produced by the Post Modern Era that followed WWII. If you haven’t read the play, i suggest that you do. The play is about 120 pages long but only takes a little over an hour to read. [As my friend Joe Monda might have said, “If it takes you any longer than that, you’re moving your lips too slow!”—he was my first real English Literature teacher, and a long-time Professor at Seattle University.]
Beckett’s language is simple. He wrote the play originally in French and then translated it into English, because he said that in this way, it would be easier to “write without style”. The language, setting, characters and action of the play are all deceptively simple. For example, the stage direction calling for “silence” is given so often that it seems almost to become if not a character in the play, at least a part of the “furniture”.
To extend my previous analysis from this series, I would suggest that the silence that Beckett is calling for, is the silence of the void that lies just beyond Michelangelo’s ceiling, and Picasso’s Guernica. It is at once real, in so far as it occurs onstage and imagined, as it is recognized in our daily lives. If you think about it, how many times a day do you think that “it’s” very quiet or silent–and yet the moment you find yourself reflecting on that silence something happens to disturb it?
I believe that silence as it is used by Beckett in his play really has nothing to do with noise or the lack of noise; he is citing silence as an existential condition: Silence can be interrupted, for example by a scream off stage–the characters are then left wondering if they heard a noise at all? A practical person might say that there either was a noise or there wasn’t but in Beckett’s universe, the answer is not that simple. as his characters say more than once, “nothing is certain when you’re around!” Why would the presence of another human being call into question everything that is? This is a fundamental problem for the Existential philosopher, with whom Beckett may be having some fun.
Most Existential philosophers renew their philosophical inquiries with Rene Descartes’ famous dictum: “Cogito, Ergo Sum” I think therefore I am. For most of the Existentialists, this is the foundation or cornerstone of Existential thought and the fundamental flaw in all of philosophical thought: “I think” therefore “I” am; the formula works well for the individual “I”–but what happens when “I” encounter “you”? Or even worse when “you” encounter “me”. The difference for the Existentialist is more than just mere semantics. But an oversimplification drawn from the semantic differences would suggest that the “I” that encounters “you” is inherently different from the “I” or self that “you” encounter. In fact the “I” that encounters “you” can never really be sure that “you” are in fact a self like “I” am and capable of thinking as “I” do. In this view, “I” am a “Subject” and “You” are an Object. However, for the Existentialists, “I” cannot turn this formula around to say that “you” are somehow an “I” and that “I” relative to “you” am a “you”.
Philosophy has been good to the subject/object dialectic. Marx used it to sort out matters of History; Hegel used it to “transcend” the rational categories of Immanuel Kant; and contemporary Feminist Art Critics use it to explain why men have dominated the art world since the beginning of recorded history.
Existentialists describe a range of values or degrees of intensity for each of the pair in their binary systems. “One” and “Zero”, Subject and Object, “I” and “You” and “I” and “Thou” all enjoy degrees of distinction from each other as pairs of binaries, as well as a fundamental “sameness”. While the dialectic may have begun in the syllogistic reasoning of Aristotle (Major Premise, Minor Premise and Conclusion) as revisited and renamed by Hegel (Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis); the binary polarities of “yes” and “no”, “off” and “on”, “I” and “Other” are separated by a third term that would challenge the “conclusions” and postpone “synthesis”.
The “distance” that separates the binary pairs is “the void”. While there does exist at least potentially the promise of synthesis or conclusion that might arise out of the void such an outcome is not substantially evident, nor essentially required. The resulting uncertainty has been called a number of things: “dread”, “angst”, “boredom” and even “nausea”, are but a few. I prefer simply “uncertainty” or “the void”. Nonetheless, it is precisely when one regards the realities of the void that one is confronted by the second major theme of Beckett’s play and perhaps the favorite problematic element of most schools of Existentialism: “the Absurd”.
If you were to ask ten philosophers what the “Absurd” is, you would get ten radically different answers. Much as if you were to ask ten philosophers to scratch their asses, they would no doubt dispute the plausibility of scratching, the relative unreliability of locating an (just one) ass (among so many), quibble on the differences between asses and elbows, offer to scratch your ass, or simply spit (if they’re French) and sit down indignantly (if they are German. –There were/are no American Philosophers)
[some people think that William James and his followers were/are; but they're really just Theologians who hung/hang out in the Philosophy and Psychology departments because that's where the cute chicks were/are.] Those who actually know what the Absurd is, almost never attempt to define it, preferring instead to employ the language and situations of metaphors over similes.
Consider for example: Camus’ Sisyphus, Sartre’s “l’enfur c’est les autres”, or Kafka’s bug. (Kafka wasn’t specific about what kind until he was caught in a Barbara Walters’s interview: “Franz, if you could be any bug at all, what kind of bug would you be and why?” Naturally, he paused a bit and replied: “…a cockroach, because I could run very fast and escape the impending apocalypse—or at least my landlady….”) Contrary to popular imaginings, the Absurd is not silliness, nor is it at all antithetical to reason: The Absurd is simply a quintessence of life. Beckett has a good deal of fun providing us with a variety of different models or paradigms for the Absurd. No doubt his sense of humor regarding philosophy, philosophers of language and existential foppery owe no small part to his long term relationship with Joyce, especially serving as secretary for the latter, through his [Joyce's] long decline into blindness and near madness.
Most of these paradigms are lost leaders. The manifold sets of binary oppositions, for example have served many critics as rich sources of historical, archetypal or formal criticism that entirely missed the point. Beckett repeatedly baits his literary trap from the very beginning through to the end of the show with words and images that are deceptively simple and deceptively fertile grounds for literary analysis; all of which are in the end, mere straw men trotted out, exposed, and summarily dismissed or dispatched–kicked at least to the curb of the void if not into the vast recesses of the Abyss.
Like the ceiling painted by Michelangelo and like Guernica, Waiting for Godot is a liminal work. The problem with the Post-modern threshold is that there is no “there, there”; there is no “beyond this point” because that point is in fact the vanishing point of a perspectival view of a world that has already collapsed. We can’t as Dante suggested, “Abandon hope, all [of us] who enter here” not only because there is no here there, but even if there were, we could not enter….
Consider: the play consists in two acts. The first act is preceded by the second act in that the action of the first act mimics that of the second act—the two acts are joined together like a mobius strip . One opens the door to the “other” room and finds oneself in the “other” room, opening the door to the room one has just left, just moments before one arrived….[See the movie of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990) also directed by Stoppard, based on his own play from ca. 1966….] Consider too: there are six characters in the play; three sets of binary oppositions; thirty-six possible combinations of secondary, tertiary (and so forth) numbers of possible oppositions–yet there is only one binary pair that counts as at all meaningful, and it really isn’t a binary opposition at all and neither of the pair is actually a person of the play; both are characters in the play but only one ever appears on the stage–and that one ultimately overcomes all of the other actions or persons of the drama: that is Silence.
[When one ends a piece so dramatically—especially with a notion like “Silence”, I find that it is nearly impossible to “sum-up”; the reader is therefore left to draw her or his own conclusions—or to just go get a sandwich…. I have posted this article in other fora—“forum” in Latin is a noun of the second declension, the proper plural form is “fora”, not “forums”…. And I will keep on posting it, until someone reads it!]