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Friday, April 03, 2009

voltaire's triumph

The naked and the nude – Robert Graves, that master of buncombe and poetry, wrote a poem contrasting the two, and giving all the props to the former – because the latter is of course, having gone through the cultural clutter since Winckelmann and come out of the trenches, all too classical, not grounded in the real White Goddess stuff:

For me, the naked and the nude
(By lexicographers construed
As synonyms that should express
The same deficiency of dress
Or shelter) stand as wide apart
As love from lies, or truth from art.

But if we cut back, of course, love and lies switch places, and the nude stands for the discovery that breaks the chains of enlightenment boudoir pinup. Given the sensualism of the 18th century, founded on attraction at a distance, on the one hand, and a materialism of something like atoms of touch – atoms like infinitely small hands, atoms that fill space with a feeling, an omnitactility, to which all that is spirit must be brought back – the distance between the nude statue and the onlooker was going to be a problem. The problem was one of directness – just like the political problem of representation. The nude led the people later in Delacroix, Marianne, chest exposed. Art and the truth are much more tightly conjoined than Graves, in 1957, wanted to admit.

Everything that rises, in the 18th century, seems to converge in Kant’s codexes, and this is no exception. First, there is … the peculiar morality that forbids making human beings objects – a universal moral law built on its universal contravention, a morality built on a moral impossibility. For these are subjects that walk among us, suddenly. Indeed, by inserting this simple denial of human everyday existence in the critique of practical reason, Kant gave the practical a whole new heroism – contravening the vulgarity into which the modern tended to find its equilibrium. Second, when the object is unavoidable, the aesthetic object, he lifts that too out of everyday life and demands for it the disinterested gaze. This was intentionally misread by Schlegel as a remark about the modern: modern art will be interested, or it will not be at all.

And so, obviously, the modern nude, that vulgar and obscene thing, the product of a decayed age, would violate those two norms. Unless, of course, one restores the conditions of the classical age…

The year before David presented his painting, the Return of Brutus to His Family, to the man who had commissioned it – the year 1789 – Voltaire’s body had been interred in the Pantheon. This is how Delecluze describes the scene:

“ The year before, Paris had witness a great ceremony that was also a great event: the translation of the body of Voltaire into the Pantheon. This celebration … gave occasion to recognize this general and sharp taste for the things of antiquity, and at the same time this feebleness that everybody felt in modifying the modern costume with borrowings made from the Romans and Greeks. Not only the car on which the remains of Voltaire were carried bore the impress of the reemerging taste for antiquity, but the literary people, the artists, the musicians, the actors and actresses which marched beside the chariot were dressed a l’antique, and carried in their hands signs of triump or instruments of music from pagan times, made of cardboard and covered with gold leaf paper.”

2 comments:

### said...

The White Goddess stuff is indeed a hoot. Graves had some odd hobbyhorses, and he rode them to splinters on many occasions.

roger said...

I've been reading a disheartening book, Knossos and the prophets of modernism by Cathy Gere, which is about how Evans reconstructions of Knossos hooked in perfectly with a sort of fantasy of Goddess worship, of luxe and volupte on the sexual front, of sacrifices but no war. The ideology stretches from Jane Harrison to Graves; Gere thinks it was all fantasy, and modern archaeologists have "shown" that it was patriarchy and war for the Minoans. Funny thing, however, is while showing the stye in the eye of Evans, she doesn't seem to notice that her more "scientific" archaeologists and their theories correspond exactly to the rise of Reagan, the end of the cold war, and the rise of ethnic cleansing. Surprise! They discover the same things among the Minoans. Plus cannibalism.
It is so hard not to think that the past led to the present.