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Monday, November 30, 2009

the spirit of the crossroads: nature and artifice

In Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image of the Artist, Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz quote a fascinating anecdote from Pliny’s Natural History:

“According to Duris, Lysippus the Sicyonian was not the Pupil of any one, but was originally a worker in brass, and was first prompted to venture upon statuary by an answer that was given by Eupompus the painter; who, upon being asked which of his predecessors he proposed to take for his model, pointed to a crowd of men, and replied that it was Nature herself.”

(Naturam ipsam imitandam esse, non artificem)

This exemplary gesture (and oh how I have always loved a pointed finger!) is surprising to a modern sensibility in which the finger is more naturally pointed at what exists outside the circle of men – at rock, or tree, or landscape. Kris and Kurz take the story of Lysippus as a narrative that gives us, or that gave us, for a long time, a way of thinking about what the artist does. And insofar as that doing is an immaculate birth, a recognition that flows through the eye and the hand and the body, it is a particular kind of myth: “ Since Alexander’s time Lysippus has ranked as one of those to whom “the conquest of Nature through Art” – the ideal that also emerges from Pliny’s account of him – owes most. In classical antiquity he was already credited with saying that the ancients (his predecessors) had depicted men as they were, whereas he depicted them as they appeared (Pliny,34:65)” [15-16]

I devoted a post to Kris’s notion of the personal myth last year.
Since I am taking the autobiographical dejecta, so to speak, of certain artists – De Quincey, Baudelaire, and Burroughs among them – to probe into the history of the imagination and its worlds within the artificial paradise - I propose returning to Kris here, where nature and artifice – what what men are and what they appear to be, where the smith and the artist – come to a crossroads. It is the crossroads, or the spirit of the crossroads, which I want to carry off – or be carried by. It is a sphere in which vocation and career do not define the trajectory of human existence. I would guess that there is a necessary porousness, a necessary inconsistency, an elbow room beyond the concepts in use, in any society.

Kris and Kurz again: “Eupompos’s remark joins the repudiation of tradition with the adherence to nature. It is undoubtedly due to this double meaning that he is referred to again and again to characterize new programs of realism in art.”

What we meet at the crossroads, here, is an epistemological couple – invention and discovery – under the masks of which we find another couple, the mythic couple of nature and artifice – in the case of Lysippus, appropriately enough, the transition from smith to sculptor. Kris and Kurz find the motif of the artist discovered as a child, already displaying a genius for arts, in a number of vita scattered through art history – and not only in the West. “Or, to cite a remote derivative, the Japanese painter Maruyama Okyo was discovered by a passing samurai, having painted a pine tree on a paper sack in the village store.” [27]

Baudelaire’s life and works – his extraordinary intuition of the artificial paradise and its relationship to the “gulf of the number” (“Tout est nombre. Le nombre est dans tout. Le nombre est dans l’individu. L’ivresse est un nombre”) was such that it gives his entire work an aura of backwards holiness - and I have, I hope, emphasized enough over the past year the crucial moment of backwards reading, the sorciere's spell, the moment when backwards and forwards are delinked. The condition that made his experience exemplary for the modern artist is one of a missing moment - the mythical moment of discovery never happens. The discovery – the moment in which the patron elevates the artist from the forge – is multiply linked to a hierarchy in which this particular moment can happen – at least in myth. We have all heard the long story of the death of patronage, its agony in the eighteenth century, and the freeing of the artist. But there is more to this than the decay of an institution.

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