Friday, December 03, 2004



I think you are picking up on an important difference in the way I am applying "entertaining." I think what I am trying to say is that an art work that is truly entertaining engages your sensibility -- your cognition on all its levels -- connecting the intellectual to the sensual to the emotional etc. That's what you are arguing for in Midwinter Day, if I understand you correctly. And I'd argue that Cho in that one piece does the same. It's beyond funny. The humor leads you to imagine a full and different and painful way of being a person in the world. Just like a good poem invites you to comtemplate more than just words. I remember us watching that video of her performance and us both declaring her a genius. Maybe that's what genius is. I used to think it was just persuing a singular idea to the nth degree your entire life, but maybe now I think it's being able to create something truly engaging. Creating something that will keep all a person's faculties in "motion," if I wanted to get Kantian about it. I've never recovered from the Third Critique. Its vocabulary haunts me. Everything about the beautiful and the sublime revolves around putting the subject's faculties into "play." And the play is a kind of impractical movement. The only aim of it is for you to realize and to feel all the levels at which you can know. I am interpreting the text here slightly, but I think I'm right in terms of what a succesful aesthetic should do.

I guess this is just as good a lead-in to part 2. My favorite piece of art is Bernini's "Apollo & Daphne." Would you have guessed? I've been haunted in the most delicious way by this piece ever since I saw it in Rome a few years back. It's become my touchstone for the question "is it enough?," a personal ultimate standard for a piece of art. I hope I can explain the magic of this piece with the same intensity of feeling that it instills in me.

The piece is a marble sculpture. The base of it, if I remember correctly, is rectangular, the longside of it is probably no more than 6-8ft long. The two figures in it are human or near-human scale. You can circle it in a few seconds. I just remembered that I wrote about this piece in a paper. I can reprint it here. I've also been working on adapting this section below for a part of my novel, so don't nobody steal it:

"Because Bernini's sculpture is of a single moment in the larger narrative sequence of the myth, Apollo and Daphne, because it is of the moment in which Daphne's metamorphosis begins to take place, the moment in which she is not yet a tree, but not quite a woman anymore, the viewer is confronted with a presentation that suggests much more than it concretely depicts. Here, because Daphne is neither a woman nor a tree, she is both a woman and a tree. The viewer still sees enough of her flesh to know that in the moment before this one that the sculpture presents, a moment the viewer hasn't seen, Daphne was a woman. But now leaves are growing from her fingers, and her arms are stretching toward the sky, as if they, too, will, in the next moment that the viewer will also not see, they, too, like the fingers, which are now leaves, will become something else, branches, perhaps. But they are only arms now, and Apollo'w hand is upon Daphne's stomach, but the viewer knows (because her stomach extends liker her arms towards the sky) that despite Apollo's hand, the stomach will, in the next moment that the viewer will also not see, become a trunk, perhaps. But, now her stomach, with Apollo's hand upon it, is just a stomach, so, Daphne who is also not a woman, is also not a tree. But because leaves grow from her fingers while Apollo's hand wraps itself around her stomach, the viewer also knows that Daphne will be in the next moment, a tree, and in the moment just before this one, she was a woman. And so she is also a tree and also a woman. The sculpture by suggesting in its presentation an image of Daphne in the midst of metamorphosis as partial woman and partial tree suggests to the viewer's imagination the idea of Daphne as a complete woman, as well as a complete tree.

And if the viewer doubts the possibility of such a transformation while viewing this sculpture of a woman becoming a tree, the viewer still must acknowledge Apollo's cloak that billows in the breeze that isn't there, and the viewer must think to herself how soft and light the cloak is, the cloak that is made of stone. And then the viewer must think how impossible it must be to transform a stone into a cloak that is soft and bends and billows in a breeze that isn't even there. And although it seems impossible for a woman to become a tree, here is a cloak that is made of stone, and the impossibility of turning a piece of stone into a cloak is not unlike the impossibility of turning a woman into a tree. But the sculpture shows the viewer that a stone can be turned into a cloak and this is like showing the viewer that a woman can become a tree. And suddenly all transformations are possible through this analogy that has done nothing except transform the terms of transformation from tree to cloak, from woman to stone. And although the sculpture cannot turn the woman into the tree before the viewer's eyes, the sculpture is enough to move the mind of the viewer to think to make a woman into a tree."

What is so amazing here is how the technical skill on display in the piece works with the presentation, is inextricably a part of the idea of the piece. When you stand before this sculpture and see this piece of stone literally look like a piece of cloth floating in air you are filled with the awe of transformation. How can you not believe the story of Daphne? It's like witnessing a miracle. The way the fingers of Apollo press into Daphne and the skin of Daphne bends underneath the digits, it's difficult to not believe it is real flesh that is indenting under the pressure. And after seeing such a technical wonder, it's difficult not to believe in the possibility of transformation. It's the best self-help seminar I can think of. How can you not believe that you can walk on water after seeing this? The letter of the piece is an argument for its spirit. The power this piece has makes me realize that the technical skill of an artist has to be directly related to the "content" of a piece, has to be inextricable from any idea a piece posits. That's the standard I hope to be able to uphold in my work. Tall order.

-- M.


Jordan said...

Great reading of the Bernini sculpture -- made my early afternoon.

Friend said...

Hi. Just stumbled upon your blog and I know this is an old post, but anyway ... I adore that Bernini, and wanted to recommend if you haven't read it already, Norman O. Brown's Apocalypse and/or Metamorphoses. A weird little expository number, the closest an essay collection can come to a poem I think, or collage. The first chapter's titled, "Daphne, or Metamorphosis." Excellent meditation.

Anonymous said...

great ..thanks for sharing.....

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