09 November 2005

Viewing Art, 1860's style

Nathaniel Hawthorne is probably best known for The Scarlet Letter, but he also wrote The Marble Fawn, which provides some insight into what it was to be an American and an artist before modernism began fomenting change.

Midway through the second chapter of that book, three Americans (Kenyon a sculptor, Hilda and Miriam, painters) are discussing some of the antiquities in the Capitoline Museum. Kenyon is speaking about the Dying Gaul:

"I used to admire this statue exceedingly," he remarked, "but, latterly, I find myself getting weary and annoyed that the man should be such a length of time leaning on his arm in the very act of death. If he is so terribly hurt, why does he not sink down and die without further ado? Flitting moments, imminent emergencies, imperceptible intervals between two breaths, ought not to be incrusted with the eternal repose of marble, in any sculptural subject, there should be a moral standstill, since there must of necessity be a physical one. Otherwise, it is like flinging a block of marble up into the air, and, by some trick of enchantment, causing it to stick there. You feel that it ought to come down, and are dissatisfied that it does not obey the natural law."

"I see," said Miriam, mischievously, "you think that sculpture should be a sort of fossilizing process. But, in truth, your frozen art has nothing like the scope and freedom of Hilda's and mine. In painting there is no similar objection to the representation of brief snatches of time; perhaps, because a story can be so much more fully told in picture, and buttressed about with circumstances that give it an epoch. For instance, a painter never would have sent down yonder Faun out of his far antiquity, lonely and desolate, with no companion to keep his simple heart warm."

"Ah, the Faun!" cried Hilda, with a little gesture of impatience; "I have been looking at him too long; and now, instead of a beautiful statue, immortally young, I see only a corroded and discolored stone. This change is very apt to occur in statues."

"And a similar one in pictures, surely," retorted the sculptor. "It is the spectator's mood that transfigures the Transfiguration itself. I defy any painter to move and elevate me without my own consent and assistance."

"Then you are deficient of a sense," said Miriam.


There are conversations like that throughout the novel. The ideas are now almost 150 years old and the focus of the debates over the nature, capacity, strengths/weaknesses of sculpture and painting have changed. Kenyon's statement of the viewer's importance "I defy any painter . . . " is remarkably apt. Today we are very likely to adopt a to-each-his-own view of art, but that one of Hawthorne's characters acknowledges the importance of the viewer is remarkable even if Miriam thinks he's hadicapped for it.


Josh said...

since i see myself as an 'outsider' in the art world (though, technically, i suppose i am an artist), i feel well-qualified to offer an opinion here. 'to each his own' might be a tad idealistic. i think these same ideas are verbalized in museums around the world.. perhaps even more so in the wake of modernism. art has unfortunately alienated the masses rather than edified them. and though i'm sure to touch a nerve of many educated art fans by suggesting the esotericization of art, i think many people have finite opinions of what they want from art. see here for example.

what an exciting blog! i hope you keep this up... i'm waiting for a post on outsider art.

Mary Ann said...

I agree that most people have a very short list of what they want out of art, and I don't see a problem with that. Tom, Dick, and Harry can each choose what they like out of all the things art can and does do. Maybe you'll end up with three mutually exclusive ideas of art, but so be it.

Art's anienation of the masses isn't anything new. In fact, I can't think of a time in all of the history of the world when art was intended for or appreciated by the masses. Maybe I'm misinformed.

Is it unfortunate that art has always had a narrow appeal, or a narrow audience? Maybe. In the absence of a counter example it is hard to make a realistic comparison.