Arthur C. Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1924, and grew up in Detroit. After spending two years in the Army, Danto studied art and history at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) and then at Columbia University.
From 1949 to 1950, Danto studied in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship, and in 1951 returned to teach at Columbia, where he is currently Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy.
Since 1984, he has been art critic for The Nation, and in addition to his many books on philosophical subjects, he has published several collections of art criticism, including Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism; Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992); Playing With the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe (University of California, 1995); and, most recently, The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). He lives in New York City.
In the vestibule of the superb exhibition of Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (until May 12), the organizers have installed a large colored photograph of the ceiling decoration, done in 1611 for the Casino of the Muses in the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. It shows a number of musicians--the Muses themselves--performing on a balcony around the room, and it is painted in the confectionary colors of some improbable Italian dessert--candied fruit in sculpted whipped cream. A handsome girl, elegantly dressed and holding a large fan, gazes out over the balustrade. It is said to be Artemisia Gentileschi herself, posing for Orazio, her father, who painted all the other figures as well, making music or standing about enjoying it. Artemisia would have been 18 at the time, and was already an accomplished painter. The illusional architecture was then painted by Orazio's associate, Agostino Tassi, a master of perspective, who had been engaged to teach that art to Artemisia. The whole scene, of an almost edible beauty, is an image of life at its sweetest--music, indolence and the pleasures of an attractive company.
The following year, Orazio, Artemisia and Agostino Tassi were to be caught up in scandal. Orazio brought suit against Tassi for having violently deflowered his gifted daughter, and Tassi denounced Artemisia as having had no virginity to lose at the time the two of them became lovers. The sensational record of the trial, which became the buzz of Rome, has inspired novels, a film and a recent play; and Artemisia--characterized by the art historians Rudolf and Margot Wittkower as "a lascivious and precocious girl, [who] later had a distinguished and highly honorable career as an artist"--has become a feminist heroine. The degree to which her sexual trauma inflected her subsequent art remains a topic of debate. It has, for example, become something of an interpretive commonplace to read her gory depictions of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes as an act of revenge for having been raped.
The ceiling decoration, which serves as a kind of prelude to the exhibition, could not contrast more vividly with the dark violence typical of the Gentileschis' paintings. Father and daughter were both much under the influence of Caravaggio, and indeed it is as prominent caravaggisti that they were largely remembered in histories of the Italian Baroque before Artemisia was rescued by feminist art historians with a natural interest in forgotten and neglected woman painters. In Caravaggio, an uncanny light picks out scenes of violent conduct that would otherwise have transpired in a world of utter darkness. It is as though we see as with the all-seeing eyes of God the terrifying deeds that those who perform them might believe are hidden--murder and robbery, violation and revenge, torture and defilement. The consolation of Caravaggio's paintings is the assurance that every sin is known and registered. The soft bright world of the Casino of the Muses belongs to the taste of a gentler age than the Baroque, in which the Gentileschis, father and daughter alike, earned their fame for paintings of extreme drama in which, if anything, they went beyond Caravaggio in the ferocity of their protagonists. And they selected their subjects precisely as occasions for demonstrating their unflinchingness.
The Baroque in Italy saw a coarsening of culture, in which painters were enlisted to depict the spilt blood and broken bodies of the great heroes and heroines of the Christian faith undergoing their martyrdom. Blood was the emblem of redemptive suffering. Almost the first work one sees by Orazio is an immense altarpiece showing the Circumcision of Christ, in which God sheds the first blood of his human incarnation. Painting was the arm of Catholic revival against the threat of Protestantism, and the wounds and visible agonies of holy beings were designed to awaken sympathy in viewers. A splash or spurt of blood was as commonplace in Baroque painting as automobiles exploding in flames are in action movies. Artemisia was a painter of her time.
Agostino Tassi's injury to her was not so much the violence of his attack as the fact that he robbed her of her virginity and falsely promised marriage. It is after all not the standard response of raped women to want to marry their ravishers, but there is evidence of continuing affection on both sides after the incident, and Orazio emphasized in his petition of 1612 that his daughter had been known in the flesh many a time by Tassi. Artemisia, whose description of her forced seduction is recorded in some detail--the judge asked how she knew that she was bleeding from it, for example, and not menstruating. When she underwent torture, by an instrument involving rings tightened around her fingers by means of string, she called out to her betrayer, "This is the ring you gave me, and these are your promises!" She was a spirited woman, and it is worth comparing her version of Judith with Caravaggio's. Caravaggio's Judith is a young girl, with her hair braided in rings over either ear. She handles the sword to kill Holofernes, the general who had conquered her people, awkwardly, as something foreign to her, and she performs the action with a becoming squeamishness, as if repelled by the sight of blood, which spurts out in red jets. Caravaggio has composed the scene within a canvas far wider than it is high, in order to put as much distance between Judith and the victim as possible. Her servant is a crone, to show off Judith's innocence and inexperience. Artemisia's Judith is a femme forte. She handles the sword with the confidence and power of a fishwife dealing with a particularly large tuna, while her maidservant holds Holofernes down with both her arms. And the canvas is higher than wide, so that the full weight of the two women presses down. And the blood is there because--well, that's the way decapitations were represented in Roman painting circa 1613.
If any of Artemisia's paintings refer to unwanted sexual attentions, it would be her first known work, the amazing Susanna and the Elders, the story of which even refers to a trial and a vindication. But the painting antedates the trial of Tassi by two years, according to the experts. Artemisia was 17 when she painted it, and it would compel our astonished admiration even if there were not the subsequent whiff of scandal. Pure, beautiful Susanna sits naked in her husband's garden, waiting for her maidens to bring a basin of water and some oil, when the horny elders, who have no business there, attempt to blackmail her. Either she yields to their lust, or they will say that they saw her in the arms of a man. But the wily Daniel establishes her innocence by examining the elders separately, and showing that their stories do not jibe. It was a fairly popular subject, and it is not difficult to see why. The viewer is given an eyeful of Susanna's nakedness, with the excuse that the story after all is from the Bible--and there is the added benefit that one can condemn the prurience of the elders while enjoying Susanna's discomfiture, unable to cover herself with the towel that the artist always makes just too skimpy for purposes of modesty.
The question remains of why this particular subject would have recommended itself to Artemisia. My own thesis, probably not entirely original, is that it was important to potential patrons to know that a painting that dealt with embattled sexual innocence was by a woman, who presumably knew the problem from within. Susanna and the Elders was the ideal subject for showing that, all the more so when there was the added possibility that it was the artist's own nakedness that one was seeing--that the artist painted her own breasts, ruled out in the case of Rembrandt or Ludovico Caracci or Lucas Cranach or Veronese or Tintoretto or the many Old Masters who found the subject irresistible.
Artemisia belongs to this great company by virtue of her artistic achievements, but it was her gender that defined her artistic identity, in this case as in others. Being a woman actually helped in Artemisia's art world. One of the most interesting things I learned from the show's excellent catalogue was the fact that in 1636, when she was established and illustrious, Artemisia received payment for three quite different paintings (all untraced today)--a Bathsheba, a Susanna and a Lucretia--from Prince Karl von Liechtenstein, an avid collector who obviously associated these alluring female subjects with the famous female painter. There is an engraving, based on a self-portrait by Artemisia, in which she is identified as "Artemisia Gentileschi, Most Famous Roman Woman [romana famosissima], Painter of the Academia Desiosa." In the self-portrait, Artemisia showed herself in an opulent, low-cut dress, in lace collar and jewels, wearing an expression of almost aristocratic disdain and a wild, disheveled coiffure. She did not hesitate to bestow her own strong features on her passionate and heroic Judiths, her Lucretias, her Esthers. It was an age of great collections. It would be altogether desirable, in showing visitors through one's gallery, to be able to say, before a painting of this or that famous woman, that she had been painted by a woman no less famous--the great Artemisia Gentileschi--and to display the engraving as evidence that she had given to that brave and forceful figure her own mouth and eyes.
Of course, Artemisia was not famous at all in 1610, when she painted her Susanna. But the painting has a certain gestural authenticity that makes it feel like a personal allegory of a young woman's ordeal. The elders are shown leaning over the wall against which Susanna's back is almost literally pressed. It is as if her oppressors are crowded into Susanna's space, where they press down upon her like a dense cloud. They have already penetrated her person in a symbolic way by being much closer to her than decency allows, far closer than voyeurs, and are already touching her hair. Susanna is twisting her body to escape their touch and has raised her arms to shield herself from her tormentors--though we viewers get to see one of her breasts. There is a marvelous expression of anguish and disgust on her face. Her gestures are entirely convincing, and one cannot but infer that Artemisia knows from her own experience the way a girl would respond to unwelcome approaches.
A diary by Fernande Olivier, who was to become Picasso's mistress, has recently been published. She was a beautiful girl, and others could not keep their hands to themselves when around her. Fernande at first welcomed the attention as evidence of her attractiveness. But she had constantly to defend herself against sexual molestation. I don't think a male artist would know how to enact the bodily gestures that expressed this the way someone who had to deal with it all the time would do. And it would not have occurred to a male artist to ask a model to pose that way. Whether anyone had gotten as close to her as Tassi was to do, Artemisia conveys through her Susanna the bodily truth of what one might call the proto-rape that Fernande (who was brutally raped by her husband) describes so graphically. There is a question in connoisseurship as to whether Orazio had a hand in Artemisia's Susanna, but if my interpretation is sound, it was essentially her painting. You can check his picture of the same subject in the Met show for purposes of comparison. It is a fine painting, but it lacks the internal fire that came naturally to his daughter in dealing with the subject.
But for the legal wit of her attorney, Susanna, like Lucretia, would have been the victim of her virtue. Susanna placed virtue above life, since she knew she would be punished with death as an adulteress, which the elders would say she was if she refused them her body. And Lucretia, raped by Tarquin, had to erase the stain with her own blood--which is more or less the equation implied in cleansing sin with Christ's blood in the Christian theory of redemption. The attractiveness of Lucretia as a topos for painters is that, as with Susanna, it gives them a moral opportunity to display a woman's breasts in a narratively compelling way. She is almost invariably shown with a dagger pointed at her bared bosom. Artemisia seems to me to have posed for her Lucretia, executed 1623-25. I base this on the fact that she is shown with the knife in her left hand, which would be puzzling until we take into account the fact that it is probably a mirror image of Artemisia holding a knife in her right hand. But I don't think we are to read it as a self-portrait--a portrait of herself as Lucretia.
There is a difference between using oneself as a model and painting oneself as the personage for whom the model stands. We may be seeing Artemisia's flesh in her paintings of Lucretia or Susanna or Cleopatra, but I don't see her portraying herself as Lucretia or Susanna or even Cleopatra, whose self-administered death by means of an asp allows the same natural way to show bared breasts. I feel the same way about Artemisia'a depiction of Danae in a marvelous painting she did in 1612, the very year of the trial. Titian had painted a Rape of Danae and so, for that matter, had Orazio. The story was well-known. Danae's father was told that his daughter would give birth to his slayer, and he prudently locked her up in a tower. What he had not counted on was Zeus, who was stricken with Danae's beauty, and metamorphosed himself into a shower of gold, impregnating her. The child turned out to be Perseus, who indeed killed his grandfather. Danae is always shown nude, though there is reason to wonder why, if Zeus could get through stone walls, a nightgown would be much of an obstacle. In any case, Artemisia's Danae is clearly enjoying the experience. It is raining gold coins in her chamber, and she is in some sort of sexual transport, clutching the coins in her hands--though whether because of sexual or monetary greed is difficult to say. It is a nice piece of ambiguity for a young artist to have negotiated, and not far from seventeenth-century reality. But I cannot see the painting as a self-portrait of Artemisia as Danae.
I would, on the other hand, accept the possibility that the painting of Clio in the exhibition is Artemisia as the Muse of History, because fame was so integral to her artistic persona. Or that her Allegory of Painting is to be read as at least a symbolic self-portrait, since it would show her as one with the attributes of her art (it would be difficult to see it as a literal self-portrait, since the figure is heavily foreshortened). There are four Judiths (excluding those painted by Orazio) in the show, and I would willingly accept a conjecture that Artemisia identified with her, not on the grounds of paying Tassi back for having raped her but because Judith was a paradigm of a woman who used her femininity to achieve real goals. For one thing, Judith is described as being beautifully dressed, with jewels and a hairdo to enhance her desirability. Holofernes invited her and her maidservant into his tent, where he drank himself into a stupor. When Judith displayed his severed head, she so raised the morale of the Israelites that they overcame their enemy. Artemisia was a proud woman, as she had every right to be, as a recognized wonder of the age. Her letters are full of grumbles, since she was the head of a household, in need of cash since she had a daughter to marry off and no husband to turn to; the man she married after the trial had disappeared, and she did not know if he was even alive. But she had patrons in high places, her prices were respectable and she corresponded with Galileo. And being known as a woman was internally related to her success.
We must all be grateful to the Met for having put this show together, even if it has a particular relevance to specialists, still sorting out the attributions of the works. There will always be a nagging question of what was done by Orazio and what by Artemisia. This is by no means mere pedantry, since a lot of our readings depend on being clear on authorship, and even on getting the dates right (the Wittkowers thought Artemisia 15 at the time of the trial). But I am even more grateful to the feminist art historians who pulled Artemisia out of obscurity, and who did so much of the research needed to set the story straight. Too many great artists have been forgotten to get indignant because she was, or to explain it as the result of her being a woman. Think of Vermeer, Caravaggio, Piero della Francesca, just for starters. There is a fringe benefit to this: Thinking hard about Artemisia helps us begin to appreciate the great painters of the Italian Baroque, her father included, who, like her, have been too opulent, too operatically passionate, too vehemently theatrical to appeal to our minimalist tastes. It helps to see her work through gendered readings, so long as we recognize that this does not entail seeing her as a victim.
The legendary Surrealist exhibitions of the late 1930s and early 1940s were Surrealist in spirit and secondarily Surrealist in content. In 1942, for example, an exhibition called "The First Papers of Surrealism" was installed at the Whitelaw Reid mansion on Madison Avenue in New York, and those that attended it were far more likely to remember the show itself than any of the works on display. It was designed by Marcel Duchamp, using one mile of string to weave a sort of spider's web from floor to walls to ceiling, which visitors had to climb through to look at the art hung on temporary display panels. Moreover, they had to put up with a crowd of schoolchildren, boisterously playing ball or skipping rope or chasing one another through the show. The children were instructed to say that Mr. Duchamp said it was OK for them to play there, if anyone raised the question. It was an ideal way to subvert any propensity to seek a rich aesthetic experience in contemplating the art, and by indirection to demonstrate that it was not the point of Surrealist art to be an object of aesthetic contemplation in the first place. Duchamp disdained aesthetic response--"That retinal shudder!" as he dismissed it in a late interview.
Duchamp had also installed the legendary International Exposition of Surrealism at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris four years earlier. There he arranged to have the ceiling hung with 1,200 coal sacks that, though empty, showered residual coal dust on the throngs below, who were supplied with flashlights to see the paintings hung in shadows. Upon entering the show, visitors encountered Rainy Taxi by Salvador Dali--an ancient taxicab on which water poured down from the ceiling. The driver and passenger were both mannequins, the former equipped with a shark's head and wearing goggles, the latter a frump covered with escargots, and both placed on a bed of lettuce.
These exhibitions achieved the same shock of incongruity that was intended to characterize what one might think of as Surrealist experience in general, as expressed in one of their favorite paradigms from a text by Isidore Ducasse, a k a le Comte de Lautréamont: "The chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." There is a 1920 photograph by Man Ray of a mysterious object, wrapped in a heavy blanket and bound with rope. It was used as the frontispiece of the first issue of a magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, the readers of which would immediately have inferred from its title--"The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse"--that the wrapped object must be a sewing machine. Visitors to non-Surrealist exhibitions of Surrealist art--such as "Surrealism: Desire Unbound," on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 12--might be let in on the secret by a wall label reading: "sewing machine, wood, fabric, card." But without knowing the identity of Ducasse or the text alluded to, the point of the work would be lost on them.
Surrealism was essentially a literary movement, whose primary products were books, magazines, poems, letters and manifestoes. These in fact form a considerable part of "Desire Unbound," which, together with the many aging snapshots of groups of smiling Surrealists, could with equal suitability have made up a show at the Morgan Library or some comparable venue. Art itself was largely peripheral to the movement, serving, like Man Ray's photograph, to illustrate the essentially philosophical ideas of the writers, who were chiefly poets and what one might term aesthetic ideologists, tirelessly taken up with defining what we might term "Surrealist correctness." At least in the early stages of the movement, one of their questions was whether painting was even a Surrealist possibility. Ironically, the writers have become the subject of scholarly specialization, while Surrealism itself is widely identified with a body of paintings, pre-eminently those of Dali--desert landscapes in acute perspective, on the floor of which various objects, often teeming with ants, cast sharp shadows. It was Dali who designed the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's film Spellbound--and it is his idiom that has been universally appropriated for the representation of dreams.
It is with reference to dreams that Surrealism was initially formulated in André Breton's First Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. What excited Breton about dreams was the fact that what happens in them defies reason and certainly common sense. But for just the reason that dreams cannot be captured in the discourse we use in our waking lives, they were, until Freud, relegated to parentheses that we felt no need to incorporate into the narrative of our lives. Breton was convinced that this was, in effect, throwing away something of inestimable value, and in the Manifesto he described a method of writing that makes the dream accessible to our waking consciousness. This, in effect, is a kind of automatic writing--writing that as far as possible is uncontrolled by our critical faculties. The resulting pages will be impossible to appreciate in the ways in which ordinary writing is appreciated. "Poetically speaking," Breton says, "they are especially endowed with a high degree of immediate absurdity." Nevertheless, what we have done has somehow brought the dream before our conscious minds, and what we have is at once reality and dream, hence a kind of "absolute reality." Surrealism is then the method through which this absolute or "sur-" reality is made available to us as a resource to be used. Here is Breton's definition:
SURREALISM, noun, masc. Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
I have italicized "either verbally or in writing" to emphasize that Breton does not mention either singing or playing, or drawing or painting. There is little if any Surrealist music, though one might think that jazz would exemplify psychic automatism to perfection. Breton thought Surrealist music was impossible, probably because music lacks the dimension of realism that is a precondition for sur-realism--an objection that would be overcome in the case of opera, and indeed my musical informant, Lydia Goehr, has told me of a Surrealist opera, Julietta, by a Czech composer. Painting, on the other hand, met the criterion of realism, but as far as the Surrealists were concerned, it lacked the spontaneity of writing or speech. Dali painted like an old master, using perspective and chiaroscuro, building up glazes, creating illusions. There is no way it could have been done automatically, or without rational control. So by definition, his painting cannot be Surrealist. It would be like transcribing a dream in rhymed verse. The most that can be said is that he illustrates strange conjunctions and encounters, directed, as it were, by a strong artistic will.
One might say that the visual arts became admitted to Surrealism only when artists found ways of working more fluidly. Max Ernst's marvelous collage narratives, in which he clipped and pasted images from old engravings, recommended themselves to the Surrealists. Miró, who actually used writing in his paintings together with images, was also accepted. When Breton encountered the sculpture of Giacometti, it was as though he at last found someone who seemed to dream while awake, in the medium of clay and plaster.
In truth, it was mainly the painter Matta who found a way of drawing automatically and hence surrealistically. And Matta taught the New York painters--especially Pollock and Motherwell--how to do this. Psychic automatism evolved spectacularly into what we now think of as Abstract Expressionism, and it was through the chance encounter of Right Bank Poets and rednecks like Pollock on the dissecting table of Manhattan that American artists were able to produce work that Motherwell describes as "plastic, mysterious, and sublime"--adding that "no Parisian is a sublime painter, nor a monumental one, not even Miró." But Abstract Expression was never "Surrealist" in the sense in which Dali's images were. It was as though there were two dimensions to Surrealism--psychic automatism and absurdity. The latter does not figure in Breton's definition, but it certainly figures in what we might call Surrealist sensibility.
I learned a certain amount about what it would have been like to be a Surrealist from Robert Motherwell, who as a young artist in New York in the early 1940s became a kind of guide to Breton and a cadre of other Surrealists, then in exile in New York, where they endeavored so far as possible to re-create the form of life they'd lived in Paris. Twice a week they would gather for lunch at Larre's, an inexpensive French bistro on West 55th Street, and proceed afterward to Third Avenue, at that time lined with all sorts of secondhand stores and antiques shops. The activity for the afternoon was to decide which of the objects on display were Surrealist and which were not. It was a fairly serious matter to be wrong about this. Matta would have been disgraced when he misidentified as Surrealist a certain gargoyle head--until Duchamp intervened, saying that maybe he had a point. Duchamp, listed as Generateur-Arbitre (producer and arbitrator) in the catalogue for the 1938 exhibition, was not officially a Surrealist, but Breton regarded him as having perfect pitch when it came to what possessed surreality and what did not.
A famous such object was a curious wooden spoon Breton and Giacometti had found at the flea market in Paris. A little shoe was carved just under the spoon's handle. It struck Breton that the whole spoon could be seen as itself a shoe, with the little shoe as its heel. He then imagined the possibility that its heel was another shoe, with a heel of its own, which itself was a shoe...and that this could go on to infinity. The spoon he saw as an example of "convulsive beauty" in the sense that it revealed through its structure a state of mind, which consisted in a desire for love. There is a photograph, again by Man Ray, of this found object with the descriptive title "From the height of a little slipper making a body with it..." which was published in Breton's book L'Amour fou. There would be no way of telling from the photograph--or from the spoon itself--that it had convulsive beauty, or the evasive property of surreality. And I am uncertain whether it has either of these intrinsically, or only for the individual to whom it reveals, the way a verbal lapse does in Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a state of mind that would otherwise have remained unconscious. At the very least, some fairly elaborate chain of interpretation--as again in the The Psychopathology of Everyday Life--has to be supplied. Surrealism was a taxing and fully absorbing form of mental activity.
In the First Surrealist Manifesto, Breton mentions having become aware of a certain "bizarre sentence" that came to him "bearing no trace of the events with which I was involved at the time." He was unable to remember the exact wording, but it generated the writing he subsequently identified as Surrealist. The little spoon, as it happens, helped unpack a different such phrase, one that had been obsessively running through his mind--"Cendrier-Cendrillon"--which means "Ashtray-Cinderella." Breton refused to learn English, not so much, I believe, out of the vanity that is threatened when we lose the fluency of our native tongue but because we dream in our own language. The terms "ashtray" and "Cinderella" have no obvious connection, but "cendrier" and "Cendrillon" have a common root--the French word for cinders or ashes, which enables them to be conjoined in free association. Breton went so far as to ask Giacometti to make an ashtray in the form of Cinderella's slipper. But he remained baffled by "Cendrier-Cendrillon," and somehow the slipper spoon helped clarify the emotional state that expressed itself through the conjunction. But you have to read L'amour fou to find out how.
L'amour fou brings us to "Desire Unbound"--since unbound desire is exactly what L'amour fou is. Desire--and in particular erotic desire--is the theme of the Metropolitan exhibition. With qualifications, everything in the show possesses surreality--or convulsive beauty--providing we understand how to unlock it. The most helpful thing to understand is that aesthetics was never a central Surrealist preoccupation, so looking for an aesthetic experience here will not get you to first base. You have to look at the exhibits the way those displaced Surrealists looked at the objects on view in shop windows sixty years ago, trying to decide which were the Surrealist objects. Motherwell told me that his problem in playing that game lay in the fact that he had been brought up to look at antiques aesthetically. His mother was an antiques collector. But he got a kind of education surréaliste in those afternoons spent peering through dusty shop windows, tutored by Breton and Duchamp. With a sigh of what I felt was despair, he said, on one occasion, that the whole world was beginning to look surrealistic to him. But that, as he of course knew very deeply, was a metaphorical truth. The world seemed pretty crazy when the International Exposition of Surrealism took place in Paris in 1938. France was falling apart, German planes were bombing Barcelona, Germany was poised for conquest. The Surrealists were not aiming for the kind of experience that could be had from reading the headlines.
But neither did they think that the creation of the surrealistic was their unique contribution to art. The surrealistic existed avant la lettre. The Surrealists found it present throughout the history of art--in Hieronymus Bosch and in Hans Baldung Grien for obvious reasons, in Seurat's La Grande Jatte for less obvious ones. The first gallery in the show is given over toGiorgio de Chirico, whom the Surrealists took as a predecessor, and the second one to Dada, many of whose members, especially Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, were to make substantial contributions to Surrealism when it emerged as a movement in the 1920s. But the first object one encounters in entering the show--Venus aux tiroirs, 1936--a plaster Venus in whose torso Dali had placed a number of small drawers, as in a jewelry case, each with a fur-covered knob--is self-consciously Surrealist. Fur seemed by itself to confer surreality when adjoined to any object, the use of which seemed to rule fur out as a material--like a teacup, for example. No survey of Surrealism would be complete without Meret Oppenheim's 1936 fur-lined teacup, which somehow is like a dream object rendered concrete. One can see why. The last thing one expects, lifting a teacup to take a sip, would be the feeling of fur on one's lips. It happens only in dreams, where it would seem to disguise an obvious reference and a no-less-obvious repressed wish. Oppenheim had a genius for finding ways to express genital references through everyday objects, and much of Surrealism was taken up with such disclosures. There is a photograph by Man Ray of an unidentified woman, her head thrown back so that we see the lines of her jaw from below. But then, with the irresistibility of an optical illusion, the neck convulses into the shaft of a thick penis, with the jaw becoming the glans--and the image looks like a huge penis coming out of a woman's shoulders. Surrealist objects are displacements of the objects of desire with which the world around and within us abounds--though a lot of good it does us so far as the gratification of desire is concerned. Perhaps that is why it seems to constitute the constant preoccupation of mental life, which surfaces distortedly in our dream life.
The great emblem of unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable desire is Duchamp's 1915 masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, usually referred to as The Large Glass. A display case here holds notations and sketches for the work, and there is a painting of the bride in Duchamp's Cubist manner. The stripping has gone so far that the flesh has been taken away, and what we see looks like her reproductive system, including a schematized uterus. She is suspended in an upper chamber, separated by a glass shelf from her "bachelors"--a chorus of "malic forms" in the lower chamber. The two chambers are united and separated by an erotic desire that leaves everyone at once unsatisfied and inseparable. Duchamp, as is well-known, took a female identity for himself as Rrose Sélavy--Eros, c'est la vie--and was photographed wearing a woman's hat, makeup and furs by--who else?--Man Ray. In one of his most famous works--a postcard of the Mona Lisa on which he drew a mustache and goatee--Duchamp sought a reverse transgendrification. Magritte showed the female torso as a readymade pun on a male face, with the nipples as goggle eyes, and the pubis as beard. In Surrealist thought, male and female are often transcriptions of each other, as in the myth of Aristophanes that once upon a time we were a single being, male and female at once, and that ever since we have longed, in futility, for our other half. In Surrealism, though, the split was not clean--each of us bears something that belongs to our sexually opposite number.
The Surrealists did have robust love lives, and the heart of the show--no pun intended--exhibits the cat's cradle of their relationships: Gala with Paul Eluard, Man Ray and finally Dali; Max Ernst with Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning; Eluard with Nusch; Man Ray with Meret Oppenheim and Lee Miller; Louis Aragon with Elsa Triolet; Breton with Nadja and Jacqueline Lamba. And there were plenty of secondary loves as well. Many of the women were artists in their own right, and it is a merit of the show that a lot of their work is shown. I'll end with one of my favorite lines from a Surrealist poet, Robert Desnos, bound to two women--Yvonne George and Youki Foujita--by l'amour fou: J'ai tant rêvé de toi que tu perds ta réalité. ("I have dreamt of you so much that you have lost your reality.") The line is logically equivalent to: "I have dreamt of you so much that you have gained surreality." The beauty of the objects of Surrealist desire became convulsive through dreams. May this become true for us all!
Not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, when my wife and I sat dazed and weeping by the television screen, a call came through from a journalist wanting to know what the art world's response to all this was to be. We were amazed that any call could get through, since the phone lines were pretty much down. I had not been able to call any of our artist friends, but the last question I would have raised with them was how they were going to deal with the tragedy in their art! My sense was that every artist I knew was in the same state of grief and disbelief as we. Indeed, as I discovered in the days afterward, everyone I talked to wanted to express the same thoughts and feelings I needed to. Asked by a colleague how I felt, I said: like everyone else. And my colleague responded, We all feel like everyone else. And it would have been inconsistent with that feeling to think much about art at all.
Still, it says something about the power of art that someone should have looked to the art world to do something. I remembered a somewhat corny lecture from an undergraduate art history course, in which the people of Paris cried out, Take up thy brush, David! when Marat--l'ami du peuple--was stabbed to death in his bathtub. However corny, it was not all that far from the truth, as I recently read in T.J. Clark's marvelous study Farewell to an Idea. Like most political events, the French Revolution was enacted through images--think of how important to radical Islam those posters of Osama bin Laden have all at once become. Marat was a cult figure for extreme Jacobinism, and it is entirely credible that someone actually stood up on the floor of the Convention and shouted to David, Give us back Marat whole! This is what David might really have believed himself to have done in his tremendous painting of the slain Marat, shown as if descended from the cross. Pictures, in the people's eyes, are miracles, Clark writes, where what everyone thought was lost, or maybe just subject to time and fevers, comes back forever into the world. To whatever degree this not uncommon view of the power of images coincided with David's own, no one could look to art to give us back the World Trade Center whole. If someone did try to turn the event into art, it would in any case not be by means of painting a picture of the twin towers as they stood. A painting of the sky over ground zero is hardly needed, since the reality of their goneness inflects the glamour of everything that remains of the Manhattan skyline. But in any case, contemporary art has pretty much abjured pictorial representation as its main vehicle. Whom would the people summon to artistic action today?
On a recent visit to the Maryland Institute College of Art, I saw an especially moving installation in a faculty show by its graduate dean, Leslie King-Hammond. It was moving because it was of a piece with the hundreds of shrines that appeared spontaneously all over New York--in front of firehouses, along the edges of apartment building stairwells, surrounding monuments in parks and public places. In her installation, King-Hammond had placed votive candles, photographs, flowers, flags and other ephemera. One of the things contemporary art has made available to artists is the freedom to appropriate to their own artistic ends the very things with which ordinary, artistically untrained persons express themselves, so they can now bring the powers of life into art. So, much of contemporary art consists in selecting and arranging the things that define ordinary life. The avant-gardes of the 1960s were eager to overcome the gap between art and life, or to abolish the distinction between high and popular art. An agonized correspondent asked in an e-mail what Beuys would do if he were alive today. My sense is that he would do exactly what King-Hammond has done. He would assemble candles, photographs, flags and flowers. I was told that when her piece was installed, people stood in front of it and wept. How often does that happen in faculty shows, or in any show at all? It was as if the difference between what was in the art world and what was not had entirely dissolved. The art world could do nothing better than what the world itself did. In truth, I think, it could do nothing other than the world itself did. There was no room for anything else as art.
As it happens, I was to have traveled up to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College on September 11, for the opening of a remarkable installation by Joseph Bartscherer, which, by an uncanny suitability, was titled Obituary. The work is in the form of a kind of cemetery, in which copies of the New York Times are arrayed, like gravestones, in orderly rows. Only those copies of the newspaper are displayed that carry obituarial photographs on the front page. Bartscherer, a photographer himself, has been collecting and preserving these newspapers since January 1, 1990. The first he displays is from January 26, 1990, which incidentally showed a photograph of Ava Gardner, dead at 67. Bartscherer was interested, among other questions, in whose picture gets to appear on the front page when they die, and where on the front page it is placed, and how it relates to the other photographs printed there. The Times attempts to pre-shape history through the placement and size of stories and pictures, and Bartscherer was in particular concerned to exhibit the way significant deaths are presented to readers of the paper. The shape of newspapers is an important part of visual culture, but Bartscherer was attempting to bring to consciousness the way we think of death as a part of public life. I had written an essay for the catalogue, and the artist and I were to have held a public conversation on this topic and others, which, of course, never took place. Death was written all over the front page on September 12, but there were no obituarial photographs. There have in fact been five since September 11; the most recent picture is of Mike Mansfield.
Wellesley College is not an art school, and it took great courage on the part of the curator of Obituary, Lucy Flint-Gohlke, to have exhibited a work that was certain to raise the questions of why it was there, how it was art. Those would have been important questions for college students to have faced before September 11. Instead of the opening, there was on that day a kind of vigil. Officials of the college spoke, and of course there were tears. For the moment, Obituary was transformed into a shrine, not for the celebrities whose pictures occasioned the work but for the ordinary people whose deaths defined what everyone felt that day and since. The work became one with the vernacular surfaces of New York City, initially appropriated to display pictures of the missing, together with descriptions of their identifying marks, in case anyone should know their whereabouts. As days passed, these became obituarial photographs, and the focus of meditation and sorrow. For a few weeks, the tiled columns at the Times Square subway stop were transformed into a cenotaph, with photographs taped one above the other, on all four sides. Someone placed candles at the bases, along with flags and flowers. New Yorkers paused in their transit to and from the shuttle, to read the descriptions of people they did not know, but whose loss emblematized their own, even if none of their friends or family members were among the actual victims. The victim was collective, and it was us. The Times transformed itself into a hometown newspaper, publishing, day after day, obituaries of the ordinary people--the guy across the street, the girl in the building next door--who were killed. I thought of Colonel Rainborough's great speech in the debates in Cromwell's army council: "The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he."
Of the many commentators I have read on the attacks, only the historian of science Lorraine Daston, in the London Review of Books, observed their highly symbolic quality. We might have seen this for ourselves, had we recalled the aborted hijacking of an Air France plane a few years ago, which it was the intention of the terrorists to explode in the air above Paris, or crash into the Eiffel Tower. Air de Paris was one of Marcel Duchamp's more poetic ready-mades. The Eiffel Tower has a meaning the Tour Montparnasse lacks. To destroy the Eiffel Tower would be to wound the soul of France, detested by the Algerian pirates for its colonialist policies. Bin Laden taunted America for its inability to protect its largest buildings. He did not boast about our inability to protect the lives of so many of its ordinary citizens. My own sense is that the hijackers thought of the buildings themselves as primary targets, then of the people. Had they attacked instead our nuclear facilities, as Daston notes, the damage would have been of an altogether other order. Al Qaeda is still thinking symbolically, warning Muslims to avoid high buildings and airplanes, and threatening heads of state responsible for Muslim deaths.
It is a perversion of Islamic ethics to write off the deaths of innocent civilians as mere "collateral damage," to use the idiom of our homemade terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, who borrowed it from the military lexicon. But had the target been nuclear facilities, human deaths would not be collateral but primary. As it was, for New Yorkers, the material destruction was collateral. The perceived target was life--our life, in both senses of the term: the fact that we live and the way we live. So when the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen declared the attack a work of art, he was thinking as a terrorist, and his comment was rightly received with moral disgust. What terrorists saw as symbolic, New Yorkers saw as a war against a form of life. The tragedy of these crossed incongruent perceptions is that we are responding with conventional war--à la guerre comme à la guerre--when the true response is to continue to live the life the perpetrators loathe, and to find effective ways to engage with terrorists without squandering the sympathy our losses earned us even in the Muslim world.
Since it is our form of life that has been the symbolic target, it is precisely appropriate that any artistic response should be the spontaneous mode of symbolic mourning that everyone understands--the vernacular display of candles, flags, flowers and the images that, in their own poignant way, express the same aching hope and sorrow that David's painting of Marat did. I don't think the proposed memorial lightshow in lower Manhattan--to restore the vanished skyline with columns of light--is the right kind of response. It is wrong because it memorializes the structures without restoring the form of life they facilitated. When, one by one, the artists I know returned to their studios, what they returned to was the art they were engaged with before. In that sense, that is what, so far, the art world is doing about the attacks. People have been killed, but forms of life--that through which their lives had meaning--survive. There have been newspaper pieces about what happens to cities when they undergo disasters. They live through it, and beyond. The lights go back on, the theaters and restaurants fill up, everything works again. As the architect Christopher Wren had inscribed on his tomb in St. Paul's in London: If you seek a monument, look around you.
In the art world, and perhaps elsewhere, the expression "September 10" has taken on an epithetic connotation. In a seminar with graduate art students at the Maryland Institute, one of them spoke of the work of a celebrated contemporary artist as "so September 10." That made me wonder whether September 11 marks the beginning of a new period in the history of contemporary art, and even more, whether it marks a change in American conduct. A good bit of what is universally regarded as the typical behavior of New Yorkers might seem September 10, by sharp contrast with what we saw in those extraordinary amateur videos, made by plain men and women who happened to be downtown with camcorders on the morning of the disaster. People were everywhere shown acting with dignity, generosity, bravery, goodness and, spectacularly, with heroism. It was to me a demonstration of something deep in the culture, which was there on September 10 and will be there as part of the American spirit for a very long time. September 11 was a demonstration of a moral reality, in much the same way that everyone feeling like everyone else was. But that did not prevent the huge endorsement of a war against terrorism that, to my perception, is war sans phrase--as if the life of the poorest he in Afghanistan were of no greater consequence than that of ordinary American lives in the symbolic calculus of the terrorists themselves.
In his chapter on David, T.J. Clark cites a passage from George Kubler on the abrupt change of content and expression that the history of art sometimes exhibits. The sudden transformation of Occidental art and architecture about 1910 is an example of a change that was as if instantaneous. I don't know whether art itself can have undergone an abrupt change of this order on September 11, since I am far from certain that, though we are told nothing will be the same again, the moral quality of life in the West was changed by the horrors we have lived through. The point is that we have lived through them, evidently the same as we were, despite the demonstration of moral sublimity on September 11 and through the days that followed. Everyone still feels like everyone else. What the instantaneity of the impromptu shrines has taught us is that art, at some level, is an abiding integral component of the human spirit. I have always taken this on faith, but I am not grateful to the terrorism for having provided us with a modicum of empirical confirmation. Given the circumstances, I would be glad never to have known how true it proved to be.
In his essay for the catalogue that accompanies "Picasso Érotique," beautifully installed in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until September 16, Jean-Jacques Lebel reproduces an extraordinary drawing that is not included in the exhibition itself. On the right is a vagina, sparsely surrounded by pubic hairs. It dwarfs the homuncular male figure, moving open-eyed and stubble-cheeked into the dark night of death, emblematized by a sweep of black wash. The date of execution is inscribed in large and ornamental numerals--25.7.72. It was perhaps the last of the goaty old master's drawings of a woman's sexe--he was to die, aged 91, the following April. The figure, of course, is Picasso himself. In his middle 70s, after he was abandoned by his young and beautiful mistress, Françoise Gilot, he represented himself as some figure of contempt--an old man, a monkey, a clown, a grotesquely fat caricature of an infantile male personage, often an artist--juxtaposed with an inward-dwelling woman, a model, usually nude, indifferent to his presence. The male will often be shown draped and ornamented with the paraphernalia of worldly recognition--armor, for example, or robes too large by far for his shrunken physique. The woman needs no external mark of power. Her youth and nakedness, which at times is accentuated by a circlet of flowers worn in her hair, is emblem enough. In this small, scary masterpiece, Picasso is taking leave at once of life and of sex. Eros c'est la vie was the punning pronunciation of Rrose Sélavy--the pseudonym that his fellow eroticist, Marcel Duchamp, took for himself when he assumed his periodic female identity. The same disproportion of this farewell drawing is embodied in Duchamp's monumental Large Glass, in which the Bride sits aloof and alone in an upper chamber while her various Bachelors are segregated in a limbo of desire below.
The disengaged vagina is a universal symbol. What Picasso has scrawled in the 1972 drawing could have been incised in plaster outside a doorway in India or brushed in red pigment on a wall in Rome at any moment of its history--or scribbled with ballpoint in lavatory booths or drawn with a pencil stub wherever lonesome men languish. On the other hand, it belongs to its meaning to be furtive and hidden. The female nude is omnipresent in Western art, but the representation of a woman with her genital orifice displayed is exceedingly rare. There are two celebrated exceptions. The first is the somewhat presumptuously titled The Origin of the World, by Gustave Courbet, painted in 1866--roughly the moment when the term pornography entered the language. It shows a reclining woman, her legs spread apart, her garment lifted to the level of her breasts and her luxuriant pubic thatch exposed to the viewer. The woman's head, lower legs and arms are cropped by the edges of the canvas, which was evidently kept covered by a green veil after the painting was done. It was commissioned by a Turkish diplomat, Khalil Bey, and was later acquired by the celebrated French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who was, incidentally, Picasso's consultant on most medical questions. Lacan too kept it hidden--like the portrait of La Belle Noiseuse in Balzac's Chef d'oeuvre inconnu. It was concealed behind a painting by Lacan's brother-in-law, the Surrealist André Masson, and shown only to favored visitors. Courbet's painting became the property of the French state after Lacan died, and I first saw it at--naturally--the Brooklyn Museum. It was shown in the 1988 "Courbet Reconsidered" exhibition in the days predating Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, when it aroused neither outcry nor outrage but only a certain curiosity. Later it went on view at the Musée d'Orsay, surrounded with enough art history almost to neutralize it. I once discussed it in a lecture at Yale but was hesitant to show a slide--though I was told afterward that avant-garde feminists have adopted it as a symbol of female power. In certain African societies it is considered lethal to behold a woman's genitals, which are kept safely out of view by means of the myth of their dangerousness.
The other example is Duchamp's mysterious Étant donnés... in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where, peering through a peephole, one finds oneself looking at the shaven cleft, between her spread legs, of a woman lying on her back. Duchamp designed the installation in such a way that the hole through which we see her will not allow the viewer to see her head or even if she has a head. It was Duchamp's last work, done in secrecy during the last twenty years of his life, when the received opinion was that he had given up art for chess. There is a wall in "Picasso Érotique" with small apertures through which one can see backlit transparencies both of the Courbet and the Duchamp as Picasso's predecessors in the representation of a woman's open sexe. It is a distinguished but not a particularly extensive artistic genealogy, considering the wide distribution of this particular organ, and the extraordinary interest it generates in most of our lives. A visitor from outer space could acquire a wide knowledge from the history of art of what human females look like undressed, but have not a clue as to the vagina's existence or visual appearance.
There are two main aesthetic reasons for its absence from art. The first is enunciated by Freud: The genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are hardly ever regarded as beautiful. When a New York gallerist was shown some examples from a work by the French Surrealist Henri Maccheroni, titled 2000 photographies du sexe d'une femme, she said she realized why, by contrast with breasts and buttocks, this particular attribute played no part in the stereotype of feminine beauty. The second reason is this: The difference between male and female nudes is that the male's genitals are visible unless they are covered but the female's are invisible unless uncovered, which requires that the woman assume an awkward posture in which they are displayed. There are two circumstances in which this routinely takes place. The first is the gynecological examination. The second is where they are flashed by sex workers for the enticement and arousal of clients. In a superb review of a book on a brothel in a recent issue of this magazine, Leah Platt quoted the author's interview of a working woman on her job, performed behind a window before a paying male: "make eye contact, pout, wink, swivel your hips a little, put a stiletto-clad foot up on the window sill to reveal an eye-full of your two most marketable orifices, fondle your tits, smack your ass, stroke whatever pubic hair you haven't shaven off...until the customer comes, then move on to the next window." The segregation of the Bride from the Bachelors in Duchamp's Large Glass could be an allegory of this transaction.
In her legendary early film Fuses, the great performance artist Carolee Schneemann undertook to discover whether showing how sexual love looked corresponded to the pleasure of experiencing it, and this involved her in finding a way of exhibiting herself that was neither gynecological nor pornographic. I have never seen Fuses, but in her forthcoming book, Imaging Her Erotics, Schneemann describes how the film landed her in hot water with audiences from the art world, from which she had supposed she could count on a measure of support. Since there are a certain number of opened vaginas in "Picasso Érotique," the exhibition's organizers--Jean-Jacques Lebel and Jean Clair, director of the Musée national Picasso in Paris--prudently decided against seeking a New York venue for their show, thinking, with the European's affecting ignorance of North American geography, that New Yorkers need but slip across the border to see it. So unless you're prepared to take an hour's flight on Air Canada--or do the thing properly by postponing your trip to Barcelona until the show is installed in the Museu Picasso, near where it all began--you'll have to make do with consulting the catalogue and writing a letter of indignation to Giuliani's Panel on Decency.
Just inside the entrance to "Picasso Érotique," the exhibition's designer has re-created an imagined bordello bedroom as one might have existed in the red-light district of Barcelona in the era of Picasso's youth. Projected on its wall is a clip from what I take to be a vintage film, in which a generously proportioned woman, sitting on the edge of the bed, lifts her breasts in the time-honored way, and then stands, with her wrapper open, to give us a view of her nakedness. The action is pretty fast. We get a shot of a man administering cunnilingus while a frustrated customer peers through a keyhole until he evidently can't hold himself in any longer and falls to the floor, clutching his front, like one of Duchamp's bachelors. It certainly beats an acousta-guide in setting the somewhat merry tone the early drawings and watercolors carry out. The pictures are really scraps, pages from a sketchbook, graphic souvenirs of the artist's erotic encounters in the kinds of bedrooms we have just seen, with the kinds of women we have just been shown. A lot of the pictures are on the border between cartoons and life drawings. There is a certain amount of cunnilingus, some lively sketches of an ecstatic woman in high sockings fingering herself, some scenes of women sitting around half-dressed, a few quite tender scenes of lesbian caress and a fairly ambitious painting of the artist himself, looking as innocent as a choirboy and wearing a striped jersey, being treated to fellatio. It is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I'll lay odds that though it was painted in 1903, in the middle of Picasso's extravagantly admired Blue Period, you won't see it proudly displayed there when the Montreal show is over.
The interest of these mostly ephemeral works lies as much in what they tell us about the male sexual imagination as about what Picasso saw. Men visited the brothels of the so-called barrio chino--the Chinese Quarter of old Barcelona--as they visit brothels everywhere: in part to see, in part to enact, what life otherwise only allows them to imagine. That is why the displayed vagina belongs so centrally to pornography--the much-debated male gaze is not readily gratified, due to its object's hiddenness. There are relatively few depictions in the early parts of the show of the way men and women in love express that condition sexually.
But there is a great deal of that in Picasso's art, beginning with when he fell profoundly in love with Fernande Olivier in 1904, and began to see life en couleur de rose: The so-called Rose Period is not merely a change of palette. Pictures titled Le Baiser (The Kiss) or L'Étreinte (Embrace) outnumber by a significant factor those showing special couplings of the kind advertised in Pompei--though there is a gouache from 1917 that could easily have been copied from the kinds of souvenir postcards that are probably still hawked outside the excavations. Its chief pictorial function is to display the man's enormous penis in a state of futile erection, since the couple has assumed a position too athletic for actual intercourse to take place: She is standing on her head, with one foot braced against his chin. In the main, except when he is being satirical, Picasso has no use for the caricaturely gross penis. He shows himself as normally proportioned in an awkward, scowling 1902 Self Portrait With Nude.
The kisses are intensely felt and at the same time comically shown: In a painting dated January 12, 1931, the couple dart their triangular tongues into each other's mouths; the woman's nose is draped affectionately over the man's, her eyes closed and his rolled upward. In Figures at the Seashore, it is impossible to determine to which of the two kissers the breasts belong, as if the difference between two individuals has been transcended, and they are one being, with tangled legs and arms. One cannot but think, in these wonderful middle-period works, of Aristophanes' vivid thesis in The Symposium, that each of us was once part of a single being, now split into two, each part seeking to be reunited with the other. So many of the Baisers and Étreintes are ingenious, imperfect reassemblages of bodily parts into helpless erotic wholes, destined to fall apart despite the great passion that brought them together. The overall mood is one of tenderness and comedy.
So I was not surprised to learn from the museum's publicist that there have been very few complaints about the show in Montreal, though attendance so far has greatly exceeded expectations. But there has been a spontaneous show of affection on the part of those who visit the show together. Basically the show is about love. She told me that she had been alerted by one of the guards that couples often begin to hold hands while looking at the work, to whisper in each other's ear, to embrace lightly, even to kiss. I found that a very touching discovery, and really something of a vindication for mounting such a show. It is evidence that there is more to experiencing art than allowing one's eyes to be flooded with form. This is the power of erotic representation: We respond with affection. But sex has another strand as well, a raucousness and comedy that the ancients appreciated when they rocked with laughter at the sight of satyrs capering across the stage with leather phalluses. For all his tenderness, Picasso was a fierce satirist, aware that we can look pretty ridiculous in the grip of sexual passion. There is a delicious suite of etchings done in 1968, showing the painter Raphael making endless love to his mistress, La Fornarina, never so overcome by passion that he has to put down his brushes and palette and use both arms. In all of these images, Picasso shows the couple's genitals fitted together like bolt and bolt-hole, but each wears the calm smile of Hindu deities in cosmic fornication, as if butter would not melt in their mouths. Most of these etchings contain observers as well as the lovers themselves. The Pope, for example, often drops into a picture to observe the action--and in some of them Michelangelo gets an eyeful while hiding under the bed.
Raphael, painter of sweet madonnas and charming infants, was not above doing a bit of pornography himself now and then. His notorious 1516 frescoes of the history of Venus, commissioned for Cardinal Bibbiena's bathroom in the Vatican, were whitewashed over in the nineteenth century as inconsistent with what was felt to be spiritually fitting for the artist of the Acts of the Apostles. The nineteenth century was a bad time for the erotica of the masters. Ruskin had no hesitation in ordering the destruction of Turner's horny drawings on the grounds that he was obviously insane when he drew them. But the depiction of sex was one of the main reasons that drawing was invented. Even the misogynous Degas executed a series of monoprints in the Maison Tellier, one of Paris's best-known brothels of the 1880s. They show the prostitutes lounging about, waiting for clients or engaged in lesbian sex with one another. Picasso owned some of these quite compassionate images, and as he approached the age of 90, he devoted a rowdy suite of etchings to the somewhat implausible episode of Degas observing the whores. There are a good many exceedingly open, exceedingly juicy vaginas in these pictures, I would say lovingly drawn, in which it is indeterminate whether the women are mocking or tempting the voyeur. In one, Picasso shows lines of sight from Degas's eyes to the hairy juncture of vaginal lips spread open for his uncertain delectation.
There are no open vaginas in Picasso's own celebrated brothel scene, the famous Demoiselles d'Avignon, one of the canonical works of Modernism and by all accounts his masterpiece. It could in one way almost be a Cubist paraphrase of one of Degas's monoprints, in which the women are gathered to greet the visitor, who will hopefully select one of them for whatever he is into. Here are five women in all--three classical figures to the viewer's left, two masked women to the right, one of them, her back to us, squatting. The masks could be African, could be Oceanic, but hardly belong to any European tradition other than that of the ethnographic museum, where Picasso first saw them. Whatever they are up to, the women hardly look as if they are out to tempt us. If we did not know from scholarship that it was a brothel scene, it is hard to know how we would read the work. It is easy to sympathize with Alfred Barr, who acquired the painting for the Museum of Modern Art, when he described this as a purely formal figure composition, which as it develops becomes more and more dehumanized and abstract. Leo Steinberg quotes this in a great essay, together with a 1912 interpretation by the poet André Salmon, of Picasso's own inner circle: The women "'are naked problems, white numbers on a blackboard.' Can we be looking at the same canvas?" Steinberg asks with incredulity. I shall always be grateful for this "Can we be looking at the same canvas?" It definitively erased from my aesthetic whatever inclination I had toward formalism in art. On the other hand, I am not ready to be included in the "us" to whom Steinberg says this picture looks like a tidal wave of female aggression. I cannot get female aggression to fit with the overall feeling toward women conveyed in this wonderful exhibition in Montreal, not even in the period when Picasso was painting Salome dancing for the price of John the Baptist's head. The Demoiselles d'Avignon is not in the show, and that's a good thing. Nobody really understands it; nobody is even able to say whether it is a success or a failure. It may not be white numbers on a blackboard, but it falls outside the range of the human--all too human--to which eroticism, as behavior and imagination, belongs.
In a famous sequence of photographs, Henri Matisse documented, over the course of six months in 1935, twenty-two states of his evolving Large Reclining Nude. On impulse, I recently made photocopies of these and fastened them together as a kind of flipbook. This yielded a crude approximation to a cinematic experience in which the nude figure turned and twisted and fluttered her legs up and down, while parts of her body swelled and subsided. It was in fact quite sexy but did not seem quite to fit what Matisse spoke of, figuratively of course, as a motion picture film of the feeling of an artist. So I shifted into a sort of slow motion, and register the following tentative observation: In the first state, recorded on May 3, Matisse's model is depicted in a fairly straightforward way, occupying roughly the lower half of the canvas. By September 6, her head has been disproportionately enlarged, and it has become a recognizable portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya, his poseuse. On October 30, the head has grown disproportionately small, the features are schematic, the torso has grown lank and her bent arms fill the canvas from top to bottom. It really felt as if I had been able to track the artist's feelings toward the model, who becomes for him an individualized woman about midway through the painting's development. If so, the sequence does more than document the stages of a painting. It charts a transformation, from an external relationship between artist and model to an intimate relationship between man and woman. The motion picture film then yields something we could not easily get from the completed painting itself, marvelous as that great work is, and it shows something about the limitations of painting as a medium. Who knows if Matisse did not begin photographing his painting because he sensed there might be a deeper story to tell than the history of how a painting changes.
The artist's emotional involvement with Lydia Delectorskaya has remained a Matisse family secret, but it is difficult to suppress the thought not only that a change of feeling toward her took place in the course of executing Large Reclining Nude but, more boldly, that Matisse used painting as a way of discovering what his feelings were. The South African artist William Kentridge speaks of drawing in almost these terms: "The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are or how we operate in the world. It is in the strangeness of the activity itself that can be detected judgment, ethics and morality.... So drawing is a slow motion version of thought.... The uncertain and imprecise way of constructing a drawing is sometimes a model of how to construct meaning." Note the cinematic metaphor through which Kentridge characterizes mental process and how, though his artistic ambitions otherwise resemble those of Matisse to no appreciable degree, he also sees drawing as an avenue to self-discovery.
South Africa was invited to exhibit in the Venice Biennale in 1993 in acknowledgment of the repeal of apartheid; and in 1995 the first Johannesburg Biennale was organized as a gesture that South Africa was now part of the international art community. Kentridge himself exhibited in the Fourth Istanbul Biennale, held that same year, and ever since he has been widely shown and highly admired for his animated films, based on his drawings. But the drawings themselves have an independent authority, in large part, I believe, because of the palpable evidence they provide of their author's search for meaning and even for personal meaning. It may seem curious that in work with so marked a political intention as Kentridge's, there should be the same preoccupation with self-understanding that we find in Matisse, who seems almost flagrantly hedonistic as an artist. But upon reflection it is no less curious that someone who created for himself a world of luxe, calme, et volupté--to use an early title that Matisse appropriated from Baudelaire--should, at a somewhat advanced age, use painting as a method of self-analysis.
In point of style, Kentridge's work has a certain retrospective aura, as if it belonged more to the era of Matisse than to the contemporary world. The drawings and, indeed, the animated films for which they serve as material feel much in spirit as if their provenance were the art world of Mitteleuropa from the early part of the twentieth century. Kentridge himself has commented on this:
Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America during the 1960s and 1970s seemed distant and incomprehensible to me.... The impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa. The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure. I remember thinking that one had to look backwards--even if quaintness was the price one paid.
It is perhaps testimony to the deep pluralism of the contemporary art world that the language of early Modernism should be accepted and even admired as a vehicle for expression and exploration today. Kentridge is rightly considered a very important artist, which explains why he is the subject of a major exhibition at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art (until September 16). It will then travel to the MCA in Chicago, the CAM in Houston and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, before its final venue in the South African National Gallery in Cape Town, from December 7, 2002, through March 23, 2003.
Kentridge draws primarily in charcoal, a medium versatile enough to have been used in the achievement of the demi-teinte drawings prized by the beaux-arts academies of the nineteenth century, as well as in the broad expressive drawings of German Expressionism. Kentridge appreciates charcoal (enhanced by a sparing use of pastel) for its softness and quickness on paper. But with its sensitivity to pressure, to revision and overdrawing, to erasure and smudging, it lends itself particularly well to the kind of probing exploration for which Kentridge prizes drawing as an activity. The final result often stands as a kind of palimpsest of the stages of its emergence as an image. There is, moreover, an internal connection between drawing in charcoal and the exceedingly primitive technique of animation Kentridge evolved. One can photograph a drawing, then modify the drawing, then photograph that--and continue this process until one has transcribed, through sequences of smudging, erasing and overdrawing, a complete transition not just in the drawing, physically considered, but in what the alterations in the drawing sequentially depict. In short, the photographs taken at various stages of a drawing's alteration literally become frames in a filmstrip that, when projected, show a change in the reality depicted. Animation enables Kentridge to get beyond the limits that Matisse circumvented by means of serial photography.
An example will make this clear. Consider a sequence of fourteen frames from Kentridge's 1991 film, Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old. Each of these is a photograph of the same drawing, as it has undergone a series of changes. In the first frame, we see a factory building in a somewhat dated modernesque style of architecture, drawn in a correspondingly dated Modernist style that Kentridge has made his own. The factory, sharply highlighted, stands against the sky, alone in a barren landscape. In the next frame, the artist has begun to scribble a sort of dark mass, like a dust cloud, at the building's base. In the third frame, the artist has begun to erase, hence lighten, the top part of the cloud. This cloud grows larger and lighter through a number of frames. Meanwhile, he has begun to rub out the drawing of the building. The building grows fainter and fainter as the cloud engulfs it. Now the artist begins to erase the cloud so that there is a frame in which a ghostly pentimento of the building hovers over the thinning cloud. Finally, as the dust has settled, the artist has drawn the figure of a man standing in what remains of the cloud, his back to us, facing where the building used to be. In the final frame, the figure of the man is darkened. He stands alone before the traces on paper of an erased factory. As with Matisse's Large Reclining Nude, where there is only one canvas, the changes in which have been documented by his photographs, here there is only one drawing, systematically modified. But where Large Reclining Nude shows no signs of the changes Matisse made, the final photograph in Kentridge's sequence shows the stages it has gone through--the erasures, the scribbles, the darkening, the outlines of the factory that used to be there, the shape of the man who entered the picture only in the final stages of the drawing. It is like a face that bears the marks of its owner's experience. "What is interesting about doing the animated films," Kentridge told interviewers, "is that it's a way of holding on to all the moments and possibilities of the drawing." His drawings record the struggle to achieve them.
Put another way, the changes in Large Reclining Nude were not made for the sake of being photographed; the photographs merely document those changes. The changes in the drawing of the factory, by contrast, were narratively driven, and made for the sake of the photographs, because it is through them, as a film sequence, that a story is told. It is the story of a world falling apart. The figure in the drawing is internally related to the factory. He was in fact the factory's owner, as we know from the film from which this sequence has been extracted. We have been shown the fact that his world has fallen apart, that he is left alone in the landscape in which his factory once stood. The figure is that of the industrialist Soho Eckstein, a character Kentridge invented--the star of his series of allegorical films, which he calls "Drawings for Projection," of which Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old is the fourth.
Soho is an overweight, balding, ruthless man, with a heavy cigar and an emblematic pinstriped suit and striped necktie. The suit-and-tie is his attribute--as much so as keys are the attribute of St. Peter or a chalice of blood that of the bereaved Madonna in Christian iconography--or a silk hat and moneybags the attributes of The Capitalist in left-wing iconography. Soho is never shown not wearing it, whether working or sleeping, or lying in a hospital bed, or in a symbolic pool of water, embracing his alienated wife. In the first of the films in which he is introduced--Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris--Soho Eckstein is the embodiment of greed and rapacity. He has bought up half the city of Johannesburg, and sits at his desk, running his vast network of enterprises, or at a table swilling down mountains of food with bottle upon bottle of wine. Outside, we see an industrial wasteland, punctuated with pylons and floodlights, and traversed by the expropriated masses. In Monument, Soho addresses a crowd as a benefactor, at the dedication of a monument to the Working Man. In Mine--a wonderful pun, since the mine is mine--the film connects Soho with his mining enterprises. We see rows of miners blasting away in dark precincts, and we see Soho orchestrating their activity from a desk, on which are displayed pieces of African art as trophies. But things have begun to go very badly for Soho in Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old. His empire has collapsed. He is alone in a world for whose barrenness he is largely accountable.
But the loss is more personal by far than my narrative thus far would suggest. Soho's wife has been taken away from him by his alter ego, Felix Teitlebaum, a moony artist who looks like a somewhat leaner Soho with his clothes off. Aside from these differences, Felix and Soho look much alike, which suggests that together they constitute a self-portrait of the artist, since he resembles them both. And that is another illustration of how drawing leads to self-knowledge.
As in the final frame of the collapsing factory, we see Soho alone against an empty sky--a mere smudged blankness onto which the artist has superimposed the words, printed in block letters:
And we find ourselves feeling sorry for poor Soho, a human being after all, with a broken heart.
Kentridge's commentators see the films as filled with references to the political drama of South Africa, and doubtless the artist's countrymen will be able to read these in terms far more local than are available to us who have not lived through the agonies of those struggles. At the same time, the films attain a level of allegory that makes them almost universal. Soho is an inspired invention, but he corresponds to the hard-nosed kind of industrialist commonplace in the representation of capitalism since at least the time of Marx and Engels. "I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose," Marx wrote in his preface to Capital. But here individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class relations and class interests. Were it not for lettering in "Johannesburg"there would be no way of knowing that the masses represented in Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris were African blacks. The image could have been by Käthe Kollwitz or some illustrator for New Masses. There is thus something generic in the relationship between Soho and the country he exploits, into which the particularities of apartheid have to be read. But similarly, it is by virtue of romantic allegory that Soho's guilt is internalized as insensitivity to his wife's emotional needs. And where in South African political reality does the sensitive and artistic figure of Felix Teitlebaum exactly fit? In Sobriety, Obesity, & Growing Old, the political becomes the personal. There is a wonderful image in that film in which the essential triangle of Soho, Mrs. Eckstein and Felix is represented. Soho, holding a cigar that gives off the dense black smoke of one of his factory chimneys, is gazing into what I take to be a loudspeaker, while luscious Mrs. Eckstein lies beneath Felix, her eyes closed either in dream or rapture, while--in the animation--a kind of fish swims from Felix to her. It is exceedingly erotic, as the film itself at moments is, though it is difficult to know whether the love scenes are imagined by Soho or enacted by the couple, or, for that matter, imagined by them. In a way, Soho, Felix and Mrs. Eckstein--Tycoon, Artist and Wife--form as rich an allegorical triangle as Offissa Pupp, Ignatz and Krazy Kat in George Herriman's inspired landscape. The films Kentridge made afterward are deeply introspective exercises in which both Soho and Felix undertake, in their different ways, to construct meanings for their lives. Mrs. Eckstein is not developed further.
I am very impressed by the way, as an artist, Kentridge seeks to reflect political problems through interpersonal relationships. In her instructive catalogue essay, Lynne Cooke cites Kentridge's way of seeing his situation as an artist who is at once engaged and disengaged: "Aware of and drawing sustenance from the anomaly of my position." At the edge of huge social upheavals, yet also removed from them. Not able to be part of these upheavals, nor to work as if they did not exist. That is the way I see his art--not part of the upheavals but to be understood through the fact that they exist and in some deflected way explain the art. In the end, if one thinks about it, this is the way artists have often dealt with political upheavals: at their edge, and in the framework of love stories. Think of Hemingway or Tolstoy or, if you like, Jane Austen or possibly Matisse.
The films are the heart of the exhibition, as they are the crown of Kentridge's oeuvre, and I would head for them immediately. After that you can work your way back through the gallery, in which some of the stills--the drawings he used for the films--are on display. On your way in, you will have passed a sort of animated Shadow Procession, in which silhouetted figures, which inevitably remind one of the disturbing cutouts of the brilliant Kara Walker, sweep past your vision. It is a little soon to pronounce the show unforgettable, but I have not been able to erase from my memory the song by Alfred Makgalemele, which accompanies the Shadow Procession, and my feeling is that certain of the images will be with me for a very long time.
'YO MAMA' IS A BIGOT
New York City
Arthur C. Danto contends that Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper is not anti-Catholic and deserves First Amendment protection ["In the Bosom of Jesus," May 28]. He should listen to the artist's own words and then reread the First Amendment. Renee Cox, debating me on CNN and other media outlets, made it clear that her art is designed to attack the Catholic Church. Her claims ranged from "the Catholic Church is all about money...about big business" to "40 percent of the slaveowners in the South were Catholic." As far as the First Amendment is concerned, she has a constitutional right to show her bigoted work. What she doesn't have is a right to the public purse. If taxpayers' money can't be used to further one's religion, how can it logically be permitted to be used to denigrate it?
Director of Communications
New York City
My article on Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper concerned a photograph, rendered controversial by some ill-considered remarks by Mayor Giuliani to the effect that it was indecent and anti-Catholic. The burden of my analysis was that it is neither. Scully's letter is not about that picture, but about some ill-considered remarks the artist is alleged to have made on CNN. They have no bearing on the work or on First Amendment policies.
Scully's letter reminds me of nothing so much as the transcript of the trial in which the painter Paolo Veronese was brought up before the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in Venice in 1573 for having depicted Mary Magdalene in what is described there as "The Last Supper, which Jesus Christ took with his disciples in the house of Simon." The inquisitors wished to know whether Veronese felt that it was "fitting at the Last Supper of the Lord to paint buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and similar vulgarities." Veronese said, "I paint pictures as I see fit and as well as my talent permits"--and he cited the precedent of Michelangelo, who painted "Our Lord, Jesus Christ, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the Heavenly Host. They are all represented in the nude--even the Virgin Mary--and with little reverence."
The Holy Tribunal was an anticipatory version of the Decency Panel under Giuliani's counterreformation in New York. There was, of course, no First Amendment at the time. My own view is that a fair amount of tax money in Veronese's Venice went into the suppression of images; it instead goes into supporting their exhibition in New York today, for the larger intellectual benefit of our society, whatever the collateral opinions of the artists who make them.
One incidental issue puzzles me. In view of profound biblical paintings by such Protestant artists as Rembrandt, by what right do critics like Giuliani or Scully infer that images treating biblical incidents in ways they find displeasing are anti-Catholic rather than simply anti-Christian? It was the strategy of the Counter-Reformation to use images to strengthen faith. It was one strategy of early Protestantism to destroy images, based perhaps on the same psychology. By Rembrandt's time it was recognized that the church ought not to exercise a monopoly on religious representations. The taxpayers' money supports institutions that house painting after painting intended in their time to further the artists' religion, whether Catholic or Protestant. Where did Scully get the idea that this is contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment?
ARTHUR C. DANTO
Art Winslow is absolutely correct in his analysis of today's art environment ["The Wind She Blows," June 11]. If we continue losing independent art spaces we'll end up with mediocre art, and artists and intellectuals will be outcasts. But all is not gloomy! Here in San Antonio last May 15 the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center won an important legal battle. Federal Judge Orlando Garcia courageously ruled that our mayor and city council violated the US Constitution and Texas's Open Meeting Act when they conspired to defund the center's art projects. Read the ruling at www.nysd.uscourts.gov/courtweb/pdf/D05TXWC/01-05845.PDF.
ANTONIO C. CABRAL
THE MISSING LINK
New York City
Thanks to everyone who wrote in to recommend more "sites for sore eyes" ["Full-Court Press," June 4], as well as those of you who added to the count of obscene and abusive letters in support of Ralph Nader. Of the many recommendations I received, I am happy to add those below to the list of intelligent and occasionally funny places to go on the web for political good sense and, in the case of Consortium News, investigative reporting. Happy surfing.
SINS OF THE FATHER
Dusko Doder is right to correct the Greek Press Office's extremely partial account of Greece's relations with Macedonia ["Letters," June 4]. But he is wrong to blame Foreign Minister George Papandreou for the sins of his father, Andreas. Papandreou the younger has made serious efforts to move Greek foreign policy beyond the paranoid nationalism fostered by Papandreou senior. With Prime Minister Costas Simitis, he helped to broker the peaceful removal of Slobodan Milosevic despite the Serbian dictator's considerable popular support in Greece. Simitis and Papandreou have also been constructively involved in efforts to resolve the current crisis in Macedonia--it is, after all, in their interest to do so. The cause of peace in the Balkans is best served by giving credit where credit is due.
For the record, the Greek government never quite claimed, as Doder says, that "Macedonia has been a part of Greece for 3,200 years." At the peak of nationalist hysteria in the 1990s, posters of archeological artifacts from Greek Macedonia with the legend "Macedonia: Three thousand years of Greek history" were displayed for the benefit of foreign visitors. There were also posters proclaiming "Macedonia was Greece ever," obviously Englished by some subversive mole.
THE CRIMSON & THE BLACK
Why are people surprised that Harvard is not acting in a socially just fashion [Benjamin L. McKean, "Harvard's Shame," May 21]? After all, the Harvard Corporation (which just inducted its first minority member and until a few years ago was an all-men's club) to its lasting shame never divested from South Africa (although it later gave Nelson Mandela an honorary degree). And when we alumni/ae successfully elected four petition candidates to the Board of Overseers on a prodivestment platform, the big U responded by changing the rules to make it far more difficult to elect someone not on the official slate.
It took a student strike back in 1969-70 to get the university to establish an African-American studies program. And, as the recent New York Times story on NYU's belated award to those protesting the collegiate sports world's "gentlemen's agreement" pointed out, Harvard, too, in the 1940s honored an opposing team's request not to field a black player. There's much more.
We can hope that Harvard will do the decent thing by way of a living wage for its employees, but I wouldn't count on it.
Poverty & Race Research Action Council
CAN WE AFFORD DAYCARE?
It seems I'm a rare bird indeed: a feminist who doesn't think that daycare is necessarily a fabulous thing, particularly for kids under 2 ["Subject to Debate," May 14]. Katha Pollitt is correct, as usual, that the National Institute for Child Health and Development's recent study purporting to link immersion in daycare with aggressive behavior probably can't infer causality but will be used to hurt moms who want to work outside the home. But political agendas aside, let's face it: It's widely considered better, developmentally speaking, for children up to 2 (the age when they really have something to gain from socializing with their peers) to interact one on one with their caregiver.
In my house, the care of my infant daughter is split; my husband and I both have part-time jobs (mine offers benefits). For children's sake, I'd like the childcare debate to include a discussion of how to give more part-time workers access to health insurance and how to convince conservatives and progressives alike that except for breastfeeding, dads can do everything for children that moms can.
Thanks to Katha Pollitt for succinctly pointing out why research into the effects of daycare is misdirected. The investigations should rather focus on the pay rates for daycare workers and the difficulty all but the very rich have in finding daycare or preschools that come close to the care provided in France and other enlightened countries. I have been a teacher's aide in a school where a high percentage of the kids qualified for free lunch, and I've also worked in a suburban school. You can guess which kids showed the most hyperactivity and aggression. (It wasn't the ones who had been going to the best preschools.) Searching for preschools for my own two children, I realized that my whole salary wouldn't cover the cost of the schools that met my standards. The bottom line is money--for parents, for state-run daycare with well-paid, qualified teachers, for family leave.
WHY, IT'S A SILVER BULLET...
Way out here in the Arizona desert, this cowgirl had been waiting for someone to ride to her rescue. Wasn't too long ago the guys in the white hats looked to win the shootout at the OK Corral. Then they were ambushed. Ever since, daily scans of the horizon turned up nothing but coyotes.
Then out of nowhere, in a cloud of dust, rides the Lone Ranger: Senator Jim Jeffords! God bless you, sir. May you ride tall in the saddle and turn the right-wing stampede before it carries all of us over the cliff.