Thursday, November 13, 2008

a meditation in three parts, two


Why would it be worth it, as the preceding post asserts, to chase after a jigsaw puzzle of pieces of world art in which some whole segments of the board are still missing, so far as Atlanta is concerned? (And I deliberately put some segments out of play because of all the extraneous issues they raise in terms of my argument.)

I realize I read world art (“read” as well as “look at”) the way I read the New York Review of Books: taking each isolated segment as an illuminating example (perhaps what the medieval Schoolmen would have called an exemplum, but I really don’t have time to go search Wikipedia to see if I’m right). Put together in terms of their connections and their instructive contrasts, the pieces reveal things about the amazing unity in diversity of the human species.

But of course what is revealed sounds fatuous when you start to spell it out, and that in itself is instructive. You can see why theoreticians of every stripe start reaching for general laws, including the general law that cultures cannot be meaningfully compared with one another because each culture is an autonomous structure. Which is, taken in isolation, as fatuously in error as the assertion that all cultures operate by an identical set of easily defined laws. We are dealing with an enormous set of variables, but not an infinite one.

But when I, personally, run around looking at art, I’m not thinking too much about how the Freudians or the structuralists or the…oh, if I start naming names on all sides, it only leads into thickets of dispute I’d rather not enter at the moment.

Actually, I’m reacting against the failures of imagination of smalltown kids and very-big-city kids who grow up to be dead-certain smalltown and very-big-city grownups, respectively.

By those two categories, I mean people who accept the world into which they were born, lock stock and barrel (a fossilized metaphor that could come from shopkeeping as well as from firearms, which is why I like it and refuse to look up its history).

Growing up in a small town, you pretty much decided that how things are done around you is obviously the best way to do things, the most entertaining way to do things, the most down-to-earth practical way to do things, what have you. Growing up in a very big city, ditto. Only in the very, very big city you have huge, comprehensive museums that reinforce the view that the way your town sees it is the only possible way of seeing things, because, dammit, you obviously got one of just about everything right there in the museum, laid out in cases with labels on them.

And folks from small towns who want to learn would come to the museums and traipse through the halls, wishing they understood why all the stuff in the cases is the way it is.

And that is why museum-studies people have spent so much energy in recent decades trying to undermine that kind of impression about the godlike museum…even while recognizing that these days they have to compete with other forms of entertainment at the same time that they are trying to undercut the old idea that they ever presented the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth.

And when you break out of smalltown ways, you tend to do it one category at a time, or rather, you did before the digital age, when the field of perception expanded exponentially. I still remember how Fra Angelico in the Christmas issue of a magazine opened up a world that hadn’t been there before, as much as a Frank Lloyd Wright house did.

Traditional art education skips from the single-object revelation straight to the chronology and categorization of objects. (I resist the opportunity for clever, piquant examples.) And with enough determination, the most exquisite discoveries of the human eye and hand can be squeezed into the cramped categories of received ideas, although the best professionals still retain the sense of wonder felt by the rankest amateur. (And the absolute best communicate how it is possible to combine wonder with rigorous scholarship.)

And it’s rank amateurism for me to take delight in how divergent cultures, developing independently, take on the same sets of problems in different contexts, and solve them similarly and yet with utter difference. It’s more defensible to realize with surprise how much these supposedly autonomous cultures interpenetrate, so that Egyptian pharaohs can’t get their ritual objects made right unless somebody hauls lapis lazuli overland from Afghanistan. Which means in turn that it takes a lot of rule-making to keep the cultures at either end of the trade route from polluting one another with newfangled ideas as well as raw materials.

Because while cultures at large suffer from failures of imagination, the makers within them have always seen the possibilities in the new things they were seeing, and the realization that others saw them differently.

And yet so many discoveries are clearly indigenous to a culture: Even if vessel-makers create the same sinuous geometries to solve the problem of how to hold liquids attractively, strivers after forms of representation invent distinct visual conventions for translating into two dimensions the shape of a human finger or a lotus blossom. So it is delicious to look at lots of different ways of solving those problems, and to catch repetitions that seem as though they must have come about because there are only so many ways of solving that particular problem. And then to learn that many-thousand-mile-long trade routes existed in antiquity, objects and materials traveling overland and along coastlines until short enough distances of water permitted connections. There were long periods of time in which war and geography made connections impossible, and parts of the earth that never communicated with one another at all, but it is the uncertainty about the source of visual forms that makes their similarities and differences such a source of delight for a certain temperament.

And I suppose that temperament comes from growing up in a small town and knowing that there were lots and lots of things you just couldn’t get to and never would get to. Now the Internet makes an unprecedented number of them available everywhere on earth simultaneously, viewed live on webcam or reproduced actual size in segments over which your cursor can browse as the eye would in a market or museum.

But I realize that you aren’t responding to all this with the particular species of romanticized enthusiasm to which I seem to be prone as a onetime kid from Small Town South (Small Town South was the name of the notorious 1940s exposé of my home town by one of its native sons who went off to seek fame on the New York stage). Everyone has his or her own set of biographical circumstances, and those circumstances have enough parallels to allow the sociologists to drop us into categories.

But I still think it’s great that Atlanta, one of the cities that suffered so long from being one of the world’s latecomers and that still suffers from the anxious show of sophistication that characterizes the arriviste, for once offers an array of significant fragments that allows room for meaningful connections among the world’s artistic inheritances.

You could get a certain something even out of the random scraps of the Kress Collection and the dustily displayed bits of Egyptiana that were all that Atlanta had to offer once upon a time, but for once we have a range of diverse objects that renews one’s respect for the power and range of the human visual imagination. We have a rare chance to appreciate the immense number of ways in which the world’s artists seen their duty, and they done it. (I ought to do a Wikipedia search for the origin of that now seldom-cited idiolect, but I won’t. I think it may date back no further than Walt Kelly’s classic comic strip Pogo, making it as time-bound as the catchphrases originating in the shows of Comedy Central.)

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