Wednesday, May 6, 2009

More Moore, Here and There: An Emphatically Localist Review Essay

More Moore, Here and There: An Emphatically Localist Review Essay

Jerry Cullum

Except on their computer screens, most folks don’t get to travel all that often. And until such time as totally immersive virtual reality finally arrives as an option, what is on the computer screen is not much more than what one would get in a video game or a movie. There is only a bit more sensory involvement than one would get in a book—or, depending on screen resolution versus print-photography dpi’s, perhaps less.

And in the case of artwork meant to be seen in a physical context rather than in mechanical reproduction, this makes a huge difference. Just as size matters, environing space matters.

So, even if sophisticates with travel budgets might sneer, it is a big deal when art so well known as to be a historical cliché arrives in a place that hasn’t gotten to experience it at first hand.

Hence the arrival of “Moore in America” at the Atlanta Botanical Garden constitutes more of a philosophically interesting event than an entertainment-calendar one. (It's a misleading title, but a productively misleading's not Moore who is or was in America, but these particular sculptures, in very particular American GPS locations.)

Everybody knows Henry Moore. For a while in the mid-twentieth century, it was impossible to open a magazine without seeing a Moore sculpture used as an illustration for some article on mothers and children, or the Great Family of Man, or archetypal psychology (Erich Neumann wrote a Jungian book titled The Archetypal World of Henry Moore), or whatever.

But Moore’s oeuvre ranged from intimate drawings to immense bronzes meant to be viewed in an outdoor context, and it matters very much what the context is. The big bronzes are usually viewed in alienating concrete plazas, suggesting the postwar existentialist situation of the isolated individual, or more accurately, the family group viewed as an autonomous unit.

But human beings live in a nature deeply modified by culture, and viewing Henry Moore in an environment of artificially landscaped nature makes his art a whole different animal.

So Moore for the botanical garden is an unexpectedly provocative notion. It’s also, of course, a very beautiful one, and it would be all too easy to stop at the sensory punch in the eye of spring and summer color juxtaposed with the smooth curves and subdued palette of Moore’s metallic shapes.

But the Atlanta Botanical Garden is one of those universalizing locales of cosmopolitan ecology that fit well philosophically with Moore’s mid-century universalism. Moore emphasizes the shared biological and psychological structures of humanity; the garden emphasizes common structures of botanical existence, and the nature of our physically threatened global ecosphere.

Differ me no Difference or Differance With an A (if anyone still thus defers these thirty years later). When it comes to the sinking ark of species diversity, we are all in the same boat, and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s call for a New Cosmopolitanism is to the point with nature as much as with culture. (Whether sustainability is sometimes used as a tool to threaten local livelihoods is a separate issue, and we won’t go there today.)

Of course, people don’t go to the garden to think about species diversity. They come to look at pretty red roses and green conifers and all the plant world in between them, and at bright blue poison frogs and gorgeous orchids in the protected spaces.

And on that level, “Moore in America” is an appropriately diversified visual knockout. Sculptures are framed against a generally blue sky, or nestled amid the tiny intimacies of an herb garden, a hortus conclusus if ever there was one.

Moore’s bronzes are a local treasure that can be lent by the British foundation that administers his legacy. The world’s plant life, unlike (or could it be like?) the world’s archaeological treasures, can be made more secure by spreading the wealth around.

“Moore in America” is a piece of global culture bumping up against global nature, and that makes it a delight for the mind as well as for the senses. And if we are only likely to think such thoughts in the privacy of our own laptop screens because the sensory immediacy of the smells and sounds and visual intricacies of life in the garden distracts us too much…well, that’s as it should be.

Come on, guys. (I address my critical contemporaries in Atlanta.) This is a show where your eyes and your brain can get back in touch with the rest of your body. And it matters very much that it is happening in real time and real sunlight and shadow, and in a specific place that encompasses physical possibilities gathered responsibly from other places.

So get out there and have fun, y’hear?

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