25 January, 2006

On Art

This was too long to post into a comment on a post about art over at Thinklings (the excellent brothers who fielded my comments on their site for 2 years while I was deciding that I had better get my own blog.)

The following quote is from about 90% of the way down this page. The original page contains some little pictures of the sculptures described in this excerpt.

Ben and Jubal are both "good guys" in the book, but Jubal is older, wiser, and more in touch with life. Jubal explains 3 of Rodin's masterpieces in a way that makes you want to understand them. I think Heinlein hit the truth square on the head here. If hearing these descriptions doesn't tug at your heart, then I don't know what to say. Art can tear me up, and this is why.

from Heinlein, Robert: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) Berkley Medallion Books
..."Please, Ben. ‘Statues’ are dead politicians. This is ‘sculpture.’ Please speak in a reverent tone lest I become violent. Here are replicas of some of the greatest sculpture this naughty globe has produced."

"Well, that hideous thing I’ve seen before...but when did you acquire the rest of this ballast?"

Jubal spoke to the replica La Belle Heaulmière. "Do not listen, ma petite chère—he is a barbarian and knows no better." He put his hand to her beautiful ravaged cheek, then gently touched one empty, shrunken dug. "I know how you feel...it can’t be much longer. Patience, my lovely."
He turned to Caxton and said briskly, "Ben, you will have to wait while I give you a lesson in how to look at sculpture. You’ve been rude to a lady. I don’t tolerate that.

...Attend me, Ben. Anybody can see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl she used to be. A great artist can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is ...and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be...more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo see that this lovely young girl is still alive, prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart...no matter what the merciless hours have done. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn’t matter to you and me—but it does to them. Look at her!"

Ben looked at her. Presently Jubal said gruffly, "All right, blow your nose. Come sit down."

"No," Caxton answered. "How about this one? I see it’s a girl. But why tie her up like a pretzel?"

Jubal looked at the replica "Caryatid Who Has Fallen under Her Stone." "I won’t expect you to appreciate the masses which make that figure much more than a ‘pretzel’—but you can appreciate what Rodin was saying. What do people get out of looking at a crucifix?"

"You know I don’t go to church."

"Still, you must know that representations of the Crucifixion are usually atrocious—and ones in churches are the worst...blood like catsup and that ex-carpenter portrayed as if He were a pansy...which He certainly was not. He was a hearty man, muscular and healthy. But a poor portrayal is as effective as a good one for most people. They don’t see defects; they see a symbol which inspires their deepest emotions; it recalls to them the Agony and Sacrifice of God."

"Jubal, I thought you weren’t a Christian?"

"Does that make me blind to human emotion? The crummiest plaster crucifix can evoke emotions in the human heart so strong that many have died for them. The artistry with which such a symbol is wrought is irrelevant. Here we have another emotional symbol—but wrought with exquisite artistry. Ben, for three thousand years architects designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures. At last Rodin pointed out that this was work too heavy for a girl. He didn’t say, ‘Look, you jerks, if you must do this, make it a brawny male figure.’ No, he showed it. This poor little caryatid has fallen under the load. She’s a good girl—look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, not blaming anyone, not even the gods...and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it.

"But she’s more than good art denouncing bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who ever shouldered a load too heavy. But not alone women—this symbol means every man and woman who ever sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage, Ben, and victory."


"Victory in defeat; there is none higher. She didn’t give up, Ben; she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. She’s a father working while cancer eats away his insides, to bring home one more pay check. She’s a twelve-year old trying to mother her brothers and sisters because Mama had to go to Heaven. She’s a switchboard operator sticking to her post while smoke chokes her and fire cuts off her escape. She’s all the unsung heroes who couldn’t make it but never quit. Salute as you pass and come see my Little Mermaid.

Ben took him literally; Jubal made no comment. "Now this," he said, "is one Mike didn’t give to me. I haven’t told Mike why I got it...since it is self-evident that it’s one of the most delightful compositions ever wrought by the eye and hand of man."

"This one I don’t need explained—it’s pretty!"

"Which is excuse enough, as with kittens and butterflies. But there is more. She’s not quite a mermaid—see?—nor is she human. She sits on land, where she has chosen to stay...and stares eternally out to sea, forever lonely for what she left. You know the story?"

"Hans Christian Andersen."

Yes. She sits by the haven of København—and she’s everybody who ever made a difficult choice. She doesn’t regret it but she must pay for it; every choice must be paid for. The cost is not only endless homesickness. She can never be quite human; when she uses her dearly bought feet, every step is on sharp knives..."

"...I feel as if I had had three quick drinks. Jubal, why isn’t this stuff where a person can see it?"

"Because the world has gone nutty and art always paints the spirit of its times. Rodin died about the time the world started flipping its lid. His successors noted the amazing things he had done with light and shadow and mass and composition and they copied that part. What they failed to see was that the master told stories that laid bare the human heart. They became contemptuous of painting or sculpture that told stories—they dubbed such work ‘literary.’ They went all out for abstractions."

Jubal shrugged. "Abstract design is all right—for wallpaper or linoleum. But art is the process of evoking pity and terror. What modern artists do is pseudo-intellectual masturbation. Creative art is intercourse, in which the artist renders emotional his audience. Those laddies who won’t deign to do that—or can’t—lost the public. The ordinary bloke will not buy ‘art’ that leaves him unmoved..." (pp. 306-309)

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