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Is the best art always beautiful, or does ugliness itself have a place in it? It art best when it’s purely for the sake of art itself, or is morality a component of great art? Here’s an excerpt from an essay by the critic Timothy Cahill, a man deeply interested in these questions:
I don’t swoon in front of every Impressionist painting on the wall. But I knew that the aesthetic intention of “Is It Art?” was to make me feel shitty, and I was not so suspicious of my instincts as to welcome its hermeneutical defoliation. What self-respecting person suffers a churl, or worse, a roomful of them? Weighing the question of aesthetics, immediately, almost instinctively, it was clear to me that as an ideal Beauty is not simply a matter of pleasure, delight, awe—it has a moral component as well. I could not at the time have defended this impulse, but it was self-evident that to live in contact with beauty is immeasurably healthier to the spirit than living amidst ugliness, whether that ugliness be the blight of an urban slum, the brutal classlessness of a communist tract, or the drab uniformity of a suburban subdivision. Those forces that deny great swaths of the population access to the sensual and spiritual influence of beauty—whether out of indifference, bigotry, ideology, or greed—commit a kind of mass soul murder. When artists, our chief orators of beauty, deny its importance as well, they make themselves complicit in the violence.
—The excerpt is from Timothy Cahill’s blog, Art & Document
Pictured above are four Parisians who found a way to escape the sweltering heat of the city. Well, at least two of party have found a way to keep cool. These four are rather like a certain quartet of musicians who had a picnic in 1510; the women were bare naked but the men were smothered in velvet. All that’s further down this page. Now pay attention to the painting above. The woman in the background clearly enjoys wading in the stream and isn’t concerned that her chemise — what exactly is she wearing? — gets soaked. And the bold young woman in the foreground has tossed aside convention and all her clothes. You’re cool or you’re not, right?
But the men! Look at them — suffocating in tight collars, heavy jackets, cravats, hats, shoes and, though you can’t make it out in this small image, the one on the right is even wearing a vest. These guys haven’t got a clue.
It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on here. The scene was painted by Edouard Manet around 1862-1863. He named the painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) and, in fact, along side the discarded clothing there’s a basket of fruit and a round loaf of bread. But no one is eating. And whatever the guy on the right is saying it’s clear that he’s lost the attention of his naked lunch date. She’s more interested in us. And, you know, we’re more interested in her.
Manet wasn’t having any luck getting his paintings shown when he captured this interesting picnic. His work was rejected year after year by the gate-keepers of the government-sponsored show at the Palais des Champs-Elysees. That exhibit, or Salon, was visited by thousands of Parisians and it was virtually impossible for a painter to make a living if he didn’t succeed there. The jurors were generally conservatives and Manet was one of several artists whose work was rejected by the Salon. In 1863 so many paintings were turned down that the government, giving in to the artists’ bitter complaints, sponsored an alternative exhibit for the rejected paintings, the famous Salon des Refuses. That’s where Manet exhibited this painting.
Manet’s scene was inspired in part by Giorgione’s painting of a similar quartet 1510. We have an image of that painting further down this page. We’re not suggesting you try this at your local picnic grounds or National Park. We’re not stupid. We know there must be better places. You’re cool or you’re not, right?
The heat and humidity afflicting most of the United States has been a problem for other people in other places too. Pictured above is a scene painted by Giorgione in Italy around 1510. We don’t know how Giorgione came across this interesting quartet who had found such a simple way to keep cool on a hot day. In mid summer there’s nothing like the peace and quiet of the countryside, especially if there’s a well of cool water and a glass pitcher close by. So you bring along your guitar or lute, and a recorder or flute of some sort, and play a few tunes. And you stay cool.
Or at least some do. There’s no way of telling what those two women were wearing when they left home that morning, but clearly they’ve discarded a lot of clothing. There’s no better way to keep cool than by slipping out of your clothes. So you have to feel sorry for those men — the fellow on the left must be roasting under all that heavy red velvet, and the guy on the right, the one with the 1968 head of hair, he’s not much better off either. But the women look cool. OK, so maybe they ate too much pasta the past few years, but they do look cool. Heavy, but cool.
The painting has had different names – Country Fiesta, is one — but if you call it Giorgione’s Pastoral Concert, that will be fine. Giorgione’s full name is Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco; he was a Venetian and one of his students was Titian. In fact, the Louvre, where this painting hangs, believes that Titian painted it, or, at least, finished what Giorgione had started to paint shortly before his death. Only about a half dozen of Giorgione’s paintings survive, and many, like this one, have a suggestive, enigmatic quality about them.
We posted the picture below the day after the summer solstice. It’s a water color etching by William Blake called Ancient of Days. Ancient of Days is another name for God and here Blake has portrayed him as the architect of the universe. The phrase and what it calls to mind has inspired artists for generations. Blake may have had in mind these words from the Book of Daniel: I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of Days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.
Some religious debates end up in slaughter, others create schisms, and there are some which merely entertain. The debate over what fruit grew on the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden hasn’t resulted in any serious factionalism or bloodshed, and that’s the one we’re going to illustrate here. Now, as you surely recall, after God created Adam and put him in the garden of Eden “to dress it and keep it” the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
Nowhere in the story of Adam and Eve does it say what fruit grew on the tee of knowledge. Some Talmudic scholars have said the fruit was a grape and, indeed, there’s a Slavonic tradition, perhaps inherited from Jewish epigraphical texts, that says it was a grape. Other commentators have declared it was a fig, since the fig tree is the only other tree mentioned by name as growing in the garden. The fruit isn’t specified, but if you want to portray the fall of man in a painting, you have to decide what fruit to show.
Depictions of Adam and Eve in Christian tradition began ages ago in illuminated manuscripts, wall paintings and carvings. Our richest trove of images, and certainly those most familiar to us, come from painters who flourished during the Renaissance. Perhaps the best known depiction of Adam and Eve receiving the fruit from the serpent is Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel. The full painting occupies a panel of the gorgeous chapel ceiling; the tree of knowledge divides the panel into two parts: on the left we see Adam and Eve receiving the fruit, on the right we see them being driven from the Garden.
Above is the left side of Michelangelo’s painting. The figs themselves may not be clear to the casual viewer, but the leaves of the tree are unmistakably fig leaves. Another interesting feature is the sex of the serpent. Eve has stretched her hand upward toward the serpent who has leaned down, revealing her breast. And, in passing, we should note that for centuries figs have symbolized, or suggested, female genitalia. Well, maybe not for you, but for generations of people in the fig-growing lands around the Mediterranean.
For contemporary Christians, the fruit that grew on the tree of knowledge of good and evil was an apple. Below is small part of a larger painting by Lucas Cranach, the Elder, of the tree of knowledge. Clearly those are apples. The snake is not only female, but a rather pretty and engaging woman.
It’s safe to say that the tradition of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden apple arises when the Bible is translated into Latin. In Latin the word malum means apple and it also means evil. This kind of wordplay, which can become elaborate, occurs among scholars – yes, even among Biblical scholars. As for that deadly apple, it stuck a while in Adam’s throat as he ate it, leaving it’s mark on males ever since – the Adam’s apple.
Oh, wait, one more thing! That same apple with a bite taken out of it has been so sanitized that it no longer is associated with evil and death, but now symbolizes pure knowledge. Indeed, the name of the tree is casually referred to as the tree of knowledge – of good and evil has been dropped. Thus we have the ubiquitous logo of Apple, Inc. the computer company. The original Apple logo depicted Isaac Newton under an apple tree and had nothing at all to do with the garden of Eden. In late 1976, Apple introduced the rainbow apple with a bite taken out of it. (OK, class. Can you think of story in Genesis that has a rainbow in it? Yes? And what did the rainbow symbolize?) Since 1998 the company has used the bitten apple in monochrome.