GLOUCESTER: O, let me kiss that hand!
LEAR: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.
Shakespeare, King Lear IV:vi
Shakespeare, King Lear IV:vi
The desire to capture images is an effect of mortality. It is only necessary to capture what is fleeting; fleeting because it will decompose, or because we cannot stay forever immersed in an image of beauty and so feel the need to take it with us, or because we will decompose and we want something of our understanding of the world to remain behind. Eden before the fall held the possiblility of perpetual perfection, with such an abundance of beauty that there was no need to attempt to capture it.
Apparently Michelangelo said that "the true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection." It is difficult not to see every work of art as a work of failure, the chasing of the unattainable. Art cannot capture its subject. Neither can it capture the artist. Both are too complex to be captured. Michelangelo again: "Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish." Or consider Woody Allen, "I'm never happy with my films when I finish them. Just about always. And in the case of Manhattan I was so disappointed that I didn't want to open it" (Bjorkman 1993 116). Art gains its power because it works with human failings. The early Impressionists were controversial because they recognised that reality was beyond capture and so they allowed the signs of their handiwork to show through; short brush strokes and unmixed colour. Could I say they admitted their own mortality and their place as exiles from Eden? In doing so they ushered in Modernism. Art can penetrate its audience because it is the attempt of a human to understand and capture what is beyond knowledge. Art is heroic and absurd because it vainly challenges futility.
The execution of an artwork is dependent upon tension. Painting as a fundamental medium in visual art relies upon tension, using a liquid to capture a solid image and capturing what is three dimensional in two dimensions. Rather than capturing the object itself, the artist makes the object unfamiliar encouraging the viewer to reconsider his or her perception of the object, seeing it from a symbolic or conceptual perspective. These tenets of painting are established on a struggle which is fraught with difficulty, dissapointment and the possibility of failure.
"When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves." (Genesis 3:6,7)
The first human work of art was fashion. Futile, yet endeering and poignant that the first two humans would make crude costumes to hide from each other and from God. And this is where sin becomes a struggle: how does one explain its beauty, how moving it is to see someone suffer, and how stoic a man looks when he is dogged by sin?
Perhaps God is often referred to as the Creator because he has given art some of his own redemptive power; the power to create beauty out of severe suffering, the power to create balance from conflict, and to give meaning to what is futile and absurd.
The artworks used in this post are a detail of Grunewald's 'Crucifixion', Blake's 'The Ancient of Days (God as an Architect),' Massaccio's 'Exile from the Garden of Eden' and Hirst's 'For the Love of God.'