Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Right Arm of Madame X

Geesh - it's been a while! I apologize, in case you were actually waiting for a post; I was away on business for my actual job, in Minneapolis, where the snow was. And just generally crushed under work.

Down to business. Last night at Spring Street Studios, I ran into a little bit of synchronicity. Maya, the model (from Uzbekhistan!), struck a pose where her left arm was positioned very similarly to that of Virginie Gautreau's right arm in John Singer Sargent's Madame X (which, incidentally, is at the Met, if you want to go there and look at it yourself). Here's Maya's arm - my apologies for crudity, it was a 5-minute pose:

And here's the Sargent painting:

Striking, que non? It was very exciting to see. But why was this so synchronous? Well, because I had been thinking about the Sargent painting anyway, owing to having stumbled across this post at Claudia's excellent blog, Museworthy (it's in the blog roll on the right here).

The key part that I was thinking about was this (and it's supported with biographical details in the full post):
I just can’t get past the nagging sense that Madame X is a study in vanity – a portrait of a haughty, pretentious, and, to some degree, fraudulent woman whose mission in life was to marry well, move in prestigious circles, attend parties, and pose for the prominent artists of the time. YAWN. Give me Dora Maar. Or one of Toulouse Lautrec’s can-can girls. Or Van Gogh’s prostitutes. Or ANY person besides this narcissistic social climber.
I found this troubling, and it took me a while to locate the concept that I was intuitively applying to it. But before I get to that, I'd like to address Claudia directly, in case she happens to read this: Claudia, I disagree with you on this point, but I love your blog and respect your analysis and opinions.

The concept I was searching for was "negative capability." This concept apparently originates with John Keats, who says:
I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
Now, as in the case of pataphysics, I have an idiosyncratic use of this concept, which originates with the friend who first introduced me to it, and whom my current research reveals to have totally not known what he was talking about - but his misinterpretation made the concept more useful.

First of all, he thought it was Ezra Pound who cooked it up. And he thought it meant, or at least described it to mean, "The capability of the person partaking of a work of art to suspend ordinary ethical judgments in contemplation of the characters, actions, and ideas depicted therein." This is captured more simply in the title of a book about David Cronenberg shooting Naked Lunch: Everything is Permitted (apparently an old phrase from the assassins, now that I google it).

I think this second version of the concept of negative capability is tremendously important in interacting with art. There is one school of thought that says that art influences what you think and do, so art ought to depict and promote goodness. And I credit this school of thought with validity. It leads to an art of virtue, a scrubbed-clean art that expresses what is neutral or good.

There is a second school of thought, which I personally subscribe to, which says that art is not the same as thinking and doing in real life. In art, phenomena may occur which one can think and do in real life, and which one ought not to think and do in real life. One ought not to be an Iago or a Stavrogin.

Within this second school of thought, it is fine and good to condemn an Iago or a Stavrogin if you meet him on the street. But when you encounter an Iago or a Stavrogin in a piece of art, you must exert negative capability: you must set aside your ordinary revulsion and examine what you see with zero moral bias.

Why? Because Iago and Stavrogin are as surely a part of the condition of being as are Joan of Arc and Konstantin Levin. We are enjoined as participants in the world to do good only; but we are required as free agents to know good and evil alike. And if we do not enact evil, then we must learn it by self-examination and by examination of the works of insightful men and women - the artists, the philosophers, and the priests. If we do not know about evil also, then we are incomplete souls; crippled.

It is insufficient to say, "I do not have evil in me." Primarily because it is not true. On this point, I side more with Christ than Socrates; we all have evil in us. We will be blind-sided by our evil impulses if we do not train ourselves in the knowledge of evil.

But, argue you, to behold evil is to absorb it - it is to let the devil through the door.

This is true. You cannot look at an Iago or a Stavrogin, you cannot really see him, without becoming cognizant of evil in yourself. To look deeply at any phenomenon with moral content is an act not of seeing, but of recognizing.

That evil has just now entered, as you beheld it, is an illusion. Evil is already in the house; Iago and Stavrogin merely let you name it and count its legs. Innocence, it is true, that state of childhood, has no cognizance of evil. But likewise it has no cognizance of good. Without the option of evil, no good choice has moral content. To take up the burden of knowledge of evil is part of the task of becoming mature, of becoming a human adult. And it is at the feet of the masters, of the Shakespeares and the Dostoyevskys, that we become adults - become free, and becoming free, gain the ability to choose to do good.

So this, for me, is why negative capability (the Ezra Pound version) is so important in interacting with art.

This is also why I disagree with Claudia about Madame X. Claudia's analysis is absolutely correct. This painting is a portrait of vanity. And it is particularly repellent because Sargent himself does not display negative capability in his work. He does not take the detached and benevolent approach that says, "This is what this is; this is human too." No, he supports and indulges the vanity, he makes the image reflect the vain self-delusion of the subject.

I have always kind of assumed that Sargent had a big crush on Gautreau (I have also assumed, without bothering to read a single biographical thing about him, that he was a homosexual who preferred to hang out with women and straight men). So I think that he thought Gautreau was a dazzling marvelous creature, and he wanted to pay tribute to her fabulousness with this troubling and wonderful painting.

Fortunately for us, Sargent the artist gets the better of Sargent the man. Or, we might say, the human condition cannot be concealed. We do not entirely buy into the ambition of the painting. We see, as Claudia sees, that it is the outcome of a complicity between a vain woman and a smitten man. And this too increases our wisdom about vice and weakness, and enriches our understanding of the range of human nature. In real life, these vices are cruel, banal and destructive. Transmogrified into an artistic image, they blaze with life and light - they are redeemed.

This is important. I believe that there is nothing in the soul that can be called, in itself, evil and ugly. Evil and ugliness creep in when we decide what to do with the material from which we are made. The finest of wicked men make their will to evil into art, and the art saves them from their monstrosity. The rest of them hide their will to evil, and it poisons them. And the worst of them give their will to evil free rein, and they become evil in fact, and not just in inclination.

But Sargent is small change on the scale of corruption. Sargent, a gentle and upright man, doesn't really know about sin. I can think of a painter who is much more troubling - who really puts our negative capability to the test. My friends, if you don't already know him, allow me to introduce you to Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, called Balthus:

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