Thursday, June 21, 2012

Art Is A Three Letter Word

"I took a deep breath and slid the handle down over the end again and worked the blade loose from the table.  A curious knife, with design and purpose in it, and neither of them agreeable."-- The Little Sister, Raymond Chandler, 1949

Recently, I began re-reading Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister.  The novel is one of several about a perpetually 38 year old private investigator named Philip Marlowe.  Mr Chandler served in World War I and became the director of a number of independent oil companies based in southern California.  Along came The Great Depression and the end of a career in the petroleum business for Mr Chandler.  He turned to writing lurid tales for the pulps and critically acclaimed books...

Paleolithic men decorated the walls of Lascaux Cave in south-
western France with hundreds of images over 20,000 years ago.
Some scholars believe the paintings were a part of magic rituals
meant to insure a successful hunt.  Others argue these ancient
artists simply recorded what they saw in the world around them.
Chandler's book "got me to thinkin" (as they say here in West Texas) about beauty and why something is beautiful and why something is not. Philip Marlowe moves through a morally ambiguous world peopled with crooked cops and raving-mad heiresses who pose for pornographic pictures and then kill bootlegger boyfriends... 

But Marlowe never fails to notice beauty, deadly or not.  The Little Sister ends with the former policeman staring at the body of Miss Dolores Gonzales.  A knife protrudes from her chest.  It is silver, exquisitely crafted.  The knife's handle is the skillfully done and fully nude representation of a most beautiful woman...

Beauty, in the case of The Little Sister,
was a deadly dagger wielded by a
disgraced doctor married to a woman
who dallied with gangsters.
Art and Beauty, the Sage of the well-known village Cliché informs us, are both in the eye of the beholder...

There is unintentional wisdom in this truism which suggests a viewer and something to be viewed.  Martin Buber, a philosopher of profound insight, would say there is an I - It relationship between me and the canvas or sculpture I call art.  Buber was not primarily concerned with aesthetics.  He wrestled with the way humans interact with God.  To him, God is ever-present in our consciousness and manifests Himself or Herself through our culture-- art, music, literature, and so forth...

It is one thing to say there is a thing called Art that can be appreciated by my eye or which is a trace of the Divine.  But defining what it is?  Ah, another thing entirely.  Lady Luck seems to want to help us because the dictionary (Merriam Webster's Collegiate, Tenth Edition) tells us "art" involves the conscious use of skill and creative imagination in the production of aesthetic objects...

Aesthetics, we learn when we flip pages in MWC, 10 ed., has to do with the nature of beauty and how our mind (by way of our senses) defines whether or not something is attractive.  Great thinkers have wrestled with "beauty" for many centuries.  Plato theorized beautiful objects incorporated proper proportions, harmony, and unity in their parts.  His pupil Aristotle echoed him to a certain extent: order, symmetry, and being clearly defined were qualities he considered essential...

Ancient Greeks decorated everyday objects such as
amphoras with scenes taken from their rich religious
history.  Here, Zeus prepares to wield his deadly

Greek art from the Classical (and Hellenistic) Period catches the viewer's eye and refuses to let go.  Its makers adorn gems and coins with striking, realistic portraits and figure studies.  Cups and vases celebrate fantastic stories of gods and heroes like Theseus battling the minotaur.  Perhaps most striking are sculptures of the same gods, heroes, and ordinary men:  almost perfect examples of youthful and mature physical perfection.  Yet the faces of these statues hint at pensiveness-- the contemplation of deeper realities of soul, life, and creation...

But, then again, the Greeks themselves were like that... 

They recognized man's basic nature incorporated the cool rational thought of Apollo and the madness of Dionysus...

The Artemisium Zeus, dating to around the 4th
century BCE, depicts the King of Gods and Men
as a virile, perfectly proportioned mature male.
Their gods were one big happy dysfunctional family, each terribly protective of their sphere of influence and suspicious of the fidelity of their mates.  Zeus (like Egypt's Osiris) married his sister Hera.  He had a wandering eye, begetting Perseus by one mortal woman, Hercules by another, dozens more by other the attractive daughters of kings and farmers...

Perhaps this lack of attention from her spouse encouraged Hera to participate in a contest with ultimately disastrous results for the town of Troy.  Zeus had hosted a banquet honoring the marriage of Peleus, a mortal man, and Thetis, an immortal sea goddess.  Weddings being the frenzied affairs that they are, someone forgot to invite Eris to the festivities.  This was a mistake since Eris was the goddess of discord and trouble.  She attended the wedding anyway, tossing a golden apple at the revelers.  It had an engraved inscription: For the fairest one...

Naturally, there were three fairest of all present-- each a goddess of major importance.  Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed the apple was meant for them.  Zeus wisely declined their request to decide who was loveliest lady in the room... 

French illustrator Georges Barbier places the
Judgement of Paris in a contemporary setting
as the young prince chooses the loveliest of
models at a fashion show in this 1915 Art Deco

It was in Zeus' interest to do so.  One woman was his wife and the other two were daughters (depending on which myth about Aphrodite's birth one choses to believe) who both knew they were Daddy's favorite child.  Zeus remembered a recent bull-judging contest in which a Trojan prince named Paris had decided wisely and with considerable courage against the God of War.  He suggested his divinely lovely trio ask Paris to give the golden apple to the loveliest...

Poor Paris had been set up for disaster.  Zeus undoubtedly thought he was doing the lad a favor.  The three most beautiful females in the universe suddenly appear before you stark naked.  "Take your time.  Study our bare selves", they say, "then tell one of us she's a teeny-weenie smidgen prettier than the other two."  Such a wonderful deal would probably cause friction even if the three ladies were mortal.  Give each woman an almost limitless power to create misery for a guy who even dares to think another gal looks better naked...  

For a very long time, the Greeks ignored the nakedness of woman in their art.  Male nudity did not suffer the same fate-- Zeus, father of gods and men, is shown bearded and naked as he prepares to hurl his thunderbolt.  Hermes, the messenger of Mount Olympus, stands idly skyclad as the infant Dionysus demands affection.  Apollo gladly and rather proudly advertises why he was considered the incarnation of masculine virility...

The courtesan Phryne defends herself against the
charge that she falsely claimed to be as beautiful
as Aphrodite in Albert Wein's 1949 sculpture.

This inattention to woman ended with Praxiteles who lived in the 4th century BCE.  He was the first, a large number of scholars say, to sculpt the nude female form into a life-size sculpture.  Praxiteles' model for the statue was a courtesan named Phryne who was once accused of blasphemy after she stepped naked into the sea at the festival of Poseidon at the town of Eleusis.  The painter Apelles was so awe-struck that he commemorated the moment in a painting he called "Aphrodite Rising From The Sea"...

Bernini's Rape of Proserpina tells the story
of Persephone (known to the Romans as
Proserpina).  Her abduction by the god of the
underworld became the basis of an ancient
cult centering on the Mystery of death and
resurrection in nature.
His (and her) political enemies seized the moment and charged her with making false claims of divinity.  Much evidence was entered against her and but little to support the extremely wealthy courtesan.  A guilty verdict seemed assured.  The story goes, as the judges deliberated, Phryne stood and wordlessly loosened her robe.  She stood naked and there were none among her accusers who could deny that Aphrodite herself had chosen to incarnate herself into mortal form...

[The historian Polybius later wrote Aphrodite became quite angry when she first saw the sculpture of Phryne, furiously demanding to know when Praxiteles had the good fortune to see the most beautiful of goddesses naked.]     

Medieval men celebrated the majesty and beauty of
Creation with hewn stone cathedrals, such as the one
at Chartres, where the sacred geometry of God's
creation dwarfs mortal worshippers.
Medieval men studied the classical thinkers but did not share ancient Greece's urge to celebrate life through human eyes and contemplate its meaning from that standpoint.  Their focus was rebuilding lasting political and social order after the collapse of Rome so the world would be ready for the return of Christ and his eternal kingdom.  True, Saint Bonaventure did retrace Art to Theology, seeing an artisan's skills as a gift given him by God so God may be known to mankind.  And Thomas Aquinas' restless mind demanded more of beauty than merely being evidence of the Divine... 

For this scholarly saint, Umberto Eco has noted, beauty required measure, nature, and order.  Measure meant the artist used proper materials for his work.  Nature demanded proper forms be used.  Order had to do with a fitting inclination in the artist and morally correct purpose for his work...

Renaissance artists such as
Masolino used Biblical tales
such as the story of Adam and
Eve to explore human forms
in a context acceptable to
powerful religious leaders.
This 1425 work graces the
Brancacci Chapel of Florence.
But, by and large, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, patron of the Knights Templar, seems to have summarized Middle Ages' thinking about beauty.  He saw it as a double-edged sword akin to Adam's wife.  Could there be a thing lovelier than Eve fashioned by the very hand of God?  And what could be deadlier than beauty which leads Man to eat fruits of forbidden knowledge?  It's best a spiritual man avoid thinking about temptation and its handmaidens lest his soul stray down the wrong path.  And the best way to do what was best was to celebrate and honor the glory of God...

The Greek love of symmetry and order came from observations of nature.  Every man, animal, or plant has two roughly identical halves... a right eye is balanced by a left eye, a tree's branches vary somewhat in shape and number from one side to another but on the whole they spring from the trunk in basically equal fashion.  (Monsters such as the Cyclops were not balanced but there were heroes available to do them in and restore order.)  Greek thinkers vigorously studied the natural world to learn the natural order of things so men could live in harmony with creation...

Chaim Soutine's Chartres Cathedral
shows a place where the rigid stone
structure becomes a fluid interface
with the supernatural.

Medieval men saw the same order and symmetry in creation.  But their concerns were different than Greek concerns.  For the ancient Greeks, the underworld was a vaguely defined place.  Not so in the new Christian world: an eternal Heaven or Hell awaited the soul which had to find salvation in a creation corrupted by man's disobedience to God.  Children of the Church acknowledged beauty and order of the universe with great stone cathedrals meant to last centuries.  Statues in these massive structures did not celebrate the folly of Lascivious Man or Vain Woman: they commemorated the piety of Prophet and Martyr instead...

[In the odd ways of history, classical religion helped pave the way for the Church.  Late Greek spirituality revolved heavily around the Mysteries of Orpheus and Eleusis which touch on the theme of Beauty Lost-- the musician who travels to Hades to reclaim his lovely Eurydice and loses her again, the beautiful Persephone who is snatched from the world of light and joy to become Queen of the Underworld.  These and similar cults grappled with the questions of death, resurrection, and the fate of the soul.  They were widespread throughout the Roman Empire.  The story of Jesus' victory over the grave touched a chord in a tailor-made audience waiting to hear it throughout the non-Jewish world of Europe and the Near East.]  
Mystery, beauty, and danger intertwine in Noir genre work like
Moonlight Invitation.  These long-linked themes are likely to
continue to inspire artists as long as there are artists to ponder
mystery, beauty, and danger.

We ordinary mortals sometimes speculate about which historical figures we would like to meet.  Some of us think conversation with Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton would be enlightening.  I suspect, given the opportunity to speak to souls of previous times, our medieval churchmen would be like many people I know and leap at a chance to speak with Jesus or Moses or Isaiah.  Me?  I think I should prefer a chat with Phryne over wine and bread at a quiet sidewalk cafe in Paris on a lovely April day...

But, should three goddesses fair suddenly appear naked before me and demand that I choose the fairest of all, I think I would take a knife and cut the Golden Apple they give me in three identical portions and beg for mercy, crying out the task cannot be done by a mere man since each of them becomes a thousand times lovelier with each passing second...

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the basis of
another Greek Mystery religion, has been told in
dance, film, sculpture, and painting.  Choreographer
Sarah Ruhl's ballet, Eurydice, is but one retelling.


The fate of the dune lizard rests in the hands of companies whose profits are enhanced by drilling for oil and gas in its habitat.


Artwork by Louis R Nugent now available:  For fine art prints and greeting cards, visit:

Featured this week: Vintage Nude In An Even More Vintage Building

Fine Arts America now features West Texas painting, drawings, and photographs by Karen Slagle of Amarillo, Texas,  Linda Cox of Graham, Texas, Suzanne Girard Theis of Houston, Texas, Judi Bagwell of Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, Karen Boudreaux of Houston, Texas, Joe JAKE Pratt of Kerrville, Texas, David Pike of Lubbock, Texas, Ken Brown Pioneer of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, and Louis R Nugent of San Angelo, Texas at:


Note: All photographs and other images for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: Phryne Before The Judges by Albert Wein from; Interior of Chartres Cathedral from; Chartres Cathedral by Chaim Soutine from; Zeus on Greek Amphora from; the Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini from; Chris Smith and Rachel Story as Orpheus and Eurydice from Sarah Ruhl's ballet Eurydice from; Ballantine Books 1971 edition cover art for Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister by Tom Adams; Moonlight Invitation by Louis R Nugent from

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