Perfection: nowhere to go but down

March 19, 2010

In the Preface to Part II of The Lives of the Artists, Vasari presents his theory on the history of western art, an idea that we take for granted today, that the Italians of the 13th century (Cimabue and Giotto) revived the arts that were decrepit and moribund.  He says that they were reborn, a renaissance, and from that point onward to his own day, they continually improved until they reached a peak of accomplishment with the painting, sculpture, and architecture of Michelangelo and his contemporaries.  Today, we call that the High Renaissance.  But…then what?

…and I may safely declare that its art has achieved everything which could possibly be permitted to an imitator of Nature, and that this period has risen so high that there is more reason to fear its decline than to expect further advances.

Nowhere to go but down.  Decline-ism!  The decadence.  The inevitable decay from the classic ideal…

This idea is so deeply ingrained in our thinking, and it fascinates me, but I don’t agree with it.  Perhaps in Vasari’s day it was a new twist on an old  notion, in that he felt the peak had been reached in his own day.  The Greeks had gone on about The Golden Age, sometime long before what we see as the classical apogee of ancient civilization, and felt that they were living in an age of iron.  That the best times, the most beautiful times are long behind us is such a common idea – when I was a kid, things were better…Nowadays, everything is going to the dogs!…People didn’t used to do that sort of thing… – but it is often little more than nostalgia and wishful thinking.  The Golden Age is one of the more serious historicist myths of The Fall:  we were good once, but since then, we have decayed.  With Vasari, it is more of an anxiety.

See how linear his thinking is too!  Picture a graph like this one, with time moving to the right, and artistic accomplishment going up and down.  One line, we move in one direction through time, in one place.  But what if instead of two dimensions, we had three or four, or N?  A peak in one sort of perfection at one time and place is not necessarily superior to a peak somewhere else, in some other context, of some other type.  Of course, Vasari didn’t think that way for a variety of reasons.

The idea of this “natural” cycle in the arts – birth, growth, maturity, decay, death,  and re-birth with luck, is obviously born of the universal experience of life and death that people have.  It’s useful to a point, but the problem is identifying just what’s the peak, and what’s the trough, and doing so in a way that is somewhat objective.  There is also the problem of scale, or temporal parochialism.  Some people, taking a very long view, might see western art as still developing towards some very arcane, ideal state that appeals to them.  Modernists at the turn of the 20th century did not so much worship the past golden age of the Renaissance as feel oppressed and exhausted by it.  Duchamp declared the end of retinal art.  In a way, they confirmed Vasari:  the Renaissance had gone as far as one could go in imitating Nature, so they stopped trying to do that!

The anxiety of being at the peak is common in geopolitical talk as well.  Decline-ism, defeatism. The Decline of the West by Spengler, and Kennedy’s much touted The Rise and Fall of Great Powers come to mind.  In Spengler’s case, it was metaphysical dry rot; in Kennedy, it is the relative decline of one power and the relative rise of another that matters.  Are we on our way up or on our way down?  The funny thing is we don’t know.  In the Middle Ages, everyone knew which way they were headed!  How’s that for progress!

I think this image brings it all together nicely:  modern circus fare in the form of Vanna White, hostess of the TV show, Wheel of Fortune; decadent art brought to you in the form of nudes by Sir Edward Burne-Jones; and High Renaissance art, nudes in the manner of Michelangelo.

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Giotto’s ‘O’: The beauty of perfect forms

March 16, 2010

In my last post, I went on about Pythagoras, Number, Nature, etc. etc.  Now, by way of a humorous follow-up, here’s a story from Vasari’s Life of Giotto:

It is no wonder therefore that Pope Benedict sent one of his courtiers into Tuscany to see what sort of a man he was and what his works were like, for the Pope was planning to have some paintings made in S Peter’s. This courtier, on his way to see Giotto and to find out what other masters of painting and mosaic there were in Florence, spoke with many masters in Sienna, and then, having received some drawings from them, he came to Florence. And one morning going into the workshop of Giotto, who was at his labours, he showed him the mind of the Pope, and at last asked him to give him a little drawing to send to his Holiness.  Giotto, who was a man of courteous manners, immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it Having done it, he turned smiling to the courtier and said, “Here is the drawing.” But he, thinking he was being laughed at, asked, “Am I to have no other drawing than this?” “This is enough and too much,” replied Giotto, “send it with the others and see if it will be understood.”

The messenger, seeing that he could get nothing else, departed ill pleased, not doubting that he had been made a fool of. However, sending the other drawings to the Pope with the names of those who had made them, he sent also Giotto’s, relating how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without compasses, which when the Pope and many of his courtiers understood, they saw that Giotto must surpass greatly all the other painters of his time. This thing being told, there arose from it a proverb which is still used about men of coarse clay, “You are rounder than the O of Giotto,” which proverb is not only good because of the occasion from which it sprang, but also still more for its significance, which consists in its ambiguity, tondo, “round,” meaning in Tuscany not only a perfect circle, but also slowness and heaviness of mind.

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