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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Wilde and Wilder: Art, Life, and Beautiful Lies


Have you ever looked at a painting – Crossing the Pasture (1872) by Winslow Homer, for instance – and wondered what might have come first, the picture or the pasture? Probably not, but its still a matter of first causes: does life imitate art, or is it the other way around?

Street mimes, Riva degli Schiavoni,
Venice
Auguste Rodin, Adam
Anti-mimesis, or the idea that life imitates art, turns out to be a rather protean concept – the phrase is bandied about unendingly.  For example, parallels between the lives of Hollywood actors and their movie roles – a convicted criminal like Tony Sirico (“The Sopranos”) playing a mafia capo, or an island recluse (Marlon Brando was in seclusion on Tahiti in the 1960s) playing an island recluse (Brando in “The Island of Dr. Moreau”) – are typically dubbed life imitating art.  Yet to me, this is more about directors hiring the best-suited performers. The late Michael DeBakey would’ve been brilliant on film as a big-headed heart surgeon, or pioneer frontal lobotomist, Walter Freeman, as a big-hearted head surgeon. Ronald Reagan could’ve played a US president.

So what actually is anti-mimesis? For starters, it’s the obverse of mimesis, the idea that art imitates life. An example (of anti-mimesis) is the sort of whimsical mimicry seen in the photo of two women striking a pose with Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, Adam.  Akin to such shenanigans, though perhaps less whimsical (because it’s a form of employment), is street miming where costumed adepts pretend to be statues, clowns, or what-have-you. Why we find this amusing or appealing is a question we’ll take up in a bit.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Barrio 
Chino, Barcelona (1933)

Study in Frizzy
Then there’s anti-mimesis of a less premeditated nature, as when the photographer chances upon life juxtaposed with its art avatar – art imitating life imitating art, if you like. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Barrio Chino, Barcelona (1933) is an example. So is the photo of a frizzy-haired man in a museum seated before frizzy-faced paintings. While the study in frizzy is plausibly a chance event, you have to wonder about the Bresson.  Critics questioned whether Bresson might have stage-managed some of his photos – this one, for example – though he stoutly denied it. 


Georges Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on 
the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886)
Another  dimension of the photographic are pictures that evoke works of art. The photo of a park scene, for example, is conspicuously similar to Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886) – though I find it hard to believe such an elaborate tableau wasn’t staged.  The photographer was more likely playing a joke than capturing a remarkable coincidence. In contrast, the Vogue fashion shot of Nicole Kidman posed as John Singer Sargent’s Madame X (1884) looks a bit more ingenuous. The idea here was to evoke a mood or a style, not play a prank.
Nicole Kidman as John Singer Sargent’s 
Madame X (1884)

The image of facial lacerations, with its spooky resemblance to Igor Mitoraj’s sculpture, Tindaro Screpolato, (Boboli Gardens, Florence), reminds us that anti-mimesis has a dark side, a theme Oscar Wilde explored in his (only) novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.  

Yet there's no shortage of humor or irony, either. Consider the guy who was apprehended in a stolen vehicle while playing a video game – Grand Theft Auto.
Igor Mitoraj, Tindaro Screpolato (Boboli Gardens)

Sometimes life or its aftermath is mistaken for art. Songlines Music Award-winning musicians, Justin & Juldeh, recently found themselves “mistaken” for an art installation at a gallery opening for a photographic exhibition (perhaps their talents also run to miming).  Sjaak Langenberg collects news items describing unintentional art projects. Among them is a story from Chile about a coffin left by the side of the road following a car accident because both passersby and the police mistook it for municipal art. 
Alexa Meade and painted man

Finally, Alexa Meade gives us what might be called life as art, or perhaps life imitating art whilst getting into the act (think cinema or theater). She paints over people to look like paintings, then photographs them either in a natural setting or with a painted background.

And where have the critics weighed in on all this? Erstwhile art mavens* Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, in a rare display of critical accord, maintained that betwixt mimesis and anti-mimesis, the former “just makes more sense.” Yet at the same time they recognized a kind of Hegelian tussle at play – the notion that "from the dialectic of mimesis and anti-mimesis flows syncretic enuresis and her unruly stepchild, emesis."

So its a wonder they didn't take issue with, say, the project of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein who at the time were trogging contemporary mimicography, hither thither, to a new ambit of silliness.

Warhol’s soup cans might've been more appealing left intact with their soup – anyone who’s tried Campbell’s tomato knows its beautiful even if useless. Perhaps that was Warhol’s point, too, but so what? Soup, like StarKist tuna (“Sorry, Charlie”), is about tasting good, not possessing good taste. Unfortunately, in Warhol’s kitchen, where art imitated life, it was about neither.  (Would that he’d gone with Progresso – potato leak, not tomato.)

Lichtenstein might just as well have framed the comics (Sunday’s in color).

The case for anti-mimesis, if you ask me, is a bit more convincing. Oscar Wilde, in his essay, The Decay of Lying (1889), argued that “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life.” For within the province of Art – and here Wilde anticipates Carl Jung – are “the great archetypes of which things that have existence [i.e., life, Nature] are but unfinished copies.”

And then: “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” 

By the same token, perfecting itself through emulation of Art’s archetypes is the proper ambition of life.

Its easy to see Plato in this. Indeed, Wilde tells us that “The Greeks, with their quick artistic instinct, understood [the archetypal nature of art], and set in the bride’s chamber the statue of Hermes or of Apollo, that she might bear children as lovely as the works of art that she looked at in her rapture or her pain.”

So much for genetics, Gregor Mendel’s recombinant garden peas, but the point is nonetheless well taken. The Greeks objected to realism, says Wilde, because they felt it inevitably made people ugly. 

And what of today? Do we moderns still perceive perfection through Art as one of  life’s unrequited yearnings? 

Ask any street mime – they never tell lies.


* For more on the golden age of art criticism, don't miss Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word. Also of note, its apparently no longer clear what a Warhole painting is -- if it every was.

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