Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Laocoön: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of Artworks by Richard Brilliant

"[A] well known piece of baseball philosophy.  Three umpires are discussing how they do their jobs.  The first, who is also the least experienced, says, "I call 'em as they are."  The second, who has been in the game a little longer, says, "I call 'em as I see 'em."  The third says, "They're nothing till I call 'em."  These three could be characterized as objectivism, relativism, and postmodernism respectively." -Andrew Rawlinson

The above quote is simultaneously the epigraph placed at the beginning of the final section of  My Laocoön: Alternative Claims in the Interpretation of Artworks by Richard Brilliant, as well as the first and last time you will see a sports metaphor on my blog.  Be that as it may, it sums up Professor Brilliant's thesis nicely.  My Laocoön is, in one sense, a book about the famous masterpiece known as Laocoön and His Sons or the Laocoön Group which resides in the Vatican.  Pliny the Elder attributes the piece to three sculptors from Rhodes.  You are most likely familiar with some variation of the image.  It looks like this:

  But it also looks like this:
There is a rich and complex history of the images which, if memory serves, Professor Brilliant finally totals about 4 different versions.  The first is the Book of Q version which is the original which we shall never see.  The second is the image immediately above, if I've followed the labyrinthine narrative properly, discovered in 1506 and highly influential on Renaissance artists.  The last is the restoration of the 1950s (the first of the two I've posted above) which is considered more "correct."

Professor Brilliant also speaks of a third image which is extracted from the 1506 version, but achieves an "otherness" even to the point of requiring another category as the image becomes "a vehicle for critical discourse on the nature of art and its powers."  A portion of the text deals with specific critical responses.  There is also a moment, early in the work, where Professor Brilliant tells about a time when he sat by the two sculptures in the Cortile del Belvedere (which people pass through on their way to the Sistine Chapel) and watched the tourists pass by, observing their responses.  A good deal of them were confused by two similar statues placed side by side. Some knew the history of sculpture and knew to some extent that the less authentic is still largely the authoritative version in our culture which has weaved so much time, thought, and history into the 1506 version.

Professor Brilliant writes, "Yet, rarely did they appear to engage the sculpture as a work of art having meaning for them as an aesthetic object of value."

I felt that, at this moment, he reveals a sort of superobjective, an unspoken thesis.  By no means is this an anti-intellectualism argument.  I do know art, and I like what I know.  Notwithstanding, there is a danger of opacity on either end of the spectrum: be it through ignorance and apathy, or be it through seeing the image so much through the filter of what others have written/thought about it that one cannot see the image for itself.  Indeed, the book is also, in fact I would dare suggest primarily, about ways of seeing art, using a piece with a history of interpretation and reproduction variants wrapping around the piece like so many snakes.

He also compares the ways of seeing the Laocoön with other masterpieces that have suffered similar contortionistic manipulations.  He mentions Titian's Sacred and Profane Love:
Which is likely not even the original title or subject matter.  He spends a portion of the book talking about titles, both important as reference points and misleading.  For example, he also talks of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  Picasso himself was reluctant (petulant even) to name his paintings.
He also brings up Velasquez's Las Meninas (I have a reproduction of it in my living room.)  The enigmatic presentation of the image has inspired volume upon speculative volume on the piece:

I cannot speak for Professor Brilliant, although I thoroughly enjoyed the ameliorating experience provided by way of his work.  I have my suspicions that he would agree with a metaphor of my own devising on the matter.  There is little in this life so enriching as to be excited about art.  The arts reflect the highest aspirations of humankind.  To seek to know more is a natural outworking of said excitement.  Looking to what's been observed about a work is a bit like spicing a dish.  Properly measured, it can make the entire experience much richer than it ever could be on its own.  Poorly measured, it can drown all of the inherent flavor of the dish.  I'm not sure if it was his intention to put so fine a point of this danger, however I find it was my primary takeaway from the book. 

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