Monday, April 6, 2009

Ars Longa Vita Brevis

Thinking Anglicans has a fine meditation which points out that so much of our enterprise is driven by the fear of death. We build memorials not only because of our fear of extinction, but also our fear of forgetting and being forgotten.
So much of art for thousands of years is about trying to beat back oblivion.

I remember watching a documentary on one of the cable channels about a year ago, about what would happen to all the things we have built if we suddenly disappeared and there was no one to inhabit or maintain them. They went through a series of periods of centuries and millennia. It was remarkable how little would be left after 10,000 years. All that would be left of the United States would be the sculptures on Mt. Rushmore (bully for Gutzon Borglum!). The only other things that would still be around, ironically, would be the pyramids at Giza in Egypt.
A colleague of mine works at the Guggenheim Museum.  He said that their one work by the late great Eva Hesse has almost completely disintegrated. It was made of latex and sticks, and now only the sticks remain; and that is after 45 years. So much of modern and post-modern art, is so very ephemeral, like the culture itself. The works of Pollock and Rothko, among others, are fading and discoloring with time.

Perhaps our lives are but a prelude to a much greater life beyond. Maybe this life is our one and only fleeting taste of existence in a vast desert of eternity. I don't know any more than anyone else does. Whatever it is, so far as we know for the moment, it is all we have. We have art not only to put our imaginings and thoughts before our eyes, but also to extend our short lives a little further, at least in memory. We make art because life is so confusing and disappointing as well as so finite.

I've thought for a long time about the issue of art and durability. Durability meant everything to the ancient Egyptians. It means almost nothing to us. The pyramids were built to last forever (or as close to that as possible). There are artworks now that don't last more than a few minutes, and must be documented as they are made. I may do a series of posts on the issue and about all the complex issues that they raise, sometime in the future. There is the identity issue. "Time art," that art of the few minutes, is an overwhelmingly white professional class phenomenon. Historically marginalized communities, such as African Americans, want art and memorials made from durable traditional materials like stone and bronze. What exactly is the line between a work of art and a memorial? Is there such a line? If there is, is that line a recent invention, or has it always been there? How is the experience of going to a gallery different from going to a show or a movie?  Or is it different at all?   I'm still pondering these things.

One of my favorite Baroque allegories is found on a huge tomb monument in St. Peter's that Bernini built over a 20 year period from 1627 - 1647. It is on the tomb of Pope Urban VIII, the same one who had Galileo arrested and tried for daring to suggest that Copernicus was right about the planets. The monument is lavish and pharaonic, and also oddly self-effacing. The huge bronze colossus of the Pope looks toward the high altar, not at us. The bronze sarcophagus in the center is empty. It holds only a brick arch that supports the bronze allegory on its lid. The Pope was probably buried anonymously somewhere in the floor of St. Peter's.
Splendid marble figures of Justice and Charity mourn the Pope's passing. The only allegory that rings true is the bronze figure of Death on the sarcophagus lid inscribing the Pope's name.

Death itself writes his name into the book of history. I cannot think of a stranger and more eloquent expression of that desire for immortality through memory and through art. Sure, it's a vainglorious monument to a Baroque prince of the worst sort, and no one made them better than Bernini. But all art at some level is vainglorious, as is life itself.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

So true!

(and the TA article is most thought-worthy)

Grandmère Mimi said...

Lovely meditation, Counterlight.

The monument in St. Peter's is truly magnificent for those of us who see it, but what does it do for Urban VIII? Not much, I expect.

So. Will you do me an everlasting memorial when I pass on? I lust after one.

Counterlight said...

Would you want one as grand and theatrical as the one Bernini made for Urban VIII? Do you want your tomb allegories to be about the memory of your great deeds and virtues? or a memento mori? or about death and resurrection?

Or would you prefer a simple pyramid almost 500 feet high faced with polished stone?

Grandmère Mimi said...

You're the artist. I always leave the artist free to go the way inspiration leads.

it's margaret said...

ephemeral art is quite traditional in some cultures--like Tibetan sand painting... and the work that sold me on ephemeral art was a golden fence that stretched for 100 miles across the California mountains to the ocean. about 1977 or so --I can't remember the artist's name (shame on me), but I think he did a similar work in Central Park a few years ago.

JayV said...

Love this meditation, thanks.

margaret, it's Christo and Jeanne-Claude

it's margaret said...

Yes! That's it JayV --thanks! "Running Fence" completed 1976. the pictures don't even begin to do it justice....