26 July 2007

Turning Perceptions: Replacing Inanimate Beauty With Immortal Power

I was walking through the art of Africa and the Americas at the Met in New York City when I realized: this doesn't appeal to me.
The realization bothered me, so I decided to explore the art more carefully to try and understand my lack of immediate interest. What I discovered instilled a deep respect for ancient traditions and the cultures that still honor those sentiments.

The evolution of Euro-centric art is the refining and redefining of the human body - idealized conceptions of beauty seen as objects to be portrayed. One can imagine the timeline of refinement as any scholar starts from the stylized depictions of the body and travels through the more realistic depictions and the corresponding quintessential images. These representations correlate to the social norms or cultural values of the time. Botticelli's Venus exemplifies the robust figure of the Rubenesque form when a full figure represented wealth and health. Da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci exemplifies that strange High Renaissance phenomenon of the high forehead and pudgy porcelain cheeks. Picasso favored disembodiment altogether, causing viewers to think twice as they look twice at what could be and should be various body parts.

This "other" art of Africa and the Americas consisted of subjects, even depictions of people, who were actors with agency and purpose. Instead of focusing on natural forms as they appeared in reality, figurines like the Mayan monkey god and the Incan wind god showed a different kind of fantastical imagination and attention to detail. These statues were worshipped and prayed to for guidance as well as sustenance. They were given agency and a power of their own, even by the hands that created them. There was a bust of an African tribal queen used as a marker for her tomb. She was not objectified; the image was not even an exact likeness of her. Instead, the bust exhibited characteristics that the people believed all queens should have, and she was then consulted in times of confusion or need and thought to protect and guide her offspring. In another tribe, when the chief died, a small statue would be created in his honor and would be given as a gift to his wife or closest relative. This statue looks nothing like a human being, but is decorated with various symbols to serve as reminders of his work and valiant personality traits. This piece of stone is regarded not only as a continuing presence of the chief; it is even referred to by name.

By creating an actor, instead of an object to be desired, these images invoke a deep respect for nature, life, and humanity in a way that seems to have somehow become lost along the way. The creator even often is subject to the creation. It takes on a life, mind, agency, control, social influence of it's own. The artist no longer owns the work: the subject's identity is more important than the artist's name or signature. Perhaps this speaks to a sense of communal permanence over the individual desire to be remembered and to leave some kind of personalized mark in the world. I walked away from that wing of the Met with a new appreciation for non-Western art. It struck me as totally imaginative because it does not simply take images from real life, but rather is more intricate, infused with raw creativity and vision.

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