Journal: Friday, August 30

Anna Komnene, Empress of the East

Anna Komnene, Empress of the East

I’m in the process of reading Book One of the Lady Charlotte Guest’s collection and translation of the Mabinogion, the Welsh cultural epic, and I’ve just finished the story of Peredur of the Long Lance. (Quiet, you in the back row…)

In the course of his adventures Peredur meets (and ultimately marries) a beautiful woman known as “the Empress of Cristinobyl the Great”, who lives in “India”. This Empress is fabulously beautiful, fabulously wealthy, a sorceress, and she needs a good fighting man at her beck and call.

Now, I know that to medieval storytellers pretty much everything east of Rome was considered “India” or “Asia”, so it occurs to me that “Cristinobyl the Great” might actually be Constantinople, the city of Constantine the Great, which makes the lady one of the Byzantine Empresses.  If we imagine — and it’s not impossible — that this aspect of the story of Peredur dates back to about 1100 A.D., the Empress in question would probably be Anna Komnene, who was known for being a scholar, philosopher and physician as well as a superb political strategist, attempting to rule the Empire in her own name and actually going to war with her brother to gain control.

I could be wrong — I do have a tendency to drag either the Byzantine Empire or Bugs Bunny into just about everything, and Bugs just doesn’t fit this one — but if I’m right, how interesting that the legends of a female scholar and ruler from halfway around the world might have found their way into the story of one of King Arthur’s knights. Everything is part of everything else.



“Aseneth” — Mixed media, 8 x 10 inches.

I’ve recently undertaken a couple of pieces of artwork that involved human faces. In both cases, the style of the piece was such that I had a lot of leeway — I wasn’t looking for some sort of photorealistic presentation, I just needed a female face. The only requirement was that the face be beautiful, and that the look not obviously belong to a particular time or place.

For one of the projects I was working on — “Andromeda“, the Greek myth of the daughter of Cassiopeia and Cepheus — I ended up using a variation of the style of illustration used on ancient Greek pottery. The style, itself remarkably timeless, suited the story, and the simplification and stylization avoids the kind of detail that dates an image. This was, however, a bit of a cop-out, since I wasn’t really solving the problem, just restating it in a way that made the question irrelevant.


For the other project — “Aseneth”, based on the apocryphal story of the wife of Joseph (son of Jacob) — I didn’t have a ready-made solution available. The Hebrews of Old Testament times produced little in the way of lasting visual art; unlike their more sedentary neighbors in Africa and Mesopotamia their constant warfare and nomadic lifestyle did not encourage lasting artistic monuments, and the dictates of religion (“create no graven image”) made permanent representations of people problematic. There are no paintings or figurines like those of the Minoans, no epic tales painted on stone or papyrus like those of the Egyptians.


Here, also, we face the differing standards of culture and race: late Egyptian sarcophagus portraits show women with carefully cultivated Frida-Kahlo-esque uni-brows. Phoenician women were depicted with large noses and tiny waists; Persian women were depicted with vanishingly small noses but hips and thighs that we would view today as almost obese. What would a beautiful woman of the book of Genesis look like?


In practice, this turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds. Anyone who’s watched a movie or television show that was billed as “stylish” at the time of its release knows how bizarre yesterday’s standards of beauty can look, even within a single lifetime: Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads in 1940, Joan Cusack’s teased hair in 1988; Marilyn Monroe’s curves, Mary Tyler Moore’s boyish lines; Brooke Shields’ heavy straight eyebrows, Louise Brooks’ penciled-in arches … We look at the women we once considered beautiful and today we find them jarring, unreal; the paragons of their time, alien to ours.

So, what to do when you want to specify that your subject is “beautiful”, but you don’t want her to be so much a product of one era — either ours or her own?

Throughout history artists have generally depicted the men and women of times and places remote from their own according to the styles most familiar and comfortable to them. This was often for very valid economic reasons: make your Cleopatra look like the wife of a wealthy patron and you’ve got a much better chance of finding a buyer for the painting. The influence of the Church or government could also impact fashions, and could dictate the need to reflect their concerns even in depictions of persons and scenes completely foreign to either.  During the eighteenth century, the gods and goddesses of classical mythology were presented in the fluffy, frilly world that the French monarchs enjoyed, frolicking in voluptuous but tasteful nudity; by the twentieth, those same figures were more often portrayed shrouded in drapery, lurking in a dark and dramatic pagan wilderness.

More recently, artists have sidestepped the question: Paul Klee depicts a female saint as a delicate scribble of lines; Mark Rothko’s Iphigenia is a striated black cone with a pair of stick legs and no head; Georges Braque’s canephorae are massive, lush figures, small-breasted and heavy-bodied, fleshy and androgynous.

Klee observed in his Bauhaus lectures that simplification was the key to making an image universal. A child’s stick figures are recognizable as human and timeless; only when we start to elaborate on the basics do we begin to limit the image to a particular time and place. Rothko dissected his figures, reducing them to symbolic fragments that could only be read as human by someone who had learned to “read” his visual shorthand.

But how do you define a stick figure or a symbol as “beautiful” or “terrifying” or “modest”? What makes a stick figure of Andromeda waiting to be devoured by the monster different from a stick figure of the god Poseidon ordering the monster to eat her? The answer to this question is actually fairly easy: context. Poseidon is not chained up on the rocks at the water’s edge; Andromeda is not rearing from the waves brandishing a trident.

But beauty? Can this be defined by context? I think so. When Picasso paints a wildly distorted image of his lover staring at her own reflection in a mirror, we understand that she likes what she sees, and so does he. Braque’s canephorae are massive and fleshy, but they are also luminous, ripe, like the fruit spilling from the baskets they carry; their lavish health and vigor makes us know that they are beautiful, much more than their tiny, simplified faces ever could — even further, their beauty is timeless, independent of fashion or custom.

What Klee doesn’t mention when he makes his observations about simplification is the importance of the artist’s personal commitment: like the fashionable painter with his Cleopatra, it is much harder to meet the demands of an objective art than to fall back onto a marketable adherence to current standards. In other words, it is easier to paint an Aphrodite who looks like Kiera Knightley than one represented by a mysterious map of arcane symbolism. Picasso’s images of women are not for everyone: they have to be interviewed, read, their context and their attitude deciphered; Braque’s nudes would not be welcome on a fashionable beach; and Klee’s whimsical scribbles could never even exist outside the pictures that they inhabit.

But there is something to be said for immortality, after all: when an image operates outside of current fashion its message is not so likely to be obscured by superficial considerations of taste and style. Symbols endure while trends in hair and makeup change with the seasons. Katherine Hepburn once observed that age was liberating — once she got past fifty, moviegoers lost interest in her hair and her clothes and they started paying more attention to her acting.

The projects I’m working on today are a bit more esoteric than “Andromeda” or “Aseneth”. Neither has human figures in it (at least not recognizably), so I have some time to think about all this before the question comes up again. The visual depiction of beauty that has nothing to do with appearance: this is going to be interesting.


Something a little different

As anyone who reads this blog is aware, most of my posts are in the form of essays on various subjects. As a rule these have been rather lengthy pieces, carefully planned and researched — and perhaps a bit heavy for that quick lunchtime read.

Going forward I’d like to try something new: aside from the occasional essays, I will also be posting simpler (and shorter!) notes about subjects that interest me, or about projects on which I am currently working. These entries will be more conversational, less complete in and of themselves — I hope that readers will feel encouraged to jump in with responses and input. These new items will simply have brief descriptive titles, with the overall title of “Journal”, and may or may not include the images and sidebar notes that have always been a part of the essay posts.

The intention here will be to encourage a bit of dialogue, rather than simply to pontificate on whatever topic strikes me at the time. Later today I’ll make the first serve: let’s see if anyone hits it back over the net.


In a Sea Rendered Great

Toss them a rope, or just enjoy the solid ground under your feet?

Toss them a rope, or just enjoy the solid ground under your feet?

Here’s a scenario we may all recognize:  Little Johnny comes home from school with a black eye and a split lip and his parents discover that he’s been in an altercation with the notoriously arrogant and bullying Jim-Bob from the mobile home park across the tracks. Johnny’s wounds are salved with an outpouring of parental sympathy and dire mutterings that “something really has to be done about those people.”

Skip ahead six months: Johnny comes home with similar injuries, except this time they’ve been inflicted by Bubba, the notoriously arrogant and bullying youngest son of the president of the First National Bank. This time, instead of sympathy, Johnny gets a vigorous swabbing of isopropyl alcohol and a lecture. “What did you do to provoke him? You can’t be going around picking fights — you’ve got to learn to get along with people.”

Befuddled, little Johnny goes to his room without supper to contemplate the error of his ways. What happened? In both cases he was attacked by a bully, in both cases he was the wronged party, why the different responses, as if he were two different people?

Welcome to the concept of “worthy victim” and “unworthy victim”.

In Steubenville, Ohio, when a group of boys raped a sixteen-year old girl, much of the public outcry was focused not on the boys but on the victim — she was drunk, she deserved it, she ruined the lives of these promising young athletes by pursuing the charges. The girl became an “unworthy victim”, deserving not sympathy and justice for the appalling crime to which she had been subjected, but censure for the damage she had done to the perpetrators by having presented them with the irresistible opportunity to stray.

Victims like her, by virtue of being victims, are ready targets when assigning blame for the incidents that mar human interaction at almost every level: It’s easier to kick the man who’s down than to face off against the aggressor and risk suffering ignominy in our turn. We attack the victims because they are victims, we want to reassure ourselves that their victimhood is the result of something fundamental, some basic flaw that the rest of us do not share. We don’t think “There, but for the grace of God go I”, but rather, “Thank God I’m too moral, too careful, too savvy for something like that to ever happen to me.” We accept the criminal as something other, something so different from ourselves that to some degree we can forgive the crime, because it has nothing to do with us. We can’t forgive the victim, because he or she reminds us of our own vulnerability.

“It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds”.

— Lucretius

This perception of the degree of difference or similarity between ourselves and the victim, coupled with our capacity for empathy, make a great deal of difference in our reaction to an incident: It seemed strange to many commentators that the most virulent abuse of the Steubenville victim came from other girls her age; in fact, the closer to the victim in age, economic position and social status the other girls were, the more antagonistic their responses seemed to be. The problem here was that when the differences were so slight it became very difficult for the other girls – all potential victims themselves – to find any comfortable degree of separation from the crime. They needed to believe that what happened to her could not happen to them, that there was something about her that made her a victim – more importantly, an “unworthy” victim – that could not be applied equally to them.

And what of the “worthy victim”? He or she is just as much a victim as the other, but here we identify, we sympathize; we perceive the worthy victim as courageous or morally elevated, and we rush to associate ourselves with his plight. The insurgent and the freedom fighter often operate from identical motivations, using identical tools, but we make a distinction, we identify with one but not the other based on our understanding of our own lives. The worthy victim is ourselves, placed in extremis, forced by circumstance to manifest an innate heroism that we want to believe we all share, even if, in our day to day lives, we fail to demonstrate anything of the kind. We “go along to get along”, while all the while clinging to the notion that we, too, could stand up and say “Give me liberty, or give me death”, if circumstances required.

Here again, the way we distinguish between the two extremes is often dictated by our ability to separate ourselves from the critical situation. It’s easy for a middle-class white American to find the necessary distance from a genocide in Rwanda or a massacre in the streets of Cairo because we know that we would never find ourselves in such a position; the environment, the people, the issues are just too alien. We’re more sympathetic with the victims because we’re less empathetic. Similar episodes in Sarajevo or World War II Berlin evoke a more complex response, because the victims look so much like us — they could be us — which means we could, someday, be them, and we hate them for that; we hate them for making us feel our own potential for weakness, for suffering, for victimhood.

So is this morally wrong, this business of “worthy” and “unworthy”? It may not really be a question of morality: in the end, these distinctions have less to do with the victims of suffering than they do with our own insecurities, our ability to place ourselves in the role of victim. Perhaps the most most important moral component of the issue is that our responses, viewed honestly and carefully, can be an opportunity to learn and to grow, to create something positive from that suffering, and through growth, to end it.

Wouldn’t if be fine if, when we stand on the shore and watch our neighbors struggle in turbulent seas, we can learn not just to throw a lifeline when needed, but to calm the waves themselves?