Friday, April 6, 2012

Sincerity

This is the of the most sincere sculptures I know.

I am going to talk a little bit about the sculpture first, and then come back to that, because I am using sincerity in a idiosyncratic way here.

The sculpture: Its not medieval.  Despite the title I gave this blog, I'm realizing that the images I've written about here have not been "mostly" medieval.   It is part of a grave monument in Lakeview cemetery, which is just down the road from me here in Cleveland Heights, and is one of my favorite places in all of Cleveland.  When I first moved here, I walked in and through the cemetery on a regular basis and it became an important part of my mental landscape.  The monument consists of this standing sculpture, a second kneeling figure, and the actual tomb.  I'm assuming this is meant to be one of the three Maries coming to the tomb, with her jar of ointment in her hands.

I like how its placed.  First, almost directly on the ground and so on your level as a viewer.  And secondly, so that you walk up to it almost from behind and so first see the whole form absorbed in its draperies. You really don't see much until you walk around to its front side.  So that you have to discover it as you walk around it.  Even then, although it holds the ointment jar out in its hands, its face still recedes back into the draperies.  Seeing the face requires invading its space, in what feels like an inappropriately intrusive act, like the Christ and St. John sculpture I wrote about in a previous post.   There I wrote about the "creeped out" feeling that I get from certain sculptures.  That's the feeling I want to rename here as sincerity.

 I started playing around with that word during Christmas break, when I was reading Graham Harman's Towards Speculative Realism.  
Some of the relevant passages:
- "Not merely a product of a limitless chain of causal forces, the other is absorbed in some task, acts in accordance with the imperative summons lying before her mind, expends her energy in taking herself seriously."  (p.14)
- "The human actor is always locked in some stance toward the objects surrounding him; he is immersed in this sincerity, a behavior candor that does not escape our notice, and that weighs on us with equal force." (p. 15)
- "In this way the whole of the human realm is shown to consist of two basic principles: the other as regarded as the nexus of conditioning forces and energies, and the other as sincere or as occupied with the world that surrounds her." (p. 15)

Harman here is writing about the human other.  About coming to realize the genuine otherness of other human beings.  That is, about going beyond seeing others from the outside as the products of outside forces, but realizing that others have insides (agendas, mental lives, interests and occupations) that are like, but entirely separate from, our own (or at least that is what I get from him).  In using that term to think about sculpture, I'm obviously shifting to think about a non-human other, but I think Harman would be o.k. with that.  Its part of the point of post-humanism; pushing beyond our tendency to privilege human beings and human experiences in order to accept the genuine otherness, the interiority, the sincerity, of the non-human.  And so pushing beyond seeing the non-human as unfailingly oriented towards our own humanity.  This sculpture would be sincere, then, in its refusal to engage.   In turning its back and withdrawing into its draperies.  In being totally engaged in its own task and so in its own world.   In refusing to reach out to me as a human viewer, but forcing me to seek it out, and making me feel uncomfortable in doing so.

Thinking of the sculpture in this way, as possessed of its own sincerity, makes me start to think again about one of my favorite stories about sculpture; that of the man who tried to have sex with the Aphrodite of Knidos.  I tell that story in my Intro Early Western survey, in part because I like to see the male students squirm in their seats, and mostly to try and get them past seeing realism as simply a technical accomplishment.  I want them to think about just what was interesting about realism to ancient viewers, from this story its ability to get you just a little bit confused about the status of the body in front of you.  And I want them to think about the final moral of the story; the man can't have intercourse with the sculpture because, in the end, it is just a sculpture.  A solid block of stone.  He ejaculates on its exterior because it doesn't have an interior that he could penetrate.  To me, this isn't a story that celebrates realism, but that warns against it by warning against being taken in or fooled by it.  That's the reading of that story I've been working with for a long time.

But.  Its a cult statue of Aphrodite.  Its a statue that the goddess might have been expected to inhabit in order to allow the man to have intercourse with her.  But, she doesn't.  She - or it - refuses him; it refuses to transform into the goddess for him and so refuses to open up to him.  And, even if it did have an interiority that he could have penetrated, does that necessarily mean it would have been o.k. for him to do so? I am starting to see this story as about an attempted rape of the sculpture.  And to see its refusal to transform for him, to open up to him, as its protection of its own separate interiority, of its sincerity as a genuine other to the man, as it refuses to perform in a way that meets his desires.