La Passione di Roma & the difference between modern and classical art

William James (often referred to as the father of modern psychology) was greatly impressed with what he believed to be the distinction between classical and modern art.

In ancient Greek art, he argued, lay the quintessence of all reality. There the artist’s idea runs through all his creation allowing it to lose any amount of detail and still smile as freely as before.  A smashed nose or broken arm could never diminish a Greek statute’s rapport.  By contrast the ‘modern’ Madonna’s missing nose destroyed her very essence.

According to James, something in modern art created a dissonance, a subjective distance that was absent in ancient art.  Both pointed – as they should – to the existence of the ineffable beyond.  But for James, the distinction lay in the artist’s consciousness of it.

Part of the reason for this must lay in the difference between the modern and ancient worldviews.  Since Descartes, Western man has struggled with the connection between objective (I perceive) and subjective (I think) realities.  By contrast, the ancients embraced a more holistic –even magical – cosmology where all of creation was caught up in a seamless harmony of ‘being’.

For example, in the Hermetic and neoplatonic traditions, telestike or statue animation played a major part in religious rituals, which aimed to align the human soul with the gods so as to achieve immortality on earth.  In such rituals, both humans and statues became ‘god-possessed’, their material form becoming a vehicle for divine life.

While such traditions are for the most part no longer practiced today, they serve to remind us of a significant element of our humanity which sadly, we have forgotten.  As the American writer Ursula Leguin puts it, we live in an age where media continually undermines our capacity for recognising what she calls ‘real myths’.  Soul-less, artificially fabricated ‘glamour’ vanishes as soon as it appears.   But no reason or cynicism can destroy the power of the timeless truths as expressed through myth.   “You look at the Blond Hero (a golden haired Ben Hur clone),” she says, “really look – and he turns into a gerbil.  But you look at Apollo and he looks back at you.”

There’s little doubt that like the Greeks, our imaginations are still gripped with a fascination for living statues.  Many fine examples of theatre traditions of mime and tableaux have now migrated off stage to become part of everyday life.

Yet do we use them, as did the ancients to achieve immortality on earth?   No.  We use them as does the Italian company Fendi in their advertisement for a perfume called La Passione di Roma,  to sell ourselves a sexier tomorrow.

If he were alive today, William James would likely be disappointed.  For he truly believed that if in modernity a balance between the material world and that of imagination could be found, it would not in the bank accounts of multinational corporations, but in the Divine.

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