The Power of Aesthetics:
Art teaches the virtue of ambiguity
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
Loafing, Atlanta, Sept. 12, 1998)
"The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I
paint; their wings are my protest in favour of the immortality of the
soul." -- Edward Burne-Jones, 1882
Ambiguity, the quality of being obscure in meaning, is generally considered
undesirable. In the world of formal science, at least as most of us have
come to understand it, certainty matters most. What is not provable cannot
be trusted. What is intuited is suspect.
The arts function on a completely different set of assumptions. Having
served the sacred and the psychological throughout history and across
cultures, the arts make manifest the unseen, that which is intuited to
be concealed in the world of ordinary experience. Plato said prophecy
and poetry share the same tongue. The poet evokes the latent, just as
the prophet tells the future.
Last week, I spent a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
to view the exhibit of work by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). The show
featured 170 works by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, whose oeuvre included
paintings and drawings as well as decorative work, from stained glass
to magnificent tapestries designed for William Morris and Co.
The Pre-Raphaelites, led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), sought
to convey in painting the same effects as poetry. (Rossetti was a poet
and painter. Burne-Jones often painted scenes to illustrate poetry, including
the verse of William Morris.) Enamored of Medieval and Renaissance painting,
Burne-Jones painted classical mythological themes with a romantic eye.
Many of the scenes are tonally enigmatic conflations of the erotic and
the heartbreaking, like Pan's rescue of Psyche after she has attempted
to drown herself because of the loss of her lover, Cupid. The pathetic,
naked Psyche pulls herself from the river while Pan caresses her head
with a hand, looking as full of lust as compassion. In a macabre painting,
"The Depths of the Sea," a weirdly smiling but beautiful mermaid pulls
the corpse of a drowned sailor downward with her.
The heart's longing for love drenches most of Burne-Jones' work -- whether
in his paintings of the poet's yearning in Chaucer's "Romant of the Rose"
or his series on the Pygmalion legend, in which Venus ensouls the sculptor's
image of ideal love. But, although Burne-Jones' figures are always beautiful
and densely muscled like Michelangelo's, they are also frail looking --
pale with mournful, dark eyes -- and they seem equally indifferent to
impending death and the arrival of love.
Spend three short hours looking at such paintings and you emerge from
the gallery feeling as though you're awakening from a dream. The work
has that same character -- fascinating us despite its complete ambiguity.
I spent a day wrestling with the question while I was visiting a friend
in Maryland. She took me to Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington to see the
Adams Memorial. Unmarked, the memorial was commissioned in 1885 by Henry
Adams, shortly after the suicide of his wife Clover. The renowned sculptor
August Saint Gaudens created a bronze draped figure sitting on a rock.
Androgynous, and intentionally so, the figure lightly brushes one finger
on its cheek, its eyelids lowered beneath the hooded fabric.
The sculpture, like Burne-Jones' work, is completely enigmatic. Although
it quickly came to be called "Grief" by many, Saint-Gaudens insisted that
a more appropriate label was "The Peace that Passeth Understanding." The
statue has a long history of producing completely contrary states in people.
The pastor of a nearby church tried to have it removed in 1892, calling
it a "Christian abomination." Priests occasionally raged at it for its
unholy countenance. But many others, saw in it a personification of the
state in which one has "transcended pain and hurt to achieve serenity,"
as Eleanor Roosevelt described it -- a western Buddha atop a tomb.
In other words, by presenting an ambiguous face, the statue -- like Burne-Jones'
paintings -- elicits whatever the viewer brings to it. Meaning is constituted
in the subjective relationship between the personal psyche and the painting
or sculpture (or piece of music or poem or dream image).
This is the virtue of the ambiguous (and the aesthetic): to evoke through
mystery those states that may be just beyond our immediate awareness.
Then, externalized, they can be regarded with an open eye and heart, if
we choose. Both Burne-Jones and Saint-Gaudens accomplished this as a dream
does, through personification. The figures that haunt us in our dreams
and lead us to the brink of destruction or perverse bliss may seem senseless
at first, but, if regarded long enough, will reveal something of ourselves
and the world to us. The mermaid drags the corpse downward with a smile
-- to where? Consider the question long enough and you will receive an
The human psyche functions as an aesthetic organism -- forever flooding
us with images, so that, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are always
living in the imagination, the realms of spirit and soul. That is Burne-Jones'
meaning in the quote at the top of this column. The more science attempts
to focus us on the purely material, the greater our need for angels, those
personifications of messengers from the unseen world.
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