Friday, October 17, 2008

"Spieltrieb"

The above work of art, an 18th-century Italian porcelain sculpture depicting the River Nile, is one of the reasons I so love the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spend a lot of time there, as a consultant, but sometimes I have only a few minutes to spare to for the art: we modern people are always running to our next appointment! But at the Met you do not have to look far to find an object that puts your heart at rest, drives all other concerns from your mind, and also gives you pleasure. Such is the effect of this allegorical work, which you can see in a really professional photograph and also read about here. I was particularly delighted by the 16 little babies climbing all over the river good. The number 16 refers to the ideal height of 16 cubits that the Nile rose annually, ensuring the fertility represented by the cornucopia.


I mentioned in my earlier posting ("Subprime Art?") Schiller's concept of Spieltrieb (the impulse to play), which seems to me well evoked by the small detail of the alligator. You can see the alligator's teeth and the god's big toes. Are these detail necessary? No, but they add to the pleasure you feel when viewing this object, much as the little guys tormenting the alligator seem to feel.


Now, according to Schiller, pictured here in a very noble representation by Gerhard von K├╝gelgen, modern man (and woman, too!) is divided in his essential nature: civilization (work, raising a family, all the responsibilities of life) is at odds with our desire to escape from responsibility. Our reason tells us we have to make the necessary accommodations to live in the world, in order to keep a roof over our head, gas in the car, and food in the refrigerator. Our sensuous nature urges us to escape the frustrations and irritations that such responsibilities induce in us. Some people watch TV all the rest of the hours of the day; some indulge in pornography or shop until they drop. Obviously some people lean more toward one side than the other.

Writing in The Aesthetic Letters, Schiller proposed the idea that art could help us to bring the two sides of ourselves into a more rewarding harmony. Art, in the form Schiller envisioned, should not be about reality, much as the sculpture of the Nile River god is not about any reality that has ever been experienced. Thus, when you look at that sculpture, if only for a few minutes, you are not being reminded of politics or of the war in Iraq or of the inequities of the world. Instead, the Spieltrieb comes into play, so to speak. It reminds us that, for the moment anyway, we are free of those burdensome duties. It is a great place to escape to. Applied often, it makes us more appreciative of life, despite its shortcomings. Of course, there are artists who believe it is their role to make us aware of contemporary realities, but the art they produce is a form of propaganda, made with color or plastic or whatever. Pleasure is the furthest thing they want us to feel, for it makes us forget that the world (so they think) is really a terrible place.

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