Monday, May 16, 2011

But is it art?

Having finished my article on the "pre-Kantian" sublime, I have now turned to a long overdue book review. The book in question, by Jesko Reiling, is entitled Die Genese der idealen Gesellschaft: Studien zum literarischen Werk von Johann Jakob Bodmer (1698-1783). Yes, I seem not to be able to get away from Bodmer. There is not much in Reiling's treatment on the sublime in Bodmer (though he did give me a few ideas). The subject, per the subtitle, is Bodmer's "literary work," in particular the epics Bodmer began to write in the 1740s and his "political dramas." Nevertheless, there has been so little scholarship on Bodmer's literary work that Reiling spends the first half of his book filling in Bodmer's intellectual and cultural background.

As I already noticed when I began working on Bodmer's early criticism, in the 1720s, it was clear that Bodmer was interested in the improvement of "manners." He had been much affected by Joseph Addison's Spectator essays and hoped that The Discourses of the Painters, the "moral" journal he founded with Breitinger, would play a similar role in shaping the manners of the newly emerging bourgeoisie in Switzerland. And, like Addison in England, he was rather lighthearted in imparting "lessons" to his readers and in his treatment of socially backward customs and practices. As I learned when I began reading Reiling, however, Bodmer became decidedly heavy-handed in his literary works, especially in the Noah epic and in the political dramas. Critics have judged them harshly, speaking of "Tugendterror" (virtue terror) and "Totalitarismus der Sitte" (totalitarianism of manners).

In the Old Testament the story of Noah begins with his birth (Gen. 5, 28). At the age of 500 (so Gen. 5, 32) he becomes father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The next chapter opens with the increasing wickedness of humankind, while supplying very little detail. The Lord, regretting that he had created men, simply decided to wipe out all life on earth, sparing only Noah and his family, who had found favor with Him. Though there is very little "back story," Bodmer nevertheless provides one, as Noah, in a dream, travels over the earth with the angel Raphael and views all the evil ways of men. As contemporary readers noted, the vices on display were those of European men and women over the past several centuries. The desire to turn a profit or to make oneself better than one's neighbor existed in the antediluvian world as well. Noah and his breed, on the other hand, were perfect in every way, untouched by jealousy, envy, greed, lasciviousness.

I must admit that I have not slogged through any of these works by Bodmer. It was enough to slog through Reiling's descriptions. In Bodmer's defense, however, he was simply adhering to an earlier tradition concerning the purpose of art, namely, that it was supposed to be edifying. I wonder what Bodmer would make of the exhibition now on display at the Metropolitan Museum: "Reconfiguring an African Icon." On display are what are called "highly creative reimaginings of the iconic form of the African mask."

Two of the artists are Africans from Benin (which has a rich sculptural tradition in any case), Romuald Hazoumé (mask at top of post) and Calixte Dakpogan (at the right). Among the materials they use are discarded plastic containers, shells, computer wiring, hair brushes, and lots of metal scraps. All very inventive and delightful. They remind me of something I have posted on before, namely, Schiller's notion of "Spieltrieb." There is nothing useful, nothing to be gained even morally from these objects; they are simply playful, and play is fun. A child's game is fun, but it is not art, not made, whereas these contemporary masks are made and, as Roger Scruton writes, are "consciously intended."

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