Monday, May 17, 2010


They invented perfect beauty, those ancient Greeks.

Of course people made beautiful things before the Greeks, but it was the Greeks who dreamed there could be a perfect version of beauty out there waiting to be attained.

Aristotle made the first serious attempt at defining "perfection" but even before him Pythagoras and other pre-Socratics speculated about an ideal beauty. They pursued it with the language of mathematics, asserting that objects look better when proportioned in accordance with the "golden ratio." They believed objects would appear more "complete" and "perfect" if they were symmetrical, with clean shapes in harmony with classical archetypes.

They hoped these principles would lead them to perfect beauty. Unfortunately, they didn't get very far before the goat-god yanked them back.

The Greeks were so confident that their culture was superior, imagine their surprise when the good citizens of Athens began to lose interest in high culture and stray back to the more earthy, passionate cults of their barbaric neighbors. Historian Arthur Koestler claims that Athenian gods lost their attraction as they became more formal and detached from base human emotions:
At an unknown date, but probably not much before the sixth century, the cult of Dionysus‑Bacchus, the 'raging' goat‑god of fertility and wine, spread from barbaric Thracia into Greece. The initial success of Bacchism was probably due to that general sense of frustration ... [that] the Olympian Pantheon had come to resemble an assembly of wax‑works, whose formalized worship could [not] satisfy truly religious needs.... A spiritual void tends to create emotional outbreaks; the Bacchae of Euripides, frenzied worshippers of the horned god....
The Greeks discovered that their lofty aspirations were chained to their earthy goat-god origins. High culture could only take them so close to "perfection" before they ran out of chain.

Greek poets bemoaned the effect of Bacchism on their womenfolk: "Theban women leaving/Their spinning and their weaving/Stung with the maddening trance/Of Dionysus!"

Today we still admire the Greeks' smooth, classical ideals of beauty but we too remain tethered to the goat-god part of our nature. Art becomes less satisfying as it becomes too orderly, smooth and formal. We cannot polish and refine our way to perfection; beyond a certain point, perfection begins to weaken art rather than strengthen it.

Koestler described how the savvy Greeks absorbed and blunted the threat of wild Bacchism:
The outbreak seems to have been sporadic and short‑lived. The Greeks, being Greeks, soon realized that these excesses led neither to mystic union with God, nor back to nature, but merely to mass-hysteria.... The authorities seemed to have acted with eminent reasonableness: they promoted Bacchus‑Dionysus to the official Pantheon with a rank equal to Apollo's. His frenzy was tamed, his wine watered down, his worship regulated, and used as a harmless safety‑valve.
The Greeks' wise technique for co-opting wildness is still employed by artists today. A carefully controlled picture often includes an uncontrolled splatter or eruption or rough line-- not enough to lose control of the picture, but enough to show that wildness still has a seat in the artist's pantheon:

Jeffrey Jones carefully captured facial features, but then indulged in a frenzy for her hair

Note how the great Ronald Searle gains power with from uncontrolled spatters and ink drops.

This sensitive portrait by Jack Unruh would not be nearly as potent if he had not gone back and roughed it up with that dense black and spattering.

Even the erudite Steinberg bows to the virility of non-cognitivism: he draws the icons of civilization with a light and lacy line, but adds strength with a rough, black scrape of a brush.

Pictures still pay tribute to the goat-god, and are rewarded with his strength and vitality

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