In the previous post in this series, I considered how the pose and three-dimensionality of a figural sculpture support its interpretation. I noted that representational sculptures reside at the intersection of what is actual and what is virtual. Because it is there and we can regard it in many ways, a statue shows us part of a projected fictional world and implies or suggests even more, unrealized in the sculpture, about that world. The artist leaves its underdetermined fictional details to the viewer’s imagination.
I described how different vantages on Michelangelo’s David yield somewhat different understandings of the figure, and I explained how Bernini later carried vantage-based variations to an energetic extreme in his own David. From these observations and others, I drew a conclusion: although we typically think of movies in relation to photography and painting, film (like its cousin, theater) is more akin to sculpture.
Asserting a close kinship among sculpture, theater, and film raises issues of technology, so I would like to recommend a way of thinking about technology and to illustrate how it can inform the interpretation of art.
In 1346, King Edward III Plantagenet crossed the English Channel to assert his claims on France. After startling victories in Caen and Crécy, he laid siege to Calais. Caen had fallen in a day; Calais, at the urging of King Philip VI Valois, held out for nearly a year.
Resisting a siege is a nasty business, and under the persuasive weight of disease, starvation, and want, the people of Calais finally decided to negotiate. Edward offered terms: he would show mercy and not sack the city in exchange for the lives of half a dozen of its most important citizens– an offer generous to the many but harsh to the few. After months of deprivation, they could scarcely reject the terms. But who would rise to give his life?
A leader did step up, and then another and another until six had offered themselves: Eustache de Saint-Pierre, Jean d’Aire, Jacques de Wiessant, Pierre de Wiessant, Jean de Fiennes, and Andrieu d’Andres. Several were among the city’s wealthiest and most influential figures, and all understood in some measure that the privileges of reputation presuppose honor and civic duty. They would pay the price for the survival of Calais.
Dressed in simple robes, draped in nooses, and bearing the keys to the keep and gates– all in accord with Edward’s instructions– they marched forth from their city in the hope that by sacrificing their lives, they would save their people. (The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. Remember.) Did they hesitate, think twice, reconsider? Did they waver in resolve or press stolidly onward? Were they enraged at the enemy, at humankind, at God? Did faith and faithful action steel them against encroaching fear and doubt?
As a matter of historical record, the six heroes were eventually spared in a display of magnanimity. However, at the moment when they rose to the occasion and walked off toward the enemy’s camp to face their doom, the six had no reason to suppose their lives were anything but forfeit. And it is that moment of bittersweet hope and despair that Auguste Rodin chose to depict in his masterful bronze of 1889, The Burghers of Calais.
This work rather obviously participates in the same multi-perspectival dynamic that gave life to the statues mentioned above. Here, however, two differences appear, one physical and one thematic. The physical difference is that this is a sculptural group rather than a single figure; the somatic complexity is much richer. The viewer walking around this sculpture, moving toward it, or drawing away from it, will have the opportunity to notice many more changes in surface, shadow, and shape than even Bernini’s David affords.
The idea of having multiple figures in a sculptural group is no novelty, though Rodin deploys the idea with sophistication. What is perhaps more novel, or at least more typical of Rodin’s culture and era than of earlier times, is the statue’s exploration of psychology and emotion. The thematic difference between Rodin’s group and earlier sculptures is that the complexities of pose and spatial extension serve not so much to project an unsculpted fictional world around the figures, but rather to project a plurality of virtual mental worlds within or among the figures.
The statue does not imply or suggest what it might be like to depart besieged Calais and to march toward the encamped English. Instead, it whispers, declares, and bellows what it might be like to ponder one’s impending death and the seeming pointlessness of so many great, petty, proud, or pious achievements as one now prepares to march toward the moment of capitulation, humiliation, and negation. Bernini invoked our imagination by showing us body and intentionality; Rodin invokes our imagination and empathy by showing us conflicted or decided minds, stable or wavering intentions, the threshold where prior dreams are dashed and a desperate hope in behalf of others takes their place.
The work invites empathy, analysis, and introspection by presenting unexpected or evocative details and juxtapositions to the exploratory viewer. From one vantage, it appears as if the six, as a cluster, are ambling toward their fate. From another, the group breaks into two as a leader in the front turns to encourage his companions in the back.
Still another vantage reveals that half of the group is headed in the wrong direction, one clutching his head in despair or disbelief, and two moving as one in rhymed poses as they retreat to his aid or exhortation.
The more a viewer explores and ponders the information this sculpture offers, the more the physical gives way to the mental. Historical imagination gives way to the presentation of concepts, assertions about human character, portrayals of vulnerability or resilience, considerations of individuality and community, and a host of other themes that speak to what it is to be fragile humans in a fragmented, fractious world.
The Burghers of Calais is not a sculpture about one scene, but about many tacit conversations, inner soliloquies, emotional sieges and encampments, and the negotiations and sacrifices that take place apart from the parley.
To put it in a more useful way, The Burghers of Calais is a technology that amplifies our powers of inspection, introspection, empathy, and intention by providing a rich occasion for their exercise.
What, after all, is a technology? What is the etymological “logic of art”? As a matter of cultural and linguistic habit, we use the term “technology” to refer to certain classes of gadgets, machinery, or manipulation. Turn to the “tech” section of any newsfeed, and it will be replete with discussions of 4G cell phones or particle accelerators or biomodification. But this way of using the term “technology” elides the point worth emphasizing.
I prefer to emphasize that technology always stands in a certain relation to the people who use it: technology is anything that amplifies what the human body can already do. A club amplifies the ability to punch. A gun amplifies the ability to throw. A telephone amplifies the ability to shout. A motor vehicle amplifies the ability to run. Clothing amplifies the protective and insulating qualities of skin. Architecture, oddly enough, is large, static, communal clothing. Telecast media amplify vision or audition. The hard drive and RAM of a computer amplify the ability to remember and to calculate. And so on.
Any technology may be understood this way, and therefore anything that acts as a force multiplier on what humans in general can already do may be construed as a technology. What’s more (and setting aside the mind/body problem), technologies may amplify not only the physical but also the mental. Formal logic is a conceptual technology that amplifies the ability to think systematically, to argue cogently, and to relate premises to inferences in a way that yields foreseeable material results from abstract plans. Language, one might say, is a distributive technology that amplifies the ability to define and organize human experience by engaging and uniting many people in ordered pursuit of those tasks.
So then, what of art? The fictional projection of possible worlds in text, paint, stone, metal, or light is a material technology that amplifies our ability to entertain and evaluate conditional counterfactuals. This, of course, is just a jargon-laden way of saying that representational books, movies, and art propose imaginary scenarios– in some respects like the actual world and in some respects different– and thereby provide a means for us to safely explore alternate paths of choice and action without the burden of non-fictional consequences. Vicarious experience, fantasy, imagination, escape– these are the crux, but they’re complex notions best left for another post.
The key point is that we use technologies such as chiseling and bronze casting to make artworks, but an artwork is itself a technology by means of which we do something else. (Of course, it is a staple of aesthetics and art theory that a work becomes “art” at precisely the point where we abandon any notion of its utility. For reasons best deferred, I find that understanding of art inadequate, a historical curiosity of that stream of modernism that has its source in the Enlightenment.) But if the key question is how we are using art, then it is always already the case that the maker and the consumer of art are both embroiled in the creation and valuation of its meanings: active in some ways and passive in others, now resolute and now conflicted, egoistic but altruistic, insular or communal, in a grand negotiation of the terms of surrender and victory.
And if the consumer is always already as much a factor as the producer, then it just won’t do to maintain that art is something that artists do for (or to) willing but passive recipients. It’s not a question of whether the audience actively contributes to the art it finds enriching, but of how much, how well, and how.