The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1290 Monday, 26 June 2000.
Date: Monday, 26 Jun 2000 14:54:12 +0000
Subject: Is art eternal; Is art alive? Instead of Re: Isabella's
Is art eternal; Is art alive?
Two questions that have cunningly been made into one, by a correspondent
of the "Isabella's Chastity" thread. Both are so important in criticism
that they deserve their own caption.
Artistic harmony, implying beauty: is that the ingredient needed to
achieve the eternal in art; can ugliness be eternal; cliche? Are there
not entrepreneurs who succeed in pulling our leg, sociologically
speaking, regarding artistic output? One goes to a museum and walks
through literally miles of Egyptian, Hellenistic, pre-Colombian,
Medieval, Hindu, Chinese sculptures; but only occasionally have artists
reached beyond the conventional to reveal in their statues a vitality
that for me is deeply moving. Egyptian art may be eternal but my
personal feeling is that it is a Nefertiti that makes the whole mammoth
impression worth while. I accept that I am a romantic in this and it is
a fact that most ancient Egyptians did not care much about the
individual, but rather that their desire for eternity be given a
In literature there are some great constructions that reflect cultural
mores. A responsible artist will devote time and study to find
historical precedents, and refer to them for resonance. He will make his
sentences ring and his characters stay consistent. But again, if in his
own self there is not the humanity and conviction; if his work is just
for an establishment, his output is not vital, although it may belong to
the eternalized art forms of his culture. That is where Shakespeare is
so much more superior to Marlowe.
Art, being so carefully constructed, in essence may be more manifest
than living people. It is not a question of 'seem to be', since the
criteria is not by medical examination or the possession of a vague
potential. Nor is it in the 'eye of the beholder' who may be blind; but
it is by the actual existence of the created reality. That reality may
be of the imagination, but no more the construction, once it is made.
Therefore it can contain all that is necessary to make evaluations about
a character and situation. The incentive does not come from ourselves,
as was claimed: but from the artifice itself. Just as one enters a room
and finds many aspects of comfort or discomfort there, due to the work
of the departed architect. All that is necessary in speech, movement;
all that is harmonious and consequential, will be superior in art to no
art, even though art cannot breath while no art can. A constructed
character may be clearer about purpose or more significantly in quandary
than a living person. It is able to verbalize better and at the most
appropriate moment, and when it dies there is meaning in its death.
Human life on the other hand is full of vagary. Given a multiplicity of
defining clues, is it any wonder that the viewer can anticipate what is
left unsaid? Therefore the critical examination of these constructions
can be very rewarding. The artist's vision given a concrete form is
provident and it is a privilege to partake of his understanding.
However there is more than just the construction. There are the actors
who are to bridge the two realities: the imagined with the mundane. But
they are not always honest intermediaries. Often they will prefer to
reduce the encounter - as if were just between the two operatives: the
players with those who sit before them, hardly referring to the greater
intelligence that is represented by the master plan. At the very most
critical moment, when the playwrights' ghost would seem to sigh " At
last!" - his edifice is put into the unsafe discretion of decorators,
who will have succumbed to the inappropriate influences of the public.
What may have the playwright arranged to deflect the distortions that
surely he must have predicted?
He may have had his plays printed, after his death, by his loyal
comrades, so that readers and textual scholars will judge his meanings
for themselves. He may address the audience before the action commences
as he does in "Henry V" or after it as in "The Taming of the Shrew" or
by the means of soliloquy as when Launcelet Gobo addresses the many
off-stage "fiends", "saving your reverence" the individual who can
discriminate. He may put all kinds of clues and directives within the
texture of the play like the sure indications of Hamlet's "sweet
religion". So that actors cannot sell us stories about his indolence.
And he may do something that we may think belongs only to the 20th
century's, "theater of the absurd": he may have the character contest
his part. " The Merchant of Venice" surely ought to remind the viewer of
the archetypal merchant in the Venetian "commedia dell'arte" satiric
drama. Antonio ought to be as central as Volpone. But no, the
masqueraded Shylock, belonging to a more sinister tradition, has been
made central. Shakespeare realized that this might happen and that is
why Antonio is so particularly sad at the play's opening. When Antonio
can take over his satiric lead, the reason for the character's sadness
will then become, rightly, its premonition of being made a dupe, in
order to achieve the comic condition for wedlock, according to revered