Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Belcaro by Vernon Lee

Edition: Belcaro
Vernon Lee's (Violet Paget) first major publication was her Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880). Belcaro: Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions followed close behind, published in 1881. In the first chapter of Belcaro she explains the intellectual relationship between these two works.

"The Book and it's Title" is a dedication to Mary Robinson, with whom Vernon Lee had a long-term relationship. This dedication explains Lee's own development from being first interested in a specific body of art (she had previously written a book on eighteenth-century Italy) and later more interested aesthetic theory more generally. Lee also explains that the title of the book refers merely to the fact that while she was writing these essays, she kept thinking of their time together seeing the battlements of Belcaro. Lee cautions that the following collection of essays did not make up "a system" of thought, but were "mere fragmentary thinkings out of aesthetic questions." She does, however, give some inklings as to how these essays nevertheless manage to hang together, stressing among other things:
  • The importance of trying to get back to a childish enjoyment of art after being subjected to the modern tendency of studying art historically, psychologically, and scientifically)
  • The need to attend to art's formal properties and qualities independent of invested (historical, psychological, scientific, etc) meanings
  • The importance of thinking through the aesthetic question of what value art may have for the public and the world more broadly
"The Child in the Vatican": Lee muses on how the gray, stone statues must be uninteresting to a modern child. Eventually, we acquire enough learning to appreciate these statues but even then, she contends that real enjoyment is probably pretty momentary. To explore what unadulterated enjoyment of art might look like, Lee comes up "Fairy Tale" in which the statues choose a child to teach a "secret" to. The secret is that "the only intrinsic perfection of art is the perfection of form." Before revealing this, however, Lee goes through the description of the Niobides statues, showing how here the object of the artist has been to present as beautiful of a form possible. For this reason, there is no pursuing Apollo and Artemis included because they would upset the balance. Lee contends that the story and the psychological details all come from the "outside." The beauty of form is simply from the materiality of physical embodiment intermixed with the artist's intellectual conception - both of these forces act upon/limit each other. 

"Orpheus and Eurydice: The Lesson of the Bas Relief." Lee mistakes the identity of Winckelmann statue, Antiope, Amphion, and Zeus as Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hermes. She explains how this doesn't matter though, because these are conceptions that are outside of the form. The form just "tells us the fact of its beauty, and that fact is vital, eternal, and indissolubly connected with it." Shequalifies that not all associations of meaning are bad, but that her contemporaries should generally restrain these in order to better appreciate form. 

"Faustus and Helena": This essay explores the relationship between art and the supernatural. Lee contends that both Goethe's and Marlowe's accounts of Faustus make the supernatural too definite and concrete, and that is why they fail in "getting at" the supernatural. She writes, "[f]or the supernatural is necessarily essentially vague, and art is necessarily essentially distinct: give shape to the vague and it ceases to exist." In Hellenic art, the supernatural disappeared when gods were given distinct human shapes, as this negated the vagueness of the supernatural. Art should be in the service of creating beauty, and not the supernatural.

"Chapelmaster Kreisler": Here Lee explores music, and also makes the case for musical form. In the modern era, she charges that "the time when men sought in music only for music's own loveliness is gone by." Unlike speech, "music owes its power over the heart to its sensuous elements as given by nature" and is not dependent on outside meanings. Musical form consists of the intellectual and the sensuous (this is a refiguration of the intellectual concept and the physical material in the form of statues).  The metaphor that she gives is that physical sound is a "tiger" and composer's organization is the "grate" behind which it must stand. The story of Chapelmaster Kreisler is of a man who plays only a few chords (since the rest of his piano strings have snapped) and accompanies these chords with lot of speech. This story shows how it is the things that he says that add anything at all to the chords; without the speech, these chords are "formless and meaningless." 

"Cherubino: A Psychological Art Fancy" tells of female Spanish singer who sings "Voi Che Sapete" from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. The listener finds that there is no "Cherubino" character at all in her singing. Lee explains that it is because it is impossible to represent Cherubino in music, because his character is too varied to indicate. The musical form which does not contain him might, however, contain some aspects of him, and these aspects then might pair together with the performer's varied modes of expression to yield Cherubino. The Spanish singer though, has followed Mozart too closely, and so there is no Cherubino.

"In Umbria: A Study of Artistic Personality: The essay begins with descriptions of the beautiful countryside of Umbria, then focusing on how there is really one unique school of thought and one mode of art here, "only one theme, one type, one idea, one feeling." Specifically, this mode was associated with Perugino. Lee describes Perugino's aesthetic as conveying an "abstract, devotional feeling," an "intense passive contemplation of the unattainable good,"in which "souls purged of every human desire or will, isolated from all human affection and action," are "raised above the limits of time and space..." Vasari's biography of Perugino, however, tells of a man who deliberately commercialized the process of making this one type, and also that he was a "cynic" and "atheist." This fact spurs a contemplation of whether a artist's character need to match the art which he creates--after a number of considerations on the relationship between the character of the artist and the character of art, Lee concludes that the part of man which actually creates a painting is separate from his bad character. This too is based on the notion that art is purely form: all that its creation requires is the physicality of the part of the man which literally makes the form. The case of the poet is different, however, because a poet's materials are often human thoughts and feelings (whereas a painter's are morally neutral materials of color, form).

"Ruskinism: The Would-Be Study of a Conscience": At first, it seems Lee praises Ruskin for his noble conceptions of art. Unlike other art theorists, Ruskin tries to expand aesthetic morality to broader life concepts. Lee soon becomes much less generous, saying that this is actually just a result of Ruskin feeling the conflict of art versus moral duty and trying to draw links between art and morality that are not there. His mission became to justify whatever he felt to be instinctively beautiful as moral. This results in a "false system." Beauty comes from form, and morality from ideas and so these realms need to be kept separate. This "false system" additionally does harm: it leads to historical misconceptions, because Ruskin finds it necessary to "postulate that every period which has produced bad art has been a period of moral decay." Finally, Lee qualifies that this isn't to say that art doesn't have moral value: "For though art has no moral meaning, it has a moral value; art is happiness, and to bestow happiness is to create good."

"A Dialogue on Poetic Morality" is conducted  between a young poet (Cyril) and an older mentor figure (Baldwin). Baldwin espouses most of Lee's views on aesthetics, and Cyrils questions enable him to develop them. The debate is once again on the place of art in relation to morality and duty. Cyril laments that poets of today are no longer "legislators of the world" as in the time of Shelley, but merely writers for leisurely intellectual elites. Baldwin explains that there are two things to do in this (modern) world: to destroy evil and to create good. Science and most "practical" occupations aim to destroy evil and art creates good. He contends that "art in general not to meddle with the work of any of our other energies." He further explains that the poet alone of all artists must use his moral faculties -- his materials are "justice and injustice, good and evil, purity and foulness" just as a painter's materials are his paints. Baldwin condemns the growing sense of relativity in the world, and the accompanying tendency to call things which are not beautiful, beautiful -- absolute poetic judgments must be made. The essay ends with Baldwin asking Cyril if he is "too good for poetry," or perhaps that "poetry [has] become too good for you?" Cyril is unsure, but it seems that he will soon follow Baldwin's observations.

Postscript or Apology: In this final section, Lee tells of being in a mood of thinking all this theorizing has been dwarfed by the experience of the beauty of her surroundings (nature). She makes another plea for the enjoyment of art without "deliberate mental gymnastics," but finally admits that a life of "fancy and feelings" might be supreme even over art: "I will confess to you that more nearly appealing to me, dearer also, than antique bas-relief or song of Mozart, has been the vague remembrance, evoked by trivial word or sight, of that early winter afternoon" (referring to the afternoon shared with Robinson in Belcaro).

Like Pater, Lee writes against contemporaries who would intellectualize art by associating or miring it within such things as historical or moral contexts. These things Lee pithily does away with as "outside" of form. Both Pater and Lee also make clear that their positions on art do not mean that there is no moral value to art. On this point, Lee is very directly engaged; her critique of Ruskin's "false system" is bold, and she very clearly articulates the notion that art creates good. She shows morality and art as occupying separate spheres, but logically points out that their separation does not mean that they work against one another. She comes up with a total vision for the world which includes both art and morality in describing how people may either work on destroying evil, or creating good. To do one when you are equipped to do the other is to be counterproductive to the overall project. The silent assumption behind this vision which Lee does not mention is much like Wilde's (as articulated in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism"): individuals are constitutionally suited through their innate talents to different tasks.

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