Art goes begging

The musician is dressed in a coat with frayed, patched sleeves. Under the sleeves, at his wrists, there is nothing to be seen but bare flesh and bone: no jacket, perhaps no shirt. His scalp is scarred. His hat doesn’t cover the scars because he has to hold it out in his right hand. His left hand is raised in a dance figure. It has nothing to do with the musician; it is only a part of the music he transmits to his city. He and the music box hanging on him by a strap are equal parts of an art apparatus. Imagine a Piranesi prison seen from outside. The stone would still be there, but it would no longer enclose its universe. Now it would be shutting out.

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Through that hard plein air dances Orpheus in his aspect of beggar. Let me dance you into my dance, he begs us. At a subordinate distance from his image you can see the shadow of an ancillary apparatus: the camera that stopped it for a fraction of a second along its route to Hades. Ever after, that fraction of a second has been recorded by the camera’s art in the historical present tense.

And into the image frame there did, once, come dancing another man with his finger up like the musician’s. It too has been stopped in motion. Shadow tarantella following the floral-decorated machine, it will outlive the economy of stone and iron through which it passes.

Source: “A little music in New York,” about 1900. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016800315/. Image restored in Photoshop.

Illumination: three icons

Incessantly, between 1903 and 1917, a maiden gowned in white traveled the route of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, singing in dimeter. This was Phoebe Snow, the protagonist of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in American history.

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The quality in Pheobe that made persons’ curiosity run mad had its origin partially in the reassuring rocking rhythm of her words and partially in her body’s permanent insusceptibility to soot or stain. Whatever Phoebe was being at any instant during her transit along the Road of Anthracite, she was being whitely. Even while she was reading her book or sleeping in her sleeper, she was singing everything around her into submission to the white. The scripture of her illuminated poem was a chronicle of conquest by dispelling: dispelling time-bound prose by poetry with its intimations of a permanent meaning awaiting understanding; dispelling soilability and mutability and darkness and death.

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Phoebe embodies a world in its passive aspect: that which hasn’t even brought itself into being because it always has been. Phoebe doesn’t write; she reads. She doesn’t drive her train; she grants it its power to transport her. If you give me but a leaf, Krishna says, I will accept it. Phoebe too accepts: green leaves and leaves reduced to their carbon, the quick and the dead. From the fossil era onward, the world traversed by Pheobe’s wheels has existed for the sole purpose of rising out of darkness and becoming realized as a source of light and power.

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That is, Phoebe is the icon of a myth: a depiction whose plural significances are centered on a single attribute. The mythic character is an embodiment of nothing but, like the Egyptian gods in the Book of the Dead with their specialized animal heads signifying division of their labor in the vale of soul-making.

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The mythic works its magic in popular art too, with its characters who are only what they do in the instant of their having done it. Combining a verb and a noun, a single word for the mythic act is pose.

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Pose forestalls death by excerpting a moment and asking us to look at it as if it could hold still forever. Pose is the lovers on the Grecian urn, forever panting and forever young. And in advertising art, myth spells out the lovers’ words and gives them a pretext for seeming to mean.

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In this icon, for instance, Phoebe’s mode of acceptance is specifically an acceptance by and of the body. It is an all-contemplating physicality. It articulates itself through a diction that is religiose — with the archaic cleanly substituting for clean not just for metrical reasons but for scriptural ones: cleanliness is next to godliness — but also, simultaneously, folksy: gives . . . quite an appetite. Yet too it keeps its gloves on; the feminine body brought to the brink of grossly acknowledged appetitiveness fills in its blank by naming itself not a specific me but an ideal one. In her dining-car avatar, Phoebe diets not on food but on an idea of the desire for food, and then she speaks her desire in words that declare it and themselves to be good. Like God in one of the Jewish conceptions, Phoebe spends eternity in prayer to herself. She will never finish her prayer; she will never be satisfied yet she will never be hungry

How can we not pray too? The white but dirty miner, the clean but black cooks, the mule who knows not whom he serves but only (but it is enough) that he serves: all are limited by their uncompleted, unconsummated selves. Only Phoebe is nothing but. Only Phoebe lives forever fulfilled in the instant of pose. Only Phoebe will never die.

 

Sources: the second and third Phoebe Snow images above are streetcar advertising cards available in many sites online. The first is a postcard at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phoebe_Snow_Midnight_Limited.jpg. I have photoshopped all three images to help their colors approach the vividness of prayer realized, and I also used some in an earlier post, https://jonathanmorse.blog/2012/05/26/as-things-fade-to-white/.

Heritage

Toward the end of its era, Fascism embarked on a campaign of cultural self-pity. Italy has been attacked by darkness, Fascism told Italy. Everything that Italy has inherited from its past is being violated. In the chiaroscuro, it may seem that nothing remains for us but to grieve. Our candles are out; our heads are bare and bowed before the advent of the black helmets. However, our light will return. Something that will not die bows down to us in our grief and whispers light’s vindicating truth.

But even as the black helmets were making their slow way from temple to darkened temple, the land under Italy’s temples was being cleared day by bright day from the air. Most of the bombers that came flying through the light to accomplish that task of war were Consolidated B-24s, and these bore a propaganda name of their own: Liberators.

In the sheets of light beneath liberation’s radiant onslaught, Fascist art could do nothing except to repeat its now meaningless trope of darkness. Desperate to continue depicting the trope, it once went textual and tried to supplement its now meaningless self with an explanation outside the picture:

“Liberators take liberties!”

Outside the picture, the pun is too witless even to be visualizable. But the image’s trope of darkness retains some meaning nevertheless. Seventy years after the fall of Fascism in Italy, it still speaks to the politics of the United States. It does so because it articulates a myth, and myths are hard to make die.

After all, there can be no light without darkness. That is one sense of the myth of Pluto and Persephone.

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That myth says: Light goes down into the underworld and is reborn there from death to life. This will be the happy ending of the art-stories of the looted church and the rape which has been redeemed for art by a successfully understood allusion to Italy’s cultural heritage. When he wrote the history of anecdotes such as those, Ezra Pound was fond of using the word splendor, which means brilliance or radiance. But a splendor returned from the underworld has been in that which is dark, and when it reascends it can never again be immaculate. Bearing shadows within the folds of its mantle, splendor must bring darkness back with it. At nightfall, splendor’s darkness will rejoin the primal dark. Then, after morning comes, we may pick up our brushes once again, seventy years later, and charge them once again with black.

At the present linguistic moment, the Pound-word “heritage” is one shade of that black. Spoken today by reenactors remaking themselves as ghosts on battlefields, it is a word that darkness has taken to itself and refashioned as a mode of immortal yet unliving form.


Look at heritage’s eyes. Look at its pointed fingers delicately touching its slender musket. Understand, as you look, the lesson that heritage is wordlessly teaching you: the lesson that darkness, having once been comprehended by art and shaped by it into myth, can never wholly return, forgotten, to the past and to death.

Sources: the Italian propaganda posters come from a collection at http://ic.pics.livejournal.com. The image of the B-24 comes from a site for airplane modelers, Wings Palette, at http://wp.scn.ru. Its Russian caption translates as, “98th Battle Group, Libya, 1943. Shot down August 1, 1943, by [Bulgarian] Lieutenant Stoyan Stoyanov.”

The image “Unidentified soldier in Confederate uniform with bayoneted musket and knife” is in the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014646219/.

All images photoshopped.