Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Milton Bash(ing) Continues...

Einstein in an Irreverent Moment
Reminiscent of Milton?
(Image from Wikipedia)

I mentioned yesterday that some scholars on the Milton List were angered by Charles McGrath's article in the New York Times: "Milton Regained: A Helluva Party" (September 25, 2008). Some objected to the Arthur Kirmss sculpture, The Testament of the Poet, for depicting Milton with his tongue sticking out. I was merely puzzled by this aspect of the sculpture until Terrance Lindall sent me the artist's own explanation:
In The Testament of the Poet, Milton’s tongue is outstretched in a gesture of humility derived from a traditional Tibetan bestowal of greetings to strangers. For the artist, this is an unforgettable gesture of humble testimony to one's own frail humanity. In this way, the work demonstrates the great poet’s vulnerability that he "extends" to us, so all may see the words directly upon the poet's tongue. What is composed and engraved there reveals the sculptor's apotheosis of Milton: "In nature's halls those who wait will reach the sky and rise up to the mountain where they will see the river burst forth from the rock." For Milton, "They also serve who only stand and wait." This waiting is the long pause before the burst of inspiration.
The artist's wife, Ellen Brody-Kirmss, posted this explanation on the Milton List for other scholars to read. Some scholars thought the artist's Tibetan allusion overly obscure, so the art expert Stan Parchin posted his view on the matter, claiming that art is also intended to teach us something new. James Rovira maintained his objection that the allusion was too obscure, but Feisal Mohamed argured that Milton scholars in particular shouldn't object to obscurity in works of art. I posted a response:
In defense of the Tibetan allusion in the Milton sculpture by Arthur Kirmss, Stan Parchin wrote:
"You know, Arthur's Tibetan articulation of Milton's tongue is PURE ARTHUR. I didn't know that, too. Isn't that the whole point? To teach the viewer something s/he didn't know?"
Jim Rovira replied:
"I'm not sure that visual symbols work that way. It seems to me that icons only work as a visual language capable of teaching if the viewers share enough context to immediately understand the symbols."
Jim, you're correct that most of us probably missed the Tibetan allusion. I missed it -- and instead found myself reminded of that iconic photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out. I wonder if Kirmss had this in mind as well. Also occurring to me was an image of a Maori warrior sticking his tongue out. Was Kirmss also thinking of this sort of thing? Be that as it may, I find myself again agreeing with Feisal:
"It seems odd that readers of Milton would object to an obscure allusion, and to its reference to a non-Western culture. Among its many ambitions, Paradise Lost aspires to be the first epic that is truly global in scope."
We can't really fault an artist for being obscure, especially since those of us who love and study Milton's writings also probably enjoy the layers of meaning, many of these obscure until we shine a light upon them.

For instance, I was unaware of the possibility that Milton's 'apple' was really a peach until Robert Appelbaum drew my attention to it last summer on this very list. If Robert is right, then Milton's allusion in PL 9.851 to a fruit that "downie smil'd" was truly obscure for about 300 years . . . until Robert noticed it.

So let's not peach artists for being obscure.
I hope that I'm also not impeached for my views. I suppose that I'll soon find out, but for the time being, I'll take vicarious enjoyment in the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center's "Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball," a great Milton bash that ought to be in progress just about now.

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At 9:25 AM, Blogger James Rovira said...

Ha...nice summary of the discussion, Jeffery. Just for the record, I wasn't complaining that the art was too obscure, but was arguing instead that works of art cannot be used for instructional purposes by themselves apart from proper context. Icons, for example, were effective to instruct those only who had already received verbal instruction in the form of a catechism or sermons -- otherwise, they're just pretty pieces of glass.

In an exhibition, I'd expect some text accompanying the art explaining the various symbols -- which I understand was provided. Of course, the image was divorced from this context in the Times article.

Without this context/explanation, the art can be interpreted various ways, really, some of them more or less flattering to Milton, some humorous -- Milton doesn't so much look humble as disgusted and perhaps a bit worried. There's really no controversy surrounding the artwork itself, and frankly, it's probably getting more attention than it deserves.

Now if only Frank Rodriguez would produce a combo comic and live action, art deco-ish Paradise Lost film, that'd be something. God could be played by Lawrence Fishburne with a solid gold eye and Christ by the the kid who played the Paul McCartneyish character in Across the Universe. Satan could be performed Donald Trump, Death by Lucy Liu. And if we could only get Rage Against the Machine back together to do the soundtrack...

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sounds like you ought to be director.

Anyway, I see your point about art out of context -- and I thought that your other remarks were interesting in that specific post on the Milton List. I had to ignore them and just extract that one short passage for my summary here, but I seem to have misunderstood you on that point anyway.

That's the ambiguity of language, I suppose, but people will read your comment here and get it straightened out.

As for that particular work of art, there is a bit of controversy, I think, concerning the appropriateness of the apparent 'beheadedness' of Milton and the 'Catholic' imagery. Alan Horn doesn't like those aspects.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:23 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

"Without this context/explanation, the art can be interpreted various ways,"


Most art I have seen has no explanation. The very fact that the sculpture evokes an emotion is what would make it art and not an icon.

At 8:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm sympathetic to your point of view, Hathor, for we can be touched by the beauty of a work of art even if we know nothing about it.

I suppose that we can also be repelled if we find it ugly, but not all art is beautiful, is it?

Still, I like to know about what I'm looking at. Somehow, that enhances my pleasure.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:39 AM, Blogger James Rovira said...


So? You respond as if I was criticizing the work of art when I said,

"Without this context/explanation, the art can be interpreted various ways,"

Again -- and please try to get this -- I was -not- responding to AK's sculpture in these comments, but responding to -what someone else claimed about art in general- in a previous listserve post.

One person said -- and given your "so I expect you'd disagree with them -- that one purpose of a work of art is to instruct its viewers in something new.

I responded with my comment above -- that art by itself cannot instruct apart from a broader context. I also recognized that this work in particular did provide that context in the exhibition, etc., so the fact that it was divorced from this context in the Times article is not the artist's fault.

The work of art itself did not evoke any emotion in me. Frankly, it looks stupid. I know the artist is widely creative (music, painting, the stage, etc., and that he holds an MFA), but this particular work looks maybe two steps above amateurish.

The artist is clearly trained in sculpture but sculpture is, equally clearly, not his primary media. Compare this work to someone who has genius with sculpture, or is even just very talented, and you'll see what I mean.

For example, look at this sculpture by another contemporary artist, Milton Horn:

There's some similarity of expression, even around the eyes, but there's a great deal more nuance in this expression than AK seems capable of communicating, at least from this one particular work.

AK may have better works -- but if I were to judge him by this one alone, I'd think he's not very good at sculpture. That's my judgment on the work of art itself.

I'm also not sure I believe the extended tongue is a symbol of humility in Tibetan culture. It's a symbol of aggression or attempts to inspire fear in other sculpture and art from the far east, including Tibet. For example, I found one image of Yama, Lord of Death on Wikipedia in which the extended tongue clearly denotes aggression.

I'd like to see a reference for this claim and to see other Tibetan artworks that use the extended tongue to symbolize humility.

At 12:41 AM, Blogger James Rovira said...

PS I checked around the web and do like the few paintings of his I've seen.

At 6:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I also wondered about this point:

"I'm also not sure I believe the extended tongue is a symbol of humility in Tibetan culture. It's a symbol of aggression or attempts to inspire fear in other sculpture and art from the far east, including Tibet. For example, I found one image of Yama, Lord of Death on Wikipedia in which the extended tongue clearly denotes aggression."

Aggressiveness or insult would seem most likely the intended meaning of sticking out one's tongue (a bit like flashing one genitals).

Or silliness, as in Einstein's case. (And why was Einstein doing that?)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:12 AM, Blogger James Rovira said...

Jeffery -- thanks for the reply. I think aggression is usually signified by the extended tongue in the far east (say, India to the Philippines and probably up to China), but not in the west. So of course I don't think Einstein was being aggressive. What I've read about that photo is that pictures had been taken of him all day that day, he was getting tired of it, and one more photographer came along asking him to smile so he stuck his tongue out at him -- inspiring probably the most famous photograph of any scientist :). Ha.

At 6:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the anecdote. Interestingly, Einstein looks rather charming with his tongue stuck out.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recall my sister & I mutually sticking our tongues out at one another in childhood anger. With us it usually signified something like what we hill folks called "sassing" one another, but none of the attitudes listed in this blog. But it seems in different cultures to have various connotations.
For instance, when Gay & I went to Baja, California on a missions trip, we were told not to use our index finger to wiggle at someone with our idea it meant "come to me." That is the way to call a dog. Instead, you turned your wrist down, and wiggled all four fingers in unison to call some. And it was impolite to point at something or someone with the finger. Instead, you extended your chin.
I am sure that when you go to another country, you need to get information about cultures; what is taboo and what is acceptable.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

True, one has to learn other cultures' folkways to avoid offending them.

I'm sure that I continue to offend, however.

Jeffery Hodges

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