I’m watching an exciting scene in a movie and groaning in protest at the disastrous events bearing down on our hero. In the darkened cinema, my son sitting comfortably beside me, whispers soothingly, “Mom, it’s only a movie. It’s just pretend.” These light and sound shows can seem very real to one person, while another sees them as just a charade. The realism of art, like the beauty of art, is only in the eye of the beholder.
Anuwat Kaomanid 1st Place, 13th PTT Art Competition, 1998
How marvelous and strange that these shadow plays, these patchworks of sound and movement, stitched together in scenes and sequences, can hold audiences under their spell, while some playful fellows concealed behind a screen, as it were, pull the puppet strings. When the complex, hidden machinery of dramatic and film arts is uncovered, it’s not hard to see that their ‘realism’ depends more on suggestion and distraction than fact.
Even so, on account of their troublesome reflections of the ‘real’ world, the dramatic and performing arts, literature, and even painting and sculpture, have traditionally been dogged by censors and censorship. Honored for their poetry and adored for their passion, artists are, nonetheless, always under pressure to remain politically correct.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa (Florence)
The power of images will always be a social and political concern, as the ancient Greek legend of Perseus and Medusa cautions. The legend tells how the hero,
Perseus, with the help of the deities, Athena and Hermes, was able to kill Medusa, a demon so terrifying that anyone who gazed upon her would be turned to stone. Using his shield as a mirror, and looking only at the reflected image of the monster, Perseus
managed to cut off the demon’s head. After that, the still potent, severed head became his weapon.
Catching his rivals by surprise, Perseus turned them all to stone and regained the kingdom which had been stolen from him. The hero was victorious because he had been able to create and cunningly use a powerful image.1 Afterwards, it became common among the Greeks to use decorative little pictures of the head of Medusa (the ‘gorgon’) around their homes, in temples, and in places of business as comforting reminders of the great triumph of Perseus. The myth has long been a subject of fascination in art and literature.
1 Rainer Mack, “Facing Down Medusa,” in Art History, Vol.25, No.5, Nov. 2002.
The face of defeated Medusa lived on as a decorative motif, but the victory of Perseus was commemorated countless times in the history of Western art in life-size, figurative sculptures, usually of marble or bronze, as in the above reproduction of a sculpture from Renaissance Florence. Such monuments occupied places of honor, for they represented to society the greatness of their ancestors and their heritage.
This tradition of heroic monuments seems to be turned on its head in modern times by the American realist sculptor, Duane Hanson, in his life-size figure of an obese lady on her way home after a day’s shopping at the mall. His sculpture, reproduced above and entitled Young Shopper, is made of polyester and fiberglass, with life-like skin and hair, and real clothing, jewelry and other accessories.
Although Hanson presents the shopper as a comic figure, his purpose is serious, for Young Shopper critically reflects the orgy of excess and lack of serious purpose in modern consumer society. “She is weighted down by all of her shopping bags and purchases,” he said, “…she has become almost a bag herself. She carries physical burdens – the burdens of life, of everyday living.” In an ironic turn of the heroic tradition of Western sculpture, this realistic image becomes a challenging commentary on the values and spirit of contemporary American society and culture.
The Greek philosopher Plato compared art to a mirror, meaning that the images of art are cloudy and distorted, for most mirrors in ancient times were far from perfect. The legend of Perseus also focuses on a mirror’s reflection, and shows the power to be gained from making images that help control what one fears. When looking at realist art as a mirror reflecting reality, we should remember that much depends on the cunning of the artist and the eye of the beholder. Where realist art is concerned, it seems we often need someone nearby to whisper, reassuring or cautioning us, “It’s just pretend.”