Art In History Art Blog
This post is in some ways a response to Gary's post on Raphael's "Descent from the Cross". I agree that Raphael represents a perfect moment in the High Renaissance: fully realized, harmonious and sublime. I then had to ask myself why, of the great masters of his time, he is the least interesting to me. I decided the answer lay in the limitations of perfection itself.
"In praise of Imperfection" is a bit misleading; this post is more in praise of striving, of asking the questions instead of finding the final answer. For the Renaissance, the primary questions were those raised by Humanism, both in the arts and in thought in general (Gallileo, Copernicus, and of course Leonardo). One of the defining symptoms of this humanism was the cult of the Virgin, beginning in the late middle ages, and in the Renaissance coming very near to replacing Christ as the primary focus of religious attention. By looking at depictions of the Virgin we can see the questions and the answers.
Over the course of the 15th century in Italy, there was a rich variety of proposed solutions to the new humanism of the age. From the etherial spirituality of Botticelli to the iconic monumentality of Piero della Francesca, innovation and ferment was rife. Among these "proposals" was of course the defining invention of Leonardo, with its very human figures made monumental by the stability and simplicity of their pyramidal organization.
It is this Leonardo invention - among his seemingly endless supply - that led to Raphael's "final answer". Raphael understood the power of the invention, and perfected it through many iterations. They are marvellous. The only problem is that a "final answer" is the end to all questions: unless you change the underlying assumptions themselves, the answer remains unchanged. In art that is not good.
This seems to me to be a significant difference between art on the one hand, and science and technology on the other. In the early days of the surge to achieve manned flight, there was an endless variaty of possible solutions proposed, many of the ingenious and intriguing...artistically very satisfying. However, most failed to solve the underlying problem - the "question" - and in time we were left with the one basic solution that works best (ok, there are also helicopters and balloons). In technology, this is as it should be. But I don't think the artistic temperament has much left to contribute to aviation.
One Raphael had achieved his perfect statement, the only two courses were to repeat or to redefine. Immediately artists began to do both. At first the redefinition was mainly "negative" (i.e., "anti-Raphael), as in the works of Parmigianino and Bronzino. But soon, legitimate new questions would be asked.
I'm reminded of another technology story. Thirty years ago, the bicycle was fully "answered": the 10-speed (the road bike or racing bike) has reached the full flowering of its refinement. Many said the bicycle would never really change again. While I admired the 10-speed for its marvellous response of form to function, I was delighted when the mountain bike and the banana bike appeared, turning bicycledom on its head. Someone had simply redefined the underlying question of what a bicycle should be.
This has happened at a few "perfect" moments in the history of art. Obviously, in 5th-century Greece, but more recently with the totally focussed explorations of artists like Monet and Mondriaan. In each case, they took certain assumptions about the nature of art and followed them single-mindedly to their logical conclusion. And in each case, the only sane thing for other artists to do, in order to keep striving, was to change the assumptions.