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3 december 2009

I found Gregory Curtis's 2003 book Disarmed . . . well, I'd like to say I found it in the course of pursuing a keen research agenda on popular culture, but as a matter of fact I found it in a battered air-conditioner box somebody'd put out in our office hallway to collect books for a branch library. Don't worry, it's going right back in the box after I finish writing this review.

Although "review" seems a little dilatory when a book has been in print for six years. Better to say, perhaps, that this is a short essay in belated appreciation of Disarmed. The book is itself a disarming exercise in art criticism, one that comments both on its subject (the Venus de Milo), on its subject's reputation, and on how people in the 21st century have come to think about art.

I've seen the Venus de Milo once in my life. It's hard to go to Paris and not see it, so though I've spent maybe all of eight days in Paris, it was an inevitable encounter once I got there. The statue's placement in the Louvre, where it dominates a long prospect down an open gallery (or series of galleries, more likely, but I forget), makes it even harder to avoid. Unlike the Mona Lisa, which is tucked away in a corner room that can be hard to enter because of the crowds, the Venus commands attention.

And then, as many observers find, she deflects it. Few images in art history are so familiar, and when you finally see the Venus de Milo, you aren't entirely impressed by its being the real thing. Unlike Michaelangelo's David, which is just so damn big that you can't help but gasp at it, or Picasso's Guernica, which in scale and sheer energy absorbs and transforms you as you look, the Venus de Milo is just sort of there. She is somewhat larger than life, but not gigantic. Shorn of arms, rising from the foam of her robes, preoccupied and impassive in expression, she is one of the more static of the great icons of Western art.

Curtis captures the central critical problem of the Venus and other artworks like her. We actually know a great deal about classical sculpture by the great Greek artists who were contemporaries of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Their works were widely discussed in Greek literary commentary. But none of their original sculptures survive. They are known from copies, and copies of copies. The huge Roman market for reproductions of Greek masters flooded the Mediterranean world with cheap knockoffs of Phidias, Praxiteles, and Myron.

So when neoclassicists of the 19th century found a hitherto unknown statue – as some Frenchmen did on the island of Melos in 1820 – they were on only slightly firmer ground than the first experts to examine the Cardiff Giant were a few years later. Was this Venus a sublime masterpiece from classical times, or a scrap of Hellenistic kitsch?

Art history, for all the highly-developed sensibility of its most eminent practitioners, is in matters of taste as subjective a science as oenophilia. One man's Aphrodite is another man's dame on a plinth. There's something about this Venus, but it's hard to tell whether it's beauty or camp. Perhaps beauty is camp, camp beauty.

It doesn't help that we know all we are ever likely to know about her provenance. She appears to have been signed by a sculptor called Alexandros of Antioch, about whom almost nothing else is known. (Early curators at the Louvre conveniently lost the signature inscription; Curtis speculates that they didn't want to be bothered by this attribution of their trophy to a nobody.) The Venus was apparently created to be a decoration in a gym. In her first incarnation, she was blinged out with jewelry, lipsticked, and given a Clairol blonde hair treatment.

Kitsch in intention, perhaps, but what if kitsch is beauty anyway? The problem is, the Venus is so popular that it's positively unhip to admire her. And it's not just that she's pop-popular. Humanities departments are full of hipsters who appreciate Robocop, Snoop Dogg, or Suzy Parker. The Venus de Milo, by contrast, is earnest, edifying, and, despite her luscious nudity, eminently safe. As a result, she's pretty much impossible to groove to unadorned. You have to carve drawers into her, as Salvador Dali did, or turn a rhyme around her, like Leo Robin in "Love is Just around the Corner":

Venus de Milo
Was noted for her charms.
But strictly between us
You're cuter than Venus
And what's more, you've got arms.
Curtis, by contrast, offers a post-ironic take on the Venus, pleading with us just to look at her and recapture some of the wonder that her rediscoverers felt 190 years ago.
What is beauty? What is a mother, a force of nature, a mortal woman? What is a goddess? While you look at her, the answers seem within reach. Look away and mystery returns. (204)
Without regaining that innocence once in a while, culture would simply sink deeper and deeper into self-exacerbating knowingness.

Curtis, Gregory. Disarmed: The story of the Venus de Milo. New York: Knopf, 2003.