The Four Seasons
Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them …. We do not realize how far and widely, or now near and narrowly, we are to look. The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are for this reason concealed from us all our lives. …. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate – not a grain more. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads – and then we can hardly see anything else. A man sees only what concerns him.
Henry David Thoreau – Autumnal Tints
Renewing a myth
Ryan McGinley is certainly a charismatic artist. I remember his recent opening in New York at which I only succeeded in getting close to him after several hours because of the crowd of people persistently around him, for the most part young men and women who recognized a point of reference in him, his history and his work. To my mind, what makes Ryan even more special is his innate ability to grasp – and in some cases anticipate – the esprit nouveau of the moment, to tell a story and contribute with it to the creation and renewal of a myth that, on the basis of its etymology, from the Greek mythos, means argument, account.
Through his works, Ryan succeeds in creating what Pearce, the scholar of social communication, calls “shared meanings” and what in every culture must be continually renewed so that social life may be regenerated. This process of renewal, which inexorably calls into question the previous values, was performed in pre-agricultural societies by particular classes – artists, shamans, priests – who explored “other” realities for the benefit of the community, then translated their new understanding into a language comprehensible to the majority. However, modern Western society – and its procedural, if not instrumental, approach thrown into difficulty by the meanings it proposed – was a factor in the formation of a post-nihilist and demythicized social reality, drained of ritual, strongly individualist and governed by commercializing cannibalism. Today, now that the role of moral authority held by the “wise men” in traditional societies has been exhausted, we find ourselves having to confront this crisis of shared meanings on an individual basis, and to build stories dense with significance on which to live. As argued by Rorty, these stories can only occur “in the experience of the individual and his social microworlds” and be developed “in an ethical and/or aesthetic manner”. What McGinley contributes to creating and that gives enormous value to his work is therefore the creation of what is called “collective memory”, in other words a narration able to form the heritage of beliefs and values with which a people identifies. And of course his visual word is embraced as authoritative and trenchant, grafting itself onto a series of reflections current in today’s society.
Ryan manages to constitute what Hillman called the “narrative plot that gives meaning to the world in which man lives and to the stories entwined within it”. This is an atypical story that, unlike myth, is not handed down either orally or in writing, but visually, through photographs. Beyond the myth of Eternal Youth, McGinley updates the myth of the “noble savage”, which reached its peak during the Enlightenment and Romanticism before being largely criticized and withdrawing, defeated by its confrontation with the progress and civilization in which it inescapably found itself.
These and those
The story of these four seasons arises through an infinite series of cycles and references that begin in a very distant reality in space and time, specifically in those very famous compositions by Antonio Vivaldi that, according to a recent survey, are the most often played in the world of music around the globe. Written by the Venetian composer before 1725, the year in which publisher Michel-Charles Le Cène of Amsterdam issued “Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Invenzione” – the collection of works that contained them – the Four Seasons are a typical example of ‘programme music’, highly descriptive compositions that were particularly prevalent in the Romantic period. The descriptive focus in Vivaldi’s music is translated in Ryan’s photography into the emphasis on colour, and his attempt to create a specific setting that captures time and that can itself be captured by the artist.
Vivaldi’s musical and poetic scansion of nature – the composition is based on four sonnets – is in many ways mirrored parallel to and within McGinley’s visual representation. Thus, when Vivaldi’s sonnet speaks of Zeffiro dolce Spira, mà contesa / Muove Borea improvviso al Suo vicino,1 there is an immediate correspondence with works like Ivan (2013), the lines Fà ch’ ogn’ uno tralasci e balli e canti / L’ aria che temperata dà piacere2 are well represented in the work Wet Blaze (2013), and the stanza Aggiacciato tremar trà neri algenti / Al Severo Spirar d’ orrido Vento, / Correr battendo i piedi ogni momento; / E pel Soverchio gel batter i denti3 expresses winter as it is represented in works like Plotter Kill Storm (2015). The decision to make reference to the four seasons even from the title was induced by the need for immediate communication of a universal scenario, that of nature, to which the seasons are still directly connected, and of the music that runs through the works. Furthermore, there is an important subtext that may help us to create an initial connection that will lead to an explanation of the works as the renascence of the myth of the noble savage.
From Vivaldi to Rousseau
Venice was a familiar setting, not just for Vivaldi, who was born there, but also for Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Geneva 1712 – Ermenonville 1778), the Swiss philosopher, writer and musician, who found himself in the lagoon city in the service of the French count and ambassador Pierre-François Montaigu between September 1743 and August 1744. Rousseau’s admiration for Vivaldi, whose fame did not diminish among the French even after the composer’s death, took material form in his rearrangement of Spring for flute in 1775. It is to Rousseau and his interest in nature, as well as to his philosophical reflections on “savage” cultures, that we owe renewed interest in the scientific study of the myth. Rousseau lived during the Enlightenment and is in some way the father of the Romantic era in which the myth of the noble savage became permanently established, though the expression had already been coined in 1672 by John Dryden in The Conquest of Granada. The central idea of Rousseau’s philosophy was that man’s original goodness has become lost because society has corrupted our “state of nature”, a term he uses to mean the condition experienced by savages who live in accordance only with the laws of nature. These concepts resulted in the theory of the noble savage, the theory that the best condition of life is exclusively that of pre-civilized man. A letter included in the first of Rousseau’s philosophical writings, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, offers a harsh critique of civilization compared to man’s natural state.
Man in his natural state instinctively finds the right balance with the world in which he lives. For Rousseau, the entire moral structure of civil society is therefore an arbitrary and artificial imposition of a code of behaviour that overlays and cancels an intrinsic moral correctness. The noble savage acts in accordance with his instinct, whereas society gives preference to rational thought that leads to the cold calculation and cynicism typical of modern civilizations. Rousseau’s thought chimed perfectly with that of Thoreau, an ideological son of Romanticism.
From Rousseau to Thoreau
As has been said, Rousseau and Thoreau (Concord [Mass.] 1817 – 1862) were respectively the father and son of Romanticism, and though no evidence exists of the former’s influence on the latter (no books by Rousseau were found among Thoreau’s belongings), a form of thought is clearly discernible in Thoreau that both runs parallel to and diverges from that of the Swiss philosopher. Although both loved to lose themselves in nature alone and enjoyed their flight from conventional society, analysis of their texts shows how, for Rousseau, this behaviour resembled being an exile, having been banned from the society he criticized, whilst for Thoreau it represented the path of a wayfarer journeying along the boundary between society and nature. To me this passage seems decisive when it comes to reflecting on the work of Ryan McGinley, who does not exclude society from nature but allows man-as-nature to take back and use society itself. Above all, it is through this passage that the myth of the noble savage seems to slowly mutate into something different and more current – as is shown by its popularity in American counterculture and in particular among the Beat Generation, which viewed Thoreau’s experience as a strong desire to return to nature as a reaction against the growing modernization of American cities: it seems to mutate into a collective desire for the care for and integration of mankind into nature without excluding society but, on thecontrary, by involving it. Works like I-Beam (Bolt) (2015), which shows an enormous road train that transports an I-shaped cement girder along which a nude is running, are representative of this relationship, as is Red Beetle (2015) in which a nude body lies on top of an old car half-sunk in a lake, which puns on the double-meaning of the word “beetle”, referring to both the industrial name of the car and the natural significance of the insect. But where Ryan makes broad reference toThoreau is in the writer’s narrative alter-ego apparent in the pages of Walden, the story of the period of two years, two months and two days (1845–47) that the author spent in a cabin on the shore of Lake Walden to embrace nature closely. Some of Thoreau’s sentences could refer to both: “Most [people] go in and shut their doors, thinking that bleak and colorless November has already come, when some of the most brilliant and memorable colors are not yet lit”. And these late-autumn colours could be the same, seeing that the woods of New England and surrounding territories of New York, where McGinley took most of his autumn and winter photographs, are on the same latitude and only a few hundreds of miles distant. But McGinley is sincerer in man’s relationship with and integration in nature – I dare say at the limit of the mimicry that can develop in an almost unhealthy relationship between the two elements – as we can see in the manner of representation. Both man and nature are captured in their essence: man can only be naked to live fully in nature; his nudity is spontaneous and almost inevitable in a setting that is an extension of Eden – it would be interesting to study the parallels between the McGinley’s photographs and the representation of Eden in the left panel of the Garden of Delights by Hieronymus Bosch – that is to say of a reality that is mythical and therefore universal at the same time. In McGinley’s photographs, both man and nature are young and filled with life and energy, and, looking at these images, even the more extreme ones, we experience a neo-Romantic surge of sensations we have either already known or that we would like to know. This is the magnetic fascination of a transversal and multicultural language that takes us back, one and all, to a desire for freedom, lightheartedness and life.
23 May 2007
In this new, more vital, mimetic, lighthearted and reconciliating relationship that arises between man and nature, there is probably a significant date: 23 May 2007 is the day on which, for the first time in the history of mankind, the number of people who live in cities exceeded the number who live in the country. It is forecast that before 2030 60% of the world’s population will live in built-up areas. The first time that the urban population outnumbered its rural equivalent took place in the United States in 1910, the year in which the global urban population was only 14% of the total. It is inevitable that a century’s head start on this epochal transformation has had a direct and significant effect on American society and culture, and that it was here that the first forms of a new dialogue with nature appeared that then spread across all of Western society. There are many ways in which attempts are made to relate this development, one that is still in construction and full of hidden dangers, first and foremost the risk of transforming myth into a fashion, that is to say transforming ethics and morality into a consumer object. Attempting to counter this danger is the work of Ryan McGinley, with its history, references, beauty and renewed myths.