Sunday, June 24, 2012

Gilding the Lily

Calla Lilies, 1987 [4x5, Kodak Tech Pan film]

Here is Shakespeare in King John [1595]:


Therefore, to be possess'd with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To see the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Or here, on roses, by William Carlos Williams--

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air--The edge
cuts without cutting
itself in metal or porcelain--

whither? It ends--

But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry--

Sharper, neater, more cutting
figured in majolica--
the broken plate
glazed with a rose

Somewhere the sense
makes copper roses
steel roses--

The rose carried weight of love
but love is at an end--of roses

It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits

Crisp, worked to defeat
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching


The place between the petal's
edge and the

From the petal's edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact--lifting
from it--neither hanging
nor pushing--

The fragility of the flower
penetrates space

Williams was playing with the idea that we might see flowers in a purely scientific sense, or that geometrical representation, as a technique, could be a scaffolding upon which to hang a Cubist, ironic, "labored" aesthetic. Love's diagram, a discrete regard, remote, cold, inert--like a rose placed into dry ice fog and turned brittle as glass.

The idea that man can or cannot "improve" upon nature has been a preoccupation of Western Civilization for millennia. Do we offend "the gods" by emulating "perfection"? Would it be possible to raise a competing standard to Nature by tampering with her timeless selection process?

We now routinely meddle in genetic code, and can look forward to creating hybrids not just of the flora of the planet, but to its fauna as well. But nature of course isn't fixed--it changes constantly, not just to suit new criteria, but simply through accident. Is it possible that some or many of the accidental "flaws" we see in life forms are the result merely of false leads or of some genetic experiment in the process of being slowly closed down, rejected as being of little use? We think of natural selection as being an "efficient" process, but certainly, given the mechanism of descent we think we understand now, it's just as possible that for every successful adaptation, there are many which appear, persevere for a while, but then are abandoned. Our "vestigial" aspects--such as our "appendix" organ--a useless little dead-end off the corner of our large intestine which we apparently no longer need--might, without any intervention, take a hundred thousand years to be entirely eliminated. Natural selection may simply be a plaything of God (just an expression, you understand), with no purpose other than to keep the game interesting. Think of a chess game in which only one move could be made every hundred thousand years.

Calla lilies have been a staple of large format still life photography for a long time. Their broad pristine purity, lushly white unified petal, with a little curling tendril at the tip, is irresistible, posed against a black backdrop. Many different kinds of moods can be evoked with them. Here's one of my favorites, by Imogene Cunningham--

Or, here's another by an anonymous photographer--

How anything is seen is a mystery. Certainly we can respond predictably to this or that version of an object and its objectification as art, but how each of us "sees" something is a unique process, governed by our specific experience, understanding and preference(s). Who can say what any work of art ultimately "means"? Sometimes I read a critical piece on the meaning of a painting or poem or automobile, etc., and I am completely astounded. I remember reading once in an essay by Roland Barthes, a description of the Citroen sedan which he saw as an aggressive sexual symbol of male domination and brutality. Whereas I'd always thought it sleekly feminine and even powerfully seductive--at least to this man's eyes. If you start out with an agenda, you often "see" things you wish to see, rather than what might occur if you could only look with "unbiased" regard.

Thus endeth the lesson.


Sunny West said...

Yes, and we see what we look for. Imagine what one could "see" if not looking? Hmmmm. Would that be a source of imagination or inspiration? Just wondering....

Curtis Faville said...


I added a picture of the Citroen referred to in the blog.

The blind India feature writer for the New Yorker, Ved Mehta, apparently was able to "sense" objects in space. Not sure what this "power" or ability was, but it implies that we're capable of a kind of "extra"-sensory apprehension.

Can we imagine things that aren't there? Of course--it's what makes us human, instead of animals. My cats have a keen sense of what I'm feeling, or what I'm anticipating doing, yet they can't visualize or plan ahead or formulate symbols.