Somber Diminution of European Aristocracy

A few days ago I tweeted a quote from Auerbach’s Mimesis relating to the state of the European aristocracy at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. A new French king was crowned and the old order was put back into place, but the ideals of the revolution continued to circulate throughout European society. The Age of Enlightenment had broken over the continent and rational order was the new program around which civic life was to be organized. Even the aristocracy—above all the aristocracy!—acknowledged the supremacy of reason and welcomed its ascension into the public sphere, but by doing so, they were also implicitly calling into question their own places in the future of Europe. Religion and feudalism, the two great pillars of the medieval society, were now supplanted by the more rigorous, more totalizing forces of modernity. Nobility ceased to serve any practical purpose. It no longer signaled power or even wealth. It became merely a feature of social status, a sign of dignity and moral standing. And so Auerbach writes (I shall quote it fully here since I was not able to do so in twitter’s 140 characters):

“As these people are conscious that they no longer themselves believe in the thing they represent, and that they are bound to be defeated in public argument, they choose to talk of nothing but the weather, music, and court gossip.” (Mimesis, 456)

In this passage, Auerbach explains why aristocratic life had grown so stale and sedate in the 19th century. In previous ages, men of the aristocracy were daring, inquisitive thinkers. Their educations were wide-ranging and their interests multifarious. The Age of Enlightenment came about in the salons of French marquises, and Italian counts, and the courts of minor German princes. It was the aristocracy that retrieved from antiquity ideas like an organized civil service, the conscript army, and scientific method. They sponsored the translation of classics into vernacular tongues and paid to distribute them in print. But with an employed civil service, there was no need for a court. If the state could levy an army through conscription, there was no need for knights. If scientists could understand natural phenomena through experimentation, liturgical explanations of creation posited by the church became impractical and unreliable by comparison. With the Age of Enlightenment the European aristocracy had essentially dug its own grave. In it’s inevitable culmination, the French Revolution, this was at times very literally the case. But it was not yet the end. The nobles still controlled the land; they still had the support and obedience of the rural peasantry. The European monarchies prevailed against Napoleon and the Revolutionary army. They had preserved themselves for the time being, but they would never be able to reverse the historical inertia generated by the Revolution and the Enlightenment. The aristocracy was discredited and had not the means to argue otherwise. And so, throughout the 19th century and into the industrial age they behaved as delicately as possible so as not to disturb the status quo, and they clung tenaciously to what little they had remaining.

Interest in Art in 19th Century Europe

I have spent the evening reading a particularly meaty chapter in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and so have nothing to add to our present discussion which left off last night with interactive poetry. I did however come across some choice bits in Auerbach which are worth sharing. I am reading the second to last chapter in the book. The subject is high art in the late 19th century and the mutual disregard artists and the public had for one another during that period. Auerbach writes, translated from German of course, “It can be safely said that, with few exceptions, the significant artists of the later nineteenth century encountered hostility, lack of comprehension, or indifference on the part of the public… On the basis of this experience many critics and artists became convinced that this was necessarily so: that the very originality of a significant new work had as its concomitant that the public, not yet accustomed to its style, found it confusing and disturbing and could become accustomed only gradually to the new language of form.”

Auerbach describes here a tension between producers and consumers of culture resulting from a transition in attitude and sensibilities that took place over the course of the nineteenth century. Previously it had been the aristocracy that had defined the taste and tenor of cultural exchange, especially in matters of art and fashion. As the European countries began to industrialize, this paradigm changed completely with the elevation of common people through the ranks of society. From this point onward, ethics, lifestyle, appearance, manners, speech, basic values would all be determined by a newly emerged middle class that promoted pragmatism, generation of wealth and, at least by then end of the century, comprised a majority of the populace. Major artists of this time were exponents of the anti-enlightenment tradition of romanticism and found almost nothing redeeming about the bourgeois way of life. Their work was polemically opposed the general public and highly critical of societal values. In response, society ignored them and occupied itself instead with pulp literature and cheap theater. Auerbach’s analysis of the dichotomy is marvelous. I shall quote it at length:

“Here we have the “bourgeois,” the creature whose stupidity, intellectual inertia, conceit, hypocrisy, and cowardice were attacked and ridiculed by poets, writers, artists, and critics from the romantic period on. Can we simply subscribe to their verdict? Are not these bourgeois the same people who undertook the tremendous task, the bold adventure, of the economic, scientific, and technological civilization of the nineteenth century, and who also produced the leaders of the revolutionary movements which were the first to recognize the crisis, dangers, and foci of corruption inherent in that civilization? Even the average bourgeois of the nineteenth century shared in the tremendous activity in life and labor which characterized the age. Day in and day out he led a life which was much more dynamic and exacting than the life of the elite, with their routine of idleness and their almost complete immunity from the pressure of time and duty, who represent the literary public of the ancien régime. His physical security and his property were better guarded than in former times; he had incomparably greater possibilities of rising in the world. But acquiring and preserving property, exploiting opportunities for advancement, adjusting to quickly changing conditions—all as part of the bitter competitive struggle for survival—made such great and ceaseless demands on his strength and his nerves as had never been known in earlier times… It is not surprising that these people expected and insisted that literature, and art in general, should give them relaxation, recreation, and at best an easily attained intoxication, and that they objected to the triste et violente distraction, to use an expressive phrase from Goncourts, which most of the important authors offered.”

Written in the 1940s to explain the cultural landscape of the 1860s, but it just as easily could have been describing our own time. We after all are still living in the age of the bourgeois revolution. The middle class remains the defining force in society, and its time and efforts are still tied up with the demands of industry and commerce, of the professional life. I’m so partial to the passage above because Auerbach shows a measured reverence for the achievements of the middle class. There’s almost a kind of sympathy he expresses for the bourgeois’s material inability to absorb high concepts and virtuosic expression. He has none of the resentment for the middle classes exhibited by your typical Marxist, or should I say self-loathing, since most Marxists in this day and age are themselves members of the middle class. Auerbach is willing to acknowledge the value of either side’s position, bohemian and bourgeoisie, and has a clearer view of both for doing so.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Trask, Willard R. 50th anniversary ed. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003. 500-502

Interactive Poesy

Found a neat little poetry toy the other day. Go to www.sweetoldetc.org to see. The creator is named Alison Clifford. She does other audiovisual work beside this. I found a number of light play videos and images in her portfolio which she calls “interstitial articulations.” I included one of them above. They’re pretty slick.

Sweet Old Etcetera is one of her earlier works, and you can tell at times that it is indeed someone’s early work. There are some rather broad gestures, like letters drifting across the browser window to form the word leaf and a few other corny animations that sometimes give it the feeling of a flash animation greeting card. Nonetheless, it is a wonderfully interesting experiment. She arranges the poetry of ee cummings into shaped text blocks which are visually representational. The words themselves are usually only vaguely significant, as cummings had intended. I think the project is really playful and imaginative, and nicely complements what ee cummings was trying to do. The different arrangements produce an added semiotic layer to the semi-sensical text phrases. The aural tones are stimulating and emotionally correlative. Most interesting of all is how the verse animations, which have an effect of mutating lines into new statements, create a new sort of lineation that transforms focus compartments of text within the whole poem rather than employing a serial transition to each succeeding line.

Have a look for yourself and play around with it.

Toy Chest

“It is like a vast grey box in which are laid helter-skelter a great many toys, each of which is itself completely significant apart from the always unchanging temporal dimension which merely contains it along with the rest. I make this point clear for the benefit of any of my readers who have not had the distinguished privilege of being in jail. To those who have been in jail my meaning is at once apparent; particularly if they have had the highly enlightening experience of being in jail with a perfectly indefinite sentence. How, in such a case, could events occur and be remembered otherwise than as individualities distinct from Time Itself? Or, since one day and the next are the same to such a prisoner, where does Time come in at all? Obviously, once the prisoner is habituated to his environment, once he accepts the fact that speculation as to when he will regain his liberty cannot possibly shorten the hours of his incarceration and may very well drive him into a state of unhappiness (not to say morbidity), events can no longer succeed each other: whatever happens, while it may happen in connection with some other perfectly distinct happening, does not happen in a scale of temporal priorities—each happening is self-sufficient, irrespective of minutes, months and the other treasures of freedom.

It is for this reason that I do not purpose to inflict upon the reader a diary of my alternative aliveness and nonexistence at La Ferté—not because such a diary would unutterably bore him, but because the diary or time method is a technique which cannot possibly do justice to timelessness. I shall (on the contrary) lift from their grey box at random certain (to me) more or less astonishing toys; which may or may not please the reader, but whose colours and shapes and textures are a part of that actual Present—without future and past-whereof they alone are cognizant who, so to speak, have submitted to an amputation of the world. ” (ee cummings, The Enormous Room)

The remarkable passage above belongs to ee cummings. It introduces the period in his autobiographical work, The Enormous Room, in which he was incarcerated in a military prison without charge or sentence. The passage signals a transition in the narrative. In previous chapters, cummings played the role of the foreigner abroad. We was traveling or being made to travel. Each episode presents him with increasingly unfamiliar circumstances. Now, he is brought to the prison where he is to remain indefinitely. The narrator informs us the linear progress that we are accustomed to seeing in stories must come to a halt. The narrative, along with its protagonist, is put into suspension. The experience is incomparable, we are told. There arises a disruption in continuity, which causes traditional relationships and associations to vanish. The narrator is essentially being released into a social and temporal vacuum. Context is stripped away and we are left with only essence. This sudden disintegration of meaning should be terrifying, yet narrator is unperturbed. In fact, he seems pleased. We struggle to discern whether the tone is ironic. Partly it is. The narrator(cummings?) is subjected to unmistakable torment, but he is so enthralled by the novelty of the situation. This enormous room new world with a new set of incomprehensible principles. People and objects are discovered like uncharted continents. In the absence of shared custom or rules of conduct for entreating these unknown entities, the narrator is free to entreat them exactly as he wishes. Naturally, his first impulse is to play with them. All methods of conduct must be refashioned and the only effective way of doing so is through goofing and using the imagination to project meaning where none can be found. For this reason, he calls them toys. He finds that playing with them is remarkably stimulating, liberating even.

The purpose of this work is to present a vehicle through which cummings can share his toys with us. We admire them together, author and reader. We are, he hopes, as interested and “astonished” as he is.

When ee cummings is finally released from the enormous room, he returns home to New York and encounters the mob of the city. To his surprise, these people also are toys. Though they have decipherable histories, recognized behaviors, subjective agency, power of communication, the subtext of the enormous room remains, suggesting that all of these supposedly concrete elements that make up the identity are illusory. When cummings first spots people from the ship’s deck arriving in New York harbor, they are so distant they are dots, like seeds potential germinate into wonderful possibility. He describes them in the following line, which also concludes the book: “..which are men which are women and which are things new and curious and hard and strange and vibrant and immense, lifting with a great undulous stride firmly into immortal sunlight.”

The Play of Animals

 

“No doubt nature has given more than is necessary to unreasoning beings; she has caused a gleam of freedom to shine even in the darkness of animal life. When the lion is not tormented by hunger, and when no wild beast challenges him to fight, his unemployed energy creates an object for himself; full of ardour, he fills the re-echoing desert with his terrible roars, and his exuberant force rejoices in itself, showing itself without an object. The insect flits about rejoicing in life in the sunlight, and it is certainly not the cry of want that makes itself heard in the melodious song of the bird; there is undeniably freedom in these movements, though it is not emancipation from want in general, but from a determinate external necessity.”(Schiller, An Aesthetic Education of Man: Letter 27)

 

Schiller and Play

The famous line from Friedrich Schiller on play: “…man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays..” This statement comes from the fifteenth letter of “On the Aesthetic Education of Man.” Play is the principal expression of the human spirit. It reconciles the divisions which civilization has carved into the mind. Schiller divides the creative impulse into three sense drives: desire for sense, desire for form and desire for play. He names play (Spieltrieb) the salvation of the other two. It unites reason and sensation and synthesizes from their correspondence absolute essence and spirit:

“The sense-drive demands that there shall be change and that time shall have a content; the form-drive demands that time shall be annulled and that there shall be no change. That drive, therefore, in which both the others work in concert (permit me for the time being, until I have justified the term, to call it the play-drive), the play-drive, therefore, would be directed towards annulling time within time, reconciling becoming with absolute being and change with identity.” (On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter 14)

Schiller’s description of the creative impulse corroborates a previous post I have written on the matter. I divide creativity by intellect, sensation and spontaneity, and cite the classical totems for these faculties: the laurel branch, the myrtle bough and the ivy vine. For Schiller, the creative subject thinks, feels and plays. The typical and arduous labor of the mind in workaday life and stolid social interactions activate only one of these faculties at a time. We seek freedom from dreary obligation in play. Play reconstitutes our potential and human strengths into the vigorous gesture, the triumphal transgression.

I’ve considered these qualities that Schiller describes myself at great length, before having ever encountered these ideas in “On the Aesthetic Education of Man,” and I’ve viewed the situation differently, perhaps it is no more or less correct. I find all of the impulses to be equally at odds with each other and that each one is just as capable as the others at wedding them together into creative synthesis. Play is wild and heedless whereas sensuality is tender and quite. The intellect in its strength can tame play and encourage sensuality to assert itself more externally. Thought and play have a competitive relationship: one can work or one can play. Sensitivity assuages the antipathy that exists between the two. It makes each aware of its own fallibility.

Would that all it took to produce great artists is a penchant for play. The different formulae of interaction between the three great muses are endlessly vacillating and complex.

Gamecuffs

An excerpt from a failed story I wrote a few years ago. The story’s called “Gamecuffs.” This is part of the opening monologue:

The previous summer I was very interested in obstacle courses and was watching a lot of Japanese game shows. I may be wrong since I speak no Japanese, but it seems most Japanese game shows forego the classic game show convention of introducing their guests to the studio and television audience. I can think of only one American game show that shares this practice, and it is probably not coincidental that The Price is Right should share other similarities to the Japanese game show method, such as play with large and conspicuous toy-objects, adrenaline-tainted calculation, effusive celebration, naked disappointment, et cetera. It is imperative that a show like The Price provide a degree of anonymity before a national audience; the guest would not be free to act childlike and entertaining otherwise. For a game devoted purely to play, it makes no sense to stop in the middle and talk about what somebody does for work. And besides, for the sake of the game, what purpose does a guest need to fulfill beside being anything other than a contestant? I remember watching Jeopardy! during the late stages of Ken Jennings’ 74 game winning streak. Despite having a life well-built for small talk (life abroad, new baby, self-professed passion for comics and movies), at around his thirtieth appearance he had run out of things to say about himself during the introduction break. He and Trebeck spent that time on the remaining shows just talking about the game.

I have a respect and fascination with those who play games for a living. A man I know from work is sometimes able to support himself playing cards online. He isn’t always able to win, so he keeps his job working afternoons and evenings as a Pharmacy Technician. I only know him because there was a period when I tried smoking clove cigarettes and we would sometimes take smoking breaks together in back. He told me that when he gets off work around eleven, he goes home, checks his accounts and goes to work playing Texas hold’em against people in India and the Pacific Rim. For seven continuous hours, he told me, he sits up in bed with his wife sleeping beside him and plays poker. Then, at around 6:30 in the morning, regardless of whether he is winning or losing, he logs off and goes to wake his kids up for school. He said he sleeps a little between the time his wife leaves for work and 3 o’clock, when he comes in; although, sometimes he’ll log back on during midday and work the Americans playing on their lunch breaks. I told him I’d been keeping more or less the same schedule since getting my PS3, but he said it wasn’t the same thing because he wasn’t playing for fun. He was playing for money. Once you’ve played the games long enough, you begin to see the interplay of odds and the mechanics of betting. He said that once you’ve reached that point, you stop playing and just respond robotically to the other players. He insisted that it was a job, as much as his Pharm. Tech job was a job. I don’t think this is completely true, since I’ve seen him sleeping in the meds lab after the Pharmacist has left, so clearly the two at least produce different physiological responses. I had to ask him, then, if he doesn’t enjoy playing the game and he isn’t making that much money doing it, why does he play it obsessively like he does? He said he likes the winning.

Like movies, most games are designed to cause a degree of stress . This is intended to be part of the game’s challenge. I remember as a child, before I had become adept—as all gamers do—at deciphering the programmed pattern of a game, I owned several titles for Nintendo which I could not play because I was afraid of them. Worst in my collection was Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. Besides being baffling, requiring the player to enact implausible solutions to progress onto the later stages, it made use of a day/night mechanic whereby the game was less threatening, less challenging during the day and insanely difficult during the night. The music and sound effects were very shrill during the night, too. The bad graphics and design did not diminish the depth of the game’s urgency in any way. There is never any need for a game to hide its artificiality, I think. Games have not become any more amusing from improvements in digital rendering and graphics resolution. What mesmerizes us about the game is the manic swing of the algorithm. It is most thrilling to us when it succeeds in forcing us to recalibrate the way we play it. Children make a game of jumping rope when they initiate a tempo and a pace and then attempt to sustain the game after suddenly shifting that tempo. A boxer jumping rope in a gym, on the other hand, does so at a steady rhythm with the sole purpose of maintaining regular motion. There is no play in what the boxer is doing: he is working out. To make a game out of something there must be a challenge. This is a strange proposition since we seem equally to crave challenge and feel compelled evade it.

I have determined that there is a table of life challenges divided into different qualitative types and categories. The greater half is attributive to work. Work-related challenge is taxing and requires submission to some kind of spirit-numbing repetition. The object is to elude exhaustion; that’s all. The there is challenge related to play, which is just the opposite of work-challenge. It is non-repetitive and fun. It coaxes you to experiment with new methods and think in ways you wouldn’t normally. This is liberating. Your mind becomes engrossed in the mechanics of the game and not with itself.

I find myself craving the game most at work, or someplace where I can’t escape. Though the work is not hard I become very tired for some reason. So I little games for myself. This makes the time pass and breaks up the day a little. I work for the moment as a photo developer at on of the big chain drug stores. I expend more effort playing the work games than not, but for whatever reason, they make the job less tiresome. I have one where I rearrange the order of the photos card so that it makes people’s vacations and family get-togethers appear to have happen differently. I also sometimes try to identify exceedingly nondescript photos and insert them into other customers’ orders. It’s surprising how no one notices. On certain days, I make it a point to use a different voice or accent with each individual customer. Then I try to remember to use the same voice when they come back to pickup their order.

I often wonder, if I had a serious job that demanded more of my attention and gave me more responsibility, would that deter me from making games out of it? And if it did, would such a job even be worth having? I have sacrificed a lot to remain entry-level. I still live with my parents, I don’t own my own car, the people I work with don’t seem to respect me, and then there’s all of my squandered potential, whatever that might be. It is a waste of life, every day, but so long as nothing I do is of any consequence, I feel free to do whatever I like. I wear the uniform inside-out some days. I have security cameras trained on me every hour of the evening but no one watches them. I have supervisors, but these people are even less responsible than I am. They pass the night shift stoned or asleep in the office. I wonder what how many people go about their lives without any hope of meaningful accomplishment? A board game I happened to play often as a child was called Life. Friends liked it—there was nothing about it to solve, so I didn’t see any purpose in it. The point of the game, ostensibly, is to travel by means of chance across a board which narrates players’ fates and to accumulate as much money as possible. The player who finishes richest wins, but the game very subtly suggests that it is a hollow victory since all that this money grants you at the end of your “Life” is a nicer retirement home in which to die. Thus Milton-Bradley reminds us, there are no winners in the game of Life.

I do not know of any game that satisfies me with its ending. A few video games have good stories written into them that climax and resolution, but a game’s narrative can only ever be incidental. It is the conclusion to a movie that has transpired alongside the game. As for as the game itself, you either crave to play it again after it has ended or it exhausts your interest and you turn the machine off. In neither case do you leave the game content with what has been done. Should the end be sweetened by the event of winning, the player digests the euphoria in place of the game, until it is gone and he wants the game again. So winning once is never sufficient. It is only incrementally better than losing every time.

Toys in Mexico

When I visited Mexico City several years ago I happened to notice how unusually prevalent toys were. People selling them. People playing with them, both children and adults. I could conjecture a number of causes for this. Probably the biggest reason is that everyone has families and children. When people go out to the Paseo de la Reforma or the Zócalo they bring their children, and if they are going to buy anything, they’ll buy things for their children. Another reason is that toys and candy are not a costly purchases. They are minor pleasures that can be enjoyed without weighing one’s desire for them over other things. I think vendors are so common because it’s quite customary to buy things from people on the street; not really the case in the core economies where most commerce is mediated through large established institutions.

I went to an art exhibit at the Museo de Arte Moderno that actually seemed to support this notion I had developed that Mexicans are preoccupied with toys. Works in the exhibition were from artists who drew inspiration from mass manufactured play objects and games. THe works that were featured were simply delightful. They were bright and wondrous, made from neat material. Some of the objects did things. You were intended to engage with the works as a child would toys in a toy store. Each one was remarkably alluring. I’m not sure how successful the works were as art, since they sort of lured one away from a critical position towards things and invited guests to instead indulge in amusement and escapism. Unfortunately, I’m not able to find documentation of the exhibit anywhere on the internet. I didn’t take pictures of it either. Though the source doesn’t label them, I believe the three installations in the video below were a part of the exhibit.

 

In the absence of other works from the exhibit, here are some images of Mexican toys and toy vendors…

Masks seemed to be a popular toy to sell, though I never saw anybody wearing one.

 

Woman selling dolls from a gondola in the Bosque de Chapultepec.

 

Traditional rub dolls. Apparently, the custom of making rug dolls for little girls dates from before the Conquest.

 

Mexican Barbi, for sale at Kmart.com. Her dress is from the 1800s. She has a widened nose and a chihuahua wedged between her elbow and rib cage, so as to make her recognizably Mexican, I guess.

 

Luche Libre wrestling figures. One of the best loved toys in Mexico for decades.

 

Your typical candy stand. Arresting color, bizarre texture, unidentifiable taste. Mexicandies should qualify as toy, I think. The kind of enchantment that surrounds it resembles the fetishization kids have for toys.

Naturalistic Aesthetic of the Mayan Civilization

The stylization exhibited in fine art of the Aztecs was a clear departure from the classical tradition that predated it. Art originating from the empires of the Maya and the Olmec is strictly representational. The aesthetic of Mesoamerica had been for more than a thousand years absorbed with the visible world. These Olmec figurines are the earliest exponents of this ancient tradition of assertive naturalism.

While these forms were motivated and inspired by carefully observed reality, I would not call them realistic. Accuracy was not the artists’ intent. The thighs of the baby are improbably plump. The lines of the seated figure are smooth and unintricate. The sculptors have chosen to accentuate certain features while dispensing with others. It is not an exhaustive compilation of realistic details. We see reflected in the sculptures only those details which the artists apparently interested in and chose to include. Thus, we have evidence of a sense of elegance perpetuated and passed around within this prehistoric culture.

 

As Mesoamerica passes into its classical age (approx. 200 AD to 900 AD), the sophistication an and nuance of its artistic representation become staggering. The figure above can safely be identified as high realism. It was obviously created by someone who had been trained for most of his life by elder artists who were carrying on a continually improving tradition. What is interesting about this figure is not the exquisite craftsman ship or the excellent sense of anatomy—though both are impressive. Other cultures achieved comparable feats of mimesis. What sets this figure apart from those is that it is not only realistic but also plausible. There is no idealization, no extraneous expression. The artist set out to reproduce his model precisely as he is. This statue tells us nothing more than how this man looked. It expresses a refined and discerning fastidiousness.

Aztec Figuration

Representation of human and animal forms in Aztecan art is so heavily stylized that they are almost beyond recognition. The image above depicts the dark god, Tezcatlipoca, rival of Quetzalcoatl. This illustration appears on the first page of the Codex Borgia, one of the few surviving pre-colonial Aztec manuscripts. His regalia are so elaborate that obscures his figure. Ensconced at the center of all of these lines and colors is a human form. The costuming, I believe, is representative of his glory radiating outward. One can only discern the god by analysis. If you look at the image as a whole, Tezcatlipoca just looks like a hulking edifice, or a detailed map.

 

It is possible that depictions of gods are depicted as distorted forms intentionally. Many characters of Aztec mythology are distinctly non-human. Pictured above, also taken from the Codex Borgia, is of the monstrous goddess Itzpapalotl, the “clawed butterfly.” Though she was capable of turning herself into a beautiful woman, in her true form she skeletal head, bat wings barbed with obsidian and jaguar claws for hands and feet. While still quite stylized, her illustration in the Codex Borgia is reasonably accurate.

 

It is possible that it is not the artist’s prerogative to produce an image with confusing details and a mixture of different elements but rather that is what the mythology prescribes. This illustration from the Codex Laud seems to depict a serpent figure with multiple bodies and human limbs. I don’t believe the identity of the character has been linked to known mythology, but it is quite apparent that there is intentionality here on the part of the illustrator. He was trying to represent something that perhaps could only be conceived abstractly.

 

Generally, Aztec art can be recognized by its profusion of detail and blocky shape. This Huastec sculpture of Tlazolteotl, a sexuality goddess, seems to diverge from that trend. It is extremely spare. The figure is abstracted and textureless. The fact that it was crafted by a Huaxtec artist rather than the Azteca might account for its distinct style, but it shares much in common with work from elsewhere in the empire: pronounced shapes, distorted proportions. The artist is not so much interested in constructing a perfect simulacrum of the goddess to show her as she would appear if encountered in real life. I think it was acknowledged that this was beyond the ability of the artist. Instead, he seems to be trying to express other concepts beside simple physicality with the decisions he makes about stylization and what details to include.

This last haunting figure is Mictlantecuhtli, god of the dead and king of the Aztec underworld. Of all of the works I have presented here, this is probably the least familiar to the Aztecs. In mythology, Mictlantecuhtli is a blood-splattered skeleton with a grinning skull and ethereal eyes in his otherwise empty eye sockets. The sculpture gives him a very simple pair of clawed human hands. His ribcage is recognizable as a ribcage. The bloom of innards peaking out from beneath it appear to be a liver and stomach. It would seem that the sculpture responsible for this work had some passing knowledge of anatomy. He knew enough about the body to carve a figure that we can recognize as sentient. The form is distorted and abstract, but not so much that it would appear alien to us. The figure is succeeds in disturbing us because it is human-like and relatable. As I shall explain in tomorrow’s post, with this piece, the artist is reviving an older standard of artistic quality: rigorous representation of the seeable.