"Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is to shatter time and bring back the dead. ...Rise and see the whole world." --Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
When I go to museums or the theater, as I did last night (Shakespeare in the Park's production of Pericles--excellent), at some point, if my mind is really on the matter at hand, I am inevitably struck that someone made these things. A man as mythical and therefore as inaccessible as Shakespeare or Eakins or (in a lesser way) Pellini put pen to paper, brush to canvas, fingers to clay, and conceived this.
There is a shield in the Dallas Museum of Art from Polynesia, owned by a Shaman, with the outlines of hands carved into it. The hands trace an ancestors'. The shield was passed on because of the bravery and prestige of this warrior, whose name the little plaque beneath does not record. I assume he is forgotten now, because once that name has slipped from memory, the shield is no longer of value. The virtue of the object is, apparently, imbued by the power of living memory rather than intrinsically present. To us, the shield is a work of art; to the Shaman, of magic. I'd argue, however, (and I have Mark Helprin, particularly in his magnificent Winter's Tale, to back me up here), that the function has remains essentially the same: "Magic...was all about time, and could stop it and hold it for the inquisitive eye to look through as if through cold and splendid ice." Surely this is why we collect photographs of our families and artifacts of distant times--to freeze them.
I wonder about art and memory. Does Pellini's little woman mean less to me than Eakins' painting nearby? Probably. I have only a brief and fading memory of who Pellini was, gained exclusively from the exhibition catalogue. Does the greatness of the object d'art dwindle with memory or does it become itself a testament to memory? Can a man be made immortal in molding what bears his memory even after his name is lost? Does a work wear its maker's handprints and endure according to the strength of the man? Or are the works we praise only survivors saved by accidents from the shipwreck of time? "O you gods," Pericles grieves in Shakespeare's eponymous play, "Why do you make us love your goodly gifts, and snatch them straight away."
Perhaps the muses play our Prometheus against the Fates, and instead of fire, give us memories incarnated and bulwarked in songs and images. Art, certainly, has always and through all ages taken time (figured, often, as death) and love as its themes. Art, perhaps, defies defacing time and bodies memory after the mothering mind passes, giving order to overwhelming experience. Or perhaps art is only the lovely, spinning beads of water which hang in the air after over a fountain.