April 6, 2010

Which Came First: The Merit or the Reputation?

Print More

What is art? What makes something good or bad, and who decides?

These are some of the underlying debates in art analysis.

We all like to think that we judge art by what we see — technique, composition, subject matter and use of color — but most of the time, the reputation of the artist plays a huge role in framing our view of a work of art.

On a trip to Europe in 1905, architect Stanford White purchased a marble sculpture of a young boy for the foyer of his 5th Avenue town house in New York City (the building that became the Cultural Services office for the French Embassy in 1952).

To White, the statue was simply a nice addition to the room that emphasized his simplistic, classically influenced architecture, and brought a touch of Renaissance history and culture to the Big Apple. But the work was hardly a masterpiece. That is, until James David Draper, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (located right across the street from White’s town house) took notice of the small statue in 1990.

Intrigued by the piece, Draper began an extensive study of the sculpture. Placing the statue in the late 15th to early 16th century, he stated that the artist worked at the same time as Michelangelo Buonarotti — the famous Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet, who lived from 1475 to 1564 and redefined the ideal form of beauty with St. Peter’s Pieta, The Sistine Ceiling and David.

Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor at NYU, took Draper’s analysis one step further. She declared that it wasn’t a contemporary of Michelangelo who designed the sculpture, but rather Michelangelo himself.

Her claim, albeit a little rash and loosely substantiated, sparked interest all across the world and caused art lovers and curators alike to take notice of the armless, legless sculpture that had been previously dismissed.

Because of this worldwide attention, in November 2009 the French Republic’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs officially leant the Young Archer — as he is now dubbed — to the Metropolitan for public display and further investigation into its history.

Many aspects of the Young Archer point toward Michelangelo’s artistry, including the stance of the statue. Michelangelo was well known for his interest in the duality and contrast in his subject matter whether in attitude, posture or underlying symbolism. The culmination of this theme is the contrapposto posture that is signified by a twisted or turned torso and a balance of opposites in the positioning of the arms and legs.

While the Young Archer shies away from a true contrapposto pose, his torso is slightly twisted, which suggests that the artist was experimenting with the contrapposto approach at the time. This evidence typically lends itself to proof of Michelangelo’s handiwork; if Draper’s timeline is accurate, Michelangelo was 15 or 16 years old at the time of the Young Archer’s emergence and was still honing his technical and artistic skill.

The Young Archer was undeniably an experiment for the artist, a way of exploring creativity and innovation and challenging the old notions of ideal beauty. Based on classical tradition, the sculpture is a vivid combination of grace and latent power. The youth’s strong neck and shoulders are set upon a thin, child-like torso with what would be dramatically thin arms. The most strikingly aspect is the maturity of the child; the sculpture displays both childlike and adult physical characteristics.

In Michelangelo’s time the representation of the hair held great importance, and the curly mop of hair that adorns the Young Archer’s head is reminiscent of David and Bacchus — two of Michelangelo’s most prominent marble works, finished in 1504 and 1497 respectively. This is perhaps the most prominent detail that ties Michelangelo and his known sculptures to the uncredited archer.

Until there is irrefutable proof of Michelangelo’s handiwork or otherwise, the Young Archer is stuck in a limbo of sorts between the realm of historical masterpieces and the realm of the forgotten and badly damaged unclaimed works of yesteryear.

One way or another the Young Archer’s Cinderella-esque story from patio to prominence teaches an important lesson: Whether or not the statue turns out to be a true Michelangelo original, isn’t the important issue if it’s any good?

Sure, it’s fascinating — almost romantic — to envision a young, attractive Michelangelo creating this youthful nude from a block of marble, but take a step back. Separate yourself from the history of the statue and the reputation of the artist. Be honest. Do you like the piece? Does an association with Michelangelo change that, or not?

So the next time you stroll down 5th Avenue, try to take notice of the art around you. You never know where you will be able to find a piece of history or maybe even just something beautiful.

Original Author: Heather McAdams