VISUAL culture: The New Ravishing
Looking at Sandro Botticelli’s untitled painting commonly known as La Primavera or Allegory of Spring, we can find an Allegory of our visual culture, which we explored in Sturken and Cartwright’s Practices of Looking...
La Primavera, painted in 1482, depicts mythological figures in a garden. From watching a television program Every Painting Tells a Story, I was inspired to investigate this allegory for the lush growth of spring as a potential for metaphors connecting to our readings from Practices of Looking... as well as for my work, for my life, and for my art.
La Primavera, 1482
But First, to understand the painting, we must read it from right to left. This is not our natural way to read imagery. In western industrialized culture, we train ourselves to read from left to right. Once we adjust to looking at La Primavera, we begin to explore the subjects of the painting: six females, two males and a putto (fat child).
La Primavera (detail), 1482
Secondly, in Greek mythology, man created gods in his likeness. In Christianity, we are taught that God created man in the likeness of his own image. For this painting, we must calibrate our thinking. These gods of Greek mythology are flawed with human qualities. On the right, Zephyrus, god of the biting west wind of March, is “ravishing” Chloris against her will, after she resisted him. He wanted her, regardless of her resistance, so he took her. Zephyrus, a force of nature, ravished Chloris, an unintentionally seductive nymph, who rejected and resisted Zephyrus. This metaphor is critical in making connections to our western industrialized culture. From this aggressive act, flowers sprouted out of the mouth of Chloris. Despite being overpowered, Chloris transformed into Flora the goddess of flowers, or the goddess of spring.
After reading Sturken and Cartwright’s Practices of Looking..., I have come to this conclusion: in our western industrialized culture there is always a ravishing. We the people are like Chloris, the unintentionally seductive nymphs of Zephyrus’ desire. Wealth and power are like the west wind blown from the mouth of Zephyrus. We can never obtain the wind, but we can be devastated by the wind. Our resilience and transformation produces a figurative garden.
Every pun intended. The male gaze as the primary target audience of visual marketing is no coincidence. Throughout history, men have ravished seductive women. Ravishing is a display of power with little skill. Seduction is a skillful way of being that must be nurtured and tuned, but regardless of how skillful or for whom the seduction is intended, stereotypically, men ejaculate at the thought of being powerful. This makes men easy targets of marketing. The empty promise of obtaining power is a faster sell in promoting consumable goods than the promise of making one desirable, which takes work to develop, more work to maintain and is subjective to asking approval from an audience.
In my work, I used to think I focused on the metaphorical transformation of the nymph Chloris into Flora, the goddess of flowers. I thought I chose subjects that have been affected, possibly devastated by the wind. Whether literally eroded, by weather and time, or poetically rusted, by mistreatment or abandonment, I found great pleasure in the “dusting off”, rediscovery, recovery and re-exhibition of beauty. Taking the opportunity to immerse, for the first time of my adult life, in my art, I began piecing together thoughts that had been gestating for 15 years, but I had no idea how to make my ideas my “work”. Surrendering to the academic process of making art, which involves study, theory and criticism, I wanted to distance myself from being an amateur, kitsch and/or stagnant artist. That much I knew.
Swiping through images of Botticelli’s work in an Art history “app” on an iPad, I realized my work too will be swiped through, from screen to screen, on a beautiful “retina display”, or some other new technology, if I am lucky. This is another kind of ravishing. Technology will swallow the work of artists whole. If that is to be an artist’s fate, then what is the point of putting oneself out there?
Retreating back to the studio, painting to music at three in the morning, I realized then, as I do now, this is the moment. I have to decide whether I can accept the offerings of the real world or live inside my mind. We are all like Chloris: In the real world, we have all had something taken from us or put into us. By simply existing, we are subject to be ravished by shallow, aggressive “gods”. In the real world, I am like the nymph Chloris, but that is not who I am in my mind. In the studio, I realized I was deciding whether my work is an acknowledgement of such a “taking”, an inventory of what is left of me, or a discovery of an untouchable and sacred place.
In La Primavera, Flora, the goddess of flowers, is the second female image from the right. In this 6 and a half foot tall painting, it is Flora who is addressing the viewer by looking at and stepping directly toward us, approximately at eye level. Despite the dominating acts of Zephyrus, her arrival symbolized the renewal of the cycle of life. Perhaps, Flora was the answer to the question: What could my art become?
To the left of Flora, we see Venus the goddess of love. Venus is also looking at the audience, though not as directly as Flora, for Venus is an overseer presiding over the garden. She is a god too. Her oblivious response to the ravishing of Chloris implies its inevitability. Venus, therefore, has her graces set to seduce another male god in the painting, Mercury. Mercury, who is waving a wand to keep the clouds away from the garden in springtime, is the messenger god of abundance and commercial success.
La Primavera (detail), 1482
In Practices of Looking..., we learn, in our western industrialized culture, people in power control visual media, and thus control production. The mass population looks to the “powers that be” to thwart off the clouds with their magic wands in the role of Mercury. Despite thinking their actions being more like Zephyrus, we cast them as Mercury, who is receiving Venus’ graces, primed to make love on the lush ground of springtime grass. In another painting by Botticelli, Mars and Venus, painted a year later, we see the affect of Venus’ love on Mars, the god of war. With his helmet cast aside, Mars is easily satisfied by Venus. Seeing such satisfaction makes Mercury the lucky god. So why would we not cast ourselves in the role to receive Venus’ love?
Venus and Mars, 1483
In La Primavera, Venus’ three accompanying dancing nymphs, the Three Graces (Charm, Beauty, Creativity), set the stage for Mercury to enjoy the love of Venus. Venus’ aloof facial expression, similar to her expression in the other Botticelli paintings Birth of Venus and Mars and Venus, is appropriate because her love is unobtainable. Just as the wind of Zephyrus is inescapable, Venus’ love is impenetrable. Her love can not be owned. One can only be affected by it.
Birth of Venus, 1486
Unfortunately, mastery of media means that powerful corporations are creating truths for the masses. We the people have grown to be fearful of the gods, to believe we own gods, or believe we are God. The average person never knew the game. Now, the average person no longer knows their place. Media tricks us into believing we can only be Chloris or Zephyrus, meanwhile trying to reduce Venus, so we may never know her.
We need only to look at Titian’s Venus of Urbino, painted just 56 years later in 1538, to see the inspiration for the kind of marketing we have mastered today. Here, Venus is looking directly at the viewer. She is touching her vagina. She is teasing the viewer unapologetically. Venus of Urbino is placed in a domestic setting, which implies that she is ready to be tamed by mortal man. While I enjoy the painting’s direct sexuality, she does not deserve to be called a Venus. Venus of Urbino is just an easy lay, so don’t be fooled.
Venus of Urbino, 1538
Typing this paper in my local Starbucks, I see another trick, Siren, the company’s logo portrayed as the muse and welcoming hostess of the company’s brand. A siren in Greek mythology is a seductive, devious creature who lures sailors to their death with her sex appeal and her song. In the early Starbucks logo, we knew she was a siren because she clearly had two mermaid-like tails, but over the years, the logo has become more deceptive. Her tales are almost completely hidden by design principles of symmetrical balance and unity with the lines of the hair. This siren is being presented as a Venus. ...like a Titian-style Venus, however, looking directly at the viewer. Starbuck’s website acknowledges that she is a “siren” but manipulates her purpose: “And she’s a promise too, inviting all of us to find what we’re looking for, even if it’s something we haven’t even imagined yet.” (...like Death!?!)
Mastery of media means images can be taken and used to turn tricks, or serve as prostitutes. How else could a devious killer be misrepresented by one of the world’s biggest brands as a muse or goddess in the form of a logo, such as the siren being used by Starbucks? Conversely, how else could the goddess of love be reduced to an easy lay in the form of endless Venus impostors? This is the new ravishing. All is fair when pushing commodities.
Marx thought an ideology such as consumerism brought ‘false consciousness’ making the masses vulnerable to coercion. Familiarity brings marketability which births sell-able products, projects and even political candidates. We are bombarded with messages and images that make us feel powerful, only to be disempowered by the magic trick or the dominant-hegemonic forces. This is interpellation, a sophisticated form of manipulation. Someone is getting powerful, and thus someone is getting rich by manipulating the masses. Those who own production control ideas. This also gives some insight to the widening income gap in America. The rich keep getting richer because there are more ways to control media, and, thus, they have more ways to gain capital.
I try to imagine an agricultural culture where labor and the crop dictates the schedule and, thus, the senses of a man... no iPods, no magazines, no billboards, no radio, no television, no computer... no need. In such a culture, the ravishing can be more obvious. American slavery is an example of such a ravishing as recent as 150 years ago. Some things are just in our nature. The visuals that are centerpiece of our current “culture” suppress our resistance by soothing us with pseudo art in the form of advertising that reinforces our culture’s ideology. Industrialization has perfected the veil.
I taught a foreign exchange student from Russia about 12 years ago, who told me “American blue jeans” would be prized souvenirs to take back to her home. An inventive use of cotton intended to be gear for steelworkers had been masterfully marketed as fashion... This cotton commodity is what made our country unique to an outsider. ...the literal fabric of the figurative garden that sprouted out of the mouth of Chloris.
Enter the digital garden. Through media, fantasy itself is a marketable commodity. We are constantly creating and consuming fantasy. Such a cycle is a complex and interconnected VISUAL culture. It is no longer as simple as seeing the advertisement and buying the product. Advertisers know that buying into the fantasy keeps us in a constant state of consumerism. Consumer addicts just need to have access to the products.
In a conversation with one of my ninth grade students, I was astonished by the impact of VISUAL culture on her. She said, “I wish life had a soundtrack. Then, you would know what was going to happen by what type of music was playing, and you would know what to do.” Mastery of media has so effectively blurred the lines between fantasy and reality, we no longer wish they were one and the same. We believe fantasy and reality ARE one and the same.
Most of us, now, appreciate media in the context of other media. For example, I do not see our young people listening to music for music sake. There must be a video that also informs them about the fashion trends, latest lingo, and temperament. To many, “What a Wonderful World” does not exist on its own. It recalls emotions and imagery from Toy Story 3. Does it no longer make US feel as good when it was “just” a beautiful song from the soulful and raspy voice of Louis Armstrong?
The production of fantasy is a valuable commodity. In our western industrialized culture, we mass produce fantasy. Because most of us do not have to toil in the fields; because most of us do not have to pick cotton; because most of us do not work from sunrise to sunset; because our poorest citizens have more leisure time in a day and more years in a lifespan than during anytime in history, we have time to fantasize. Our dreams and our fantasies are the lush garden. VISUAL culture keeps us caught in a cycle, however, where we continue to cast ourselves as Chloris.
That once famous superstar athlete may have trouble walking in his 50’s. That platinum selling musician did not make nearly as much money as you thought. That award winning actor overdosed on drugs. The powerful business man is obese and impotent...etc., yet we repeatedly fill the roles of Chloris and Zephyrus in our fantasy commodity. ...the phoenix from the ashes ...the rags to riches story... With the hopes of becoming Flora, these “beautiful” stories are in constant rotation being retold and resold. Why do we JUST dream to be nymphs who morph into gods?
Without truly seeing Venus, we won’t see the big picture. She is the center of an this almost basic, symmetrical composition. Venus is the goddess of sex, but she is also the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, prosperity and victory. With his arrow aimed at Mercury, Cupid, Venus’ son is the god of desire, affection and erotic love, so sex is definitely an important part of the picture, but that is not the only part. Venus’ power goes beyond desires of the flesh.
La Primavera (detail), 1482
In my current work, I am embarking on a journey to explore and reveal Venus, uplifting both her overt and subtle attributes as the lead actor in my fantasy. I have been creating abstract foundations in paint on paper and allowing them to settle. I then cultivate the surface with abstract mark-making like vitamin-rich soil, hoping Venus may find my work a suitable, protected “garden” environment. Lastly, I try to unearth her from the depths of my underpainting, whether her likeness emerges as portrait, sculpture or landmark, so that I can admire her charms and her grace...
Venus can not be reduced, but she can be ignored, and others can pose as her impostor. Christianity teaches about such pitfalls in or relationship with God. As Christianity teaches, one must be open to receive and accept God, we too must be skillful in the art of Looking to see gods, so that we may either fantasize to be them or fantasize to be loved by them.
In VISUAL culture there will always be a ravishing, but it is the preservation and play by the gods Mercury and Venus (along with the Cupid and the Three Graces) in La Primavera that could be inspiration for other fantasies giving us something greater than the hope of Chloris’ transformation to inhabit the garden.
...As the professional practicing artist of my own fantasy, may I always choose to cast myself as Mercury, so that I may protect the garden beneath Venus’ feet, constantly being prepared to receive her love.
untitled (Venus), 2012
Marita Sturken, Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking...an Introduction to Visual Culture (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (New York City, NY: Rugged Land, LLC, 2002).
Steven Pressfield, The Warrior Ethos (New York City, NY: Black Irish Entertainment, LLC, 2011).
The Holy Bible, New International Version (NIV) (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).
Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, 1879, "Venus"
Samuel Butler, Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey (A Buki Editions Collection, 2009).
Campos, Thai. "Botticelli - The Philosophy Behind Primavera." Suite 101.com. Jan. 2010 <http://suite101.com/article/botticelli--the-philosophy-behind-primavera-a191131>.
M., Steven. "So Who Is Siren?" Starbucks.com. 5 Jan. 2011 <http://www.starbucks.com/blog/so-who-is-the-siren>.
"Cupid" in The Classical Tradition, edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis (Harvard University Press, 2010), pp. 144–145.