Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Kouros

The New York Kouros, 615 - 600 BCE

Although we are always making comparisons, and most of them fruitful, nothing truly compares with the kouros. The form derives from Egypt, - many good comparisons there - and perhaps elsewhere, but the idea is entirely Greek, and it is the idea that gets us going. Of course, the Greeks remain exceedingly interested in the form, which no doubt accounts for the genre, as well as the idea, of the nude. It would be helped along, of course, by the relatively common custom of Greek men exercising naked, more or less in public. It took a century or two for the female form to attain the status of the nude.

He is the New York kouros, so called because you can find him at the Met, and there is maybe no finer representative of the type. This is the model from which later sculptors will, having studied and explored, break free. (More fodder for comparisons, again, likely to prove fruitful.) The Greeks devised this form to represent the individual, the human, the male, without having to focus attention on any particular individual per se. When used as grave markers, for example, the kouroi figures looked something like this, regardless of what the deceased might have looked like or how old he was when he died.

Protagoras: Man is the measure of all things. This is to say that we take things into perspective, relatively speaking, whenever we encounter the world. We do the measuring, so, you might say, Man is the measurer of all things.

The premise of Protagoras is a design for a theory of meaning, and, as such, it is a design for the invention of the university, or at least that part of the university that considers human beings, the brain, and meaning. On this design, it would be best to bring together as one division of the university all those studies concerned with the way in which the human brain attributes meaning. This would include cognitive linguistics and cognitive psychology, rhetoric and neurobiology, indeed any field of study concerned with the interpretive or creative mind. Under the premise of Protagoras, this division would be called "the humanities," since it would concern whatever belongs to human beings, the measure of all things. Mark Turner, Design for a Theory of Meaning, 1992

Well...Maybe...But not, at least, for now...

The kouroi are anonymous. They might represent a person, but not, as I said, any particular person himself. They might represent a god, but, again, with no particular identification beyond the virtually, by now, generic, Apollo.
They figure the male human body, but not a particular body; they have all the potential to act but are engaged in no action: feet apart they make no feature of rootedness, but feel flat, they do not actually move. Without attributes and without motion they give no grounds for telling a story.... {T]he analytical anatomy and plain features of the New York kouros make no definitive statement about man at all. Only the choker, by drawing attention to the nakedness of the rest of the body, might seem to suggest that the nakedness makes a positive statement (Archaic and Classical Greek Art, Osborne, 76-79).
He stares, as other Archaic works do; they grace us with their archaic smiles, but they do not turn or acknowledge. They inhabit a space of their own, however small, which they create around them and by virtue of their intense stare out beyond where you are. His beauty, and he is beautiful, is not for you or me in particular or as such, but for everyone, for all time. He represents the sort of Greek Ideal, with its eye fixed on such things as beauty and universal truths, that gets a lot of us individuals a bit uncomfortable. If there do exist universal standards for Beauty, for example, where do they come from? What would it mean?