Sunday, May 27, 2007

Beauty and the Knidian Aphrodite

Marble head from Chios, Praxitelean model
Torso, Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Cnidos

The Aphrodite of Knidos - known as the Knidia - comes to us, eventually, in so many shapes and sizes, and has such a large and beautiful progeny, with all those different copies in so many states of wholeness and repair, and all those many Venuses - we start calling them that rather than Aphrodites because of their popularity from Roman copies throughout the history of art in the west - so that her identity as a goddess seems to become less certain the more this Knidian Aphrodite starts spreading around the Mediterranean. But here, certainly, she is a goddess, with sudden and inordinate powers.

For one thing, she is understood not just by means of the Aphrodite myth but by reference to the actual model - or what is said to have been her - named Phryne. I don't know all that much about Phryne, and it is possible she was not the model for this particular statue, because what people claim to be the case is not always the case, but what I get from this is a story of the power of beauty, which seems to fit my response to the work- si non e vero, e ben trovato. Phryne is said to have undressed before the public, in particular to have displayed her breasts, and as a result to have won judgment over some accusation made against her, not by means of rational judgment or proof, then, but simply because she is so beautiful, because in fact it is not all that simple at all, since beauty is a sure sign from the gods. Or, because it seems to be. Or, perhaps, because it really should be.

This is a powerful and meaningful observation; any social psychologist will tell you that beauty wins arguments, at least for being so very convincing, even if only on that score.

One feature of a person that influences overall attractiveness is physical attractiveness. Although it has long been suspected that physical beauty provides an advantage in social interaction, research indicates that the advantage may be greater than supposed. Physical attractiveness seems to engender a "halo" effect that extends to favorable impressions of other traits such as talent, kindness, and intelligence. As a result, attractive people are more persuasive both in terms of getting what they request and in changing others' attitudes. Cialdini on Influence

Better looking people on average tend to do better than others; so, we live with it. But how we live with it tends to mean creating and responding to myths. And so, the myth, the myths, of beauty.

Myths of beauty of course have a very long history; here we are concerned with an invention of Greek art, and what will become, afterwards, a principal concern of artists up through the 19th century as both ideal and norm, with, after that, an even more interesting career as artists confront these two Greek creations, the heroic male nude, which after the Knidian Aphrodite no longer rules the roost, and the female nude, which from now on will help to define notions of beauty, with so many female nudes continually deriving their form and shape, and their meaning, from this particular work.

Aphrodite herself is, here in this statue, we know, really beautiful, a beauty we can not only recognize but feel and respond to - erotically, architectonically, spiritually, if you wish. The story of Cupid and Psyche, from the Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius, sounds so much like a myth but is really more like a folktale or some such. I don't actually make much of the distinctions between myths and folk and fairy tales, but I do think we deserve to teach ourselves that there is a difference, and what it is, even if, in the end, myth is basically story, expressed, among other ways, in folktales, but also in movies, for example.

In any case, some of my students often rebel or stand in mute incomprehension at the very notion that beauty could be a problem for anyone, as it is for Psyche, and as it will be later for Belle in Beauty and the Beast, which is a story cognate with Cupid and Psyche. Problems pop stars have these students would welcome, it appears. Other students seem already to have rejected any notion of beauty, and to find almost repulsive the norms for beauty that are conveyed in popular culture and elsewhere. These norms, of course, trace back to the Aphrodite of Knidos.

In that story, Psyche's problem is that her beauty so annoys Venus - its that jealousy motif we know from the Queen or Wicked Witch in Snow White. that she must be sacrificed - the whole town pitches in to pitch her off a cliff, only Cupid has her snatched away by Zephyr, the west wind, and wafted gently to a beautiful private residence where, as in Beauty and the Beast, she is fed and cared for by invisible servants and caretakers. But that's for another time.