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Humanity in the Arts

Toward A Definition Of The Idea Of Humanity, The Task Of The Sculpted Body For The Idea Of Humanity

Four sculpted images of the male figure loom before the viewer. These four works span a period of almost 2,500 years, are fabricated from a variety of media, and range from naturalistic to realistic to abstract presentations. Perceived through the eyes of art historians they have been described as "the classic nude," "a prime force," "in Idealized male figure. Zeus (or Poseidon) from Cape Artemisium (c. 460 B.C.E.). Bronze. © ERICH LESSING /ART RESOURCE, NY Vitality of the male form. Saint John the Baptist (1879) by Auguste Rodin. Bronze. © CHRISTIE 'S IMAGES /CORBIS motion," and "pars pro toto, or the part which stands for the whole." However, when seen through the eyes of cultural historians, these same four sculptures are characterized with such diverse adjectives as "heroic," "fragmented," "ethereal," or "earthly" and described as "ideal," "cultic," "tragic," or "ambiguous," as symbolic of cultural attitudes toward the body, the human person, and thereby of humanity. Yet all four provide sufficient visual information to be deemed male, figural, and most especially, human—not divine, animal, or object.

The classical principles of the human form as an expression of the idea of humanity, especially that of the athlete, as the "temple of the gods," is reflected in the idealized male figure in Zeus (or Posideon) (c. 460 B.C.E.). He stands with his left leg bent slightly at the knee and his left foot planted firmly upon the earth as his right foot springs forward slightly, providing both a sense of motion and a gesture of transcendence. As his muscular right arm bends at the elbow to propel his energies through his right hand, this athlete apparently prepares to hurl a javelin. His left arm extends outward to direct his sight and the projected path of his weapon. Balanced according to the classical proportions between head and torso and then between head and legs and arms, his handsome body, through its posture and gestures, voices the cultural attitude of the perfection of the human form as a nexus of humanity and divinity, of immanence and transcendence.

The otherwise distinctive presentation of the male body with shortened extremities, diminutive hands, enlarged feet, elongated torso, protruding belly, and protracted phallus on the otherwise untitled Baluban sculpture Male Figure (probably nineteenth century), might at first glance appear as a "primitive" distortion of the human image. However, prolonged observation proffers the indigenous perspective on the human, if not simply the male, body. The widespread stance of this man is echoed in the extension of his hips and buttocks and balanced by his broad shoulders. His bare feet, which appear initially to be too large for his legs, are entrenched firmly and flatly on the earth and support his dense male body. Whether simply by weight or symbolic values, his distended belly and penis sag downward toward the earth. His undersize hands clutch the outermost perimeter of swollen belly, emphasizing simultaneously the abdominal protuberance and enhanced navel and his long genital. Gesture, posture, and bodily attributes turn the viewer's eye not upward toward this figure's enlarged head or dramatically incised facial features but rather downward toward the earth. The visual connectives denote the sympathetic magic with the fertility of the earth and two distinctive traits of the African ethos: its earth-centeredness and the centrality of the human body in the indistinguishable unity of art, life, and spirituality, even to the conclusion that dance is Africa's primal and primary art.

The sinewy musculature of the life-size bronze rendering in Auguste Rodin's St. John the Baptist (1879) evokes simultaneously a response of awe at the sculptor's craftsmanship and marvel at the handsomeness of the human body. Captured at mid-stride, the bronze body of this male figure pulsates with the connections between muscle, sinew, skin, and respiration. Like the figure of Zeus, this St. John has one foot flat on the ground and the other slightly elevated to accentuate the internal and external motion of a walker. He gestures welcome with his right hand while his left hand turns the viewer's attention to the earth as he signifies immanence as a direction toward transcendence. No matter how long or great the distance from which we look, it is the torso of St. John that captures the viewer's attention. The careful detailing of his rib cage, including the intimate relationships between flesh and muscle, muscle and bone, capture our attention, enabling the viewer to recognize the artistic, medical, and technical advances that separate Zeus from St. John while also highlighting the commonalities between these two visual renditions of the male figure, especially as a representation of the idea of humanity.

The greater visual divide is the artistic move in the early twentieth century to abstractions leading to Constantin Brancusi's Torso of a Young Man (1924). As with his three sculpted predecessors, this bronze sculpture captures the essence of being male and human despite the absence of a full representational and physical body, an individualized face, or symbolic gestures. Rather, the energies emanating from this carefully composed abstracted torso and its initial point of division into two lower limbs simultaneously references humanity and maleness. The sculptor has carefully placed his piece on an orchestrated base that affects our seeing of it as a torso, as human, as male—not simply as three interconnected brass cylinders. Nonetheless, these four variations in sculptural styles and forms enable the viewer to see the essence of the male figure and, more generically, humanity. The focus in this visual essay is the modes and means by which sculpture relays the idea(s) of humanity across historical and cultural boundaries. The methodology is comparative but not chronological, as the concerns here are the visual transmission of an idea and the visual critique of a universal ideal. This procedure will then create a recognition of this idea not by the chronological sequence of stylistic developments in sculpture but rather through the transmission of key elements in both universal and regional conceptions of being human.

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