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No Mere Porcelain Beauty

This blog is primarily devoted to the theatre, but I do occasionally wander off into other halls in the mansion of the arts, and today I want to talk about the Rachael Kneebone show currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum.

Kneebone is a British sculptor who works primarily in porcelain. She self-identifies as a feminist, and both her primary subject matter – the female body – and her chosen medium speak to that commitment. But the show wasn’t really about her ideological orientation, but her orientation within the Western sculptural tradition, and specifically her relationship with Rodin. Kneebone’s work was shown alongside a variety of pieces by Rodin (the Brooklyn Museum has a pretty sweet Rodin collection), a sculptor that both the artist and curator saw as an essential precursor.

The juxtaposition was highly persuasive. In Rodin’s work, half-finished women and men emerge from undifferentiated blobs of matter like Adam in the hands of his Creator; when they find each other, embrace and kiss, they melt into one another as if love undid the sculptor’s work of differentiation; and individual body parts lie about, not severed and dead, but like pieces of some unfinished creation in Vincent Pryce’s laboratory awaiting animation. The debt Kneebone owes to Rodin was obvious, and both ennobled her work and threw interesting light on how we might see Rodin’s, and how we might see it differently from the way it was seen at the time. Kneebone’s recent sculpture, The Paradise of Despair, looks to me like Rodin’s Gates of Hell crossed with a wedding cake – which I rather think was her point.

Another piece, a more over-the-top variation on the wedding cake theme, brought to my mind a different precursor within the Western canon.

My point, though, is that, whatever you think of Kneebone’s work (and I thought the best pieces were both aesthetically and emotionally powerful), the museum presented it not as a critique of the Western artistic tradition, but as a participant in that tradition. And that stance doesn’t just make the contemporary artist’s work more interesting, it increases the potency of whatever the critique the artist is making. The Italian futurists declared their desire to burn down the museums that cluttered their native land like so many cemeteries; the obvious riposte, quickly made, was that they just couldn’t take the competition. Claim the past as a resource that you will mine for your own purposes and, if what you create is strong enough, it will change the past, make us see it not as we once did, but as you do.

These thoughts bring me around to Elias Crim’s excellent review of Gregory Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World. Artists will, inevitably, have political and even ideological commitments. This is not something to be avoided or fought. Nor can we avoid seeing art through the lens of our own commitments. But we can, as artists, as critics, and as ordinary people, see art not as a war but as a conversation. That conversation can get heated at times, but the goal of a conversation is never the destruction of an antagonist. And I want to applaud the Brooklyn Museum for so persuasively presenting this artist’s work in precisely that spirit.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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