Joseph Wright: The Corinthian Maid (1782-1784)

[Josiah Wedgwood, the pioneer of pottery manufacturing, commissioned this mythological scene that illustrates the invention of the art of modeling bas-relief sculpture. Wedgwood’s own fired-clay vessels, decorated with low reliefs, would have been seen by an eighteenth-century audience as the aesthetic descendants of this ancient Greek maiden’s attempt to preserve her beloved’s profile.

The girl was the daughter of a potter in Corinth. Her boyfriend was about to embark on a perilous journey to foreign lands, taking only his spear and dog. As a memento, she traced her sleeping lover’s silhouette onto the wall. Her father then used the drawing to model a clay relief, which he baked in his kiln to create a ceramic keepsake.] NGA.gov

"The silhouette was never the lover …"

When the fabled Corinthian Maid traced her lover's silhouette, she had no intention of accurately representing him, but of hopefully capturing some significant, representative part of his presence. She understood that the small subset of his many dimensions she traced on that wall would fall far short of replacing him in his absence, but hoped the resulting bas relief might serve as enough reminder to spark some deeper sense of him than mere memory might provide. She produced information about him, but without the expectation that this information might adequately replace him. Her work produced a placeholder for his presence, information without definition.

We've been wrestling to make this distinction ever since, and probably well before that Corinthian Maid scribbled her lover's outline on that wall.
We struggle when discerning the line between almost everything information represents and what it actually might be. The headlines scream information without really pretending to be definitive. There are not and never have been any objective observers. As I've insisted many times before, objectivity seems to be the notion that one could produce an observation without suffering the complicating bother of also having an observer filtering with all his inescapable perspectives and prejudices. No one can simply hold their breath and produce an objectively accurate representation of anything. Even photographic-appearing drawings belie more, perhaps, about the artist than about the subject of the work. Photography, too, betrays the photographer's perspective when attempting to accurately represent a scene. Information encodes some aspects without fully representing anything.

A colleague recently reported on a meeting she attended where the speaker held forth on a survey instrument which he firmly believed could determine whether an individual might fit in with a given organizational culture. To demonstrate this, he reviewed individual audience member survey results to assert who these people might be when within a group. His first subject was not present and he confidently predicted that his absence was simply a resonance of who he reliable would be when interacting with any group. He proclaimed that this guy usually ran late and would often find himself absent. My colleague's result came next, and while she watched, gape-mouthed, he proceeded to explain that whenever she held forth about something, she was actually playing her audience, taking them in. My colleague took great umbrage to this characterization, knowing for certain that it misrepresented her usual intention. The presenter then attempted to explain, as if to a recalcitrant four year old, employing the demeaning "mam" multiple times, just digging himself in deeper. He'd attempted to pass off information as definition and, thankfully, miserably failed. He seemed to my colleague to be a primitive professional, mistaking his own information as definition. Not all such assertions crumble so easily.

It might always be my own fault when I take some information a little too close to heart. If I'm uncertain just who I am, I might easily fall prey to those who attempt to define me for myself. When I first took the popular Myers-Briggs instrument, a means for classifying individuals into constituent categories—introvert/extrovert, thinker/feeler, etc—, I caught myself experiencing a revelation, as if I'd just discovered who I was. I later learned that mine was a classic first reaction to learning my result, and that later, after further consideration, I might come to more deeply understand just how superficial and un-definitive my results were. I clawed back my understanding over time, but this required much slow thinking and deep, sometimes darkly disturbing investigation. I now understand this former definition as the information it was always intended to be, a silhouette scratched on an uneven surface, intended perhaps to spark more insight than definition. I am not an INTP, as that instrument classified me, though I do tend to exhibit many of the characteristics that profile describes. I'm still me, exhibiting much more complexity than any classification might ascribe. I gained insight without defining very much of anything.

I try to take my news skeptically, and struggle to determine that eternally fuzzy line distinguishing definition from representative information. This demands sometimes painstaking effort, for it usually seems I should simply be able to swallow it unchewed and whole. All news is fake definition if not necessarily fake news. It's up to me and you to discern the difference. Our Corinthian Maid never once, I guess, tried to take the bas relief of her lover to bed, though I imagine that the information she held about him, served to fuel some occasional passionate feelings toward him in his absence. If you want definition, go to the dictionary, where there's little controversy about what anything actually is, though even there, you're more than likely to find a disturbing volume of ambiguity, for pretty much every entry depends upon some absent context for it to make much sense. I try to limit my reportage to what things seem to me to be rather than what they are for the simple reason that I'm learning that I can almost never provide a definitive description about anything—I'm simply speculating my subjective spin about pretty much everything. The silhouette was never the lover, something we still daily struggle to rediscover.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

blog comments powered by Disqus