Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Moon Goddess with a Sun-like Presence

An analysis of Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

By Joseph Kellard

She is the center of attention in a room at one of the world’s largest museums.

Diana, a reduction of a weathervane that Augustus Saint-Gaudens created for the top of an early Madison Square Garden, is poised atop a pedestal in the middle of the ground floor at the American Wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What stands out about this sculpture, other than her brilliant gilt, are her subtly contrasting yet complimentary halves that lend her a certain harmony.

First, Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon and the hunt, holds the archer’s standard upright posture — of pointing an arrow and stretching a bow, all the while keeping a steady hand and focus — that denotes tension and intensity. But, unlike archers who also plant their legs evenly apart on the flat earth, Diana assumes a different position that distinguishes her. In contrast to her upper half, she stands decidedly off balance, not only on one foot, but also on her tiptoes while balanced on an orb. This position, combined with her right foot that kicks out slightly behind her, dangling off the pedestal, makes Diana appear, at once and overall, both imbalanced yet stable.

Remember, Diana was created as a weathervane, placed high above on a building, so Saint-Gaudens probably created her right leg to stick outward to provide the wind some mass to help turn her, as is the purpose of her bow and her left arm that holds it. But artistically her leg jutting out adds to her lightness of being and harmony, an airy quality also evoked by her streamlined body and nudity.

The Met recreates this sense of Diana’s purpose by placing her on a high pedestal, above all the grounded sculptures and art-lovers that gaze up at her, just as her original stood atop a tower at Madison Square Garden. In the American Wing, with its windows-framed roof that allows natural light to flood in, Diana’s height and gold cast effectively give this moon goddess a sun-like presence there.

Description of Diana at the base of her pedestal:
1892-93; this cast, 1928
By Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Aware of Saint-Gauden’s desire to model a female nude, the architect Stanford White (1853 - 1906) gave him the commission for a weathervane for the tower of Madison Square Garden (demolished 1925). The first, eighteen-foot-tall sculpture proved too large and was replaced in 1894 by a streamlined version, five feet shorter. It became one of New York’s most popular landmarks, and the sculptor capitalized on its success by issuing numerous reductions. This cast is a half-sized model of the second version, produced from a cement cast once owned by White. Saint-Gaudens eschewed the traditional full-bodied interpretation of Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon and the hunt, focusing instead on simple, elegant lines and a strong silhouette.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What a Russian Immigrant Taught Me About American Patriotism

"America is the land of the uncommon man. It is the land where man is free to develop his genius – and to get its just rewards.” ~ Ayn Rand

By Joseph Kellard

As Independence Day nears and as debates over immigration rage on, I’m reminded of how an atheist √©migr√© from communist Russia taught me what it means to be an American patriot.

Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, once wrote: “The United States of America is the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world.”

Rand’s books all evoke this glorification of America. When I first encountered them, though, I was a left-wing ideologue who questioned whether she knew that ours was a racist society that had stolen its land from the Indians, enslaved blacks and exploited the poor. Yet, despite that I believed those claims, a prideful lump always swelled in my throat whenever I heard our national anthem.

Looking back, I realize that I at least suspected there was much more to America than these charges of theft, racism and exploitation. For this reason, Rand’s uncompromising praise of our nation struck a chord with me, and I felt compelled to consider and investigate her justification for it.

Unlike conservatives who attributed America’s greatness to its being “God’s chosen country,” Rand showed that the United States was the result and crowning achievement of the Enlightenment, the 18th century intellectual movement that championed reason and challenged religion’s dogma and pervasive influence. Our Founding Father’s explicit respect for reason, Rand noted, lead them to create an unprecedented nation, founded on the philosophical principle that each individual has an inalienable right to his own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. And this moral and political foundation of individual rights, Rand recognized, was what distinguished America from all nations, past and present.

America’s Founders intended our nation to be one in which each individual has a right to think for himself and pursue his independent values as he sees fit, while simultaneously respecting that right in others. In America, as our Founders intended, no authority, whether a god, tribal chief, king, pope or bureaucrat, would dictate the course of any individual’s life; he would live for himself, “neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself,” Rand wrote.

This new nation would prove to be vastly different from the monarchies, oligarchies and theocracies of the past. Indeed, as Rand demonstrated, its foundation in individual rights (and the corresponding politico-economic system, capitalism) caused America to emerge as a nation of free-thinking, productive individuals, a land of scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs and businessmen who made possible an array of labor- and time-saving advances that dramatically increased prosperity and quality of life.

In short, Rand showed that at the root of America’s founding and prosperity is the principle of individual rights.

Related to this, she taught me that one should evaluate our Founders (and historical figures in general), not on the basis of how they were like their predecessors and contemporaries, but on the basis of how they fundamentally distinguished themselves. I came to see that our Founders represented a unique bridge between the irrationalities and injustices of the old world and the much greater heights still open to this nation.

Although some founders owned slaves, it is crucial to note that some form of slavery existed in virtually all pre-American societies. What’s most significant about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington is not that they too owned slaves, but that they were the first in history to uphold individual rights that are universal to all men, and thereby laid the moral and political foundation for slavery’s eventual abolition.

Rand also understood that racism could not be the cause of America’s unprecedented power and prosperity, noting that insofar as debilitating racism existed in America, it was not so much in the freer, capitalist, industrial North as it was in the agrarian, almost feudal South. Nor was America’s alleged exploitation of the Indians the cause of her power and prosperity.

Whereas others have painted America as a backward, tribalist society, Rand showed that these characteristics better described the societies of the original Indians, and contested the claim that they had a “right” to this land: “If a ‘country’ does not protect rights, if a group of tribesmen are the slaves of the tribal chief, why should you respect the ‘rights’ that they don’t have or respect?” she once asked rhetorically.

That which America enjoys today, Rand showed, was not taken from the slaves or Indians, but was created here by her free inhabitants.

On some level, America’s immigrants have always recognized these facts about America. They have not arrived on our shores expecting to be enslaved and exploited: They have come here expecting to live freely and prosperously.

Perhaps this was why Rand was in a position to identify what’s great about America. She defected from the Soviet slave state, where millions of innocents were slaughtered based on such communist ideals as self-sacrifice, equality of results and an all-powerful state that dictated how individuals must think and live. Rand knew that in America she would be free to think independently and to write and profit from books that offered trailblazing, challenging ideas, perhaps best exemplified by the provocatively titled The Virtue of Selfishness.

In fact, although it is beyond the scope of this piece to demonstrate it, Rand’s books provide the philosophical foundation on which America can properly complete and ground its revolutionary principles and reach infinitely greater, unimagined heights.

So what does it mean to mean to be an American patriot? As I learned from both the examples and writings of a Russian immigrant, it means that one acknowledges, cherishes and advocates that which is truly unique about this nation, its foundation in each individual’s moral and political right to live his life free of coercion in the pursuit of his own selfish values and happiness.

* I would like thank Alan Germani for providing valuable comments to improve an earlier version of this op-ed.