[NetBehaviour] Visualizing the Mona Lisa

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Sun Mar 15 22:41:05 CET 2020


Hi Rob,

I got Zero's and One's yesterday and read most of it.  I liked the majority though parts did trigger some of my phobias regarding some of the network theory and literary theory of the 1990's.  No need to belabor those phobias here though I hope.

As per your recommendation I paid closest attention to pages 194-199 on Leonardo and the Mona Lisa.  In particular I agree with Plant's view of the painting as an interactive input/output entity that connects the viewer's intelligence with Leonardo's.  This to me seems indisputable, and helpful.  Plant also notes the special nature of the investigatory gaze we receive.  This is a different portrait than most of its time, especially of women, and especially of the nude as it came to be later.  ML is our equal on an extremely important level of agency, or at least, I am certain, unquestionably no less than my equal.

Much of what Plant then reviews is the paucity of discussion of the meaning of ML which I have found, like Freud etc., about androgyny and seduction -- tired fixations I am sure Leonardo knew would absorb almost all of the time and energy of future discussions of his painting.  Mostly I think the talk about ML is abominably poor, a true gap in human knowledge that articulates a critical need.  To quote Spinal Tap, and what was said of their imaginary album "Intravenous de Milo," the main line of talk about ML seems have consisted mainly of "treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality."  I have concerns as well about most post-Freudian theory, and post-Nietzschean theory too.  I have to cop to this for better or for worse and could be severely in error because of it.

But I want to get out of theory-talk, one of several banes of my anxiety, and actually look at the painting.  Remotely of course, but today I do so via a book I bought at the Louvre itself in 2006 which may have kept some slight vestige of aura.  In this book on page 72, titled "Centering, Posture, and the Horizon," I see the ML in dimensions about 2" x 3".  What I mean to look for today is a simplified geometry: a centered triangle (the sitter), an S on the left, and another S on the right.  There is also a horizon line on the right, and a more truncated one on the far left.  I try to keep this geometry simplistic for today, for visualization, and to counterbalance the importance of the human figure for a time with the overall picture, especially the background and frame.

At first, when I recently began re-envisioning the ML a year or two ago with an intent to more fully understand it or at least to pay it the respect of trying, I focused on "meeting the gaze."  I had grown tired of the Freudian interpretation-machine; tired nigh unto death.  I wanted nothing more to do with it, insofar as that was humanly possible.  I'd given it enough already.  I wanted to spend time with Leonardo and with his painting.  So I had to meet the gaze.  In meeting it, I may have thought: "peaceful, serene; challenging, but respectful and decorous; perhaps the most direct gaze I can think of in paintings; what is Leonardo trying to tell me?"

I then applied a current lifestyle behavior of mine, taken up about 15 years ago but now a bit more habitual, which is sitting breath meditation.  I was going to sit with the ML and breathe.  I could see that my meeting of the gaze (not the gaze itself) was meant to be cyclical and unstatic, like a flowing circle between it and I.  This corresponds to the fugue-like sfumato of course, and to the subtly indeterminate smile.  I knew it was like the smile in Buddhist and Archaic Hellenistic statuary, and it is a smile one can use in sitting breath meditation to relax the facial muscles and disrupt worry cycles (or chittavritti).  I most emphatically understood the smile as meditative rather than seductive, indeed more parental than anything.  I thought, "the painting smiles when I am meditating here and smiling internally, awake so to speak or present; the smile dims to neutral when I deviate into anxiety, analysis, in a word, control and reduction.  Fascinating.  This is the meaning; the painting is saying, 'I am self-knowledge in time of experience and intelligence; do you see that this is what you too are?'"  This integrative experience lasted five or ten minutes, on an airplane flight in July of 2019, and immediately afterward I wrote on a piece of paper for my traveling companion (who was watching a movie) "I figured out what the Mona Lisa means!"  I was and am very grateful to have had this experience, false or true, intended or self-created, during the 500th anniversary year of Leonardo's death.

Perhaps after having this cyclic experience of mutual understanding, which to me was a totally unexpected if not entirely unsought result of having read Calvino's Six Memos in early 2018 and traveling to Florence in June 2019, I tried to confirm my experience by relating it to the background and frame of the painting and some of the details beyond the gaze.  I felt these were for confirmation and context, rather than to prove or disprove my experience communing with Leonardo which was both permanent and beyond proof or disproof regardless of any ontological fact or falsehood.  My aesthetic experience of connecting with the painting in this manner had occurred and was irrevocable.

But looking at the background, I now saw cycles in the starkness, and not just cycles but flows.  Water and flowing, like the Arno in Florence but also the coast, were the medium and fresh in my mind.  Having seen Leonardo's library at the Galileo Museum in June, his scientific notebooks and diagrams of plate tectonics and riverine erosion caused by turbulence (specifically vortices, which Leonardo saw were the augers that transformed mountains into hills and soil) were ever-present for me.  But I already knew these facts from the Leonardo exhibit.  How did the rivers and erosion and the primordial origins of the planet, and most importantly water-based life on land (which Plant interestingly discusses) pertain here, and how did they relate to the gaze-cycle?

At this point, I noticed the horizon line and its unevenness.  It is like a very shallow inverted V, sloping upward left-to-right on the left side, and downward left to right on the right.  This made me think, "is there are division and transition between the river scene on the left and on the right, perhaps a before and after, a tipping point or demarcation?"  Looking for differences between the left background and the right, I noticed the left was simpler and starker, with no detectable buildings or even flora.  This could have been the distant geologic past or even a pre-life stage of earth.  What differs in the river scence on the right?  There is a bit more greenery, if only hinted at; a house-like shape which I cannot due to its scale easily equate to a human building; but also what is the most undeniable feature, a stone arch bridge.  Perhaps the inverted shallow V or "continental time-divide" we see in the horizon line is demarcating pre-human and human, pre-technological history from the technological.

If the bridge is important conceptually, what is it doing visually?  Well, it flows exactly as a smooth curve into the sitter's garment.  Now the true cyclicality of the composition (as these are called in applied category theory) became visible.  There is a river on the left, a river on the right, and a riverine bridge (with goods and people flowing across it) signifying the human era flowing back from the background to the sitter and hence to us.  Yet the bridge does not quite connect to the sitter: it connects to her garments.  As Leonardo wrote in his notebooks, “The knowledge of past time and of the position of the earth is the adornment and the food of human minds.”  The garments are not the human; they are its products and are meant to change and evolve, wear and be discarded, to be woven by each of us with due dignity and proper modesty.  Leonardo meant to free humanity from asphyxiating academic error, stockpiled in books upon books upon books and copied forth by their elocutors, but like the Medusa he could not confront the academy of his day too directly (or they would have put him to death by public torture and dismemberment).  Like Galileo, Leonardo did his art and science under a form of house arrest and smuggled it to us.

What explanation have I found in Leonardo's notebooks, beyond the above, about the comparison of art and science to the garment?  The following passage is one which affirms for me the resonance of these reflections, what I would call their aesthetic coherence and incorporation into my aesthetic life, or what Calvino in Six Memos might have meant by "the icastic form":

"I am fully aware that the fact of my not being a lettered man [Leonardo was not allowed to attend university and learn Latin because he was born out of wedlock] may cause certain arrogant persons to think that they may with reason censure me, alleging that I am a man without letters.  Foolish folk!  Do they not know that I may retort by saying, as did Marius to the Roman patricians: 'They who themselves go adorned in the labour of others will not permit me my own?' They will say that, because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to expound upon. Do they know that my subjects are based on experience rather than the words of others? And experience has been the mistress of those who wrote well. And so, as mistress, I will acknowledge her and, in every case, I will give her as evidence."

Hence in the plain geometry of the cycle, the interactive gaze is the fourth river of human history.  It might be called the conscience of humanity, its self-regulating capability, or another way of expressing this, the aesthetic intelligence (which is a network intelligence).  It affirms both the dignity of our individual capability and the intrinsically communicative nature of this capability.  Four simple rivers to trace four spheres of cyclical evolution on earth.

In relating all this to Plant 194-199, I found the following passages germane to but not necessarily aligned with the above network-map hypothesis, and in some points clearly divergent from it.  "An interactive machine has been camoflaged as a work of Western art."  "Even the setting is unfamiliar and strangely out of step with time: Mona Lisa sits before an anonymous landscape which 'hints that human activities once took place in this awesome terrain, but were terminated at some point.'"  "God-given inspiration, imagination, creativity: Mona Lisa cares nothing for these.  Her effectivity is simply a question of technical skill."  "Leonardo worked at a time before modernity had divided procedures into sciences and arts, means and ends, individuated creativity and expertise, isolated media and areas of specialized knowledge and expertise.  These are the barriers which the new syntheses and collaborations spawned by digital machines now undermine.  The artist and the scientist reconnect with the matters of precision engineering which demand a symbiotic connectivity with what were once considered tools of their trades, nothing without them."  "The fusions of club culture and networks of dance-music production are probably the best examples of these interconnections and the explorations that emerge from them: DJs, dancers, samples, machines, keyboards, precise details of engineering sound, light, air, colors, neurochemistries."

My main difference in emphasis from what I understand Plant to be saying of the ML is illustrated by the crucial distinction I believe Leonardo made between the human sitter and her garments.  I think Leonardo is trying to prioritize something more human, the "experience" and indeed agency at the core of all true art and science, as symbolized by the "head, heart, and hands," over the products of technology.  The products of technology are meant to clothe us, but are not us, nor are they meant to replace us.  Leonardo knew this was the eternal dilemma and danger to the human.  Contrary to preceding institutional specialization and schematic expertise, Leonardo in 1519 AD worked in the most perfect and universalized heart of it, deep in the shit you might say, a heart well-formed by 1019 CE and from which we were still seeking reprieve in our own troubled and turbulent 2019 AD.  Academic scholasticism dominated art, science, politics, and economics in Leonardo's day.  He sent a warning note of conscience from the heart of darkness.

I see the ML, therefore, as a map for what I call Network Design 1.3.  (Let ND1.0 have equivalency to the internet.  ND1.1 was grid-space, square windows, a start that was primitive but perhaps unavoidably so; ND1.2 was the "rounding of corners" i.e. an attempt to fructify, but it was primarily superficial and commercial, what one might call the original technological delusion of humanity re-run for the new material.)

The nature of ND1.3 is something I don't know how to name really, perhaps as Hippocratic, but the ML is a kind of visual and conceptual map of it for me.  I also attach to it as a preliminary descriptive element my Netbehavior mini-essay of 18 Nov 2019, "The Work of Art in the Age of Network Reproduction: a question about the Mona Lisa."  I'm writing a more regular essay about these in which I will try to elucidate more, most specifically for myself and my own understanding, but ideally also in a way that is readable and more relevant to others and the larger dialogues of today.

Admittedly, I could be way off base here due to my incomplete reading, much less analysis, of Plant and many of the scholarly references she cites.  My protectiveness toward a particular aesthetic experience I had last year, which wasn't much more than a travel diary, daydream, and invented history I enjoyed telling myself, could also be a major source of distortion and bias.

Thanks again for the great reference and conversation,

Max



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