I thought he was god, now I'm not so sure

April 7, 2006

Michelangelo Drawings: closer to the master
The British Museum, London, until June 25

We go back a pretty long way, Michelangelo and I. At least as far as an afternoon in the early 1960s, when as an ordinary undergraduate (and at Cambridge to boot) I was allowed to rifle through many of his drawings in a silent private room, in Oxford's Ashmolean museum.

I don't suppose you can do that now without a lot more credentials than I had then or have today. The conditions are rather different in coach class in the British Museum exhibition. Fortunately, the drawings are the same, although I am not so sure about myself. In those days, I thought that Michelangelo was God and that no other artist could even touch the hem of his garment. I am not ashamed of having thought that: it is not a bad opinion for a teenager, and it is trumpeted by the fanfares in the British Museum, which signal his status as the original artist celebrity.

I did not see any reference to Charlton Heston hamming it up as the titanic genius in Carol Reed's 1965 debauch The Agony and the Ecstasy , but it would have fitted in nicely. Perhaps the film first sowed a seed of doubt. Or perhaps John Ruskin did, with his moralistic dislike of Michelangelo's pride, of what he felt was an insolent and artificial quality in his work.

It's not that I was ever a fan of Ruskin's Victorian religiosity, but I did begin to agree that the heroics can be overdone - Michelangelo shouts too much of the time, although that, too, needs qualifying, as many of the drawings on show prove. Still, the German critic Heinrich Wölfflin said something good about this: "For him, the human race was not the humanity of this world, with its thousands of different individuals, but a race apart, transposed into the colossal."

I suppose I now mistrust a humanism that has little time for human beings, as opposed to, say, that witnessed in Botticelli's wonderful illustrations of Dante. There is one exception in the show, the exquisite portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, the only existing portrait by Michelangelo.

I recognise that these works are not only great but transcendentally, sublimely, great. Yet, at the same time, I cannot swear to viewing them with a corresponding pleasure. There is a problem there: if you are not bored, you should not say a work is boring. If I was not ravished, how can I sincerely hold that the works are ravishing? Perhaps it is my own fault or the fault of the scrimmage at the show that I was not ravished. But I am not quite inclined to admit that.

Instead, I have to distinguish: yes, the work is extraordinary - the power, the accuracy, the control, the marvellous modelling and so on. But something in me rebels against reducing life to whatever is captured by the struggling, solitary, male body or body parts (even Michelangelo's women are male. As Alan Bennett said: "I don't think any of them would be allowed in the 100m dash without giving at least one urine sample").

I need to go back to Kant, who never saw a major work, but wrote a lot about the relation between judgment and pleasure. Complicated business, art.

Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at Cambridge University.

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