Posted by: glue | April 2, 2009

Zeuxis’s Mimesis

The method for extracting a poetics of flash reason draws upon the tradition of mimesis.  One of the more famous stories associated with reflections on the creative process in art is that of Zeuxis, who lived in the fourth century B.C. and was a master of mimesis.  In Cicero’s version of the story, Zeuxis was commissioned by the elders of Croton to paint a portrait of Helen of Troy.  The maidens of the city were auditioned as models, but no one of them possessed the perfection of the concetto, the image in the artist’s imagination.

Inventio (Assemblage)

Inventio (Assemblage)

The solution was to create a composite portrait, using features drawn from five different models (Mansfield, xii).  Cicero used the story as a guiding image, synonymous with that of the bees gathering nectar in order to make honey, to explain his method of composition and instruction in rhetoric (20). “For Cicero, the story serves as a metaphor for his own method of teaching rhetoric.  Like Zeuxis, he started by ‘collecting all the works on the subject’ and then ‘excerpted what seemed the most suitable precepts from each, and so culled the flower of many minds’” (38).

The legend was revived in the Renaissance by Alberti and Vasari as the exemplary anecdote of Academic training, in accord with the Timaeic tradition of drawing out the potential of nature and perfecting it by means of art (40).  In Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vasari listed five qualities essential to the successful work of art:  rule, order, proportion, disegno, maniera.  “Maniera includes not only the selection of the best forms of nature but also the selection, emulation, and synthesis of the maniera of previous artists” (44).  The affinity of this poetics with postmodernism and digital equipment is clear.  Mansfield’s history of the legend records its dark side as well –- its sexism and implicit colonialism.  It is no accident that a woman (Mary Shelley) dramatized the monstrous potential of the composite in Frankenstein.

The convention of distinguishing precisely five qualities is one gesture that a given work may make towards this tradition, as in the case of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon with its five models striking a variety of poses.  As Mansfield points out, Picasso placed himself, and implicitly us, in the position of Zeuxis, as if to say:  imagine this!



Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium was limited by the author’s unexpected death during the process of composition to five qualities  (lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity), perhaps thus confirming the fatality of the traditional number.  The generator (the CATTt) for discourses of method proposed in Heuretics has five slots:  Contrast, Analogy, Theory, Target, and tale (Ulmer, 1994).  One clue to the significance of the quantity is the parable of one of the earlier incarnations of the Buddha, Prince Five-weapons, the name alluding to the five senses.  The lesson of the tale is that the physical senses alone are not sufficient to liberate oneself (Campbell, 88).

The notion of a composite approach to an ideal figure may be intuitive, since one sees it invoked frequently, as in an op-ed piece by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek magazine, expressing a wish that the best features of the leading candidates for the 2008 democratic nomination for president (Clinton, Edwards, Obama) could be melded.  We are building a template for generating flash reason.  An image metaphysics, apparently, has more parts than Helen of Troy, or Frankenstein’s monster.

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