The Consummate Importance Of The Classical Tradition by Donald Kuspit

Venus de Milo or Aphrodite of Milos. Credit: Bradley N Weber/Wikimedia Commons.

But what was this great tradition, if not a habitual, everyday idealization of ancient life.     

--Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1846”(1)

By DONALD KUSPIT, December 2021

Why has classical art, the art of the great tradition, held its own, served as a model for art through the ages, certainly at least until the modern age, when André Breton announced “the necessity to put an end to idealism” and Picasso said “the beauties of the Parthenon, Venuses, Nymphs, Narcissuses are so many lies” and Barnett Newman declared that “the impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty.”  It has been said that the avant-garde’s rejection of classicism has to do with the rise of romanticism—Surrealism being its most extreme spin-off—with its emphasis on feeling rather than reason—and with the emergence of the machine culture, what Baudelaire called “the great industrial madness of our times,” leading to what might be called the mechanization of the figure—the mainstay of classical art—and with that its denaturalization and dehumanization, exemplified by Duchamp’s ugly robotic Nude Descending A Staircase, No. 2, 1912, her unlovable body a sum of parts that do not add up to an integrated whole.  She’s a devilish machine descending into avant-garde hell, a mocking, vicious, degrading attack on the heavenly Aphrodite of Melos, ca. 150-100 BCE, among other classical sculptures of the goddess of love, her body at once ideal and natural, otherworldly yet worldly, in a realm apart yet of this realm, an ingenious paradox—certainly not a repulsive machine shaking itself apart, ready for the scrap yard.

Duchamp’s monstrous female machine—the sick product of his sadistic dissection of the female body--is the ancestor of Picasso’s surrealist female monsters and de Kooning’s monstrous women, all testimony to the anti-idealism of modern art.  Their anti-idealism is most manifest in the violence they do to woman’s body, inherently ideal--implicitly beautiful--because it brings forth life--because woman is naturally creative, making her a goddess.  I suggest the anti-idealism—anti-classicism--of male avant-garde artists has to do with their envious de-idealization of woman, leading them to barbarically attack—mock, dismember, ruin, desecrate—her body, in an attempt to appropriate the natural, “primary” creativity of her womb for their own unnatural, “secondary” creative purpose, and with that deny and deprive her of her ideality.  The dead naked woman, her legs spread apart, her mutilated vagina in your face, in Duchamp’s Étant donnés, 1966, has had her womb ripped out of her body, left to rot in a wasteland, is the violent climax of what began with the nihilistic Nude Descending A Staircase, No. 2, 1912.  These two epitomizing works are the alpha and omega of the avant-garde artist’s hatred of woman.  

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) , 1912, oil on canvas, 57 7/8 x 35 1/8 (151.8 x 93.3 cm) (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Freud has argued that the sight of the female vagina arouses castration anxiety in the male voyeur—which is what Duchamp is.  When Duchamp identified as a woman in Rrose Sélavy, 1920 was he acknowledging that he was castrated, or at least impotent?  Did he take his murderous revenge on her in Étant donnés, 1966?  Did he attack her vagina because he was afraid it had teeth, the fantasy of vagina dentata another symptom of castration anxiety—fear of emasculation?  Duchamp’s mis-representation of woman’s body epitomizes the male avant-garde artist’s castration anxiety—in contrast to the classical artist, who celebrates her body, idolizes it, in contrast to the avant-garde artist, who disdains it, perhaps for its imperfection, for it lacks a penis, and with that phallic power, the privilege of the male artist, who has a penis, especially visible when it becomes erect, which makes it somewhat less enigmatic than the womb, invisible in woman’s body.  Woman is not a muse for the male avant-garde artist, but a threat to his phallic creativity, a threat he neutralizes by annihilating her body, and with that denying that she has creative power—a naturally generative womb (in contrast to his artificially generated art).  

The male avant-garde artist is emotionally sick, the sickness evident in his hatred of woman, an ideal human being compared to him by reason of her natural creativity—the creativity of her body, the creativity innate to her being.  Her womb is the site and symbol of that creativity; the male avant-garde artist suffers from womb envy, which brings with it hatred of the body that contains the womb, a sort of natural alembic of creativity.  His envy of woman’s womb, that is, her inborn capacity to create life, is informed by his uncertainty about his own creativity, which seems not to be inborn—he has no naturally generative womb—and thus is not guaranteed, has to be achieved, requires hard work, mental as well as physical, with no guarantee that the product will not be shit rather than a baby, as the psychoanalyst Hanna Segal notes.(2)  Destroying woman’s body—treating it as a kind of shit by turning it into a kind of wasteland—the male avant-garde artist confuses destruction with creativity—the original sin of avant-garde art.  Male avant-garde art is a black mass in which woman is crucified on the altar of male creative anxiety—the male artist’s uncertainty about whether he has phallic power or is impotent, whether art making is masturbatory self-gratification or creative intercourse with another being .  

Titian, detail of Venus of Urbino, 1538, oil on canvas, 119.20 x 165.50 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Photo: Steven Zucker.

The classical artists loved woman rather than hated her, admired her rather than despised her, worshipped her realizing that she is the fons et origo of life, which is why their art is beautiful and has lasting life.  The goddess of love—Aphrodite or Venus--is her symbol, for without love there is no life.  Apart from looking at the masterpieces of classical sculpture, one has only to look at Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, ca. 1485, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, ca. 1509-1510, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1532-1534, Velazquez’s The Toilet of Venus (“The Rokeby Venus”), 1647-1651, Antonio Canova’s neo-classical Paolina Borghese as Venus Victrix, 1808 and Paolina Borghese as Venus Italica, 1819 to see her enduring ideality.  And desirability, a point made by Josephine de Beauharnais’ remark:  “If one could make statues by caressing marble, I would say that this statue was formed by wearing out the marble that surrounded it with kisses and caresses.”  

Such perfect figures, not to say perfect works of classical art, are a far cry from the imperfect works of avant-garde art, with their imperfect figures.  The ideal seems natural in classical art; it was a threat, not to say incomprehensible, to the avant-garde artist.  The classical artist knew how to construct the ideal out of the natural, and with that to suggest—argue?—that art was “metaphysical” as well as physical.  The female bodies other artists offer us—when whole rather that cubistically fragmented or surreally distorted—lack the metaphysical aura that makes them more than matter-of-factly physical.  While Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, 1814 and Matisse’s Odalisque Lying With Magnolias, 1923 are implicitly Venuses, along with, in their provocative way, Goya’s The Nude Maja, ca. 1797-1800 and Manet’s Olympia, 1863, their bodies lack the perfection of the classical bodies, a point implicitly made by Baudelaire’s description of Ingres’ odalisque as an “elongated human freak.”(3)  The female bodies Matisse, Goya, and Manet depict may not be freakish, but they are meant to be put to sexual use, an odalisque being a female slave or concubine in a harem or, dare one say, in a whorehouse, which is where Manet’s perverse Olympia seems to be.  Venus is not an odalisque—she’s not any man’s slave or concubine, let alone a whore—but autonomous and immortal, however much she may fall in love with some mortal man, as she did with Adonis.  

But the story of their relationship was not sexual—it was never physically consummated--but a lesson in the folly of hubris, not to say arrogance, for the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion a paradoxical expression of the death instinct.  For arrogance is an assertion of omnipotence in defiance of death that yet unconsciously acknowledges it.  Adonis believed that he was the best hunter ever, so that he could never be hurt while hunting, but Venus dreamt that he would be, and he was—he was gored to death by a wild pig.  It was nature’s revenge on his hubris, reminding him that he was mortal, and that mortals should always heed the dreams of an immortal, for they always came true.  The story reminds us that the gulf between immortal gods and mortal humans—heaven and earth, the ideal and the real, the supernatural and the natural—can never be bridged.  But, as I will argue, the classical artists who depicted Venus thought art could do so, which is perhaps why they are the most important artists ever, and why their art became the touchstone and model for art until the anti-classicism and anti-feminism of modern artists.  

As Lucretius writes in “On The Nature of Things,” Venus is the mother of nature, that is, the generator of life, and, for the classical artists who rendered her in all her beauty, their muse, that is, the generator of art.  It is worth noting that “materia” is derived from “mater,” suggesting that when the male classical sculptor used marble—a hard but malleable material--to make his statue of Venus he was in effect caressing his mother, as Josephine de Beaumarchais unwittingly suggests, with the unconscious wish to be nursed and loved by her, for without her love and care he would be unable to make a true likeness of her, his statue would be dead matter rather than living beauty, mindless material rather than mindful art.  Without the muse—a version of the Magna Mater—the male artist would be at a creative loss.  The point is made explicitly by Ingres’ Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry, 1842.  The relationship of the stately classical muse, wearing the pure white robe of the virginal mother, her hand about to touch the head of the seated artist lost in melancholy thought, and with that bring him to creative life and lift his spirits, epitomizes the “unio mystica” of divine mother and her child artist.  The muse stands over him, blessing and caring for him with her hand, as the life of a child is literally in the hands of its mother.  Similarly, the artist’s creativity is literally in the caring hand of his muse.  Without her touch, he has no creative touch.  The classical sculptors realized that the Magna Mater, the goddess of love, and the muse are one and the same—that without the magnanimous love of the mothering muse there is no great art.  Worshipping her beautiful body—confessing his love for her--his sculpture becomes as sacred as she is.  Art making was a sacred practice for the classical sculptor—a spiritual “profession” rather than a mundane activity.

Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry, 1842. Oil on canvas, 105 x 94 cm. Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Legend has it that the great painter Apelles, unable to find any mortal woman with a body beautiful enough to serve as a model for the immortal Aphrodite, looked at a variety of female bodies, finding good enough parts—more or less fine-looking arms on one woman’s body, more or less lovely legs on another woman’s body, a more or less alluring torso on a third woman’s body, a more or less attractive face on a fourth woman’s body--and put them all together to create a picture of the goddess of love, her body perfectly beautiful by definition.  Using a variety of parts from a number of natural bodies Apelles created a supernatural body, an ideal figure—an unreal figure made of parts from real figures, parts that seemed good enough however imperfect to be used to construct a perfect figure.  Such a flawless transcendental figure is aesthetically arousing, experienced as an aesthetic phenomenon, a sort of aesthetic thing-in-itself.  Such a work of art is emotionally resonant—dare one say lovable--because it invites us to worship the goddess of love, and intellectually engaging, because it seems so flawlessly—miraculously—constructed.  It is doubly perfect:  a perfect work of art and a perfect depiction of a perfect being.  It gives perfection presence—or at least makes it seem possible.

Michelangelo was called Il Divino, that is, “the divine one,” for his mastery of all the arts, but Apelles was the first “divine artist,” for he made the first divine work of art:  he was the first artist to figure out how to make a perfect work of art out of imperfect parts—the first artist to show that ordinary things could be used to make extraordinary art.  A composite of profane parts, ingeniously integrated by Apelles, the epitome of the classical artist, the heavenly goddess was brought down to earth without becoming profaned.  Apelles’ Aphrodite—the first great, true, mythical masterpiece, the first work of truly high art--is a paradox, a conundrum—a perfect being made of imperfect parts.  It is a kind of aesthetic Gordian knot that has been cut into cubist, expressionist, surrealist pieces—exemplarily by Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase, No. 2, 1912, to allude to that destructive work once again—by so-called theoretically advanced (but emotionally regressive) artists.  But Apelles’ classical Aphrodite remains a model of creative achievement, technically and imaginatively superior to avant-garde renderings of the female body, for they invariably violate and profane and mock it rather than elevate it into transcendental autonomy, in acknowledgement of its innate creativity, and with that its sanctity.  In modernity the idea of perfection—of artistic perfection as well as the possibility of human perfection signified by the classical gods and goddesses—has become meaningless, which is why so much modern art seems imperfect, incoherent, or, as been said, absurd.  

One only has to look at the difference between the primitive, schematic, nondescript, crudely rendered female marble figures of early Cycladic art, 3300-2700 BCE—her body naively abstract because it was a symbol rather than a real presence--and the sophisticated, beautiful “Aphrodite Rising From The Sea,” every detail of her body carefully studied and skillfully rendered, painted by Apelles, who lived in the 4th century BCE, to realize the originality of classical art in contrast to abstract art, grounded in an archaic conception of art.  Apelles’ masterpiece is lost, but exists in copies.  It took centuries for the female figure to become perfect—transcendental, supernatural rather than another mundane, natural phenomenon—and art to become “high” and skilled and sacred, and only a few decades in the 20th century for the female figure to be desecrated and debased, and art to become “low” and profane and unskilled, to allude to the exhibition of “unskilled art” held at an American university, and to artless art, that is, so-called conceptual art.          

Unknown, The Venus Anadyomenes (before 79 CE), fresco, dimensions not known, The House of Venus, Pompeii. By MatthiasKabel, via Wikimedia Commons.

The great sculptor Pygmalion did something similar to what Apelles’ painting did:  “with wonderful skill he made a statue of ivory so beautiful that no living woman came anywhere near it.  It was indeed the perfect semblance of a maiden that seemed to be alive…His art was so perfect that it concealed itself and its product looked like the workmanship of nature.”(4)  Similarly, the sculptor Praxiteles, “the first to sculpt the nude female form in a life-size statue,” used the beautiful Phryne as his model for a sculpture of the nude Aphrodite for the temple in Knidos.  Statues of Aphrodite—Pygmalion’s ivory statue was implicitly one, ivory, being a symbol of purity, conveys the purity of the goddess, and her immortality, for ivory is a virtually eternal, certainly harder, substance than marble, the material Praxiteles’ used to make his immortal goddess--were meant to be worshipped in sacred spaces.  They were regarded not simply as effigies of her, but informed by her living presence.  Aphrodite epitomizes “the eternal feminine that draws us on,” to use Goethe’s famous phrase.  She draws the classical artists on, hoping she will inspire them to make art as eternal as she is, as beautiful as her body.  

Noteworthily, the flesh of the ancient goddess is without blemishes, wrinkles, or hair, all of which would mar her beauty, indicate that her body is “all too human,” and as such not truly sacred, however much its curves seem as musical as the heavenly spheres.  Hair grows, marking time, and blemishes and wrinkles develop with time; their unfortunate presence on the goddess’s body would indicate she’s not the goddess she seems to be, for a goddess’ body is always unnaturally smooth, her hair neatly combed and fixed in place, confirming her unchanging beauty.  Physical flaws and growing hair would subvert her “metaphysical” presence.  They are threads that would unravel her beauty, natural details that would mock her supernatural superiority, cut her down to human size.  She would just be another mortal woman, not an immortal being.  The classical artist takes great care to “denaturalize” and “refine” the female body by making it unrealistically smooth (and with that untouchable)--removing unruly and unrefined natural features from it, which is why classical art is “fine art.”  And “high art,” for it deals with higher beings.     

Albrecht Dürer, known in his time as the German Apelles, was, like the Greek Apelles, concerned to reconcile the ideal and the real.  He was more of an empiricist than Apelles, for he made “empirical observations of ‘two to three hundred living persons’,” and more of a theorist than Apelles, for he used them to construct a perfectly proportioned body based on Vitruvius’ conception of the ideal figure.  The Eve—the seductive Venus in biblical disguise—in his 1504 and 1507 renderings of Adam and Eve has a classically proportioned body and a smooth body, but loose, flowing hair, indicating she is sexually available, unlike the classical Venus, with her tightly bound hair, indicating that she is out of reach, untouchable.  Dürer’s Venus may be a compromised goddess, as her sexiness suggest, but her body is nonetheless perfect.  Moreover, Dürer ingeniously reconciled the empirically real and the theoretically ideal using what he called a “selective inward synthesis”—in sharp contrast to Apelles’ more superficial “selective outward synthesis.”  In Dürer’s classical figure the real and the ideal—the profane and the sacred—dialectically converge without losing their distinctiveness.  The naturally real acquires the aura of the ideal, the ideal becomes naturally realistic.  His Eve-Venus is ambivalently perfect, not imperfect.  However different the methods of Apelles and Dürer, their female figures are divine, although Dürer’s seem all too human as well, which does not make them less worthy of worship as Apelles’ goddess, and those of Praxiteles and Pygmalion, perhaps, paradoxically, because they are more emotionally accessible, that is, human.    

All these classical ancient artists and the Renaissance artist Dürer—as well as other Renaissance artists, whether Italian or German, whose art is informed by classical idealism--use a number of natural bodies to create a singular supernatural body, a body that doesn’t exist in nature but looks natural.  In a creative act of devotion, they cannily created an ideal—unrealistic--body out of real—naturally given—bodies.  It is a lifelike body that only can live in artistic heaven.  It is no accident that Venus, the beautiful goddess of love, is the major object of their loving attention, for their worship of her carries with it the wish that their art be as beautiful and worshipped as she is—that it also stand outside of time, or at least survive the test of time, and with that become eternally present, and they be worshipped, certainly idolized, as she is—thus the notion of the “divine artist.

Such perfect figures, not to say perfect works of classical art, are a far cry from imperfect works of avant-garde, with their imperfect figures.  The ideal seemed natural in classical art; it was a threat, not to say incomprehensible, to avant-garde art.  The classical artists knew how to construct the ideal out of the natural, the “metaphysical” out of the physical, the perfect out of the imperfect.  Indeed, no other kind of art does so, apart from art inspired by ancient classical art—above all the art of the High Renaissance, and also the mannerist art of the Late Renaissance, which in its own paradoxical way paid homage to the classical figure by elongating its body, and with that idealizing it, perhaps over-idealizing it, over-stating its ideality.  Giving it greater physical presence than it ordinarily has, it becomes paradoxically metaphysical—transcendentally aloof, incomprehensibly perfect compared to the usual human body.  Thus the absurdly unrealistic Christian Madonna with the Long Neck painted by Parmigianino ca. 1534-1535 is a classical—pagan--Venus in all but name.  The perfection of the Madonna’s body is emphasized by exaggerating its size, so that it seems unrealistically larger than life yet remains life-like, unnaturally tall—a higher being indeed--and thus bizarrely supernatural.  However absurd her body, she is as naked underneath her transparent robe—her torso is as smooth as Venus’s, her breast is made emphatically present by the cloth that compresses it, turning it into a pyramid whose peak, that is, nipple, points at us even as its stiffness, along with the Madonna’s rigid uprightness, implies noli me tangere (she may be a sophisticated lady but she’s an eternal virgin)—as Venus’ torso and breast are in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, ca. 1484-1486.  Both are physically seductive and metaphysically aloof—triumphs of the erotic imagination but too otherworldly too emotionally possess.  Adonis never did take sexual possession of Aphrodite.  

Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-1540. Oil on wood panel, 85 × 52 in.

The metaphysicality of the body of Parmigianino’s Madonna-Venus is announced by its absurd construction.  But the more obviously classical bodies of Botticelli’s Venus, Apelles’ Aphrodite, Praxiteles’ Aphrodite, Pygmalion’s ivory goddess, Dürer’s Eve-Venus are also metaphysical, for they are all absurd constructions, their incommensurate parts made commensurate by the artist’s ingenuity, making for a more perfect body than the body given to us by nature, which is always flawed, for it is mortal rather than immortal, like the paradoxical body of the goddess, seemingly natural yet too perfect to be natural, too good to be completely true to nature.      

What classical art—the classical style--does is offer us the perfection that doesn’t exist in an imperfect world, the beauty that doesn’t exist in an ugly world, a sense of eternity—timelessness—in a world in which time marches relentlessly and irreversibly on, the ideality that doesn’t exist in the reality of society, the harmony that exists only in myth—and classical art is a kind of idealistic myth, as its mythologization and idealization of the human body indicates.  More subtly and subliminally, and if we take it seriously and edifying, rather than just another style of art-making, it invites us to emulate the classical masters, and with that to achieve a classical self—create a model of an ideal self in our psyches:  use the same “selective inward synthesis” of less than ideal parts of the body the classical masters used to construct their ideal figures to construct an ideal self out of the less than ideal feelings that often infest the psyche.  As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote when he saw an “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” “You must change your life,” however hard, even impossible to do so in a technological society, which changes faster than anyone can.  But classical art continues to invite us to do so, to make life as harmonious as it is, to regard life as sacred as it is, even if it seems impossible to do so, difficult to live up to its high standards, for the society we live in seems irreversibly profane and overrun, not to say dominated by “low art,” which makes “high art” seem inconsequential.  It is perhaps impossible to make classically inspired art in an artworld filled with neo not to say quasi—pseudo?--avant-garde art, long since stereotyped and mass produced.  But there are neo-classical artists on the horizon, indicating that avant-gardism, in whatever fashionable, neo-sensational form, has become decadent not to say hollow. WM


(1)Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1846,” The Mirror of Art:  Critical Studies (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1956) 126

(2)Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York:  Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), 95 distinguishes between art produced “from a narcissistic position, in which the artistic product is put forward as self-created faeces, with constant terror that one’s product will be revealed as shit,” and art produced from “the genital position in which the creation is a baby resulting from a meaningful internal intercourse, the work of art then felt as having a life of its own and one which will survive the artist.”  Are Duchamp’s works of art so much shit, considering the fact that they treat women as disposable shit?  Does Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917 imply that art is a toilet product?  Certainly all his work is made from a “narcissistic position,” as rrose sélavy strongly suggests.          

(3)Ibid., “The Exposition Universelle, 1855,” 203

(4)Richard Martin, ed., Bulfinch’s Mythology (New York:  HarperCollins, 1991), 57


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

view all articles from this author