Michael Tanner, philosopher, on the ass of Donatello’s statue of David.
GB Tell me why you’ve chosen the ass of Donatello’s statue of David.
MT It’s just the left cheek I’ve chosen. It’s an intimation if you like, that answers to Stendhal’s definition of Beauty: une promesse de bonheur.
GB Is it the realistic representation of human beauty that you find beautiful or is it beautiful as a work of art?
MT Well you can separate them in that way if you choose but I don’t think I’d like to. When I saw it for the first time it in this bronze I was overwhelmed by the beauty and of course I was aware that Donatello is an incredible sculptor.
GB So the story of David and Goliath has no bearing on your view of its beauty?
MT I think that even if David did manage to slay Goliath, which was a wonderful thing for an adolescent boy to do, he’s still a cutie.
GB The Medici placed it in the middle of their courtyard and there’s no record of the reaction to it at the time. How do you think it’s perceived today?
MT Well of course today it’s perceived as homoerotic. It does concentrate on the beauty of the youthful male form. I’m sure that the whole thing is very deliberate with the way the feather is tickling his bum.
GB Do you think our perceptions of human beauty usually have an element of the sexual in them, even in looking at sculpture?
MT Not always, but quite often. If the sculpture is of the kind of person that turns one on then yes, but then I can see that the Three Graces is a brilliant sculpture even though it’s not for me. Then there are classical statues such as the boy taking the thorn out of his foot, which is cute but not sexy. I envisage that Donatello quite got off on creating this but I wouldn’t want to guess at his intentions.
GB Is this beauty at its highest level for you? Or are there different kinds of beauty?
MT I don’t think there’s such a thing as a paradigm of beauty to which all other beautiful things can be compared. Finding a sunset beautiful is very different from finding David beautiful. It’s unbridgeable. They both bring intense visual satisfaction but there’s no other connection between them. When it comes to music, poetry, mathematics (we’re told), I don’t see that there’s a connection beyond the fact that they give you some sort of satisfaction.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
MT I can’t really answer that as I’ve spent too long thinking about it. It’s not a feeling that’s related in any way to an action. In some cases, there’s nothing relevant you can do except just contemplate beauty. I don’t see that you can do more than wonder at sunsets and raging seas. And then you may see something that you think is a beautiful rock formation but find out later that it’s made by Anthony Gormley and that changes your feelings about it. If he meant it as something like the ‘Devil of the South’ you’ll feel differently about it because it has intentionality written into it.
GB Do you think that beauty has disappeared in art?
MT I imagine that there are still people painting in a way that can traditionally be described as beautiful, but the people that are most celebrated and getting the biggest fees are mostly utterly horrible.
GB So do you think that contemporary artists are stretching the use of the word ‘sublime’ to describe art?
MT It’s the opposite of sublime. The sublime is supposed to be enlarging and amazing. What a lot of these people are creating is just squalid and sub-human.