One of the things you should never say to a man who just got his trousers off is, “Oh, you’re built like a god from classical antiquity. Like, everywhere”.
This Heracles is positioned right after the ticket control turnpike at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
It is a subject of jeers and cheers from the public who come from all across the country, from neighbouring Finland, and the rest of the world to have a first-hand experience of the treasures hoarded by Russian Tsars.
I spent some time sitting on a bench in front of this sculpture a few days ago, and can confirm that nudity is not vulgar, but people are.
“I wonder if the club is meant to, you know, compensate for, well, you understand…”
“The lion had its bite before it was clubbed, I guess”
“That’s what anabolic steroids do to you”
“Do you know if he had any children?”
“I wonder if Stallone…?”
“I am sure baseball was invented by men with the same kinda problem”
These were just a few offhand remarks I’d overheard in five minutes, and I don’t count muscled men who invariably picked up speed while passing the statue as a joke. Some of the casual replies were just as good, with the chart leader being, “at least, HE had many other talents”, with a very capital “HE”.
Unlike a sociologist who may want to count couples heading to divorce after a visit to the Hermitage, I just registered the fact that a lot of visitors happen to enter the magnificent museum thinking about penises, sex, and their general ability to perform in bed.
First, I now know how the Hermitage can solve its financial problems.
It can start selling erotic wall-calendars, sex-tips books, and lavishly illustrated Kama Sutra’s.
I mean, if I had the right connections, I’d open a sex shop there, proudly named “Emperor’s Toys”, selling rather obvious line extensions of the notorious Faberge eggs (they currently sell gaudy plastic replicas of those eggs that nobody buys anyway).
Second, this is a brilliant example of the importance of context when talking about a work of art.
The Hermitage administration could think about adding an explanatory plaque to the wall next to the statue, saying that in Ancient Greece making love to boys was OK, and because of that, small penises were considered beautiful, and huge penises were thought ugly. This is why all ancient statues tend to have the kind of penis that provokes women’s magazines to compile lists of things “you should never say to a gentleman the moment he undresses” (like, “I’ll turn the AC off: you must be really freezing!” or “Is this an optical illusion?”).
Few things are more dangerous than poorly educated puritans, so let’s have them enlightened!
By the way, it is true what I just said about Ancient Greece, but I am sure you were aware of it.
“You’re so contextual! Let’s make context, until we have sarcasm.” (C) Unknown Art Lover to an unknown art critic
Context IS important, but not necessarily crucial for maintaining artwork’s relevance.
Andy Warhol’s dollar sign has no value unless viewed in the context of Andy’s realisation that the irreverent streak of postmodernist art he pioneered had sold its soul to big-money wheeler-dealers, and thus delivered its own verdict of its own death sentence. Today, it is a commonplace thought that loses all its resonance to banality. The context here is crucial.
Can an artwork remain relevant if its context is changed?
This work by Vassily Surikov, a Russian artist of the late 19th-early 20th c., who specialised in large-scale history paintings, shows Stepan Razin, the leader of a massive uprising in the 1670s. Razin, deep in thought about the future of his rebellion, is being carried in a boat by his loyal cossacks. Some of them are laughing or sleeping, but there’s that feeling of a foreboding doom that permeates the scene (Razin was wounded, apprehended, and quartered, eventually).
If you ask modern teenagers, what they think or feel about the painting, in general, and Stepan Razin, in particular, the absurdity of their answer would be justified by its obviousness.
He’s on his mobile phone, not enjoying a single bit of what he hears.
The funny thing is that he indeed listens, but to his own thoughts, and he doesn’t enjoy a single bit of it either. Modern technology or not, but this painting still sparks a thought or two in the minds of modern teenagers, who are often impossible to lure into a classic gallery because of their obstinate nature.
The context has changed, but the intended resonance has not.