Beauty and Madness: A Meditation on Pygmalion and Galatea

Originally published in the College of William and Mary’s Acropolis Art Magazine’s 2012 issue

What creates what, the creation or the creator? The division between the artist and their work blurs like that cold winter morning Michelangelo died over his canvas, spattered in paint. To create is madness, an inner drive that too often is inexplicable. Art has no immediate benefit: it will not clothe or feed you. Yet we create to express ourselves, to convey ideas words cannot capture.

There is something in art that is Lovecraftian: grand, majestic, and horrifying. From William Blake’s impossible figures to the Dadaist’s upside-down urinal, art often seems tainted by madness. Sometimes it proves a point, other times it is elusive. Is traditional art an anachronism in an age when man should have surpassed crushed pigments and the horsehair brush? Some debate its utility. But an impulse, perhaps divine, always drives us back to the canvas. Art is an ongoing story, told by a thousand hands. It claims new disciples. It endures.

A traditional Irish adage says if one is foolish enough to sleep on a fairy mound, they will end up dead, mad, or a poet. Creativity, while powerful, has a cost. The trope is that artists are hypersensitive, even unstable, and liable to cut off their ears. Van Gogh soothed his mind with absinthe; Warhol took drugs to enhance his creativity. Whether under the influence of stimulants or not, artists’ physiologies are unique. fMRI imaging has revealed that artists’ brains slip into schizophrenic states during the genesis of their work. The regulatory function of the left hemisphere shuts down, unleashing the fertility of the right. The artist’s power is to walk the thin border between transcendence and sanity. And whether their inspiration is chemical or divine, they create things that are undeniably alive. The objects they produce are vessels for their madness; even the most tranquil still life hints at endless hours spent focusing on a smattering of objects passersby would give little thought to.

But out of all the stories of artists and muses, there is one that haunts me:

It is of a lone man in his studio, chisel in hand as he carves. It is a cool evening on the isle of Cyprus, birthplace of Aphrodite. A shaft of sunlight licks the sweat on Pygmalion’s back as he shapes the marble ever so gently. The tears of his labor streak the awakening stone. He pours his vitality into it—into her, the woman of perfect grace that has become his waking dream.

His creation has the voluptuousness of an Angkor Wat carving and the visceral presence of Bernini’s statues. If a work has ever been perfect, it is her. Galatea. A simple name for a thing of infinite beauty. Pygmalion has done what no artist has before. Through his art, he has achieved perfection, a creation that would settle any question as to whom Eris’s apple belonged. Not to a goddess or woman, but to a work. The tender veins in the stone seem to flow with ambrosia. Pygmalion leans into the statue, embracing it. He imagines he hears her heart beat.

Night falls, soft as a footstep. Pygmalion sleeps. His story is told by a thousand tongues, it sails down the passage of time. We wonder at his tireless devotion, derive satisfaction from his dedication paid off. If you work hard enough, his tale says, you can achieve your dreams. Galatea will awaken for you.

But maybe Pygmalion’s story is one of human evanescence, of trying to find something to cling to and carry into death. Pygmalion grips Galatea like a vise: he cannot bear to part from her. We erect monuments like Ozymandias, leaving our marks on the world. Is it some primal superstition we harbor, that if we are not forgotten, we will never truly die? If our work is bold enough, maybe the gods will smile upon us, and Aphrodite will bless us with fortune.

Or perhaps we create in silence. There is no true answer in art. Pygmalion does not mar Galatea with his signature. He joins the ranks of thousands of monks that did the work of God, never signing an icon or manuscript. Perhaps that is why Aphrodite descends: because Pygmalion understands the transcendence of his work. Galatea is no longer his own. She belongs to the world, and Pygmalion weeps, knowing he must let her go.

Aphrodite smiles upon Pygmalion while he slumbers. His muscles are worn from hours of labor. It was all he could do to go to the goddess’s temple today, leaving offerings of pearls and a wish.  With a soft spot in her heart for creators of beauty, Aphrodite grants his petition. She caresses Galatea’s cheek, breathing life into her.

The madness is unleashed. Galatea may step off her pedestal and be claimed as spoils of war or be imprisoned in London’s Museum. Perhaps she will sell her soul to advertisements and rot in glossy magazines. The media and the wealthy know that art has power; celebrities line their halls with it; its beauty is used to entice customers. But Galatea, completely bare, has no pretense. Like Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, Pygmalion has given her no clothes. She is honest. Eternal. Like love, Galatea will never be a passing fashion. Pygmalion dreams under her kind gaze, knowing she is incorruptible.

Pygmalion wakes at the feet of the work he has devoted his life to. After a simple breakfast, he picks up his tools again. He kisses his statue for good luck, like a hundred times before, expecting the touch of cool stone.

But this time, her lips are warm.

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