Ratatouille and the Great Masters (of all genders)

A still from the 2007 film, Ratatouille

What do Raphael’s La Fornarina and Ratatouille have in common? Much more than you might think, their superficial differences disguising their fundamental similarity. The idea that significant art depicts a moment of its own making within the mind of the artist is central to this website because it is central and omnipresent in art. Without knowledge of this, all other interpretations remain uncertain, in part because of the visual inconsistencies that a literal interpretation generally ignores, in part because the interpreter is looking at a visual language they cannot understand.1 Thus, they tend to see their own interests reflected back at them.2

This tendency is not surprising, however, because we all look in the mirror of art and see ourselves. As one scientist put it: “the cortex creates an edited representation of the visual world that is dynamically modified to suit the immediate goals of the observer.”3 If the idea then that art depicts its own making seems repetitive, the reason why is that both art and the human story are repetitive. Interestingly, Michelangelo’s own sonnets which are explicitly about the self have been called “repetitive” too.4 There is a major difference, though, between all other methodologies and the idea that every painter paints himselfEvery Painter… is generally the only theory that makes sense of the well-known visual inconsistencies in masterpieces. The others generally ignore them. In addition, specialists often recognize self-reference in their own area of study while ignoring it elsewhere. Jodi Cranston, for example, writes:

“Titian says in a letter that ‘the great concetti that I have had in my soul and my mind, I have matched with my hands through my paintbrush.’ He [Titian] reiterates what was by then a trope, an artist’s manual ability to translate his mind, himself, into his work. Titian thus gives visual form to the long-standing notion that every painter paints himself.”5

In the near future I will cite other examples of specialist scholarship identifying the concept in the work of an individual artist. I am only alone in citing it as a fundamental characteristic of art as a whole. Besides, the idea that significant art depicts its own conception in the creator’s mind has been proven true in other media.

St. Augustine’s Confessions and Dante’s Divine Comedy have both been described as pre-Freudian psychological examinations of the writer’s soul using the development of the text itself to gain self-knowledge. They describe the author’s own spiritual journey to Wisdom through the creation of their masterpieces.6 A literary critic has likewise argued that Shakespeare’s Hamlet “may ultimately be a poemagogic self-portrait of the artist who despairs at fitting form to content, and who would rather shatter his work and himself than be unfaithful to his inner vision .”7 Another has argued that Shakespeare transferred to all his characters his own creative spirit.8 James Gaines has explained about music that in the Renaissance “the learned composer’s job was to attempt to replicate in earthly music the celestial harmony with which God had joined and imbued the universe, and so in a way to take part in the act of Creation itself.”9

Even more remarkable is the presence of the same idea on stage and in successful Hollywood films. Umberto Eco has pointed out that ‘every Broadway musical is, as a rule, nothing other than the story of how a Broadway musical is put on…each is a work that speaks of itself, not the genre to which it belongs but a work that speaks of its own structure and of the way in which it was made. Critics used to think this feature was exclusive to works of the avant-garde”10 Chorus Line, 42nd Street and The Producers are all musicals about putting on musicals. Hairspray, now a film too, centered around the production and cast of a dance program on 1950’s television. I am not a film buff but my own list of films which describe their own making is relatively long considering how rarely I watch them. In future blogs, I will from time to time explain how the films below and others provide an allegory of their own creation. You may like to think about the ones you have seen.

Julie &  Julia (2009)
The Soloist (2009)
Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008)
Milk (2008)
Synechdoche (2008)
Changeling (2008)
Hairspray (stage 1988, filmed 2007)
Ratatouille  (2007)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Adaptation (2002)
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Barton Fink (1991)
Bonfire of the Vanities (Novel pub. 1987, filmed 1990)
Annie Hall (1977)
Sleeper (1973)
The Sting (1973)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The Defiant Ones (1958)
Vertigo (1958)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Double Indemnity (1944)

If you think I’m nuts the chief film critic of The New York Times called Ratatouille, the animated story of a culinary rat, “one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film.”11   Stay tuned.

1. Dürer wrote that the art of painting cannot properly be judged by anyone who is not himself a good painter, since the ability to do this “is denied to others, like a foreign language.” See Jane Campbell Hutchison, Albrecht Dürer: A Biography (Princeton University Press) 1990, p. 111. The last entry in Delacroix's Journal was: "The eyes of many people are dull or false; they see objects literally, of the exquisite they see nothing." See The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, trans. L. Norton (London: Phaidon) 1995.

2. Charles Baudelaire saw Manet as a painter of modern life in his own mold. Critics who believed like Clement Greenberg that modern artists had reacted to the rise of photography by reducing each medium to its own characteristics described Manet’s art in similar terms: his paintings were arrangements of color and flat. Little did they know, of course, that the “flat” shapes in Manet’s art actually represented “paintings” within the painting. Contemporaneously, scholars with an interest in connoisseurship praised Manet as a craftsman while sociologists, like Linda Nochlin, argued that he was a sociologist surveying modern Paris. Feminists called him a male chauvinist.

3. Robert Pollack, The Missing Moment: How the Unconscious Shapes Modern Science (Boston: Houghtom Mifflin) 1999, p.52

4. Laura Camille Agoston. “Sonnet, Sculpture, Death: the Mediums of Michelangelo’s Self-Imaging”, Art History 20, Dec. 1997, p. 543

5. Jodi Cranston, The Poetics of Portraiture in the Italian Renaissance (Cambridge University Press) 2000, pp. 110, 119

6. Paul Jay, Being in the Text: Self-Representation from Wordsworth to Roland Barthes (Cornell University Press) 1984, p.31; George Steiner also called Dante's Comedy "an extended reflection on creativity". See Steiner, Grammars of Creation (Yale University Press) 2001, p.79; Joscelyn Godwin describes The Divine Comedy as the ultimate soul journey towards purification. See The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions (Theosophical Publishing House) 2007, p.88

7. Steiner, Grammars of Creation, p. 253

8. Elizabeth Sacks, Shakespeare’s Images of Pregnancy (1980), p. 21

9. James R. Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Harper Collins) 2005, p. 47

10. Umberto Eco, “Innovation & repetition: between modern and postmodern aesthetics”, Daedalus 134, Fall 2005, pp. 199

11. A. O. Scott, “Voilà! A Rat for All Seasonings”, The New York Times, June 29th, 2007

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