“Unhappy is the land that needs heroes,” wrote Brecht in the Life of Galileo, but more miserable still is the land that feels compelled to despise them. Is there another way of interpreting Argentinian-Italian artist Luciano Garbati’s new seven-foot bronze statue “Medusa with the head of Perseus” that was installed in Manhattan last week?
The sculpture has already been widely described as an icon of the #MeToo movement
Originally cast in 2008, but now recast thanks to New York City’s public Art in the Parks program and installed directly across from the New York County Criminal Court, where in March Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault, the work inverts Benvenuto Cellini’s famous statue of Perseus which still stands in Florence (not sits, as the exhibition statement symptomatically claims) to replace Medusa with Perseus, and cast Medusa as an avenging victim-hero in “a modern, feminist take on the classical myth.”
The sculpture has already been widely described as an icon of the #MeToo movement and when seen in this light it is undoubtedly revealing. In the original myth, Medusa wasn’t a sexual assault victim of Perseus, but the god Poseidon, if one can even really be the assault victim of a god. Hence it seems that in Garbati’s new sculpture she has avenged herself on an innocent third party, or rather, successfully defended herself from the hero in his mission to destroy her, itself a less than obvious endeavour.
Yet Medusa, too, appears diminished by her victory. In her classical form, she possessed the power of turning all men who looked at her into stone, but the new statue depicts her armed with a sword, holding the decapitated head of Perseus. She has acquired his power, or an image of his power, but in the process, both lost her own, and blocked her destiny.
As the artist himself put it speaking at the unveiling, “She is alive after the battle with Perseus and that is significant. According to the myth, she should be the one dead and beheaded.” Not only should she be dead and beheaded, but she should also have given birth to Pegasus and his twin brother Chrysaor from her bloody neck, while Perseus should have continued on his journey to rescue Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus, who offstage is presumably now being devoured.
In the decision to transform Medusa from a monster into a hero, the whole mythical structure is petrified into a sterile grimace. It is, in a way, an extremely bitter joke.
The work expresses a more widespread decline in symbolic literacy
Beyond the thematic content of the statue itself, the work expresses a more widespread decline in symbolic literacy, and the desperation of the art world attempt to synthesize meaning through ideological politicization. In proposing to invert a myth, by rearranging its key terms, Garbati is playing a contemporary symbolic game, in which the familiar signifier is substituted for something more fashionable, but myths do not avail themselves of this kind of superficial operation. Indeed, the idea that one can simply change a myth according to the ideological prejudices of modern political narratives holds up its own mirror to the narcissism of the contemporary world in its contempt for the past. Of course, this attitude, too, has an analogue in Greek mythology: hubris.
In the first place, Medusa is not a moral person, or merely a negative feminine stereotype, but an archetypal figure of equal cosmic power to the hero. They need each other, and every human person contains in some proportion both, but when one assumes the power of the other, the myth breaks down, and ceases to make sense.
Furthermore, detaching symbols from their context does not result in their negation, but instead in their becoming incomprehensibly disturbing. Beyond Garbati’s sculpture, the real Medusa has not lost her power: quite the reverse. In 2018,; thanks to the deus ex machina of Covid-19 even this degree of human contact is now at a premium.
Is it crazy to imagine that these phenomena are linked? According to Robert Graves, the myth of the Medusa corresponds to a real historical event: the invasion of Attica by the Dorian Greeks in the 13th century BC and the earliest beginning of Hellenistic civilisation.
With the defeat of the Gorgon, whose name comes from the adjective gorgos – “terrible, fearful, fierce” – and whose head the classicist Jane Harrison astutely compares to primitive ritual masks, her emblem is transferred to the shield and armour of Athene, and Gorgopos, “fierce-eyed, terrible” becomes one of her epithets.
The beheading of Medusa, in short, marks the conquest of confusion and terror by Athene’s steely, hierarchical mind. The arts of civilization triumph over primordial nature, the ideas of the Olympian Gods replace the chthonic powers of the Titans; Medusa’s blood is collected by Asclepius to create the rudiments of medicine, horses are domesticated, as Pegasus becomes the steed of Zeus’s chariot, and Perseus establishes the idea of monarchy as he becomes the first king of the Mycenaean dynasty.
In overturning this victory, the story is reversed: humanity regresses from an epoch of gods and ideas to an epoch of demons and fear, with tech titans delivering thousands of terabytes of the serpentine tangle of pornography every night to petrified “incels” too terrified to look real women in the eye, Medusa undertaking a gender studies degree, and a post-heroic biopolitical priesthood preaching to a captive world about invisible enemies, as it chants mantras of safety and prohibits people from going outside. Is this really what anyone wants?
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