Chipping away at Pygmalion and Galatea

Chipping away at Pygmalion and GalateaJerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Pygmalion is a legendary sculptor (whose role as King of Cyprus seems unimportant to most versions of the story) known for carving Galatea, a statue of a woman so beautiful he is no longer interested in real women. Moved by his devotion, the goddess of beauty Aphrodite brings the statue to life, and the artist marries his creation. Since the Greek legends were oral tales, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a definitive version of the Pygmalion legend. Bulfinch’s Mythology is a good source of the main plot details. This legend about an artist has long been popular with artists; a sequence of four paintings by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones presents

  1. a solitary artist ignoring real women and contemporary statues,
  2. attracted to the creation that sits on the pedestal where he carved it,
  3. embracing the newly living statue, and finally
  4. kneeling before her.

I notice that only the third and fourth images in the series seem to be readily available online in poster form. (The images are from ABC Gallery, which unfortunately inverts the order of the third and fourth images.)

By contrast, a picture by Jean-Léon Gérome has Pygmalion embracing Galatea’s upper body while the rest of her is still stone. What seems to be another angle on the same scene shows Pygmalion lunging forward, his cloak trailing out behind him, while most of her body is still stone (I’ve heard of chiseled abs, but this is ridiculous! Yuk, yuk! Sorry.)

The cynical and brilliant George Bernard Shaw took on the pretensions of the upperclass with his play Pygmalion, which, stripped of its rather bleak and realistic ending (Higgins is insufferably smug, and really does deserve his solitude) was later the inspiration for the high school musical standard My Fair Lady. The artwork for the original show features Higgins as a puppeteer, pulling the strings on Eliza, and up in the clouds a twinkly-eyed God is pulling strings on Higgins.

It takes the intervention of a goddess to turn Pygmalion’s obsession with a particular artifact into a real relationship. Since classical goddesses don’t seem to intervene from Mt. Olympus anymore these days, we’re left with what we’ve got: computers. In the 80s, I recall seeing ads for some dumb movie in which teen geeks hook a Barbie doll up to a computer and it somehow comes to life as whatever completely interchangeable supermodel was selling a lot of magazines that year. As a geek teenager during the 80s, I was presumably part of the target audience for that film, but now I can’t even be bothered to Google for its title. The mad professor of the German silent film Metropolis performs a similar transition, turning a metallic Robot-demon into a life-like simulation of a woman (though she’s still a Robot).

I can’t help but think of “Barry,” the fellow who hit blithely on a chatbot over a period of several days, as recorded by Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen. Barry’s behavior was apparently so predictable that the program kept feeding him answers that generated responses that the program was equipped to understand; I think Turkle notes that Julia didn’t so much as pass an intelligence test, but rather Barry failed one. (For a brief reference to the Barry/Julie exchange, see the review, “The Bewitching Miss Julia“.) Julia the chatbot was a personality with no body, Galatea was a body with no personality. We can’t compare poor Barry to Pygmalion; but I bet there’s a postmodern conference paper in looking at a sister AI program, Alice, and “her” relationship with her creator, the brilliant but star-cross’d Richard Wallace.

I can’t remember whether I had already decided to use the Pygmalion legend when I came across a discussion of computer simulation, art and puritanism by hypertext publisher and software designer Mark Bernstein. He used software called Poser to create a 3D model of a “The Greek Slave,” a famous 19th-Century sculpture. (By the way, U.Va’s resources on “The Greek Slave” are worth a visit. The site features an engraving of the statute in its exhibit context, as well as contemporary responses to it.)

Bernstein notes that in translating the statue to a 3D model (or, more accurately, a 2D snapshot of a 3D model) he had to work with the placement of the subject’s hand in order to avoid the appearance of obscenity. I don’t work with visual images that much, so my reaction is hardly scholarly. Once Bernstein characterized his creation as possibly obscene, it is hard for me to think of it as otherwise. Maybe simply seeing a digitally-generated nude body was creepy enough for me — it hardly matters what gesture her hands were making.

I’m more conscious of the effort it takes to read between the lines of an ostensibly simple text, like the lyrics to “Paper Doll“. Arthur Miller uses the song in The View from the Bridge, a play about a man’s inability to cope with his own lust for his sexually-blossoming niece. “I’d rather have a paper doll that I could call my own/Than have a fickle-minded real live girl.” Is this a veiled reference to pornography? I never thought of that before, but it’s possible.

I don’t know whether pornography seriously affected the development of photography and cinema; it’s more likely that censorship, production codes and rating systems were the dominant factor, but the legality and economics of internet pornography are hard to ignore. I found over 2000 references to “pornography” in Wired. (The hits to my site will probably increase now that I’ve used “pornography” three times in one blog entry.)

Our brains permit us to predict the outcome of our actions, so that we don’t have to rely on instinct or learned knowledge when faced with new situations. The imagination is an important tool for survival; and we all know the healing, restorative power of fantasy (and I don’t just mean the sword-and-sorcery pulp variety; “Reality TV”, spectator sports, and highbrow literature also cater to our need for fantasy). But imagination is not enough; we share our fantasies (and purge our fears) by creating artifacts, using a medium of some sort. By playing with his own digital paper doll, and talking about his experiences, Mark is probably on the right track. When Torill visited Seton Hill, she noted that every new medium has raised the same warning cries — this is too realistic, it will overwhelm the senses, it will confuse the delicate and vulnerable in our society. I don’t see virtual friends taking the place of real friends anytime soon. But if you look at it from the other angle, maybe our artistic creations will be given something closer to “life” through the assistance of digital authoring packages, synthesized speech, and chatbot scripts. We’re very good at imagining we have relationships with fictional characters, if the execution is good enough; and the computer is just one more medium.

At any rate, as a culture, I think we’ll learn to adapt to the way digitally altered images affect our minds, but if we don’t develop the habit of critiquing the effect that various media have upon our psychology, our aesthetics, and our ethics, then the marketers and demagogues who control the media will be our masters. Perhaps the only solution is to put more sophisticated media creation tools into the hands of more members of the general public; democratize the huge power of digital manipulation, so that it is easier for all of us to put our imagination in forms.

I don’t know when I’ll have the time to write another massive blog entry like this, but it has been an enjoyable way for me to start collecting my thoughts about the Media Aesthetics course I’ll start teaching next week.