Winter 2007–2008

The Anti-narcissistic Origins of Art

Athena and the music of bones

Svetlana Boym

BONE, O.E. ban, from P. Gmc. *bainam (cf. O.N. bein, Dan. ben, Ger. Bein).

BAN, “public proclamation, legal control, common boundary.” Main modern sense of “prohibit” is in part from O.Fr.ban, which also meant “outlawry, banishment.” BANAL, adj. form of ban. Originally designating common things that belonged to feudal serfs, evolved through “open to everyone” to “commonplace, ordinary,” to “trite, petty.”

TIBIA, Amer. Eng., lower leg bone, 1726, from L. tibia “shinbone,” also “pipe, flute.”

The original myth of the artist has no bones. Remember Narcissus, that pallid youth with sensuous lips gazing at his own reflection? Rien, cette écume, ripples on the surface, a pimple here and there carefully brushed out of history. And yet the first mirror image produced lots of background noise and resounding echoes.

I will tell you a different story, that of a tomboy goddess of wisdom and her unreflective arts. Once upon a time, a teenage Athena was wandering around the forest. She frolicked on the boundaries of the divine territories, leaving a few graffiti here and there, memos of her presence. “A—a was here.”

This is when she stumbled upon a gorgeous tibia lying next to the roots of an oak tree. It must have been a deer bone, either from an unrequited sacrifice or a natural death. Bones outside the body support no frame; they are useless and, therefore, beautiful. The crooked tibia was polished by time and wind; Athena made a few holes in it and began to make music. A teenage girl taken out of her state of solipsism and instant messaging suddenly found harmonies and inspiration, breathing into the hollow tibia. The bone became a flute.

Athena forgot all about bans and just played and played, blowing her cheeks, co-conspiring with the gentle winds. What happy time out of time it was, before she had to keep busy schedules, intercede with warring kings, and instruct vagrant heroes about the dangers of homecoming in the morning fog.

But all happy stories are happy in the same way; the unhappy ones are more interesting. The jealous Hera saw Athena’s happiness and started to laugh at her. “Have you seen yourself? God, how ugly you look blowing into that filthy bone!” Athena ran to the spring on Mount Ida in order to view herself in the water; and having seen herself playing, she understood why Hera had mocked her.

Athenian melody had no notation. It was the first performance art and did not survive. All was quiet in the mountains: the birds were not singing—too busy tasting the hyperrealist grapes painted by another artist. The philosophers were at the symposium snacking on nectarines and discussing the miseries of Eros. They paid no attention to the little goddess of Sophrosyne and her clumsy, teenage looks. Thus Hera’s slander remained in history.

Even Ovid, a fellow artist, did no justice to Athena and her bone art. “The sound was pleasing; but in the water that reflected my face I saw my virgin cheeks puffed up. I value not the art so high; farewell my flute!” (Ovid, Fasti)

Much is lost in translation. We don’t know what happened afterwards, but supposedly Athena threw away the flute, vowing that whoever picked it up would be severely punished. It was Marsyas who found that flute and he paid dearly for challenging the god of arts, Apollo, to a musical contest. After defeating Marsyas, Apollo, acting in a manic Dionysian fashion, ordered him flayed. Marsyas’s skin was hung from a tall oak tree, the first monument to a dead poet.

So the moment Athena fell for conventional femininity and narcissistic worries, she lost her curiosity, the pleasure of play and of her bone. Mirror stage turned deadly for the Athenian arts. But narcissistic self-reflection is only skin-deep. Bone art is about self-oblivion, co-creation with the winds, and notes of gratitude to whom it may concern. Making art ruins your makeup. Break a leg, as they say. The show must go on.

This is an excerpt from Boym’s forthcoming From X-treme Intimacy, or Tales of Broken Bones.

Svetlana Boym is a theorist and media artist. She is the author of The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2001), the novel Ninochka (SUNY Press, 2003), and the forthcoming Architecture of the Off-Modern (Columbia University Press, 2008). She is currently working on an art project, “Nostalgic Technologies,” and finishing a book on freedom. Boym teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and is an associate of the Graduate School of Design. For more information, see [link defunct—Eds.].

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