An aura of fin de siècle haunts art, literature, culture, perhaps most of all, education. The complaints are familiar: students don’t read, students are culturally illiterate, students don’t know history. The painter David Ligare, a California classicist now in his early 70s, has a message for them.
For the last forty years, Ligare has produced what he calls “history paintings,” “narrative paintings,” or “literate paintings” based on ancient Greco-Roman culture and literature. In the beginning, Ligare says, “… making paintings of people in historical clothes was very problematic. That was one of the reasons I did it. It was dangerous, it was totally against the art laws. And thirty years on, it still is challenging. How to see outside the gravity of our own time ….”
The need for students “to see outside the gravity of our own time” has never seemed more urgent. They are marooned in cyberspace’s perpetual now, cut off from both the past and the future. As Ligare says, “What we need … is a renewed desire for knowledge, `desire’ being the operative word.” We all are surfeited with “information” and “data” but starved for knowledge. Ligare suggests that “… for the true explorers, it’s a good time to look again at the past for some permanence in a very impermanent world.”
When Ligare looked at the past, “One of the earliest realizations for me was that the essence of Classicism is balance – the balance between opposing forces — say, Apollonian order and Dionysian chaos.”
His “Hercules Protecting the Balance Between Pleasure and Virtue,” almost five feet square, depicts a naked Hercules blocking Virtue, a white-robed man wielding a club, from striking Pleasure, a nude female helpless on the ground. Ligare warns, “Hercules must not choose one over the other, but must incorporate them both.” The confrontation occurs not in Greece but in a Central California landscape suffused with golden afternoon sunlight. Hard choices and the conflict between virtue and pleasure are perpetual, not limited to time or place.
In an email, Ligare told me:
I believe that much if not most of [modern and contemporary art] is now academic and because all things shocking and transgressional have become clichés, I believe that going `in’ is the answer. By `in’ I don’t necessarily mean back but `back’ is where the true thinkers are and we need art that thinks.
“Penelope” pictures Odysseus’s wife who waits 20 years for his return from the Trojan War. She sits in a chair on a patio overlooking the sea. She is the still point of a universe swirling with heroes, gods, prophecies, and war. The composure, patience, and resolve in her face are unsettling, inspiring. Like many of his paintings, “Penelope” is ancient. And immediate. And eternal.
Understanding the interdependence of high culture, ideals, balance, transcendence, and education is, I believe, crucial. Art could be the key. Ligare says:
… the potential rekindling of this desire [for knowledge] is the job of culture. The common consensus is that culture reflects society but I believe that it can also help to direct it. I truly think that one of the most important things that can be done in art today is to reinvest paintings with a kind of literate life. The literate picture might just inspire people to read and to think more analytically.
Helping students to aspire and to know is every college’s responsibility, but, Ligare says, “what is most important is creating an art that inspires our society to once again wish to imitate not just appearances but excellence itself — the innate excellence of the human spirit ….”
That’s a message today’s students need to hear.