The Adultery of Delicate Objects
Williford, James Stanley
This essay explores medieval ideas of art and objecthood (to borrow Michael Fried's phrase) through the works of Martin of Laon, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Hugh of Saint Victor, Thomas of Britain, Jacques Lacan, and others. Drawing its theoretical framework primarily from an obscure, theologically-inflected etymology of the term "mechanica ars," or "mechanical art," found in Martin's "Scholica Graecarum glossarum" and later (more famously) taken up by Hugh in his "Didascalicon," it argues that secular literature, and, in particular, portions of the earliest-known versions of the Tristan legend (those of Thomas and Brother Robert), can be profitably read as transgressive engagements with an existing (in fact, long-standing), redemption-oriented discourse committed to understanding the religious value of "the work of man." Its general premise is simple: acts of transgression are most easily and, often, most effectively performed when they do little more than adopt the terms of the prohibitions that give them their shape and moment. If medieval artists were limited in their creative ambition by the intellectual structures of contemporary religious thought (a prevailing mode of cultural cohesion in the Christian West), it was only natural (almost definitionally inevitable) that, at some point, they should rework those structures to expand the field of their own practice. The `living` statue of Yseut at the center of the Tristan poems is, it is here asserted, one such transgressive work, an attempt to discover the potentials unique to art through the very strictures imposed on it, as a product of human labor, by theology.