I often wonder what private thoughts and feelings were for intimate subjects in earlier times. Because the feelings were private, they were not openly expressed in culture, rather the feelings can only be detected in art in a subliminal form. It is apparent from art that attitudes before modernization were very different from they are today. Unfortunately, people today are unaware of how much industrialization as alienated the perception of life.
In Western art, along with the subject of Adam and Eve, Cupid and Psyche was the most common image of a nude couple. In early Greek mythology Eros (Cupid) created life in the world by shooting his life-giving arrows into the earth. Eros was one of the four original gods but in later myths his stature was in a sense reduced to the image of Cupid to represent human love. The narrative of Cupid and Psyche was not a Greek myth but an ancient fairy tale by Lucius Apuleus written in the 2nd century A.D. Psyche was a beautiful maiden who aroused the envy of Venus. Cupid was sent by the goddess to cause Psyche to love a common mortal but he fell in love with her himself.
Cupid was the son of Venus and Ares, he did not grow to be a man but remained a youth, so he is always represented as a child or adolescent in art. I always found this interesting, that the god of love would be represented as a boy. The psychologist Rollo May claimed this was due to the deterioration of the archetype of love but I disagree. In love one becomes vulnerable, a macho man wouldn’t seem vulnerable, but youth seems tender. Sister Wendy Beckett, the popular art historian has insight into the work of the 20th century artist Ken Kiff, which can be applied to images of Cupid and Psyche. Kiff painted a Man Greeting a Woman several times, Beckett observes, “It is both alarmingly simple, innocent to heart and yet bears a great weight of psychic power. The centre of the picture is the man, because Kiff himself is male, and the humble, almost infantile forms of both creatures prevent us seeing any macho emphasis in this. The eye of the man (the “little man” who appears so often in Kiff’s work, his symbol for himself and all mankind summed up in his weakness) is the centre of an invisible, almost, circle that curves to include the woman’s body.” The boyish image of Cupid should not be interpreted as reflecting immaturity but rather the vulnerability required by love. But unfortunately, in recent times the expression of vulnerability is rare in art.
In many of the representations of Cupid and Psyche, the figures appear to be between the ages of 12 to 15, Psyche tends to look older than Cupid but that may reflect the fact that girls usually start puberty two years before boys. In recent times this may be a source of frustration for boys due to the capitalist development of the consumer/competitor orientation. But before industrialization, values tended to be colored by a matriarchal perception, erotic attraction was heart felt as well as physical. With the development of capitalism individuals are conditioned to be competitors ruled by self-interest. Which has the effect of isolating individuals, everyone is expected to be so independent. The vulnerability required by love is a threat to the corporate armor. Rollo May observed the alienation from love in langauge as a defense against the anxiety of intimacy,”Instead of making love, we “have sex”; in contrast to intercourse, we “screw”; instead of going to bed, we “lay” someone or (heaven help the English language as well as ourselves!) we “are laid.” This alienation has become so much the order of the day that in some psychotherapeutic training schools, young psychologists are taught that it is”therapeutic” to use solely the four-letter words in sessions; the patient is probably making some repression if he talks about making love; so it becomes our righteous duty — the new puritanism incarnate! — to let him know he only fucks.” Rather than being an expression of love, sexuality is regarded as an activity of brute sensation, which explains why some people are uncomfortable with the images of Cupid and Psyche.
In Antonio Canova’s sculpture, Psyche holds a butterfly by pinching its wings as Cupid holds out his hand. The butterfly was a Greek symbol of the soul, Psyche is the Greek word for soul which explains why she is sometimes represented with butterfly wings. So Canova’s figures may symbolize the metamorphosis of the soul in love. When I first saw Canova’s sculpture, I didn’t know of the symbolism of the butterfly, instead, I couldn’t help but notice there seems to be a metaphorical relation between the butterfly and cupid’s little penis.
The small penises of traditional statues is sometimes a source of humor today but from the time of the Greeks a different perspective prevailed. For example, almost everyone knows Eros is the Greek word for love but few know their term for sex which is derived from the zoological term “phylon.” For the Greeks Eros was the subject of art, while sex was the subject of zoology. A large penis was regarded as vulgar, an indication a male was closer to animals, so for the Greeks a small penis identified the ideal or intellectual aspect of the human male. The nude human form in art reflected a man was more than a brute animal. The Greek left a standard for representing in terms of painting and sculpting genitals which continued into the 19th Century. Only in recent times has society became preoccupied with large penises which is due to the representations unusually large organs in pornography which reflects the consumer/competitor orientation. The representations in pornography I believe has distorted people’s perception of how an average size penis appears. If one compares medical photographs of males to traditional male nudes one will find that the flaccid penis found in art is not actually that small, very often the traditional art reflects an accurate representation of a male organ.
The tender images of Cupid and Psyche could have therapeutic effect for a culture alienated by the violence of pornography. The zoological spectacle has left many men insecure about their sexuality. Males are portrayed as brutes in contemporary culture which is only a modern stereotype, it is apparent from art that males can be romantic. Very often, females are also represented in a negative context as well, by accident I came to a porn site called viper girls, the associations with a viper are very different with those of a butterfly.