THE LITTLE STATUE OF A NAKED Cupid blushed unseen, or largely so, for some 90 years in the same spot: a mansion on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue designed by Stanford White. In the 1950s the building was sold to the French government and became a quasi-public space entered daily by employees and visitors. There the Cupid still stood, looking like nothing more than a piece of Gilded Age gimcrackery.
Last week the selfsame statue had velvet ropes placed around it as protection from a throng of photographers. Flashbulbs popped, TV lights poured out their bluish-white certification of celebrity. If marble could think, this particular chunk of it must have wondered what on earth was going on.
The explanation, of course, is that an authority on 16th century Italian sculpture saw the Cupid statue in a different light one day and decided, after much study and research, that it was an early work by...Michelangelo. Once a sufficient number of other experts had given their support to this attribution, the announcement was made that transformed, at least tentatively, a bit of bric-a-brac into the only Michelangelo sculpture on U.S. soil.
Nor is Michelangelo the only old master to make headlines in this new year. In mid-January a professor at Vassar College proclaimed that the 578-line A Funerall Elegie, printed in London in 1612 and signed "W.S.," was actually written by...William Shakespeare. This assertion came with an elaborate computer analysis of the vocabulary of Shakespeare's plays written shortly before the elegy, and some other scholars were impressed enough with this evidence to jump on board as well. Shortly thereafter, copies of the elegy could be downloaded from the Internet.
It is easy to see why people who make their living studying Michelangelo and Shakespeare should be agog at the possibility of more material to occupy their attention. But perhaps the marble Cupid's imaginary puzzlement may be shared by flesh-and-blood mortals with no vested career interests in the matter. What indeed is going on here?
Neither the Cupid nor the elegy is intrinsically different now, in the full glare of worldwide publicity, than a few weeks ago, when both enjoyed obscurity. The only thing that has changed is the attitude we are expected to bring to these objects. What we could safely ignore or overlook before now commands our reverent attention because the names Michelangelo and Shakespeare have been attached to them.
This injunction is peculiar and hard to disobey, given the gradual development in Western art of the maker overwhelming the made. Michelangelo became "Michelangelo" because his contemporaries, and then posterity, recognized the genius displayed across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and in such of his statues as David and Pieta. A similar process transformed Shakespeare into "Shakespeare." In both cases, magnificent achievements led to posthumous idolatry.