The Vitruvian Man, with supposedly perfect proportions, has been challenging humans for nearly two thousand years. The one we can see at the Louvre at the moment, which is materialized by Leonardo da Vinci, has fascinated us for nearly five centuries. Many men have dreamt of being like him. Many women are fascinated by this drawing. He is the perfect man.
Throughout history and in every culture, humans have thus sought what they believed was the perfect man. It is found in Myron’s works in Greece or in the bust of Jayavarman VII at Angkor, but then perfection no longer refers only to physical appearance, but also to social status, such as certain models of Goya or Gainsborough or, more recently, in the Chinese Gao Fu Shu.
Naturally, the criteria for perfection, male or female, are not the same, depending on the culture and time. Except that, in most cultures, perfection refers to the past; it is generally associated with the idea of purity, which itself refers to the fantasy of being in a state whereby one is in his prime. And therefore nostalgia.
The perfect man is therefore, almost always, the one of the lost paradise, the place that we had to leave because of our fault. The perfect man therefore always refers to the state of mind of the one who has lost all hope of finding what he was in his original state, lost through his fault: melancholy.
And this is what fascinates us in the Vitruvian Man, or in the bust of Jayavarman VII, or in the works of Myron: melancholy, the main driving force of art, was until today, the main criterion of perfection. Inaccessible as the lost paradise. Therefore, men resigned themselves quite easily to the fact that the perfect man no longer exists.
Today, we are witnessing a great shift: the perfect man is no longer thought about in past terms, but rather in future terms. He is to be built, imagined, invented and manufactured. The perfect man is the one that transhumanists dream about. They don’t care about his physical appearance, social relationships, or artistic gifts. For them, his perfection will come from his immortality. Beauty will not matter. Neither will intelligence, which for these people will be delegated to machines and will no longer be necessary for mankind. The perfect man will be created as a genetic work of art.
One day we will understand that this type of perfection is also, fortunately, inaccessible. And that is what makes the greatness of the human race. Indeed, mankind dreams of what she knows is inaccessible. In the past and in the future.
Perhaps one day we will understand that the perfect man is inaccessible if we continue to imagine him as an ideal individual being: the perfect man can only exist through his relationship with others and by what he brings to others; only if his smile is toward another being and not to himself. Only if he does not admire himself. Man can only approach perfection by forgetting himself. There is still a long way to go before this becomes obvious.
The artists will understand it before others. They already understand that. This is probably how we should understand, for example, the intuitions of Marina Abramovic and so many others.
We will never know what Da Vinci would have thought of it. Unless you look at the Vitruvian Man in a different way and see that his face shouts of his loneliness and that the position of his arms is like a call to love and to be loved.
My op-ed for the Journal des Arts