Iconography of Power

Propaganda posters are a fascinating genre in their own right. Early Soviet posters are graphically compelling, and among my favorite works of art. It is a topic to come back to on a later date. But let me just touch on it for the moment in response to readers who emailed to comment on the reproductions in the previous post.

The earliest, ranging from 1918 to 1929, were heady with exhilaration for the fledgling workers' state, and the aspirations of Bolshevik internationalism. The monarchy had been toppled, tsarist Russia disintegrated, and the air was thick with revolutionary fervor. It is palpable in the posters of that first decade. 

Soviet art began to flourish on posters in the months following the revolution. Initially, the Soviet agencies relied on publishing proclamations. Illustrations accompanied some of them, but there was little worth remembering. Midway through 1918, things began to change. The Red Army, founded by Leon Trotsky in April of that year, became a generous patron of graphic artists. Some of the finest work of that first decade was ordered by the military and dealt with military themes. Social motifs, such as literacy and health care, carried the same militant charge. 

Later, in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky described the young workers' state:

[It] had a seething mass basis and a perspective of world revolution; it had no fear of experiments, searchings, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fiber, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years. All the best youthful forces of art were touched to the quick.

The poster was an ideal medium for reaching a population that was largely illiterate and suffering the after shocks of civil war. Few could read; paper and printing presses was in short supply. Posters were vivid, inspirational, the graphics fully intelligible apart from text. 

Soviet art degenerated during the rise of Stalinism into the stock commonplaces of socialist realism. But that early generation of poster art remains stirring apart from politics. It radiates a certain martial beauty, estimable as art no less than as historical record.


Notes On An Idol

The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit this earth and the kingdom of heaven, too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.
                                                     Eric Hoffer, The True Believer
A great many of our attitudes and principles which we adopt as Christian are nothing but products of our subjection to the world.
                                                     Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom

Marxism thought itself to have progressed from Utopia to science. Environmentalism makes a corresponding claim for itself.

Dimitri Stakhevich Moor. Have You Volunteered? Poster, 1929.

In his 1981 foreword to The Captive Mind, written some thirty years earlier, Czeslaw Milosz observed that the West, no less than Eastern Europe still in the Soviet bloc, was burdened with ideological pressures to conform. But he cited one essential distinction between them: “The difference is that in the West one may resist such pressure without being held guilty of a mortal sin.”

Some thirty four years later, that distinction is close to disappearing. Growing mightily all the while is the cult of environmentalism, a burgeoning state religion summarized in the catechism of sustainable development. It is the ascendant idol of our time, as magnetic—and totalizing—as the Leninist-Stalinist doctrines were to Milosz’ contemporaries. What the poet referred to as “the magic influence of the new faith,” is replicated among ourselves with a new, seemingly benign, identity.

Orthodox environmentalism is about very much more than saving giraffes or cleaning up the Hudson. The faith we are asked to embrace is the holy cause of building a new social order—a just, sustainable, and harmonious global society—by means of messianic environmentalism. We are pressed on all sides to shun skepticism and align ourselves with the ectopian gospel.

A populist pope, Peronist by culture and inclination, is preparing to lend magisterial heft to the Green creed. In the minds of the faithful, assent will become a quasi-infallible demand. Cached in theological language designed to legitimize a premature, scientifically unsettled judgment, a politicized—essentially materialist—agenda will assume the mantle of God’s will.  False knowledge, already given sanctuary in academia and the press, will receive immunity to criticism on high moral grounds. Agnosticism toward the diktats of climate-change evangelists will be further marginalized. Its tincture of depravity will deepen. Catholics will find themselves pressed to enlist on God's side in the cosmic war against demon unbelief.

Francis' encyclical will arrive as a call to conversion.

Conversion here is key. Redemption is of ultimate significance, too urgent to be left to the reasoning mind and the risks of frank, unfettered argument. It is far, far too pivotal to wait for the raw data on which conviction rests. Empirical results might not come soon enough. Or at all. The only thing that can save is a prompt change of heart and habit: pre-emptive metanoia.

A.R. Golenkina. The Torch of the Third International Inflames the Whole World. Porcelain Plate, 1922.

On November 10, 2014, Václav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic from 2003 to 2013, spoke in London at an event commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. Standpoint published his address under the title “Communism's Comeback?” Klaus lamented a post-Communist lessening of democratic and economic freedoms in his homeland:

It was caused partly by the victory of social democracy in our country and partly by the importing of the European economic system, with its over-regulation, high taxation and redistribution, welfare state, and fascination with all kinds of anti-market measures, connected nowadays mostly with environmentalism, with its anti-democratic social ideology which successfully hides its real substance while pretending to care about nature, the environment and our Blue Planet. We may be oversensitive in this respect because of our long Communist experience but we see many similar phenomena, tendencies, ambitions and arguments around us today.

Gustav Klutsis. Let Us Fulfill the Plan of the Great Project. Poster, 1930. Russian State Museum, Moscow.

There is little need to wait for the climate encyclical to know which way this trolley is headed. On its website, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences announces an April 28th conference: Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: the Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity. Its mission statement is steeped in the received wisdom that enchants today's collective mind. Discernible within the Academy's rhetoric, buoyant with exalted intention, is the will to dominion that drives the global environmental movement:

The goal of this workshop is to raise awareness and build a consensus that the values of sustainable development cohere with values of the leading religious traditions, with a special focus on the most vulnerable; to elevate the debate on the moral dimensions of protecting the environment in advance of the papal encyclical; and to help build a global movement across all religions for sustainable development and climate change throughout 2015 and beyond.

John Heartfield. Capitalism Robs You of the Last Piece of Bread (1932). Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich.

The Vatican's slouch toward salvation-by-ecology did not begin with Pope Francis. Daniel Stone, writing in National Geographic in 2013 stated that one lasting legacy of Benedict XVI, dubbed the “Green Pope,” was how he steered the global debate over climate change:  ” . . . the pontiff has made environmental awareness a key tenant of his tenure.” In Caritas in Veritate (2009), Benedict signaled his hope for a “world political authority.” This global political body—a Brussels universalized and sacralized—would dictate procedures governing multiple global issues, environmental among them.

World political authority. It is a chilling phrase, one that runs counter to Christian understanding of the limits of politics. It is also an odd one, coming from as astute and subtle a theologian as Benedict. The mission of the Church is to keep man mindful that he has another life to live. When the Church maneuvers to be counted a player among the principalities and powers, the subversion of Christian truth and charity has begun. The true object of Green globalism is not human needs, but those of the planet. The culture of death wears many guises. Among them are the anti-humanist assumptions of environmentalism.

Yesterday's Gospel reading (John 6: 28-29) hovers over this discussion:

Then they said unto him: What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?

Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God: that you believe in him whom he hath sent. 

All the rest, with its time-bound, tragic burdens, is the work of man. And men of good will, in their God-given freedom, differ in definitions of the common good and in means to achieve it. Turning stones into bread is not a work for the Pontifical Academy.

Trufim Lysenko speaking at the Kremlin, 1935.

Remember the Lysenko affair. It was the twentieth century's most notorious instance of the scandal—and tragedy—of politically correct science. By stacking the deck in favor of a manufactured “consensus” over the still-contested issue of man-made global warming, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences risks comparison with the ideologically driven postures of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era. 

You might not like the comparison. But it merits consideration.


RFRA & My Wedding Ring

It has been some time since I gave thought to the day my soon-to-be husband and I bought our wedding rings. But the spectacle over RFRA—all the panting hysteria of a predatory media and toadying politicians aided by timorous clergy—brings it back with great clarity. And even greater poignancy.

Our wedding date was set. It was time to pick a ring. But where to look for one? How to shop? The two of us were young, broke, and scrappy. It would be some years yet before we could afford to pay retail. Besides, my intended was a combative shopper, born to hondel. He did not believe in fixed prices. There were only asking prices begging to be negotiated.

We started in Manhattan’s diamond district in the west Forties. No diamonds were on our shopping list. But 47th Street was a place to haggle, draw swords, dicker away until the doomed asking price dropped in exhaustion. His ring was easy. A plain gold band was all. It was mine that took hunting for. I wanted something chaste and spare, low keyed but rich with symbolism. No glitz. Modest but not severe. It had to be unembellished but eloquent—a sort of Grail for my ring finger.

I had no idea what my adjectives might look like in the concrete. So we trooped from stall to stall in the Exchange scouting for . . . what, exactly? Then, finally, there it was. In the showcase of an older jeweler, forearm tattooed with his identification number from a concentration camp, were simple gold bands embossed with phrases from the Tanakh. They were cut in the identical ancient block script familiar to Jesus of Nazareth, who grew in wisdom and study of Torah.

James Tissot. Jesus Teaching in the Synagogue (c. 1897). Ann Ronan Picture Library, London.

The graphic beauty of the Hebrew characters—heightened by our inability to read them—seemed a visible link to Him in Whom we would marry. One square letter followed another, spacing calculated to encircle the band with no marked beginning or end. The indissolubility of marriage seemed imprinted in the very design. Add the romance of indecipherability. This was my ring!

Next came the contest over cost. The groom-to-be went into gladiatorial mode. The seller was good at the game. It was a lengthy, spirited match. Eventually the two settled on a price. All that was left was to decide on the phrase from a sheet of suggested lines. My heart set on a passage from the Book of Ruth that reads in full:

Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go, where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.

Only the central portion (“whither thou goest . . .”) could fit around the ring but the entire antiphon is implicit in the fragment. Ruth’s pledge to Naomi is the purest and most stirring statement of friendship I have ever known. I ached to claim it for myself and wear it for the rest of my life.

Marriage. Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible (13th C). Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.

Was one of us Jewish? The jeweler wanted to know. Was either of us leaving another religion to become Jewish? No, we were not. Well then, he was sorry but he would not give us that particular quotation. The point was non-negotiable.

The rebuff was a sore let-down but we did not press. We deferred to his prohibition because, in some unspoken way, we understood. The story of Ruth is one of conversion that affirms the Jewish nation. It testifies to peoplehood. The intensity of this man’s concern to honor the sacred core of the text moved us. Here was a man who had suffered the unspeakable for no other reason than he was part of the people Ruth pledged herself to.

There was grace in his refusal. Had he granted me the words I craved, he would, in conscience, have violated the grandeur of them. Ruth’s commitment was not simply to another person but to a covenanted community bound together since the call of Abraham. Her words were his inheritance; he was not free to extend them to us.

Disappointed, I settled for words from the Song of Songs: “I found him whom my soul loveth.” Over the years, my second choice proved to be the better one. The ring is dearer to me than anything else I possess. But I did not feel that then.

                                                                               •     •     •     •

What innocents we were. It never entered our minds to challenge the denial. We took for granted the man’s moral right to refuse us; any legal issue, then, was irrelevant. But by today’s lights, we gave in too readily. We could have raised a stink. Demanded our rights as consumers. Bullied the vendor with accusations of anti-Christian bigotry. We did not have to submit to the discomfort of being told we were ineligible for what we desired.

“Something there is that does not love a wall, / That wants it down.” Pace Frost, not every barrier should be cleared away. Not everything is permeable. A nation cannot survive without borders; no culture endures without limits. Walls provide a bulwark against chaos and dissolution. That day in the Diamond Exchange, we stumbled against the very wall a man had clung to in the camps. It was the same one that had kept Jewry from disappearing centuries before modern nation states existed.

Had we been noisy enough, I might have gotten the thing I wanted at the time. But at what price to the commonweal?

Anonymous engraving. Riot in Saint-Omer, 1780s (Incitement over a lightening rod placed atop a house.)

How to discern which walls, like dikes, have to be maintained, and which left to crumble? Aggressive shows of grievance are meant to deflect discernment, not advance it. The nervous response of the five Roman Catholic bishops of Indiana cooperated with the machinery of deflection by rushing forward with anodyne assertions of the dignity of all people, all genders, as if that were in the balance. It was not. The bishops were anxious to appease malcontents whose agenda trumped conscience and the rule of law. If the bishops could not attend to the specific content of the bill—which provided standing in court for anyone substantially burdened by demands counter to their religious beliefs —better to have kept quiet.

The way to protect religious liberty is not to bleat for it but to expose the distortions, conjectural ploys, and rabble-rousing used against it. It requires tooth. By contrast, the bishops’ bridge-over-troubled-waters approach signaled to RFRA antagonists that self-serving outbursts really do work. It cooperated with bootlicking politicians in ceding ground that was never in play. Reassurance misapplied is a sentimental concession to demagoguery. 



Guardini's Mob

For all the anecdotes recorded in the Passion chronicle, there seems a lacuna at the heart of it. Something goes missing. Something in the text lacks explication. The politics of it are plain enough. But is there not a rupture in the psychology of the crowd, an unaccountable fickleness? Why the discontinuity between Jesus’ reception into Jerusalem and the calls to crucify him days later? Were the Jews that mercurial and unstable?

Anonymous. Fresco (14th C). Basilica of San Abbondio, Como.

Romano Guardini anticipated the question and answered it in The Lord. A magisterial reflection on the Gospel story, the book revivifies our grasp of Jesus within the contours of his time. One chapter, “The Trial,” abolishes all thought of a breach in the behavior of the multitude. In Guardini’s retelling, those who spread their clothes under his feet and, in Luke’s words, “came early in the morning to him in the temple, for to hear him” were not the same ones who cried “Crucify him:”

Pilate is skeptical but sensitive—possibly also superstitious. He feels the mystery, fears supernatural power, and would like to free the accused. He counts upon the masses to demand Jesus’ release. There is a man in prison who has been really seditious—and in addition committed murder. His name is also Jesus, Jesus Bar-abbas.

Pilate: Whom shall I give free, Jesus the Bar-abbas, or the Jesus called Messiah? But the Procurator has reckoned falsely. The crowd outside is no real cross-section of the masses composed in the main of serious, hard-working, long-suffering, honest men and women, but mob, plebs. The High Council has seen to that, and its agitators are busily and successfully spreading ‘public opinion’ among them. So they yell: Bar-abbas!

Pilate tries to placate them: “What then am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ?”

All: “Let him be crucified.”

It is a stunning passage. So convincing. Why did we not see it before? Through Guardini's words we understand the complexity of pressures on Pilate. And we recognize that mob. It is the poison fruit of a political machine, one as old as politics itself. It lives among us. We meet it in the news, in our own streets.

Flash points change; sources of ignition differ with time and place. But from Sennacherib’s day to our own, the mob is the same: angry and relentless. From the banks of the Tigris to Crown Heights in 1991 or Ferguson last summer, resentments smolder, poised to catch fire. The Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day operated no differently than today’s party apparatchiks. Agitators, zealots, militants, monomaniacs, young Turks, influence peddlers, race-baiters, community organizers—plus ça change .  .  .

Guardini presents Pilate as a man who understood mob psychology as we do: The mob will not be satisfied until it inflicts pain. Blood must flow. Send an innocent to the flogging post, if only to quiet things down. 

One might suppose that Pilate was simply without conscience. But this would not explain his behavior during Jesus' trial. Had he really lacked integrity, he could have directed the trial or have let it direct itself so that the sentence against Jesus would have been inflicted as against a dangerous agitator. Actually, he does nothing of the sort. He insists upon the defender's innocence—repeatedly, to the end—and then, fully conscious of the illegality of the decision, pronounces the sentence of death, and what a death! We are likely to overlook the contradiction, or to explain it away with Pilate's ‘weakness.' This is insufficient. The procurator is sucked into the depths of “the powers of darkness,” into a confusion so dark and deep that he is no longer sensible of the gruesome and ignominious folly he is committing.

Guardini passes on to Calvary by reminding his readers that they should not retreat “before the horrors recounted here, but should read them through, will all the concentration of his heart, remembering that they were suffered for him.”


Art for Selfies

. . . millions of Americans now regularly eat French-fried potatoes with their fingers. We have sunk, anthropologically speaking, beneath the level of the fork. The daily, unrecorded habits of a people are measures of its values. A disintegrated civilization shows not only in the low level of the arts, but in its pop entertainment and its lunchbox.
                                                   John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture

Nothing is more exhilarating than counting oneself an accomplished spotter of cultural decay. We relish the frisson of it even while we wring our hands. So I know what you  think when you hear that the world’s first art museum catering to selfie mavens has opened in Manila. You say to yourself: We have descended from finger food down, down, all the way down to wanton flippancy in a temple of art. Worse, a pretend temple—a garish, tacky, tongue-in-cheek anti-temple.

Quite right. Yet despite that, there is something endearing about this goofy, impertinent, interactive sacrilege. We have enough vulgarities to purse lips over. This does not have to be one of them. Let me try to explain.

Previously tagged the social network capital of the planet, the Philippines have now been anointed the selfie capital to boot. According to research by Time Magazine, Manila, followed by three other Philippine cities, averages more selfies per 100,000 people a day than anywhere else in the camera phone world. You can tunnel into the sociology of this on your own. What interests me is the museum itself, Art in Island.

The whole point of Art in Island is to let people pose for selfies in front of the art on the wall. They can even touch it. And they are exempt from the absurd hush that we museum-goers adopt to prove ourselves pious appreciators of strict observance. Visitors to Art in Island can hold up their selfie-sticks, open their Instagram app, noodle the image, add a caption, and send it giggling into the wide world. It is Everyman’s catchpenny variant of the hoary old message in a bottle tossed on the high seas.

What is the message here? It is in code, but bear with me. I think it is this: that we, in our First World affluence and leisure, have made a fetish of art. The gift that it is has swollen like a puff-adder into a dogma. And a moral tonic. The Philippines, by contrast, have not had the same history of grand acquisitions that find their tax-advantaged way into public collections. Art in Island is a poor nation’s finger in the eye of the cult of art. It is an antidote to the peculiar twist taken by modernity’s bent toward idolatry.

We are a happy band, we aesthetes. We tell ourselves that art awakens the faculties by which we perceive God.  Yet, quite possibly, it runs the other way around. It is the religious mind—quickened but still restless—that grants to visual art its status as a locus theologicus. (Gilson was terse: “There is no necessary connection between the fine arts and religion.  .  .  . Religion exists in religious men.”) We distill art from the labor of its making, and quarantine it from the boundless variety of human creativity. Thereby, we raise it to an object of devotion.

Once we dematerialize art and make it a springboard for other interests, philosophy and theology among them, we hardly have to look at it. Much art-and-beauty discourse is less about art—the thing seen—than a display of the observer as an acolyte of the beautiful. Often as not, the true object of consideration is that golden panorama visible from the piazza of one's own sensibility. It becomes a selfie of another kind. Behold the beholder.

Christianity decreases while art-consciousness intensifies and spreads. More than half of American art museums were founded after 1970. New ones continue to open; older ones renovate and expand. Meanwhile, church attendance shrinks. Table 75 in the 2012 U.S. Census shows those who self-identify as having “no religion” more than doubled between 1990 and 2008. Upsurge in the authority of art is a useful index of the atrophy—or displacement—of faith in Judeo-Christian sources of revelation. On the evidence of Art in Island, Filipinos have ducked a First World god. 

The Mediterranean after the beheading of twenty one Copts. Photo: Universal News & Sport.

While Christian circles contemplate the redemptive power of beauty,  a conquering Islam reasserts itself. It advances in defiance of our trust in art's contribution to “the good.” The Cross was bloody awful. Harrowing. Few of us can bear to look. It is easier to repeat the mantra—unearned by you and me—that beauty will save the world.

Our beguiling but deceptive stress on art and beauty brings to mind The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vittorio de Sica’s 1971 film about a sophisticated Jewish family in Italy during the rise of Mussolini. Their ease and cultivation obscured the magnitude of the threat marshaling against them. In the end, they walked politely to their extermination, the refinement of their upbringing no stay against barbarism. It was annihilated with them.

Art in Island could not have come at a better time. Join me in praying for franchises to open in Paris, New York, Berlin, Florence, every art capital in the Western world.

Note: Art in Island has no website but the museum does have a Facebook page.