Art in the Mantle of Science

The trouble is that modern art in various ways abandoned imitation, representation, naturalism, and it now has to make out a case for its products’ still being truth. This is where science certain aspects of science are seized upon, assimilated, or sometimes simply plagiarized in decorative words, so as to bolster up art’s claim to cognitive value. One such use, and it is a curious reversal of Aristotle, is the boast of factuality: the work of the artist is said to be research; his creations are findings.

— Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art (1971)

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Paul Cullen, Matthew Sansom, Andy Thomson, WeakForce2 (2013). Surrey University, UK.

Barzun spoke those words in his Mellon lecture forty-plus years ago. They have proven prophetic. The creep of art institutions toward a a burlesque of the sciences warrants more attention than it gets. It slouches along under the radar of anointed art appreciators, debasing authentic science, the scientific method, and language along with it. And the debasement of language is, perhaps, the current most potent agent of cultural dissolution: “decorative words, so as to bolster up art’s claim to cognitive value.” Just so. Even more so now than then.

Today’s mail brings an announcement for the fourth Weak Force project. [The installation photo, above, is from the second iteration. If you’ve seen one . . . .] Weak Force operates under the umbrellla of a would-be international, but still largely Anglophone, collaborative that calls itself United Field Theory (UFT). It intends to “locate and represent the social and relational as the generative dynamic” in creative collaboration. It has done its locating, to date, in university galleries in Aukland, Halifax, Seoul, and Surrey.

Take no comfort from geography. The lunatic dogmatism of the group is equally at home on many an American campus. And it is not benign, no matter the inanity of the product. What counts is that this slither toward art-and-design-as-research represents a generationan electoratewell schooled in techniques of communication but barren of signficant grasp of what is worth communicating. A generation technologically adept but uneducated. Miseducated.

Unlike the collaboration of the Curies, the Wright brothers, Crick and Watson, or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Weak Force, funded by UFT, provides artists with means to inquire into the intricacies of themselves and their discontents. They examine “to what extent an idea is separable from its specific material expression, and what latitude is possible for its material expression and presentation to constitute an authentic expression of idea.” The distance between ideaif that is the right wordand expression appears above.

Inhaling the vapor of science, the press release intones:

In physics, weak force is one of the four fundamental interactions of nature, alongside the strong interaction, electromagnetism, and gravitation. It is weaker than the strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force but stronger than gravity.

Weak Force celebrates the “artist as interlocutor.” It traffics in the weak force of social interaction: “social contracts and discourses of exchange such as barter, voice, critique, laughter, and sound.” Taken under scrutiny, these reveal “a politic of materialism” which will be exposed through a series of timetabled events, kiosks, pavilions, displays, and other stuff.

You can read artist Andy Thomson’s tractlet on “The Contingency of Gravity” here. Take care to grind through the hash of physics and metaphysics to the final line: “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change them.”

Keep the theory; just flip the facts. At heart, it is a totalitarian formulation that corresponds, with demonic ease, to our present political culture, one that has been metastasizing for decades. The substitution of rhetoric for fact and logicsound over senseendangers us far more than uncomely art.

It takes heavy doses of higher education to master a lingo engineered to upend the purpose of language by mystifying rather than illuminating. Weak Force is only a single day’s illustration of the lingua franca transmitted through university art departments to the culture at large. It keeps coming, a relentless reminder of Hobbes’ blunt observation that the universities “have been to this nation as the wooden horse to the Trojans.”

It is all for the commonweal, of course. As the good people at the School of Art + Design at Aukland University of Technology declare, they “accept a role as critic and conscience of society.” Naturally, they also “interrogate” the proposition that the arts are particularly suited to speak critically about social issues. Left unspoken is the accompanying belief that when art speaks, it is not to be defied.

Raymond Aron once commented that science encourages intellectuals to think the world before aspiring to change it. Today’s arts intellectual understands that the instinctual appeal of the arts deflects thought. Tacked to the mantle of science, it trumps thought altogether. No thinking is needed if art itself can, as Thomson insists, negotiate a relationship to gravity’s space-time.

 

El Greco, Messiah of Modernism

Among Platonists, man is mind, intellect, above all else. Man is ordained to think. His province is learning and true wisdom. The rest is flesh and appetite, or, in the phrasing of Timaeus , an Eros of begetting. A common, ignoble thing that resides in the lower precincts of the body and pulls us earthenward, away from our celestial affinity.

Christopher Johnson, in the comment section to the previous post, alludes to that ancient polarity. Speaking of El Greco’s St. Martin and the Beggar, he notes that the painting transports the scene from a mere act of charity to an encounter between the mortal and the divine.

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El Greco. St. Martin and the Beggar (1597-99). National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Frank Gonzalez-Crussi, a practicing pathologist and a graceful essayist, comments on the way that thematic polarity, between mortal and divine, informs the visual structure of El Greco’s work:

Having learned his art from the Venetians, El Greco painted bodies that naturally experience all the gravitational pull that earthly beings suffer. Living in the rigidly dogmatic society of Catholic Toledo, they are equally subject to an elevating impulse that would drag them toward the firmament, like disembodied souls that left behind their corporeal sheaths, just as the famed Toledan sword blades . . . used to leave their leather encasements with a deadly hissing sound.

Caught between irresistible terrestrial and heavenly pulls, El Greco’s bodies stretch beyond anything credible. As his angels grow in length, it occurs to him that they need huge wings to be supported in flight. Officers of the Inquisition, not well versed in aerodynamics, we are to assume, object to the wing size as contrary to prescribed canons and must be persuaded: functional wings or none at all! His kneeling worshippers, his standing figures, stretch to a degree that seemed objectionable to most of his contemporaries and, in the saying of Maurice Barrs, repugnant to many, who expected to be presented with butterflies transmuted in worship, and are instead presented with long larvae in vivid colors.

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El Greco. The Annunciation (c. 1595-1600). El Greco painted several versions of the theme. This replica belongs to the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. Made by El Greco, it is his own copy of the painting that hangs in the Museum of Fine Art, Budapest.

El Greco’s dematerialized, Mannerist forms articulate the mystical ideals of Spain’s Golden Age. Yet the painter, born in the capital of Crete, his eye ripened and hand perfected in Venice and Rome, grappled with accusations of insanity in life and afterwards. The fevered attenuation of El Greco’s bodies became greater as time went on; the opposing pulls, simultaneously earthward and skyward, were felt more keenly as his work progressed. Surely, the painter was mad?

The argument of Spanish erudite Germn Beritens, writing in 1914 on why El Greco painted as he did, influenced reception of El Greco’s work for decades. Entitled El Astigmatismo del Greco, Berens theory of progressive astigmatism lingers on even now in popular discussions of El Greco. Gonzalez-Crussi remarks:

Through the use of glasses that correct this defect, a counter-proof is offered: if one looks at his paintings through such lenses, lo and behold! The proportions will suddenly appear normal. Thus, if we are to believe this thesis, a bad case of genius could have been averted by an opportune visit to the ophthalmologist.

Composition itself is expression. El Greco’s protracted figures exhibit the simultaneous upward and downward pressure of the mind’s aspirations and Plato’s “ploughland of the womb.” Call it a mystic dialogue. The painter’s swirl of exaggerated, even histrionic, forms embody the drama of salvation. To see in them some material, visual or neurological, disorder is not to see them at all.

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El Greco. The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse, or The Vision of St. John (1608-14). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Stay awhile with El Greco. It is one of the oddities of cultural history that this non-Spaniard, buried in an unknown grave and neglected for nearly three centuries, should have arisen in the late nineteenth century to displace even Velasquez as the glory of Spanish painting. While Spain is splendidly possessive of him today, that was not always so. Art historian Thomas Craven, writing in 1931, summarizes:

More profoundly than any artist of her [Spain’s] own blood does he express the ghastly passions and interpret the tragedy of her mystic soul. But while he lived and worked and quarreled in Toledo, she watched his movements with suspicion, eager to bring him before the Inquisition, never thinking of him but as a foreigner, and calling him The Greek .

He, in turn, was neither soft-spoken nor agreeable; prouder even than the Spaniards, he did not fear them, but held them off with high indifference and scorn, telling them they were below the Italians, and adding that the Italians were inferior to his own people, the Greeks. He was, he said, descended from the greatest of all races, and to remind the Castillians of his classical origin, he retained his eastern name, Domenikos Theotokopoulos. Thus, in Greek characters, did he sign his pictures.

Although he could boast of neither the king’s favor nor popular acclaim, El Greco must have been adept at moving his work. He was reported to have lived elegantly in a twenty-four room house. It is known that he was able to hire musicians from Venice to entertain his dining; that he took pride in his cultivated tastes and his erudition. And he was painstaking in his working methods:

. . . he was an extremely deliberate, scrupulous and systematic painter, working from clay models and making smaller and carefully finished versions of all his pictures . . . . Hence the many extant versions of the same subjects showing the growth of his designs and how he worked them over and over again, pruning transposing and accentuating until he had arrived at the maximum of expressiveness.

Little else is known about him except that his only heir was a mistress, not a wife, and that they had one son, an undistinguished painter. What, then, finally awarded El Greco the Breeders’ Cup in Spain’s art historical sweepstakes?

It was Modernism. The early moderns broke the tenacity of realism, and, with it, the ascendency of Velasquez. Impatient with naturalistic standards of depiction, the new movement went in search of an Old Master to call its own. Suddenly, El Greco’s distortions looked prophetically avant-garde. It is hard to pinpoint who were the first to re-evaluate his work as a needed cudgel against the authority of verisimilitude. Cezanne? Unamuno, who declared El Greco “the first apostle of Impressionism”? Others of the Generation of Ninety Eight? Art historian Manuel Casso or Julius Meier-Graefe?

El Greco was on the cusp of revival when that other Spaniard, Picasso, studied The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse while he was at work on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

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Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

By now it is agreed that Les Demoiselles (originally intended to be titled The Brothel on Avignon Street ) owes as much to El Greco as to Cezanne. What matters here is that branching lines of descent from the primacy of realism to the fracturings of Modernism share a major point of origin in the work of one audacious religious painter. Art, a careless courtesan, is such that its favors can attend incandescent devotion or serve, in Picasso’s phrase, as “an instrument of war.”

A tireless anti-Modernist polemicist, Thomas Craven, in 1931, dubbed El Greco the “Messiah of Modernism.” Although he located in El Greco the seeds of a movement he despised, he nonetheless embraced the painter with the ardor of a revivalist preacher:

[El Greco] retains the strong Spanish savor of the environment that preyed upon his spirit; thus he saves himself from the emptiness of abstractions, communicating his experiences in forms which are not merely mathematical units of design but receptacles of human meanings . . . .

The world of El Greco is a furnace in which the soul, hating the heat of the body, struggles in an unearthly passion to release itself. In the convulsive duel, the resisting body is pulled out of joint and elongated into a fiery apparition. His gaunt figures, suffering from some burning malaise of the flesh, are preternaturally tall; their eyes are fixed on God; they throw their arms upward, in the agony of living, to clutch at the celestial throne.

Reading Craven now, some eighty years after he wrote, is a great romp. Sturdy in his likes and dislikes, he was convinced that laymen had been scarred by the aesthetes. Public faculties were pocked and blistered by jargon, by theory, by whatever sacred apparatus sought to sift a self-selected minority from the gross herd. Craven, personal friend of the American regionalists and influential advocate of American Scene painting, argued to reclaim art from the specialists. And he did it with gusto. Read him for his prose, his pungence, and the ease of his erudition. You needn’t share his antagonism toward the School of Paris or the European moderns in general.

Craven was writing at roughly the same time, a few scant years in advance, of Chaplin’s Modern Times and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis . Mistrust of the machine, of industrialization’s material productiveness, was a shared theme of the moment he inhabited. In retrospect, it seems almost quaint. But that is a minor point. Craven’s scholarship and the vigor of his insight stands.

His Men of Art is a sparkling place to begin acquaintance. It is long out of print but available for pennies on the internet. “Have Painters Minds?” is a Menckenesque essay published in The American Mercury , 1927. Harder to find, it rewards the hunt.

In Morte Sumus

I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write: From henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.

—Book of Common Prayer

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Souls Transformed into Birds (15th C.). Venetian manuscript illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Biblioteca Marciana, Venice.

Can we stay awhile with death? This is November, month of the Holy Souls. Poor Souls, in the wording of my childhood. It is the season to remember that “in the midst of life, we are in death.” The Church gives us a full month to consider what the culture around us strains to obscure. Let us not rush.

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Purgatory (15th C.), Lombard School. Manuscript illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Somber choruses to the Great Leveler, threnodies on the fragility of all earthly fame and favor—these are ancient themes common down ages and across cultures. In Day of the Dead , a garland of mortal reflections, Frank Gonzalez-Crussi recounts one of the less familiar aspects of Renaissance achievement: the spectacular memento mori . These were staged with all the macabre luxuriousness that mechanical ingenuity could provide:

In a carnival organized by Piero di Cosimo in 1551, a huge black cart, drawn by black bisons and crowded with human bones and white crosses, carried an enormous Death wielding a sickle and surrounded by tombs. At every station where the cart stopped, the tomb slabs parted, and the public could see frightening beings simulating decomposing cadavers emerging from the graves. There followed other terrible personages, or “death masks,” who carried torches and sang hymns to intensify the horror of the spectators.

This was a grandiose, theatrical exultation, a sophisticated mise en scène worthy of the Italian Renaissance, carefully calculated to excite collective shudders in crowds sensitized to the idea of death.

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Three Living and Three Dead (15th C.), woodcut. Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Gonzalez-Crussi compares the vivid European imagery of death—sobering variations on the danse macabre —with its rambunctious, non-menacing incarnation in Mexican folklore:

The Mexican skeleton . . . is no spook. It is a policeman, a city dandy, a hired ranch hand or a bar tender . . . . A calavera , though a skeleton, poses no threats.

It may be argued that all this is affectation and pose; that Mexicans disguise the universal fear of death under the trappings of hilarity. So be it; it is still necessary to acknowledge that the disguise works wonderfully well. The skeletons that populate Mexico in early November do not address us with pathetic appeals. They never adopt dramatic poses; nor can we hear them intoning mournful dirges. We hear from them no solemn injunctions to repent, no preaching, no somber reminders of our need for moral regeneration. Caustic wit, biting irony, and sarcasm are their only weapons. They nettle us, and the rest they leave to our discretion.

That is probably just as well, if not for the reason the author, a pathologist, prefers. (“Who knows, if the blessed souls took umbrage at our occupation, how dissectors might have fared today.”) To the degree that modern Day of the Dead festivity is legatee to ancient Mayan burial practices, jolly dead are easier to live with than the ghastly kind.

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Diego Rivera. Day of the Dead/City Fiesta (1923-24), mural. Secretaria de Education Publica, Mexico City.

Unlike most substantial cultures around the world, the Mayans did not have communal cemeteries. They buried their dead under the floor in their own homes. Sub-floor burial, common to families of all classes, extended into the sixteenth century. It was an intimate arrangement that might well have continued but for the zealous intervention of Franciscan friar and Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, who witnessed it. Archeologist Edwin Barnhart states sympathetically what the bishop saw as the work of the devil: 

For the Classic Maya a residence was both home and tomb. As a result, the houses filled from two directions. While the birth rate expanded the family inside, the death rate expanded the family underneath.

A people who lodge atop their dead dare not dwell on dust and worms. They know in their own bones the urgency of making friends with the departed; they grasp the utility of relieving death of its sting. The dead underfoot have to be mollified, soothed, sweetened with gifts. Unthinkable, the calamities that might attend the sacred souls’ resentment of their hushed estate! What peril, should they harbor animosity toward the clamorous lives lived over them? Or begin to hanker after the quick? Become jealous or vindictive?

Cajoling the dead is a pragmatic measure, pre-Christian counterpoint to a religious shudder. Yet it is not without a certain tenderness. It suffers an understanding that living and dead are bound together in defiance of extermination.

Christian trust in the communion of saints is a stream fed by more than one spring.

• • • • •

This Wednesday, November 6, at the Church of St. Agnes, near Grand Central, the Catholic Artists Society is sponsoring a Solemn Requiem Mass at 6:30 PM. Details here.

At Caramoor, Lincoln Center or any other listening hall, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor is a concert. Only in the liturgical setting for which it was written is it an act of prayer. If you are in or near New York, come and pray. It is meet and just to pray for the dead. And to them as well.

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William Blake. Dante and Virgil Approaching the Angel Who Guards the Entrance to Purgatory (1824-27). Illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Louvre, Paris

The Conversion of Artists?

The website of the Catholic Artists Society offers an audio download of its sponsored lectures. In return, it asks only for the courtesy of a small voluntary donation. When I went to the site after Gregory Wolfe’s talk, there was an addendum to the donation button. If you preferred prayer to cash, you could make good by saying a decade of the Rosary for the conversion of artists.

That codicil is now gone, thank goodness.

The conversion of artists. Given the unlovely, preparatory landfill turned out in carloads by MFA programs, it might have seemed a humane objective. But it was not. An intention as self-referential—reverential—as that underwrites, without meaning to, the corrosive self-regard that has helped propel us down the rabbit hole we find ourselves in. The Society is wise to have removed it.

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Sarah Bisceli, MFA candidate. “Springtime Loneliness” (2013). Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.

Today’s artist, together with art itself, has swollen like a puff adder in what Jacques Barzun dubbed “the vacuum of belief.” Religious aestheticism is as susceptible to dilation as its secular counterpart. Contemporary Christianity is too often tempted to sanctify its own worldly replacement.

In reality, artists are not as pivotal in the cultural chain of command as they have been groomed to think. Implicit in the Society’s initial request was the assumption that artists are primary agents, rather than easily visible symptoms, of cultural devolution. It ascribed to artists the power to reverse the mess we are in. It assumed artists to be ascendant over the nexus of less conspicuous actors in the cultural arena: curators, collectors, grant-giving panels, state accreditation bureaucrats, publishers, critics (add unemployed art historians and poets looking for a gig), dealers, academic department chairs, arts entrepreneurs and administrators, diversity connoisseurs, art fund managers, art consultants, museum trustees, publicists, et alia. It was an assumption that participated in the very ideology the Society prays to overturn.

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Photo by Stephanie Brooks. Advertisement for the Master of Arts in Visual Critical Studies offered by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The deification of artists has progressed to the point where they are no longer required to make anything; they simply have to be . It is a boundless mandate. The charge never wears out. It is not only the rich who are different from you and me. The artist, too, is a particular kind of being—rarified, born under the sign of Saturn, ordained for alienation, poised for mutiny. And shimmering with vision. More shaman than maker, the contemporary artist is a conceptual product of the culture of academia: a brew of left-leaning, utopian romanticism. Heady with attitude and missionary fervor, it disdains skills—manual ones—as the stock villain in the embourgeoisement of the artist’s true role.

Every artist, a cub Bolshevik.

This is learned behavior. And the acquisition of it has been structured in to university art departments since the end of the Second World War. The state of art today is, in very large measure, an unforeseen consequence of the G.I. Bill of Rights. The bill gave funds directly to returning GIs, to spend on their choice of schooling. Many (e.g. Wayne Thiebaud, U.S. Air Force; Richard Diebenkorn, U.S. Marine Corps) chose to study art.

Colleges and universities competed for the funds by establishing art departments that offered the added caché of a college degree unattainable through premier atelier-style institutions like the Art Students League or the (no longer extant) Brooklyn Museum Art School. Consequently, the Left’s steady march through the institutions was straight on course to parade through the arts as well. This it did with a vengeance in the Sixties, with no sign of let-up since. Even institutions founded on the atelier system are succumbing to the demands of accreditation, with its attendant baggage, in the struggle to stay solvent.

A current promo for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the nation’s first museum and art school, states it this way: “We make artists.” In bold. Sarah Bisceli might well have shown talent before arriving at PAFA, but now she has progressed beyond all that. [See above.] She has learned how to be an artist. And PAFA is pleased to illustrate the efficacy of their instruction with her installation.

In all, artists have already been converted. They are born again to the wrecking ball, an instrument beloved by insurgent academics.

Beauty, the Mantra

Beauty will save the world—a mantra among contemporary Christians issuing from the mouth of a character in nineteenth century Russian fiction.

Susan Walp. Small Red Apples in a Berry Box (2011).

Augustine’s Beauty has already saved the world. Our ransom has been paid. What matters now is whether the world cooperates with its redemption or flouts it. History will tell in the end. The arts of the beautiful are weightless in the balance. They can only scratch at the surface—if that—of moral beauty.

But moral beauty is not the artist’s province. The artist as artist has command of sensible beauty alone. The delight of it is a good to those who recognize it. But it saves no one.


Susan Walp. Late Winter Beet and Spring-Dug Burdock (2010).

Artists who set out to turn beauty on its head do so in the high-minded conviction that material beauty serves the enemy. Delectation, the spiritual weapon of a dying class, distracts from the artist’s presumed role to change the world. Conscientious objection to society’s unruly way of things has been a prime motivator in the arts since the early decades of the twentieth century. Art, the imagined locus of progressive revelation, must stride forward to correct those conditions of civilized life that mask the rot at the core. Among these righteous refusers, social justice is the beauty that redeems and regenerates. The rest is for lounge lizards. 

Ghana Think Tank, a portable work station rolling through Queens, NY.
Presented by Creative Time and the Queens Museum of Art.

Paladins of beauty on the right, partisans of art-as-social-action on the left—quixotic world improvers in both camps. They are mirror images of one another.

Tikkun olam. Both sides view art as an act of repair, a means to something other—larger—than itself. Both make of the artist a scold, a moralist on the barricades. Each thinks lofty thoughts of itself. Each seizes upon art to display stirring vistas from the piazza of its own sensibility.

Caitlin Caudwell, BFA candidate. “Never Settled” (2013).
Department of Visual Studies, SUNY at Buffalo. 

• • • • • 

Christ figures have peopled literature for centuries: Don Quixote, Dickens’ Sydney Carton and his far, far, better self-oblation, Melville’s Billy Budd, Graham Greene’s “whisky priest,” Faulkner’s impaired Benjy, on down to Frodo Baggins. The list is long. Longer still if we add film: Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada , Babette and her agape meal in Babette’s Feast , the mysterious stranger in Shane ; Father Barry in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. We could go on listing.

Dostoevsky’s idiot, Prince Myshkin, is a creation of inimitable genius. All the more pressing, then, to be careful of what we make of it.

Interpreting The Idiot in 1919, shortly after the word Bolshevik had come into use, Hermann Hesse advanced a Christ figure that came to rancid flower in the 1960s:

The fact that this foe of order, this frightful destroyer, appears not as a criminal but as a shy, endearing person full of childlikeness and charm, a good-hearted, self-less, benevolent man, this is the secret of this terrifying book . . . .

The future is uncertain, but the road that is shown here is unambiguous. It means spiritual revaluation. It leads through Myshkin and calls for “magical thinking,” the acceptance of chaos. Return to the incoherent, to the unconscious, to the formless, to the animal, and far beyond the animal to the beginning of all things.

Every literary Christ figure is an artifact of language, a trope. However exalted the language, it remains what it is: an extended metaphor. In other words: art.

How privileged we are to have the leisure and resources that permit us to criss-cross the boundaries between art and life. And how precarious the crossing.

Yip Chen. Inside the Cage on Black Friday (2008). Vermont College of Fine Arts.