Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
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)
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.
Among the more unnerving aspects of contemporary culture is the accelerating pretense of art to the aims, methods, and achievements of science. Call it art in drag, art in the costume of systematized knowledge, gained through observation and experiment, of the material world and its social structures. Art as counterfeit science, more accurately, as complement and accomplice to it, is proudly on show in the University of Buffalo’s current call for applicants to its PhD program in Media Study. The work below illustrates the program:
Marc Bohlen. Water Bar (2011-2013). Compromised water, rocks, minerals, electronics, glassware, tubing, valves, software.
Marc Bohlen’s construction is the visual correlative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, science fiction brought up to date . Here is a rerun of Victor Frankenstein’s lab. The experiment underway is of a different order, but it remains grotesque, a Promethean dead end. The tell-tale ingredient is “compromised water.” Think waste water and threatened water table. Once you have caught that, the mind races on to the menace of hydraulic fracturing. The piece could easily be named Fear of Fracking . But that would expose an ideological bias toward what is proffered as the cool, analytical fruit of “scholarly research.”
Hard to believe it took the artist two years to assemble this thing. A clever bunch of ten-year-olds might have put it together, under Dad’s supervision, on a few rainy Saturdays. They, too, count in the wording of the press release as “a community of practice.” Unhappily, when Dad is not around to supervise, kids have to get a PhD to play in the garage.
Herewith, from the press announcement:
Designed to support new communities of practice that have emerged in the discursive space between media art, the sciences, and the humanities, the program responds to the rapid development and transformation of media stemming from advances in information technologies and to the growing number of artists working in technology-based art forms.
Recognizing the fact that this work is not easily categorized and often spans disciplines that traditionally have little overlap, the program offers a trans-disciplinary framework for practice-led and scholarly research that is highly individualized. Commensurate with traditional PhD frameworks, most credits are earned through research and independent study. Consequently, students are free to organize their course of study around their specific research interests. The dissertation combines both written and production components in a proportion and manner appropriate to the student’s research trajectory. We only require that the conversation between these two components be substantial and original. While this program is appropriate for artists looking to conduct practice-led research within an academic context, it is equally appropriate for artists who want to explore the theoretical implications of their work through scholarship. It also welcomes scholars who want to move from the purely discursive to other forms of media making.
is fast becoming has become the new soma. To anyone with an ear for cant discursive space, practice-led research, research trajectory Buffalo’s announcement is ominous. The hallucinogenic quality of this pseudo-alliance of art with R and D metastacizes exponentially to the detriment of students’ capacity for true scholarship, let alone logic. To take just one example, Parsons New School of Design (before merger, simply Parsons School of Design, a prestigious New York institution) now considers itself a research institution. It boasts twenty-twenty research laboratories. Among them:
DESIS Lab : Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability
Global Exchange Lab : a transdisciplinary space for social scientists, architects, and designers to create hybrid methodologies for research and design interventions in global cities.
Center for Transformative Media : a transdisciplinary research center dedicated to the invention, critique, and understanding of transformative media practices, including gaming, social networking, creative mobility, data mining, and participatory learning.
Vera List Center for Art and Politics : organizes events and programs that respond to some of the pressing social and political issues of our time as they are articulated by the academic community and visual and performing artists.
Visualizing Finance Lab : explores the ways in which complex financial situations and dynamics can be explained through visual, metaphorical, and narrative representations.
You can find the entire grim list here. It bespeaks an unbounded, panoptic lust to redesign the world while bypassing solid, disciplined understanding of . . . well, of anything at all outside the bubble of one’s individual opium den.
The traditional studio assistant, the student gofer in a sculptor friend’s classroom at Parsons is now termed a “research assistant” and is paid according.
Next time you take out the vacuum, think of yourself as engaged in domestic research. There must be a grant to apply for, somewhere.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Artist unknown. St. Martin and the Beggar. Hungarian
Today is Veterans Day. It is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, patron of soldiers.
Martin is my patron saint as well. Back in second grade, when we were asked to pick a saint’s name for Confirmation, I chose Martin. There followed a brief flurry of canonical concern. Was it suitable for a girl to take a male saint’s name? Could she do it? Should she?
I was not trying to create a nuisance. It was only that I took seriously the purpose of this new name. At Confirmation, I would become the namesake of a saint in whom I might recognize some part of myself, someone who mightjustfind some affinity with me, too. The sacrament would confer on us a sacred bond, never to be severed.
Seven-year-olds take such pledges with great seriousness.
But which saint? There were so many, all so dreary with their hands clasped and eyes raised to heaven. Like cows, I thought. Then there were ones with their necks all gashed and bloody, bodies pinned to a tree by arrows, or toasted like grilled cheese. Poor Barbara, shut up in a tower like Rapunzel, only to wind up with her head cut off. Agnes with her breasts on a plate? No thank you. I had no taste for a bad end. Besides, I was not raised to have much hope of sainthood.
Anonymous. Martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicity, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secondulus (c. 985).
But St. Martin! And the horse, of course! Tours must be like the Bronx, I decided. There were horses in Pelham Bay Park. In every picture I found he looked dynamic, a bold cavalry man. He was agile, able to boltgallop awayif he had to. An admirable advantage. The cape was the best part. He did not just pull it off and hand over the whole thing. Nothing so giddy, so . . . Franciscan. (At seven, I could not fathom Martin as a precursor to Francis of Assisi.) No, Martin was cagey. He only cut his cloak in half. Some for me; some for Thee. Here was a saint I might have a chance with.
So Martin it was.
A glad choice. My childhood misreading of Martin’s storied act turned out to have been a happy accident. Martin has accompanied me kindly. My understanding of generositycaritashas heightened since then. The nature of humility, too, has shown its deeper colors. At the same time, in the trenches of the lived life, when to dash, advance or hang fire have their urgency. A bold saint, unmartyred and mindful of military discipline, is high company in the long, hard, mine-studded campaign that makes conscripts of each of us.
Simone Martini. St. Martin Shares his Cloak with the Beggar (c. 1317-20). Montefiore Chapel, Lower Church of San Francesco, Assisi.
To me, the loveliest, most transporting of all images of Martin is Simone Martini’s. My delight in Simone (c. 1284-1344) exceeds even my pleasure inreverence forthe achievements of Giotto. Simone’s play of styles and emotional range lends a unique and compelling force to the Christian narrative.
Assisi’s Montefiore Chapel was commissioned during a cleft in the Franciscan order between the Spiritualists and the Conventuals. The Spiritualists emphasized Christ’s poverty; consequently, they disdained spending funds on buildings and art works. The Conventuals, by then among the wealthiest bodies in Europe, built the double church at Assisi, where St. Francis lay buried, as sign and symbol of their power.
Paul Hill, in The Light of Early Italian Painting, describes the chapel:
To step up from the darkness of the Lower Church at Assisi, into Simone’s Montefiore Chapel, is to enter an altogether separate world. Elaborate Gothic tracery, coral-and-cream inlaid marble, and stained glass windows all conspire with the painted narrative to create, in Borsook’s phrase, ‘a shimmering casket.’ . . . [At Assisi] he designed an ensemble whose aesthetic could hardly be more opposed to the simplicity and ‘poverty’ of the Life of St. Francis upstairs.
At about the time Simone was at work in Assisi, Pope John XXII issued a series of pronouncements, from Avignon, contesting the poverty of Christ. That was one way to reconcile expensive commissions and aesthetic consciousness with witness to a Nazarene tekton.
With the morn, those angel faces smile which I have loved long since and lost awhile .
John Henry Newman
Notes of condolence are among of the hardest things of all to write. They are obliged to console. Consolation is their raison d’etre. Yet how is that accomplished? What can be said at the moment grief demands its due without falling into maudlin cliché? Anguish seems better left with silence. Yet silence is cruel, a retreat from the one who grieves and an abandonment of the dead. Words are needed, somehow. Where to find them? How to shape them? How to let one’s own heart speak while granting dominion to the heart of another?
The Flight of the Soul (15th C.). Manuscript illustration for Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Bibliotheque Municipal, Rouen.
The springs of condolence require exquisite sensitivity to the misery and bewilderment of the bereaved. John Henry Newman was gifted with just such discernment. His words were freed from constraints by the knowledge that they were addressed to fellow Christians. Beneficiaries of his sympathy assented to his meditation on the sympathy of Christ: “Wherever there is a heart to answer, ‘Lord, I believe,’ there Christ is present.”
The humanity of John Henry Newman is nowhere more apparent than in the condolences he sent to those with whom he lived and worked. His lifetime, spanning the nineteenth century, provided ample occasion to address the pain of bereaved friends. Mortality rates were high in Victorian England; death was omnipresent. Before 1900, a full fifteen percent of children died before adolescence. Records of 1839 show nearly one in three failed to reach the age of five. Pregnancy was hazardouschildbirth the most common cause of death among even healthy women. There was the chronic devastation of infectious diseases: influenza, typhus (bacterial infection), typhoid fever (from contaminated food or drink), tuberculosis, diphtheria, small pox, chicken pox, syphilis, and that quick and nasty killer, cholera.
Flemish School. Woman on Her Deathbed (17th C.). Musée des Beaux Arts, Rouen.
Nowhere is Cardinal Manning’s description of Newman as “a preacher of justice, of piety and of compassion” more evident than in Newman’s many letters to the bereaved. James Tolhurst’s Comfort in Sorrow is a valuable collection of these letters. Newman’s humanity is apparent in every one.
This is Newman responding to Elizabeth Johnson who had written to tell him that her mother had died three days before on 2 January 1881
My dear Child:
I hear with great sorrow of your and your Sister’s losswith personal sorrow, for your dear mother was only one of a number whom I began to know and to love about sixty years ago. I knew your Grandfather before his marriage, and, as his large family gradually formed and grew up, I knew them all. And when he lost your Grandmother in 1835, it was I whom in the sad week that followed he let see his grief, and whose attempts to comfort him he accepted. And I have always kept all of you in mind, though I have been away from you.
But of course it is your own grief, my dear Children, which touches me most . . . .
After the death of his first wife, Richard Pope remarried to Elizabeth Phillips. She died seven years later, leaving him with with four children. Newman wrote:
It would be wonderful indeed, if we did not feel much for the loss of dear Bessie, both for our own sake and then more especially for yours. We knew, much as we might love her, (and I assure you, though no one knew it, I never could look at her sweet bright face without great pleasure, and I may say, joy.) we could not love her, much less miss her and mourn for her, as you have loved her and you would mourn, and that made and makes me feel for you the more, for the very reason that we sorrow so much even on our own account.
Newman’s youthful diary entry for January 5, 1828, notes: “We lost my sister Mary suddenly.” He recalls:
And how can I summon the strength to recount the particulars of the heavist affliction with which the good hand of God has ever visited me? . . . Here everything reminds me of her. She was with us at Oxford, and I took a delight in showing her the placeand every building, every tree, seems to speak of her. I cannot realize that I will never see her again.
Ary Scheffer. The Death of Gericault, accompanied by painter Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy, 1824. Louvre, Paris.
Every one of Newman’s condolence notes gives evidence of a man capable of deep affection, one whose faith was illuminated by great kindliness. His own wordsand those of others to and about himstand in striking contradiction to Adrienne von Speyr’s portrait of him in Book of All Saints . Prompted by her illustrious stenographer to comment on Newman’s attitude to other people (“and people?”), von Speyr admits he loves them but immediately confounds the admission by adding:
It is a bit odd. He sees them as God’s creatures, but in a way that sometimes resembles an entomologist who loves his insects. He often has difficulty making the first human contact. He receives it first through the translation in God.
An entomologist who loves his insects. It is a bitchy remark, a shot of venom injected into otherwise unexceptional boilerplate. Unexceptional, that is, if you discount for the saccharine banality of off-the-rack piety:
His thoughts, his concerns, his recommendations are like diamonds that were not initially polished, stones he was not entirely sure were in fact really diamonds. Then the expert, that is, God, inspects them and gives them a true polish, and in the end Newman also sees that they were in fact precious stones.
If this is mysticism, then the line between mystic and mountebank is thinner than we want to think. Newman’s generous mind, apparent in his letters and sermons, are a more trustworthy guide to the character of his prayer life than the reveries of Balthasar’s medium.
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
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.
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 favorthese 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.
Three Living and Three Dead (15th C.), woodcut. Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
Gonzalez-Crussi compares the vivid European imagery of deathsobering 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.
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.
William Blake. Dante and Virgil Approaching the Angel Who Guards the Entrance to Purgatory (1824-27). Illustration for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Louvre, Paris
It cannot be said that a man endures death easily or uneasily when he does not think about it at all. He who feels nothing, endures nothing.
When did I stop liking Halloween?
Was it when parents horned in and started dressing up along with their kids? When the previous director of my town library celebrated Hallowmas by showing up in drag? [Honest. He did.] When all the local merchants turned shop windows over to middle schoolers to paintin washable gouacheghosts, witches and tombstones that go BOO? Could it just be the sight of orange icingick!on every cookie and cupcake in town? Or the loony spread of monster spider webs across the bayberry bushes on too many lawns? Those cheesy cardboard skeletons on view every which way from Sunday?
Bad graphics do me in every time.
Jacob Lawrence. “All Hallows Eve” (1960). Private collection.
Maybe my antipathy grew when the frisson drained out of it. That was when flour socks started disappearing in a fog of grown-up disapproval. You filled up a man’s knee sock with flour and swung it at anyone you could. When their backs were turned. Then you ran like the dickens. The whole point of Halloween was to sock as many people as possible without getting socked back. There was some real danger in that. No fake creepiness.
Anonymous. “Portrait of Young Man with Vanitas” (c. 1930). France.
Perhaps it was a tribal custom peculiar to my particular corner of the Bronx. But, back then, Thanksgiving was the day for dressing up. We did it ragamuffin style: Aunt Matty’s moth-eaten fox stolethe mouth opened and closed as a claspGrandpa’s old duty gear left over from his days on harbor patrol, that dingy crocheted beret my mother hated. Every shabby hand-me-down stuffed in the back of a closet was a treasure. They were taken out, appraised for decrepit effect, and the seediest chosen for begging: “Anything for Thanksgiving?”
Usually, the take was in dimes and quarters. To have candy fobbed off on us was close to insulting. Candy corn was the worst. Stinky stuff. Thank you, but we’d really rather buy our own candy.
Currier & Ives. “Snap Apple Night (All Hallows Eve).” Museum of the City of New York.
The ancient All Hallows Eve has lost its soul. It has become our silly, candy-grasping Halloween. The day has been bled dry of all reflection on mortality. The grin of the death’s head is no more than a cartoon. It neither poses a threat nor reminds us of our destiny. The wonderment and regard due the mystery of deaththe buckling terror of itis wholly absent from trick-or-treaters who graze from door to door, entitled to their treats. And who have no tricks to play. It is not that death is routedan ancient chase inherent in the traditional pranks played on All Hallows Eve. It is that death, in waiting, is no longer even acknowledged in the frolic.
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-referentialreverentialas 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.
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.
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 beingrarified, 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 skillsmanual onesas 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 will save the worlda 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 surfaceif thatof 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 leftquixotic 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 otherlargerthan 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.
Roger de La Fresnaye. Artillery (1911). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) painted strikingly personal, luminous, figure compositions between 1912 and his entry into the French army in 1914. They are among the grandest works of the generation of Picasso and Braque.
During the 1940s, Duncan Phillips called him a “legendary knight.” Neglected might have been the more accurate adjective, but the noun was apt. La Fresnaye fought on two fronts: in the trenches of World War I, and in the aesthetic battles preceding the war. By all personal accounts, he was a gentle mana “verray parfit gentle knight.” And a stunning painter. Exhibiting with the Section d’Or, a showcase for that branch of the Cubist movement that valued the grand tradition, he never abandoned legibility, or the dance of color that linked him to Robert Delaunay’s Orphic variety of Cubism. His greatest work held true to visual as well as to tactile reality.
His Conquest of the Air, painted little more than a decade after the Wright brothers’ triumph at Kitty Hawk, is a glorious, mural-sized expression of exhilaration over the glistening new age of aviation. The figures at table are as bouyant as the air around them. What appears in this tiny reproduction as a yellow ball in the sky is a hot air balloon, reference to the first manned balloon flight launched over France by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783, a milestone in aviation history. Viva le tricolor !
The painting’s narrativeor literaryimpulse has undeniable historic interest. But the splendor of it has nothing at all to do with subject matter that might constitute an essay. The splendor is all in the paint. Conquest of the Air is an astonishing act of painting. When it was on permanent view at the Modern, painters of all stripes stopped in to “make a visit,” as Catholics used to do when passing a church.
Roger de La Fresnaye. The Conquest of the Air (1913). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
La Fresnaye’s too-short painting career ended sadly and in suffering. Just two months before the Armistice, he suffered lung haemorraghe while still in the trenches. The first was followed by a second so severe that he had to be evacuated to a temporary base hospital. Germaine Seligman remarked:
Though his death did not occur until 1925, the war cost him his life as surely as though he had fallen on the battlefield.
By 1922, La Fresnaye no longer had the stamina to work in oils. Standing at the easel for long periods was no longer possible; the sustained exertion required by large canvases had become too much. Works from the last three years of his life were smaller in size, created on paper with crayon, watercolor, or gouache. He was only forty when he died.
Four years at the front, followed by their legacy of lung infections, circumscribed his productivity. This, together with few earlier sales and the lack of any known patron of standing, hampered recognition. Not until 1950, a quarter century after his death, did France pay homage to one of its major painters with an extensive exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. Appreciation of his work was in its infancy when Seligman’s catalogue raisonné, published by the New York Graphic Society appeared in 1969. Beloved among painters, his work still waits to receive its due in public.
Roger de La Fresnaye. The Conjugal Life (1912-13). Minneapolis Institute of Art.
The Conjugal Life is a delightful performance. Disengaging from the laws of perspective, La Fresnaye views the figures straight on, essentially at eye level. But everything behind themthe table tops, the books, the fruit plateare viewed from above. The diagonals of the out-of-perspective table frame the figures, locking them together in a pictorial analogy to the doublet that is marriage. It is a marvelous, rhythmic performance that keeps the eye returning to the figures. The couple, tilted toward each other, never lose their intelligibility to Cubist planar structures. In compositional technique, the painting is clearly modern; its humanity and reticence are classical. (Evident in the clothed male together with the nude female viewed from her right side, and accompanied by the emblematic fruit platter, is an amiable, quotidianthat newspaper! nod to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. )
Roger de La Fresnaye. Marie Ressort (1912-13). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.
Below, La Fresnaye’s vibrant rehearsal for the backdrop to The Conjugal Life . Curving, undulating forms relieve the austerity of hard-edged angles and straight lines. It is just this kind of linear call-and-response that makes a painting a composition rather than a snapshot in servitude to representation. Here, the tonal perfection and resonance of even subdued color lends drama to ordinary things. The spatial colorits suggestion of advance and retreatis a grammar in itself. La Fresnaye had a genius for it.
Roger de La Fresnaye. The Corner Table (1912). Study for The Conjugal Life. Private Collection.
My love of La Fresnaye is long-standing. I wanted to share itshare himwith you. Hard to explain just why. Perhaps simply to counter the poignance of discovering [those grim emails!] that, even now, there are Catholics who are proud to dismiss all of modern art not as a freeing gift but as bosh . And on no greater evidence than the words of a character in fiction.