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.
You only need a theory if you don’t know how to do something.
What we call the New Urbanism originated in the conversion of Leon Krier, architect and urban planner, from modernism to classicism. A blunt critic of vertical sprawl, he once declared “modernist architecture and town planning is inimical to human beings . . . based on the Darwinian concept that evolution is open ended, that there must always be something new and better.”
Nikos Salingaros, architect and urban theorist, writes in sympathy with Krier’s appraisal of the ravages of modernist architecture. His article ” Toward Resilient Architectures 3: How Modernism Got Square
,” published in the current issue of Metropolis Magazine , is a studied contribution to the discussion of why the modernist ethos has given us so many barren structures together with overwrought expressionist ones—our urban smear. The article is the third in a series. The previous ones are: Biology Lessons
, an adroit argument from the complexities of biological systems, and—my favorite—a measured remedy for green fever: Why Green Often Isn’t
The pith of Salingaros’ argument:
Science forces us to conclude that the Modernist view of environmental structure itself appears unmodern—and, moreover, unsustainable. It rests upon now largely discredited theories of culture, technology, environmental geometry, and building form—theories that have never been properly reassessed by their proponents.
For far from being an inevitable product of inexorable historical forces, the evidence reveals 20th Century design to be highly contingent historically, developed as a series of rather peculiar choices by a few influential individuals. The story goes back to a small group of German, Swiss, and Austrian architect-theorists, and . . . the particular ideas of one of them regarding ornament—which, as we shall see, turns out to have far-reaching implications.
Whether science forces an anti-modernist conclusion or simply escorts it is arguable. What is not arguable is that theory is the enemy of sensibility. No matter how idealistic or optimistic the claims of theory, they are doctrinaire by nature and, consequently, substitutes for sensibility. Abstraction fuels ambition, not discernment. Salvation through architecture, the dogmatic heart of the modernist dream, is messianic hubris fixed in steel and concrete. But grandiose theorizing is not easily checked. When Theory is king, it takes yet another postulate to tilt at the reigning one. Salingaros offers his own in recognition of the fragile truth that modernism—its brands and its works—is not destiny.
God spare us any more of these interfaith shows.
Organized to kick-off the civic healing processa cant phrase for a delusional conceptthese political reiki events presume to make us feel better about feeling bad in the wake of horrific assault. A Daily News headline intones “Boston Marathon Survivors Begin the Healing Process as President Obama Leads Prayer Service.” The article gives us the comfort of knowing that Barack and Michelle visited victims at Massachusetts General Hospital “to try to heal a little more.” US News burbled in a subhead: “The president issued a love letter to Boston during speech at an interfaith service.”
Sanctimony oozed from platitudinous coverage of the president’s “message of healing.” The Cathedral of the Holy Cross could have held a quiet, unspectacular Mass for the dead and wounded. Instead, it staged a pseudo-pious photo-op for the same feckless politicians whose policies and ideological timidities open doors to terrorist aggression.
It was left to Investor’s Business Daily and the UK’s Daily Mail to note that, prior to the Marathon, our Consoler-in-Chief had slashed funds for a program to deter domestic bombing. He cut the bombing prevention budget by 45 percent against the advice of a leading military IED expert. Not so long ago he went to bed while his ambassador in Benghazi was being murdered. No prayers wasted on that carnage. Yet he feels our pain, does our high rolling healer. Much like Lewis Carroll’s canny walrus who wept for the oysters he devoured.
“I weep for you,” the Walrus said: /”I deeply sympathize.” / With sobs and tears he sorted out / Those of the largest size/ Holding his pocket-handkerschief / Before his streaming eyes.
We need to retire the word healing divorced from its medical applications . Like hope and change , it is a word for hire. It can be rented out to any purpose whatever:
“I am excited to be a witness to healing, and grace, and peace,” burbled one female attendee at the service. It is hard to say which is more virulent, her narcissism or her naiveté.
In an oprahfied, therapeutic age, there is no end to Psychological Man’s maneuverings to avoid unpleasant realities. One reality is thata presidential love letter notwithstandingthis bombing was not about Boston. It simply happened there. It was about the difficult truth that Islam is fueled by a theological imperative to conquer. Bumper sticker slogans (“Forgiveness,” “Peace”) on hand-held signs in the crowd outside the cathedral announce our vanishing capacity to realize that sometimes peace has to be imposed. That we have no standing to dispense forgiveness as if it were a lollipop. And that we are obliged to recognize humbug when we hear it.
BBC News Magazine’ s Jon Kelly discusses Behind the Candelabra , a current movie about Liberace’s six year affair with a much younger man. Throughout his life , the entertainer strained to maintain the fiction that he was heterosexual:
Most famously, he sued the Daily Mirror over an innuendo-laden article by William Connor, who wrote under the pen-name Cassandra, which described the musician as “the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter . . . a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love”.
Whether Connor’s phrasing (this was 1956) would be “too homophobic” for today’s newspapers as Kelly suggests, it is a marvelous bit of writing. Connor continued, calling Liberace a “superb piece of calculating candy-floss” whose popularity raised doubts about the character of the popularlargely femalemind:
There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in such a preposterous clown.
William Connor ought to have gotten a PEN award for lively expository prose. Worthy of Mencken. Andbe honestit is an accurate enough description of Liberace’s theatrical persona which appealed hugely to women.
A pianist, he brought to the popular stage the kind of exotic burlesqueequal parts vaudeville, bacchanalia, and concertthat opened in Seattle’s The Garden of Allah in 1946. America’s first gay cabaret, The Garden was a celebrated oasis for female impersonators; its Prima Donnas and Dames dressed as garishly as Liberace on TV. A drag showmore precisely, the mildly risqué hint of onebeat Tex Ritter and the Andrew Sisters. The Ed Sullivan Show was ready for Liberace.
Connor had no sympathy for Liberace’s glittering chintz and bravado: “He is the summit of sex . . . .Everything that he, she or it could ever want.” Where is the slander here? This was language used as Orwell prescribed, “as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”
Liberace won his suit by lying under oath. And he got the last word: “I cried all the way to the bank.”
By now, camp sensibility has become mainstream. Nowhere is it more evident than in the gay marriage debate. What ought to have been taken as an exercise in camp role-playing was instead greeted with dead seriousness. This was one time we ought to have been listening to Susan Sontag: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.” She expanded:
Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment . . . . What it does is to offer for art (and life) a differenta supplementaryset of standards.
Sontag ended “Notes on Camp” with an observation that applies a certain bite to our descent into dandyisme in the name of rights:
Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.
During last evening’s votes in the House, John Boehner ordered a moment of silence for the victims of yesterday’s terror bombings of the Boston Marathon. It was a timid, sentimental call, an act of retreat from any statement of rage or resolve. The president muttered something about “senseless loss” caused by “explosions.” Not deliberate bombings, just unspecified explosions . As if there had been a gas leak.
There was nothing senseless about them. Terror has a purpose, one our political class and a courtier press prefer to deflect attention from. Political language, Orwell reminded, is ” designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell remarks:
This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen house.
Justinian’s great Hagia Sophia is now a mosque. We have no guarantee that the star and crescent will not fly one day over St. Peter’s. Or the White House. Nothing, that is, except vigilance and the language to sustain it.
Norman Rockwell prepared each of his magazine cover illustrations as fully realized paintings. It did not matter to him that his audience would see his work only in reproduction. The image reproduced would only be as fine as the work it replicated. More recent artistsDavid Hockney is onewhose work is widely distributed in reproduction paint for the more limited capacities of the reproductive process. That permits the artist to work faster, omitting those subtleties of tone and touch that are lost in duplication. Rockwell, by contrast, painted for viewing as if the work itself were headed for exhibition on a gallery wall.
Rockwell conceived this oil on canvas as a business traveler’s desperate late-night attempt to reconcile his expense account. He spared no effort acquiring props and staging his compositions. He told Saturday Evening Post art editor Ken Stuart he wanted a “cold almost bluish light” to evoke the feeling of desperation. When Stuart suggested they overlay an expense account around the traveler, Rockwell set the Pullman car scene against boundless white spacean abyss of frustration. He replaced his early model, Louie Lamone, with his neighbor Ernest Hall, whose body language was more harried and more humorous.
To bolster atmosphere in his narratives, Rockwell amassed a hoard of ready props. Numerous business trips to New York provided him with the ticket stubs, receipts, and nightclub ephemera this Pullman traveler is adding up. Post readers reacted to the cover with the usual assortment of feelings. A man from Norfolk, Virginia, said it was “far from funny . . . a moral tragedy,” but a Cleveland reader, called it “superb,” and said he did a lot of traveling and well appreciated the character’s dilemma. And a woman from Texas said her three-year-old son learned his first curse word, “damn,” while his father was preparing his expense account.
I came to Hans Sedlmayr’s Art in Crisis, first published in 1948 , through Roger Kimball’s essay in which he termed the text a “blistering polemic.” I confess a weakness for blistering polemics. Nothing warms the heart faster in these imperiously nonjudgmental days. Morevover, Sedlmayr’s cultural pessimism conforms more convincingly to fallen man and his ever-falling times than our current dalliance with the saving powers of beauty.
For a concise bio of Sedlmayr go directly to the Dictionary of Art Historians
. No need to stop at Wikipedia , that erratic first stop of dot-comers. Wiki lifted its data from the Dictionary, abbreviating even further an already scanty outline. As a careful respondent to the previous post wrote to stress, Sedlmayr was a member of the Nazi party. On the face of it, that fact alone tells us less than our recoil would have us think. Party membership had been frequently a pro forma expediency for academics and civil servants who wanted to keep their jobs. In this instance, though, security seems not to have been Sedlmayr’s motive. He joined the Nazi party in Austria in 1932 when membership was still illegal and academics were not yet under pressure to join. Why? However uneasy that makes us, we cannot speculate in the dark.
The man was also a devout Catholic. It is his religious sensibility, not his political affiliation, which marks Art in Crisis and which elicits attention . The crux of his sense of crisis—in its thrust, if not in every particular—bears resemblance to Romano Guardini’s observations in The End of the Modern World . This is Guardini, writing in 1956:
The medieval picture of the world, along with the cultural order which it supported, began to dissolve during the fourteenth century. The process of dissolution continued throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By the seventeenth century it was complete, and a new picture of reality dawned clearly and distinctly over Europe.
Guardini sought to explain the origins of what he understood to be cultural dissolution. Sedlmayr concerned himself with dissolution’s gradual manifestation in successive styles of art and architecture:
There can be no doubt that many people really feel our age is sick. From 1700 onward we encounter phenomena in the field of art that have no parallel in the whole history of man. These are so intensely eloquent of the disturbance within the world of the spirit that we shall one day marvel at our own failure to learn the full truth simply from what art has made so plain . . . for it needs courage to look at the position we are in and still to resist despair.
Sedlmayr’s rejects modernist art on ground similar to Othodoxy’s rejection of naturalism in sacred art. The icon-maker refuses stylistic change—an earthly value—to insure attention to forms that aspire to transcend the tangible and material. Byzantine tradition seeks forms that prevail over time. It suggests the timeless by turning its back to the timely. It has no interest in the moment; eternal truth does not reside in what we call the nature of the times.
In his way, and broadening his concern to all of art, Sedlmayr concurs:
There is little substance in the argument that seeks to justify modern art on the grounds that, in giving expression to the chaos of our times, it is truthful . . . . A spiritual and moral portrait of man, it has been correctly said, really would look like a piece of sculpture by Epstein or Archipenko, or like a figure by Picasso or Dali. Man has, indeed, lost his true measure and there is no longer any right relationship between the parts.
But one could only accept this argument if one accepted the false thesis [my emphasis] that art is or should be an expression of the time, and that this and nothing else is its true essence—a thesis that is itself simply a symptom of the kind of thought that is incapable of transcending time. Art is, of course, only incidentally the expression of the time, in its essence it is extra-temoral, it is the manifestation of the timeless, of the eternal.
He closes his evaluation of modern art by quoting Goethe’s belief that “only the mediocre talent is always the captive of its time and must get its nourishment from the elements that time contains.” It is a hard statement, one that gives every artist pause—if it does not, indeed, put us all in our places.
Sedlmayr’s prognosis for the future of art relies on an unpredictable swell of trust in man’s capacity for gladness of heart (” a kind of cosmic and liberating humour”), a joy rooted in the only soil capable of retaining life: “the knowledge that we are creatures of God.”
I can think of no other work of art history that ends with what is, in reality, a prayer.
In 2008, the Pontifical Council for Culture invited to the Vatican five hundred of its favorite international brands in the arts. Cardinal Ravasi drew up the guest list and emceed the program. Pope Benedict was enlisted, like the speaker at a communion breakfast, to address the gathering.
Among the trademarked “custodians of beauty” flattered by the summons was Zaha Hadid, London-based, Iraqi-born starchitect. She is as much a phenomenon as an architect, winning conspicuous commissions all over the globe. Her stated intention is to “rewrite the script for architecture.” That means removing it from its classic concerns for the needs of man—for shelter and comfort, for useful spaces that individuals want to be in—and toward an embodiment of what Jonathan Glancey terms the “consequences of modernity.” Among these consequences are spatial structures devised as signature spectacles for their own sake, superseding if not supplanting, the social function they house.
Her futuristic, intergalactic tours de force are aggressive. They are engineered to impress, to overwhelm. It is not a stretch to call them intimidating. Notwithstanding the cardinal’s programme, creation of beauty is not among her ambitions. In a 2006 interview for The Guardian , Hadid confessed to Glancey: “I don’t design nice buildings. I don’t like them.” That is obvious in the Drunkard’s Path design of buildings that signal the abolition of architecture for living human beings. Hadid creates for the anonymous replicants of a dystopian future, heirs of Ridley Young and Philip K. Dick. D0 androids dream of architecture? If they do, there is a place for them at 33-35 Hoxton Square, London:
What kind of furniture suits a structure like this? Residents are in luck. Hadid puts out a line of furniture as well. The Aqua table, below, sold not long ago at auction for $296,000, a record price for a contemporary design:
Tables need chairs. The one below is typical of a collection that professes to be furniture but negates the human body. Hadid’s furniture extends, as a prerequisite, her firm’s flair for dehumanized design. Call it post-human.
Hadid’s enterprise is the consummate embodiment of the ethos of Otto Silenus, the humorless, modernist fanatic of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall :
The problem of architecture as I see it . . . is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form.
None of these are intended to please the eye. They are expressions of welcome to a future in which humane instincts linger as the antiquarian residue of a collective spiritual life in the process of dissolution. This is architecture for a totalitarian’s utopia. It is merciless.
Vatican favor toward celebrity architects like Hadid calls to mind a reflection by Bernanos’ anonymous country priest:
I confess that I have always been repelled by the “lettered”priest. After all, to cultivate clever people is merely a way of dining out . . .
Note: An extended photo tour of the Changska project is here.
Stay awhile with Hieronymus Bosch (1450 - 1516). In aesthetic terms, he represents an authentic art of the horrific, true evocations of the infernal. Yet his painting is a universe away from today’s so-called shock art , in intention no less than execution. Two centuries after Dante’s death, it provided vivid, comprehensible, visual analogies to the poet’s imaginative verbal descriptions of the consequences of sin.
The seductiveness of sin, the force of it, and its consequences, occupies the center of Bosch’s entire body of work. Bosch conjured animated warnings to keep his audience from letting their guard down against satanic ambush. Like St. Anthony, a fallen people spend their lives fending off attack by one demon or another. Malignant spirits can be quite alluring; hence, the elegant, serenading troubadour in The Haywain , below. An allegory of vanity, The Haywain is a Boschian riff on the Ship of Fools motif. Here, an impatient, grasping crowd grapples with each other to grab as much hay—an old symbol of greed and its transitory rewards—as they can from the stack. (“Whan the sunne shinth make hay” takes us back, in English, to the mid-1500s.) A cluster of sumptuously dressed clerics head for the hay on horseback.
Bosch, Bruegel, and Grünewald raised art of the frightful and foolish to exalted heights. Goya, too, depicted a nightmare world with an artistic power that infused demonic hallucination with a certain glory. So then, wherein lies the vital difference between a Bosch and a James Franco? Or a Goya and a Basquiat? How is it that our contemporary art of the grotesque—let’s call it that—is crippled, unable to create order and beauty out of the abyss? Why are earlier ages better suited than our own for transforming degradation and despair into a De Profundis ?
Hans Sedlmayr, writing in 1958 from earlier lectures given in war-time Munich, crafted an answer before the question became as urgent as it is today:
So long as the world of Christian belief remained an effective reality, the outlook behind such painting must be interpreted as a vision of temptation. The picturing of Hell therefore remained to some extent hemmed in by Christian orthodoxy. And it was thus only to be expected that it should attain its full freedom and develop its most extreme forms when art has finally left the Christian world behind it.
In other words, once man has forgotten that he is made in the image and likeness of God, he is already in Hell. His art heralds his annihilation. It precedes him, no more consequential or enduring than graffiti on a wall. Nevertheless—and against the evidence—Sedlmayr closes Art in Crisis with these words:
. . . joy still hibernates and retains its germinal life. Yet for its flowering it needs a soil, and there is but one soil that can bring it to fruition—it is the soil of knowledge, the knowledge that we are creatures of God.
The grotesque is one of the most obvious forms art may take to pierce the veil of familiarity, to stab us up from the dross of the accustomed, to make us aware of the perilous paradoxically of life. Robert Penn Warren
So then, how do we approach a performance piece by celebrity artist James Franco called Bird Shit? What kind of malediction is left for a crude, fluffy-minded effort flying under cover of a protected academic category: The Grotesque?
Bird Shit lands at the Museum of Modern Art’s satellite PS1 today, April 7th. A hybrid of theater, dance, performance art, live and recorded music, it is a full-service spectacle that takes cues from Chekov’s The Seagull . The seagull performs as you see here:
We do not have the wherewithal to naysay works of art anymore. We have lost the vocabulary for it. It has been famously said that whoever controls the language, controls the debate. That is because language is the shaper and conveyor of concepts. On what grounds can any contemporary artwork be called bad? A critic might hazard derivative or bush league. But bad? Debased? Plain lousy?
All cultural sweepings can be rationalized, loop-holed, or embraced by reference to The Grotesque, a conceptual deterrent to rejection. There is no deformation of humane sensibility that cannot be defended in our contemporary labyrinth of intellectualized dissolution. Listen to Robert Doty, onetime museum director and curator at the Whitney Museum. Under his direction in 1969-70, the Whitney staged a controversial survey of graphic, violent images packaged as Human Concern/Personal Torment: the Grotesque in American Art. Doty wrote the catalogue essay. The text is still available, useful as a rationale for giving a raspberry to that mythical demographic, the bourgeoisie:
The grotesque threatens the foundations of existence through the subversion of order and the treacherous reversal of the familiar and hostile. Its value and vitality stem form the aberrations of human relationships and acts, and therefore from foibles, weakness and irresistible attractions.
Donnish reference to the grotesque provides an all-purpose disinfectant for everything tacky or base. We are cowed by theory. Even those expletives we use in casual conversationso handy and satisfying for dismissing things we hatehave been sanitized away. Stolen. Co-opted. It is impossible to swear at something ugly or banal when the cussed thing itself incorporates and flaunts the charge against it. Below are two Franco paintings, exhibited at Los Angeles’ now-defunct Glu Gallery in 2006.
What matters here is not Franco himself, not his work or the celebrity dispensation which encourages it. What counts is that a base for its acceptanceand all art cousin to ithas been laid by critical theorists, acolytes of Mikail Bakhtin, and trend-conscious theologians. Paul Tillich, dazzled by too much time in the Hamptons, wrote tumid sonatas to art and architecture. Theologians bored with the creed followed suit, seizing visual art as a foil for hermeneutics. James Luther Adams, professor emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, endorsed the grotesque as a vital subject for theological inquiry:
The grotesque moves us to the boundary of self . . . . It places us on religious ground, moving us to the religious myths that carry insights into the nature of human existence; about its foibles and follies; its goodness and its evil; about its forms of oppression and liberation; estrangement and wholeness.
Roger Hazelton, author of Theological Reflections on Art , considered the grotesque uniquely congenial to theological reflection:
Whatever else grotesque art may intend or achieve, it does succeed by its juxtaposition of recognition and surprise in calling attention to the mysterious quality of our existence. Such art covers a very broad range of styles and subject, from the whimsical to the terrifying . . . . Grotesque art is a particularly arresting instance of that human self-transcendence which operates in all art.
It is fine-sounding in the abstract. In practice, however, it frogmarches over distinctions between good and bad art. It inhibits our willingness to call decay by its rightful name. Religious reflections drawn from the grotesquethe monstrous, harrowing, and absurdcertainly have their place. But they also have limits. By now, we are too cowed by theory to risk marking boundaries between the grotesque and the mindless. It is open borders on all fronts.
Without a doubt, grotesqueries wind their way though the history of Western art. But they inhabit it with purpose. Look, for instance, at Hieronymus van Aken, known to us as Bosch. His exquisitely rendered, unnerving Vision of Tondal drew on a medieval text by a twelfth century monk. Widely translated and circulated through Holland in the 1430s, it describes the visions of a repentant Knight, Tondal, as he visits the torments of hell accompanied by an angel.
Enigmatic, menacing details accumulate to tell a cautionary tale. However symbol-laden, intelligibility to his contemporaries was key. Without it, Bosch’s altarpieces could not serve their intended devotional purposes. Counter images to the demonichere, a guiding angelhold the line against the hellhounds.
By contrast, unintelligibility is a Franco hallmark. He achieves no sense of purpose more elevated or articulate than what a middle schooler might scribble on a stall in the boys’ room. Nihilism comes packaged as a frolic. Preliminary publicity puts it this way:
So if you are in for a weird-wacky-fun-etc.-etc. performance, then check out Bird Shit . And knowing Franco’s work, I’m sure there will be a few surprises along the way.
Conscientious and upright as you are, you likely think it is unsporting to disparage something without having seen it. But no, really, such scruples are needless. Some judgments really can be made in advance. Call it the James Agee Principle. The great film critic was said to have submitted reviews, on occasion, without having suffered the performance. No matter if the gossip is apocryphal; it is a sensible model. If you know the players, the script, the venuethe tenor of the whole clambakeit is no roll of the dice to weigh in on one side or the other.
This MoMA PS1 event marks Franco’s progression from apes to birds. Place that line of ascent against the title of the upcoming performance and ponder the odds of the result. Franco has a thing for droppings. What more do you need? Why squander time waiting for more evidence. And, please, spare yourself $12 at the door.