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.
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.
It was déjà vu all over again when this e-flyer arrived from Union Theological Seminary. It came on Good Friday, announcing a performance piece sponsored by Union’s The Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice:
“Godfull: Shape Shifting God as Queer”
A pageant of sorts, Godfull: Shape Shifting God as Queer is billed as a “performative symposium” convened by artist Carlos Motta and minister Jared Gilbert. It promises “performative lectures” and performances by a group of academics, activists, artists and theologians to reconnoitre the intersections of queer politics, spirituality and social justice. Herewith, the press release, minus the schedule of events. Please read:
The regulation of sexual activity is the primary system for controlling bodies within religions and the societies they influence. Such regulations often authorize violence against bodies as well as the depravation and social stratification of gender and sexual identities. As lesbians and gays have gained unprecedented visibility and in some cases legislative recognition, American faiths have by and large opened their doors to those homosexuals who manage to comply with institutionalized systems of social respectability. These faiths are now unwittingly complicit in new forms of heteronormative oppression.
Queer sexuality, bodies and activism form the ground from which queer art, spirituality and political narratives nurture new visions of a just society. At the same time, queer communities remain in constant tension with these visions, always exploring the evolving and deviant backside of spiritual, political and social spaces.
Godfull: Shape Shifting God as Queer explores queerness as a constant force of disruption in theology and sexual politics. The participants speak of a “queerness” in theology that is particular and explicit of the queer body, a “queerness” that represents a constant pursuit of new social and spiritual revelations through deviant, subversive and indecent affirmations that will continue to challenge repressive notions of morality and respectability.
Heteronormative oppression . That is queer-speak for the steadily progressing belief that a just society is one in which there are no norms. Social justice becomes a smokescreen for the wrecking ball that swings closer and closer. The arts are on hand to serve as advance agent for new Utopian revelations. And doing theologyanother curious usageis the ordained way to bless the enterprise.
I used to run a life drawing session out of my living room. A gaggle of us, all figurative painters, gathered every Tuesday evening to share a model. My role was to keep the kettle on and book the models. I dialed one name on my listcall him Tom. He was enrolled at Union Theological Seminary and, yes, he was available.
We chatted somesubway stop, hourly wage, duration of poseslong enough for Tom to confide, “I do costumes and feathers, too.” Ah, well, that’s good to know, Tom. Another time perhaps, but not this week. Thank you anyway.
Truth to tell, I am fond of costumes and feathers. But there was something off kilter about having them on offer by a candidate for the ministry. Besides, the implicit flamboyance signaled an exhibitionist bent. Odd as it seems, exhibitionists often make unsatisfying models. They bring a certain stageyness to the job that infects the pose, drains life from it. The architecture of the bodythe subject under scrutiny in these sessionsis subordinated to a theatrical tableau, the kind of artifice implicit in the phrase “striking a pose.” But I digress.
At the time, I was a bit bewildered by a Union seminarian’s voluntary admission of camp accessories to the mundane business of disrobing for a roomful of working painters. In retrospect, I ought to have expected it.
Norman Rockwell’s “April Fool: Checkers” originally appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post , April, 1943.
Go ahead, sniff all you like. But I can’t resist. Tell me, what is wrong with this picture? If you won’t play along yourself, try it on your kids. Or send it along to some other fan of Where’s Waldo?
Careful, smarty. There are more “April fooleries” than you think. (Hint: There are forty three of them.) Click below for the solution to this, the least of your pressing problems:
And while you do it, keep in mind that for all the fashionable scoffing at Norman Rockwell over the sweetness of his subject matter, he was a gifted painter. Everyone knows his work in reproduction. Few have looked at the original paintings. Those who have seen them in the flesh, so to speak, know what a beautiful hand Rockwell had. His watercolors are among the loveliest we have.
All our worship, through every season of our lives, is one unbroken celebration of this day. Easter is the ground of our hope, the pasch on which all else rests. Today we exult in the promise at the heart of the Christian mystery: a declaration that death does not have the last word.
This is not a day for art history. We can circle back to that another time. Still, this painting on a reverse panel of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, is like none other. In the entire canon of Western art, there is no more glorious image of the Risen One than this. Spend a moment with it. Luminous in conception and execution, it comes closest to making palpable the words of John Henry Newman:
. . . we are baptized and hidden anew in God’s glory, in that Shekinah of light and purity which we lost when Adam fell. We are new-created, transformed, spiritualized, glorified in the diving nature. Through the participation of Christ we receive, as through a channel, the true presence of God within and without us, imbuing us with sanctity and immortality. This, I repeat, is our justification, our ascent through Christ to God, or God’s descent through Christ to us; we may call it either of the two: we ascend into Him, he descends into us; we are in Him, He in us . . . .
This is the one great gift of God purchased by the Atonement, which is light instead of darkness and the shadow of death . . . .
Note: In Judaism, the Hebrew word Shekinah indicates the luminous cloud which envelops the divine presence. The Jewish Encyclopedia defines it in terms that fall sweetly on Christian ears: “the majestic presence or manifestation of God which has descended to ‘dwell’ among men.”
No depiction of the Crucifixion in all of Western art is as stark an image of abject suffering as Matthias Grünewald’s. Canons of beauty were never the object here. Its seeming modernity lies in its refusal to veil the grotesque. The corpus is appalling; it repels aestheticization. Christ does not appear to sleep or transcend the agony of his ordeal. No hint of ultimate tranquility shields us from suffering the sight of a body broken and torn by torment. It is the single, most harrowing image of the Crucifixion, one that implies an executioner who knew his trade.
Until recent times, it has also been the least visited. Few art-and-culture tourists traveled to the Unterlinden Museum, a former Dominican convent in Colmar, to see it.
Grünewald, a contemporary of Albrect Dürer, created the panels of the altarpiece from 1512 to 1516 in a chapel of a hospital and monastery run by Antonite monks in the town of Isenheim, a few miles south of Colmar. Stanley Meisler’s 1999 essay “A Masterpiece Born of St. Anthony’s Fire,”
published in the September, 1999 issue of Smithsonian Magazine , is a valuable synopsis of the shifting fortunes of the Isenheim altarpiece:
The monks took their name from Saint Anthony, whom they venerated as a healer and sufferer who pioneered the idea of monasticism in Christianity. The Antonite order operated the hospital in Isenheim largely for those afflicted by a disease known then as “Saint Anthony’s fire.”
That disease (now rare and called “ergotism”) struck down many in periodic epidemics during the Middle Ages. Saint Anthony’s fire set off painful skin eruptions that blackened and turned gangrenous, often requiring amputations. The eruptions were accompanied by nervous spasms and convulsions. Many victims died.
Saint Anthony’s fire came from the poison of a fungus that clung to rye and was inadvertently pounded into the flour used to make rye bread. The cause, however, was not known in Grünewald’s time. The monks treated the sick with a balm made from herbs and other plants and with prayers to Saint Anthony, who was believed to possess miraculous curing powers. The monks also tried to bolster the faith of the sick by reminding them that Christ - and Saint Anthony as well - had suffered even greater torments. Grünewald’s altarpiece played an important mystical and psychological role in the Isenheim treatment program.
All the pain of the human conditionthe God-forsaken lonelinessis in the gesture of that hand. Wretched and abandoned, it is a Good Friday image like none other. It brings us to our knees. At the same time, and after long reflection, it enables us to endure our own existence.
No, no, the eggs are not mad. I only mean the color.
Madder red is the older term for alizarin crimson, known to the pharaohs and the residents of Pompeii. A crucial coloring agent for textiles during the Industrial Revolution, it was also the first plant-derived pigment to be produced synthetically in the nineteenth century. As splendid as it was ubiquitous, it became the most popular color for Easter eggs in European folk traditions. Madder was cherished throughout the Czech regions, in Hungary, even into northwest England where eggs were dyed by being wrapped directly in the plant leaves. Madder was the traditional choice for dyeing Easter eggs in Greece, Russia, and Cyprus. A Macedonian children’s rhyme asks: “Oh when will Easter come, bringing red eggs?”
European folklore is drenched in madder red, believed to avert harm, ward off evil. History gives us the witness of one Nicholas Kirchmeyer-Naogeorgus, writing in 1553 of Alsatian parents giving their children a red egg on Easter morning to insure rosy cheeks, a promise of long life. Scandinavian and Transylvanian legends testify to madder’s more cosmic protective powers: red Easter eggs are a stay against the Antichrist who seeks the end of the world. Earthly love gets a boost from madder as well. “The Heavens are blue, The eggs they are red, And I will love thee, Until I am dead!” So goes an old German pledge.
Association between divine love and the color red existed in ancient Roman. It was said that a hen laid a red egg when Alexander Severus, last of the Severan emperors, was born. The egg signaled Alexander’s claim on divinity in death. Christian lore, with its magpie genius for appropriation, adapted the symbol to its own purposes. In parts of Austria, they say that while the Easter Hare, a famously randy little fellow, produces eggs in a promiscuous range of colors on Easter Sunday, it only lays red ones on Maundy Thursday in honor of the Passion of Christ.
But do hares lay eggs? Only a Gradgrind would ask. Stick with the program and you’ll find out that, in the old Yugoslavia, the Virgin Mary brought eggs stained at the foot of the Cross by the blood of Christ. In Russia, Mary Magdelene could be seen carrying an egg which turned red as proofa living argumentof the Resurrection. Anthony Jenkinson, traveler to Russia on behalf of the British Crown in the 1500s, noted that ordinary Russians carried red eggs at Easter, while the Better Sort had theirs gilded.
Madder red even has its own historian: Robert Chenciner. His Madder Red: A History of Luxury and Trade plucks the rainbow to tell you everything a curious person wants to know about the culturein every sense of the wordof one brilliant segment of the spectrum.
I’ve saved the best image for last. Those of you who stayed to the end of this meandering précis of Easter egg scholarship have your reward. Herewith, the loveliest Easter egg of all:
The photo was sent a few days ago by a friend who raises chickens on his property in Indiana. This egg is still in the incubator. Feathers wet with amniotic fluid, the chick has just begun to peck its way into the world. It performs its first fragile rite, the liturgy of birth repeated down the ages. I think of Hopkins: “He fathers forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.”
Are you tired of the word love ? Worn down by all the mawkish purposes that lay claim to it? Does Valentine’s Day give you a headache that lasts until Guy Fawkes Day? All those simpering red hearts (e.g. I heart New York)! Do they set you to chanting: “Remember, remember the fifth of November/ Gunpowder, treason and plot.” Do you refuse to buy any postage stamp with the L-word on it? Does the greeting card rack in your local Rite Aid give you a runny nose?
The only thing worse than a red heart is one with a white dove on it. It would take an acid bath to dissolve the treacle that clings to the loathly thing. Stamps, though, are the least of it. Syrup is everywhere. If you are allergic to all things gooey and vapid, it is especially painful to shop for cards. Or has been until now.
Meet Zeichen Press . Two women, thousands of pounds of letterpress equipment and a gorgeous old Heidelberg are the marrow of this graphically lovely, oddball stationery. The tactile quality of centuries-old letterpress is seductive all by itself. Add the mordant sensibilities of the printers and you have . . . . I am not sure how to express it. What effect might crystal meth have on talented, sweet-tempered women with the grit to keep business and family running at the same time? The answer is somewhere in their inventory.
One of themwhich?channels Raymond Chandler. The hard-boiled spirit of Philip Marlowe chaperones the one-liners. Zeichen knows what we hate to admit: even our best beloveds are not always likable. Neither are we. Next Valentine’s Day, scrap the hearts and roses. Send something bloody-minded for a change:
Do you get bored at long dinners with nice people who keep conversation away from troublesome topicsanything that is really worth the talk? Write your bread-and-butter note on this:
Zeichen keeps a wicked eye on our private Achilles’ heels. It recognizes just how petty our prayers can be. God, how we ache to be noticed:
Our friends are good to us. They hold our hands, give us counsel, feed the cat when we are away, and listen to our gripes. The list is long. Every so often a grateful word is due. But nothing soppy, please:
Then there is that candied American invention, Mother’s Day. This is probably not what Anna Jarvis had in mind back in 1908:
Guilt is good. Irish Catholics know better than anybody that there can never be enough of it. A fallen world needs all it can get. The trick is to induce it under the radar so that no one sees it coming:
In case you are wondering, no, I do not know either of the women who created Zeichen Press. They are somewhere in Minnesota. I have never been out that way and probably never will be. But if you ever get a card from me, it will very likely be from Zeichen.
This past November, Cardinal Ravasi posed in New Statesman as the Vatican’s impresario of contemporary art. At the same time, a continent away, Bishop Johnson Mutek Akio of South Sudan stood with his people under genocidal assault by the al-Bashir regime. The cardinal’s ambition to get the Church back into the contemporary art business was hailed as “a bold move.” Silence greeted the bishop’s valor in risking his life to sustain a persecuted diocese. Heroic endurance in the face of Islamic terror does not conform to the sensibilityor insensibilitythat understands culture as a kind of sauce poured like hollandaise over daily living, over thought and action. And it does not make bouncy copy.
There is a two-year wait to book “the cardinal of culture” for speaking engagements. He blogs, tweets, tells jokes, quotes Nietzche, and endorses Darwinian theory. The operative word is theory , but New Statesman failed to notice. It was too charmed by what it took for maverick behavior. “An undeniably intriguing clergyman,” it chirped.
No conference planners have been waiting to book Bishop Akio, survivor of nine assassination attempts. When he died last week of kidney failure at fifty-five, the press took no notice. Googling for an obituary, I found only a line in WikiDeaths 2013 with a link back to a hastily inserted two-line identifying note. That, and the same scant comment on the website of the Diocese of Torit, South Sudan. Hardly more than what appears on the toe tag of a body in the morgue.
Posted on Torit’s website is a brief article about the bishop’s mission, written nine years ago by David Alton of Jubilee Campaign. Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Torit, the bishop and his people are intimate with aerial bombardment, famine, massacre, and mutilation. In one two-week period in 2004, seventy two bombs reduced the bishop’s residence to ash. His compound housed a primary and secondary school that served more than two hundred children. It was obliterated. Alton wrote:
Early years’ education for South Sudan ‘s children involves learning the difference between the engines of UN relief planes and the bombersand then running for your life. One of Bishop Akio’s priests told me: “People are living like foxes in holes, just to survive.”
Torit has been forcibly Islamised; the Koran imposed; the road signs changed to Arabic and water and medicine only given to people who have changed their identities to Islamic names. One group of 180 children had been taken to Khartoum and radically indoctrinated, encouraging a hatred of their parents, and turning them into child soldiers.
At heart, the New Evangelization is no different from the old. Sanctity and courage are the dual engine of it. Art counts for far less than is thought. While it remains the lifeblood of those who make it, art is less important to the true meaning of culturesomething distinct from the culture tradethan Cardinal Ravasi and the Pontifical Council for Culture believe. W.H. Auden had it about right:
The artist, the man who makes, is less important to mankind, for good and evil, than the apostle . . . . However much the arts may mean to us, it is possible to imagine our lives without them.
Bishop Akio was such an apostle. May God welcome him home and comfort his afflicted people.
Note : My thanks to Mike Walsh of Maryknoll for bringing Bishop Akio to our attention in his comment on the previous post. And we can hope, with Archbishop Chaput, that Pope Francis will keep the Church’s eyes directed toward suffering Christians in the Middle East.