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.
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.
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.”