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 press is filled with more eloquent and informed voices than my own. It would be presumptuous of me to add to them. At the same time, this stunning and gracious election requires acknowledgment. I can do it best by observing it in silence while I reread George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest . Francis stood on the balcony and asked us to pray for him. If ever a work of fiction can be called an act of prayer, it is this one.
That profound, heart-scalding window into the agony of a true priest—and of the making of a saint—carries us close to Benedict’s resignation and Francis’ election. Closer than any press commentary can ever approach. Bernanos’s nameless priest writes in his diary:
Faith is not a thing which one “loses,” we merely cease to shape our lives by it.
We have been blessed with a pope whose life as a cardinal was shaped by humility and faith. Yes, it is true: “Grace is everywhere.”
Trivia question: Do you know this girl?
Of course you do.
But who knew just how contemporary that Mona Lisa smile could be? A stylized, stock expression in Leonardo’s day, it suddenly looks quite current removed from its Renaissance setting and inserted into a post-modern one. The bloody amputation might be a bit over the top, but the figure’s facial mienpart simper, part sneerwould do nicely in a Vogue photo shoot. Not quite as enigmatic as it has been deemed down the centuries. What a difference placement makes. And the right haircut.
If you are a Photoshop freak, you already know about FreakingNews.com
. If you are not, you have fun to look forward to. It specializes, as you can guess, in wacky, doctored photos. This is art, too. It gives the lie to that motto on her hat. Art is not dead at all, thank you. Whether it is good or bad art is always another question. But dead it is not. What Photoshop mavens produce is simply collage, just without the mess of scissors and paste.
The vamped up image above has all the wit of Eduardo Paolozzi, a favorite of mine. Born in Edinburgh to an Italian immigrant family, Paolozzi was co-founder of the “Independent Group” that functioned in London in 1952/53. Members hunkered down to discuss ways of introducing low-brow, trivial items of quotidian culture into mainstream art. The group was a decisive impulse behind the development of British Pop-Art, which predated the better known American species. Paolozzi’s clever fracturings are lighter in spirit than the anonymous illustration above. Their visual intelligence amuses, seduces, but without biting. Color lends buoyancy.
Back to Photoshop. Among the oddball tournaments run by Freaking News is the annual Funny Kids Masterpiece contest. What would famous paintings look like if their famous artists created these pieces when they were still kids. Contestants can recreate the art pieces in someone else’s style from scratch or edit known images down to kids’ level. Here’s work by the young Magritte. Even then, he was a careful draftsman:
Leonardo was just a tyke when he drew this version of Vitruvian Man :
Here is the Freaking News on Rand Paul’s filibuster:
For all the furrowed brows that turn out socio-political art by the carload for gallery and museum installation, none cut to the chase as pointedly and economically as a good cartoonist. The venue might be downscale but the visual wit is not. And now, at least, you know that what most people take for grantedthat Pop Art sprang like a giddy mushroom from American soiljust ain’t so. Andy Warhol & Co. did not invent it. It had its prehistory in Britain. It was in the air.
You do not have to be a communicant to adopt one of Milan Cathedral’s one hundred thirty five gargoyles. Any cosmopolitan aesthete with a spare $123,000 can help restore the Duomo’s medieval downspouts. Splendid in its ecumenicity, the archdiocese’s fundraising scheme invites “citizens of the world” to earn an engraved plaque under their very own adoptee.
Citizens of the world a utopian term that has taken on a certain ugliness over time. It runs counter to the principle of subsidiarity that is a core precept of Catholic social thought. But let that pass. For simplicity’s sake, let us stick with the gargoyles. If Fendi, Prada or Dolce & Grabbana decline to pony up, there is always a Saudi prince or World Passport type with an eye for historic monuments. Good-will adoptions from entrepreneurs in the hospitality and tourist industry are sure to come.
Six hundred years of labor by countless anonymous craftsmen contributed to a cathedral built ad majorem Dei gloriam . Today, in the seconds needed to write a check, any deep pockets can have their names bolted to the work of centuries. It takes brass.
Meantime, down in the Duomo’s crypt, ruin of a different order is on display. Since September 22, 2005, the citizens of Milan have had their own chapel to contemporary art alongside the relics of St. Charles Borromeo. On that day, a video installation by English artist Mark Wallinger was dedicated in a small room in the cathedral treasury. Formalities began with a fusion liturgy: a ceremonial press conference yoked to a Benediction.
Mt. Hera did not come to Mohammed but the Blessed Sacrament came to Wallinger’s projection screen. And what was the image that carried such power of compulsion? Hardly anything, really. Shrewdly entitled “Via Dolorosa,” the piece is a tour de force playing in a room dim as a crack den. Gloom signals the contemplative mode, don’t you know. Besides, they always turn lights out at the movies. Here, though, the movie Jesus of Nazareth , Franco Zeffirelli’s Christ for the Family Channelis blocked by a large black rectangle. Only a scant fringe around the border of the screen gives any hint of a film playing behind the black-out. There is no sound track. As far as you can tell, you are watching the periphery of Charlie Chan’s Secret or a spaghetti Western. The project is a jarring incongruity in a building begun in fidelity to the belief that life was ordered by Revelation, not technology. Not technique.
According to Monsignor Luigi Manganini, archpriest of the cathedral, the Church has to court the Third Millennium with its latest upscale accessory: video art. The perfect embodiment of postmodernism, video entered the cathedral, he chirruped, “with the same force as the entire history of great painting and sculpture.” His second in command, Fr. Luigi Garbini, upped the promo: “The blocking of ninety percent of the view brings the visitor into a cloud of unknowing, in which he finally faces the free decision: to believe or not to believe.”
Park benches and bar stools exist for that sort of brief, bantam-weight brooding. Ditherers can muse gainfully over a few Rogue Dead Guy ales. It is a serious mistake to suggest equivalence between the dark night of the pilgrim soul and a night spent staring at a test pattern on widescreen HDTV. The long and daunting via negativa of Christian mysticism is cheapened by comparison to eighteen minutes (if anyone stays that long) in front of flickering incoherence. Like so much conceptual art, Via Dolorosa is a parasite upon its title.
It is easy to proclaim the absence of God. It is harder to proclaim His presence. A cathedral, though, is just that: a proclamation in stone. The Duomo’s shrine to digital technology reminds us that the open and candid skepticism of a secular culture is less worrisome than the unconscious skepticism of our own ecclesiasts toward the Church’s traditional patrimony. The latter risks disfiguring the Church into a superficial appendix to contemporary culture.
Raising a monstrance over video paraphernalia is a confession that the object of veneration has shifted. Installations like this fail to distinguish the Church from the secular ethos it seeks to engage. The words of Henri de Lubac apply here: “The great minds that have spoken about God are all our contemporaries.” So, too, our heritage of sublime religious art, a cultural deposit which anxiety must not displace.
Earlier ages were better at pictorial depictions of evil because they believed in its existence. Our own therapeutic society prefers to think of evil as an outmoded concept that gives way to material and psychological explanations. A strain of received wisdom has it that the concept of sin is as outmoded as phrenology. Wickedness, properly understood, is an antique construction, a bit of by-gone make-believe. Or so our psychologized, adjustment-crazed culture would have us think.
Were he alive today, Albrecht Durer would be hard put to imagine the 7-headed Beast of the Apocalypse. To imagine evil, one has to imagine the good, or Good. In other words, God. In the 15th century, wrong-doing was not reduced to mental illness, social conditioning, or a figment of narrow, punitive minds. Durer’s Beast, emerging from the seas to make man worship it, could never have been discounted, never psychologized or politicized away. //
Walter Russell Mead, commenting on a lethal shooting spree in Norway two years ago, wrote something that I copied and kept. In The American Interest
, he meditated on the illusion that democracy, scientific progress and affluence bring security and moral progress. He ends his column on the mass murders with this:
The only conclusion that makes sense to me is that human beings are stuck in a condition of radical uncertainty. Something big and earth shaking is going on around us, but the information we have does not allow us to predict where it all goes.
In my view, this is one of the reasons that belief in a transcendent power beyond the human mind is intellectually necessary to grapple successfully with the realities of our time. When the determinist progressives threw God under the bus, they threw away the possibility of an integrated world view that has room both for scientific and rational analysis on the one hand and a honest, unsparing appraisal of the radical uncertainty around us on the other.
We still live in the Age of Apocalypse that opened in World War Two when Hiroshima and the Holocaust delineated the essential problems of the new and possibly last era of human civilization. Mankind has long had the potential for radical, desolating evil; today we still have that potential among us, and we have united it to the power to end all life on earth. We live with one foot in the shadows and another on the high and sunny uplands of democratic and affluent society. We have one foot in Norway and the other in Hell and nobody knows where we step next.
Mead’s post is essentially an essay on our ideas of history. He attempts to make the case moral philosopher Mary Midgley made in Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay : that moral evil, too, has its natural history. It is rooted in our freedom and, consequently, calls out for judgmentthe very thing contemporary art tries so hard to evade.
The gravity of older depictions, products of a shared moral tradition and patterns of expectation, gives way in our own day to the merely gothic. Cartoony horror shows take the place of pictorial signs of evil that arose within a coherent culture and a comprehensible context. We are left with pastiches like Mariano Villalba’s, part parody of the old memento mori, part burlesque in the spirit of the Rocky Horror Picture Show:
Villalba’s rendition has more in common with Alice Cooper than Durer. It offers chills, the frisson of entertainment. It has neither the capacity nor intention to call viewers to reflect on the condition of man. It is indifferent to issues of our spiritual survival. It just wants to thrill. And sell.
As the religious imagination wanes, so does the pictorial one. The great mythic structures dwindle into anecdote. A culture that has lost its Judeo-Christian soul and biblical frame of reference is crippled in portraits of evil. Without the Lamb there is no serpent. No Beast.
We tend to think that the drive to abolish distinctions between the sexes is a relatively recent phenomenon. Asked to date its beginnngs, most of us would likely pick the 1970s, coinciding with the first undergraduate gay and lesbian studies classes at UC Berkeley. But no. The impulse goes back further. It was championed by the British Marxist Christopher St. John Sprigg, writing under the pseudonym Christopher Caudwell. In the 1930s, he defended a vision of advanced society’s ultimate freedom from biological necessity.
Caudwell was only thirty when he was killed in action in the Spanish Civil War. He had already produced five books, each one flush with jumping off points for subsequent Marxist thinkers. His influential Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture remains a must-read for students of Marxist aesthetics.
Caudwell’s vision of the ultimate necessity of the collapse of sexual differences is aggressively on show in the work of Yasumasa Morimura, an international crowd-pleaser living in Osaka. His well-known appropriations of iconic paintings—here Manet’s The Bar at the Folies Bergère— illustrate perfectly Judith Butler’s term “performativity of gender.” By transforming himself into Manet’s barmaid, he declines the gender assigned to him, so the thinking goes, by society because of his sex.
Camp theatre has never been as blithe as it appeared. Insidious from the get-go, its surface entertainment value is ingratiating. Loosen up, folks. Only a total dork would spoil good fun. That is charm enough to disable the faculties of a well-meaning and complacent audience. Morimura, in beautifully crafted burlesques, puts himself on exhibit as the fruit of the old guard’s cultural decline. Behind its apparent whimsy, the work is deadly serious.
In the word-game world of gender studies, male sexuality— phallic power , in the literature—is benign if it is directed toward other men. A straight man is a class enemy; a gay man is . . . well, probably a size 14 or larger.
Guise and Dolls en femme at the millennium.
Guide books recommend the cafe at Bordeaux’s CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art. That is as it should be. Every asparagus soup radical expects a good lunch. Gathered for Think . . . And See
, they will want more to eat than attitude .
Of the nine participants in this series of speakers, eight out of nine are listed as philosophers. When an art museum sponsors a program that looks like a plenary session of the International Society for Philosophers, you know that ideology, not art making, is the purpose at hand. Turn and run.
The symposium’s roster is dedicated to a hypnotic vision of the artist as a subversive force to blunt the spiritual weapons of a dying class. Taken in toto, the topics invite a reprise of Leonid Ilychev’s aim to displace “the depraved formalist art of the bourgeois West.” In Kruschev’s considered estimate, formalist art was all “dog shit,” not worth a kopek. An online browse through CAPC’s permanent collection suggests a line—straggly, but a line nonetheless—of descent from the aims of the Central Committee of the 1960s to the contemporary mindset. There are differences in phraseology and taste, to be sure. But these are historically conditioned, and more superficial than they appear at first glance. The significant and enduring link is creedal.
The catechetical nature of CAPC’s program announces itself in the c.v. of each participant, beginning with its organizer, Francois Cusset. Teaching Philosophy of American Civilization at the University of Nanterre, Cusset is committed to undermining distinctions between gay and straight. To queer a field of study is to blur differences, to promote gender confusion, and to analyze the political and moral stakes at play in that confusion. Employed in queering American civilization, the petri dish in which queer theory was conceived, Cusset looks to the eventual queering of the French Republic. [ An eight minute video of Cusset
discussing, in English, the nature of queer theory and its migration from America to France is worth watching.]
Beatriz Preciado, born in Barcelona and credentialed by Princeton and the New School for Social Research, comes billed as a leading thinker in gender studies. A professor at the Université de Paris VIII, St. Denis, she is also the author of Manifiesto contrasexual , a queer theory classic, and Pornotopía: Architecture and Sexuality in Playboy During the Cold War. She sports a trim mustache that recalls another Catalan and AC-DC tease, Salvador Dali.
Enter Judith Butler, lesbian, philosopher, and decorated gender ideologue at the University of California, Berkeley. Her métier is the “performativity of gender” and the social construction of sexual difference. Nothing is innate; it is all just theatre. Add her animus toward the “state violence” of Israel, and we have an exemplary sample of the kind of American academic congenial to European audiences.
The nerve center of Catherine Malabous’ pensées is the flexibility of the brain, the organ that she sees as the basis of many of our political metaphors. Nothing is as hard-wired as we think (hint, hint). She finds it ominous that words used to describe the brain, such as “flexibility”, are used in economic life. This leads her to wonder whether the very description of our brain today is not in fact the image of the capitalist world in which we live. [You follow the logic?] Malabou has also co-authored with Butler an inquiry into domination and servitude entitled Be My Body. The text explores the fantasy we surely all have of delegating our bodies to someone else to inhabit.
During his student years in Paris, “independent researcher” Maurizio Lazzarato was too radical for even the Italians. He went into exile in Paris in the 1970s and stayed. Since then, he has become a political entrepreneur engaged in probing immaterial labor (“cognitive capitalism”) and “post-socialist” social movements. His scheduled talk is a riff on his book The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay in the Neoliberal Condition .
Keep in mind Lazzarato will be addressing an audience weighted toward artists and art students. It is unlikely there will be many in attendance capable of addressing his contention that debt is the necessary means of social control at the heart of the global capitalist shell game. Whether the audience grasps the mechanisms of free enterprise matters not. Lazzarato cuts a romantic figure. He strides across the barricades as both participant in and theorizer of such European activist movements over the past decade as the Tute Bianche
. Let’s hear it for a universal citizen’s income.
On it goes. It is tempting to poke fun at the penny-arcade Marxism and missionary gender-bending implicit in the program. In reality, though, there is nothing humorous about it. All the nebulous opacity sounds intellectual, engagé . The stance is seductive to young aspirants to the mantle of a redemptive dissident. In just this way, we commit cultural suicide one symposium at a time. And one museum of contemporary art after another.
A lively and curious-minded reader of First Things just forwarded a link to an article on CNET News broadcasting the fact that Benedict XVI’s postings to Twitter ended today, the last day of his tenure as pope. The article is here .
The writer, Chris Matyszczyk, displays a bit of disappointment: “It’s hard not to think that the decision to remove Pope Benedict’s tweets was taken by a vacant seat, an apparatchik of absolutism.”
It is equally feasible to think that the removal of the tweets was done at Benedict’s own request. One early press dispatch, back in December, reported that the pope seemed “hesitant” at first. Well, yes. He would be if he had been
pressured cajoled into the undertaking. The Pontifical Council for Culture, the bureaucratic inspiration—if that is the word—for @pontifex, has shown little reluctance about genuflecting to secular idols under the pretext of promoting the gospel. Benedict himself has the wit and grace of mind to recognize that every such bow ends as Vigo Demant foresaw: a proclamation of secularism “in a Christian idiom.”
The Twitter account remains open. Perhaps we should pray it stays silent.
Once more for emphasis: Contemporary art, properly defined, is simply the art of our contemporaries. The rest is marketing. The trademark product sold under the term contemporary art promotes an ethos—a posture and set of mental habits— fueled by academia. Contemporary art is the academic art of our time.
Its reach is as global as the market that distributes it. And political to the core. Here in my inbox is a press release from CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain, Bordeaux. A tabernacle for contemporary art, the museum houses six-to-seven hundred works from the 1960s onward. Philip Larkin had it half right: Sex was not the only thing that began in 1963. Art did, too.
CAPC’s broadcast is a jargon-soaked reminder that contemporary art mimics the ideological contests begun decades before the Sixties counter-culture thought it had invented them. They point past the Thirties back to the 1910s and ’20s. Now, as in the heady years that spawned avant-garde pronunciamentos on the reconstruction of everything, the art that merits official attention and subsidy is polemical.
Though it originates from a French institution, the release arrived in English and the tendered sample of critical discourse is by a New York artist. As mentioned, the stuff and the stance are global:
THINK AND SEE . . . WHAT CRITICISM TELLS US TODAY
You might think that in the fifth year of Barack Obama’s reign, the French could shill for right thinking with something more timely than recycled Bush-bashing. But the progressive conscience is nothing if not nostalgic. It echoes Leonid Ilychev, Krushev’s principal spokesman on the arts and head of the Central Committee’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda. Ilychev summed up the Soviet discourse on beaux arts: “Art belongs to the sphere of ideology.” That was also in 1963 when art, like heavy industry and the Red Army, existed to serve the struggle for the people’s happiness. Art still does:
The CAPC is hosting a one-year symposium titled Think . . . And See . Conceived by French philosopher, writer and scholar Francois Cusset, this time-capsule symposium will deal with the themes of intensity, 21st-century memory, brain and plasticity, gender and sex, the infinity of debt, and vulnerability, notably in the post-internet era.
This seminar is the first step in the CAPC’s endeavor to establish a study site where a radical acceptance of the terms and conditions of the production of critique does not undermine them, but feeds their articulation. The second step will be a publication featuring every contribution.
What follows is a list of cub bolsheviks addressing the symposium. They are tenured in all the best places. Herewith:
Tristan Garcia (writer and philosopher)
Enzo Traverso (philosopher and historian)
Memory and utopia at the turn of the 21st century
Francois Noudelmann (philosopher and radio producer)
Family likenesses: a philosophical and aesthetic secession
Catherine Malabou (philosopher)
Emotional brain and plasticity
Beatriz Preciado (philosopher and activist)
Seeing gender/seeing sex
Maurizio Lazzarato (independent researcher, philosopher and sociologist)
The economy of infinite debt
Judith Butler (leading figure in political philosophy and pioneer in gender studies)
Vulnerability and resistance: towards a new political corpus
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (specialist in feminism, post-colonial issues and North-South relations)
Our world, our time?
Francois Cusset, scholar and philosopher, is best known for—among other delicacies— Queer Critic , translated for anglophone readers as The Inverted Gaze: Queering the French Literary Classics in America ($14 from Amazon Prime).
Let me come back to this later. There is a chicken in the oven that needs attention. The further one digs into the ambitions of contemporary art—the category valorized by Cardinal Ravasi—the more one’s own dinner beckons. So much depends on a roast chicken.
Nick Cave is a lively, unpredictable performance artist and fabric sculptor who trained as a dancer with Alvin Ailey. Widely recognized for his wearable artworksequal parts folk art and sophisticated funkhe performed at the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies fiftieth anniversary soiree this past November. Now he is bringing a herd of thirty rainbowed horses to graze in Vanderbilt Hall from March 25 through the 31st. If you are one of the 250,000 daily trekkers hurrying through the grandeur of the central hall, give yourself time to stay awhile with Cave’s whimsical troupe. It promises all the theatrical charm of the old Bread and Puppet Theater minus the Sixties-style hectoring. Equine therapy for commuters and tourists alike.
Do not forget to look up. Horses wander.
Cave’s performance is part of the schedule of events celebrating Grand Central’s centennial. The pageant becomes all the more endearing when you remember how close the city’s Beaux Arts treasure came to suffering the same demolition fervor that undid Penn Stationthe original McKim, Mead and White buildingand so much else in the 1960s.
Note : If you want to see more of those costumes Nick Cave calls Soundsuits , check in with Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. This one, from an exhibition in 2009, is a needlework favorite:
My term “engine of evangelization” might have created some confusion. Let me clarify.
God knows, the art world is mission territory. To be sure. But that is not the purpose of Vatican City’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. No one proposes to proselytize the money changers with a lagoon view at the Hotel Danieli. The Vatican seeks to become a player on the contemporary art scene ostensibly to counter the wider, prevailing drift toward secularization. As Newsweek phrased it, the Vatican “hopes to revive its cultural side” with new interpretations of “tired spiritual art.” Put more candidly, the Vatican is making itself a supplicant, soliciting secular affirmation of the Christian vision from the proxy gods of our time.
Going by Cardinal Ravasi’s words to journalist Kamila Kocialkowska in the New Statesman this past October, you too are the object of this aesthetic evangelization. The cardinal is quite clear about it :
Today our problem is to get ordinary people to welcome this type of art. We need to help them to understand that art is part of the spirit.
It would be nice to think that this is a misquote, a cobbling together of the cardinal’s comments in a shallow approximation of his meaning. Unhappily, we are left with what appeared in print. As is, it bespeaks wondrous condescension toward his intended audience, those still in the pew no less than those long gone. In the light of the gospels, and under the sign of original sin, cardinals are ordinary people,too. Just like the rest of us. More to the point, there are more pressing problems in our post-Christian era (e.g. the implacable slouch toward barbarisms large and small) than conversion in taste to contemporary art.
Yes, we can say art is part of the spirit. But which one? The spirit of the age? Of Screwtape, Pangloss, Moloch? An ear for cant remains a more critical—and creative—aid to the kingdom than an eye for products of the international art trade. Art is thoroughly of this world. It is not revelation, as litanies of appreciation pretend. It can oblige any purpose, soothe any heart, demonic or blessed. And the spectrum of man’s creativity is hardly exhausted in the arts.
Romano Guardini’s prescience in The End of the Modern World, written a full six decades ago , has application here:
The cultural deposit preserved by the Church thus far will not be able to endure against the general decay of tradition.
It is worth considering to what extent the Vatican’s Venice caper, simultaneously pious and market driven, reveals the smiling face of materialism in our time. There is high risk that it will spread belief in nothing more compelling than contemporary art.