Saturday, February 21, 2009

Human Dignity and Masaccio

Human life is a cheap commodity these days, despite the protestations of political and religious rhetoric to the contrary. We go on and on about human rights and human dignity and the "sanctity of human life," and we continue act otherwise. Those same people who so loudly insist (and hope to legislate for us all) that a 2 celled zygote is as fully human as a 60 year old grandmother are usually the first to oppose any legislation that would make it easier to raise already born viable children; paid family leave, national health insurance, any government subsidy for the health or education of children is dismissed as just so much "socialism."
Sugar addict that I am, I think about these issues when I'm shoveling sugar into my tea. It was the European taste for sugar that first created the modern industrial slave trade. The earliest sugar plantations in the Caribbean and in Brazil used the indentured labor of young people from Britain and the Continent (debt slaves) to do the hard, hot, and dangerous work of sugar cane harvesting and sugar refining. The plantations began importing African slaves under the assumption that they could withstand the hot difficult conditions better than the Europeans, who were dying like flies under the strain. The African slaves then proceeded to work hard and die like flies for 4 centuries. It was the taste for sugar that led the USA to grab Hawaii when the Southern markets were no longer open to the North.
I know I make Ayn Rand and the Chamber of Commerce cry when I say this, but the heart of our dear old Market Capitalist society is no heart at all. That nasty old man Karl Marx praised industrial capitalism for its ability to strip us of all of our old "superstitions and prejudices," or what we would call "beliefs." Capitalism, Marx argued, reduces all value to use and exchange. Ruthless modernist that he was, Marx believed that this was the necessary process to show us the "true state" of our situation in the world and prepare us for revolution.
Even Marx's dialectical materialism is too much of a leap of faith for us now. We don't really believe in materialism any more than we truly believe in any other religious or political doctrine. We don't really believe in anything. We certainly don't agree on anything. So, the only "value" that continues to have any compelling reality for us is what's written on a price tag. Things and people only have meaning and value based on what someone is willing to pay for them. The very idea of "intrinsic value" went out the window a long time ago. So much of what we call "values" are survival skills wrapped in pious rhetoric. Our international capitalist culture is deeply nihilistic.
That so much of the world's population lives in conditions of squalor and brutality so that another part of the world can live conveniently and cheaply is the real value we place on human life. We feel an extra sting in unemployment on top of the hardship, because so much of our sense of ourselves and our worth is bound up in our salaries.

And when was it ever NOT thus? The cemeteries of the world are full of young men, the sons of tenant farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, and laborers who were sent into battle and died for nothing more than the vanity and ambition of a prince or an oligarchy. History is as much a record of crime as it is of accomplishment. The very idea that human beings, all of us, have an inherent worth was always tenuous.

An artist who did cling to and proclaimed that tenuous idea of human dignity in his work was Tomaso di Ser Giovanni, better known by a belittling nickname, Masaccio, meaning "big ugly Tom." There isn't much work in the world by Masaccio and there never was. He lived only 27 years and had a career of less than 10 years. And yet, it would be Masaccio who alone would create the Quattrocento Florentine painting tradition.
Florentine painting in the 1420s was very conservative, at least compared to Florentine sculpture and architecture of the time. It was dominated by the International Gothic style, a conspicuous consumption style that was the tail end of the Gothic tradition; the original religious energies that created that style were long spent. A wealthy banker like Pala Strozzi could impress the city with a big showy altarpiece that simultaneously announced his wealth and piety; the Renaissance version of Prosperity Gospel.

Gentile da Fabriano, The Strozzi Altarpiece,
originally for the Strozzi Chapel in Sta Maria Novella, 1423

The Strozzi Altarpiece is a masterpiece of the status quo. It has everything that a powerful banker could want; lots of gold and elaborate shrine-work, splendid pageantry, very elegant stylish and unnatural form.

At the very same time that this altarpiece was completed, Masaccio was working on a fresco cycle of the life of St. Peter for the Brancacci family in their chapel in Santa Marie del Carmine across the Arno river.

The Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, ca. 1425-1427

Masaccio was a young bomb thrower. He had no patience for concessions to taste. He wanted to destroy that whole International Gothic Style with all of its stylish artifice and replace it with forms that were truer to experience.

Masaccio, The Tribute Money, detail

Masaccio imagined Christ and the Apostles as poor, though grand men. None of the figures in his work is particularly idealized or prettified (as the International Gothic style would insist). They are the sorts of faces that we would see on a Florentine street in the 15th century. They do have a kind of monumental grandeur that comes from Masaccio's study of ancient Roman sculpture. Their grandeur gives a measure of momentousness and significance to the story. Their grandeur comes not through clothes or crowns, but through the way they carry themselves, with a sense of the gravity of the events they participate in.

Masaccio's figures are sculpted out of light and shadow. There isn't much in the way of line. Lawrence Going once remarked that if an artist wanted to make a tracing of a Masaccio figure, he wouldn't have much to work with. They are almost entirely molded out of the ambient light and shadow of the chapel itself.
Light always played a central role in Christian mysticism. Light was the first thing created by God in Genesis. Light was believed to be the closest material thing to the spirit. In a Gothic cathedral, light is the radiance of Heaven and the exhilarating glory of God. For Masaccio, light is the medium of understanding. Our field of vision is made completely out of reflected light, and so are his pictures.

Masaccio, Peter and John Heal the Sick With Their Shadows, Brancacci Chapel, Florence

Masaccio sets these scenes from the Gospels and from the Book of Acts in the streets of the Oltrarno neighborhood in 15th century Florence. Until recently, that neighorhood housed the city's poor and working class. What mattered to Masaccio and to his audience was not the literal history of these stories, but their meaning for the here and now.
Masaccio invests not only the Apostles with dignity and grandeur, but even the poor and destitute in the Florentine streets.
Our forms have an inherent dignity ans worth in Masaccio's work, and so does our capacity to see and understand the world. He shows us that dignity remains true regardless of our station in life. He does not claim that our senses are perfect; however, Masaccio does remind us that flawed though they may be, our senses and our experience of the world is all we have.

It's probably this reason, that sense of an inherent dignity and worth in being human, that keeps me coming back with such pleasure and enthusiasm to earlier art. I am always struck by the passivity of so much (though not all) contemporary art when it comes to our current situation. Masaccio was certainly not passive in his response to his own time.

Masaccio died before he could finish work on the chapel frescoes. He took the job in partnership with an older and more established artist, Masolino, who is responsible for most of the work on the north wall of the chapel. In 1427, Masolino was summoned to more lucrative work in Rome. For unknown reasons, Masaccio followed him there, and died of illness shortly after arriving. In the 1430s, the Brancacci were exiled by Cosimo de Medici, and the chapel remained unfinished. It was finally completed in the 1470s by Filippino Lippi. I've always found it striking how Masolino and Lippi modified their normally flamboyant styles to accomodate Masaccio's simplicity. The ceiling vaults of the chapel and the lunettes frescoed by Masaccio and Masolino were destroyed in a fire in 1766.

Masaccio is an artist who comes to mind when I read these lines from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain:

But what, after all, was humanism if not a love of humankind, and by token also of political activity, rebellion against all that tended to defile or degrade our conception of humanity? He had been accused of exaggerating the importance of form. But he who cherished beauty of form did so because it enhanced human dignity.

Masaccio's self portrait from the Brancacci Chapel. Brunelleschi is on the far right.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Again, thank you!

Hans said...

Your clear and pure mind and your words give me some hope in these times ! Thank you ! Best regards, Hans

Hans said...

"So, the only "value" that continues to have any compelling reality for us is what's written on a price tag."

No, thats bullshit, for me a price tag is something I do not care about, just a "(un)necessary evil"

and I don't believe, that a price tag plays any importance in your world !

Grandmère Mimi said...

Thanks, Doug. Like a fine art class lecture.

The blond and the bearded gray-haired men, John and Peter, I'm guessing, look quite Roman. Would the man in the red tunic be another self portrait? He looks rather like the man you pointed out in the lower picture.

Masaccio is a breath of fresh air and light from the Gothic, although I confess to a liking for the gilt and colors of the Gothic style, too

JCF said...

I enjoy hearing you "lecture" Doug . . . though each step in Western painting is, admittedly, a step away from the Byzantine religious art that speaks most to me.

JCF said...

Oh: but I totally agree w/ your politics!

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