Monday, June 30, 2008

"O Heart of Marat"

This is a famous picture of a famous murder. This is Jacques Louis David's painting of the crime scene following Charlotte Corday's murder of the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. In the summer of 1793, Charlotte Corday fatally stabbed Marat as he was bathing. She used a note feigning family distress to gain access to Marat. It was this crime that began the wave of executions and massacres across revolutionary France known as "The Terror."
David was commissioned to paint the murder almost as soon as it happened. He had extraordinary access to the crime scene and to Marat's corpse, making drawings and sketches as he examined it.
This is a painting that practically shrieks accusations at us. The dead Marat holds in his hand, the harshly lit note from Corday (turned conveniently so we can read it) pleading, "It is enough that I am unhappy to have the right to your benevolence." On top of the orange crate that Marat used as a desk while bathing, in contrast to Corday's perfidious letter, is a note from Marat instructing her where to go for relief for her 5 children whose father died for the patrie. Next to it is a bank note. Marat's right hand, still gripping the pen, dangles lifelessly from the edge of the tub. Next to it in shadow is the murder weapon, the ivory handled knife.
This is arguably one of the most brilliant pieces of political propaganda in history. While remaining true to the facts of the scene (more or less), David transforms Marat's lurid murder into a heroic martyrdom, conspicuously borrowing upon the legacy of Christian imagery of dead martyrs and, above all, the pieta where the body of Christ is laid out in His mother's lap for the adoration of worshipers. While Charlotte Corday's note is harshly and brightly lit, the play of light and dark over Marat is softened, his face turned to us. David has really cleaned him up. Marat bathed daily in the summer to relieve painful arthritic psoriasis, which David dared not show. David gave him the body of a dead hero (or more explicitly, the dead Christ). He transformed the tub into a kind of sarcophagus from which Marat's body emerges. The orange crate is turned into a solemn grave monument bearing the inscription "To Marat." There is blood everywhere in this painting. There's blood on the ivory knife handle, blood on Corday's note, and Marat practically bathes in blood as the bath water is stained red. "May the blood of Marat become the seed of intrepid republicans!" declared one orator at Marat's funeral, giving it a kind of sacral quality.

David played a central role in the Revolution. He was a member of the powerful (and dreaded) Committee of Public Safety. He was one of the National Assembly who voted for the death of the king, Louis XVI. He was in charge of all the public pagaentry for the revolutionary regime, and he was in charge of staging Marat's funeral.
It was held in a secularized church, and like the painting (which was finished later), the funeral was intended to transform Marat into a kind of holy martyr. The body was embalmed hastily (it had begun to rapidly putrefy in the hot summer weather, the wound began to gape, and the right arm fell off and had to be sewn back on as the body was installed), it was displayed semi-nude on a high plinth surrounded by some of the very same items seen in the painting; the bathtub, orange crate, pen, knife, and treacherous note. His heart was removed and placed in a carved agate urn. In the funeral orations, the links to Christian concepts of sacred martyrdom could not be more explicit:

O heart of Jesus, O heart of have the same right to our homage. O heart of Marat, sacre coeur...can the works and benevolence of the son of Mary be compared with those of the Friend of the People and his apostles to the Jacobins of our holy Mountain?...Their Jesus was but a false prophet but Marat is a god. Long live the heart of Marat...Like Jesus, Marat loved the people ardently...Like Jesus, Marat detested nobles, priests, the rich, the scoundrels. Like Jesus, he led a poor and frugal life...

Unlike Jesus, Marat was an inflammatory and temperamental orator whose enemies frequently found themselves strung up from the nearest lamp post by mobs whipped up into homicidal frenzies by his speeches.

With the French Revolution, the age of ideological politics begins. What was once a game of princes, soldiers, and statesmen competing for power and glory, now takes on the all-encompassing doctrinal qualities of religion, and the Christian religion in particular. Political ideologies now make total and exclusive demands on their followers, requiring their complete faith and loyalty. Political ideology now promises salvation, the end of history, and a new heaven and a new earth. The doctrinal wars of the Christian Church become the ideological wars of modern politics, only now with armies and industries at the direct disposal of the high priests. History becomes a meatgrinder of competing abstractions, grinding up the flesh of legions of ordinary mortals caught in the middle.

I must confess to the most profoundly mixed feelings about David; such a brilliant artist, and what a bastard!

Novus Ordo Seclorum: NeoClassicism

Above is a drawing from about 1780-90 for a proposed monument to Isaac Newton by the architect Etienne Louis Boullee. The monument was never built, and is unbuildable. It was far beyond the engineering capacities of the age. It would have been huge. That fringe on the terraces is not balustrades, but full grown cypress trees, of the kind common in European cemeteries. "O Newton," wrote Boullee, "as by the extent of your wisdom and the sublimity of your genius you determined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you in your own discovery."
It is a frightening concept, chillingly prophetic of the vastly out of scale projects of 20th century totalitarianism, and was indeed an inspiration for Albert Speer's designs for rebuilding Berlin as the capital of a global Nazi empire. It is vast in scale and abstract in form. For all its insistent rationalism, the end effect is ultimately romantic; a huge frightening man made mountain.
Newton (long dead by the time Boullee made this drawing) was a great hero of the Enlightenment. He demonstrated that the same physical laws that rule the earth apply to the heavens, that the world runs according to orderly, comprehensible, and exploitable natural processes, not by miracle. The men and women of the Enlightenment hailed Newton as a great light who vanquished the darkness of superstition. They ignored the fact that Newton was deeply religious and obsessed with apocalyptic Biblical concordances.
Boullee's design also shows a new literal mindedness that appears in the wake of the Scientific Revolution. Since ancient times, domes were always architectural metaphors for the heavens. Boullee's dome is about as unmetaphorical and literal as a planetarium ceiling.

NeoClassicism was arguably the first fully modern art movement. It had much in common with later modern movements. It began as a protest against the art of the present, accusing it of decadence and of failing to meet the potential of the age. It wanted a new beginning, to renew art through contact with its most ancient and primitive origins (in this case, Greek and Roman art; this was the age that saw the beginnings of systematic archaeology at new discoveries like Pompeii). NeoClassicism, like a lot of later modern movements, was closely associated with revolutionary politics. The largest NeoClassical project ever was the new capital city of that new nation of the United States founded in revolution; Washington DC. As we shall see, NeoClassicism played a large role in the French Revolution. NeoClassicism was associated with technological innovation, in England anyway. Wedgwood's creamwares and jasperwares, among the first items to be mass produced, were largely designed along classical lines. Josiah Wedgwood hired the sculptor John Flaxman to design the cameo scenes on early jasperware.

NeoClassicism, like later modern art movements, was a creation of the newly powerful commercial classes, the bourgeoisie. The word "bourgeoisie" became a term of abuse by artists and intellectuals beginning in the early 19th century. But the fact remains that almost all the artists of modernity were bourgeoisie themselves creating art for bourgeois audiences. There were only a few exceptions (among them Andy Warhol, the son of a poor factory worker in Pittsburgh). Beginning with NeoClassicism, art would be shaped by the very class that built the modern world, and would reflect both its virtues and its vices.

The Gay Day After

I always have such a great time at Gay Day that it's hard to let it go the next day.
Yesterday messy old New York in all its abounding vitality poked its head up through the heavy crust of gentrification as the Gay Pride parade passed by the huge construction projects transforming Manhattan into Disneyland for the very very rich.
And in the middle of it all, we got soaked by a big cloud burst complete with thunder and lightning. It was a tranny girl disaster; mascara ran in the gutters, foundation melted onto the pavement, fake eyelashes floated in the puddles, and there was a slick of hairspray.
Amazingly, despite the weather, the parade went on, and few people bailed out. There were still very large, but soggy, crowds watching along 5th Avenue.

This was my 14th Pride parade in New York, and my 18th (I think) parade over all. I'll never get tired of it. For the past 4 or 5 parades, I've marched with the Episcopalians. My parish always has a contingent in the parade (including Mother Rector, who, after celebrating morning Mass, marched the whole route, and then did Evensong right afterward; What a trooper!). In past years, the reception of the crowds to the Episcopal contingent was polite indifference. The Quakers and MCC usually got all the cheers. Not so this year. The crowds greeted us with warm enthusiasm despite the rain. The larger LGBT community is certainly aware of the struggles of our Church on their behalf, and they very much appreciate it. They know what we gay Episcopalians know. Despite all the protestations about Biblical authority by our antagonists, we gay folk know that we are the issue splitting the Anglican Communion.
In front of our parish was a contingent of Episcopalians from New Jersey. My, what a rambunctious bunch! I saw these clergy in black shirts and collars chasing each other and having water fights; and in front of the bishop! Of course, it really didn't matter since everyone was soaked to the skin by that time (including the bishop).
In my younger days, I used to consider my parish's Gay Pride evensong to be so quaintly high minded amidst the pagan revelry in the Village on Pride Day. In those days, I was out there with the rest of the revelers bar crawling, crashing the dances, and picking up lots of instant friends, not always for sex. Indeed I had my moments of extra-ecclesiastical agape fellowship as a group of us would huddle together on the piers watching the Heritage of Pride fireworks.
Yesterday, I stood in the parish garden before the annual Pride Evensong in cassock and surplice (I was pinch-hitting for an absent accolyte for Evensong) listening to the loud revelers all around the church grounds, and now feeling so grateful for this service. Despite the rain, we had our usual full house. We had an embarassment of bishops; 3 bishops, an archbishop (a primate no less), and an archdeacon. The younger me huddling on the pier passing a reefer around would never imagine such a thing; hierarchy presiding at a church service for (rather than at) gay folk.
We sang the hymns so loud and lustily they could hear us in Hoboken.

We had a brutal reminder of what this is all about the night before. Two of our parishoners were attacked and badly beaten on Christopher Street in a gay bashing. One of them had 7 stitches in his head. I was substituting for one of them at the Pride Evensong.

The struggle continues.

Deo Optimo Maximus et Christus Liberator.

Enjoy the Hedwig clip. It's one of my favorites.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Up on Top of a Rainbow, Sweeping the Clouds Away!


For More of Benjamoon Von Schwulemann's videos, photos, artwork, and other whimsies, go here

Will We Ever Trust Art Again?

Above is a painting from Hogarth's series, The Rake's Progress.  It shows the dissolute newly rich Rake being robbed at a brothel in the booming London of the mid 18th century.  It is a painting intended to teach a moral lesson (as are almost all of Hogarth's paintings); these are the wages of sin.  All the ills of our world are the consequences of failure of character.  Like any good conservative (or liberal for that matter), Hogarth believes that good and evil are clear and simple matters of will.  Making the right choices is what it is all about.
Small wonder then, that generations of critics used words like "journalistic" and "facile" when writing about his work.

The 18th century Enlightenment was about being conscious, wide awake, using those reasoning faculties (whether God given or Nature given).  The imagination, our capacity for seeing with our mind's eye, was very suspect at the time.  The imagination was seen as a weakness, as a source of fantasy and bamboozlement.  Art depends on the imagination, both for the making of it and the comprehending of it.  And this created a big problem for artists and for art audiences that is still with us to this day.

For the first time, art was required to show its credentials, to make the case for its "usefulness," for its "socially redeeming value."  For centuries, this question never came up.  The role of art was clear.  It was there to show the beliefs of religion and to demonstrate the legitimacy of the state (whether king, queen, prince, princess, bishop, or city oligarchy) through myth and history.  Since the Renaissance, it took on the added task of edifying and entertaining (all those Renaissance and Baroque paintings of myth were largely excuses for showing expanses of enticing young flesh beneath a veneer of moralizing edification; though occasionally they would rise to the levels of tragic poetry).

Hogarth was one of many artists reacting against that style for Prince and Peasant known as Rococo.    They felt that this style was the decadent tail end of art used to dazzle the emotions and appeal to the fantasies of the ignorant, superstitious, and reactionary.  The Rococo was an art that shamelessly aimed to please.  It was considered shallow and inadequate to the possibilities of the age (we still feel this way about the Rococo, while allied bombers went to heroic efforts to spare German medieval monuments in WWII, look at what they did to a great Rococo church like the Frauenkirche in Dresden).

The Enlightenment did not trust art.  We still don't.  Somehow giving form and substance to imaginative life just isn't enough.  Anyone who has had to fill out a grant application or deal with "arts consultants" or Academia knows this to be the case.   All of our high fallutin' oratory about "the partnership between business and the arts" and art as social melioration or therapy ultimately is just so much lipstick on a pig.  The real function of art in our age is as status trophy and very high end consumer good.  It also plays the role of PR.  Those Calder stabiles in the corporate plazas are there to make the case that the resident corporation are civilized and community minded, not just lucky rapacious bastards.   Art plays the role for the multinational that it once did for the prince; it takes the edge off raw power.

For all our rhetoric and calls for art to be "useful," we can still smell out the authentic from the inauthentic.  We will always prefer the authentic artist who insults us to the flatterer who shows us what we want to see.  In the end, George Santayana said it best when a student asked him what is the use of music.  "Music is absolutely useless," he replied, "but, so is life."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Race for the Sky Begins.

This is the first building to top out the Great Pyramid.  Here is the Eiffel Tower, in a photo from the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.  It was built 19 years earlier for another Exposition Universelle (1889) held to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution.  Designed by the engineer Gustave Eiffel, it remained the tallest building in the world until 1928 when the Chrysler Building in New York was completed.

It straddles the Champ de Mars in Paris as a great benevolent inverted Tower of Babel.  A building built to reach the sky that drew people together rather than drive them apart.  Instead of a huge bulk of stone resting upon the earth, it is a tall lean spidery structure that stands lightly, but firmly upon the ground.  It is built out of a new material unavailable to earlier generations, steel.  This is not a material quarried out of the earth like stone.  It is made through industrial processes.  Steel had been around for centuries, but it was very hard to make.  It mostly appeared in small quantities in things like sword blades.  Just a few decades before the Eiffel Tower was built, Bessemer invented a process for making steel inexpensively in huge quantities.  It was now available as a construction material, and the Eiffel Tower was one of the first demonstrations of this new building material.  It was built, not at the command of a ruler, but to commemorate a radical break with a centuries old concept of authority.  Instead of "Our King by the Grace of God," we now have polities built on the idea that to secure the benefits of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

What separates the Modern era from previous ages is the belief that the human condition can change, that the conditions of toil, pain, and submission are not eternal and unchanging after all.   Indeed, the peasant once bound to the soil for generations, now had a say in his own destiny, he was free to travel, his children now had access to education and the professions,  his great grand children now have regular access to things like music and entertainment on demand that were once the pleasures of kings.  Science and technology now regularly use powers once attributed to the gods.  "Why should we fear Jove's thunderbolt, " asked Karl Marx, "when we have a lightning rod?"  The Industrial Revolution transformed daily life for millions of people in a way that had not been seen since the invention of agriculture.

The Modern Era was an age of great expectations.  It was an age that looked forward with great optimism.  These were generations that believed passionately in The Future, and these expectations would drive a lot of the transformations in art and design that we will see.

This belief in The Future is precisely what separates the Modern from the Post Modern.  That sense of all pervasive anticipation is hard for us to imagine now.  "Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!" is a phrase that now makes us smile indulgently.   Fifty to Seventy years ago, people said this phrase in earnest as a declaration of faith.  We no longer believe in The Future, and yet we can't and we won't go back to the PreModern. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Tallest Building in the World Until...

When I teach Modern Art, sometimes I begin with this, The Great Pyramid of Egypt.  Built around 2500 BC, it was the tallest building in the world for centuries and centuries at about 485 feet high.

Since at least Herodotus, the Pyramid appears in the ancient literature as an emblem of tyrannical vanity; vast anonymous masses toiling to gratify a narcissistic ruler.  Though scholars and archaeologists now say that this was not quite the case (more like a vast public works project; all the laborers were paid complete with housing, medical care, and pensions), it remains a monument of the old pre-modern order.  This is a huge monument made by command of the ruler by the ruled.  It is made of limestone quarried from the earth.  It is an eternal monument based on truisms that were thought to be eternal.  Sinful humanity is condemned to toil and pain, working the earth to win their bread.    Rulers were sent by the gods to look after and discipline inherently wayward men and women: "kings shall be thy nursing fathers and queens thy nursing mothers."  

The human condition was thought to be as unchanging, solid, and eternal as this monument.

By the way folks, you can click on these images to get a much bigger view.  Click and see how big The Great Pyramid really is.

Modern, Post Modern, and the Image of Christ, A Prelude

Here He is, the conventional Jesus Meek and Mild.  On top is the Protestant version I was raised with.  Below is the Catholic version.
Like so many conventional things that we accept as ancient and eternal verities, these image types began in the 19th century.   This is the image of Christ remade to accommodate modern bourgeois sensibilities; long on sentiment, short on challenge or complication.

Where did this image come from and why?  
Why does the Christian religion, whose imagery dominated and drove Western art for centuries, seem to suddenly drop off the radar by the mid 18th century, never to appear again?
Why does Christianity (at least in its organized sectarian form) play so small a role in modern and post-modern art?

These are questions that have pre-occupied me for a long time.  
I'm usually in demand to talk about Early Christian and Medieval art, as well as the Renaissance in religious terms; the Baroque, a little less, unless it's Rembrandt (though he was not above Baroque razzle dazzle when it suited his purposes).  Anything beyond the 17th century is usually confined to the PreRaphaelites or Georges Rouault.  I want to expand that discussion further and bring in artists like David, Goya, Turner, Friedrich, Van Gogh, Picasso, Beckmann, Pollock, Rothko, and Warhol into it.

I've decided to spend some time in this space meditating on these questions.  I don't quite know where I'll be going with this, or where I will end up, and I'm still figuring out all the image posting options, but let's see what happens.

Stay tuned.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Patience Gentle Readers

I've hardly started this thing and I already have readers!
And to my new readers, I apologize for the problems in the "comments."  I THINK I've gotten rid of that nasty Google/Blogger ID.  If I haven't, then please let me know and send some advice.

I'm very new to this, and still working the bugs out (mostly out of me).  I hope eventually to reach those heights of blog mastery inhabited by Madpriest and Grandmere Mimi, but I'm still learning.

Thanks for your patience.

The Faith Once Delivered

I highly recommend Katie Sherrod's thoughtful, informed, and very well written post on the Anglican Rightwing mantra from the letter of Jude.  She rightly points out that there never was a time of unity of belief across the board in the Christian religion, that the arguments and variations began as soon as people left the Temple after Pentecost.

I would only add that such variation and argument is human nature.  The Bible is our witness to what we believe to be God's actions in history.  As anyone who has sat on a jury knows, witnesses to the exact same event can have completely different understandings of what they've seen.  If fender-benders can be problematic, how much more so transcendent interventions in history?  Our viewpoints and our knowledge are always partial.  We can only be more or less certain.  That's why we have faith.  

GAFCON Enemies List

According to Ruth Gledhill of the London Times,, GAFCON has a  list of people banned from their gathering.  
That these people have such a list is part of the growing pile of evidence that GAFCON's movement is entirely driven by spite and founded on resentment.

Anyone remember Nixon's Enemies List?  It was very long with a lot of distinguished people on it.  

I wonder how I can get onto GAFCON's list?  I suppose I have to be perceived as a threat.

Congratulations to all the listees!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Rant.

It's a week from Gay Day, and I've just about had it with all the GAFCON rhetoric dominating the news, so I'm going to throw politesse out the window and indulge in little rant.

"We want unity...but not at the cost of re-writing the Bible to accommodate the latest cultural trend."

Cultural trend my ass!!  The LGBT Liberation movement is a century old struggle for JUSTICE.
That's JUSTICE JUSTICE JUSTICE you Fascist bastards!!!!!!!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Great Leap Forward

Since this old dog is learning a new trick here, what better way to get this thing launched than with some rousing old time Chinese Revolutionary Theater!  Don't miss the parade of the regional ethnicities with one singer toward the end who has a voice that I swear could cut glass (at least to my barbarian Western ears).

I will use this to post whatever idle random thoughts (fit for the public of course) pop into my tiny little mind.

Here we go!  I hope my Great Leap Forward here does a little better than China's, God willing.  Let's get ruminating!