Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hell & Subhumanity in Art

Two experiences stand out in my mind. I was once asked to accompany a friend to an exhibition on Picasso (I went). And once I ingested (over the course of a morning) a massive tome on Salvadore Dali.

Both were slow descents into Hell.

Kinds of Art

I find that there are four types of art for me.

1. There is the art that is so beautiful that it is a physical pain. I have only felt this with something I have seen in person, never yet in a book or on a screen. In these cases the only thing to do is to walk away, sit down, and then come back. ... I sometimes imagine that the holiness of God is akin to this painful beauty that can only be appropriated in small doses.

2. There is the art that is good and wholesome, that grows on me and becomes increasingly dear, valuable. Like a friend, a fine wine, a well-brewed beer, a Cuban cigar, or a much-read book, I need to adjust to the flavour - roll it on my tongue - before it is revealed. The flavour gives it the depth and richness that makes it worth coming back to.

3. There is the art that is the equivalent of musack - it is a background noise that becomes annoying when it is the focus of attention. When I saw Renoir in person, I was surprised to find that his paintings were to me bland, without sustenance. I moved on.

4. And then there is the art that is wrong. It can be sensed immediately as wrong or even evil (as in the case of Bacon's Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X). In others there may be an initial piquance or cachet (like college dorm Dali prints) that masks the perversion beneath. In my journeys through the massive output of both Dali and Picasso, the flavour soured and the spell quickly lost its charm as their art spoke their hells for them.

Fr. Seraphim

Fr. Seraphim Rose spoke of art like this last category, art that came out of Nihilism, art that came out of the lower depths, art that taught a subhumanity.
And in fact such an image has quite recently been portrayed; it is the image of contemporary painting and sculpture, that which has arisen, for the most part, since the end of the Second World War, as if to give form to the reality produced by the most concentrated era of Nihilism in human history.

The human form, it would seem, has been rediscovered in this art; out of the chaos of total abstraction, identifiable shapes emerge. The result, supposedly, is a new humanism, a return to man that is all the more significant in that - unlike so many of the artistic schools of the 20th century - it is not an artificial contrivance whose substance is hidden behind a cloud of irrationalist jargon, but a spontaneous growth that would seem to have deep roots in the soul of contemporary man. In the work, for example, of Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, Jose Luis Cuevas - to take an international sampling - there seems to be a genuinely contemporary art that, without abandoning the disorder and freedom of abstraction, turns its attention away from mere escape toward a serious human commitment.

But what kind of man is it to which this art has returned? It is certainly not Christian man, man in the image of God, for no modern man can believe in him; nor is it the somewhat diluted man of the old humanism, whom all advanced thinkers regard as discredited and outmoded. It is not even the man disfigured and denatured in the earlier Cubist and Expressionist art of this century; rather, it begins where that art leaves off, and attempts to enter a new realm, to depict a new man.

To the Orthodox Christian observer, concerned not with what the avant-garde finds fashionable or sophisticated, but with truth, little reflection should be required to penetrate to the secret of this art: there is no question of man in it at all; it is an art at once subhuman and demonic. It is not man who is the subject of this art, but some lower creature who has emerged (arrived is Giacometti's word for it) from unknown depths.

The bodies this creature assumes (and in all its metamorphoses it is always the same creature) are not necessarily distorted violently; twisted and dismembered as they are, they are often more realistic than the figures of man in earlier modern art. This creature, it is clear, is not the victim of some violent attack; rather, he was born deformed, he is a genuine mutation. One cannot but notice the likeness between some of these figures and photographs of the deformed children born recently to thousands of women who had taken the drug Thalidomide during pregnancy; and we have doubtless not seen the last of such monstrous coincidences.

Even more revealing than the bodies of these creatures are the faces. It would be too much to say that these faces express hopelessness; that would be to ascribe to them some trace of humanity which they most emphatically lack. They are the faces, rather, of creatures more or less adjusted to the world they know, a world not hostile but entirely alien, not inhuman but a-human. The anguish and rage and despair of earlier Expressionists is here frozen, as it were, and cut off from a world to which they had at least the relation of denial, so as to make a world of their own.

Man, in this art, is no longer even a caricature of himself; he is no longer portrayed in the throes of spiritual death, ravaged by the hideous Nihilism of our century that attacks, not just the body and soul, but the very idea and nature of man. No, all this has passed; the crisis is over; man is dead. The new art celebrates the birth of a new species, the creature of the lower depths, subhumanity.

- Fr. Seraphim Rose.
From here, recently shared in the blogosphere by Daniel Matsui here.

The "Artists" in Question

Alberto Giacometti

Jean Dubuffet

Francis Bacon

Leon Golub

Jose Luis Cuevas

- V.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X is trully one of the most horrific images I have ever seen. There is something satanic about it.