The State Is Not Your Mommy

Oftentimes conservatives talk about the dangers of a “nanny state”, where citizens come to expect their government to care for them rather than caring for themselves.  However while we often debate this concept on a philosophical and public policy level, we do not often consider this line of thinking on a cultural level.  And we should think about the impact of making the state at least as worthy of our filial devotion as our mother, for it is a notion replete with problems of its own, particularly in the area of culture.

An interesting story from the art world, out of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, caught my eye this morning.  Reports are that an artist who painted what is referred to as an “interpretation” of the Biblical Last Judgment is upset, because the director of the art museum which was to display his piece is said to have “covered” the work in black paint, thereby destroying it.  It was to be part of an exhibition entitled “Great and Grand”, on the 1025th anniversary of the conversion of the former state of Kiev to Christianity, exploring the effect which that conversion has had on Ukrainian arts and culture.

The piece depicts elements from Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, intermixed with images making various political and social statements.  It resembles something that weird Goth kid in your 10th grade geometry class would have drawn with a black and a red pen on the back of his copybook.  Impressive, perhaps, in an adolescent, but ultimately highly derivative. The painting was an immature piece of protest art, not worth paying much attention to.

The motivation of the (admittedly rather fetching) Mystetskyi Arsenal director, Natalia Zabolotna, according to a statement which she subsequently released, was not one of attacking blasphemy or poor execution, both of which this piece had in abundance, but rather something more reminiscent of the concept of the imagined fecundity of the nanny state, combined with the jingoism of early 20th century politics.  “You cannot criticize the homeland,” she stated, “just as you cannot criticize your mother. I feel that anything said against the homeland is immoral.”

This brings us to an interesting question about what, exactly, is immoral about criticizing the state, particularly in the arts.  For the state, after all, is simply an artificial construct.  It only exists, insofar as it does, because people choose to believe it exists, and agree to be bound by it. Moreover, one can reasonably argue that in order for a state to exist, at least some other states need to also recognize that it exists, or the whole enterprise collapses.  Thus, while everyone in the world has a mother, not everyone in the world has a state.

Zabolotna’s reasoning that it is immoral to criticize one’s mother is not borne out either in human experience or in the arts.  No doubt we can all think of people in our own lives whose relationships with their mothers were not characterized by the loving, supportive, and nurturing care which motherhood usually provides to children.  We see examples of this going all the way back to the roots of Western civilization, such as the Greek tragedies about the scheming Clytemnestra and her vengeful children Orestes and Elektra; to the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s dramatic treatment of the bitter relationship between Prince Hamlet and his mother Queen Gertrude; to the modern camp classic film, “Mommie Dearest”, about the vicious, lifelong competition between actress Joan Crawford and her daughter Christina.

All of the mothers in these tales betrayed their children in some fashion, and were deserving of criticism.  While we may deplore the actions taken in some cases against those mothers, reasonable people should be able to agree that in some cases, there comes a point where honoring thy mother is a duty they ought best perform at a safe distance.  Fortunately such circumstances are rare, but those of us who have always had a close and loving relationship with our mothers ought to embrace them more tightly the next time we see them, and thank Heaven that we have such love in our lives.

Given that there are, regrettably, times when a bad mother must be criticized for mistreating her children, is it so unreasonable to point out that there are also times when, regrettably, a bad state must be criticized by her citizens?  There is nothing intrinsically immoral about speaking out against the state, and indeed, as the Founding Fathers showed us, one may in fact have a moral duty to criticize the state. Destroying a piece of art because of a false, secular morality which defines the state as mother, smacks of the kind of secular state-worship which brought about the great bloodbaths of the 20th century.

The mural defaced by Miss Zabolotna was, frankly, a rather poor piece of art at best, the rather pitiable work of a marginal talent.  It did not belong in any museum, let alone in an exhibition dedicated to the glories of centuries of Christian culture in Kiev.  Yet her disagreement with the painting’s criticism of the state did not give her license to destroy it.  She could have refused to display it, had it removed and sent back to the artist, or taken other, legal measures to keep it out of the show. Instead, she took the law into her own hands, claiming that it was her job to protect the state from what she perceived to be a quasi-immorality, when so far as I am aware no one elected or appointed her to perform that duty.

The real immorality, here, was in escalating what was essentially a matter of bad taste on the part of an artist, and possibly a contractual dispute, into an international scandal in the name of a state held to be above criticism. That escalation was based on fundamentally flawed, and frankly rather frightening, bit of secularist logic.  One cannot conflate the honor due to one’s state, with the honor due to one’s mother.  For when that happens, not only do we see atrophy in the arts, but a decline in the culture of society as a whole.


Detail of “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1862)
Chrysler Collection, Norfolk, Virginia

4 thoughts on “The State Is Not Your Mommy

  1. Billy, while I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here about the dangers of the nanny state and the dangers of conflating the state with your mommy, it might be worth pointing out here that there might be a certain cultural dimension to this situation that non-Russian readers might be missing. My Dad studied Russian language and culture at Georgetown University as part of a special Defense Department program during his Air Force service in the 1950s. Many of his professors were White Russians or anti-communists who left Russia after 1917. One of his professors explained to him that the common Russian word for “homeland” or “country,” rodina can be literally translated as “motherland.” The concept of land as mother to the people is deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche, and the communists were able to use this to their advantage. Soviet propaganda portray Western capitalist democracies as threats to the rodina, the motherland, a thing no Russian would be able to tolerate.


    • While reading this I just happened to be watching an episode of Parks & Recreation which is about this sort of thing: public art, what can be displayed, whether it should be destroyed, etc. Interesting parallels.


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