Suffering As Joke: The Horrors Of The Contemporary Art Press

As regular subscribers know, I read about a dozen or so outlets of the art press every day, so that you don’t have to. Most of the time, I focus on following stories that I like: fascinating discoveries, interesting exhibitions, and so on. For the most part, it’s actually a very difficult and painful task, for this particular corner of the media is primarily focused on the world of Contemporary Art, which the art press worships and makes excuses for in ways that, at times, can be truly sickening.

Take the Chapman Brothers for example. Jake and Dinos Chapman are two middle-aged British brothers who enjoy creating adolescent art in extremely bad taste, in order to shock their viewers. I’ve written about them before, as you can see here. Suffice to say, they create garbage art which they are able to sell for significant amounts of money, largely because the art press is able to persuade major art collectors that they ought to do so.

In their new show at Blain Southern in London, the Chapmans bring together both sculpture and graphic art. We will ignore the unbelievably bad taste that characterizes the former (which are, if you can believe it, bronzes representing terrorist suicide vests), and instead concentrate on the latter. For the Chapmans, you see, are obsessed with “The Disasters of War”: the hugely significant, nightmarish images of atrocities engraved in the early 19th century by the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

Goya is a monumental figure in art history, whom one might describe – as I did last week to a curator from the Musée d’Orsay, who did not disagree with my assessment – as the Beethoven of Western art. He straddles the world of the Old Masters, from the early part of his career, and the development of what we now call Modern Art, which he helped to usher in. His personal experiences and observations during Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Spain radically changed what had been the work of a sly, cunning follower of fashion, highly conversant with all of the frippery and mockery of the Rococo era, into a bitter old man who was a brooding, haunted genius, pursued by thoughts and images of evil, suffering, and death.

The Chapmans on the other hand, would be more at home straddling a dirty urinal in the loo of a fast food restaurant. They became famous roughly twenty years ago by deliberately destroying Goya prints in order to make their own art. And that pretty much sums up a good 50% of their output over the past two decades.

Mind you, these Goya works are not the sort of prints you might order from Zazzle at $1.99 a pop, i.e., digital photographs of existing images. Rather, they are printed from the original plates etched by Goya himself, using carefully-chosen inks and papers, and drawn from the printing presses by artisans trained in the skill of producing high-quality, museum-level images. If you wanted to buy one of these prints from an art dealer or at auction, each would cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at Apollo Magazine, which used to be a stalwart publication for the promotion of connoisseurship, good taste, and culture for art and antiques enthusiasts. Unfortunately it decided quite some time ago to follow the Tina Brown formula for the revamp of The New Yorker, by cheapening itself for the sake of popularity among the high rollers and hangers-on of the Contemporary Art world. Nowhere is the decline of this particular media outlet more obvious than in its reaction to the latest Chapman expo.

In a piece out yesterday, Apollo described the latest Chapman Brothers show as “superb”, naturally glossing over the fact that Goya’s art is being destroyed in order to create it. It describes as “pleasure” what it terms “the subversion of the horrible to the hilarious.” It observes how, in the Chapmans’ defacing of the etchings, “Goya’s hussars become disco pirates; the dismembered corpses of Grande hazaña! Con Muertos! look like they are wearing leotards or yoga leggings.”

How very “hilarious” it is indeed, to not only destroy great works of art, but to mock the suffering and death of thousands of people. Particularly at a time when Spain is experiencing so much political upheaval and violence, Goya’s prints seem painfully redolent of that country’s bloody past and present. But never mind: in the eyes of Apollo, if the Chapmans can belittle the experience of human suffering, so much the better, because the end result is so amusing.

Unfortunately, the Art Newspaper is no better. In describing the defacing of Goya’s work, the publication explained how the Chapman brothers “have superimposed images of artists such as Jackson Pollock, clowns’ heads and other ghoulish features on to the etchings, which have been reworked in various media (The Disasters of Everyday Life, monochrome collage set; The Disasters of Yoga, glitter set; and The Disasters of War on Terror, watercolour set).” One wonders what Pollock, much as I loathe his work, would think about destroying Goya’s art just so his face could be superimposed upon an etching of a corpse.

While granted, the Art Newspaper’s piece is more of a bland bit of reporting, rather than an exhibition review, like Apollo it fails to question why a reputable gallery, art publication, or the like should even take the time to consider these pieces. In the Chapmans’ empty-headed appropriation of both the hard work and sufferings of others, neither publication appears to hold any qualms. And of course, the greatest irony here is that not only do publications such as the Art Newspaper and Apollo routinely call for the preservation of artists’ rights in their own works, they are the same publications which champion works of Contemporary Art created to draw attention to the suffering of refugees, illegal immigrants, and so on. Perhaps it’s easier for them to overlook the rights of both artists and suffering people who have been dead for quite awhile, since they won’t be posting rejoinders on Instagram or Twitter.

One of the Goya prints defaced by the Chapman Brothers for their latest show is titled “Bárbaros!” (1810), which from the first series of the artists “The Disasters of War” etchings. The original shows a man tied to a tree, facing the trunk, who is about to be shot in the back at very close range. It is one of the many images which Goya created based on what he saw, read, or heard about, during the effort to overthrow Napoleon and his troops. The artist wanted to make certain that the world did not forget what had happened to many innocent people.

Unfortunately it seems that the art media, which gives succor to mental defectives such as the Chapmans in the first place, finds all of this terribly funny: forgive me if I don’t get the joke.

Barbaros

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Totus Tuus: Marian Suffering and Pope St. John Paul II

Today for the first time in the liturgical calendar, the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. John Paul II.  For many of us as we were growing up, JPII – as we affectionately call him – was the only pope we had ever known, thanks to his long pontificate from 1978 until 2005.  There is so much that one could reflect on about the man today, but I want to focus on just one aspect of his life, thanks to a work of art I stumbled upon yesterday.

The image of JPII reproduced below is part of a huge canvas about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide.  It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin Mary following her arrival in Heaven, and was painted by contemporary Spanish artist Raúl Berzosa Fernández (born 1979).  The work covers the ceiling of the Oratory of Santa Maria Reina (Mary, Queen of Heaven) of the Hermandad de las Penas (Brotherhood of the Sorrows) in the Andalusian city of Málaga.  The painting took 6 years to completeand was just finished and dedicated a month ago.

The Brotherhood is one of the religious associations which participate in the famous Holy Week processions in Spain.  Each of these groups typically has their own church or chapel where they preserve the elaborate floats and statues used in these processions, and where members gather throughout the year for prayer, services, and to encourage the local community in their faith.  This particular group cares for two historic images used during Holy Week: one a highly-detailed sculpture of Christ on the Cross, and the other of the sorrowful Virgin Mary, weeping over the pains being suffered by her Divine Son.

Not only is Sr. Berzosa Fernández’ work magnificent, it demonstrates that the study of classical art is not yet dead, thank goodness.  Yet it also gives us an image of the late Pontiff in a wider theological context, not simply as a portrait.  As one of the figures in a piece celebrating the Blessed Mother, in the chapel of a group dedicated to meditating on the suffering which she and Her Son endured, the presence of St. John Paul II in this painting is more than simply a pious inclusion. It exemplifies the Pope’s deep understanding as a result of his own, personal suffering of how Mary’s example of suffering along with Her Son can lead us to better follow Him.

St. John Paul II’s devotion to Our Lady, particularly at her shrine of Czestochowa in Poland, and at Fátima in Portugal following the attempt on his life, is well known, of course.  His motto on his Papal coat of arms was the same which he had as Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, “Totus Tuus” – “All Yours” – referring to the opening consecration to the Virgin Mary of St. Louis de Montfort. The coat of arms also featured an initial “M” beneath the cross, recalling the presence of the Blessed Virgin beneath the cross at the Crucifixion, witnessing the suffering of her Son and sharing in His sorrows.  And sorrow was something JPII understood all too well, under the Nazis, later under the Communists, and still later in surviving an assassination attempt and suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.

Yet for JPII, while sorrow and suffering was a reality not to be shied away from, he recognized that these things were ways to bring us closer to Christ, as indeed the Mother of Christ herself understood by remaining close to her Son.  In his 1987 encyclical “Redemptoris Mater”, a complex theological document which has been studied and commented on by many far more educated than I, St. John Paul II reflected on the relationship of Mary to Christ and His Church.  I won’t even attempt to unpack it in a blog post.  Instead, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite passages in the text, which is relevant for our consideration here.

Toward the end of the encyclical, when the late pope points out Mary’s role as an example and as an intercessor in helping us to struggle against evil and do good, to carry on even though suffering, and to pick ourselves up and rise after we have fallen, he reflects on the times in which we live, when we can be so easily deluded into thinking everything is fine and dandy in the world:

Mankind has made wonderful discoveries and achieved extraordinary results in the fields of science and technology. It has made great advances along the path of progress and civilization, and in recent times one could say that it has succeeded in speeding up the pace of history. But the fundamental transformation, the one which can be called “original,” constantly accompanies man’s journey, and through all the events of history accompanies each and every individual. It is the transformation from “falling” to “rising,” from death to life. It is also a constant challenge to people’s consciences, a challenge to man’s whole historical awareness: the challenge to follow the path of “not falling” in ways that are ever old and ever new, and of “rising again” if a fall has occurred.

Just as the painting which brought about today’s post was something that took many years to complete, so too, our own lives are a constant work in progress, not something which is ever going to be perfected in this life.  Christ taught us this, His Mother understood it, and St. John Paul II certainly tried to live it and pass that reminder along to us.  As we remember him today, let us also remember that picking up our cross and soldiering on, however difficult it may be, is what all Christians are called to do.

Detail of "The Coronation of the Virgin" by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014) Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Malaga

Detail of “The Coronation of the Virgin” by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014)
Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Málaga

An Invincible Woman

Somehow it seems fitting that today is not only the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche, but it’s also the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila.

Nietzsche, of course, not only proclaimed that “God is dead”, but he also gave us the concept of the “Übermensch” or “Superman”.  In his book, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – which, if you ever studied advanced German, you probably had to struggle through at one point – the Superman was a kind of new human, brought about through a rejection of Christian hope in the next life.  The materialism espoused by Nietzsche sought a perfection of the physical and mental capabilities of human beings in this life, since he believed that there was no afterlife to follow, and that whatever creator-god there may once have been, he had faded away leaving only a cloud of dust, like the remains of a supernova.

In creating the post-religious superman as a goal for mankind to strive toward, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for all sorts of monstrosities, from eugenics to Nazism. In fact, when the comic book character of the same name was first conceived back in the 1930’s by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, he was actually a super-villain, along the lines of the materialist, amoral ideas of Nietzsche then being championed by Hitler, et al.  It was only later that Superman was changed to become an anti-Nazi champion and the world’s biggest goody-two-shoes.

St. Teresa of Ávila was probably just about as opposite a thinker to Nietzsche as you can get. A woman whose childhood piety was muffled in young adulthood as she was drawn to seek the material pleasures of this world, she later rejected those comforts in order to draw herself and others closer to God through her life of prayer, her many writings, and her work.  She also gave us something far better than the concept of the Superman: an encapsulation of her thinking which today is referred to as “St. Teresa’s Bookmark”, so called because it was found written on a prayer card which she kept in her breviary, the book of daily prayers centered around the Psalms still used to this day in the Church.

ST. TERESA’S BOOKMARK

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve shared this counsel of St. Teresa’s with others, particularly non-Catholics who have never heard of it, and there’s always a positive reaction.  It’s really a reflection of what Christ told His listeners in the Sermon on the Mount (St. Matthew 6:25-34) about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It’s also a reflection of St. Paul’s exhortation in his Letter to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

We all have choices to make in this life. We can conform ourselves to this world, saying that this is all there is, as Nietzsche did, so let’s all have a good time.  I can then put on the rather tight tights and the cool (if admittedly pointless) cape, and go around pretending that I’m invincible, but in the end suffering and death are my kryptonite just as they are yours.  Sooner or later I’ll be made painfully aware of the fact that I’m not invincible after all, and material satisfaction is just as much a passing fantasy as leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

If however we choose to see this life as a kind of training ground for the life to come, as St. Teresa did, then we can find meaning even in our suffering.  She demonstrated how invincibility comes not through a reliance on material ends, but rather through spiritual means.  If the goal becomes obtaining eternal life in Heaven, and not the finite, ultimately futile effort to conquer the world rather than ourselves, then we realize that there, at last, lies the permanence we are seeking.

This only happens, as St. Teresa came to understand, through the surrender of our will to God.   “Christ does not force our will,” she observed. “He takes only what we give him. But he does not give himself entirely until he sees that we yield ourselves entirely to him.”

On her Feast Day then, let’s try to exercise that real superpower, by making the same choice to show our invincibility through our surrender.

"The Holy Spirit Appearing to St Teresa of Avila" by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam

“The Holy Spirit Appearing to St. Teresa of Ávila” by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam