Sought/found

A familiar morality play, or maybe a Passion Play, has just been staged in our nation’s capital.

The “Hide/Seek” exhibition currently at the Smithsonian addresses themes of gay and lesbian identity and socio-political marginalization.  Not very surprisingly, the curators included material that conservatives found offensive enough to require a response – including a threat from our next House Speaker John Boehner (cramming multiple base-stimulative talking points into a single sentence):

Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves to end the job-killing spending spree in Washington.

The “Smithsonian officials” caved, removing one particularly “controversial” piece.

Though the artist David Wojnarowicz died in 1992 at the age of 37, it turns out that he is available for comment:

The  reactions of Boehner and his allies – such as Eric Cantor (“an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season”), Bill Donohue (“hate speech”), Brent Bozell (“assault on Christianity”) – complete and fulfill the work.

It’s not just that an artist must be prepared to embrace the revulsion of men like these.  It’s more even than the fact that a work like this one is not intended to be liked, greeted as a compliment to whatever sensibility the viewer happens to bring to it – though this aspect of the artist’s intentions, and evident success, should not be glossed over.  To paraphrase Franz Kafka, the video wants to be felt like the death of someone close to us, like the deaths of the artist’s friends or the approaching death of the artist himself.  The singer/performer Diamanda Galas was also motivated by the affliction of those close to her, including her brother, who died of AIDS.  Our contemporary conservatives likewise experience the work, or pretend to experience it, as an attack on their divine, or some would say imaginary, friend or their friends’ divine-imaginary friend.

Yet all who receive the work, on both sides, as once upon a time the artists, also take pleasure in the at least half-fictive event they have manufactured, are both leaping onto the grand tableau and also admiring their own performances from the audience, playing their divine parts, crucified and crucifying.

If this experience of taking pleasure in the artistic depiction of horror and anguish is a problem, it is not solvable within art:  The role of the tragic is to connect us through exemplary suffering to the transcendent – the more horrible, the more wondrous; the further flung down, the higher upraised.  The Christ myth serves the same purpose, and, for the same reason, after Christ tragedy is never truly tragedy again in the Christian West, since all and any tragedies are always already subsumed within all-embracing redemption.  Yet many believers, or friends of believers – Jewish Congressmen with significant social conservative constituencies, for instance – seem to treat open recognition of the fact as itself a sin, and prefer to choose among tragedies – redeemable ones over here, irredeemable over there (if you wish to keep your funding).

Any attempt to expose the crucifixion as mere fiction repeats what is supposed to be erased.  To proclaim the falseness or the mere historicity, merely human reality of the crucifixion is to seek the death of Jesus Christ all over again, to re-crucify [h]im in stripping [h]im of divinity.  Yet the same must be true of any attempt to take possession of His sacrifice, as a mere precious object to be defended against the comfort, however distorted by agony, the dying might take in it.  …and so the tableau repeats itself again, and again, forever… and we all go mad or into ecstasy, or turn to the sports pages, or to the politics as sports pages, where we find John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Bill Donohue, Brent Bozell, and countless hacks pulling up their pseudo-priestly skirts and squealing at the deeply offensive utterly indefensible intolerable desecration. On the other side of the sphere,  Andrew Sullivan, offended by their offense-taking, utterly defends it.

And lots of people – “Piss Christ”-ically – will be exposed to the Desecration who otherwise would never have had the slightest idea that it existed.  Boehner et al have ensured that the message will receive a wide  audience, and years of notoriety.  It was already a cri de coeur.  It’s now been amplified, and, having taken on further status as a reference point, will be heard and heard again.

Art wins, and happens in passing to expose, as ever, the feeble-spirited and, at their head, our elected Pharisees.  Too bad the Artist had to be crucified for the purpose – but He knew the job was a martyrdom operation when he accepted it.


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30 comments on “Sought/found

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  1. God could create the world, in all its wonder and complexity. Yet He didn’t have the power simply to forgive sin. Punishment has to go somewhere.

    Here is a paragraph of my review of CONSTANTINE’S SWORD:

    Crucifixion had been a Roman method of execution for centuries. A cross, to the Romans of Constantine’s day, must have had the same symbolism as a noose or an electric chair. It is entirely logical that “as Constantine was elevating the cross to the realm of the sacred, he was abolishing crucifixion as the Roman form of capital punishment” (p. 193). Crucifixion was no longer to be thought of as the way tens of thousands had suffered and died; since Constantine it has been associated only with Jesus — and perhaps with the two criminals who perished at the same time. Crucifixion, a viciously cruel form of execution, is a blot on the history of the Roman Empire. The fate of every person who died this way was as horrifying as the death of Jesus. Then why shouldn’t the agony of each of these individuals be part of God’s plan to save humanity from sin? Constantine’s decision to end crucifixion had the effect of making the suffering of Jesus seem to be unique.

    The complere review can be found here:
    http://www.jochnowitz.net/Essays/Constantine.html

  2. Interesting point about the way art “wins.” I see what you mean. The present day “Pharisees” are caught in the infinite regress created by their own feeble-spiritedness and since they cry out from there, art is announced. But that happens “in passing.” So it’s just a byproduct of the winning. What then is the real winning? The fact that the artist is heard? And if that’s the real winning, then I don’t think what happens to the Pharisees just happens in passing. The winning happens as a result of what happens to the Pharisees.

  3. In other words, can we presume and hold sacred, or put in the place of the sacred, the attainment and delivery (to those “with ears to hear”) by the artists of oneness with a greater, eternal spirit, even in anguish and agony, and pity those who know nothing better than craven opportunism? Or, even without our pity, we can leave Boehner and Cantor to their smallness, and laugh at how easily, automatically they’re converted into co-curators and promoters of what they and their presumed followers seek to destroy.

  4. @ CK MacLeod:
    Okay. So the winning is multi-dimensional. And while there may be some pleasure taken in the pitying, there’s at least the possibility of sacredness being experienced in connection to the art itself. That’s what I was wondering. Thanks for the clarification. Oh, and do I get credit for maintaining the spirit of this awareness with my avatar? It does cause me some anguish, both artistically and socially. I may not be dead, but I’ll always be an asshole.

  5. What we’re talking off, in the transmutation of suffering, that some one would undergo such an ordeal, in order to lift that immortal burden from the rest of us, that is the symbolism. Besides being blasphemous
    specially in this season, it is woefully trite art. And it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways. If such a thing was attempted about
    Mohammed, the artist would run the fate of Van Gogh, or Naguib
    Mahfouz’s translators

  6. miguel cervantes wrote:

    If such a thing was attempted about
    Mohammed, the artist would run the fate of Van Gogh, or Naguib
    Mahfouz’s translators

    This particular artist is rather beyond the reach of terrorists as well as of your expert theological and aesthetic critique, but I guess you missed that part, along with everything else.

  7. @ Scott Miller:
    You assholiness is on a different level. But back to miguel’s comment:

    that some one would undergo such an ordeal, in order to lift that immortal burden from the rest of us, that is the symbolism.

    What an economical summary of conservatism’s inverted Christianity: Christ’s suffering as an eternal “get out of jail free” card for the righteous, relieving them of all burdens, especially the burden of compassion.

  8. CK MacLeod wrote:

    What an economical summary of conservatism’s inverted Christianity: Christ’s suffering as an eternal “get out of jail free” card for the righteous, relieving them of all burdens, especially the burden of compassion

    I just love it when you articulate what was running around my brain all confused. That’s exactly it. And it causes jealousy. It would be so nice to be relieved of the burden. But once you’ve taken up the cross those days are over. In understanding of that, Chogrum Trumpa Rinpoche says, “Don’t get on the spiritual train. Once you’re on, you can never get off.” Righteousness is for the lucky. Plus, this could be the perfect start for an On Tyranny sort of dialogue between Miggy and me. I would tell him how lucky he is to have the get out of free card, and then he would say, “No, I suffer…” I would debate it until he had a complete realization of why he should have a change of heart.

  9. I thought that was a fairly obvious statement of Christian principles, we are flawed, God gave his only begotten son, as the ultimate sacrifice, might seem Manichean, but that is the fruit of salvation

  10. @ miguel cervantes:
    I feel you, brother. I feel your feelings. I don’t feel the ideation behind them. Sorry. There’s a chance here for us all to benefit from Colin’s wisdom. In my opinion, he gets it. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but especially in regards to art, he can lay it down, boy. My father was a museum director and I’ve been reading art criticism all my life, and there’s nothin’ like it. He’s the man. He’s our blog brother. That makes things easy.

  11. @ Scott Miller:
    You don’t agree with everything I write? That’s appalling.

    I think a few generations ago I might almost have been able to fake my way forward as an “art critic,” but it’s been too long since I was anywhere near engaged enough in the “art world.” This piece was about a political-cultural collision, not much about the particular work at all.

  12. @ CK MacLeod:
    But the work was about a political-cultural collision. If Miggy was bored by the work, I would understand. Your writing about the work was more creative than the work itself. But that happens a lot. Just not to the CK degree of it. The only boring part is your usual claim to fakery. Not buying it. As this piece of an article makes clear, you should be doing interviews…

    Steve Martin bores
    Most likely, fans of the comic actor Steve Martin who purchased their $50 tickets to hear an onstage interview expected him to be, well, funny. But the 65-year-old did not do his bit about being a “wild and crazy guy,” or break into songs on his banjo, or even dish on working with Alec Baldwin in “It’s Complicated.”
    Instead, the author spent most of the hour-long interview with Deborah Solomon at New York City’s 92nd Street Y (known for its cultural events with big-time stars) talking about art — the topic of the celeb’s new book, “An Object Of Beauty.”
    The horror! Toward the end, organizers handed Solomon a note, asking her to cut the art talk and make with the funny-man chat. She read the note aloud, then asked for questions from the room.
    After the event, the Y went even further, admitting the interview had been a disaster — and offered refunds to all attendees. Not because, as the NPR blog pointed out, “the lights went out” or “an outburst of profanity that was winding up on YouTube.” Nope, this was a refund for being boring. Solomon admitted to being “appalled” by the criticism. Martin politely — and perhaps boring-ly — called the behavior “discourteous. The incident has lit up the Web, with searches on “steve martin” rising an amazing 6,700% in just one day. Lookups also included “steve martin refund” and “steve martin 92nd street y.”

  13. Yes, because everyone goes to the Y for comedy, ‘unintentionally of course, seems one of the few good interview that Solomon has conducted in a generation

  14. Scott Miller wrote:

    Your writing about the work was more creative than the work itself.

    Y’know, there I’ve got to disagree with you. I tried to write about how the reception of the work more fully realized the artist’s intentions, but, totally apart from his success on that level – identifying himself as a martyr, his martyrdom hallowed by the infinitely regressive Pharisees of our time – I think the work itself succeeds on its own terms.

    I don’t know if you clicked on the link to Sullivan’s piece. I think he handles the video’s thematic elements well: As an HIV victim, a gay man who came of age during the time of the epidemic, and an avowed Christian, he connects with video viscerally, and is quick to grasp it thematically. I’d try to break it down formally, try to explain its cinematic grammar, and why I admire it, but migs has already informed us that it’s “trite.”

  15. @ CK MacLeod:
    MacLeod, stop playing the schlemiel

    Your writing about the work was more creative than the work itself.

    does not require that the work that inspired your post didn’t succeed.

  16. @ fuster:
    I’m not playing schlemiel. I honestly disagree. The video does something for me that perhaps it doesn’t do for you or Scott, or certainly for migs. I take what it does seriously enough to have to doubt that a blog post about its reception rises to its level. It would be a flaw in the critique if it got in the way of or pretended to be superior to the work it depended on and was in a sense seeking to rescue.

    If you can get Eric Cantor and John Boehner to call a press conference condemning me, I might be inclined to give the question a second look.

  17. @ CK MacLeod:
    As usual, I see your point. Fuster is right in concept about the fact that both things could be creative, but I will practice what I was preaching to Miggy and open up to Colin’s perspective here. My original reaction was, oh, yea, Piss-Christ again, only not as beautiful as Piss-Christ. The “flaw in the critique,” however, may have been pre-existent because the debate is weightier than the images as an ongoing thing, not just in respect to the blog. There’s a whole art to the rescue deal involved, not just yours but the process as a whole. But I will consider your words.

  18. @ Scott Miller:
    “Piss Christ” was such a stroke of genius, and so beautifully realized, that it makes me feel sorry for all artists working in the genre and in some sense competing with Serrano, and even for Serrano himself, having to find new reasons to work after having done that.

    “A Fire in My Belly,” being called “Ant Christ” by some, is a more complex piece with a different intention. It unfolds in time, something which the artist is running out of. That he uses up his vanishing life in part by repeating and reversing himself, over and over, and with obscure, never-to-be-explained, raw and ugly gestures seems to deepen the sense of waste, but waste is integral to his message: He’s becoming a wasted life, one of many wasted lives, declared “unclean” and tossed out with the garbage. Yet out of pain and loss and nightmare and nonsense he constructs a timeless space, an intimation of immortality shaped by an unflinching confrontation with death, with the reduction of life and funerary symbols to dead matter, as “trite” as ant trails.

  19. @ Scott Miller:
    The Crucible has never been the same for me since I saw the Wooster Group do a version in which they ran through it at auctioneer speed. Unfortunately, it was in the pre-YouTube era.

    I’m not sure that the Wojnarowicz piece should be interpreted as representational art, but it lends itself to being taken that way at least to an extent – as the inside of a 1992 John Proctor’s head, his pre- or extra-verbal subjectivity.

  20. CK MacLeod wrote:

    “A Fire in My Belly,” being called “Ant Christ” by some, is a more complex piece with a different intention. It unfolds in time, something which the artist is running out of. That he uses up his vanishing life in part by repeating and reversing himself, over and over, and with obscure, never-to-be-explained, raw and ugly gestures seems to deepen the sense of waste, but waste is integral to his message: He’s becoming a wasted life, one of many wasted lives, declared “unclean” and tossed out with the garbage. Yet out of pain and loss and nightmare and nonsense he constructs a timeless space, an intimation of immortality shaped by an unflinching confrontation with death, with the reduction of life and funerary symbols to dead matter, as “trite” as ant trails.

    Glad I pushed you into a further explanation. That is beautiful, and you succeed in making it clear why the piece is not in need of your rescuing it. Imagine what you could do if you weren’t, in your opinion, “a fake.”

  21. Scott Miller wrote:

    Imagine what you could do if you weren’t, in your opinion, “a fake.”

    Maybe the only thing that enables me to be less than 100% fake is my open recognition of my lack of qualifications. I can critique an art video like the above from a certain perspective, but it’s not the perspective of an authentic connoisseur of art videos/films.

    Take the last little uncertainty: It looks to me like this particular work may originally have been on film, but has been transferred to video, but I’m not really sure even of that – thus my faker’s uncertainty about the correct designation. I’m not really sure what the “whole” work consisted of. I’ve heard that the film was 30 minutes long, but the ‘tube seems like a self-contained excerpt.

    I could name several makers of art videos/films – the biggest names plus a few more significant artists whom I know to have dabbled – but, though I may have run across Wojnarowicz’s name somewhere or another, before a few days ago I wouldn’t have been able to identify him. I have no idea how many works like this one he did, if any. I have no good idea who might have influenced him.

    I’m not saying at all that someone who isn’t an expert can’t have anything valid to say. I just try to stay clear about what I am and amn’t in a position to do. To whatetever extent I imply greater expertise than I possess, then I am faking it, and risk being embarrassed by someone who comes along and points out where I got things wrong.

    The artist wasn’t the only one dealing with vanishing time – he was just more conscious of it. If there were more time for us, we could examine the piece in that relation, as “concrete universal.”

  22. @ CK MacLeod:
    The true ants of the world work from the ground up, supposedly. They get their credentials after working up from the ground to the point where they can come along and “embarrass” someone who has worked from the heavens down like yourself, but that doesn’t make you a fake. It makes you capable of seeing every piece of art the way it should be seen. What makes an art piece true is its connection to the big picture, heaven, samadhi, consciousness on the whole that can be recognized by someone like you no matter what kind of art it is, and while an ant might come along to cause embarrassment, those artist who really deserve you as an advocate will know you for what you are: the real deal.
    But, yes, I get you. It’s about positioning. You are well positioned for writing about whatever you want to write about in whatever way you want to write about it. That freedom is an advantage to the writing. As far as the art of it is concerned, and you are, first and foremost, an artist, credentials are a burden. Everything that makes you an “expert” would be a burden. And as I have tried to communicate to everyone, the only issue is that so few of us get to really enjoy the full measure of your art. I feel particularly lucky to have gotten to read your scripts and poetry as well, but the best thing of all is getting to read what you write as you pose as a fake. I shouldn’t even out you. I should leave well enough alone.

  23. @ Scott Miller:
    This reminds me of a conundrum I recently encountered with a certain DrJ in relation to a project. I cannot win this argument except by undermining myself, and, if I were to win, I would undermine you, further devaluing my victory. For my victory to matter, I need you to wax (grow). That would require my waning (shrinking), but your growth depends upon mine.

    It seems my best bet would be continuing, ever more abject failure. I think this is a good beginning.

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