Justicia, left, and Veritas, right, by Walter Seymour Allward, c. 1920. Cast for the never-finished memorial to King Edward VII, which was interrupted by the onset of WWII, they were found buried in 1969 and installed in front of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa in 1970. (Photos by Carol L. Douglas)
In reading Trollope over Christmas I was startled to realize that the Victorians thought of Purity as a virtue rather than a state. It was a trait to be nurtured, rather than preserved. In discussing this, my friend John Nicholson, pastor of Siloam Baptist Churchin Marion, Alabama, suggested that he and I each ask young people we know to name and discuss the Four Cardinal Virtues of antiquity.
The Four Cardinal Virtues originated with Plato’s Republic. Although they were amplified in turn by the Church Fathers, they are not exclusively religious, and should be attainable by all men. These virtues are Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Courage.
Tomb of Sir John Hotham, 1st Baronet, of Scorborough (died 3 January 1645), featuring the Four Cardinal Virtues and his wonderfully desiccated skeleton.
These are in contrast to the three theological virtues of 1 Corinthians 13—Faith, Hope and Charity—which are unique to the Christian moral worldview. The pairing of these sets of virtues comes down to us as the Seven Virtues, often set against the Seven Deadly Sins.
John’s informal poll was a complete bust on my end. Only one of the college-educated, church-going youngsters I asked had any clue what the Cardinal Virtues are. The exception knew the answer not because of any superior moral education, but because she is an art historian. She recognized the Four Cardinal Virtues from Giotto’s Allegories of the Vices and the Virtues in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
Pride, as exemplified by the building of the Tower of Babel, 1563, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Until the early 20th century the Four Cardinal Virtues were commonly represented as female allegorical figures on public buildings and tombs; prior generations would have had no trouble answering John’s question.
We’re accustomed to artists of the past taking on the great questions of morality, but virtue and vice have been absent from the painter’s vernacular since the 19th century, unless they were to be dealt with ironically, surrealistically, or not at all. So imagine how intrigued I was by Jamie Wyeth’s Seven Deadly Sins at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, ME. I thought it brilliant at the time and have not changed my opinion.
Anger, 2008, Jamie Wyeth
We have gulls here in Rochester, and they’re noisy, nasty creatures, perfectly suited for the depiction of sin. But perhaps more important, the Seven Deadly Sins themselves—wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony—are all reflections of our animal state.
The question that’s turned in my mind since has been what Wyeth meant by these paintings. There’s no irony in them, but the context of his life and overall work would not lead an outside observer to believe he understands those sins in the same way I do. On the other hand, I don’t see myself having the moral intelligence to paint this subject. An interesting conundrum, indeed.
Nadia Jelassi with two of the figures from her sculpture, Celui qui n’a pas.
Until her arrest in August of last year, artist Nadia Jelassi was unknown in the West. (As of this writing, she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.) She might have remained unknown, but for her arrest on August 17, 2012 in Tunis for ‘breach of the peace and moral standards.’ She faces a five-year prison term.
Tunisian women prior to the Arab Spring revolution enjoyed secular freedoms we don’t associate with an Islamic state, including access to higher education, the right to divorce, and freedom from the hijab. This was by no means feminism as Americans understand it, but it was not the locked-down oppression of benighted fundamentalism, either. Women played an unprecedented role in the protests that brought down the Tunisian government, so the rise in religious zealotry in the power vacuum that appeared after the revolution was particularly sad.
And the work as a whole.
Jelassi’s sculpture, “Celui qui n’a pas,” above, is an emotional response to the position she and other Tunisian women find themselves in. It obviously references the threat of stoning, which unfortunately makes it an implicit criticism of shariah. (Stoning is a legally-sanctioned punishment in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and some states in Nigeria.)
“Unlike what I used to do, it was not nuanced. I needed to shout, to express something raw. But I don’t think I sacrificed sculpture,” said Jelassi, who says her controversial work was a continuation of the textile portraits she had been producing.
“Celui qui n’a pas” was shown without controversy at the El Abdelleya gallery in Tunis until July 10, when one Mohamed Ali Bouazizi photographed works in the gallery that he personally considered “religiously offensive.” He took these images to a suburban mosque, where he gathered up a group to return to the gallery. This small mob was blocked by a larger one of the artists’ supporters.
Although Bouazizi attempted to foment violence against the gallery, he was not responsible for her arrest. The following day, a wave of violence sparked across Tunisia, prompting a police response and curfew. “Nobody lodged a complaint against me,” said Jelassi. “It was the State Prosecutor, the representative of the Justice Minister who opened the case.”
Jelassi’s protest was emotional and unscripted. Compare her to Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. He has long been known in the West as a visual artist; his work has been shown and is in prestigious public collections worldwide. To westerners, his sculpture and photography are not dissident, but to Chinese eyes, his work is inherently rebellious, because he magnifies the forms and traditions of the West rather than those of China. Our first instinct is not to say, “Oh, that’s so Chinese!” but to say, “Oh, that’s so contemporary!” The refusal to conform to the ideals of the government, to put himself outside the Chinese propaganda machine, was his fundamental rebellion.
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, Ai Weiwei, 1995, three gelatin silver prints, each 148 × 121 cm.
But while Ai’s visual work is subtly anti-Chinese, his major protest took the form not of visual art but of intentional political theater. On January 10, 2006, he began to compose daily essays critical of the Chinese government. These rapidly attracted an international following. By mid-2009, he was being investigated by the Chinese government, and his communication with the outside world was completely suppressed in July of that year.
(As so often happens with political activism, the government’s attempts to suppress Ai’s work contributed to its success. He has been the subject of a book and a movie, and he is as visible in his absence as he was while blogging.)
Last week, I wrote about the limits of audacity as a virtue in art. Absent a message, it is nonsensical. But audacity is the necessary springboard for a genuine cri de coeur. All over the world, there are suffering people, but very few among them can use their talent to give voice to that suffering.
Marc Quinn’s sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant was the first commission for the Fourth Plinth Project in Trafalgar Square (2005-2007). It combines the best of audacity and craftsmanship.
This weekend I had the good fortune to see the great Irish-American band Solas on the second stop of their “Shamrock City” tour. Solas quarries material earlier explored by the Irish band Horslips: the Irish immigrant experience.
While Horslips were pioneering Celtic rock in the 1970s, Solas is more or less a straight-up Irish traditional band, a tradition that extends back before the mists of time. But layered on top of the music, “Shamrock City” includes a video projection in the style of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” which was a groundbreaking documentary released in 1990. I felt in some ways that I was in a cultural time warp.
On the way home, we launched into a spirited discussion in which we weighed the superior musicianship of Solas against the innovations of Horslips. Which was absolutely the “better” band? The answer, of course, is both and neither, because all such debates are ultimately pointless—both bands are poetic and moving and justified in their place in musical history.
The experience got me thinking about the ways in which art is and isn’t temporal. Is Bach any less of a genius because the Baroque was in decline at the time he was writing? Time has a way of leveling these bumps in the road. I keenly appreciate the difference between skinny jeans and parachute pants, but I’ll be darned if I can identify the difference between various phases of Regency dress. It’s of absolutely no moment to me that Bach didn’t invent the fugue—when I’m feeling fugal, he’s my go-to guy.
On the other hand, art is also nothing if not relative to its time and place. I was looking at a highly mediocre photo manipulation on Facebook yesterday. It had a middle ground of golden trees, some lavender action in the far distance, and the requisite figure on the foreground. I said to myself: “That would make a very marketable painting.” Photoshop has, no doubt, affected the way we paint.
There is nothing new in technology driving art. The introduction of new pigments in the 19th century drove French impressionism and indeed made alla prima painting possible. But that is a matter of materials, not outlook. What has changed with the recent acceleration of interactive media is how viewers perceive the world.
We are all familiar with the idea that photography liberates the visual artist from the need for representation. We’re less easy with the idea that it also creates other obligations. What magic can painting create to compete with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy?
At first glance, heeding the siren call of mass media seems like inspiration, but it stops the artist from looking for their internal voice. Despite any other consideration, that internal voice must be individual; it must have the attitude of “f— it all,” which is the polar opposite of whatever mass media is driving toward. In fact, that inner “f— you” is the most important tool an artist has.
We live in one of the most beautifully-designed worlds in history, certainly the best-designed period in my lifetime. One need look no further than modern cars on the highway. With the exception of the Nissan Juke, cars are far more beautiful than they’ve ever been before. Modern architecture is beautiful, modern highways are lovely, and if I compare the humble disposable pen of today to that of my youth, I’m practically transported.
Part of the improvement is in materials, part is because we’ve shaken off the thrall of modernism and are again paying attention to history, and part of it is computer design. Part of it may also be a first glimmer of a change in attitudes about art—the end of the cult of genius.
Not comfortable? You’re not smart enough!
Frank Lloyd Wright—peace be upon him—was unquestionably a 20th century genius. In fact, he was such a genius that all minor matters such as livability, waterproof roofs, etc., were subservient to his brilliance. Heaven help you if you found his interiors damp, dark, or uncomfortable, or couldn’t read a trashy novel seated in one of the chairs you were required to keep in situ. Elevate your thinking!
However, nobody could accuse him of ignoring craftsmanship, which sets him apart from many other geniuses. In visual arts for the last century, audacity has generally been revered above craftsmanship.
This semester, my Sandy was required to watch a movie in her graduate-level Art Theory and Criticism class. I repeat her description, because I cannot find the actual video without wading through a lagoon of porn: “Naked men smeared bright red lipstick slowly, erotically, all over the lower half of their faces, then danced naked. In the next scene, they were in a pile, naked. Then one man grabbed another’s penis and flung it.”*
The point of showing this movie in an art theory class was that audacity quickly pales. One must constantly accelerate the offensiveness of the material to engage the viewer. But where is craftsmanship in this? If American teens can effortlessly film their own naked bodies with their phones, how can it be a question of skill?
Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Turner Prize-winning sculpture, entitled Death (2003). Yes, they’re audacious, but it makes me think that if you’ve seen sex once, you’ve seen it a thousand times.
There was a proverb that still had some currency when I was young: “He that touches pitch shall be defiled.”This proverb presumed that purity is a value worth preserving. A Victorian could not have seen that video without feeling that he had “touched pitch,” but I can’t imagine an American born after 1960 who has any clue what that proverb means. But this too—as every paradigm ever has—shall pass.
So how does one move past audacity? Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant” to me is the apotheosis of the modern ideal. The model is obviously handicapped, suffering from a congenital disorder that left her without arms and with truncated legs. She was raised in an institution. This is, frankly a far more brutal reality than any mincing, lipstick-wearing penis-slappers could ever attain. And the sculpture itself—carved from Carrara marble, is technically beautiful.
As in all painting, the quality of the brush matters. And, no, this isn’t a 2″ sash brush.
Our Christmastide project was to rebuild and refinish our kitchen cabinets and rehang the doors, a task that has stubbornly remained undone for nine years. As with all such tasks, it’s taken longer than I budgeted, the unconscious expectation of which is why I let it ride that long in the first place.
My studio, overrun (these are the insides of the doors).
I like applying finishes, whether it’s on woodwork or painting on a canvas. The actual process is the same—you start with a sticky, gelatinous fluid, and your object is to overcome its innate desire to drip, to puddle, to build up in ridges, to wick where it isn’t wanted, to separate into its constituent parts—in short, you lay it down as elegantly and economically as is possible, in the places you planned for it to go.
Painting on a canvas and painting in a room are both essays in trompe-l’œil, whether it’s a question of creating a face or a forest on linen, or fooling the eye with putty and painter’s caulk.
And, regardless, you still have to clean the brush.
Top cabinets, sans doors. Still more to do on the window frame.
It’s no accident that one of the most skilled landscape painters I know—Brad Marshall—earns his daily crust as a sign-painter (featured here, in the New York Times). It’s no surprise that the best painters in my household are Sandy, Mary and me, because we’re the three most likely to be found painting on canvases. You develop a steady hand from using it.
This kitchen has the original cabinets from 1928, and a soda-fountain-style banquette, and the game is to update them wittily without overriding them stylistically. That means respecting their weird little corners and worn hardware. Of course this has been far more work than tearing them out and replacing them would ever have been, but that wouldn’t have been very respectful of the house. They were never intended to be unpainted, but after 90 years of repainting, they required stripping, and the birch-and-poplar cabinetry is finish-grade by modern standards, so I decided to stain the upper cabinets and all the doors and paint the bottom ones, which were originally built from a lower grade of pine (and have been substantially rebuilt by my engineer spouse).
Meanwhile, my current landscape languishes on its easel. I can’t get to it past all these doors.
Bottom cabinet, with a drawer inserted (sans hardware) for illustration purposes. The dog food is real.