War and rumors of war

The violence and inhumanity of war is apparently a lesson that every generation needs to learn for itself.

The Third of May 1808, 1814, Francisco Goya, courtesy Museo del Prado.

Francisco Goya was the most important Spanish artist of his day. His late painting, The Dog, was an icon for modern and symbolist painters through the 20th century. There’s a good reason: it prefigures modern art.

Goya became a court painter in 1786 and the First Court Painter to the Bourbon monarchy in 1799. This made him, in effect, a courtier of the Crown. As expressive as his painting was, he wrote nothing about current affairs.

In 1808, Napoleon turned on his former allies and occupied Spain. He forced the abdication of the King and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. Spaniards rejected French rule and fought a long and bloody guerrilla war to oust them.

The Third of May 1808, 1814, Francisco Goya, courtesy Museo del Prado.

The war started with the Dos de Mayo Uprising, the reprisals to which were memorably recorded by Goya in his masterpiece above. This was painted in 1814, after the war ended. Whatever his private thoughts, Goya meant to stay alive and working.

Goya remained in Madrid through the conflict. His ruminations resulted in a series of prints called The Disasters of War. That’s a modern title; Goya’s only written comment was on a proof-set, where he wrote, “Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices.” In using the word caprichos, which also translates as ‘whims’, Goya said a mouthful.

Plate 10: Tampoco (Nor do these). Spanish women being raped, Francisco Goya from The Disasters of War, courtesy Museo del Prado.

The Disasters of War is a series of 82 prints, finished between 1810 and 1820. They are an expression of revulsion against the violence of the Peninsular War, an outpouring from the gut against the inhumanity of war. There is no polemic about the causes of the conflict, despite the fact that Goya retained his position in the Bourbon court while working on them. They were private works, and not published until 35 years after his death. Their influence has been incalculable.

Fast forward to 2003 and a pair of British art enfants terrible, Jake and Dinos Chapman. They purchased a folio of the Disasters of Warand set about systematically defacing it with cartoon figures drawn over Goya’s art. They called this appropriation work, Insult to Injury and the overall show Rape of Creativity.

One image of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s defacing of Disasters of War, which they retitled, What is this hubbub?

“Drawings of mutant Ronald McDonalds, a bronze sculpture of a painting showing a sad-faced Hitler in clown make-up and a major installation featuring a knackered old caravan and fake dog turds,” is how the BBC described the show at the time.

For this twitting of human suffering, they should have been spanked and sent to their rooms. Instead, they were nominated for the Turner Prize.

The Chapmans were born in the 1960s. They have lived through the longest period of peace in modern British history. The Disasters of Warmight have seemed funny to them, but it would not have amused those who remembered the convulsions of the two great 20th century European wars.

That kind of generational amnesia is an odd function of the human mind. It’s the only possible explanation for why we get into war over and over again.

I hadn’t meant to write on this subject, but the war in Ukraine couldn’t have happened without the slow forgetting of the violence and inhumanity that is war. Apparently, it’s a lesson that every generation needs to learn for itself.

Philistines, everywhere

Graffiti on the Colby Street pedestrian bridge in Rochester. I trudge over it daily, so I can certainly relate to these two flipper men doing endless laps on the bridge.
Being a believer in private property rights, I’m generally not amused by graffiti, but last Friday when I came across two swimmers on the Colby Street pedestrian bridge, I genuinely LOLed. The pedestrian bridge does kind of look like a 50-meter lap lane, and because it’s a regular part of my route, I often feel like I’m swimming mindlessly back and forth across it.
Meh. Not as witty as the first graffiti-artist, but at least he was trying.
Periodically, people commit acts of art on the pedestrian bridge (usually involving arrangements of found objects). They seldom last more than 24 hours before some Philistine knocks them apart. So I wasn’t surprised to walk by on Monday and see the poor swimmers defaced with a second layer of graffiti. It wasn’t nearly as witty, but at least the poor anonymous second writer tried.
But then comes the inevitable and predictable impulse to destruction. Really makes you despair for the human race.
Tuesday, the whole thing was scrubbed out by a third graffiti artist, whose only goal was to deface the message that preceded him.

It’s a great metaphor for the forces of creation and destruction that coexist in the human heart. In my current bleak mood, it makes me wonder why artists even try.
My young friend Serina Mo reminded me of this recently by mentioning the aged enfants terrible of the British art scene, Jake and Dinos Chapman. In their massive work of destruction, Insult to Injury, they defaced a rare folio of Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War.
From Insult to Injury, 2003, by Jake and Dinos Chapman. The Chapman brothers added nothing to Goya’s work. I hope they fade into obscurity, taking their micron pens with them.
In the short run, it made them famous. It tore at notions of preciousness and art. In the long run, it made the tremendous presumption that modern sensibilities and intellectualism are superior to the pain and suffering drawn by Goya. If nothing else, the world should know by now that rich, silly ninnies are transient, but war and death are eternal verities.

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.

On Art and Culture

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.
*You try searching for this on the net!