Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 111 (March 2001): 37-43.
The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. By Alain Besançon. Translated by Jean Marie Todd. University of Chicago Press. 408 pp. $40.
One of the oddest features of contemporary English—indeed of modern languages across the board—is the habit speakers so often indulge of using terms drawn from one of the arts to praise the other arts, or life itself. To rhapsodize a “poetic” view of the Dolomite mountains, for example, from one’s hotel window, or to eulogize a patient’s “epic” struggle with cancer, or to call Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata “lyric” is to speak in obviously laudatory terms. But this crossover benefit, in which the arts seem to have formed their own Mutual Admiration Society, does not apply to what perhaps should be called the illegitimate daughter in the family of the Muses: the art of the theater. As Jonas Barish points out in his sharply observed monograph The Anti–Theatrical Prejudice (1981), terms such as theatrical, operatic, melodramatic, and stagey tend to be hostile or belittling, as do phrases like play–acting, putting on an act, making a scene, making a spectacle of oneself, playing to the gallery, and so forth.
Why is it that terms like musical, symphonic, graphic, and sculptural are nearly always eulogistic? Conversely, why would one never want one’s personality described as “histrionic”? Why does usage seem to imply that Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy, has been fated to act out the sad part of the Cinderella–like stepsister, while her elder sisters get all the glory? As Barish points out in an amusing aside, “In an old movie comedy, an affected matron expressed her appreciation of dinner by declaring that ‘the fish was simply a poem’—obviously the most rapturous word of approval she could think of.” But one would never want one’s behavior at a gravesite described as “chewing the scenery,” no matter how justified one’s grief.
This oddity of language reflects a deeply felt prejudice against the theatrical arts that can be traced all the way back to the pre–Socratics—in other words, to the very point when theater began in the West. Solon, for example, the ruler of Athens when that city built its first amphitheater, called Thespis, the first playwright of Greece, a “liar.” In an age like ours, when a Hollywood movie actor who was also head of the actors’ union for a while became President of the United States, this prejudice might seem mere crankery. But as Barish explains, “If it is an aberration, [prejudice against the theater] is one to which virtually our whole species seems in some measure prone. . . . It would seem to reflect something permanent about the way we think of ourselves and our lives.”
As it happens, the same hostility can actually be ascribed to all the plastic arts, as Alain Besançon demonstrates in his remarkable history of iconoclasm, a history he traces from Moses and the pre–Socratic philosophers down to the Soviet commissars of art. True enough, terms now drawn from the plastic (and musical) arts tend to be eulogistic. But this usage merely reflects the still vital influence of Romanticism on our attitudes, a nineteenth–century shift in sensibilities that tended to elevate the arts to a quasi–divine, almost Delphic status. But the hushed tones in which the word “art” is still so often invoked, however undeservedly—or even such matronly silliness as calling an entrée a “poem”—should not obscure from us how deeply ambivalent we remain about images and icons, and thus about all the mimetic arts.
Nor does our ambivalence limit itself merely to religious art, as the term “iconoclasm” seems to imply. Although our culture is now positively awash in images, this assaulting pictorial cataract from glossy magazines, slide shows, PowerPoint college lectures, air–brushed publicity photos, TV simulacra, and copyright rip–offs actually reflects a hatred for the true image, as Jacques Barzun noted in The Use and Abuse of Art (1975):
Nowadays anything put up for seeing or hearing is only meant to be taken in casually. If it holds your eye and focuses your wits for even a minute, it justifies itself and there’s an end of it. . . . The Interesting has replaced the Beautiful, the Profound, and the Moving. [But] if modern man’s most sophisticated relation to art is to be casual and humorous, is to resemble the attitude of the vacationer at the fair grounds, then the conception of Art as an all–important institution, as a supreme activity of man, is quite destroyed. One cannot have it both ways—art as a sense–tickler and a joke is not the same art that geniuses and critics have asked us to cherish and support. Nor is it the same art that revolutionists call for in aid of the Revolution.
Barzun’s title deliberately alludes to Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay “The Use and Abuse of History,” and for good reason. For perhaps more than any other philosopher of modernity Nietzsche espouses the fiercest version of iconoclasm, an attack on the image that, for sheer ferocity, has its only philosophical counterpart in Plato. Now, no one has proved easier to gang up on than Plato when discussion moves to his intensely anti–poetical, anti–image aesthetics. But Nietzsche easily outdoes him here, especially in his polemical essay Human, All Too Human, where he roundly declares all art false to the core:
The Beyond in art .—With profound sorrow one admits to oneself that, in their highest flights, the artists of all ages have raised to heavenly transfiguration precisely those conceptions which we now recognize as false: artists are the glorifiers of the religious and philosophic errors of mankind, and they could not have been so without believing in the absolute truth of these errors. If belief in such truth declines in general, then that species of art can never flourish again which—like the Divine Comedy, the paintings of Raphael, the frescoes of Michelangelo, the Gothic cathedrals—presupposes not only a cosmic but a metaphysical significance in the objects of art. A moving tale will one day be told how there once existed such an art, such an artist’s faith.
In effect, Alain Besançon, the director of studies at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, has decided in The Forbidden Image to take upon himself the task of being the one who will tell us this “moving tale.” Almost as if in verification of Nietzsche’s point, Besançon mentions in the Introduction how his exposure to contemporary art led him to write his book. It was during his visit to the Paris Biennial a few years back that he came to see how reliant contemporary artists have become on what museum marketing staffs like to call “the Shock of the New.” Like the Venice Biennale, or the Whitney Museum’s biannual display of contemporary art in New York, or the Brooklyn Museum’s notorious show Sensation, the Paris version displayed works whose only purpose was to offend the very society whose support the artist was seeking. The results apparently were quite harrowing for Besançon, and he describes the Paris exhibition in vivid and telling detail: “I walked through rooms capriciously strewn with debris, little piles of sand, roaring machines. On the walls were charred objects, the macabre remains of some death camp, obstetrical objects to turn your stomach, a neon tube in a corner.”
Now, no sensible person would deny the deplorability of what often passes for art in the elite galleries and museums of Europe and America. But a student of the history of that school of anti–art known as iconoclasm knows he must seek other game than the easy prey of nihilist art. For in a very real sense, the hatred for art that now assumes the guise of so–called avant–garde art is rooted in that same iconoclastic polemic that animates every syllable of Plato and Nietzsche, not to mention a host of other art critics (in the literal sense of that word) from Origen, St. Augustine, and Blaise Pascal to those Russian commissars of art who ruled on matters of taste by diktat and ukase.
The story of the peculiarly Western ambivalence toward the image, especially the image born in the artist’s studio, begins, as with so much in Western civilization, with the confluence of the Hebrew and Hellenic cultures, although as Besançon points out, it would be far too simplistic to call the Hebrew side “iconoclastic” and the Hellenic “iconodulic” (meaning a reverential attitude toward the icon). For at least some of the pre–Socratics, during roughly the same time as the major prophets of the Hebrew Bible, were famous, or notorious, for their contempt for polytheistic assumptions that the gods could be depicted by the plastic arts. Xenophanes (approximately 570–500 b.c.) has earned for himself a perpetual place in undergraduate philosophy textbooks with his famous line that “if horses or oxen or lions had hands they could draw with and thus could accomplish such works as men, horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and oxen as similar to oxen, and they would make the bodies of the sort which each of them had.” And so with the races of men: “Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are blue–eyed and red–haired.”
Moreover, as Besançon notes, the Ten Commandments did not entail as strictly an image–less culture as is sometimes assumed. “Two contradictory themes, point and counterpoint, are developed in the Old Testament,” he says: “The absolute prohibition of images and the assertion that images of God exist.” In this insight he shrewdly notices a subtle difference between what seems like a similar ban on images in Judaism and Islam: “Even though they both agree that images should be banished, it seems to me that the reasons for that banishment are not the same in Judaism and Islam. For Islam, it is God’s insurmountable distance that renders impossible the fabrication of an image worthy of its object; for Judaism, it is God’s intimate familiarity.” God relates to the Jews in the Bible in a way that is far less transcendent than the way God relates to the human race in the Qur’an:
[In the Old Testament] it was God Himself who gave that positive commandment [to have no graven image before Him]. . . . It is not by virtue of His nature that God is unrepresentable, but by virtue of the relationship He intends to maintain with His people. It is not because of the impersonality of the divine, but, on the contrary, because of His relation as one person to another or as one person to His people. It is God’s plans for His people—impenetrable plans—that justify the prohibition.
By way of sharpest contrast to the ban on depictions of God in Judaism and Islam, the Greek gods and goddesses are nearly as omnipresent to a Greek city as billboards are in today’s city. Why might that be? For Besançon, the answer can only be that in Greek mythology (indeed, one might add, in mythological religions throughout the whole globe) the gods have a genealogy: in polytheism gods are born. The differences between monotheism and polytheism on this score are absolutely crucial. As Yehezkel Kaufmann, one of the twentieth century’s great scholars of the Hebrew Bible, explained in his magisterial book The Religion of Israel (1960), in mythological religion “the gods are subject by their nature to sexual needs. They gestate and give birth, they die and are resurrected; some are young, others old. Moreover, they are subject to physical conditions. They eat and drink, fall sick and require healing, need and invent tools, and so forth.” But Israel’s God, on the contrary, “has no pedigree, fathers no generations; he neither inherits nor bequeaths his authority. He does not die and is not resurrected. He has no sexual qualities or desires and shows no need of or dependence upon powers outside of himself.”
These stark differences are fundamental, and indeed mark a near total revolution in the religious ideas of mankind, so much so that they make Israel’s undoubted borrowings from Egypt and Babylon seem as trivial as the Egyptian jewelry that the Hebrews brought along for their passage through the Red Sea. Moreover, these stark differences in worldview between monotheism and polytheism make well–nigh inevitable the different attitudes these two cultures took toward the art of representation. The West has inherited both attitudes, and both have influenced our view of the image. As Besançon observes, “The [Greek] god is truly a god. But he lives in the same cosmos as men, and he shares his perfection with men . . . [while] the biblical ‘thou’ is addressed to a God who lies beyond the cosmos.”
No doubt, the depth and the sheer intensity of the ambivalence that the West has felt about art come from the confluence of the Hebrew and Hellenic elements. But as we have already seen, each culture, in isolation, had already spawned an opposite tendency even before its first contact with the other. Never was that internally generated ambivalence expressed more strongly than in Plato’s iconoclasm. Besançon is eloquent and insightful in explaining the inner sources of Plato’s hostility to the image:
[For Plato] the nature of the divine makes the image of the divine impossible. Art has an upper limit: it is confined to the earthly zone, where it performs a propaedeutic, educational, civic function. It prepares for its own dissolution. The lover of beauty relies on art in taking his first steps, then abandons it. In that sense, it is accurate to say that Plato is the father of iconoclasm.
But the advent of Christianity alters the equation completely. This religion is nearly equal parts Hebrew and Hellenic, and its transformation of these two elements also guaranteed a further complexity. Christianity did not simply take over the Hebrew Bible without first radically reinterpreting it (for example, despite its strict monotheism, Christianity preaches a God–man who does die and is resurrected), and the same will later prove the case with Greek philosophy. Indeed, this complex mixture accounts for the frequent outbursts of iconoclasm that have punctuated Church history down through the ages in both Eastern and Western churches.
Often this tension was felt to have been so painful that one or another heretic sought to suppress either the Hebrew or the Hellenic element, as with the efforts of the second–century Marcion to get the Church to excise the Old Testament from the Christian Bible, or, from the opposite side, the sneering rhetorical question from the puritanical pen of the early–third–century Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” But not only is the Christian Bible inextricably composed of Hebrew and Greek books, they also jostle each other uneasily: the Hebrew books constitute a much longer text, but the Greek text is understood somehow to trump the older, and much lengthier, Testament.
On a more mundane level, we know that Jesus spoke Aramaic (the spoken dialect of biblical Hebrew), since fragments of his speech are embedded in the Greek Gospels (see Mark 5:41; 15:34), while St. Paul proclaimed that same evangel to the world in Greek, though he seems to have been equally at home in Hebrew. This same tension crops up in the Protestant Reformation, with Martin Luther’s juxtaposition of Law and Gospel (reflected in his quasi–Marcionite view that the Old Testament condemns the sinner while the New Testament proclaims a message of unmerited grace), as against John Calvin’s much more positive view of Old Testament Law, a code that in fact became the legal basis for his theocracy in Geneva.
Nor can one ignore the tensions between East and West in a once united Christian Church. Although both “lungs” of the Church of the Christ have experienced the tuberculosis of iconoclasm (indeed, the very term “iconoclasm” comes from the struggle of the Greek Church against the attempts of a Greek emperor to ban icons), the Greek version of iconoclasm was much influenced not only by imperial fiat but also by the surrounding sea of Muslim culture, whereas the iconoclasm of Western Puritanism was born out of Calvin’s reliance on Old Testament Law. When Calvin reestablished the validity of Old Testament Law, he inevitably made the ban on images a living commandment once again, without the additional factors of Byzantine imperial politics or Islamic influence coming into play at all.
But similarities in the iconoclastic temper between East and West obtain as well. The Byzantine emperors who first issued the edict to smash and destroy the icons (Leo the Isaurian and his son Constantine V, both of whom reigned in the eighth century) do remind one of Oliver Cromwell, for both sets of rulers were military leaders with a loyal army from the provinces; such figures often have a puritanical streak and tend, moreover, to command soldiers who themselves are suspicious of the decadent mores of the cities. But clearly, the iconoclastic controversy could never have torn the Eastern churches apart for two centuries without the imperial argument having some purchase on civilian believers, and here once more Platonism enters the lists. For Besançon makes clear that without the tremendous hold that Origen’s Platonism held on all the Eastern churches (despite his condemnation two centuries earlier), iconoclasm would have been robbed of its most plausible argument. St. Paul told the Colossians that Christ is “the image of the invisible God.” Origen argued, as Besançon puts it, that “if Christ alone is the perfect image of God properly speaking, he is so only by virtue of his divinity. Christ is therefore the invisible image of the indivisible God, since God, who is incorporeal, can have only an incorporeal image.”
Such an interpretation of St. Paul might seem to deny, or at least to trivialize, the Incarnation; and in fact the incorporation of Platonic categories by the Church Fathers has always rendered the Incarnation problematic. This uneasiness with Christ’s true flesh becomes especially clear in a passage from Origen that Besançon quotes as the most telling expression of Origen’s implicit iconoclasm:
The Lord is called “true,” [Origen writes] in opposition to shadow, the figure, and the image, for such is the Word in the open heavens. It is not on earth as it is in heaven, because, having become flesh, the Word now expresses itself [on earth] through the intermediary of shadows, figures, and images. The mob of so–called believers is now instructed by the shadow of the Word, and not by the true Word of God, which is in the “open heavens.” [Commentary on John 2:16; emphasis added]
As nearly everyone knows, this line of argument was finally defeated. The use and veneration of icons was eventually vindicated in the Eastern churches so ringingly that icons have become virtually synonymous with Orthodoxy in the public mind. The victory of the “iconodules” was the victory of incarnational theology over the Platonic template that Origen had imposed on Christian thought from the third century. For that reason, the Incarnation remained the most crucial argument of the iconodules centuries after Origen during the controversy in the reign of Leo the Isaurian. As early as the year 725, the patriarch Germanus asserted that to reject icons was also to reject the Incarnation. He absolutely refused to assimilate the image of Christ, who had delivered men from idolatry, to idols. Thus (and Germanus is quite open about this) the prohibition of graven images delivered on Mount Horeb became invalid from the moment that God manifested Himself in the flesh, sensible not only to hearing but to sight. God had “imprinted” Himself in the flesh of Jesus.
This story, as I say, is a familiar one to students of art history, church history, or dogmatic history; and for the most part Besançon soberly follows the main contours of the narrative, adding to it only his prodigious learning and a pleasing narrative style. (The superb translation by Jean Marie Todd, by the way, does the text full justice.) But the book takes a rather surprising turn when Besançon discusses how icons came to be, in the author’s view, fetishized by the Orthodox churches, especially by Russian nationalists—the most flagrant case being Joseph Stalin’s order that icons be displayed in Moscow the day after Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941 to whip up nationalist fervor in his atheist state. (Tellingly, the strategy worked.)
Besançon first earned his reputation as a historian of Soviet politics and of Russian nationalism (toward both of which he entertains understandably dim views), and he thinks that the Russian nationalists of the nineteenth century, among their other sins, killed the genre of icon–painting when they began to praise the icon’s superiority over Western art. In one fascinating passage he discusses the visit by a Russian nationalist to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg to see a Rubens painting. The man was disgusted by what he rather luridly described as Rubens’ “ample quivering flesh that delights in itself, gorges itself on meat, and necessarily kills to gorge itself.” Besançon replies in kind, identifying the cult of the icon with, of all things, an aversion toward the Incarnation:
The true and most irremediable trace of the iconoclastic spirit lies in the icon’s incapacity also to depict the profane world. Even though this world, as Western art has abundantly proven, also tells of divine glory, it is absent from the almost exclusively religious art of Byzantium, the Balkans, and Russia prior to Peter the Great. An art that is wholly sacred, wholly made to be worshiped, forms a desert around itself. Of course, that is the limit of the icon, the fact that it cuts off from its sight the greater part of creation. Hidden iconoclasm—combined with iconolatry when it cares to cast anathemas on Western art—conceals a contempt for the world, which all the discourses on the Incarnation cannot completely dissimulate. . . . A neo–Platonic horror of the body and nationalist religious pride are in league together, constituting a practical iconoclasm theoretically capable of casting almost all images made by men onto the pyre: all profane images, whose claim to express divine grace is not taken into consideration [by Orthodox writers]; all religious images, because they do not bear the stamp of good theology.
The author is quite serious when he calls Eastern veneration of icons “iconolatry.” In what must surely count as the most polemical passage in the entire book, Besançon even makes bold to claim that iconographers have substituted their art for true religion and even believe that their art comprehends God:
But there is a more serious reason behind that elimination of nonreligious art, or of noniconic religious art. It comes from the intimate feeling that the icon truly allows us to grasp the divine image, and that, as a result, nothing else is worth the trouble of being represented, [only] God, His glory, the transfigured world, the resurrected body, the Kingdom. After that complete vision, which fulfills every expectation and elicits every prayer, what is the point of falling back into the ordinary world, what reason is there to condescend to look at inferior sights? We are touching here on the hubris of the icon, which is part of the hubris of Byzantium.
To borrow Nietzsche’s word, Besançon has indeed told a “moving” tale, moving because so sad. For the author, the cult of the icon has served to create a cordon sanitaire around the Orthodox churches, allowing them to immure themselves in a gated community of obscurantist ecclesiastical politics and attempted geographical hegemony whereby Western Christians (or Eastern churches in union with Rome) cannot exercise their religious rights (and rites) in the lands of traditional Orthodoxy, but the Orthodox bodies are allowed to evangelize at will in the lands of the Western Enlightenment.
But in a way, the tale is even sadder in the West than in the revanchist East. Art never lies. Even bad art. The ubiquity of those biannual shows that so many museums in the West now mount testifies to the truth of Nietzsche’s observation that the sense of transcendence has quite disappeared from the minds and hearts of the elites in the so–called First World. Even writers and artists who have never read a word of Nietzsche are carrying out the program he dubbed the Transvaluation of All Values, and his influence can be found in every corner of the culture. The witty repartee in the plays of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, for example, depends entirely on the pleasure audiences get from seeing traditional values turned upside down, as in Shaw’s remark, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you: you may not have the same tastes.” This bon mot (which could just as easily have slipped from the lips of Wilde) testifies to a now taken–for–granted inversion of values that seizes on biblical reversals like “the last shall be first” and reverses them. The problem is that “it takes an omniscient God to bring justice out of these overturns,” as Jacques Barzun notes:
To a godless age, the negative part of the inversion alone remains potent. The negative perpetuates itself as a habit of thought—it becomes the highest form of self–consciousness—and it destroys everything in the most direct way; not by physical means, but by corrosion at the seat of faith and action, the human mind. That is how, today, we come to find thinkers for whom dissent is a routine, sex is a rhetoric, and violence is love.
It is for that reason that I have said that art never lies. This truncated view of man now prevails almost universally throughout the artist’s world. In his lectures on aesthetics at the University of Berlin, G. W. F. Hegel observed in the 1820s that “thought long ago stopped assigning to art the sensible representation of the divine.” It surely can’t be entirely coincidence that shortly after these lectures were published the Catholic Liturgical Movement began to experience its first stirrings in the Benedictine monastery at Maria Laach in Germany. No doubt the good monks of Maria Laach never intended such an outcome, but in effect they began a movement that inflicted on the Roman Catholic liturgy the same fetishizing attention that the Russian nationalists were contemporaneously bestowing on the icon. Roman Catholic worship had now become a thing, an object to be poked and studied to death. As everyone now knows, this movement eventually terminated in one more dreary episode of modernist iconoclasm. (Besançon’s book ends with a treatment of Soviet art, but it could just as well have concluded with a treatment of the Liturgical Movement.) From being studied to death, the Liturgy soon came to take on the contours of T. S. Eliot’s famous “patient etherized on a table,” and appalled observers (and worshipers) had to witness after the Second Vatican Council the destruction of Catholic piety in the name of “renewal.” Once the mandarins of liturgical renewal got done “interpreting” the documents of the Council, it was as if Leo the Isaurian had issued a new Byzantine ukase, ordering Montessori English for the Eucharistic Prayer and Madison Avenue Americanese for the Bible, demanding all the while that all vestiges of warmth and color be stripped from the churches.
The situation differs somewhat when attention turns to that “art” that is universally recognized (or at least should be so recognized) as kitsch. Such art seems to have begun its invasion of the churches from as early as the middle of the nineteenth century, when St. Bernadette of Soubirous expressed horror at the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes that supposedly matched her descriptions of her visions of the “Lady.” Nowhere is Nietzsche’s observation about the death of transcendent art more verified than in the phenomenon of religious kitsch. What strikes one about the ubiquity of such religious artifacts is how rarely the devout are offended by what they should regard as blatantly obvious assaults on their devotion. For some reason, retreat houses and pilgrimage shrines in the United States have turned themselves into veritable nesting holes for such cloying artifacts, a dreary reality that prompts one to wonder what would happen to the aesthetic sensibility of the Catholic faithful if the Church were ever to declare bad art a sin.
Yet even kitsch reveals. Perhaps it represents the resistance of all those hapless bourgeois citoyens who were so hated by the Romantic, Byronesque “misunderstood artists” of their day, holed up in their Paris ateliers and tubercular attics. As Barzun points out, some kind of resistance must be expected:
If we adopt Picasso’s formula of art as a weapon to fight the enemy and the enemy turns out to be the public as a whole, the first question is how long the surgery—not to say butchery—ought to last. If we need to be shaken and shattered, if we go to the artist in order to face again and again what an enthusiast of Ezra Pound called “his celestial sneer,” then it is proper to inquire how the treatment is succeeding. The object presumably is to cure the beholder of his detestable complacency and materialism. (There is about this purpose a curious air of Victorian moralism, scarcely brought up to date.) Yet the cure is to offer him in visual or imaginative shape nothing but visions of deformity. He naturally identifies himself with the misshapen and the malcontented that (says Art) is the way he is. No doubt, but it ought not to cause surprise that the patient continues deformed and malcontent. Add the angry artist’s will to humiliate as he teaches, and you perceive why the process has no end—or rather, it ends in a higher complacency, the complacency of the hopeless.
Barzun’s insight is the only one I can think of that adequately explains why the ubiquity of kitsch in religious art today is so complacently accepted by the laity in church without it ever seeming to arouse what would otherwise be their fully justified ire. And connoisseurs, who once were the “pickers and choosers” in the world of art, have become overwhelmed by the glut of “art” that the latest technology makes available everywhere. As Barzun sardonically notes, “The hotel elevator dribbles Vivaldi into our unstoppable ears, just after the cab radio has interlarded gobbets of the Ninth Symphony with the driver’s loud comments on the weather.”
The problem stems from the fact that, as Nietzsche saw, there is no going back. Very few people, I imagine, in their heart of hearts would consider the “art” at the various biannual shows in Paris, Venice, or New York that trumpet “the Shock of the New” to be greater works than what, for example, Praxiteles or Phidias bequeathed to humanity. But attempts to revive Greek art in the twentieth century either seem stodgy (the federalist style of WPA New Deal architecture in the 1930s) or, frankly, Fascist (Albert Speer’s designs for Hitler’s postwar Berlin); and this faintly Fascist aura clings as well to deliberate riffs on that style by photographers like Bruce Weber (who does the Calvin Klein underwear ads).
This situation leaves artists in a bind: either they hearken back to long–dead eras and create art that is, at best, derivative; or they capitulate to the offensiveness that seems now to have become the one and only hallmark of originality in the art world. (Tellingly, Besançon is nearly as critical of the modern art wing of the Vatican Museum as he is of the Paris Biennial.) Of course, Barzun is right: this dilemma cannot go on forever, any more than a starving man can eat his own body to assuage his hunger. But what is the alternative as long as the falcon cannot hear the falconer?
What our civilization continues to forget is that we have souls, and when souls are not fed, they distort and warp themselves. And souls today go largely unfed. Every day they must soak up the desolation of the contemporary landscape. Given such uncertainty, and given the dreary artistic landscape that now assaults us, perhaps the last word should be given again to the death–cry of that evangel of the death of God—and of art—Friedrich Nietzsche: “In Gethsemane—The most grievous thing the thinker can say to the artists is: ‘What? Could ye not watch with me one hour?’”
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., has just translated Josef Pieper’s The Concept of
Sin for St. Augustine’s Press.