Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The "City Painter" of Brussels

In 1436, the city of Brussels proclaimed Rogier Van Der Weyden the "City Painter" of Brussels in part because of the success of this picture completed in 1435.

This is Rogier's Descent from the Cross painted for the Archers' Guild chapel in the church of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Ginderbuiten ("Our Lady Beyond the Walls") in Leuven (Louvain).  He was around 35 years old, and had just completed a long apprenticeship with Robert Campin.  Rogier wanted this painting to be a sensation, a debut to remember, and it was.  The painting was a great success and its influence can still be seen all over Europe, even in Italian painting.

Rogier's painting comes out of more than a century of devotional literature written for individuals emphasizing emotion and empathy over theology and doctrine.  That devotional literature sometimes inspired lurid and sensationalistic imagery of Christ's Passion, but Rogier takes that emotionalism to a new more serious level in this painting.  He conceives this painting as a kind of visionary experience, as if the removal of Christ's body from the Cross happens for us right now on the altar of the chapel.  All the figures inhabit a shallow stage space like that of a carved altarpiece, but these figures are far more than statues come to life.  They are living people who shed tears and blood, who swoon with grief and die in pain.  Christ's body dominates the center of the picture, and the swooning figure of Mary repeats its form, consistent with devotional literature of the time that emphasized Mary's suffering watching the death of her son.  Rogier beautifully composes an enclosed group of figures that always brings us back to the center no matter where we start.  We move from face to face with each of the figures; some are struggling to reign in their feelings in order to do the task at hand or to comfort others, while some characters give way fully to weeping and tears.

Flanders invented oil painting, and Rogier, together with Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin, was one of its first great masters.  Rogier used the luminosity and the naturalism made possible by oil painting to create empathy, to make the emotion, the tears, and everything from the skin, the clothes, to the muddy ground they stand on as credibly real looking as possible.  He wants to win our sympathy by appealing to our experience of the world.  Rogier wants us to reach back into our own memories of loss and pain and to bring us together with the people in the painting.

In this age of nihilism, rage, violence, brutality, sadism, and fanaticism that so horribly manifested itself yet again yesterday, looking at the community of feeling created in this painting by Brussel's City Painter is like finding water in the desert.  It reminds us of a better world where "we weep because others weep" instead of the one we live in now where we are always urged to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to suffering in the name of some cause or expedient.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Friday, March 18, 2016

AIDS and History

As the USA bid Nancy Reagan and the 1980s goodbye recently, some of us got an abrupt and surprising reminder of why we don't share much of the rest of the country's golden nostalgia about the Reagan years.  Hillary Clinton in an interview with Andrea Mitchell praised the Reagans for starting " a national conversation [about AIDS], when before nobody would talk about it."  Of course the Reagans did no such thing.  The disease first appeared in gay men in 1981, but it wasn't until 1985 that President Reagan even mentioned it publicly, and it was 1987 before he gave any kind of speech about it.  The Reagan administration had no AIDS policy and didn't want one.  In fact, they were openly contemptuous of the people among whom the disease first appeared in the USA, gay men.  For example, here is a sample from a press conference in 1982 with then press secretary Larry Speakes:

All during the Reagan years and into the reign of Bush I, people talked about AIDS sufferers as if they deserved it, as if they had it coming.  Religious fanatics began banging on about God's wrath (as they always do) being visited on gay people for being their own perverse selves.  Many of those self appointed apostles gleefully celebrated the rapidly growing number of cases and deaths in the gay community.  Those damn faggots just couldn't die fast enough or soon enough!  They took it up the ass, they deserved to die, declared one Wall Street trader.
And then in 1985, Ryan White, a 14 year old hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion was denied readmission to his school in Indiana.  All the holy men had to back track and admit that God, like the USA, does collateral damage when taking out the bad guys.  Ryan White became an official "innocent victim" of AIDS.  Before he died in 1990 of the disease, Ryan White to his everlasting credit said that all of the sufferers of AIDS were innocent victims.  That one gracious act heaped mountains of live coals on the heads of our dear leaders.  And indeed he was right.  ALL the victims of AIDS were innocent.

As in every plague that ever was, so it was with AIDS.  The disease and its spread inspired hysteria, superstition, and bigotry.  The disease was bad enough, but the fear and hostility of frightened people caused victims to die in destitution and humiliation as well as in physical agony.  I certainly saw a lot of that with my own eyes.  A young artist I once knew contracted the disease at age 24 and was dead within months of his diagnosis.  His father was a pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and effectively disowned his son upon hearing the diagnosis.  He would not visit his son, pay for his treatment, allow any other family to visit him, and wouldn't even come to his funeral when he died.  A group of friends and the young man's sister cared for him in his last days and paid for his funeral.  His bereaved sister was so angry with her family for the way that they treated her brother that she broke off all contact with them.  I doubt that they are reconciled more than thirty years later.  There are many such stories, and some much worse than this.  I remember that the hysteria over the disease was so bad that my mother lost her health insurance, not because she was gay or infected, but because she was in a profession that had a lot of gay men, physical therapy.  It was months before the clinic she worked for could find an insurance plan willing to cover them.
I was in my late 20s and in my 30s when the worst of the plague hit in Saint Louis and in New York.  I visited way too many death beds and attended far too many funerals for a man my age at the time.  I remember the men in their 40s, 30s, and 20s with walkers like decrepit old men.  I remember that the younger they were, the faster they died; usually because they were uninsured and poor.  I knew affluent successful professionals who lost everything upon their diagnosis and died poor and on Medicaid.  There were a lot of people in Saint Louis who ended up in Saint Louis City County Hospital where a hostile staff frequently withheld care and left AIDS sufferers to the mercy of religious fanatics and thieves who preyed on them.

The Reagan Administration's policy on AIDS was one of malign neglect.  They decided to let the disease rid them of a nuisance population; effectively a policy of genocide without having to spend money on bullets and gas, and without the mess and guilt.

The disease was a catastrophe, not a curse.  It was not just a catastrophe for gay men, but an enormous human catastrophe.  It affected poor minority communities disproportionately in the USA.  It cut like a scythe through populations of drug addicts.  The disease spread through heterosexual contact in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe.  The disease so ravaged Africa that it set back decades of social and economic improvement on the continent.

As in every plague, people reacted with selfishness and fear.  As in every plague, those who were unaffected concluded that those afflicted somehow deserved it.  As in every plague, there were all kinds of superstitions surrounding the disease that impeded the care for the suffering and held up efforts to find a treatment and a cure.  As in every plague, there was no shortage of demagogues eager to exploit people's fear of AIDS and loathing for the victims.  There was no shortage of cynics who decided to go along with this for their own reasons, or to just look the other way.

I've always worried that AIDS would be thrown down the old all-American memory hole, that the whole shameful episode would be conveniently forgotten.  Or worse, that its history would be re-written and falsified to protect the sacred cows of Conventional Wisdom (like the blessed Reagans).
That does not seem to have happened since Ms. Clinton's gaffe falsifying history was so quickly exposed and she was forced to apologize.

Between 1981 and 2000, 448,060 people died of AIDS in the USA, including a lot of people I knew and loved.
I will never forget, and I can never forgive.

My current parish of Saint Luke in the Fields in New York was especially hard hit during the height of the AIDS plague.  Clergy staff spent most of their time with the dying in hospitals, especially in the now defunct historic Saint Vincent's Hospital.  There were years when the funerals were so frequent that they would burn through two or three Pascal Candles before Easter.
Saint Luke's choir frequently sang this beautiful setting by John Tavener of the Eastern Rite Funeral Ikos at funerals of AIDS victims.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Racism ...

... making suckers of the white working class for over 3 centuries.

People would rather burn down their own houses than see Those People get anything.

Some con man always comes along to tell angry and aggrieved white folk what they want to hear; that they are the only people who matter, that they are being victimized.  The con man always persuades them that everything is a zero sum game, that if someone else gets something, then it means that they are losing something.  In the end, the con man laughs all the way to the bank while the white folk reap a harvest of exploitation and infamy.

And so, the chickens, not wanting to see those worthless ducks get anything, make the coyote their leader and put him in charge of the coop.   And as the coyote devours them all, the chickens persuade themselves that at least those dirty ducks didn't get anything.

Why should now be any different?  Pardon my pessimism, but I don't think this will ever change.  People will always prefer tribal warfare to actually doing something about their situation, especially if it means making common cause with The Other against the people who despise and exploit them both.


Kelly J. Baker in The Atlantic reminds us that we've seen all of this before:

The Klan was facing a crisis because the culture was changing around them, and nativism was their reaction. Demographic shifts, including immigration, urbanization, and the migrations of African Americans from the South to the North gave urgency and legitimacy to the Klan’s fears that the nation was in danger. From 1890 to 1914, more than 16 million immigrants arrived in the United States, and a large majority were Catholics from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland. Around 10 percent were Jewish. The Klan described the influx of immigrants as a “menace” that threatened “true Americanism,” “devotion to the nation and its government,” and, worst of all, America as a civilization. Evans claimed that “aliens” (immigrants) challenged and attacked white Americans instead of doing the right thing—and joining the Klan’s cause. (Yes, strangely, he expected immigrants’ support even though the Klan limited membership to white Protestant men and women. Of course, it’s also strange that Trump expects Latino support.) Writing in the Klan newspaper The Imperial Night-Hawk in 1923, Evans declared that immigrants were “mostly scum,” a dangerous “horde.”

Friday, March 11, 2016


In this dark and ugly election year, people are losing their minds and throwing their fists.  I'm growing more and more afraid that eventually someone somewhere is going to go way too far, and we'll all be sorry.
Demagogues love disruptive protesters.  They rile up the Dear Leader's supporters far more than any stem-winder.  Protesters push the followers ever closer together around the Leader.  There's nothing like external threat (real or perceived) for movement building.

I'm old enough to remember the 1968 election year.  Once was enough.


A first hand account of a Trump rally recently posted on Facebook.  Don't let the photo below fool you, these were two young men who attended thinking the whole thing would be a big joke, but soon found the whole thing not at all funny and very frightening.

DO NOT JUST SCROLL PAST THIS PICTURE WITHOUT READING THIS POST FIRST. THANK YOU. So, if you know me or my friend, Seth Quackenboss, then you know that we often get ourselves into ridiculously wacky situations, especially when we're together. Yesterday was one of those days. We decided to drive down to Fayetteville in order to hear a certain orange politician speak. Yes, you guessed it. We went to a Donald Trump rally. Now, I am not a supporter of Mr. Trump in any way, shape, or form. I'm quite inclined to a certain berning sensation that I've been experiencing for some time. But that's beside the point. The point is, we thought that we were in for a time of jokes and hilarity. And at the beginning, it was. There were a few speakers before Trump came out and they were not well organized at all. They were comical. One man, a veteran, said that he had shed blood on 7 continents. And unless I missed the great Antartica War, I highly doubt that's true. Let it be known for the record, that I am not against veterans in any way shape or form. I just thought that particular comment was funny. Because I doubt he actually wounded someone in Antarctica. But a more plausible explanation would be that he was doing penguin research and accidentally pricked a penguin and it bled. Anyway... One speaker also said that we needed to get rid of 911 calls and we all need to handle our problems ourselves. Well...that's highly unlikely. I can't imagine that people will start forgoing 911 calls when their house in burning down in order to try and extinguish the fire themselves. But, ya know, it's a nice thought. So those were my laughable moments. Trump was about to come out. We had our signs ready. We were going to go all out. Yelling and screaming and whatnot. Because, why else were we there if not to join the spectacle? He comes out. People go crazy. For the first twenty to thirty minutes I sat there with high expectations of hilarity. After half an hour, my feelings turned extremely grim. I was scared and upset. Let me explain. Trump basically said the same few things the whole time. He knows exactly what will get a cheer from the crowd and he says it. He mentioned his wall several times. About five or six if I can remember correctly. At one point he said "We're going to build a wall. And who's going to pay for it?" And the crowd yelled, "Mexico!" and then they lost their minds. Now, we all know exactly why this is stupid. So I won't elaborate. It was just very unsettling. He mentioned ISIS several times. About ten. But not exactly how to stop ISIS. Just comments like, "We're gonna get ISIS," and "ISIS is going down." Blanket statements. He did say that for America to win again (any sort of winning, not just against ISIS) we have to go outside of the law and he isn't afraid to do it. And that's unsettling for several reasons. But I'm just reporting the facts. And that was all he said on policy. Completely void of content or substance. Just statements that would get the crowd cheering. Now, let's talk about the protesters. There were many. I think throughout the hour long rally, there were roughly 15-20 groups of protesters. Some of them were individuals and some were in groups. They popped up throughout the rally here and there. And some of them were yelling and causing a raucous but some of them were just standing there with their anti-Trump shirts or their pro-whoever else shirts. They were all removed. Peaceful or violent. One man had a shirt that said "Love is the answer," and he was thrown out. Trump's comment on this man was, "And love is very important but I mean, who's making love to that guy?" And my stomach churned. A few minutes later, a woman stood up not far from where the other man was and starting protesting. She was removed. Trump's comment was, "She was with the other guy. They're actually a couple. A *clears throat* beautiful *gagging noises* couple." And the crowd laughed and cheered. It was horrifying. But out of everything I saw, the crowd was the worst part. I have never seen more hateful people in my life. Everyone was just filled with so much hatred. If a protester had a sign, even the peaceful ones, they would take the sign from them, rip it up, and throw it back at the protesters. Whenever a protester would get removed, the crowd would yell horrible things. Once, after a protester was removed, Trump said, "Where are these people coming from? Who are they?" A lady, sitting not 5 feet from me, said, "Well hopefully when you're president, you'll get rid of em all!" Get rid of them? Get rid of anyone who opposes Trump? It was sickening. I felt truly nauseous. And these people loved the protesters. They loved the drama and the chaos. And Trump fed upon it. It was easily one of the strangest and uncomfortable things I've ever witnessed. I could just hear the horrible things being spoken around me and it made my skin crawl. Needless to say, there was very little laughter on my part. I thought this was going to be joke...and it was, but for a very different reason. I implore you, if you're thinking about voting for Trump, reconsider. You are only promoting chaos and hatred. I witnessed it firsthand. And trust me, this is not something you want to see in person. This is not what you want to happen to our country. But I'll leave you with this picture we took with our souvenir. This was taken just before I lost all innocence and faith in humanity.

Dark New Paintings From the David Wojnarowicz Series

These are my photos taken in my studio of the most recent paintings from the series about David Wojnarowicz.

They are both paintings about a very dark and desperate period of Wojnarowicz's life when he made a very hard living by hustling after he ran away from his violent alcoholic father starting around the age of 15 and continuing periodically throughout his life, even at the height of his fame.  Sometimes, his customers turned on him and raped him.  He was almost murdered 3 times.

These are paintings with a lot of sexual imagery, but they are really about economics.  David is working in both of these paintings.


Hustled, oil on canvas, 20" x 30" 2016


This painting was inspired by the photos of hustlers in Los Angeles by Phillip Loca DiCorcia, and is intended as a kind of salute to his work.  I also had Manet in the back of my mind.

Hustling, oil on canvas, 20" x 30", 2016

Working on both of these paintings was an unsettling experience.  I'm currently planning future paintings in the series and other pictures as well.  I plan to take a little break from all the darkness and paint a few still lives in homage to the late Lennart Anderson.  I paint a still life for my painting classes every semester as a little demonstration.  I've long thought about doing something a little more ambitious in my studio for my own purposes.
I also plan to start another Passion series this summer and I'm already making studies for it.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Imperial Meddling

Our meddling and regime changing is not just confined to the Middle East.  Charles Pierce reminds us that we have a long history of serious meddling with our nearest neighbors.

And where might they have gotten the idea to resist our powerful virtue? (But of course, it was always for their own good; it was never a smash and grab of land, resources, or cheap labor, never; and shame on you for thinking otherwise!).

They didn't have to get any ideas from Marx or Lenin or Castro.  They could have read this passage from a speech uttered on the floor of the US House:

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable—a most sacred right—a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much of the territory as they inhabit. More than this, a majority of any portion of such people may revolutionize, putting down a minority, intermingled with, or near about them, who may oppose their movement. Such a minority was precisely the case of the Tories of our own revolution. It is a quality of revolutions not to go by old lines, or old laws; but to break up both, and make new ones.

And who said this?  Just some backwoods politician named Abe Lincoln.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Lenten Thoughts

Drawing of the Crucifixion by Michelangelo

--In my experience, statements about what I believe or not are mostly ignored.  People will think about me what they want no matter what I do or say to the contrary.  But I think it's necessary to put these thoughts out there and in written form just for the record if nothing else.

--I've never believed in the angry god of the fundamentalists; all fundamentalists, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.  I've never believed in that frightful legalistic punitive deity of first causes that sits enthroned upon the terminus between the Faithful Remnant and the doomed heathen and apostate masses.  William Blake called that god "Old Mr. Nobodaddy," and a Southern writer once described such a deity as "a mean old grand daddy home from a three day drunk."  I've always thought that such a god was people's anxieties and anger projected onto the cosmos.

--I've never believed in a despotic god who pulls the strings like a great cosmic puppeteer and makes everything happen that does happen.  God may not play dice with the universe, but he doesn't micromanage it either.  As shocked and angry as I felt in the wake of the September 11th attacks, God was not an object of that anger.  I don't believe in blaming God for manmade catastrophes, and I certainly don't think those attacks were God's will (certain mullahs and homophobic evangelical demagogues to the contrary).  I didn't blame God for my father's death from lung cancer despite a lifetime of not smoking.  These things happen because we are mortal, and again they are certainly not God's will.

--I've never really hated God, though I've sometimes wondered if He's there.  There have been a lot of times when I really hated religion.   I expect that there will be more of those times.  I've always despised piety, especially the public kind.  The conspicuous Scripture reader on the subway carries less the fragrance of humility than the stink of pride as as far as I am concerned; "I thank God that I am not like these others here on this train."  I've said in the past, and I'd say it again; I'd rather be known as the worst crack whore in the East Village than have a reputation for piety.  I suppose now the very expensive East Village does less crack and more pricey designer drugs.

--I hate the burdens, the tests, the ordeals, the legal codes, the purity codes, the dogmatism, the spiritual athletics, the moral heroics that come with religion.  As if ordinary mortals don't labor under enough weight and go through enough trials in this life, some people feel bound to make salvation all the more remote and unattainable.  There are too many of the pious eager to lay burdens on other people that they are not themselves willing or able to bear.  I hate the idea that I have to turn off my brain and surrender my independence to belong to any religious community.  "Reason is the devil's whore!" said Luther, but without it the old German pastor would never have found his way out from under the crushing weight of the Roman magisterium.  God gave us brains and our wits to find our way through this unknown land of the living and (He hopes) to the Celestial City.  He gave us our wills to chose Him freely, and to freely walk with Him as a friend, and a lover, not as a hostage or a slave.

--People should not be penalized for being themselves (themselves by nature or by choice).  People are as God made them, fashioned in all their variety in His image.  People are accountable for what they do, not for what they are.

--I've never understood the puritanical obsession with policing everyone's sex lives.  I regard such obsession with great suspicion.  Either the puritan is himself obsessed with sex; or worse, uses that obsession to distract attention from other far worse crimes against neighbors like greed, predation, and the lust for power; the drive to dominate people and to bend them to our will.

--Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that human beings were fundamentally good by nature.  It was civilization and culture that corrupted them.  John Calvin believed that people were incorrigibly evil, little beasts eager to sell out their souls and at a cheap price.  I believe in neither.  People are fundamentally selfish, something that we share with all other life on earth from bacteria to blue whales.  That selfishness is neither good nor evil.   It is selfish.

--I certainly do not believe that anything and everything goes, that there is no such thing as sin or evil; far from it.  Mercy has no meaning without Justice, and Justice is little more than retribution without Mercy.  I suppose where I differ from convention these days is that I think of these matters less in terms of a childish desire to keep and obey the rules and please the parents than in terms of the Golden Rule and the Great Commandments:  "Do to others as you would have them do to you" and "Love your neighbor as yourself."  If we harm other people; steal from them, lie to them, swindle them out of their savings and livelihoods, maliciously plot against them, manipulate them, betray them, slander them, rape them, seduce their spouses, assault them, kill them, or even gossip against them, then we should feel bad about it.  Our first rule should always be to do no harm, even if we can't do good.

--A lot of people these days obsess over sexuality and sexual improprieties.  Some even claim that these sins more than any other bring on calamities like storms and earthquakes.  As far as I'm concerned, what people do to pleasure themselves and each other is the least consequential of actions.  There is no part of our bodies less subject to rational control than our gonads and hormones.  Where those desires matter is when they motivate harm; when pleasuring ourselves means hurting others.
Greed and ambition drive far worse and more consequential sins.  The drives for profit and power do far more harm and more truly degrade the Creation than any one night stand ever did or ever will.  Even more than the drive for power and profit, the desire to be vindicated, to be right and recognized as being right drives the worst of all evil as far as I'm concerned.  The arrogance of the fanatic, the willful blindness to human suffering, makes the violence and depravity of the ideologue and the fundamentalist so much more monstrous and pitiless than that of any band of thieves.  That is the temptation to push God off His throne and to sit in judgment over our fellow mortals.

--I've never really believed in hell, at least not as some vast underground eternal torture chamber.  And, I never believed in any god that would create such a place.  If there is hell, then it is a place that we create for ourselves, and that locks from the inside.  We go there willingly and stay so long as our selfishness, fear, malice, and pride cause us to prefer estrangement from God, from our brothers and sisters, and from creation.  We stay there so long as we prefer to "rule in hell than to serve in heaven" (to cite Milton).  We can leave hell anytime.  The decision is ours.

--In no way to I consider myself a good Christian.  I am only a loyal one.  I am very lax in both observance and in charity.  I am a very agnostic believer, believing not because I'm convinced (especially all the supernatural stuff), but because I want to.  My profession of artist comes with a huge liability of self absorption and selfishness.  I am no exception to the character weaknesses of my trade.  I'm not particularly generous, let alone self-sacrificial.  I try to be kind and compassionate, but it never is good enough, not even in my own eyes.  I can be as proud and narrow sometimes as the very people I fight with.

--Penal Substitution Atonement teaches us to look backwards to the inherited sin of our common ancestor Adam (whether or not we understand this story symbolically or literally).  I think it is more profitable to look forward to the model of what we are supposed to become in the person of Christ, forward to what the perfect community is supposed to be in the Kingdom of Heaven.  I can see most clearly how very far I am from measuring up to that model of perfect love and humanity.  I can also see more clearly the role I play in keeping the world far from that image of the most Beloved Community, and what I must do otherwise.

--Finally, I've always understood the image of the Crucifix to be a warning and a promise.  It is a warning that we are not spared the contingencies and misfortunes of mortality.  We will not be spared death.  God is not a rescuer.  There He is on the cross in the person of His Son dying unjustly in shame and humiliation.  God did not rescue Him.  He did not come down off the Cross.  Still less can we avoid our own death.  There will be no resurrection without dying first.  We and the world we inhabit, will die and disintegrate and be forgotten.
But if we suffer and die, God suffers and dies with us.  At the end of that suffering and extinction is a new life; not in some static state of transcendence, not as resuscitated corpses, and not in some vague metaphor; but alive again in a new life complete with our full selves renewed just like Christ Himself in His Resurrection.  That new life awaits not just us but all we love and our whole world since nothing goes forgotten in the sight of God.
I think it was Karl Barth who said that in the Cross we are justified before God, and God is justified before us.

Crucifixion by Rogier Van Der Weyden

Sunday, March 6, 2016


March 6 is Michelangelo's birthday.  Today, his work is the stuff of textbooks, package tours, community courses, bad novels, and even worse movies.  His work is widely respected but not much loved.  It's hard to imagine its novelty to viewers at the time Michelangelo's art appeared when we've all seen the paintings of the Sistine Chapel ceiling a billion times before, even if we've never visited Rome.

And yet, it is impossible to imagine the Roman Catholic Church today, or any church (including the Episcopal Church) tolerating so demanding, so ambiguous, and so personal a cycle of painting in so important and public a place as the Sistine Chapel.  The basic program of the Chapel ceiling is rooted in a very medieval allegorical understanding of Scripture informed by Florentine Neo-Platonism that we find alien.  It's very hard to see how any major church these days, where  homophobia is now credal in status, would tolerate for a moment anything so blatantly homoerotic as the Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

Michelangelo was simultaneously the greatest of sensualists and the most serious of ascetics.  Those two contradictory passions shape the nudes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  I illustrate two of them above.  The nudes began as an ornamental detail, figures holding up faux bronze medallions with Old Testament scenes.  They eventually evolved into something entirely their own, their drama eventually eclipsing the medallions that they were supposed to support.  These figures are the most personal parts of the Sistine Chapel as well as the most blatantly erotic.  They are beautiful athletic young men in the prime of life very much on display.  Michelangelo intends us to admire, and even feel aroused, by their beauty.  However, these figures are also deeply spiritual.  Unlike the warrior athletes of ancient Classical art, these figures are restless with unnamed anxiety, or rest with melancholy  longing.  They seem to struggle against something unseen and unknown, or sit with a weary resignation.  Perhaps these figures began as life studies from young men (young quarry workers might be likely models here), but they certainly did not end that way.  These figures belong to the realm of ideas as much as any ancient Greek kouros or medieval angel. These restless athletes have nothing of the calm resolution demanded by the Classical aesthetic, or the otherworldly serenity of the medieval aesthetic. 

There is an element of tragedy in these figures that is completely unlike the catharsis of Classical tragedy.  There is something that seems to menace these magnificent figures and to cause them to despair.  They are not content with their magnificence.  Those splendidly athletic forms always seem on the verge of rending apart.  Indeed, if you look closely at many of them, Michelangelo takes extraordinary liberties with proportions and anatomy.  So many of these figures seem on the verge of expressionist distortion.  That we believe in these figures at all is testament to Michelangelo's powers of visual persuasion.

Love, in the end, is love declare these figures.  Erotic love is part of a continuum that contains selfless love, and even self-sacrificial spiritual love.  All love from the most basic lust to the noblest self-sacrifice begins in passion.  Creation starts in passion.  The older I get the more amazed I am to discover the large central role that just plain horniness plays in artistic creation.  That's certainly true for Michelangelo, as well as for legions of other artists for generations, including me.  Love, lust, aspiration, and conscientiousness are all in conflict with one another for artists as they are for just about everyone else.  Out of those struggles, art appears in all its vividness and ambiguity.  

Those strong conflicting passions of sensuality and spirituality drove one of the most powerful conceptual imaginations in history.  Michelangelo took on and mastered the largest projects of his era.  Never do we get the sense that any project was too great for him, that its size and scope would overpower him.  He was a man of tremendous physical strength carving his first sculptures out of very hard marble at age 14 and still carving marble as though it was warm butter at age 88 just two weeks before his death.  His sense of inner vision was so powerful that he carved marble directly as if to free an enclosed figure, a way of carving marble that is unconventional and even reckless in every age.  

There will never be another artist like him, and I doubt our age or future ages would tolerate his kind ever again. 

More nudes from the Sistine Chapel ceiling:

A splendid drawing, probably from life, for one of the nudes above the Persian Sybil on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

That close proximity of physical and spiritual passion that almost cancels each other out -- but doesn't -- is what always draws me back to Michelangelo's work, and to the art of the Renaissance and Baroque.  There is no either/or dualism between idea and flesh in the art of this period.  Both live together, if uneasily.  I struggle with the same issues in my own work, and always have.

John Wesley

March 3rd was the feast day of John Wesley and his brother Charles.  For some mysterious reason, I've been thinking a lot about John Wesley lately.  I can't help but compare his generosity of spirit in his life and in his preaching with the angry dogmatism that prevails now.  Today, it's all about patrolling the borders between who's in and who's out, between who is correct and who is wickedly wrong, between the Elect and the doomed.  That Wesley would build his entire preaching and his mission around that great commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself" seems sadly alien to our fundamentalist dominated religious discourse.  While Wesley was certainly a man of his time, I have a hard time imagining him obsessing with everyone else's sex lives as seems to be the case with most religious leaders today.

In our age of mega-church autocrats, later day prince bishops, prosperity gospelers with lavish palatial mansions, and any number of gold plated messiahs with business empires and international political clout, reading about John Wesley doing without so that he could have something to give to the poor and destitute is like finding water in the desert.  Wesley was not at all particular about who his neighbors were when contemplating Christ's great commandment to love our neighbors.  Instead of congratulating and blessing the already rich and powerful, Wesley happily lived among the poor, downtrodden, and outcast.  The destitute, like all people, had a God-given freedom and dignity according to Wesley, that is completely at odds with the shame, servile obedience, and childish dependence on divinely appointed autocrats and hierarchs preached by too many these days.

Long before the cause was taken up in the USA (even before the USA was founded) Wesley took up the cause of abolitionism, joining forces with William Wilberforce in the long campaign that eventually succeeded in abolishing the slave trade throughout the British Empire.
"Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air," Wesley said, " and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature."
Wesley's neighborhood of brothers and sisters created in God's image included African slaves; a position even more radically egalitarian than that of  all American and most later French revolutionaries.  I can't imagine anything that would break Wesley's heart more than people in the USA who claimed to be his followers, using the Bible to defend slavery.
Wesley's neighborhood included the lowest of the low, even convicted criminals.  He campaigned tirelessly for prison reform in an age that made liberal use of the death penalty for any number of offenses (including pickpocketing) and where debtors and murderers were regularly thrown in together in very brutal conditions (and charged for their lodgings in the jail).

Wesley rode horseback through all kinds of weather and countryside, always at risk of being waylaid by bandits, to serve and preach to all communities no matter how poor.  It's hard to square that image with some TV apostle with his own private jet.

John Wesley died poor because of his generosity.  "The best of all, God is with us," he supposedly said as he lay dying.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

And The Voice of Temptation Whispers In Our Ear...

"Why would you want 'liberty and justice for all' when you can have victory?"