An Introduction to a Memoir
The word prodigy used in the sense that the Renaissance gave it has all but been eliminated from use when speaking of contemporary art. No room is given it in the current dialogues of what constitutes mastery, for the visual arts have been subjected to the suzerainty of cultural theory whose agents provocateurs are blind to the magic of the visual executed directly by hand and eye.
Where does that leave an individual born with the innate ability to make a line or a brushstroke come alive on the form of a face or a limb of a body and who loves the poetry in the human image? It leaves him stranded.
So here in a nutshell is where this story begins of someone born to the call of the visual, is allowed in childhood and in youth to fine tune his gift, and then in early adulthood hits the brick wall of a culture turning its back to the enchantment of the hand drawn image.
That’s the basis for the story, but then, something incredible gets overlaid on top of it. This unique individual is also born into a privileged artistic breeding ground whose other participants become the leading artists of their day, and they, by virtue of their artistic decisions, strong arm him from their ranks. And so he finds himself alone.
But that’s only part of the story which takes on the aspect of a Hollywood fantasy as this young artist, who by nature is an unadventurous homebody, stumbles time and time again into worlds that few have access to in any manner that engages, if ever so briefly, real personal dialogues whose substance forms over time a polemic dispute of some significance.
Who would have imagined such an unassuming person would have found himself for over half a year a regular at the family dinner table of the greatest publishing family in the world! It is not something one can set out to do; there is no calculated strategy that could have orchestrated that!
Nor can one suppose it purely serendipity alone; some other factor in play makes this episode but one of a number of intertwining events that now viewed decades later make a compelling dramatic background for the paintings that were made without support or applause.
And how does one judge such a person who fails to win anyone’s favor, who can’t find a niche anywhere, who neither thinks himself brave or belligerent, but simply someone who must turn away from the negativity addressed to him and regain each time a hard earned enthusiasm to start another painting?
Still, this would only be another tale but for the historic moment where the artistic choices of half a century have turned sour and depleted leaving no way out of the nihilistic morass we find ourselves. We are pressed on all fronts by a surfeit of phenomena fragmented and made mute by the weakness of form and the hollowness of intent.
If only we can be freed of the superfluous mindset of the technocratic program we live, we might begin to see ourselves more clearly. The inundation of trivia by non-images parading as art keeps us weighed down in commentary. It is truly an iconoclastic rub. Isn’t popular culture’s mirroring the state we’re in sufficient reflection? Do we need inquiry into the baggage of our frantic lives?
There is no time for respite. Isn’t that exactly what art once gave us- time to regain ourselves, time to let go of the non-essential. But seeing our essential nature is mercilessly rejected by the purveyors of cultural enlightenment who insist they are guiding us to superior comprehension.
The nightmare of this duplicity is the evil of the academic bureaucracy hiding behind what is approved. Just one glance at the outright passive acquiescence of the editors, critics, and professors of “enlightened theory” during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan says it all. They were all too preoccupied by trivia to focus on events that murdered over a million people. Who among them voiced concern as the artists they wrote about almost universally ignored the subject of war and the direction of our foreign policy? Doesn’t that suggest a complete denial of art as a carrier of consciousness! Shouldn’t that lack of backbone alone be sufficient to demand their stepping down from their exalted stations!
The dispute this artist has with the entrenched avant-garde establishment is their unwillingness to face the essential human condition in any sociopolitical matter of consequence and their reversal of all moral logic and responsibility in its expression.
So, as in one very controversial case addressing the exhibition “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art” they praise artists who mask genocide in media mockeries while disclaiming as ‘obscene’ the lack of discretion by an artist who employs sophomoric bravado in making images of the horrific. Granted, if in the second instance, the artist ignores aesthetic restraint and turns images of atrocity into illustration more appropriate for the fancies of Hieronymus Bosch; the first instance whitewashes depravity by a numbing pseudo-infantile playacting reducing meaning to parody intent on amnesia. If it were a delicate call on the part of critical oversight to distinguish the two approaches, each failing to convince at opposite poles of the other, the last thing we need is demagoguery; for to do it self-righteously is the greatest danger and illustrates what brought about the Nazi pollution to begin with.
That lack of restraint on the part of critical authority suggests that they are afraid of art’s power to reach the heart and mind of the viewer without the need of their august instruction and its excessive polemical liturgy that, as in the case above, supports farce in place of the integral melding of aesthetic to empathetic purpose. If Kafkaesque immersion has superseded much of our lives; all the more do we need the grounding of the human image made humanely, respectfully.
Now that the aesthetic component in an artwork which once allowed for the viewer the freedom of individual perception and interpretation has been banished from the authorized dialogues, these arbiters of what is important in an artwork have appointed themselves as the supreme judiciary safeguarding enlightened practice. They have taken on the role of priest and prelate in pronouncing the definitive interpretation on any contextual expression obligating the viewer beforehand to what is expected from his or her experience in a programmed response affirming the authorized world view.
Art has always been subject to the dictates of state religion and the supervision of that doctrine’s watchful priesthood by which everyone knows his place on earth and how to petition God in the correct manner. Like the institution of The Inquisition, the Church of the Museum of Modern Art and its avant-garde curia have run the art world with an iron fist, and like all theocracies it ruthlessly eliminates with religious zeal any threats to its sovereignty.
It is amazing the universal condemnation of anyone who deviates from the teachings sanctioned by the leadership and instead offers a simpler and more humane view. Whether in religion or art, it remains a small council of elders and bishops and doctorial critics who lead the flock, and it is only the wayward fool or criminal who leaves their protection and guidance. So this artist finds out what it means to disregard compliance to the new orthodoxy at the given call to obedience to empire – but in this case instead of Pharisee or Jesuit or KGB policing adherence to God and Caesar, it is the avant-garde dispensing justice.
What is startling to the artist is to review a lifetime’s preoccupation on the imagery of death and on man’s inhumanity towards others and see in his earliest images of lamentation and mourning inspired by the structural magnetism of the human figure and its intense evocation of pathos that an obvious parallel demands to be included in the conversation on his works - that the image of the Crucifixion of Jesus symbolically represents a minority demonized and punished for following a different path.
Still, it would take almost forty years before paintings such as The Escape through the Desert would be fully acknowledged as symbolic of the terror inflicted upon the Jewish people. He had not imagined the subject of that persecution to become the core expression of a life’s work, or that his most important images arrive from two parallel stories on the recurrent theme of the suppression and punishment of unique individuals – from the Old Testament Joseph in the Pit and from the New Testament The Passion of Jesus.
One might suppose it seems hubris to paint oneself as Jesus as this artist did in The Burial of Christ, but back in 1964, his sophomore year at Carnegie Tech and wishing to emulate the great painting by Titian, he had no one who could model for it but himself. Yet even then at nineteen he had the prescient knowledge that he would in his own way suffer chastisement for his ambition.
As a youngster of seven or eight he was compelled by the beauty of form and its overwhelming sense of compassionate sorrow in the great figure paintings that mostly were from the Christian repertoire. Later, when facing the instituted iconoclasm of utopian modernism’s quest for abstract purity that at the time of his leaving school turned minimal and conceptual, he would not abandon his passion for the power of the hand drawn figure. He needed no official sanction justifying his dream. He had been summoned.
Of course this artist understood the implications of his use of the Christian iconography. But to paint that way was alien to what was approved that he avoided making polemical statements; it was as yet a private matter. One didn’t understand it was a calling separate yet inseparable from the act of painting. For him the attraction embraced his whole person from the beginning. To paint figuratively meant to paint a holy person, as all persons are holy in that moment that invariably speaks of our mortality yet is of a greater continuum and a greater mystery that all the while returns back to the holiness of a person.
So from the very beginning he understood instinctively to the very depths of his being that painting is the language of compassion – that one approaches painting as to another world, a silent world, and as such remains outside the boundaries of representation by that very enigma. That enigma is the attraction at the heart of representation that holds us suspended - an enchantment if we can use that word to speak of the allure of the question that is never answered – where in the depths of time and space does the soul go.
One never thought or needed to put words to it, to formally think it agenda. Simply, it is a sacrament – a feeling more holy in its doing than any other one performed. One had no appetite for approval dependent on argument and how one measures against another. The holy is simply holy - the work before one that affirms the holiness of life.
The power in those images is exactly what the strict observance against graven images rejects outright. But the purpose behind this artist’s borrowings was compelled not by idolatry but by compassion for the terrible consolation in the act of witnessing. It was never an attempt to express the ineffable, but his images of the Holocaust are treated as sacrilege by those who insist that the vacancy of abstraction is the only decent manner of remembrance and any attempt to express it in human form the sin of iconography and a violation of the humanity of those who were victimized.
Why contemporary art criticism has this iconoclastic abhorrence of visual representation and in its place favors the conceptual play of text and the power of the word is principally a literary demand of techno critics whose pedagogy ascribes greater value to signage than to poetry; and so the ascendancy of the verbally-biased hieroglyphic over visual representation seems a puritanical continuation of the ancient Hebraic prohibition.
Obedience to the commandment against representation had become the central proof of allegiance to the new creed; whereby even the barest trace of content would hold the artist apostate. De Kooning sidetracked this prohibition by violence directed at his women; Rothko would deny even the suggestion of the spiritual. Otherwise, only negation towards sincerity in representation that arrived with the full blast of iconophobic sarcasm of the postmodern would escape judgment.
But this Modern-era renunciation of sympathetically representing human form, especially where it concerns tragedies, makes an insurmountable barrier for art to embrace the whole person of the viewer approaching an image on an empathetic level.
In a letter to the editor, that never saw print, on The New York Times article BONN JOURNAL, Germans, Jews and Blame, New Book, New Pain (April 25, 1996), this artist wrote about why: “It is understandable that the Germans wish to discourage the ‘mystification’ of the Holocaust… It is only through mystification that the collective imagination can build poetic instruments to hold knowledge cross generations, otherwise it evaporates.”
But it is not only on this subject that contemporary criticism rejects a non-ironic representation of the human image. Yet one suspects these pundits’ motives are neither religious nor altruistic, but simply the disingenuous ravings of those in academia who have made art the step-child of critical discourse.
They have used up their stated purview of making art more accessibly democratic to the common intelligence by making it a common pastime celebrating the most banal and often degenerate aspects of contemporary existence but dependent upon their enlightened instruction. So reliance on their intellectual foreplay has become an industry unto itself; and consequently has so emasculated the power of art that it can’t reach the heart and soul of its audience simply by its own means.
If it were not for the promise of the avant-garde having failed us, first during Vietnam, and then Iraq, and now simply the unwillingness of its constituents, its institutions, its periodicals to let go of self-righteous jingoism that for over half a century have held all other views in contempt, this story might not have needed to be written. We have lost our way in this jaded closure of intellectual decadence - a sophistication which long ago denied the simple truth that the human image made compassionately has always had something to tell us about ourselves. If we can only get the avant-garde to get off our backs, we might regain what art once offered in support of our humanity.
Still, despite the example of following in a great heritage far exceeds any other claim for our attention; this artist’s memoir is viewed as vanity. Clearly it is of minor concern but for the cultural stasis imposed on us by our leading institutions. If it were error to align one’s purpose with that tradition now eclipsed by the pedagogical entitlement of the common dressed in the dandy calculation of neo- Duchampian cunning; his parading deserves our displeasure.
So if you’re wondering how the title Narcissus Dancing arrived; frankly it came by accident as this artist twirled before a painting while being photographed in an open space where he often dances alone. Aptly, the painting is called Narcissus as it is the artist who is its model. Still people like to judge; but if others see meanness in self-sufficiency, so be it. He’ll dance to that!
Believing in oneself is the greatest blessing of all; for no one undertakes a great journey without an abundance of faith; for only those with courage go alone to listen in its silence to what the heart can hear and see; how else to find your fate but to enter into sacred places alone.
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