Monday, March 29, 2010

Rape of the soul: Sexualizing religious art.

A couple of years ago, I happened upon a post on Athanasius Contra Mundum concerning a documentary film by Michael Calace titled, Rape of the Soul.  Calace billed himself as one of the world's few experts on embedded imagery in art - specifically Roman Catholic religious art.  I posted on the subject but removed my post because there was a conflict about copyright or something to that effect.  I received an email from the production company, insisting I correct a detail in my post or face legal action - it is so long ago, I can't recall the exact language.  I responded by taking down the post and assuring them I simply employed the premise on which their documentary was based to discuss my personal observations regarding the subject, although I was rather skeptical about a couple of the examples Calace pointed to in the film.  They seemed to be satisfied I wasn't an enemy, and in turn sent me a complimentary DVD of the documentary and asked if I would share my opinion after I viewed it.  I set the DVD aside and forgot about it.  I only came across it yesterday while organizing my desk.
I watched it.  I can't believe I endured it to the end.  Portions of the documentary are on YouTube - check it out here.  Calace suggests the existence of varied conspiracy theories (for lack of a better word), such as between Oregon Catholic Press and Catholic illustrator/artist Steve (Br. Martin) Erspamer.  Oregon Catholic Press used many of Erspamer's illustration for their missals and other Church publications.  In the video we see Calace extract eidolons from the backgrounds and penwork of Erspamer's work, which he hi-lights, extracts and manipulates to demonstrate the presence of phallic symbols, the word s-e-x, a swastika, and so on.  The film is so far over the top it makes the Dan Brown novels seem like great literature.
A 2006 film review by the Boston Globe sums it up better than I have time to do...
''The Rape of the Soul" is a fear-mongering, small-minded, and pathetically smutty polemic about art and the Roman Catholic Church. Presented as a documentary by filmmaker and self-described devout Catholic Michael A. Calace, the film seeks to discredit ''predatory artists" from da Vinci and Botticelli to anonymous designers of contemporary greeting cards.
Calace's mission: To reveal all the satanic faces, genitalia, spellings of the word sex, and other evidence of evil lurking in painted clouds, shadows, and designs in art related to the Catholic Church. Freud had an eye out for phallic symbols, but he would have had nothing on Calace, who sees penises everywhere he looks. He could find an orgy in a bowl of oatmeal.
Calace pits the forces of good, led by himself and a bevy of talking heads he calls experts, against the forces of evil: artists and church officials. Along the way, he lassos in the sexual abuse crisis in the church, vaguely equating his findings -- he calls them ''embeds" -- with that scandal. Unidentified still photos of convicted sexual offenders such as John Geoghan float across the screen as child psychologist Judith Reisman speaks about the damaging effects of child abuse.
Imagery is often designed to play directly to a viewer's unconscious.  That's the nature of propaganda, and of advertising.  But Calace's suggestion that the Archdiocese of Toronto (to name only one) is intentionally leading its flock down a road of sexual depravity and satanic worship by posting on its website an image rife with phalluses and demon faces is ludicrous." - Cate McQuaid, Boston Globe
I worked in marketing and visual arts, as a painter myself, I know design can be manipulated to speak to the viewer's unconscious.  Yet as McQuaid suggests, "That's the nature of propaganda, and of advertising."  Subliminal imagery has been popularly known about since the 1960's - it is not a secret.  To suggest that medieval artists were using it to sexualize sacred art is quite a stretch.
To be sure, genre works such as still life may have been sexually suggestive over the centuries, but the very idea that a naively painted outline of the abdominal muscles on the corpus of the San Damiano crucifix represents a phallus is as ludicrous an idea as the Paschal candle represents a phallic symbol in liturgy.  These are modern concepts, modern interpretations often emanating from people consciously or unconsciously obsessed by such imagery.  Modern art is filled with sexual images - artists such as Picasso, Dali, and Warhol unabashedly wove erotica into their work, based upon Freudian psychological theory.  My guess is that many men and women in the United States have been conditioned by our highly sexualized culture since infancy - especially those who grew up in front of the television and video games.  Michael Calace seems to prove that in his documentary.
What surprises me about these guys - Calace and those who buy into his crap - is that they are well educated people, devout traditionalist Catholics, and family men.  What went wrong?
Art:  Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Marriage.
Near the end, the lunacy reaches a peak when Calace derides Jan van Eyck's 1434 painting ''The Arnolfini Marriage."  No genitalia here, praise be. Instead, Calace observes that the figures eerily resemble Vladimir Putin and his wife. - Boston Globe
Notice 'Mrs. Putin' has her veil on. 
You also have to watch this clip - Archdiocese of Toronto Embeds Sex & Horror Art Subliminals  - it is lol funny.


  1. Am I supposed to turn my head when ouf dogs "make doo" outside, for fear I will see a "phallic symbol" or perchance an "open orifice"...good grief!
    Get some counseling, M. Calace, or some gots a problem, me thinks!
    Terry, you never cease to amaze me with what you find and tell us...I'm vehklumpted (sp?)...

  2. Another take on the same subject...
    The Rodin exhibit at BYU in 1997 was censored because of nudity..and no place else...

    I was sorely was indeed a rare opportunity to view some glorious works of art..and they were "draped."

    Here is a link to the article...

    Yeah NP--those who are so hung up on penises and breasts needs to spend a couple of weeks on a working ranch or farm..they'll get over it REAL QUICK...


  3. Calace sounds like he got his information from Beavis and Butthead's Art Appreciation 101.

  4. Terry - funny you should write on this. Last night I read a post at a fake Catholic site talking about Calace:

    The blogger seemed to be totally enthralled by the documentary. Which goes to show that the fake Catholics are more hung up on sex than faithful ones. Heh.

  5. Totally off topic...

    I totally feel like that chick looks right now.

  6. +JMJ+

    On people who are more hung up on sex than they might realise . . .

    I remember that it was in an Andrew Greeley novel that I first read that there are many paintings of the Resurrection in which Jesus clearly has an erection. Of course (!!!) no examples were given. When I brought that up with a priest who is a friend, he said that St. Augustine has written very forcefully that Jesus would never be in such a state--and besides, if such paintings did exist, they would have been brought up in attacks on Christianity a long time ago.

  7. Is Andrew Greeley still alive?

  8. "... idea of a naively painted outline of the abdominal muscles on the corpus of the San Damiano crucifix should represent a phallus ..."

    This is true of "art" for Led Zepplin posters-perhaps that explains a lot of where he's coming from. Been smokin' a bit much. That and obviously his assertion is unoriginal.

  9. Anonymous10:33 AM

    Another example how the devil works two ends of the spectrum. One in which the "sexual" symbols are all exposed and place in museums run by Catholic institutions, or pervert symbols that are creeping into art and literature are defused by extremist actions on the other end, so any legitimate concerns are ignored.

    I wonder if his "title" was taken from Roger Kimball's book (Encounter Books), The Rape of the Masters? It cuts both ways.....

    "Colleges and universities used to teach art history to encourage connoisseurship and acquaint students with the riches of our artistic heritage. But now, as Roger Kimball shows in this witty and provocative book, the student is less likely to learn about the aesthetics of master works than be told, for instance, that Peter Paul Rubens’s great painting “Drunken Silenus” is an allegory about anal rape. Or that Courbet’s famous hunting pictures are psycho-dramas about “castration anxiety.” Or that Gauguin’s “Manao tupapau” is an example of the way repression is “written on the bodies of women.” Or that Jan van Eyck’s masterful Arnolfini Portrait is about “middle-class deceptions…and the treatment of women.” Or ... Mark Rothko’s abstract “White Band...” “parallels the pictorial structure of a pieta.” Or that Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” is “a visual encoding of racism.”

    ... Kimball, a noted art critic himself, show how academic art history is increasingly held hostage to radical cultural politics—feminism, cultural studies, post-colonial studies, the whole armory of academic anti-humanism..."

  10. I normally do not post so late, although I usually time the next day's posts to publish right after midnight. Last night I was up very late constructing this post - rushing to complete it so I could get to bed - hence I'm surprised it is coherent.

    Thanks for your comments - I expected a trad attack. Anyway - I especially appreciate the Led Zeplin reference - I totally forgot about rock culture while doing this - as well as the PC art history studies at modern universities - thanks much for those inclusions.

    I think the film/script might have been a success if someone like Christopher Guest had handled it - it would be a hoot. As it stands it is more on the level of "Springtime For Hitler" - the play within the film and stage production, "The Producers".

  11. Austringer11:21 AM

    This sort of stuff would have me laughing if it weren't so pathetic.

    Much of the art appreciation/art history that I have been inflicted with is heavy with such interpretations (to varying degrees). Much of this can be explained by the different motives and impulses of most of the painters of history, and the motives and impulses of much of modern art for the last 100+ years: in the past, self-expression was a by-product of the artist's main motive, which was to do a good job -- rendering an accurate and sensitive portrait; depicting theological and historical concpets and events in a visual, intelligible form; rendering the effects of light; etc. Since "art" bacame primarily a form of self-expression and even therapy, it is no wonder that art critics and historians, few (none?) of which are skilled painters themselves, can't grasp that a painting of a vase of flowers is just that -- a rendering of the lovely effects of light on objects -- and not something more deep and profound. Hence the tendency to find all kinds of hidden messages. And, since these same people have put modern "artists" on some kind of pedestal as deep and profound individuals, it must be that all artists must have some extraordinary, mystical insight -- which they will reveal to us.
    It is no accident that this sort of view of art and artists coincided with a rise in secularism and materialism: Man hungers for the mysterious -- without a God, it's easy to find mystery in other things, and to make them up if they aren't otherwise there.
    And, of course, since the contemporary "art" world has thrown out God, they have to believe that the great artists of the past rejected God too -- that's why they put all that sex and hidden messages in their work, don't you see! They didn't take that God stuff seriously either!

    You really can't take any of this stuff seriously.

  12. Thanks Austringer - Being the fine artist you are, I knew you'd have something excellent to add to this and I was hoping you would comment.

  13. Austringer12:02 PM


    You are giving me far more credit as an artist than I deserve -- and no, that's not me being coyly, falsely, humble -- I know my limitations all too well.

    But, like you, this stuff just drives me nuts as this corrupts and distorts something near and dear to our hearts. We only have the capacity to be artists because we are made in the image and likeness of God, the supreme Artist. This ought to guide what we do, and keep us humble. Unfortunately, humility left the arts once "artists" (con-artists, really) made themselves into demi-gods, above any and all standards.

  14. I watched the videos just now; this is just "over the top".
    Yeah, I'm sure the guy behind the man in front is sodomizing him...and the women is clutching an erect penis.
    Somebody needs some help, pronto...
    I may not particularly like that style of art, but for heaven's sake, I didn't see all that he was portraying there, even when he talked about it.
    As for the "masturbation" scene...
    St. John of the Cross once said, and I believe you quoted it recently Terry, that someone who is pure does not see into things, can even be in blatant situations where it might be obvious, but is not even aware of it (that's my paraphrase).
    I'm not claiming moral purity (probably ADD, OCD, whatever) but what the heck is he talking about?

  15. Oh, and one more inane comment:
    I hope to God M. Calace doesn't happen upon our website with our icons...there are probably all kinds of blasphemies, orgies, homosexual acts, masturbation, ritual killings, and maybe even an abortion that are portrayed within the lines, images, colors, whatever...and then we'll be closed down and have to beg for our food:<)!

  16. Austringer3:03 PM

    Padre, I haven't watched the video yet, but your comments brought to mind another aspect of modern "art" and what passes for art appreciation and criticism, and that is, the strong elitist element. You mentioned that you couldn't see what you were supposed to see: you are to view this inability of yours as an indication that you are less astute and aware than those who do see these things -- in other words, you're a Philistine!

    How much utter garbage has been passed off as "art" without a peep, because Joe Average doubted the evidence of his own two eyes (and good common sense), and chose to believe what the art experts told him -- who wants to be called a Philistine, after all? -- giving the experts credit for possessing knowledge and insight that he lacked. How elitist this art world is!

  17. Austringer: Thank you.
    I must say that after reading E. M. Jones' book on "Degenerate Moderns" which had an extensive chapter on Picasso, I realized how much "agenda" and "pathology" play in the work of modern artists...this man was a creative genius; according to the documentation and the commentary in Jones' book, his sexual predatory and perverted desires overtook him and thus, we have "cubism", which is an absolute denigration of the human person...I'm no expert here, but I think I do respond to authentic beauty and goodness, all from God's good grace...
    I am not inspired by Picasso.
    And I find M. Calace's "weirdness" in the other extreme.

  18. Father - I am laughing so hard - you would be a riot to watch the entire video with.

  19. Terry: Glad to provide comic relief...maybe we should schedule an "intervention" some day (just for coffee...right? CofA:<)!).

  20. Austringer5:53 PM

    Padre, I would strongly recommend the book "The Twilight of Painting", by R. H. Ives Gammell. It was published in 1946 or 1947 -- you can find it used at Amazon. Gammell was (unlike most writers on the subject) a highly skilled painter. The book examines the destruction of the visual arts, and is a must-read for anyone who values these things.

  21. Anonymous6:03 PM

    Freud himself said "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar". Enough said ...

  22. Gee--look at all I'm missing out on by not taking an Art History/Appreciation class?? I think I'll go run sign up for this Summer term!! :)

    Personally, as an engineer I think the reason I like Modern Art--including Picasso--is that the artist are thinking outside the box (or cube :) Often us engineers have to think outside the box to solve problems, and no idea or concept is too world consists alot of "What if..."


  23. Poor Cathy..I feel for ya...but I hope your color is a bit better than Madame's...she quite looks like she's gonna pass out on the spot...

    When are you due??


  24. Austringer: Thanks for the reference.
    Sara: Are you SURE you like Picasso?
    Just askin'...he was kinda misogynist...those cubist pictures of women were not very, well, complimentary!
    Thinking outside of the box is fine;
    no problem with me.
    Picasso was a real creep when it came to his relationships with women.
    And he didn't portray them, in his later works, in a very respectful way.

  25. Picasso did a lovely picture of a First Communion, that must have been before he kind of went off the rails. His painting "Guernica" is hard to look at, but portrays the horrors of war well.
    If you really want to get confused about the Arnolfini painting, go here:
    I had always believed it to be a record of the couple's marriage, but they're not even really sure which Arnolfini's they are. And both of the women who could be the lady in the picture apparently died childless. Go figure, another art mystery.

  26. NP:: I can like the art even if the artist is a creep :)

    I also like strong lines and angles--must be the math background :) So of course I adore the LA Cathedral and Guardian Angel Cathedral in Vegas :) Triangles EVERYWHERE!! Love it!!

    Ok Ok..I'll calm down now... :)


  27. Austringer8:30 PM

    Sara, I think you've drunk the Koolaid. "Thinking outside the box" is the usual excuse offered by the apologists of works that display no workmanship, compositional coherence, or even intelligibility.

    For centuries, great art was measured by standards such as those I've just listed. When the standards have been dumped, as they have been with modern art, is it even proper to call it art anymore? If you call it something else ("decoration"?), that's fine, but clearly it bears no affinity to the work of the past. It isn't a branch of the Great Tree of Art, it's a completely different plant, sharing none of the attributes of what was formerly known as art, except for some superficial similarities (like, both use paint).

    You have mentioned that you're an engineer: as such, you are aware of standards. Imagine a new kind of engineeering that professes to be liberated from all the accumulated knowledge and standards of the past -- whatever the result of that might be, it won't be what you recognize as engineering.

    May people point to Picasso's earlier work as eveidence of his great ability. Compared to what??? Those drawings are nice, but frankly they are not the work of a genius. One only has to compare the early work of the acknowledged great artists of the past to see that. Heck, some of my students (high-school aged)can do just as well as Picasso's early work. Nice? Yes, but not indicative of any exceptional talent.

    Lots of people find novelty and wierdness attractive. Sometimes a creative mind that is not particularly gifted with artistic talent can produce quirky, wierd things (Picasso comes to mind again here...), but quirky and wierd are not in and of themselves enough to make a work of art if the other things -- order, workmanship, intelligibility -- are absent.

    The Emperor is wearing no clothes, people. You've been told how beautifully dressed he is for so long that you've managed to disbelieve your own eyes.

  28. Sarah, I agree that one can like the art even if the artist is a creep. I enjoy Monet, but the guy was a lousy excuse for a husband.
    Austringer, if no artist ever broke out of the mold, we wouldn't have the Impressionists, or even Turner and Constable. Sure, there are standards, but I don't think the whole process is static or changeless.

  29. Sara: My challenge: read E.M. Jones' book, "Degenerate Moderns"...I'm not trying to contadict you here...but I think his rational and well-dcoumented study will give you food for thought and meditation.
    Modern art isn't wrong because it's modern...but St. Thomas A. and the tradition of the Church give some very important guidelines for "the True, the Beautiful, the One (unity), the Good"; and I think these are definitely still the norm for today.
    You can like Picasso...but maybe just look into the whole background of his life/his art/the criticism of why his later work does not conform to the Catholic tradition of the "transcendentals"...just a thought.

  30. Austringer9:00 PM

    Melody, you just said that "sure, there are standards" -- Modern art rejects that claim. Call it something else, but don't call it art if it rejects the standards by which what has been called art up until a century or so ago was measured by.

    Of course artists in different periods experiment and innovate. But when workmanship, intelligibility, compositional coherence, etc. are rejected, the experiment is doomed to fail. But too many people have, sheep-like, ignored the evidence of their own eyes and have passively listened and accepted what legions of so-called art experts -- who can't paint themselves -- have to say. You've been told that Picasso was a genius for so long, you've come to believe it. A person has to be educated right out of his common sense - and, by the way, this starts very young: when I started to teach some years ago, I looked at the existing curriculum that the grade school (A Catholic school!) was using and discovered that, from the earkt grades on up, kids were taught to think that ugly was beautiful; that something that looked like their baby sister could have drawn it was a masterpiece; and so on. It was relativism. I told the principal that nowhere else in this building -- or in the church across the street -- was relativism promoted, but here it was, in the art curriculum! What is also not generally recognized (because of the influence of non-painting art wallahs) is the almost total destruction of the teaching methods used to train painters through the centuries. Some of the early Impressionists benefited from these teaching methods; those who tried to build on that foundation alone cut themselves off from the great body of artistic knowledge that had been built up for centuries and less able to train their faculties to express their new ideas, and of modern art rejected any standards, without which there can be no instruction at all.

    Again, I would recommend "The Twilight of Painting" as a corrective.

  31. paula9:09 PM

    Father - have you read Jones' book, Monsters from the ID? If you find the one you're reading of interest, you will probably find this one fascinating too.

    A few years ago when doing some research, I was amazed how much occultism played in some artists' lives back in the late 1800's and early 1900's, where they even wrote their art work was created in an almost possessed state.

    Some schools of art where started this way ... I cannot recall specific artists now without digging into files to find the data. What I do recall presently is that spirals and circular movements were very prominent in their modern abstracts.

    There seems to me some similarities to the new age "art" therapies offered by spirit drawing instructions that are popular on both coasts, a lot offered at women's health retreat centers. They pretty ugly stuff, too.

  32. Austringer9:17 PM

    Sorry, I was typing so fast and furious there that I did not express myself clearly: I meant to say that, after the early Impressionists (some of whom benefited from solid training) those who tried to build on the foundation of the Impressionists alone short-changed themselves: form was lost, as so much emphasis had been put on color and impression.

    Another analogy I would give is that of music: there are standards for what we call beautiful. Now, a man screaming at the top of his lungs is certainly expressing himself. It might be a totally genuine expression. But sane people would not consider this art. Nor would they consider an accomplished musician a person who picks up a violin for the first time and screeks away. But somehow, in the visual arts, the screeking is considered profound. If you don't think it's fine music, well, you're a Philistine! But maybe after scores of music experts tell you over and over how the screaming man and the screeking one-time violin player are really just like Beethoven and Palestrina, why, you might come to agree. After all, isn't the man screaming just "breaking the mold"? Isn't the violin player just "thinking outside the box"?

  33. Anonymous9:18 PM

    Austringer, you have such a clear head when it comes to art. God bless you. You should give talks.

  34. paula: I have read "Monsters of the Id"; I agree...E. M. Jones has a real gift in being able to carefully demonstrate how "modernism" has infected practically every facet of life.
    He has given me a lot of help to understand many things; some don't like him because he's "nasty"...well, people who say it as they see it are not welcome in a lot of circles! (Right, Terry?
    :<)! know I love you!).
    Thanks for the reference. Maybe folks will look into this whole matter more carefully.

  35. I would love to add to this but I want Fr. Erik to like me.

    That said - I do like some very modern things... I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'll go get de-programmed, re-hab, anything - just don't turn on me! ;)

  36. Austringer9:23 PM

    Georgette, thank you for your kind comments. As you may have noticed, I'm just, oh, a tad passionate about this passionate that after I read what has been posted, I see all the typos that are the result of typing so quickly and furiously!!

  37. Also - thanks for another great discussion here! I'll have to read those books. Yes Fr. - I do know what it is like to be an outsider - LOL!

  38. Austringer9:28 PM

    Terry, aww, you know I love you too much to ever turn on you...just don't call it Art, man, and we'll be OK. "Decoration"? "Visual Novelties"? Those work for me...

    I'd be curious to see if your appreciation would change in any way after reading "The Twilight of Painting".

  39. Terry: Don't you dare get re-programmed, go into rehab (that is a nasty business in and of itself!) just keep on giving us all kinds of everything to meditate upon, discuss, disagree about, etc.
    This "place" you have developed is a breath of fresh air (and I do skim around a bit on the blogosphere,...not so much of that in other places:<)!...I have to watch myself or get ready to get "skewered"!)...anyway. 'Nuf said.

  40. I guess I see things a bit real artists are the "producers" of art, I am the consumer of art..I don't know much about art per se...but I do know what I like, and what my close circle of humanity yeah the modern art that I like because it "strikes" me, many others don't like, and vice versa...I personally find still lifes very "boring." But art that I wouldn't necessarily purchase for myself I would purchase for a family member or close friend as a gift. And I can visit a museum and appreciate the wide ranges of exhibits.
    And you may not call it art....but I really enjoy the black scribbles my three-year old neighbor makes of my black cat..they bring joy to my day...and isn't what art is about??

    I'm sure artists are torn about producing art to pay the bills and producing art because they feel "moved" to produce a particular piece..

    And Terry--Fr Erik just shakes his head when I talk about modern art and architecture..I'm sure he really wants me to be deprogrammed but he still likes me :) (I think :)

    These sound like interesting books...I will see if the library has them..and I learn so much from you guys!!


  41. michael r.8:13 AM

    Art appreciation is subjective, thanks be to God. We get to like what appeals to our own senses. We don't have to like what conforms to formulas, or what some critics dictate. The lives of artists are frequently messy(Carravagio, Diego Rivera), but that doesn't diminish the quality of their work. What some of you are saying sounds ominously close to what the Nazis & Communists & Fascists said about art. The party critics who "knew" were able to dictate what was, or was not, art. Much got pitched into the fires. Thank goodness that the impressionists & Picasso went in search of a new way of looking at the world. And the impressionist composers in music, Debussey & Ravel, did the same, along with Schoenberg & Stravinsky. Lorca, Rilke, Yeats, Cocteau & Bunuel did the same for literature and film.

  42. I respect what everyone is saying and I will investigate the writings you suggest, but I have to say I've been with Michael R. on this one...

  43. Austringer10:33 AM

    Michael R,

    Art appreciation is subjective, that is true: everyone can have an opinion. I know nothing about music, for example, but I am perfectly free to weigh in on a particular musician's playing of a Mozart piece. I am also free to criticize the Mozart composition. However, it would be quite arrogant of me to assume that my opinion is as informed and worthwhile as the opinion of, say, a gifted pianist or composer. That's just common sense.

    Art appreciation may be subjective, but the standards that have been used to measure what is art through most of history are not. For example, if I were to ask what creature is more "graceful", a swan with its "S" curved neck, or a pig, people the world over would choose the swan. It's because the visual arts, like music, have a kind of universal "language": "S" shapes are perecieved as graceful; strong, straight lines suggest firmness and strenth; curves suggest movment; and so on. This is true whether you live in present-day China or Renaissance Italy. Music has its own language as well, which is why putting Christian lyrics on top of a Sousa march does not render the music suitable for Mass.

    You wrote: "What some of you are saying sounds ominously close to what the Nazis & Communists & Fascists said about art."
    Funny how often it happens that when deviancy is criticized, its defenders go for the ad hominem argument: Do you think that homosexual behavior is disordered? You're a Nazi! You want to round gays up and put them in concentration camps!!! Do you think that blobs of dung spread on a canvas, or a crucifix in urine, aren't art? Fascist!!! Communist!!!

    I had a conversation with a friend of mine recently, one of Minnesota's finest plein-air painters. I proposed to him my theory that the ability to see beauty (and hence appreciate art) was like the conscience -- it could be corrupted. Listen to discordant, raunchy music long enough, and you'll come to like it, and you will also erode your ability to see anything of value in Mozart or Bach. His response (he's been pondering these matters too) was that he thought that the appreciation of beauty wasn't just LIKE the conscience; it WAS the conscience, or at least a part of it. That's interesting, and I'll be chewing on that for a bit. But it does strike me as a reasonable explanation for why some people can't see the difference between a pile of dung arranged on a plate and Michelangelo's Pieta, or who find the dribbles of Picasso or Jackson Pollock to be as beautifully composed and rendered as the work of Monet or Degas. Perhaps their ability to distinguish beauty from ugliness has been corrupted or corroded. The standards by which Velazquez produced his Crucifixion are completely different (and even rejected by) from those of Serrano in his "Piss Christ": this ought to be obvious, but obviously to say so is to invite comparisons to Nazis and fascists.

    I can see the appeal of the new expression (I will not call it art, as logic would argue against such a designation): it used to be that one had to be able to draw well as a basic foundation of any artistic pursuit (much as a composer or musician must master notes and scales). But -- no more! The new expression does not demand any drawing skill. It's not necessary -- if you can't draw well, no need to worry: just call yourself an artist and say that that's how you FEEL about the subject.

    I like this -- it's so easy. I've decided, by the way, that I'm just as skilled a composer as Mozart. Of course, I play no musical instrument, and I can't read music, but, hey, pounding on a piano and yelling make me happy! And if any of you think I'm not a musician and composer, why, you are such Nazis.

  44. Austringer - you make so much sense - I have to read that book. I love the Mozart comparison - today everyone thinks they are artists... I have stories of people - anyway - that is why I call myself a painter. Thanks for your good comments!

  45. michael r.3:56 PM

    I too appreciate your comments, Austringer. I will chew on them for a while. I didn't call you a Nazi. Your ideas about truth and beauty ARE unfortunately shared by Nazis and Communists and Fascists -- those who hold to such absolutes. Are you familiar with Ayn Rand? She was one of the seminal figures in literature and philosophy. Basically, everything you wrote was written by her. Everyone in her circle had to agree with her ideas on what constituted beauty and great art (art, literature & music). If you didn't, there was something wrong with your aesthetics. If you weren't able to correct your views (i.e. able to correctly distinguish between beauty and ugliness), you were kicked out as a mediocrity. "Listen to discordant, raunchy music long enough, and you'll come to like it, and you will also erode your ability to see anything of value in Mozart or Bach." This is sooo simplistic -- and wrong. My appreciation for the music of Shoenberg, Webern & Berg certainly did not erode my love for Mozart. I know of virtually no one else who this would be true of either.

  46. Austringer5:07 PM

    Michael R.,

    Yes, unfortunately I am quite aware of the writings of Ayn Rand. I have read much or most of them, first as a teenager, later in order to debate against her ideas with the daughter of a close friend of mine who became an Objectivist (the philosophy of Ayn Rand).

    It should be noted that Ayn Rand confused "taste" and "beauty": Taste is subjective and truly is in the eye of the beholder, whereas beauty has objective aspects which, though difficult to precisely nail down, do exist. So, for example, Rand hated Beethoven, and anyone who liked him was, in her eyes, deficient in their aesthetics. But Rand could not see (because of her egoism) that the standards by which Beethoven was measured were indeed the same standards by which other composers, whom she did like, were also measured. She confused her personal tastes with objective standards.

    An example of a difference in taste: I happen to admire Velazquez and Vermeer, who were both Impressionists in the correct sense of the word. I like them better than Peter Paul Rubens -- I've never cared for his bluish-pink flesh tones. But though Rubens isn't to my particular taste, his work was produced according to the same standards as Velazquez. It is great art, though I don't care for it personally. However, my rejection of Picasso, Pollock, and all the other purveyors of "work" that requires no skill, no coherence, and no intelligibility is based not on my own tastes but on the very apparent rejection of the standards by which art has been produced throughout the centuries.

    Despite what you say, I have seen the corroding effects of ugliness: for example, the son of an acquaintance listens to hip-hop day in, day out. We got talking about music one day, and he told me that he thought Mozart was incredibly dull; that he would only listen to that kind of music if he wanted to go to sleep. I could give other examples...But it does make perfect sense: We are affected by what we expose ourselves to, which is why pornography is so corrosive. I am also reminded of St. Paul's admonition to the Philippians that "your thoughts should be wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, virtous, or worthy of praise". Why would anyone make an exception for the visual arts, and call bad good, or call ugly beautiful? You don't think that's harmful?

  47. michael r.7:51 AM

    I don't recall that Ayn Rand hated Beethovan. He is a great Romantic. (Also, I've read that Leonard Peikoff, her "heir", has always been passionate about Beethovan; doubtful that she would have tolerated that.)

    Interesting comments about taste and beauty, but I believe you are incorrect in your conclusions on Rand. It's too simple, by half. Rand knew a very clear distinction between aesthetic "response" and aesthetic "judgement". So I think it's a little simplistic to say that she confused the two. Aesthetic response is more or less the emotional response, while judgement involves objective truth (more or less your taste and beauty). Art appreciation for her involved both. But it would be possible to love an artist because one has a strong emotional response to that artist, but realize that that same artist produces bad art, because they don't satisfy aesthetic judgement criteria. Conversely, it's also possible to recognize great art even though you don't have a strong emotional response. Rand was critical of nearly everyone precisely because they couldn't differentiate between the two. Nearly everyone has an emotional response to art, and that is all -- and that is how most define great art. She believed that there was such a thing as objective beauty, knowable to any truely rational being(like herself). She "knew" that Hugo was great art, for instance, and she knew that Zola was not, not because of her personal taste, but exactly for her aesthetic judgement. Unfortunately, this is not possible for anyone, really. It is only possible for God. There is no such thing as an objective work of art, except in the mind of God. It is this excessive rigidity of Rands that is the great deficiency of her aesthetic philosophy, as it is of all totalitarians -- and this is basically what she was, a totalitarian.

    It is the same thing in theology. Interestingly, Rand drew heavily from St. Thomas (largely because he drew from Artistotle). Recall that St. Thomas himself closed the book at some point, recognizing that all that he knew was nothing as compared to the mind of God. He knew that theology is not static. He personally rejected the idea of the Immaculate Conception too(as did St. Bonaventure and the great Marian doctor St. Bernard) , preferring to defer to the judgement of the Church. That judgement didn't finally come for hundreds of more years. The deposit of faith is deeper today than it was yesterday. It will be deeper still tomorrow.


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