We don't like to suffer. There are people who fuss if they're mildly uncomfortable, such as the room is too hot or cold or a line is too long. People like the idea that being a good Jew or Christian (and for some just a good person, an identity that usually remains undefined) entitles them to a life of blessings, and in a way it does.
Since the greatest blessing is to draw closer in our walk with God.
However, to draw close and walk close to God requires suffering. There's no way around it. I know this very personally in my own life. It is also confirmed in the books of the Bible.
This weekend at MOBIA there was a Symposium on the life and work of Georges Rouault. It was an excellent event that I enjoyed immensely. That's ironic since Rouault's work deals mrercy and redemption through the sufferings of war and evil of sin.
So why wasn't I suffering?
Well, to begin with, I went with the expectation of hearing and even meeting Father Terrence Dempsey, who founded and heads up the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art in St. Louis, MI. Actually, except for Holly Flora, who is the Curator of Exhibitions at MOBIA, I did not know what to expect from the other speakers. Although that “still small voice' strongly urged me to attend, the prospect of hearing Father Dempsey and then also Ms. Flora was too good to pass up.
Further, keep in mind that I frequently travel two and a half hours into Manhattan from my studio and home in Southampton to scope out galleries to approach. Unlike other artists who are simply looking for galleries that might accept them for representation, my quest is to find galleries that show only art, which were it included in non-art magazines would not need to be kept behind the counter as it would be illegal to sell to minors.
Rouault's dark and brooding work seems uplifting and refreshing after some of the contemporary art I have recently viewed.
On the day of my prior visit to MOBIA to attend a lecture by Ena Heller on the use of divine light in art, I arrived from having just seen an exhibit ion one of Chelsea 's “better” galleries where lurid sex acts where delicately created through fine embroidery.
In fact, the only contemporary art exhibit I have seen recently that made me really proud to be a contemporary artist is MOMA's Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, which will be there until May 22. It is from the Muslim tradition – but divergent from the religion itself. Granted, I missed the exhibit of contemporary art at MOBIA this year due to a sprained ankle, or no doubt I would have included that.
When I entered the room for MOBIA's symbosium, I was praying, as to where to sit. I was moved away from my preferred place at he rear, my second choice of the aisle near the door, to second row on the right on the center aisle, where I never sit, even in movies. Shortly, this turned out to be a splendid spot as the person across the aisle from me was a contemporary artist I admire and was truly happy to meet, Sandra Bowden . The Rouault works at the exhibition are from the collection of Robert and Sandra Bowden.
Then Father Dempsey sat directly in front of me with on his other side. Next to him William Dyrness , Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Seminary; next to him sat Soo Yun Kang , Associate Professor of Art History, Chicago State University; then Annemarie Sawkins, Associate Curator, Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University; and then and Holly Flora. From my perspective, I had the best seat in the house!
I planned to say more about the excellent individual presentations.
Actually, I planned to suck up in this blog. The symposium speakers are, from my perspective, some of the most important people in contemporary small museums and colleges today. At the very least, I have argued to create a link from this blog to a special page, where I could really suck up and extol everyone as they actually each deserve it. But, but in my spirit that seems nixed, too.
The symposium was about the work and life of Rouault. In homage to all the speakers I will focus on that as Rouault's message remains vital..
Today, as in Rouault's time there is much suffering. Rouault's work in Miserere et Guerre depicts the suffering in Paris around the time of WW I. What material he would have found in our nightly news broadcasts! The images we see of war, poverty, famine and devastation juxtaposed with commercials of happy people using expensive cars, beer, abundant food, make-up and fashion and medicines that not only heal but end depression and increase sexual pleasure.
Even if one is on the side of right and merely defending oneself, war -- no matter how necessary, is always an assault against our fellow humans; and therefore horrible.
Rouault knew that in our darkest hours, in our deepest sufferings we could “see” the Lord and be comforted. That it was those who suffered and mourned who could draw closer and experience divine mercy.
Sadly, Rouault has fallen from the contemporary art world's esteem. But, then so has God and religious art that was not created over 100 years ago. Of course, most of the greatest painters of the western world happen to have created religious works (as well as secular ones) or considered themselves to be religious or spiritual and conveying that understanding in their works, like van Gogh and Kandinsky. Those are the artists who continue to draw in the crowds in Museum shows.
During his life, Rouault was exhibited with van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Gauguin, etc. In the exhibit at MOBIA of Roualt's prints usually inspired by and meant to illustrate Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil). He was considered to be a great artist by his contemporary art world.
Purposefully suffering or depriving oneself of a luxury is obviously not the American way as our credit card debt indicates. In fact, even our government has an unprecedented amount of indebtedness. Although we want to be compensated for any wrong done to us (and even make a profit, when one considers the many law suits), we prefer to have others suffer for our sins, beginning with the animal sacrifices in the Hebrew testament.
In a walk with God (my personal walk is more of a stumble, but then, I am a klutz), we must learn to die to ourselves, which is a polite way of saying we have to kill our egos. Whatever we believe makes us superior to others makes us inferior from the Lord's perspective. Everything we think we need, that is not eternal is likely to be blown away. Whatever we cannot live without we will learn we can live without. Each one must wander in his/her own desert and learn to follow God while being nourished on manna, which is the Word of God. One's walk with God is not usually a stroll on a sunny day.
After a day of meditating and praying (and then arguing) about what to write for this blog, I have come to think that there are many reasons Rouault has fallen from his prior place in the art world's esteem.
First, it has to be acknowledged that his descent began during the Vietnam war, when anti-war sentiment was also considered anti-establishment. While the rich and prominent people (the establishment) usually decide who is fashionable and in favor in art, historically, they choose artists who uphold society's status quo – or who make ripples, not waves. The Vietnam war period was they heyday of Pop art, which seemed to extol the status quo. Antiwar art was absolutely not in fashion, and so Rouault's woek began to wane in popularity.
Perhaps, Rouault's drop from the current art world's estimation can be attributed to his seemingly lack of importance to current crop of most important contemporary artists, who are represented by the “best” galleries and command the highest prices in magazines such as Art News, Art Forum, Art in America and Art in Review, etc.
Even though I am a Jew and Rouault was a fervent Catholic, he certainly influenced my work. Of course, I am not mentioned anywhere as I am just coming out of the closet as an artist (should have a lot of slides by the end of next week!).
Rouault does more than comment on society; he leads us to inspiration we can cling to in times of trouble: the Presence of the Lord. For Rouault, that is embodied by mystery of Christ in the Veronica's Veil. I understand that symbology. Unfortunately for Rouault, not everyone does.
Finally, Rouault's subjects remain far too close to our own timed and fashions to allow us to become comfortable and remain in our denial and complacency. Although horror, gore and wanton sex remain box office draws for all visual media, we turn away from the devastation and suffering they cause. Rouault makes us feel divinely uncomfortable – and that's what makes him a great artist.
May you be a blessing and be blessed,
May 16, 2006