Circle or Line under Most Beautiful Absolute

Remove from me then, Lord, the sadness that the love of self might give, but create in me a sadness in conformity with thine

Month: May, 2012

Backwards and Forwards

In the modern era, all ideas aside from making money or achieving utopia are sandblasted and erased from the human brain. This has certain consequences. One such consequence is that everything becomes debased to this sewage-level of thought process. There’s nothing wrong with a sewer system – indeed what would we do without them? Along with the man who invented the root canal I suppose we can thank the man who invented the sewer. Both are “improvements”. But in any case you wouldn’t want to hang out there.

Another consequence, no less real, but I think not so much discussed, is that everything becomes confused. I don’t mean by that, that everything becomes stupid. There are some quite stupid people out there. I have come to have a greater faith in people than I once did. Plus, it’s very hard, once the monkey says that “man is a rational animal” to un-evolve that monkey. The genie is out of the bottle so to speak.

The confusion I’m referring to is the same thing that happens to someone when a flood of new data rushes in – there may be literally no way for the organism to categorize or process that data. Thus words, which have meant certain things, begin to mean new things.

Take, for example, the words “kitsch” and “sentimental”. These days, since the only thing our prefrontal lobes are programmed to do is worship at the altars of Mammon or Marx, those two words tend to become identified, or at least the difference between them becomes unimportant.

But they are vastly different.

This:

Is kitsch. Why? Well let’s leave that aside for the moment. Whereas this:

Is sentiment.

Now sentiment, as far as I’m aware, is a comprehensive thing. It is a mirror, in other words, that reflects not just one person or society or perspective, but all of mankind. There is something, in other words, in that painting that anyone, everywhere will understand. Cannot in fact fail to understand, whether that person is an American or Iraqi, Israeli or Palestinian. The theme, in other words, is universal.

Now just because a theme is universal doesn’t mean its expression is necessarily simple. Consider this one:

The “theme” or “sentiment” of this image is, well, we might say “tyranny”, or “paganism”, etc. But to think we have therefore exhausted the image by explaining it is precisely the mistake made by the modernists. And to say that it is childish and thus no longer politically correct is also to miss the point. The image is too exciting for our modern minds because it is childish and it is childish because it contains in it something from the very depths.

Human beings are simple – but “simplicity” is another one of those words we no longer appreciate. Because the things that are simple are also at the same time the deepest things of all. These things are not opposites. Our modern confusions tend to polarize our thoughts into binaries – black or white, pain or pleasure, etc. As a matter of fact the opposite of pain is not pleasure at all, it is – boredom.

Which is not to say that we must give in to the other modern confusion – which is to confuse the words “depth” and “pain”. There is nothing – nothing – easier and happier than nihilism. Nihilism is the ultimate evil because it is the ultimate apathy and banality. It requires absolutely nothing – nothing that is, other than a visceral reaction, a response from the basal ganglia. If it shocks the monkey, it must be good, or rather – and let us not forget this other sinister word – useful.

Human nature is indeed dark, but not dark alone. It is the admixture of that which affirms, the light, with that which intrigues, the dark.

So art likewise exists between the kitsch and the visceral. It is sentiment.

Now would it be confusing to say that this “sentiment” which I am referring to is precisely the same thing as the “reason” which Aristotle mentioned? “Reason” and “sentiment” of course have gone through a messy divorce since Descartes and after that all the specializations went off to their own rooms and had a big sulk.

Something happened, you see, to us. Something happened that shattered our minds – we now deal with the daily businesses of picking up the pieces. This thing that happened – what was it? What happened to us that made it impossible for us to accept that reason was the friend of sentiment, that they in fact were the same child? Aristotle speaks in his ethics of kalon, excellence, and this is not so far from Christ’s “life in abundance”. If this kalon can be pegged to “reason” then pagan “virtu” becomes much, much closer to Christian “sentiment” on all fronts. And it is this single thing, this single pagan-Christian “virtu” that the modern age has utterly eviscerated. Or has tried.

What was the thing that happened? Well that is a deeper story than you think. We can say the great haunting words: “Great War” or “Hiroshima” or “Auschwitz” or “Gulag” or “Great Leap Forward”. Yes, all those moments are the moment. For the conservative, someone who believes that something has been lost since that moment, something that must be recovered, those moments are the great tragedy, or the culmination of it. What that moment means is that the ball has been dropped, a dead end was reached, we must turn back.

But I have come to believe this is the wrong perspective. Which bring us back to kitsch. Observing again the painting by Jon McNaughton we can say that it also has a “theme”. Indeed, it leaves us in no doubt of what it is. We can even summarize it: “He that is not with me, is against me: and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth.” Whereas sentiment affirms the human spirit even in the depths of its agony, kitsch tries to dogmatize the confused mind out of its fear. And the mind is only ever confused when it’s afraid. The reason this painting is kitsch is the same reason people died for Hitler – people want desperately to believe they are safe and secure. The painting “One Nation Under God” is a scrambled serving of “Left Behind” mixed in with “Buddy Christ” . It is in some sense the apotheosis of the entire modernist artistic movement. It has completely divorced art from the humanity that creates it. It is no longer even art as icon, it is art as a new form of religious propaganda.

But we are still circling around the wagons here – why was it painted? It was painted because someone, somewhere, thought that they had the first clue what “He that is not with me, is against me: and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth” means and why it was said in the context in which it was said. And they thought they needed to have that clue because? They were afraid. The entire image oozes with it. It reeks of fear. I have never seen a more inhuman, anti-human image than Jon McNaughton’s “One Nation Under God”. There is a reason why great art has never had any serious flirtation with apocalypse. And that is because apocalypse is the domain of angels – who have the answers we don’t. Any attempt by us to scan into that darkness with our flashlights will result only in the kind of hilarious abortions like this one. To unify the Constitution of the United States of America to the figure of Jesus Christ is an attempt not to paint but to paint over an area of human knowledge and experience that is so scant and so limited and so perilous so as to amount almost to – um, artistic – blasphemy. This is a domain, shall we say, where even the most painterly of angels may fear to tread. It is the equivalent of painting a figure of God over Michelangelo’s entire Sistene Chapel with a balloon coming out of His mouth, saying “My name is God, and I approve this message”. The image could not have been conceived of before the age of advertising.

I am no iconoclast. But Mr. McNaughton’s image is anti-iconoclasm on steroids, on drugs, standing up on the backseat of a convertible with its top down, shouting at the top of its lungs doing 80 down the highway, batshit crazy loco. It is the Tea Party equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson hallucinating his brains out at the start of Fear and Loathing, wondering when the bats are going to get him. It is a piece of propaganda beyond the most demented imaginings of Bill Hicks or George Carlin. Come to think of it, seen in this light, his painting is brilliant. If taken as satire, it is perhaps the greatest painting in the history of art.

It goes way, way beyond even this: 

It would be as if, in Ingres’ image, Jesus Christ made a cameo to shake Napoleon’s hand.

Here, then, is the real story. The way it is used today, “modern” refers only to the most recent hundred years or so of the history of a species named “homo”, which is, approximately, 2.3 million years of age. We could, without disturbing our equanimity, instead use the word “modern” to refer to the period beginning in roughly 8,000 B.C., when this species, “homo”, which is, again, approximately 2.3 million years old, began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. Civilization, in other words, is the tiny, almost infinitesimally small moment which we may call “modern”.

Now … described thusly, we can perhaps reframe our “what happened” question a little. “What happened” is not some recent babble of political events which may or may not concern us, or even some tectonic shifting of the poles which happen every once in a while. “What happened” is that the Greek mantra “man is the reasoning animal” repeated through the centuries, suddenly, abruptly, hit the brick wall of consciousness. Or, in other words, to put it more plainly, one day, an animal realized that it woke up. And the “modern” age is merely the latest fluttering of its eyelids in that precise moment.

This mere fact that an animal is now “awake”, if properly understood, would produce shockwaves throughout the species of such magnitude that it would destroy itself. It simply would not know how to deal with this plain and simple fact. And this is why: habit. Species have survived for countless millions of years based on their habits. They are programmed to eat, sleep, reproduce, nurture their young, defend their tribes from predators – all from habit. Millions upon millions of years of habits, programmed again and again and again into the tiny brains of the genus homo. And then, suddenly, between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago – the brain of Homo Sapiens simply explodes in size. And 10,000 years ago this species begins to grow crops and farm animals.

In other words, what has happened is this: a life-form has suddenly accelerated very quickly towards what might be described as an omega point. The essence, nature and energy of this omega point is the very issue of religion and “spirituality”, another word that the vampires have phlebotomized. It is not that the ball has been dropped. There is never any question about the ball being dropped. Evolution never drops the ball. The question is: can we possibly realize what it is to be, to be awake, to relate, and to live as conscious life-forms instead of habitual life-forms?

Some time in the last hundred years the great Eye fluttered awake. And when it sees things, the Eye becomes powerful. That is the whole point of consciousness, the whole point of a child growing up into an adult. In the blinding atomic flash the crowd froze for an instant. Neighbors glanced at each other, unable to believe their eyes. When these shifts happen – look out. Because although the gold falls from the heavens for all men, the greediest and quickest can rush into the gap.

And that is exactly what happened in our “modern” age. The Victorians were the greatest empire in the world. And suddenly, into the midst of this empire, came a new consciousness, a new power. And within decades that empire was dead, the indescribably massive bathtub of blood that was the twentieth century had sloshed over the species. Mammon and Marx ran in to lick up the leftovers. Why? Because the habits of the animal had once again been perturbed.

Which brings us back to art. What I’ve been calling “kitsch” is the botched attempt to enact rules and regulations upon the deep animal ocean that exists inside. And “visceral” art is the attempt to worship something that neither knows nor cares about its acolytes. It writhes and coils, endlessly dark, endlessly dim. I have swum in her depths. Its habits are eternal. Its currents are as deep as the abyss. Its origins are long ago, within the infinity of Big Bangs and the matter of multiverses.

But “sentiment” is something new in the species. It is the same thing as “reason” and “consciousness” and “life in abundance”. It dips its cup into this ocean and looks at it in the light of day. The water is still dark. But now we can see it. It is the home we know we belong to, and is therefore our own awake, animal, human nature. Gagdad Bob, summarizing Sri Aurobindo: it is chronologically later than, but ontologically prior to, matter.

Therefore it’s familiar to us. And that is why all real art has that same familiarity. When we look at it, we are really experiencing deja vu.

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You Have Been Lied To by the Gnostic Elite

Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, June 7, 2001, addressing a crowd of over 700 portrait artists, gallery owners and members of the press at America’s premier institution of art, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, at the American Society of Portrait Artists (ASOPA) Conference. Mr Ross was interrupted at least 10 times to thunderous applause or peals of laughter, as he blasted Modernism and its chief icons, Picasso, Mattisse and DeKooning, with some of the most biting, yet truthful satire that has ever been heard in those sanctified halls.

As I talk, the slides you will see are examples of some of the greatest paintings in the entire history of art. Nearly all are from the 19th century, and are by formerly vilified academy masters who were world famous in their own day, then degraded and mocked during most of the 20th century, and are once again being recognized as amongst history’s all time greats: William Bouguereau, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Waterhouse, Frederick Lord Leighton, Ernst Louis Meissonnier, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Frank Dicksee, Jules Joseph Tissot, John William Godward, and others whose names you may or may not know. World-class masterpieces by some of history’s greatest painters … scores of them, by geniuses of the first rank, who were willfully written out of history by ideologues … Modernist historians, themselves undeserving of their titles and credentials.

The art of painting, one of the greatest traditions in all of human history has been under a merciless and relentless assault for the last one hundred years. I’m referring to the accumulated knowledge of over 2500 hundred years, spanning from Ancient Greece to the early Renaissance and through to the extraordinary pinnacles of artistic achievement seen in the High Renaissance, 17th century Dutch, and the great 19th century Academies of Europe and America. These traditions, just when they were at their absolute zenith, at a peak of achievement, seemingly unbeatable and unstoppable, hit the twentieth century at full stride, and then … fell off a cliff, and smashed to pieces on the rocks below. Since World War I the contemporary visual arts as represented in Museum exhibitions, University Art Departments, and journalistic art criticism became little more than juvenile, repetitive exercises at proving to the former adult world that they could do whatever they damn well wanted … sadly devolving ever downwards into a distorted, contrived and contorted notion of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression? Ironically, this so-called “freedom” as embodied in Modernism, rather than a form of “expression” in truth became a form of “suppression” and “oppression.” Modernism as we know it, ultimately became the most oppressive and restrictive system of thought in all of art history.

Every reasonable shred of order and any standards with which it was possible to identify, understand and to create great paintings and sculpture, was degraded … detested … desecrated and eviscerated. The backbone of the painters’ craft, namely drawing, was thrown into the trash along with modeling, perspective, illusion, recognizable objects or elements from the real world, and with it the ability to capture, exhibit, and poetically express subjects and themes about mankind and the human condition and about man’s trials on this speck of stardust called Earth … Earth, hurtling through infinity with all of us along on board, along with everything we know and everything we hold dear.

Reason … philosophy … religion … literature … fantasy … dreams, and all of the feelings, emotions and pathos of our every day lives … all of it was no longer worthy of the painter’s craft. Any hint by the artist at trying to portray such things was branded as banal, maudlin, photographic, illustration, or petty sentimentality.

Our children, going supposedly to the finest universities in the world, being taught by professors with Bachelors or Arts, Masters of Arts, Masters of Fine Arts, Masters of Art Education … even Doctoral degrees, our children instead have been subjected to methodical brain-washing and taught to deny the evidence of their own senses. Taught that Mattisse, Cézanne, and Picasso, along with their followers, were the most brilliant artists in all of history. Why? Because they weren’t telling us lies like the traditional painters, of course. They weren’t trying to make us believe that we were looking at scenes in reality, or at scenes from the imagination, from fantasy or from dreams. They were telling us the truth. They were telling it like it is. They spent their lives and careers on something that was not banal, and not silly, insipid or inane. They in fact provided the world with the most ingenious of all breakthroughs in the history of artistic thought. Even the great scientific achievements of the industrial revolution paled before their brilliant discovery. And what was that discovery for which they have been raised above Bouguereau, exalted over Gérôme, and celebrated beyond Ingres, David, Constable, Fragonard, Van Dyck, and Gainsborough or Poussin? Why in fact were they heralded to the absolute zenith … the tiptop of human achievement … being worthy even of placement shoulder to shoulder on pedestals right beside Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Vermeer and Raphael? What did they do? Why were they glorified practically above all others that ever went before them? Ladies and gentleman, they proved … amazing, incredible, and fantastic as it may seem, they proved that the canvas was flat … flat and very thin … skinny … indeed, not even shallow, lacking any depth or meaning whatsoever.

And the flatter that they proved it to be the greater they were exalted. Cezanne collapsed the landscape, Matisse flattened our homes and our families, and Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning placed it all in a blender and splattered it against the wall. They made even pancakes look fat and chunky by comparison. But this was only part of the breathtaking breakthroughs of modernism … and their offshoots flourished. Abstract expressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, minimalism, ColorField, Conceptual, op-art, pop-art and post modernism … and to understand it all … to understand, took very special people indeed, since the mass of humanity was too ignorant and stupid to understand. Like that famous advertisement in the NY Times said so many years ago … Bad art … or Good art? You be the judge, indeed.

Of course, to justify this whole theoretical paradigm, all the artists that painted recognizable scenes with depth and illusion had to be discredited … and discredited they were, with a virulence and vituperation so scathing and merciless that one would think they must have been messengers of the devil himself to deserve such abuse. And to put the final nail in their coffins, all of their art was banished and their names and accomplishments written right out of history. I graduated with a Master’s in art education from Columbia University, and I’d never heard of Bouguereau, much less that he was President of the Academy and head of the Salon … the most celebrated artist of his time who single handedly, using all of his influence as the most respected leader of art world, opened up L’Ecole Des Beaux Arts and the Salons to women artists for the first time in history.

During most of the 20th century, the type of propaganda that has been hurled at academic artists is so insidious that people have been literally trained to discredit, out-of-hand, any work containing well-crafted figures or elements, or any other evidence of technical mastery. All the beauty and subtlety of emotions, — interplay of composition, design and theme, — the interlacing of color, tone and mood, — are never seen. The viewer has been taught that academic painting on a prima facie basis is bad by definition — bad by virtue of its resorting to the use of human figures, themes or stories and objects from the real world.

Prestige suggestion causes them to automatically assume that a work must be great if it’s by any of the “big names” of modern art, so they at once start looking for reasons why it must be proclaimed great. Any failing to find greatness is not considered a failing in the art but in the intelligence and sensibilities of the viewer. Students operating under that kind of intimidating pressure, you can be sure, will find greatness – no matter what they are looking at.

The reverse of this has been trained into them when they view academic paintings. They have been taught that works exhibiting realistic rendering are “bad art” and therefore any good that is seen is not due to qualities inherent in their artistic accomplishments, but are rather due to a lack of intelligence and taste in the viewer. The same intimidating pressure works in reverse to ensure that a work by Bouguereau, Lord Leighton, Burne-Jones, Gérôme, Frederick Hart, or any of the rest of you here, will not be seen as anything other than bad by definition.

No student in a school with this kind of dictatorial brain-washing will ever risk exploring or even listening to opposing views, for fear of being stigmatized from that point on, with some undesirable label and being universally despised … sadly, a very effective deterrent to independent thought. Thus the visual experience of well-drawn representational elements is perceived as a negative, ad hominem, that proves with knee-jerk automaticity the presumed “badness” of the art and its creator.

It is especially ironic that these are the same people who trumpet the virtues and inalienable right to freedom of speech, while they surreptitiously and steadfastly conspire to remove that freedom from those with whom they disagree.

Equally ironic is the charge that academic painting is “uninspired,” a proclamation issued by critics who are unable to see beyond the technical virtuosity for which they condemn it, to see what is being said. This rich visual language is wasted on eyes that will not see. It would be no different than dismissing out-of-hand a piece of music as soon as it was determined that notes, chords and keys were used, or dismissing any work of literature upon noticing words arranged in grammatically correct sentences.

That is not to say that all academic art is great, or above criticism – certainly, it is not. It would be no less fallacious to issue blanket praise to an entire category than to condemn it. Academic painting ranges from brilliantly conceived and deeply inspired, to trite and silly, depending on the subject and the artist.

That being said, I find even the worst of it more meaningful than art based on the ridiculous notion that it is somehow important to prove the canvas is flat, and/or that one needs no skill or technique to be an artist – views generally embraced by those who condemn the entire category of academic art. Their point seems to be to elevate to legitimacy that which has removed all standards and prior defining characteristics of art. In other words, by defining non-art as art, the logical conclusion is that art is non-art.

Modern artists are told that they must create something totally original. Nothing about what they do can ever have been done before in any way shape or form, otherwise they risk being called “derivative”. How utterly absurd.

These critics like to say Bouguereau’s work is really only derivative, harking back to earlier artists. Only in the 20th century has such a thing ever been scorned. To this I have one thing to say:

“What, dear friends, is wrong with being derivitive?”

That’s one of the core beliefs of modernism that must be soundly vanquished by common sense and logical analysis. Nobody can accomplish anything of merit if they are in fact not derivative. Only by mastering the accomplishments of the past and then adding to it can we go still further. Every other field of endeavor recognizes this truth. Without the knowledge of the past we are doomed to everlasting primitivism.

And, as far as holding our works up to the old masters, that’s what we want to have happen. If we are to accomplish things of true merit and excellence, we must germinate and nurture great masters in the next millennium, too. Bouguereau was quite aware that his work would be compared on the altar of past accomplishments, as did his contemporaries. It was precisely because they mastered the techniques of the past, built upon them and then opened them up to an avalanche of new subject matter and Enlightenment ideals, that they accomplished the greatest half-century of painting in art history.

And when we talk about the basic criteria and parameters of the academic tradition that built from the 14th through 19th centuries, Bouguereau, Lord Leighton and Alma-Tadema were second to none.

Could Bach and Beethoven and Mozart have achieved their masterpieces if someone before had not discovered scales and the circle of fifths? Does that mean these musical giants were nothing but derivative too? In fact all great literature exists due to the existence of advanced language. This upside down thought process would make Dosteovsky, Balzac, Chekhov, Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters derivative as well. If you think about it a bit you will see that these are exact analogies. There is nothing any more derivative about these 19th century Traditional-Humanist-Academic masters.

Being derivative is entirely different from copying. Copying itself can have value, but only for the purposes of instruction. Obviously, a copied work is not original art. But modernist ideologues have disingenuously dismissed all realist art as “derivative” as if that were the same as copying.

Additionally, students today are taught that every parameter upon which any standard for quality and excellence can be deduced is improper, because it’s “limiting to freedom of expression.”

There can be no story, for then you have to stay within the “tight boundaries” of the tale.

There can be no illusion, for then you are “chained” by the need to recreate a sense of three dimensions.

There can be no drawing, as that can be “limiting” to objects or people or things taken from the real world.

They want to remove the “shackles” of modeling, perspective, or subject matter of any sort.

There certainly can be no attempt at harmonizing of the above parameters with composition, color and tonality, for that would “restrict” one to making everything work together.

On the contrary, they have been propagandized by modernism into believing that only those works that break boundaries, ignore standards, and show no interest in skill or technique can be truly “original” or “inspired.” In fact originality of methods take precedence over all else. If something has been done before, or is derivative in any way of anything that was done before, it thereby loses value proportionate to those similarities. In such a “Through the looking glass” world, every would-be “artist” is placed in the untenable position of trying to create an entirely new art form in order to be considered relevant. The sheer glaring reality is that nothing could be more imprisoning, binding, restricting, chaining and shackling than the impossible limitations of modernism and post-modernism, that remove from the would-be artist every tool (including training) that could give him or her the ability to create great works of art. The simple truth is that each and every one of us (and I mean nearly every human being), is capable of thinking of something that has never been done before. Does that make it worth doing and the work of genius?

For example:

I could carefully (with enough money) dig up an old bombed out tenement building in the Bronx, and have it transported to a special slab built for it in Central Park. Rope off the structure and aim lights at it at night and give it a title, and with enough pomp and circumstance think of twenty reasons why this is sheer brilliance and genius.

I could boil the entrails of several different animals and then preserve them by imbedding them in clear plastic. I could then hang them from a mobile with similarly preserved body parts of cadavers, and have critics claim that this is the greatest artistic statement about the horrors of war since Guernica.

I could imbed into the walls, ceiling and floors of a small room, pieces of neon lights, parts from broken machines and engines, and broken pieces of structural building materials like bricks, beams and cinder blocks. Then I could glue between everything millions of nails, nuts and bolts, and have clever writers and critics point out how this room (which could be installed at MOMA or the Guggenheim) is the quintessential statement of the effects of the industrial age on human psychology.

Well, those three ideas took all of 3 minutes to think of. MY GOD! This must mean I’m three geniuses rolled into one. Why, at this rate I could come up with more brilliant ideas for Modernism than all of the modernist geniuses put together, if I just would put aside a week or two.

The thing here that really is interesting is not their art at all, but the statement it makes about the nature of our species — that so many seemingly intelligent people have been so easily snookered by the tongue-twisting, convoluted illogic of modernist rhetoric. Clearly for many people it is more important to feel that they are some part of an elitist in-group that is endowed with the special ability to see brilliance where the bulk of humanity sees nothing and is afraid to say so. Since most people aren’t devoted to or educated in fine art, they have successfully intimidated the bulk of humanity into cowering away in silence, feeling foolish for their inability to understand. The average person shrinks away from believing the reality of his or her own senses in the face of seemingly overwhelming numbers of people in this 20th century “establishment” who authoritatively dictate what is great art and what everyone should be seeing.

Modern and Post-modern Art is nihilistic and anti-human. It denigrates humanity along with our hopes, dreams, desires and the real world in which we live. All reference to any of these things is forbidden in the canonistic halls of modernist ideology. We can see that their hallowed halls are a hollow shell, a vacuous, vacant vault that locks their devotees away from life and humanity. It ultimately bores the overwhelming bulk of its would-be audience, who can find nothing with which to relate.

It has been called exciting and cutting-edge, but the sad truth is that it is incredibly humdrum and monotonous. Whether you glue together pieces of plastic or shards of glass, assemble metal scraps or piles of feathers. Whether you dribble little dollops of colors or drag fat uneven slashes of black. Whether you compile a mountain of paper or wrap the Statue of Liberty. The effect is always the same. MEANINGLESS PRIMITIVISM.

Modernism is art about art. It endlessly asks the question, ad nauseum: What is art? What is art? Only those things that expand the boundaries of art are good; all else is bad. It is art about art. Whereas all the great art in history, my friends, is ART ABOUT LIFE.

Of course, this isn’t exactly the first time in history that ideas which were complete shams managed to engulf the belief systems of entire cultures and civilizations. In many of those in the past, the lunacy was enforced by the severest of punishments for anyone who would dare to speak out. At least we live in a time and place where it’s possible to speak against this consummate con that has been perpetrated against the greatest period of artistic development and achievement in the history of Western Civilization and culture over the last 500 years. Three-quarters of the 20th century will go down in art history as a great wasteland of insanity — a nightmarish blip in the long road of the development of human logic and reason and art, from which we are only just starting to awake.

The artists of the 19th century exhibited a deep, abiding respect for humanity and human feelings. A respect for our minds, our spirits and our reason, and a love of beauty, grace and true excellence and accomplishment. Bouguereau, Lord Leighton, Waterhouse, Burne-Jones and the other giants of the 19th C. tried to capture those things that are good and decent in our species. Their accomplishments are the quintessential high point of hundreds of years of human study and development in the art of painting. They are arguably the greatest painters that history has ever produced. Bouguereau especially fits this description. How fitting and sadly obvious that he should be characterized as the chief villain by those who would destroy rather than build — who celebrate chaos rather than order and beauty.

Recently, a contributor to an on-line art forum I subscribe to made the following comments about Picasso:

I love the way Picasso did that woman all shards and angles. I don’t recall the name of the work. But, he painted the woman in her turmoil how she tore herself apart within, and how he saw what her turmoil did to her. He painted the way he saw her, as fragmented as he saw her. She was a beauty on the outside. Yet, he painted the ugly face of her turmoil, and in so doing painted his turmoil as well.

Picasso worked in a turbulent time. I think it’s why some of his works appeared to be reflections in a broken mirror. Shards, impressions all cut up and each with a voice about his subjects and of Spain. His work shows a deeply sensitive artist and was a pivotal point for the Russian avant garde school that said it was okay to feel in paint, to get all the chaos out in paint … I didn’t love him until I studied him …

– Laurie

I thought it fitting to read here my response to her.

Laurie and Goodart subscribers,

I really need to address these ebullient expressions of praise for Picasso a bit more precisely.

Laurie, this is not to fault you at all, but to analyze the description you have made which reflects the gospel that is taught about him in most art history courses. His name and “achievements” have become so “untouchable” within the sacrosanct walls of modernist cathedrals, that to do any other than you have stated here would be like criticizing the cross or the bible in the College of Cardinals.

Let’s look at this one idea at a time.

You said that, “He painted the woman in her turmoil how she tore herself apart within, and how he saw what her turmoil did to her”.

In fact, all that he painted was a messy characterization of a woman in which the forms and shapes don’t align or create any cohesive form. The drawing is virtually non-existent, and the disintegration of all artistic elements are self-consciously laid out for the express purpose of rejecting prior artistic standards.

There is no beauty in her face, or for that matter, ugliness. There isn’t even a face … but elements thrown together with just enough evidence to let the viewer know that it was meant to suggest a face.

Everything about the finished product is utterly awful and would be beneath the capabilities of a talented 12 year old.

Now, what if you are a theorist who needs to justify this hodge-podge of sloppy color and form? What can you creatively think of to place value and meaning, where none exists … especially, if you are being paid to do just that?

It’s simple: you need but approach the work as you would a Rorschach inkblot test, where anyone can use creative ability to make up a story, suggested by little, if any, information. If you want this man’s work to be valued highly, you must create a tale of great importance, with meaning, which, when discussed or analyzed in intellectual circles, will be considered profound and meaningful.

The idea of a lady being ugly on the inside is a concept from literature, psychology, and in fact all of human history. Ugliness, mean-spiritedness, and turmoil are major concepts that tint all of human experience. So you simply say that the messiness represents that, and look how brilliant he is to have captured it.

But in truth he has done nothing of the kind. The writers who said that was what it means were the one who did it, and not the artist. Inner turmoil and ugliness on the inside is far more difficult to capture, and takes intense, subtle handling of story telling, composition, drawing, and realistic rendering to successfully convey so that it can be recognized without any words. Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott and Bouguereau’s Divideuse both capture beautiful women loaded with inner turmoil, and Cabanel’s Cleopatra testing poisons on slaves portrays intense inner ugliness within a beautiful face and figure infinitely better than these broken blotchy messes on canvas by Picasso.

But when the modernist professors say that’s what it means, then implicit in their words is that if you don’t see it too you’re stupid and tasteless. Also to not see it becomes associated with not seeing how wonderful that subject matter would be. And it is after all truly wonderful subject matter. Only one problem; Picasso didn’t paint it.

You say, “his work shows a deeply sensitive artist,” but I don’t conclude any sensitivity whatsoever. What is there is the sensitivity of a bull in a china shop, who stomps around breaking all the beautiful porcelain, and then with an army of critics lined up with their nostrils flaring dares anyone to criticize the dump he just left in the your living room. “Either you love my turds or you are against freedom of expression.” If you don’t want it in your museum, you’re the enemy of freedom of speech. Faced with such intimidation surely many would rather line up in support. But there is truly nothing there. It’s a trick of words and intimidation. An Illusion of social pressure and fearful conformity.

His school, “… said it was okay to feel in paint, to get all the chaos out in paint … I didn’t love him until I studied him.”

Of course you didn’t love him until you studied him. What you learned to love was all the explanations about worthwhile concepts and subjects. And with a training right out of Pavlov, you were taught to salivate when you were shown things that caused associations to those worthwhile ideas.

But Laurie, WHERE’S the BEEF? You’re salivating at a symbol much the way people react to their country’s flag. The flag comes to be seen as beautiful because it represents family, home and hearth, friends, loyalty, and the things we love. You’ve been taught to react to symbols instead of responding with the freedom of independent thought to works of art that are not supposed to be flag-like-symbols of great artistic ideas, but the great works of art themselves, which communicate, through a readily discernable visual language, some aspect of the human condition.

You had to be taught to love Picasso, because nobody would love him otherwise. But people don’t need to be taught to love Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Bouguereau, or for that matter Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, or Tom Sawyer, The Grapes of Wrath, Alice in Wonderland, or The Christmas Carol.

Teaching and information can add to the depth of understanding of great works of art, but they are great initially by their ability to capture the soul and imagination of the viewer, without thousands of words to instruct us on how to deny the evidence of our own senses and to deny our innate sense of truth and reason.

Of course, what tends to happen to people who have allowed themselves to be convinced that the emperor is wearing beautiful clothes, is that they have become “ego invested” due to years of having parroted the same falsehoods … and the associated humiliation that goes with acknowledging that one has been had. The more years, and the more said in support of Modernism, the greater the difficulty in breaking through the gestalts, and taking off the iconic blinders, shedding all the preconceptions and looking again with “innocent eyes” and describing what is really there (at least to yourself), and then comparing it to the maligned academics like Waterhouse, Bouguereau, Lord Leighton, Burne-Jones, Gérôme, and Alma-Tadema, and deciding with freedom of thought and an honest wish to find the truth, which of them indeed are works of art, and which are snake oil salesmen.”

And so I ended that letter.

The change in people’s perceptions about this is happening now very quickly. Even this austere institution, probably the greatest museum in the Western Hemisphere, just a couple of summers ago had a major retrospective of one of these maligned 19th century masters, Edward Coley Burne-Jones. And in their literature on the show declared him one of the three greatest English artists of the last century, along with Constable and Turner. In fact, the Metropolitan Museum deserves great credit for being one of the first great institutions to once again hang their Bouguereaus and Gérômes, Meissonnier and Burne-Jones, on permanent exhibit in the face of scathing criticism from the press back in 1980.

Soon after, Laurie followed this with a good-natured post saying that although she felt that I may have insulted her intelligence, she loved me all the same. To which I responded:

Laurie, It was not my wish to insult your intelligence. The very brightest of people are just as vulnerable. It is in human nature to go along to get along. I certainly did it too when I was in college and grad school in fine art. Even when I was finally willing to speak my mind about Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Warhol …. Picasso was somehow sacrosanct, and I would pay lip service to his brilliance while the works of the other modernists I allowed myself to see as they were.

It wasn’t until I hit about 40 years old that I started to more fully recognize the power of prestige suggestion and social intimidation in forming opinions.

To truly judge your own feelings and opinion about a work of art, you need to look at it as if it were painted by a complete unknown, perhaps some student in another town, and then ask yourself what your opinion of that work would be then. Would you think is was one of the greatest works in the history of civilization, would it even be great … or good … or mediocre …. or just plain bad?

I know now absolutely that nearly all the works by most of the famous Modernists are truly awful on all fronts. I also know that the best works by Bouguereau and Waterhouse would thrill me to my bones even if they had been painted by complete unknowns. When I saw a Bouguereau for the first time, I had never heard of him, but my response was immediate unambiguous and self-validating. I needed no books or texts or convoluted explanations. The strength of the work was powerful, unique, immediate and overwhelming. It was exactly as I had felt in the presence of Michelangelo’s David. Ah, but when I saw the David I was already predisposed to see what history considered one of humanity’s greatest masterpieces. However, it was that seminal experience at 18 that excited my interest in art. The Bouguereau that I saw, Nymphs and Satyr, was when I was 32 years old, and it’s effect was equally profound, changing the course of my life, ultimately leading me to this podium here today.

Don’t let pride get involved here. Don’t even answer me. Just ask yourselves and answer honestly.

One common claim that you hear repeatedly is that the proof that some abstract expressionists were great artists, can be found in their high quality academic student drawings. My answer to this is that it’s really irrelevant whether or not they could do a decent student drawing. If anything it only makes it sadder that promising young talent was wasted. The quality and value of their “mature” work is not helped a bit by showing that they could draw decently when young.

The best way to prove that is to consider the inverse.

Would Raphael or Bouguereau’s mature work be somehow made the worse if their student drawings from decades earlier had been of poor quality? Their great paintings would still be just as great, and de Kooning’s hideous smears for which he is so famous are still just as awful.

I am quite certain that every artist in this audience paints better than all of the famous modernists and post modernists, and is more deserving of societal attention and praise. Yet still, so-called “major works” of theirs can sell for between 2 and 25,000,000 dollars at auction. The dirty little secret, however, that the modernist establishment and the press has been hiding, is that those same works sold for two to three times those prices back in 1988 and 1989. While the prices of all the icons of modernism peaked at that time, and any money invested then has declined a whopping 50 to 80%, the market for Gérôme, Waterhouse, Bouguereau, Alma-Tadema, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Millais and Lord Leighton, has increased between 2000 and 10,000 percent since 1975. Every year, records are being broken again and again. In 1977, the world record price for a Bouguereau was $17,000. Now, in the past 3 years, the world records for his work first topped a million dollars in 1997, then a million and a half in 1998, two and a half million in 1999, and last May, Charity sold for over $3,500,000. Additionally, last June the world record for any Victorian painting was completely trampled when Saint Cecilia, by John William Waterhouse, sold for just over $10,000,000 in London to Andrew Lloyd Weber.

There are only 826 Bouguereaus and about 465 Tademas in the world. Do you know how many Picassos there are? Can anybody here guess? There are 80,000 of them, and the balance between supply and demand has faltered, and like the dot com stocks of last year they will soon come crashing down along with hundreds of billions of paper profits lost in the dust of history. Like the tulip bulbs in the 17th century, or Tokyo Real estate in the 1980’s, investors will be decimated. If I owned a work by any of those “Abstract artists” I would be racing to cash it in before the fall, and that has been my recommendation to dozens who have asked me.

Many of my friends in and out of ARC have told me that I shouldn’t talk so much about the modernists. One of them recently wrote to me saying, “I really don’t think we help our cause by helping talentless modernists get press coverage.” Another fearfully said, “Don’t criticize the modernists, just focus on what’s good.”

I replied as follows:

When have the modernists ever held back from criticizing traditional and academic art? The problem with this attitude, while I also find it very appealing, is that our not talking about the modernists doesn’t really mean much.

The fact is that they are being talked about with high praise, in nearly every university art department and art history course in the western world … parroting the same things that they were taught. They are also being constantly celebrated and exhibited by the biggest and most prestigious museums and getting rave reviews in the newspapers as often as not.

If somebody doesn’t explain to everybody why they’re not really any good, and why they’re not really even artists, and how the whole thing is a hoax, then they will continue their propaganda and continue brainwashing our children and intimidating them into feeling stupid if they don’t go along to get along … and they’ll do it unopposed.

If we don’t speak up and tell the world that the Emperor’s naked, nobody else will. We may not want to talk about them, but we have to if we are going to have any chance of turning things around. We have to provide a theoretical and philosophical context for the feelings of the tens of millions of people out there who are disgusted and feel an aversion for Modernism … but feel afraid to say so. They need to know that they are not alone and they need to have their feelings validated. And at the same time, we need to provide alternatives … rich alternatives with great traditional art and with countless images of the greatest paintings in history.

And now ladies and gentlemen … artists … portrait artists … I come at this point … to you. Who are you? Who do you think yourselves to be? Well let me tell you how I see you. You are beyond doubt, the true artistic heroes and heroines of the 20th century. Many of you know that I am the chairman of the Art Renewal Center. The Art Renewal Center is building the largest on-line museum on the internet, and is completely devoted to the return of standards, training and human themes and subjects in the visual arts. Modern Art is about expanding the definition of art. They believe that “everything is art”, or, “Whatever the artist says is art, is art.” Well, if everything is art, then nothing is art. Any definition that includes everything is not a definition at all. As I said, Modern art is “art about art”, while all the great art and literature and theatre throughout history is “Art about life.”

I wrote about all of you, and your teachers, in the published Philosophy of the Art Renewal Center. Here’s what I said:

Against all odds, and in the face of the worst kind of ridicule and personal and editorial assault, only a small handful of well-trained artists managed to stay true to their beliefs. Then, like the heroes and heroines who protected a few rare manuscripts during inquisitional book-burnings of the past, these 20th Century art world heroes managed to protect and preserve the core technical knowledge of western art. Somehow, they succeeded in training a few dozen determined disciples. Today, many of those former students, have established their own schools or ateliers, and are currently training many hundreds more. This movement is now expanding exponentially. They are regaining the traditions of the past, so that art may once again move forward on a solid footing. We are committed in every way possible to record, preserve and perpetuate this priceless knowledge.

That’s who you are. So if some of you are having trouble selling your work, or haven’t been able to command the prices you deserve … if you feel infuriated at piles of bricks and elephant dung filling museum galleries, while you can only pay to have space allotted to you for an evening in a great museum like this … don’t despair. Your time is coming. You have done humanity a service of such magnitude, that sadly you will never be properly repaid. Keep painting your great portraits, and when you can find the time, paint what your heart tells you to paint, too. The modern world is a boiling cauldron of all sorts of great and absurd ideas, feelings, pathos, pathologies, psycho pathologies, humiliation, and dehumanizing ideas … and yet … yet even beauty, too, is still here amongst us, here in this hall and throughout the world, and her manifestations in modern times have been insufficiently expressed. So, find her in your homes, find her in the streets, find her in your communities and in nature, and especially, find her in each other … and save her … save her … protect and cherish her … and exalt her back to her rightful place … a place of supreme prominence, and bring her back into these our greatest institutions and our highest citadels of society and culture.

Thank you.

We Did Not Forget

Bradley J. Birzer:

There are days and, then, there are days.

In 1948, T.S. Eliot assumed that western civilization moved inexorably toward a new dark age. “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline,” he lamented. “The standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.”

One can only shake his head in wonder and bewilderment at what Eliot might write in 2012.

In the elite world of affairs, the powerful steal more and more through the machinery of politics, depriving us not only of liberty but, of course, of justice. There is, in no real sense, neither liberty nor order, internally or externally.

At home:

We have one of the most arrogant men ever at the head of our executive branch, and our executive branch is at the height of its power. His most likely challenger this fall seems like merely a less interesting version of himself.

Our Congress seemingly gave up the right to declare war or make just laws sometime in the 1940s. Never have they reclaimed what rightfully and constitutionally belongs to it, and there is no sign that the body as a whole will overcome impotence.

We are now strapped with overwhelming debt, and, yet, we have made sure the wealthy stay wealthy or get wealthier through the charade of stimuli packages.

On Saturday, Congress overwhelmingly rejected Representative Justin Amash’s amendment to prevent indefinite detention of terror suspects. Only the most historically ignorant can fail to realize that the NDAA–which Amash sought to amend–overturns nearly 1,500 years of finely honed common law rights. Through the NDAA, the government claims the right to own us.

Frankly, the loss of civil liberties during the past two presidential administrations (Obama and Bush) is so overwhelming as to be almost certainly on the permanent road to completion (that is, we will have overturned almost every civil liberty worth anything, never to regain them). Not only have we, as Americans, lost our rights to possess our own bodies, but the proliferation of spying at home and abroad–what the Washington Post has convincingly called “Secret America”–is out of control.

Abroad:

We feel pity for Greece as that country succumbs to implosion. Do we fidget as we pray that our leaders–the ones who spy on us with drones at home and murder many abroad–might just somehow be smart enough to prevent us from the same fate?

The so-called “Arab Spring” has led to the destruction of Christians, Christian churches, and Arab Christian culture while intolerant Islamic forces gain control.

And, the list of disaster after disaster, murder after murder, goes on and on and on. . . .

As we look back over western history, we know that every government falls. Just imagine what the world looked like in 410, hordes infiltrating the remnants of civilization.

Or, imagine the time of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

Not a single political body of that day has remained. Only two things have in western civilization in the last two thousand years–1) the Jewish people; and 2) the Catholic/Orthodox Church.

Do we imagine the U.S. will last forever? If so, we are fools. It’s quite possible the U.S. has been done since the second administration of Jefferson. As Gordon Wood effectively argued in his Radicalism of the American Revolution, not a single founder thought the Republic still existed in any real form–or perhaps more accurately, with any real soul–at the time of his respective death.

What if the founding of America was the highpoint of western civilization? What if it served as the end of an era, the culmination of all that came before it, rather than the beginning of a new era? In our understandable American patriotism, we call it a “founding.” What if it’s really an “ending.”

For the sake of argument, let’s take Eliot’s claim seriously. If we are in a period of decline, our role as members of western civilization, as advocates of order, dignity, and liberty, changes dramatically from what it is if if we’re in a time of cultural ascension.

If we are falling, we who reject ideology need to prepare the world for it–to create a foundation not just for the survival of our children but for a revival, a renaissance of some kind, twenty generations hence.

If we believe in western civilization, the contract of eternal society, the communion of saints, we might have a profound duty to preserve, not just a right to exist.

What if Eliot was right?

I see little beyond a bleak twilight. I see no justice in our federal government. I see only poison, corruption, and darkness. I see that our economy is tenuous and shaky at best. I see a national debt that is insoluble. I see an education system that is almost totally utilitarian and without redeeming value, a grand babysitting scheme to keep potential hoodlums off the streets and competition out of the labor pool.

Our position abroad is without direction, and I would guess with only slight trepidation that more people outside of our borders hate us than did on September 10, 2001.

Where is the light? Where do we see hope? There are cracks here and there, but the barriers and obstructions continue to mount, crowding in upon us, forcing us ever closer to the whirligig of the abyss.

Still, as St. Paul reminded us, there is always hope. We have autonomous communities, especially in education, forming–but they are decentralized. We have blistering fast technology and technological improvements. But, where else? Where? I ask with all sincerity. Where else?

Things sound rough.

However, lest we invert our gaze to ourselves, let us remember those not so fortunate to even have eyes left to gaze: we also shall not forget these fallen, to whom belongs the full word: memorial.

Here’s a window into a tragedy within the American military: For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.

An American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes. More than 6,500 veteran suicides are logged every year — more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since those wars began.

If that statistic is true, it is the most incredible fact I’ve read in recent months and it presents a national emergency of gigantic proportions.

Let’s have some optimism now.

House of Eratosthenes:

Besides shutting down productivity entirely, in some cases, regulation makes everything cost more than it would otherwise, from our labor to real estate, and from automobiles to the price of milk, bread, and gasoline. For several decades, debt was a relief valve for the rising cost of regulation, which eats away at the value of what we earn with productive work. Now the regime of debt has largely shut down.

But Americans aren’t rioting in the streets over this. We are tightening our belts, in order to get ourselves right with the future. Don’t overlook the significance of this. For every kid in the Occupy movement, there are hundreds his age finding whatever jobs are available and working hard, learning to be reliable employees and team players – and paying bills, saving money, and looking to what they can do about their own futures. These young people, alongside their elders, are holding society together, with discipline and quiet, unheralded daily courage.

Don’t give up on Americans. And don’t give up on liberty.

The good news is that America is the world’s example of what can be achieved by people who are not beholden to a god-like government. America is not paralyzed today by the character of our people, the scarceness of our resources, or the terrors of our future. America is paralyzed because our once-small government has grown on principles that are unworthy of us: invidious principles of despair, anger, resentment, and fear.

Do not fear that Americans can’t do well with less government. Something military officers learn early, if they are wise, is that you don’t control men: you believe in them. And when you do, there is no limit to what they can accomplish. The heroes who lie in our cemeteries, with the small flags waving bravely over them on Memorial Day, knew that.

Adams – On the Transmigration of Souls

Adams – Light Over Water

I Talk to the Wind

Here is Behemoth, my creature as you are, fed on the same grass the oxen eat; yet what strength in his loins, what lustihood in the navel of his belly! Stiff as cedar-wood his tail, close-knit the sinews of his groin, bones like pipes of bronze, gristle like plates of steel! None of God’s works can vie with him, the maker of such a beast has his sword ready for use; whole mountain-sides, the playground of his fellow beasts, he will lay under tribute, as he lies there under the close covert of the marsh-reeds, thick boughs for his shadow, among the willows by the stream. The flooded river he drinks unconcerned; Jordan itself would have no terrors for that gaping mouth. Like a lure it would charm his eye, though it should pierce his nostrils with sharp stakes.

Or Leviathan, will you find a hook that will draw him to land, a line that will hold his tongue fast? Can you ring him, or pierce his jaw with a clasp? Will he importune you with entreaties, or cajole you with blandishments, till you make a covenant that binds him to be your servant for ever? Will you make a plaything of him, as if he were a tame bird, chain him up to make sport for your maid-servants? Is he to be divided up among fellow fishermen, sold piece-meal to the merchants? Is that skin a spoil for the net, that head for the fishermen’s cabins? Do but try conclusions with him, and see if the memory of the combat does not keep you dumb! Fond hope that must be dashed to the ground for all to see it!

It is in mercy that I forbear to make him a plague for mankind. But indeed, there is no resisting me, nor can any deserve my thanks by lending me the aid I lacked; nothing on earth but is at my disposal. I give him no quarter, for all his boastful, all his flattering words. Who can strip the skin of him, who can penetrate into the cavern of his mouth, forcing the gates that guard it, the terrors of his teeth? The body of him is like shields of cast metal, scale pressing on scale so close to one another as to leave no vent between; so well joined that nothing will part them. Let him but sneeze, the fire flashes out; let him open his eyes, it is like the glimmer of dawn; flames come from his jaws, bright as a burning torch, smoke from his nostrils, thick as the fumes of a seething pot; his very breath will set coals aflame, such fire issues from that mouth. What strength dwells in that neck of his, what terrors play about him! Firm-set are the folds of his flesh, unyielding though a thunder-bolt should strike them; firm-set, too, is the heart of him, firm as ever stone was, or smith’s anvil. Rises he up, angels themselves are afraid, and take sanctuary in their dread. Sword thrust, nor spear, nor breast-plate can hold their own against him; to him, steel is but chaff, bronze but touch-wood, nor fears he the archer; sling-stones he counts as straw, as straw the hammer-blow, laughs at the brandished spear. Sunlight flashes beneath him as he goes, a path of gold through the slime; he makes the deep sea boil like a pot where ointment simmers; how it shines in his wake, as though ocean itself had grown hoary with age!

He has not his like among the strong things of earth, that fearless nature, that heaven-confronting eye. Over all the pride of earth he reigns supreme.

Rothko

Adams – Shaker Loops

The Handmaiden of the Queen

Sir Francis Bacon:

Sphinx, or Science

SPHINX, says the story, was a monster combining many shapes in one. She had the face and voice of a virgin, the wings of a bird, the claws of a griffin. She dwelt on the ridge of a mountain near Thebes and infested the roads, lying in ambush for travellers, whom she would suddenly attack and lay hold of; and when she had mastered them, she propounded to them certain dark and perplexed riddles, which she was thought to have obtained from the Muses. And if the wretched captives could not at once solve and interpret the same, as they stood hesitating and confused she cruelly tore them to pieces. Time bringing no abatement of the calamity, the Thebans offered to any man who should expound the Sphinx’s riddles (for this was the only way to subdue her) the sovereignty of Thebes as his reward. The greatness of the prize induced Œdipus, a man of wisdom and penetration, but lame from wounds in his feet, to accept the condition and make the trial: who presenting himself full of confidence and alacrity before the Sphinx, and being asked what kind of animal it was which was born four-footed, afterwards became two-footed, then three-footed, and at last four-footed again, answered readily that it was man; who at his birth and during his infancy sprawls on all four, hardly attempting to creep; in a little while walks upright on two feet; in later years leans on a walking-stick and so goes as it were on three; and at last in extreme age and decrepitude, his sinews all failing, sinks into a quadruped again, and keeps his bed. This was the right answer and gave him the victory; whereupon he slew the Sphinx; whose body was put on the back of an ass and carried about in triumph; while himself was made according to compact King of Thebes.

The fable is an elegant and a wise one, invented apparently in allusion to Science; especially in its application to practical life. Science, being the wonder of the ignorant and unskilful, may be not absurdly called a monster. In figure and aspect it is represented as many-shaped, in allusion to the immense variety of matter with which it deals. It is said to have the face and voice of a woman, in respect of its beauty and facility of utterance. Wings are added because the sciences and the discoveries of science spread and fly abroad in an instant; the communication of knowledge being like that of one candle with another, which lights up at once. Claws, sharp and hooked, are ascribed to it with great elegance, because the axioms and arguments of science penetrate and hold fast the mind, so that it has no means of evasion or escape; a point which the sacred philosopher also noted: The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails driven deep in. Again, all knowledge may be regarded as having its station on the heights of mountains; for it is deservedly esteemed a thing sublime and lofty, which looks down upon ignorance as from an eminence, and has moreover a spacious prospect on every side, such as we find on hill-tops. It is described as infesting the roads, because at every turn in the journey or pilgrimage of human life, matter and occasion for study assails and encounters us. Again Sphinx proposes to men a variety of hard questions and riddles which she received from the Muses. In these, while they remain with the Muses, there is probably no cruelty; for so long as the object of meditation and inquiry is merely to know, the understanding is not oppressed or straitened by it, but is free to wander and expatiate, and finds in the very uncertainty of conclusion and variety of choice a certain pleasure and delight; but when they pass from the Muses to Sphinx, that is from contemplation to practice, whereby there is necessity for present action, choice, and decision, then they begin to be painful and cruel; and unless they be solved and disposed of, they strangely torment and worry the mind, pulling it first this way and then that, and fairly tearing it to pieces. Moreover the riddles of the Sphinx have always a twofold condition attached to them; distraction and laceration of mind, if you fail to solve them; if you succeed, a kingdom. For he who understands his subject is master of his end; and every workman is king over his work.

Now of the Sphinx’s riddles there are in all two kinds: one concerning the nature of things, another concerning the nature of man; and in like manner there are two kinds of kingdom offered as the reward of solving them: one over nature, and the other over man. For the command over things natural,—over bodies, medicines, mechanical powers, and infinite other of the kind—is the one proper and ultimate end of true natural philosophy; however the philosophy of the School, content with what it finds, and swelling with talk, may neglect or spurn the search after realities and works. But the riddle proposed to Œdipus, by the solution of which he became King of Thebes, related to the nature of man; for whoever has a thorough insight into the nature of man may shape his fortune almost as he will, and is born for empire; as was well declared concerning the arts of the Romans,—

Be thine the art,
O Rome, with government to rule the nations,
And to know whom to spare and whom to abate,
And settle the condition of the world.

And therefore it fell out happily that Augustus Cæsar, whether on purpose or by chance, used a Sphinx for his seal. For he certainly excelled in the art of politics if ever man did; and succeeded in the course of his life in solving most happily a great many new riddles concerning the nature of man, which if he had not dexterously and readily answered he would many times have been in imminent danger of destruction. The fable adds very prettily that when the Sphinx was subdued, her body was laid on the back of an ass: for there is nothing so subtle and abstruse, but when it is once thoroughly understood and published to the world, even a dull wit can carry it. Nor is that other point to be passed over, that the Sphinx was subdued by a lame man with club feet; for men generally proceed too fast and in too great a hurry to the solution of the Sphinx’s riddles; whence it follows that the Sphinx has the better of them, and instead of obtaining the sovereignty by works and effects, they only distract and worry their minds with disputations.

And thus the sciences were born out of the corpse of a murderer – with another scapegoating action. Science becomes the proxy for mythology only by murdering mythology. “Refutation” thus becomes the proxy for “sacrifice” – and establishes its new society around that same proxy, just as the old society gathered the community around the corpse of the sacrificial victim. And refutation, like myth, is designed to expunge – and that act of expunging is itself the ignorance that the new society tries to expunge.

Hubris, not objectivity, is the essence of the sciences, and we have seen this devastation in our time. The spasms of the “scientific age” are not merely “political” phenomena which pertain to “nations” or “states”. They are the crisis of an entire species. They are the shrill voice of Man who seeks to drown out the rising soft chorus. This rising chorus of peaceful voices sings songs to re-member the Victim on the cross.

The Sphinx has trapped Oedipus in the end. He becomes trapped, not under the claws of the Sphinx, but on its throne. For he indeed becomes Caesar with the symbol of his vanquished monster on his signet – and thereby becomes that monster.

Just as the dead Sphinx, the sacrifice of the new society, was carried back to Thebes on an ass, so the real King of the World, soon indeed to be dead and seemingly defeated, comes to His people seated on an ass. Not, however, as a defeated murderous monster whose riddles can themselves only be “refuted” by ideas, intellects or disputations. Not as a Caesar, who demands we “obtain the sovereignty by works and effects”. But merely as a friend, who comes to us because he loves us, and is concerned for us. And if we try to “refute” Him, or “slay” Him, the sacrificial wave washes over Him like the tiny baptismal waves of water which he splashes over the feet of Peter when He washed them.

Our cries for transcendence are brutish and violent. Awash in the darkness of ignorance and sleep, all we know how to do is to sacrifice, to slay, to refute. And so we perpetuate the communities of monsters, whether those monsters are the sacrificial temples of old, the empty philosophies of the moderns, the death camps or the nuclear bombs.

Only the cry of our friend, the Victim on the Cross, can finally awaken us from the nightmare of sleep. Only that can ensure that we recognize that the foundation of these societies, the prince of the air, has been nothing but a pack of lies. Only that cry can tear the veil and open our eyes to the real world. And once we can see, we understand that the innermost Ark, the Mercy Seat of the Most High God, is a throne. And this throne is guarded by the cherubim, modeled on the great lions and sphinxes of the great ancient kings of Egypt, Phoenicia and Canaan. This throne is not some new God to be clenched tightly to ourselves, that is, it is not an end in itself, but is God’s great instrument for bringing light to all nations.

Consider: this image is the “science” of Caesar. But also the science of God.

The fable adds very prettily that when the Sphinx was subdued, her body was laid on the back of an ass: for there is nothing so subtle and abstruse, but when it is once thoroughly understood and published to the world, even a dull wit can carry it.

Indeed? How ironic that Sir Francis has evidently not been able to carry this thing on his back, thoroughly understood and published to the world in his day:

Matt 11:25 At that time Jesus said, Father, Lord of heaven and earth! I thank you because you have shown to the unlearned what you have hidden from the wise and learned.

Finally, Sir Francis says:

Nor is that other point to be passed over, that the Sphinx was subdued by a lame man with club feet; for men generally proceed too fast and in too great a hurry to the solution of the Sphinx’s riddles; whence it follows that the Sphinx has the better of them, and instead of obtaining the sovereignty by works and effects, they only distract and worry their minds with disputations.

Here is the proper way:

Luke 24:12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb.

Luke 15:20 So he got up and started back to his father. He was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with pity, and he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him.

When you love, you can brook no delay. Love is not a riddle, but the answer to every single question. It isn’t a myth, or an idea, or a refutation. It does not expunge, it does not hide, it does not obfuscate.

And it is not a sacrifice. It taunts Caesar by wearing his instrument of sacrifice around its neck. When love is murdered, it does not die.