Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Sleep of Reason and other oracles of art

The sleep of reason was the condition Goya named as beginning the grotesqueries and nightmares he witnessed in his extraordinary book of etchings called Caprices. Even the sardonic use of a lighthearted term shows the nuance of what it means to abdicate thoughtful responsibility. It is also a defensive term to underplay the strength of his indictments via the harrowing journalism of his eye and the wickedly ironic titles of those images. It is not surprising that Goya’s intense realism, his honesty, his risk in speaking out, was rewarded with exile – the one place, short of death, the free artist is allowed to go when taking up a critique of society.

To condemn cruelty in the way Goya does, and aristocratic self-indulgence, is a way to make specific the grand pageant of Christian suffering as a matter in his own time. By contrast, Breughel’s oblique criticism of the depredations of the Counter Reformation in Flanders (The Slaughter of the Innocents) is a more cloaked critique that used a contemporary depiction of ancient martyrs to shame the sadists of his day. Goya’s modernism is in his avoidance of this age old method of creating historical metaphors in painting. Goya depicts the disordered state of his own world.

It may well be that when all are subjective, when all are in the thrall of some cruel insanity of belief-based hatred, that the subjective response is one of reclaiming reason, reclaiming the objective state. Who can see this way, and from what position?

Goya’s privileged position as painter to the King’s court was similar to the access Moliere achieved in the French King’s court of his day. Both men were allowed to grow in their worldly and moral satires, because those kings were themselves enlightened enough to share some of those opinions and allowed themselves to be entertained by others. Similarly, in Breughel’s life, a prince bought most of Breughel’s paintings, enjoying their views of the lives of peasants.

In our later age, as kings and court were closed as offices of patronage, someone like Caspar David Friederich, who celebrated the social revolutions in Europe of 1848, became an outcast. A few years later Edvard Munch was jailed for knowing an important anarchist. These are the steady drumbeat of art as conscience, and society does its best to prefer aesthetics to truth and subjectivity to reason. It is perhaps more interested in applying reason in the aid of subjective states than the other way around. Classicism is a nice example of rational depictions of what are irrational stories. Throughout the Christianization of Classicism, or really the classicization of Medievalism, we still see the artist decrying the destruction of kindness by oppression, and celebrating the victory and hope of the soul. In such storytelling, the good outlive the evil in repute. In that tradition, in my lifetime, a Pope helped undo the cruelty of an oppressive system of government by symbolizing the suffering of God, or the soul’s intention, in society. He suffered both exile and attempted murder. When there was a pause in his exile and he appeared in Poland, the chief of state’s knees shook with fear on meeting the Pope; such is the force of truth and the woken state of reason.

The dogma of Christ is nothing but love and tolerance. The many smaller dogmas by which people conflict themselves violate the example of Christ and the spirit of the greatest Dogma, which is born of the love of mother and child, the love of spouses, the love of lovers. Love is a human knowledge of humanity so extraordinary that it is enshrined in Divinity, which may as well exist, so strong is our feeling for what is true and good in us. The essential friendship of people, which can be destroyed by lies and hatred, is a likewise sacred thing toward which great literature and painting urge the viewer.

The fallen and the risen both know this thing in its true light, or in the shadow from which they envy it. It is as universal a knowledge as many lesser truths like counting and spelling, and so also undergirds religions and the toilings of philosophers, even if their disputations lead to a negation of their original motive.

An artist is the likely liquid of a modern age, able to pass among people without a seeming office or position of power, only a commentator off to one side seeking to please by beauty and truth, and discovering the time living in us. Almost by accident a shock occurs. Like Columbus still, we are shocked by the great distance west to Asia, and shocked by the intervening discovery, not able to recognize what, in fact, we have discovered, nor how to treat the people we encounter.

In the sleep of reason there is enough wrong to supply delusion on a mass scale, but the objective state in our subjective nature reveals enough that is eternal and true to bring us up again, and again, generation after generation.

This is the meaning of culture, its long repetitions, its rediscoveries, its persistence in the face of cruelty.