Bread and Circus

An online journal of culture

Category: art history

Art Review: “Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist”

by Editors

THE ARTS

Review:  “Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist”

Herman Trunk and the Modernist Still Life is on view at Endicott College, Beverly, MA from October 15-December 18, 2009. For opening times and directions see the Endicott webpage.

The catalogue, Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist (Emmanuel College, 2009), is available at Lulu.com.

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

320_7668852Crucifix 08-41-19

Crucifix (ca. 1930); Pencil with wax on paper; 10 x 14 in.; Collection of the family of Herman Trunk, Jr.

With the advent of the modern world came an accompanying theory of secularization.[1] Enlightenment philosophers held that a developmental model of civilization demands that with modernization (read: rationalization) religion would necessarily decline.

Religion, of course, (in its broadest sense, including individual spirituality) has never left art or culture, and in a post-9/11 world I would suggest that even the most cynical critics would agree that life continues to be saturated with religious sentiment—spoken or unspoken.

In the visual arts, the period known as “Modernism” (the period from the turn of the last century until the 1960s) has been long associated with a firm commitment to individualism, iconoclasm and break with traditional institutions. This perspective became the mainstream means by which art critics and art historians came to measure successful art of the period.

In part, this perhaps explains why artists such as Herman Trunk, Jr. (1894-1963), a devout Roman Catholic who often imbued his paintings with overt symbolism, was exiled to the margins of American art history. This seemingly blind disregard for his work has recently impelled two Boston-area art historians, Cynthia Fowler and Dena Gilby, to reassess his religious and still-life works as masterful pieces in the Cubist and near-Surrealist styles. Fowler serendipitously discovered the artist in the process of researching her forthcoming book on hooked rugs designed by American modernists during the 20s and 30s.

The two scholars put together companion shows of Trunk’s work this Fall at their respective colleges: Fowler’s at Emmanuel in Boston (from 9/8-10/22) and Gilby’s at Endicott in Beverly (from 10/15-12/18). Fowler also organized and hosted a day-long symposium dedicated to the artist (“Religion and Modernism in American Art of the 1920s and 30s”
 on 10/3) and produced a handsome catalogue, Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist (Emmanuel College, 2009).

The catalogue contains essays by Fowler and Gilby, and also by Trunk’s nephew, Joseph (“Greg”) Smith. Smith grew up with the artist and his article sheds valuable light upon the man and anecdotes from his personal life, much of which was lived in Brooklyn, NY. Smith’s family photos and stories help to flesh out the biographical and iconographic picture painted by Fowler in her introductory and main essays. Fowler’s essays and show loosely cover Trunk’s figurative and landscape works, while Gilby’s are focused upon his still-lifes and flower pieces.

The artist that emerges from the well-illustrated catalogue is a complex and—at times—contradictory figure. Contradictory, perhaps, because of our own (aforementioned) inherited bias about what constitutes a Modern painter in the abstract style. We do not usually imagine, for example, a dedicated family man who sentimentally paints his wife’s Valentine’s chocolates, or the interlocking “Sacred Hearts” of Jesus and Mary in order to grieve the loss of his mother in visual terms.[2]

SacredHearts

Sacred Hearts (1930); Watercolor and gouache on board; 20 1/2 x 17 1/2 in.; Collection of the family of Herman Trunk, Jr.

It is Trunk’s return, perhaps, to tried-and-true symbols of traditional Christianity that sets him apart from his contemporaries such as Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe: artists with whom he was shown side by side at the Biennials of the Whitney Museum of American Art and Venice in his heyday.

Viewed in-person, the works are astounding for their rich color-sensibility and harmonies of geometry. Many are in either watercolor or gouache media, with only a couple in oil. According to Gilby,[3] during the Depression and war years the artist worked full-time in his family’s print shop, and often painted after-hours. Thus, this choice may have been due to monetary constraints, reasons of convenience, or both.

luckys

Luckies (1925); Oil on board; 10 x 8 in.; Collection of the family of Herman Trunk, Jr.

Indeed, the watercolors and gouache seem to be more adroitly handled than the oils, but the oil medium seems to have allowed the artist to work up thick impasto in order to gain sculptural effect and depth that challenge the two-dimensionality of the surface. The same insistence on delving into space is found in his beaverboard piece, “Artist’s Palette” (n.d.; Oil on board), where the artist incises geometric shapes into the surface, outlining his color passages and allowing the wood grain to show through. This treatment is reminiscent of Picasso and Braque’s experiments with Synthetic Cubism and work-a-day materials, and may have been learned during Trunk’s time at the Art Students League.

Interestingly, Gilby has also included a long vitrine in the Endicott show housing one of Trunk’s notebooks as well as some personal correspondence and family photographs. This archival material is an advantageous corollary to the still-lifes and landscapes. Further testament to continued strong family-ties among the Trunks, it was also brought to my attention that the frames for many of the works were hand-fashioned for the exhibitions by the artist’s nephew, including the attractive multi-layered bronze-colored frame surrounding “Black-Eyed Susan.”[4]

Far and away the greatest contribution made by the catalogue essays is that they frame Trunk’s work not according to his experimental style—as was done in a Hirschl and Adler Galleries retrospective in 1989[5]—but, rather through the lens of his Catholic faith. This faith is expressed in his use of traditional symbolism as well as his imagery redolent of nature as God’s creation.

The authors take great pains to explain how devout Trunk, his wife Irene, and indeed the whole Trunk family were. There are images of the local parish, stories about faithful trips to morning mass, and accumulated evidence of attention paid to traditional Biblical narrative, Catholic iconography as well as the imbuing of everyday objects with personal, devotional significance.

True, there are passages in the writing where one might wish for more in-depth analysis of the iconography of the works: for example, greater discussion of the floral and fruit symbols like roses and oranges most often associated with Mary, mother of Christ; or the use of jewel tones and thick outlines reminiscent of stained glass; or the use of metallic paint which calls to mind a long history of gilt panel altarpieces. However, the description of “Trees” (Cat. 6, c. 1930-35, watercolor and pencil on paper) as cathedral-like is enticing, as is the likening of the oft-mentioned tenets of mysticism in the vein of Kandinsky to those of “conventional faith.”[6] Overall the essays serve as an even-handed, valuable introduction to the artist and his unique milieu.

The catalogue and exhibition are highly recommended to those interested in Modern art, religious iconography, or a reconsideration of how the two might be considered more fruitfully in tandem.

________________

Addendum:

Since the original publication of this article, Dr. Gilby has brought to my attention that the title of the Endicott Show differs from the one I first listed here, the one published on the catalogue overleaf, in fact.  I have fixed this above, correcting the title to read “Herman Trunk and the Modernist Still Life,” instead of “Modernist Specters in the Still Life Paintings of Herman Trunk, Jr.” as previously stated.

Furthermore, (in personal correspondence) Dr. Gilby takes slight issue with my assertions that her catalogue essay and the Endicott show “are specifically focused on Trunk’s Catholicism.”  Though I may not have expressed with enough clarity Trunk’s many-layered connections to the worlds of Modern Art and the New York scene, I would maintain that the thread of Catholicism is readily interwoven into Gilby’s show and essay.

Agreeing whole-heartedly with Dr. Gilby, I would simply state that Trunk is a versatile, talented artist whose art is well-worth experiencing on any of a number of levels.

-Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, November 21, 2009


[1] Sally M. Promey, “The ‘Return’ of Religion in the Scholarship of American Art,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 85, no. 3 (Sept., 2003): 584.

[2] Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist (Emmanuel College, 2009), pp. 28-29.

[3] In a personal conversation on 11/6/2009.

[4] Again, personal conversation with Dena Gilby on 11/6/2009.

[5] See the exhibition catalogue, Herman Trunk (New York: Hirschl and Adler Galleries, 1989.)

[6] Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist, pp. 23, 25.

_____

Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and an Independent Scholar of Art History, specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

________________

Advertisements

Navigating “The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes”

by Editors

THE ARTS

Navigating “The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes”

On view at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA from June 13 to September 7, 2009

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes show at the PEM is a captivating tour through the Seventeenth Century through the lens of the Dutch self-image as a sea-faring people.

As with Dutch genre paintings, it has been known for decades that seascape paintings are not just records of daily life, nor purely aesthetic objects, but that they are nuanced vehicles for deeper meanings.  Walking through the five well-lit and well-ordered galleries of this exhibition gives the viewer a developing sense of the Dutch as explorers, merchants, divinely sanctioned pilgrims, travelers and heroes.

The first three galleries (The Sea-A New Subject; Vistas of the Netherlands; and A Sea of Symbols) are painted in calming blue tones, calling to mind the panoramic vista of sea and sky so innately interwoven with the Dutch consciousness.  Most of the early paintings are highly detailed, sometimes capturing individualized ships in small cabinet pieces for discerning collectors, but also in larger pieces that depict nationalistic scenes for grand public venues.

Walking through these rooms, the styles in the pieces range over time from honey-rich, tonalist pieces of the first decades of the century by artists like Jan Porcellis to more brightly colored, spot lit works by artists like Jan van Goyen.  In the Vistas of the Netherlands gallery, a singular printed map of the world by Justus Danckers is particularly eye-catching: a reminder of the grand aspirations of this tiny, but enterprising nation.

In the Sea of Symbols gallery, it is a Flemish, rather than a Dutch picture, which seduces the eye.  The unattributed work, The Wreck of the Amsterdam, ca. 1630, is ambitious in its size, as well as its subject.  Indicative of its Flemish origin (and perhaps its facture by the elusive Andries van Eertvelt?), the piece is made up of strong local colors and has telltale rhetorical flair, including stylized swirling eddies.  Its Baroque theatricality plays out in the drama of six ships, three foundering in the foreground in dramatic, diagonal thrusts.  The slanting shafts of divine light that break through ominous cloud formations echo the position of these vessels, highlighting the prayerful survivors on the left-hand promontory.  These apocalyptic and redemptive qualities, in conjunction with paired end panels of the Virgin Mary and the seal of the City of Amsterdam on the two foreground ships may portend religious discord, begging the interpretation of the viewer.

The fourth gallery [Far Horizons] switches tone with its ambient Dijon yellow walls; intimating to the viewer that we’ve changed time, place and atmosphere.  This room is dedicated to the Dutch as travelers, and—on the buttery backdrop—the largely cerulean image of The Darsna delle Galere and Castello Nuovo at Naples by Caspar van Wittel, steals the limelight. Upon closer inspection, its clear Mediterranean light and lack of atmospheric envelope indicate a radical shift in locale, taste and artistic sensibility.  Indeed, the painting dates to the waning of the Dutch Golden Age during the Eighteenth Century.  This was a time when the Dutch Seaborne Empire was fading fast in the midst of competition from France and England: and, not just on the seas and trading lanes, but also on the cultural front.  The elite classes among the Dutch bourgeoisie of this period fell under the siren sway of the Grand Tour and followed the Rococo trend towards gentrification and classicism in both subject and tone.

The final gallery [Patronage, Battles and the Exotic] is a cinnabar color, again drawing our attention to a thematic sea change.  This gallery is dominated by nationalist odes—great ocean victories and colonial ports—including a few monochromatic ink-paintings that jump off the dark wall in their ivory-color and scrimshaw-sensibility. Holding court at one end of the room, Ferdinand Bol’s portrait of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter demands our attention.  Posed in a formulaic, if perfectly-pitched pose, the Admiral wears a modish uniform, framed by an enveloping crimson curtain which connects the open harbor view to his left with the globe under his right elbow.  His commanding persona is mostly due to his girth and his tremendously moustachioed visage; Bol understandably falls short of his master, Rembrandt’s, gift for deftly transcribing personality into paint-strokes.

Though the show of seventy compelling works is admirable in its scope and its masterful dedication to the subject of seascape, one might be left wondering about a couple of issues: Why the curators did not intersperse vitrines containing examples of the material culture of mercantile trade and colonial expansion raised by the show (two obvious strengths of the Peabody Essex’s collection); and why more depictions of non-European distant shores and wall text explicating the colonialist drive behind the Dutch East- and West India Companies are missing from the show.  Perhaps this is a function of the available loans from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK, and/or a conscious choice by the curators to focus on the paintings’ iconographic rather than cultural context.

That said, in its intense focus on one multifaceted genre and (virtually) one medium of Dutch art, this show is at once illuminating and enthralling for the connoisseur and amateur art enthusiast alike.

____________

Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is a senior contributing writer & contributing editor of Bread and Circus and an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

Image (above): The Wreck of the Amsterdam, c.1630, Anonymous, Oil on canvas, 1257 x 1778mm, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK.

Unleashing the Muses

by Editors

THE HUMANITIES

Unleashing the Muses: Or, How Angry Calypso Trumps Little Fish

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

In a recent job interview I had the following question posed to me: “What would you change about the field [of Art History] if you could? Not just your area of specialty, mind you, but the entire discipline?”

The answer was not hard for me to find, as it is right at the tip of my tongue.

I answered: “Fifty years ago Art History (or, we might say the Humanities in general) was a part of mainstream consciousness. Books written by scholars were read by an educated public, and the tenets of culture were understood to be relevant to a full life, to membership in a shared human experience. Since the advent of Semiotics and the relativization of culture, the Humanities have been seen as “elitist,” “irrelevant,” or both. Nowadays most people live almost entirely in the moment, in their own construct of reality; the past is dead, and they ask what purpose would it serve to learn from it? In a shrinking world, I believe that as academics—or more broadly, humanists—we bear an increasingly urgent responsibility to express the common thread of the human experience: one poetically woven by the acknowledged masters of literature, art and music.”

All that on the tip of my tongue? Yep. Let’s just say that after explaining my choice of Art History as a profession to almost everyone I’ve met in the last seventeen years (including my practical-minded, incredulous Yankee parents), I’ve had many years to justify the necessity of the humanities to an ever-more skeptical audience. Perhaps this is why, in reading Stanley Fish’s regular column in the New York Times on January 6, I was blown away by a “colleague’s” utterly nihilistic approach to the Humanities.

It was the article’s title that immediately piqued my interest: Will the Humanities Save Us? “Of course!” I thought. Then, in his article Fish proceeded to show just how far from the course of civilization his mature mind has wandered. For example, he summarizes the article with the question, “What good are the humanities?” His “honest answer”: none whatsoever.

For Professor Fish, like many of his online commentators, because the humanities don’t bring esteem, create tangible objects, nor turn that all-important profit, he doesn’t believe that they can be justified to the mainstream. Though a career academic himself, Fish never explains what binds these fields together other than their lack of lucre and prestige. He writes: “Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.”

They don’t bring about effects in the world? Other than selfish pleasure? Really?

As you might suspect by now—perhaps after reading some of my Bread and Circus posts—I heartily disagree. For the scant ten years that I’ve been teaching I can’t tell you how many students have thanked me at the end of a semester of Survey to let me know that Art History–with its robust combination of all the sister arts–served them as the key to unlocking the complicated visual and social culture that surrounds them everyday. Contrary to Fish’s contentions, most undergraduates are giddy to finally know why things look as they do, that there are orders of architecture and levels of rhetoric, that they have the power to unlock the cultural heritage in their midst—eventually even to understand how our Post-Modern world has occasionally inverted or rejected the past. Though they are neophytes, even undergraduates have the sense to acknowledge that such perspective requires the broad background in historical and visual knowledge that a Humanities education affords one.

Though admittedly I’m a bit eccentric, I found myself asking why in his populist writing Professor Fish never plumbed the reasons why the Japanese love Mozart, or why Americans cannot get enough of Egyptian mummies. Why is it, for example, that a young Japanese film director, Akira Kurosawa, could turn Macbeth into a samurai movie (Throne of Blood, 1957), and roughly a decade later Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood to turn his Yojimbo back into a spaghetti Western if not for a shared human experience?

More to the point, Fish could have explained for the layperson why the poetic voicing of universal human urges might give our tiny planet some common ground. What exactly are the humanities to Professor Fish? Nothing more than archaic General Education requirements? Perhaps his time in academic administration has eroded his sense of Campbellian bliss.

Maybe I watch too many movies, but after reading Fish (in my fired-up, fevered imagination) I envisioned gung-ho humanists like myself in the role of the band of pirates in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, At World’s End, releasing a changeable, ferocious goddess upon him and his ilk. Not the nereid Calypso (though she certainly knows how to control “fish”), but rather the sisterhood of nine Classical Muses: Calliope, the muse of epic poetry; Clio, muse of history; Erato, muse of erotic verse; Euterpe, muse of music and lyric poetry; Melpomene, muse of tragedy; Polyhymnia, muse of sacred verse; Terpsichore, muse of chorale and dance; Thalia, muse of comedy; and finally, Urania, muse of astronomy.

Is the scorn of nine jilted women overkill? Probably not. After all, while Disney’s Calypso only had to undo the abuses of moral corruption and greed caused by the East India Company, we humanists need to undo decades of similar corrosion at the hands of a whole generation of soured and bitter academics who’ve imploded the cultural capital bestowed upon them by the giants who preceded them.

In sum, while Professor Fish has been an academic for ten years longer than I’ve been on this planet, I am convinced that he and his generation of scholars have dropped the ball. In fact, I believe that the cycles of history will prove that they should be lumped in with the mouldering Scholastic scholars of the Fourteenth Century who woke up one day to find that they’d been replaced by the fresh-faced eager humanists of the Renaissance. Huzzah!

____________________
Bread and Circus contributing writer Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

Cindy Sherman: Her “History Portrait” Series as Post-Modern Parody

by Editors

THE ART WORLD

Cindy Sherman: Her “History Portrait” Series as Post-Modern Parody Book cover-Cindy Sherman History Portraits -- buy from Amazon.com

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Bread and Circus senior contributing writer

M
uch ink has been spilled over the work of American photographer Cindy Sherman. Born in New Jersey in 1954, Sherman’s artistic career began in New York City in the 1970’s; she is perhaps best known for using herself as the subject of her photographs. That said, her works are not self-portraits in the traditional sense, for she adopts diverse personae (from the Latin for the “masks” used in drama) by donning make-up, setting herself before elaborate backdrops and wearing fanciful dress. Even in childhood, Sherman’s brothers and sisters recollect her often playing dress-up. In fact, she has continued to dress in costumes as a hobby (even in public) ever since. (See note 1)

Her “History Portrait” series of thirty-five photographs is particularly interesting for its blend of Post-Modern consciousness with timeless masterpieces of European masters. She created the group during the years 1989 and 1990 while she was living in Rome with her now ex-husband, the French film-maker Michel Auder. (note 2) Though nearly twenty years old, the series remains a classic; just this summer a multi-artist show at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis included some of her “History Portraits” in their exhibition “Portrait/Homage/Embodiment.”

The images in the “History” series either relate directly to images in classical European painting (the so-called Old Masters), or relate more generally to types found during that period. Although she created the series in (arguably) Europe’s greatest living museum, La Città Eterna (the Eternal City), incredibly she claims that she derived her inspiration vicariously. She’s been quoted as saying,

When I was doing those history pictures I was living in Rome but never went to the churches and museums there. I worked out of books, with reproductions. It’s an aspect of photography I appreciate conceptually: the idea that images can be reproduced and seen anytime, anywhere, by anyone. (note 3)

That said, the photos remain original conceptions, loosely based upon—but not duplicates of—original works.

Sherman began work on the series, apparently, as a commission to create images for use on Limoges porcelain plates. Duly inspired, she continued in that vein, making images in celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution of 1789. (note 4) At the opening of her corresponding show at Metro Pictures Gallery in New York, the photos were printed on a large scale and were hung in ornate gold frames—much like classic European paintings are hung in museums.

Though primarily a photographer/film-maker now, her attraction to painting began early in her life; as a school-aged child she often created drawings and paintings. In fact, contrary to what one might assume, photography did not even come naturally to her; in the early Seventies Sherman actually failed her first undergraduate course in photography. She also has claimed that she never did well in Art History where she had problems memorizing names and dates. (note 5) Downplaying her art-historical savvy, she’s said,

I’m illiterate in the historical, classic knowledge of photography, the stuff teachers attempted to bore into my head, which I resisted. The way I’ve always tried to cull information from older art and put it into my work is that I view it all anonymously, on a visceral level. (note 6)

She really blossomed artistically after graduating and moving to Manhattan. In 1983, she recalled a pivotal, painting-related inspiration for her unique approach to photography: “I had all this make-up. I just wanted to see how transformed I could look. It was like painting in a way.” (note 7)

Most art historians like to discuss Cindy Sherman’s photos in terms of a Feminist critique of the “male gaze”. Feminist art criticism assumes that the making of art—as well as its iconography and reception by viewers—is gender-influenced. (note 8 ) As a Feminist, therefore, Sherman’s work would serve to challenge the traditional male view of women’s roles in art and society. (note 9) In part, I agree that Sherman explores the changing face of women’s roles in history. In doing research on her “History Portrait” series, however, I became inspired to follow a new tack. Read the rest of this entry »

Odds Bodkins

by Editors

Odds Bodkins: Reflections on God’s Body, or Lack Thereof

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, contributing writer

This semester, I’m teaching two sections of Art History Survey One—what I like to call “Caves to Cathedrals.” Of late, my lectures have been teeming with references to historical conceptions of whether or not God, Christ, the angels and saints should be depicted with naturalistic bodies. As Joseph Campbell and others have rightly pointed out, in surveying the major world religions (Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) one can find elements of both: the ephemeral, or immaterial (Neo-Platonic), school of thought and its opposite, the more material (Aristotelian) school. In other words, some philosophers frame God as a divine mystery—invisible and seen only through a murky, worldly veil. Conversely, others believe that God is part and parcel of every living being on Earth, that our divine souls are truly manifest in our humble, yet sanctified bodies.

In the classroom, reaction to this philosophical and artistic dialectic has been interesting. Mostly, students are excited that they can make sense of the duality of highly abstracted imagery of divinity on the one hand, and its antipode, corporeal realism, on the other. Some even seem to have used this age-old question to embrace their “inner art historian.”

On a recent exam, for example, one student referred to a stern, abstracted Byzantine image of Christ Pantocrator (Christ as “divine judge”) against a golden, heavenly field as “his ass up there looking down on us.”

Perhaps like most academics, my knee-jerk reaction was to think, “Whoa! How crass!” Then, it occurred to me that while admittedly the response was completely un-Byzantine in its sentiment, the very corporeal metaphor for God or Jesus just might have some legs in another context—the context of Western European sacred parody.

Such happenstance is extremely useful to me as I’m concurrently busy preparing a paper proposal on “Holy Laughter”. Isn’t it funny when serendipity strikes? In my research for that project, I’ve been reading about the incarnation of Christ as a truly bodily event—a celebration of “God as mud” as it were. Instead of thinking of the holy as something intangible, as the Eastern Orthodox Church fathers did—or the whole of the Protestant Reformation, for that matter—some medieval Western European philosophers, and most common folk historically have thought of our humble selves as worthy of the description, “just a bit lower than the angels.” After all, to them the mystery of the incarnation in Christianity requires that one come to grips with God made flesh. And, imagine what fun it would be to consider a supreme being clothed in humanity with all of its physical functions and limitations. What a philosophical conundrum! What an opportunity for festive humor concerning the lower bodily strata!

As many scholars (such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Harvey Cox and M. Conrad Hyers) have written, Medieval Period bawdy festivity and parodic inversion of divinity were heartily embraced as part of the human quest to understand past, present and future, to grapple with change and to find his place in the cosmic order. Such play and release of energy required the temporary inversion of high and low social and cultural strata, much like the true expression of communitas as described by the anthropologist Victor Turner. According to Turner, communitas is the very spirit of community demonstrated by equality, solidarity and togetherness. Communitas is most acute in periods of inversion and change, as in a rite of passage, one that brings common understanding and transient humility.

These rites of passage have been likened to the ancient tradition of carnivalesque feast days in the Catholic Church—for example, the feasts of Epiphany and Easter when earthly kings are toppled in favor of poor babes, or physical death is overcome by a miraculous physical resurrection. (Deeply resonant themes, incidentally, shared by many world religions both East and West as enumerated by Joseph Campbell in The Mythic Image.) These inversions made God substantive and present to each and every person, be they noble, priest, merchant or peasant.

Implicit in these parodic, sacred celebrations are the shared dualities of human existence each person must come to know: hunger and satiety, wealth and squalor, power and powerlessness, birth and death. These are distinctly human concerns. Indeed, it seems human beings have constructed ritual and festivity to make sense of the impenetrable, the unknowable and the unfair. And, yet, many cultural leaders have tried to disassociate from the physical, from revelry and excess, especially our Puritan forefathers to whom we owe much of our current distaste for fun and release.

In his recent book God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything (2007), Christopher Hitchens has hitched his own wagon to a flippant, broadly dismissive, secularist viewpoint. As a monolithic whole, he categorizes “religion” as wish-fulfillment, imposed sexual repression, maximal servitude and solipsism, and a deliberate misrepresentation of the origins of man and the universe. As I’ve mentioned, it wasn’t always so. His picture of “religion” as a grand larceny of personal freedoms and intellect is a short view, mostly informed by post-Enlightenment thought.

Like most Post-Modernists, Hitchens has thrown out history and spirituality without plumbing the valuable resources of traditional festivity and comic ritual; in past generations such parodic festivity served to remind us of what we share—who we are and where we come from, and how we might properly proceed.
Only since the iconoclastic Enlightenment movement came on the scene in Western Europe have human beings have found reason to ponder whether or not “God is dead.” If humanity cannot begin to belly-laugh at its pathological seriousness, so, it would seem, are we.

_______________________

Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph. D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.