by Mark Anthony Signorelli (October 2010)
In 1573, the painter Paolo Caliari (a native of Verona, and so more familiarly known as Paolo Veronese) was summoned before the Venetian office of the Inquisition. He had recently completed a depiction of the Last Supper in one of the city's basilicas, and the Inquisitors wanted to know why he had filled his picture with such seemingly irreverent figures as dwarves, dogs, and a servant with a bloody nose. Particularly suspicious were a number of figures who appeared German or Swiss, and thus were presumed to represent Protestants. Veronese addressed his interlocutors with great confidence, asserting that it was his privilege and duty as an artist to paint according to the precedence of artistic tradition - he invoked the particular authority of Michelangelo, who painted nudes on the walls of the Sistine Chapel - and the lights of his own talent. Eventually, he appeased the Inquisitors by simply changing the title of his work.
This little episode, when it is remembered now at all, usually takes its place in our hackneyed, whiggish narratives about the origins of the modern world, of titanic genius vying against the repressive and resentful forces of theocratic despotism. It serves as a companion piece to the more famous trial of Galileo, demonstrating the reactionary hostility of the old regimes to artistic, no less than scientific, innovation. The motives and the principles of action belonging to Veronese's judges are a matter of perfect unconcern to us, who cannot imagine that their deliberations were shaped by anything other than bigotry and a lust for domination. So far are we from granting the least inkling of legitimacy to any form of regulation over artistic production, that we serenely entertain, as though they reflected the most commonplace of judgments, protestations of horror and alarm when suggestions are aired that public funding be withheld from this or that degenerate scoundrel, involved in this or that fashionable atrocity.
Let us grant that the Inquisition was a monstrous institution. Let us grant further that its adjudication of Veronese's trial reflected the last degree of presumptuous Philistinism. Let us affirm that it is impossible to imagine any such body, sitting with any such purposes, in our own times, or, if existent, as anything other than an onerous vehicle of oppression. Yet when all of this is granted, we cannot help but recognize one additional fact about this incident, no less self-evident than the others: such a trial could not take place except among a civilization which accorded the first importance to the arts. More significantly, the reason we no longer have such trials is not because we adore freedom more than those ancient Italians (which we do not), nor because we hate tyranny more than they did (which we do not), nor because we are more enlightened and just than they were (which we most certainly are not); the reason we no longer have such trials is simply because we do not accord to the arts any real importance at all.
The era of modern art began with the "art for art's sake" movement, whose proponents disclaimed any moral import to the work of art. Of course, such a disclaimer is tantamount to an admission that these artists regarded their work as irrelevant to the shaped lives of their individual and communal audiences. Within less than half a century after the inception of this movement, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset could claim, "to the young generation, art is a thing of no consequence." The ready-mades of Duschamps, the cheap hucksterism of John Cage, the verbalized burps of Williams or cummings - these are all things which present themselves to us as self-professed jests, things which no sensible person, nor any sane society, could regard as germane to the efforts and ends of lived lives. The present ascendancy of "entertainment" completes this trajectory; the vast citizenries of contemporary democracy are addicted to a form of art which explicitly rejects the first half of Horace's famous admonition to the poet, "to teach and delight," and in this addiction, have severed themselves and their cultures from any recognizable Western tradition, for which Horace's dictum was authoritative. We are never more cognizant of this irrelevancy than when some Hollywood director steps out of his role as mass stupifier and informs us of the political opinions supposedly espoused by his latest dreck; to such pronouncements, a contemptuous roll of the eyes is the near universal response. We simply do not believe that such men are competent to speak on matters of social importance in the way that men really did believe Dante and Goya were competent. Nor do we afford any greater respect to those last weird denizens of the miniscule and marginal sphere of the "fine arts" - the displayers of mangled sharks and the packagers of ordure - when they try to beguile us into believing that their latest shenanigans comprise some sort of "statement," of a political or ethical nature. One cannot be both freak and sage, and the modern artist long ago earned the unquestionable status of freak.
Why then would our laws take the least notice of a field of activity, admitted on all hands to be trite and inconsequential? As none of us can imagine taking our values from a stroll through the MOMA or attendance at a poetry slam, so we cannot imagine why anyone, least of all any governing power, should entertain the least anxiety about what sorts of values may be conveyed through such experiences. When we hear a person defend the right of some attention-mongering guttersnipe to photograph himself in various lewd positions, what we are listening to is not a vindication of that liberty which is inseparable from the dignity of man (for what dignity is to be found in such behavior?), but an unspoken admission that outrage is a form of serious consideration, and the antics of such charlatans are simply too ridiculous to take seriously. We are invited to allow him his liberty, not as we would observe the technique of some virtuoso, in reverential silence, but as we would steer clear of the unwashed madman barking to himself in the corner of a subway car. Modern society has concluded that modern artists are nothing but so many such gibbering, dirty, offensive lunatics, and as a consequence of this disdain has afforded them the privilege of ranting in the dark corners of society with an unrestrained freedom. The negligence which modern jurisprudence displays towards the arts is not like the respectful restraint it shows towards property rights (or which it used to show towards property rights); it is like the insouciance it reveals towards the choice of baby names. No modern authority finds it necessary to regulate the arts, precisely because every modern authority is certain that none of its citizens takes the arts the least bit seriously.
To all of this, it will be objected that our culture is quite loud in its attestations of respect for the artist. No virtue is inculcated in our young ones so assiduously as something called "creativity." We bow our heads before this or that Noble laureate, and compete with one another to offer the more exalted panegyric upon the importance and influence of the arts. Vast amounts of money, and untold quantities of time, are devoted to the arts and their preservation, and their democratization is a cherished goal of many sincere persons and institutions. With such things in mind, it is impossible to assert that we no longer take the arts seriously.
To this objection, what other reply can be made except that contemporary expressions of reverence towards the art are, like all contemporary attitudinizing, so much vacuous and fraudulent cant? It is modish to say such things, so people say them. But actions are the all in all, and none of our actions are consistent with a cultural sense of art's significance. Indeed, that very democratization of the arts which is so often boasted of is a perfect symptom of our disregard for art's value, for when we value a certain practice, we insist upon maintaining rigorous criteria of excellence in the execution and estimation of that practice, but to democratize any practice necessarily entails the demolition of all such criteria. The teacher who lauds her little charge for "expressing herself" through a mess of untalented scribbles is not showing respect for the arts, but the opposite. And as for money, far vaster financial resources are lavished upon our educational system than upon the arts, and how unserious we are about educating our children properly, as it is far too painful to reflect upon, need not be mentioned here.
In this most decadent and foolish of ages, the most inappropriate of sentiments is self-congratulation. The disgusting and inexpressibly arrogant practice of offering apologies for the crimes and errors of our forbears, so popular a pose in recent years, is the habit of a people convinced that it is their place to sit in unappealable judgment upon the past. But a little wisdom and a little humility will soon teach us that the past also sits in judgment upon us, as the virtues of a father, even after he has passed, remain an abiding standard to his son. Regarded from this perspective, the trial of Veronese will reveal to us less of our progress, and more of our cultural depletion. After all, the most obvious difference between that age and ours is that we just do not have any Veroneses - not to say Raphaels or Rembrandts - to put in the dock. Viewed in the spirit of proper criticism - which is always self-criticism - this trial will constitute a chapter in a tale, not of liberation, but of decline, from a civilization which felt the greatest love for the arts and sometimes, as is the case with all love, acted foolishly as a result, to a people which, out of a charitable disregard, humor the mountebanks and felons among them appropriating the name of artist; from a civilization which admitted the artist to the first station of influence, and therefore held him to the most august criteria of propriety, to a people which consider the arts akin to a sideshow, or menagerie, or any other such form of mental holiday. If we are to use history, rather than abuse it, this is how we will judge this incident aright.