I was traveling through London in June of 2012 when I began a conversation with an older stranger after an Anglican service. Eventually, he suggested a few popular sights that I should be sure to visit, including the Tate Modern. “It’s all rubbish,” he said, “but it’s just interesting.” I had already made plans to tour the Tate, and I made sure to visit later that same day. Upon arriving, I initially thought I was at some unmarked parking garage. However, I was at the correct spot, and the good Englishman’s words began to echo in my ear.
Walking through the Tate Modern is like watching static on a monitor—it is boring, repetitive, and uninspired. The observers stood with their heads purposely tilted. They were admiring sculptures that reminded me of my time in construction, when I made trips to the junkyard to make an extra fifty dollars. The majority of the exhibits really were “all rubbish.”
A few days later, I had taken the Eurostar to Paris, where I found myself in the most famous museum in the world—the Louvre. Mentally, I compared the Renaissance art to the Postmodern art, like that of the Tate Modern. I asked myself how standards of wholesomeness could be in such a steep decline.
Art Critic Hilton Kramer speaks of a “very different moral climate of postmodernist art,” as opposed to the art of the Salon of the Beaux Arts.[i] “The cult of the facetious, it appears, leads us straight back to the spiritually impoverished culture of the waste land.”[ii] Great art represents culture and morality, and the decline of such standards shows in the history of art, from the Renaissance to Postmodernism.
The Lives of the Artists
While the lives of great artists are often turbulent, history shows how the culture and great art are rarely exclusive. Here, an example is drawn between various artists of various cultures by way of showing the fruits of Christianity versus the repercussions of Atheism in art.
Michelangelo Merisi was born on September 29, 1571, in the town of Caravaggio, Italy, on the feast day of the Archangel Michael. So the future artist bore the angel’s name by choice of his Catholic parents. As talented as he became with a brush, his personal life remained a shambles. He had a wicked temper, possibly had homosexual encounters, and most definitely had an affinity with prostitutes—even having one pose for a portrayal of the Virgin Mary with a Baby Jesus.[iii]
He was such a notorious man that much of our knowledge of him actually originates from old criminal archives.[iv] By the age of thirty-five, Caravaggio was running for his life. He was wanted for murder in a world that was run by the Catholic Church. By 1606, he had been condemned for the murder of a pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni. Caravaggio was exiled from Rome, and made subject to a bando capital—a capital sentence—meaning that anyone living within the Papal States had the right to kill him with impunity. Furthermore, there was a bounty on Caravaggio. No body would be necessary to claim the reward. Just his severed head would be sufficient. [v]
When he wasn’t being hunted, Caravaggio spent much of his time in the company of churchmen, though sometimes merely to promote his paintings. At least while among the clergy, he had some positive Catholic influence under the Scriptures, the teaching, and the art. Caravaggio did have some personal convictions along with his rudimentary, works-based, Catholic understanding of the Bible. He once refused holy water, stating that it was only good for cleansing venial sins, stating that his were all mortal.[vi]
Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853, in the Netherlands. During his early years, his mother, Anna, schooled Vincent. Much schooling for the van Gogh children took place in the family garden where Anna would use nature as an analogy and means for teaching art, literature, and Christian doctrine.[vii] Violets represented courage, tree roots represented life after death, and the sun represented the “Sweet Lord” while the stars were the sun’s promise to return to “make light out of darkness.”[viii] Vincent’s father, Theodorus van Gogh, was also a Protestant, as well as an influential man in his mid-nineteenth century hometown. As a reverend, he was more than just a pastor but also a teacher, leader, and de facto politician.[ix]
Perhaps the biggest emotional strain in Vincent’s life occurred when his heart was broken by a girl named Caroline Haanebeek. She was charming, pretty, and free-spirited. Furthermore, her parents were quite wealthy. Vincent’s mother spoke highly of the Haanebeek family, and Vincent once referred to Caroline as “the most delicate flower.” Unfortunately, having failed to win her heart, Vincent began to see prostitutes in an attempt to find comfort. It was the beginning of an immoral pattern of bad habits that would reoccur at different periods in his life. This descent would climax with the future artist sitting quietly in a boarding house, throwing pages from a religious book into the fire. This book had been given to him as a gift from his father.[x]
Nevertheless, when immorality proved to make a lonely man in search for companionship feel even lonelier, he was swayed back to his Protestant roots by an influential preacher named Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon helped to win back Vincent’s heart for Christ, along with the majority of the region. Eventually, Vincent simplified his worldview into a single maxim, “Fear God and keep his commandments.”[xi]
Over the course of the following years, Vincent sought self-actualization by starting various jobs, from teacher to missionary to preacher.[xii] He taught himself to find happiness in sadness, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”[xiii] However, his was a version of Christianity that was based on self-pity rather than faith, and his emotions would continually rule and damage his life.
In Vincent’s heart, nature soon took the place of God, and art became his religion.[xiv] In an attempt to infuriate his father, as he often tried to infuriate him, Vincent renounced his faith yet again, calling his entire heritage “nonsense.” He said, “I too read the Bible occasionally, just as I sometimes read Michelet or Balzac or Eliot….But I really don’t care for all that twaddle about good and evil, morality and immorality.”[xv] He declared, “There is no God!” He eventually wrote to his brother that he could do well without God in his life or in his painting.[xvi] Vincent claimed that “Painting is a faith,” a statement to which he would adhere from time to time. And he fought relentlessly as he tried to make a career of painting, beginning in his mid to late twenties.[xvii]
Expectedly, as he was spending too much time stewing in his loneliness, his bad habits returned. While in Paris, with a seemingly liberated outlook on life, the failing artist became a slave to his whims. It was the end of the 19th century, and the City of Lights combined all of the ingredients of so-called freedom of expression. Prostitutes serviced almost three-quarters of Paris’ adult males, and venereal diseases were rampant.[xviii] Vincent was a man who was desperate to be loved. Problems occurred as he tried to make himself be loved by others. So a lack of spiritual conviction, a lack of companionship, and a lack of patience all accumulated in the passionate heart of the self-destructive artist. It was only a matter of time before Vincent added syphilis to his list of problems.[xix]
Paul Jackson Pollock was born on January 28, 1912. He grew up in “a family that was never religious,” and “never even attended a church service.” His mother was “openly areligious” and his father “flirted with atheism.” As an adolescent, Jackson was attracted to only the most cultic superstitions and could hardly draw but believed that “the appreciation of beauty is within yourself.”[xx] His was a country with a general lack of interest in art while the entire art world was apprehensively asking, “Is there art after Picasso?”[xxi]
During the summer of 1926, two pairs of brothers, the Pollocks and the Cooters, took a journey together through the vast Mojave Desert of California into the sparsely populated territory of Utah. During their journey across the American West, and with the help of the new Model T, the Cooters and the Pollocks played the role of wishful cowboys.
They were introduced at a road camp to an old ex-cowboy named simply “Red.” After making familiarities and small talk with the casual acquaintance, Red finally asked, “How’d you guys like to go mustang huntin’ before you go home?” For centuries, the beautiful horses had been left to roam freely throughout the vast western landscape, protected by mountains and sagebrush. Near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, only a few miles south of the border of Utah and Arizona, the group followed Red towards the discovery of a watering hole where Red promised a wild herd would come to drink the next day. Upon waking in their camp early the following morning, Red led them to a narrow pass, a slim entrance to the watering hole, from where Red knew the shooting would be best. Meanwhile, the sound of galloping hooves could be heard as the horses were approaching for their breakfast. Being sure to avoid sudden movements or noises, the Red and the boys crawled into firing position. “They had long manes hanging way down,” Cooter later confessed about the horses, “and tails that hit the ground. They were beautiful animals and they shook their long manes.” Heartlessly, a volley of gunshots was suddenly fired. Some of the animals hit the ground, but most dashed for an exit without a moment of hesitation, reaching full gallop within seconds. The boys had found themselves “frozen in fear and startled wonder,” both thrilled and regretful. “We killed a few,” Cooter admitted. “We just walked off and left them. They were beautiful horses, and I can’t believe we could just shoot them and walk off. But we did. And I’m ashamed of it to this day.”[xxii]
Like so many teens that lived during the prohibition era, Jackson indulged in alcohol. “Occasionally nightly binges became weekend binges, then week-long binges. Sometimes he would disappear for days, waking up on a friend’s couch or in the sawdust on a speakeasy floor.” On Christmas Eve of 1931, Jackson followed some parishioners into their church building, and he “walked right up to the altar, and knocked everything over—the candles, the cross, the chalice, everything.”[xxiii]
By the time that his bad habits had become his only habits, Jackson became the object of a doctor’s study on alcohol.[xxiv] Jackson’s compulsive behavior only increased as he was known for trying to start fights, “pissing defiantly in the middle of a crowded barroom floor, daring anyone to stop him.”[xxv]
June of 1931 was a perfect time for poor adolescents to indulge in life’s seedy temptations. It was the time of the Great Depression, and boredom went hand-in-hand with unemployment. Jackson was nineteen at the time. And like so many youths with no money, entertainment would often consist of some unorthodox pastime, such as jumping a traveling freight train. On board, people from every background would introduce themselves, particularly the lowest of the low. “A great underground world,” it was sometimes called. “[I] rather imagined it was something confined to certain boys’ schools in England and the Bohemian quarters of Paris,” one witness declares. “Suddenly it was all around me. I noticed men with glazed, slightly bulging eyes and uncertain voices who traveled in company with boys in their teens. The men were referred to as ‘wolves,’” and boys were lambs. “If you were a lamb, they’d walk on you.”[xxvi]
Nearly one million Americans traveled this so-called “jungle,” most of them being young men. It’s difficult to say just how immersed Jackson became with this culture. Upon being questioned, Jackson’s testimony is quite reserved on the matter, saying only that it was a “terrible” and “scary” experience. While discussing an occurrence where he had been assaulted, one acquaintance of Jackson’s described a conversation where Jackson listened intently, admitting that “he had also had some homosexual experiences when he was younger.”[xxvii] In any case, Jackson’s weeklong trip affected his life for the worse.
The debauchery accumulated over the years. Jackson’s bad qualities developed into such extreme habitual fits of fury that they became cliché to those who commonly surrounded him. His friends tell how, “He was unrecognizable from one minute to the next.” At a party one night, Jackson climbed a railing, shouting “I’m gonna jump,” repeatedly. At first, people laughed. But they quickly realized that Jackson was serious. His friends grabbed him and wrestled him to the deck. Suddenly, Jackson was silent, still, and subdued. “Jackson always left you with a feeling of emptiness,” one friend remembered, “as if he was living in an abyss.” [xxviii] Later in life, Jackson had another notable episode of suicidal thoughts. He had drawn a man hanging by a cord.[xxix]
The most important person in Jackson’s life would be a woman of Russian-Jewish decent named Lee Krasner. Her parents had emigrated from Ukraine to America in order to escape the commonplace persecution of the Jews just after the turn of the century.[xxx] Her childhood was shaped by old-world parents, an abusive brother, and a dismissal of Judeo-Christianity. She eventually renounced her Jewish faith, and during Christmastime, while all of her fellow students were singing carols declaring Jesus as Lord, she declared, “He just wasn’t mine.”[xxxi]
As an adult, Lee pursued Jackson with persistence, seeking him at his apartment.[xxxii] By this time, both artists had earned a reputation for their lifestyles, each as notorious as the other. While Jackson was known for his intense drinking problem, Krasner was known for her promiscuity. One friend tells how Lee “never went anywhere without a diaphragm.” Lee herself once said, “If a guy interested me, really interested me, I slept with him because I wanted to know him better and wanted him to know me better. That was my morality.”[xxxiii]
So it was only a matter of time before Jackson and Lee became a couple. They immediately faced turbulent trials. Jackson immersed himself in the gay subculture that surrounded his close friend Peggy Guggenheim. Ironically, it was only through Lee Krasner that Jackson had ever met Peggy, and now her circle of hedonist friends began to sever the relationship between Jackson and Lee.
The couple decided to save their relationship by taking a vacation. Of all places on earth, they visited Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was there where Lee had arranged to spend time with an old boyfriend, probably in an attempt to make Jackson jealous. Whatever the intention may have been, Jackson in fact did become jealous. But, to Lee’s dismay, Jackson retaliated by spending large amounts of time with their unexpected guest—Tennessee Williams. Between drafts of The Glass Menagerie, Jackson and Tennessee would meet on a daily basis. On the beach, Jackson would sometimes carry Tennessee on his shoulders into the water. Lee’s concern increased as the two men would continually disappear during the night.[xxxiv]
After years of turbulent dealings with alcoholism, public urination, and alleged homosexuality, Lee Krasner finally offered Jackson an ultimatum. “Either we get married,” she said, “or we split.”[xxxv] Soon thereafter, in keeping with his persistent habit of ending all matters with the final demand, he insisted on nothing less than a church wedding. So a “non-practicing Jew and an unbaptized Presbyterian” found themselves searching with difficulty for a minister who would marry them. After meeting quite a few problematic pastoral propositions, Jackson and Lee settled on a Dutch Reformed minister who saw the greater good in marrying Jack and Lee, opposed to leaving them unwed. “God will understand,” he said.[xxxvi] This union would prove to be the most helpful decision in Jackson’s entire life.
[i] Hilton Kramer, Revenge of the Philistines, 5 (The Free Press) (1985).
[ii] Id. at 10.
[iii] Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, 181 (Norton & Co.) (2010).
[iv] Id. at 3.
[v] Id. at 325.
[vi] Id. at 411.
[vii] Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life, 27 (Random House) (2011).
[ix] Id. at 52.
[x] Id. at 77-9.
[xi] Id. at 108.
[xii] Id. at 125, 129.
[xiii] Id. at 130.
[xiv] Id. at 171-2.
[xv] Id. at 247.
[xvi] Id. at 250, 627.
[xvii] Id. at 436.
[xviii] Id. at 516.
[xix] Id. at 636.
[xx] Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, 124, 126-7, 130, 580, 688, (Woodward/White) (1989).
[xxi] Id. at 169-70, 496.
[xxii] Id. at 111-13.
[xxiii] Id. at 212.
[xxiv] Id. at 318-9.
[xxv] Id. at 489.
[xxvi] Id. at 199.
[xxvii] Id. at 196-200.
[xxviii] Id. at 250.
[xxix] Id. at 361.
[xxx] Id. at 366.
[xxxi] Id. at 371.
[xxxii] Id. at 392.
[xxxiii] Id. at 395.
[xxxiv] Id. at 480-4.
[xxxv] Id. at 498.
[xxxvi] Id. at 503.