The Vision of Saint John or The Opening of the Fifth Seal, 1608-1614, 87.5 x 76 in. (approx), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Flannery O’Connor once wrote a story called “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in which an unhappy vacationing family runs afoul of an escaped maniac and his cohorts. The Mom, Dad, children, infant, and finally Grandmother, who throughout the story has functioned as a kind of idiot goad leading her people to inevitable, implacable judgment, are each dispatched in as callous and brutal a fashion as has ever been committed in literature. The maniac is called “The Misfit” by the press in the story. Shortly after pumping three shots into the grandmother, he gives us the strange and unsettling line, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Every minute of her life.
Flannery O’Connor was a staunch Catholic, a prim and proper southern lady who raised peacocks and suffered from lupus. Her faith was everything to her. She wrote a story once about a lady with a prosthetic leg who has it off with a traveler in the loft, and the gentleman steals her leg so she can’t stop his getting away. You think you’re tough? You think you’re modern? She was publishing these stories in the forties and fifties.
We are so bombarded with data in our modern age that we think it makes us clever; it does not. We have seen so many images of things in the world we consider ourselves worldy; we are not. What can make us clever, what can make us worldly, what can help lead us to some kind of wisdom is comparison. Someone said once that to have no interest in the achievements and events of the past is a kind of mental illness, that it is fully as unnatural as awakening with total amnesia and having no curiosity about who you are. O’Connor’s villain in her story is not the Misfit, but the Grandmother, who is only interested in herself and her own, usually wrong, perception of the world around her. She is not evil, per se, but only callous and shallow and to O’Connor, who knew she herself would never live to be a grandmother, ungrateful and squandrous as well in that she shows so paltry an engagement in the world around her. She is interested only in how it affects her. O’Connor makes it clear she thinks the grandmother’s faults are minor. (Grandmother’s cat, which she has snuck along on the trip, is named Pitty Sing: petty sin.) But it is the very pettiness of her sins that make them somehow more grave. Her punishment is devastating and Jehovan as O’Connor makes clear through repeated references to the Misfit’s shoulder blades, and how when he got the son’s shirt she “didn’t know what it reminded her of” as he put it on. Wings, she means. He is the angel of death.
I mention all this to illustrate that when we talk about modernity in art, fearlessness in art, experiment in art, we are not necessarily talking about something new. If anything, we often have to go backward in time to find real daring, real courage, real imagination. New can actually be pretty timid. You don’t believe me? Ask yourself, if someone wanted to make the movie “The Exorcist” today, shot scene for scene exactly as it was released in 1973, could they do it? And I don’t mean as some cozy, art house never seen film, but as a big, block-buster movie like it was then, do you really think anyone would have the guts to do it? I’m not so sure.
Here we have El Greco, yet another great name in Spanish art. (What is it about Spain and great artists?) El Greco came to fame in Toledo, Spain, but of course, he was not Spanish himself. (That’s why they called him the Greek, natch.) Originally from Crete, he trained in the miniaturist and illustrative tradition, studied for years in Venice and Rome and then tried unsuccessfully to become a court painter in Spain. He failed because he was just too different. How different? Well, look at this painting. If you knew nothing at all about art and someone told you Dali or Picasso had painted this you would probably believe them. Yet this was painted at the raw end of the seventeenth century. This painting is about four hundred years old.
Four hundred years.
Really let that sink in. Look at it, how vibrant the colors are, the elongation of the figures, the depth of light. The opening of the fifth seal is the place in Revelation where the souls of the martyrs, those who died for the word, are at last released. They cry out to heaven asking why they have not been avenged, and the cherubim hand out robes to cover them for they are to wait a time, to rest yet for a little season until the others are killed as they were.
They will be avenged. God with the fourth seal already sent “…a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death and Hell followed with him” so, no worries.
All these old, old references. Our culture is replete with them. We are what we were, and we should seek to understand those sources so that we can judge intelligently the choices that challenge us.
It is important to slow down and look at what has gone before. It is important to understand as best we can how we got to where we are. No population has ever been more targeted than our own. Our movies are as often as not poorly disguised commercials for consumer products. Our governments want us to spend money and be quiet while something, hard to be sure just what from day to day, is done in our name. Our stories are empty re-tellings of 1960’s sit-coms with a few dirty words thrown in to make them seem modern. Our music is the clatter of machines designed by machines and performed by people who are fronting for machines. Someone is trying very hard to convince us of something every minute of our lives.
Every minute of our lives.
Read older books. Watch older movies. Listen to older music. Study older art. Read a history. Some of what we have today is fantastic and fabulous. A lot of it is not. Some of what went before is fantastic and fabulous. A lot of it is not. Give yourself a chance to tell the difference. Learn to connect with and love all those generations who have gone before that we might better connect with the generations that come after, and that generation of which we are already a part. Let’s all be that cranky old person who insists on being treated well, who wants to indulge in a little intellectual luxury. Make yourself a promise that every single day you will enjoy at least one thing of quality for no better reason than that it is preferable to crap. Let’s all do ourselves that favor.
Just for the hell of it, let’s be difficult to please.