On Caravaggio’s “Amor Vincit Omnia” (“Love Conquers Everything”)

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In my article on Hieronymus Bosch, I posit Bosch as a proto-Modern, or even a pure Modern if one considers his work from a purely conceptual standpoint. This is because despite some of his technical lacks (he pretty much worked as a ‘flat’ medieval painter), he was the first to turn these shortcomings into a strength. Bosch took the expected allegories, the almost child-like didacticism of earlier religious painters and deepened them, made these stories richer and fresh. In short, he ripped medieval art outside of its own context, thus sidestepping its worst qualities by focusing on new ones, revealing how even seemingly primitive techniques can be rehabilitated into something worthwhile, a fact that no amount of Renaissance-level realism could have equaled. This was an important move, historically, since it showed that technical ability at the exclusion of all else is NOT the end-all of art — an idea that has still be argued, most notably by Nabokov — but that novel combinations of techniques and ideas can lead to something greater than these individual parts.

Thus, modern painting does not really stem from the innovations of the Renaissance (which were more or less predictable — scientific, even) but the decision to use these innovations for a higher purpose. Sure, Bosch seemed to ignore these innovations altogether, taking a short-cut to this higher purpose while obviating what was superficially new, but it’s the conceptions, the far deeper story-telling that mattered in a way that mere, dull realism could not. Yet just as Bosch eclipsed the Renaissance painters, he, too, would eventually be surpassed when these technical innovations could be married to genuine depth. And this confluence of things would first enter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1572-1610), quite possibly the first true Modern, and the greatest artist of any form, medium, or genre, in the West, up until that time. Interestingly, his date of birth coincides with the birth of John Donne, who (excepting the Chinese writers) was probably the greatest writer until that point, while his death parallels the publication of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which — even more than Shakespeare’s plays — helped usher in artistic modernism.

To see how Caravaggio accomplished all this, I’m going to use just one painting: Amor Vincit Omnia (“Love Conquers All,” or a number of other titles), not because it’s the best or most representative of the above points, but because it is my own personal favorite, and the first painting that really taught me about visual art.Cupid is put into a physical position — almost a contortion, really — that painters before and after Caravaggio have used. Indeed, lots of painters, such as Delacroix and some of the pre-Raphaelites, have erred in thinking that ‘action’ in a painting is best, and that novelty for novelty’s sake (especially in terms of human positioning) might get you somewhere artistically. Yet Caravaggio’s Cupid is anything but novelty, for he’s just crashed through a window, door, or some other opening, landed on some … Continue reading →

“The Devil Finds Work”: James Baldwin On Film

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James Baldwin was, no doubt, one of the deepest American thinkers to have ever lived, and, even more importantly, a damn good writer — a skill that, if ever missing, makes all the great thinking in the world quite sterile, and oftentimes irrelevant.

I’ve called Baldwin’s work blackness without bullshit because unlike, say, in the time of empty ‘nationalist’ posturing back then, or of frauds like Cornel West and Al Sharpton today, James Baldwin refused to accept any demands placed upon him by any race or creed, and, therefore, had a longevity that so many others in his niche do not. And I use the word ‘niche’ intentionally, for James Baldwin (like James A. Emanuel) is pigeon-holed as a black writer, first, despite all evidence to the contrary. Yes, he wrote of prototypically black things — gay things, as well, and literary things; European things — but in a way that dissented from the fads, ideologies, and self-limiting perspectives that afflict so many to this day. One only needs to read his reactions to black leaders (such as his brilliant take-down of Elijah Muhammad in Down At The Cross) to realize that he was, and still is, on the margins, neither desired by revolutionary blacks, who preferred polemic, nor liberal whites, who wanted their allies to be a bit more narrow-minded, and therefore more easily squirreled away into some ‘side’.

Among the many books he’d written, I’ve always found one particularly difficult to categorize: in fact, as all great writing should be, when deeper possibilities come open. The book is The Devil Finds Work, a long essay on American film as filtered through a racial lens. No, this is not true film criticism, in the sense that James Baldwin is able to give the reader a blueprint for understand good and bad art qualitatively, but it’s not the wan social analysis that passes for film crit in academic circles, either. So, here are some of my favorite quotes from the book, which — as per the James Baldwin aesthetic — combines some important social insights with flat-out great writing.

On Lawrence Of Arabia (1962):

“For, this overwhelming desert, though it exists geographically, and was actually filmed by an actual camera crew, sent there for that purpose, is put to a use which is as far from reality as are most of the people we encounter in it. The least real of these people is Lawrence himself. This is not O’Toole’s fault: but so grave an adventure can scarcely be ascribed to the vagaries and idealism of a single man. Lawrence’s courage and steadfastness are given as admirable, because hard-won — here, the film, unconsciously, rather patronizes Lawrence; his complexities are barely — or, rather, perhaps, endlessly — hinted at, that is to say never illuminated. His rapport with the Arabs is of great use to the British, whose attitude toward him, otherwise, is at best ambivalent. The film takes the view that he was a valiant, … Continue reading →

Michael Brown & Eric Garner: Stupidity *IS* Criminal Negligence!

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Now that the Grand Jury pose is over — for it was little more than a police procedural, anyway — and returned not 1, but 2 mathematically unheard of judgments back to back, and after all the justifications, the stupidity, the red herrings, it’s time to inject a little sense into what has transpired.

There is, in fact, very little to figure out. There’s remarkably little information to slog through, and even less evidence ‘pro’ and ‘con,’ for most of the evidence is, as it was then, on the side of the dead. I’ve already dealt with Ferguson’s Michael Brown and Staten Island’s Eric Garner at length, so I won’t go into detail, but merely recap and sum up the new developments. Indeed, time is but compression, and so, months after the original incidents, it is now much easier to get to the bottom of things.

So, here are the facts as they’ve come down to…well, to everyone, really:

Michael Brown was stopped by Darren Wilson, with dozens of witnesses claiming an altercation between the two that — according to virtually ALL of these witnesses — does not really support Wilson’s account, with many outright contradicting Wilson’ claim of merely ‘fighting back’ against a far larger aggressor. Dozens of witnesses claim that Brown was pursued, with many insisting that some shots were fired during pursuit: a flat-out criminal act. Many witnesses claim that Brown turned around in reaction to a shooting, consistent with original witness testimony re: ‘appearing’ like he was shot, and, predictably, reacting to this perception.

Now, some claim that Brown ‘staggered’ toward Wilson, due to the shooting. Some said he ‘walked’ prior to acquiring any major wounds. Many said he had his hands up the whole time. Still others were unsure. Yet only a handful, out of dozens, EVER claimed that Michael Brown was charging Wilson, with most of those adding the oft-ignored corollary that the ‘charge’ or aggression occurred AFTER the first bullets were fired.

In other words, self-defense, on Michael Brown’s part — that wonderful phenomenon wherein a man who wants to kill you doesn’t get to, and is kept from engaging in such misconduct in the future, and forever.

And here’s the thing about self-defense that people don’t quite seem to get, even as they’d readily apply it to cops and to white victims. If you are being pursued by a man with a gun who — according to most witnesses — opens fire at you without real provocation, it is well within your right to not only CHARGE the would-be killer, but nip his balls, tweak his nipples, and circumnavigate his eye-balls with a phonograph needle dulled on too many bad Fleetwood Mac songs. This is called basic human etiquette, yet Michael Brown is not exactly given the benefit of such doubt. In fact, it’s quite telling that he needs the benefit of anything, really, when so many eye-witnesses have already said the things that a dead man … Continue reading →