Archives for posts with tag: icon of the child in genocide art

Art historians argue, with ample documentation, that perhaps the most revolutionary assertion of the Renaissance was that Christ himself was a man.

Leo Steinberg has made a moving life’s work studying this specially frank way a picture is worth 10,000 words. I can think of no image of the adult Jesus’ genitals. (There are reasons for this, among them, apparently, that Adam had no penis until he had committed the Original Sin; therefore Jesus had no penis either, until the 15th century, at which point his fully erect member could be discerned under the usual loincloth in depictions of the Crucifixion. Or, he only had a penis after the resurrection.) But the genitals of Jesus as a child are freely depicted — with the Madonna lifting his tunic to reveal them, or the baby Jesus himself flashing his cherubic parts, with all sorts of people pointing to them, and Magi looking at them — starting in the Renaissance, as proof that Jesus was not the shape-shifting spirit of the Gnostic gospels or a magic trickster. Among the theologies asserted by the Renaissance depiction of Jesus’ genitals was that the first blood he shed for us, predicting the crucifixion, was his circumcision — which is a covenant with God. Making the baby Jesus’ genitals the cynosure of all gazes helped all the enterprises of the Renaissance claim that we are born in God’s image and likeness. He looks like us. He speaks Italian.

Tolerance for the proud Renaissance assertion that God is human, and fraternal, comes and goes, with a bronze loincloth that is applied and stripped and re-applied as, over 500 years, popes decide whether or not the public may gaze on Jesus’ genitals as depicted in marble by Michelangelo. The art critic Waldemar Januszczak noticed the loincloth on The Risen Christ — who along with the acquisition of genitals, has been healed of his stigmata — in a 2000 piece in the London Sunday Times:

The next time I visited Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, I was astonished to see that Michelangelo’s Christ had acquired a miraculous bronze loincloth that stayed up with no fastenings, baroque style. It was a ridiculous object. Michelangelo was a sculptor in marble. Cheap bronze loincloths were not his thing. His decision to display a naked Christ had been central to the intended effect of this prickly sculpture. Nowhere in the gospels does it say The Risen Christ sported a tiny loincloth. Yet this is what the priestly authorities of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva had insisted upon. By so doing, they had ruined The Risen Christ as a work of art. The papacy of John Paul II was acquiring its unmistakable flavour.

I later learnt that the ghastly loincloth was manufactured many popes ago, and that it came on or off depending on the prevailing Catholic reading of Michelangelo’s work. Today, the artist’s 500-year-old vision is again considered too progressive and shocking for the modern worshipper. The fake loincloth has been slapped back on. Michelangelo’s Christ has had ersatz sweetness thrust upon him.

Michelangelo's Risen Christ, with genitals covered by a subsequent loincloth.

It seems to me, as someone with a modicum of study of the images of children in extremity, that the photographs of dead babies, like those of the Duggars’ miscarried daughter, or the narrative of the death of Gabriel Santorum, by his mother, the wife of the former Presidential candidate, are informed by the pro-life movement’s graphic rhetorics employing images of what they claim are fetuses. The aim of the pro-life movement in using these photographs of children in extremity is the opposite, it seems to me, of the Renaissance artists’ incarnation of Jesus through his genitals. I think what is being asserted by the pro-life photographs is similarly a religious rhetoric, but going in the opposite direction. The Duggars’ photographs, the pro-life fetus photographs, Karen Santorum’s disturbingly graphic portrayal of letting her children “cuddle” the baby’s corpse, are asserting not that these unviable babies are human, but that they have immortal souls. Which should not be aborted.

Photograph, by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, of the Duggars' dead baby, featured on their website.

There are many other tropes being asserted in the trend of photographing and telling the story of your dead baby — “remembrance photography” as the people who photographed the Duggars’ dead baby have called it (warning: that is a website full of triggering images).

It interests me that the smallness of the corpse’s hand is emphasized, both in the supposedly private photographs of the Duggars’ baby taken by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a company which specializes in baby funerary photography, and in the carefully conceived sales object which is a book cover — a book on the subject of the long struggle and death of a prematurely born baby.

What is asserted in these two images, by emphasizing the smallness of the child’s hand with the touch of the mother’s hand, is the agency of the mother not only to lead the child out of a fatal illness, but to resurrect her, to immortalize the child — by never forgetting her, by photographing her, by asserting and naming the significance of her immortal soul as someone whose life was not pointless or in vain.

The connection between the Renaissance impulse to incarnate Christ by depicting his genitals, and the 21st century impulse to incarnate unviable babies by photographing and describing their dead bodies is one I haven’t thought entirely through, except to the point that each is an acceptable theocratic political argument, whose political graphic seems to be unacceptably outrageous in its frankness about bodies. More transgressively,  it is very bad voodoo in its pimping out public iconography of what almost everybody thinks of as deeply private and intimate. God’s genitals and unviable dead babies are not anything anybody wants to look at without violating serious taboos and experiencing deep shame.

I’m having two thoughts here — as you will appreciate, when bodies are politicized and trophies taken, civility is of the utmost value in determining the truth of things. The first is that my favorite pro-lifer, a six-foot Irish girl from Dundalk, MD who used to press fetus key chains on me and argue with me for hours at a time in my days as an abortion clinic escort, once summed up the entire discourse of months by saying, But Jeannette! They’re immortal souls! As if I disagreed with her. As if abortion killed immortal souls. As if either of us had any agency whatever in the lives and deaths of immortal souls.

The second is that the ghoulish sensationalistic narcissism of promulgating the images and narratives is something I can’t get over, even as I understand the deeply mythogenic pathos in the drama of a mother’s grief. Our best and deepest mysteries — the Eleusinian — come from the rape of Persephone and the grief of her mother, the earth goddess, in whose fidelity to the memory of her daughter, and non-sexual obsession, the very type of unconditional love is perceived. Mother love!

Unconditional it is not. The condition is that Mother accrues to herself the agency of God. To confer life and death. To wreak havoc on the seasons, our food supply, and the universe itself if she does not get her way. Is birthing really so important? Or has God given the power to worms? Is parenting something God forks his power over to you to do? The foremost Bible scholar of our time points to a Christian thread started by St. Paul and moving through the monastics, the Cathars and the Shakers, that a true Christian doesn’t reproduce at all.  In the back of my head, I always hear, concurrently, when the ultimate power of the matriarchy is asserted, the ultimate power of the patriarchy. The threat of the sexually abusing father, the torturer of animals. I made you. God gave me dominion over you. And I will do with you as I wish.

I will snatch you, my creation, from the jaws of oblivion and make your most private body immortal by making its vulnerability a spectacle.

Nonconsensual nonimmortality.

Let us return, as it is always instructive to do, to Persephone’s isle — the place from which she was snatched — Sicily. They know, in Sicily, who is in charge. Here is Waverly Fitzgerald describing Mary Taylor Simetti’s tale, from On Persephone’s Isle: A Sicilian Journal, of the Easter ritual in the stoniest of Demeter’s redoubts, an old, old, old agricultural town called Castelvetrano:

Simetti describes as Easter Sunday enactment of the first meeting of Mary and Jesus on Easter Sunday as performed in Castelvetrano. In a crowd of onlookers, Simetti and her husband watch as two large statues, one of Mary and the other of Jesus, are carried into the piazza from two different directions. While the two statues are still out of sight of each other, the little angel statue that accompanies Mary and is borne by a dozen young boys, dashes across the piazza to sway at the feet of Christ, then darts back to Mary, as if carrying the good news. “Three times this polychromed plaster ambassador is hurtled back and forth across the piazza, faster and faster as the delighted crowd urges the runners on to greater and greater effort,” writes Simetti.

Then the bigger statues begin moving, slowly, shuffling forward, hesitating, as if experiencing doubt and disbelief. When they come within sight of each other, the pace quickens, the bearers break into a run and the two statues fly towards each other, almost colliding. At the very moment when they come face to face, Mary’s black cloak falls away to reveal a brocade mantel beneath and releasing a number of white doves that wheel and circle in the sky above. Both Simetti and her husband are moved to tears. Simetti writes, “The emotion that was released together with the doves was so intense, the longing for just such an encounter so palpable. Mary and Jesu, Demeter and Persephone, black-veiled mother and murdered child, release from mourning.”
— Waverly Fitzgerald, Easter packet

We all want to be human. We all want to be immortal souls. We all want to be resurrected and forgiven. And so, without even being very good, or lucky, or chosen, we are. By one another, if no one else.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.

Anna Dorfman over at Door Sixteen has an interesting post today for those of the digital magpie Pinterest generation. Dorfman, a top flight book cover designer hired by Simon and Schuster straight out of art school some 15 years ago, is one of the most stylish DIY reno bloggers and a punk ethicist — vegetarian, upcycling, city-loving.

She is often asked what serves her for inspiration. Her response is everything. And then she addresses advice to Generation Y:

….[Because of the visual stimulation of the city] inspirational stimulation can easily become overwhelming for me. I’ve never had an inspiration board/mood board/whatever board—I find them oppressive. Aside from the pressure of influence, I dislike the act of stripping context from another person’s work. And yes, I do do that here on this blog sometimes—but I cannot have it around me when I’m in “design mode.” I show up, and I get to work. OK, most of the time. Sometimes I’m an amateur.

So here are my lessons for artist/designer types, as inspired (oops) by Chuck Close:

Not every decision you make has to be crowdsourced beforehand. Trust your gut and keep it to yourself while you follow through.

It’s OK to strive to accomplish things that may never lead to financial reward. More than OK, actually.

Try to put a limit on the amount of time you spend searching for and cataloging images for the sake of inspiration. Think more about appreciating these things for what they are, and not just how you can apply them to your own work.

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
— Chuck Close

I read this after twenty-four hours of idly thinking about Karen Santorum and the power she accrues wielding the dead body of a baby, as others wield pictures of the bodies of their dead babies.

Dead babies are a very powerful symbol, as I have written extensively in my work on children as the icons of genocide. I’m not well versed on what they symbolize to Catholics, or pro-lifers, or to their mothers, but I can tell you what they represent to genocidaires and to artists who are the first to try to wrap their heads around the numeracy and finality of genocide. War trophies. Big medicine. The Khmer Rouge strung dried fetuses up around the eaves of one jungle headquarters. There’s more and worse; it’s all about magic.

A lot of it is to be seen in Save the Children ads. I once had a murderous discussion about the unapologetic exploitation by doers of good of images of children in extremity in their fundraising literature. The art historian Anne Higonnet was among the first to note the particularly ruthless exploitation of children’s images by women beginning in the 20th century.

Anne Geddes does Celine.

I want to ask you to think about pictures of dead babies as the Karen Santorum mood board. As inspiration. As precedent what do they command of your today and your future? As guideline for moral action, female empowerment, spiritual elevation, the narcissistic need for endless sympathy, pro-life politics or goddess shamanism?

Saturn devouring his son, by Goya, who helped define the age of revolution, and modernity itself, with this image.

What, explicitly, is the grief transaction that goes on when you publicize pictures or written images of your baby’s body? The usual psychological suspects are:

  • If I take my eyes off the photograph or narrative of your dead body, forget you, you really will die. Your soul is immortal only as long as mortal memory, a photograph, a tombstone, the curiously numinous void that is the Internet, enshrine it.
  • As your mother/goddess I can a.) pre-empt God and karma who have authorized or permitted your death and b.) keep you and your immortal soul alive only by mourning you forever.
  • My sins have caused your death, the death of an innocent, or failed to prevent it. I must work off my guilt by etc. etc. etc.

Giotto's Massacre of the Innocents, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Massed and disarrayed bodies are an early and persisting symbol of the numeracy and contempt of genocide.

At what point, not to put too fine a point on it, does God say You are powerless over the life and death of innocents and, Innocence has nothing to do with it, and, This whole motherhood/madonna/goddess power trip is not what you think it is and Your guilt is blasphemous and This is one of my mysteries and If you actually believe in me, you need to suck it the fuck up?

At what point does God say to Karen Santorum, the mood board is oppressive? Proscriptive? It accrues to yourself powers of life and death that are not yours to take? Yesterday I pointed out the mood board of the dead babies is iconic, the worship of which is something God explicitly forbids straight off the bat. Isn’t it possible that the handling of the dead baby might be the accrual to one’s self of the shamanistic power of a blood thirsty pagan God to bring you to your knees in fear?

Molech-Leviticus 18:21
And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord.

William James, the father of American pragmatism, took note of such a God and his uses to the citizens of a democracy as the 20th century dawned in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James, the subject of a magisterial new biography which sets him at the center of American philosophy and one of the inventors of modernity, writes:

Today a deity who should require bleeding sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary to be taken seriously. Even if powerful historical credentials were put forward in his favor, we would not look at them. Once, on the contrary, his cruel appetites were of themselves credentials. They positively recommended him to men’s imaginations in ages when such coarse signs of power were respected and no others could be understood. Such deities then were worshiped because such fruits were relished.

I haven’t checked the latest Biblical scholarship on what Leviticus’ fairly direct edict against the idea that sacrificing your children, your Isaacs, your Astyanaxes, your Jesuses, to God earns you Brownie points — oh, do let’s go there — means to the 21st century.

I think it still means something like, don’t throw your babies into the fire of propitiation and self-regard. I could be wrong.

Once again, as with the first commandment we discussed yesterday, either God means what he says, or he doesn’t, and he’s just kidding when he says the sacrifice of children is abomination. You choose.

Pyrrhus beats Priam to death with his own grandson, Astyanax.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.

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