Historian and artist Georgio Vasari (1511-1574)

Historian and artist Georgio Vasari (1511-1574)

Vasari's ordering of art history through biographical accounts, with its emphasis on Renaissance individualism, has been a standard approach ever since the appearance his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1568. Thus, the libraries and bookstores abound with monographs, or volumes dedicated to the work of a single artist. Now, in our Western exaltation of romantic individualism, we prefer interpreting history as the product of adoring dramatic acts performed by heroic single individuals. Simple-minded art history succumbs to this tendency in part because of assumptions about the supposed features of "uniqueness" and "originality" believed to be crucial qualities of high art. Many students, led by the usual textbooks to view historical methodology as a parade of golden oldies or as a tally of votes for an all-star team, naturally find the biographical approach attractive. But just what were the origins of this classical individualism the Renaissance revived? An eloquent summary was offered by the late Joseph Campbell, in his remarkably woven textual tapestry of global culture and mankind's several attempts at genuine civilization.

[The Greeks] were proud, as well they might be, of being men instead of slaves; of being the ones in the world to have learned, at last, how to live as men might live, not as the servants of a god, obedient to some conjured divine law, nor as the functionaries, trimmed to size, of some wheeling, ever-wheeling cosmic order; but as rationally-judging men, whose laws were voted on, not "heard"; whose arts were in celebration of humanity, not divinity (for even the gods now had become men); and consequently in whose sciences truth and not fancy was, at last, actually beginning to appear. A discovered cosmic order was not read as a design for the human order, but as its frame or limitation. Nor was society to be sanctified above the men within it. One can realize, after coming down through all these millenniums of religion, what a marvel of new thought the wonderful, earthly humanity of the Greek polis represented in the world. 
          -- Joseph Campbell, Occidental Mythology, Volume 3 of The Masks of God. Penguin Books (1964), p. 179.

This says quite a bit for the proud, defiant heritage of the culturally-sanctioned Western ego, even if that pride (thought by some to be the deepest of the seven deadly sins, because it so obscures one's perception of the other sins in one's self) boded catastrophic consequences for planetary ecology when the downside of the "arrogance of humanism" turned the mechanized, imperial West away from respect for the qualities of divinity in other living species--plant or animal--to shy away from our own awe and wonder before the mystery of being.

Humanism is the "religion of humanity," a supreme faith in our own ability to both rearrange the world of Nature and engineer our own world in any way we see fit. Secure in the misguided faith that humans can do anything with the aid of reason, science, and money, we are dismantling and discarding everything upon which human survival and hapiness depend, including: our knowledge of the limits of the human mind and body, our families and small communities, our best agriculture, our control over energy, our fellow species and ecological systems--even the meaning of our language.
          -- David Ehrenfeld, The Arrogance of Humanism. Oxford University Press, New York (1978). This quote comes from the bookjacket for Professor Ehrenfeld's intelligent and very humane text, hardly doing his work justice, yet a token to help us articulate the need for balance.

Both socially and psychically, the West at last is starting to pay the full price for our humanist individualism, and racking up huge debits in terms of the environment, so we certainly ought not to squander its many virtues and advantages. Crediting the impetus for biographical art history to Giorgio Vasari's Renaissance writing, we should also note some of the other contributions he made as ideas still in current use. Among the most important of these--too often sidestepped by modern writers--is the readiness to acknowledge and the attempt to explain humanity's enormous capacity for destructive acts, along with accounts of building, forming, creativity and expresion.

The first explicitly to affirm the consanguinity of the three fine arts as "the daughters of one father, Design," the first to treat them in one volume where all his predecessors had dealt, or proposed to deal, with architecture, sculpture and painting in separate treatises, and the first to represent the outrages of the barbarians and the "perfervid zeal of the new Christian religion" as the joint causes of one catastrophe rather than as two unrelated disasters, Vasari saw the "rebirth of art" as a total phenomenon which he christened with a collective noun, la rinascita.
          -- Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, Almqvist and Wiksell, Stockholm (1960), p. 31; see also, "The First Page of Giorgio Vasari's 'Libro'," Meaning in the Visual Arts, pp. 169 ff. ]

Even some of the more sophisticated students (deemed able to cope intellectually and emotionally with an order of historical scrutiny casting a searchlight of doubt upon deeply held if seldom-challenged beliefs) are frequently surprised, for example, by references to the cultural catastrophe (which actually should be pluralized and noted as recurrent) caused by "perfervid Christian zeal." For, in order to understand the broader implications of Vasari's statement about the apparent causes of Antiquity's decline, we must be able to follow his line of argument not only geographically, so as to include the swath of obliteration left by the Christian Iconoclasts in Byzantium, for example, or the torching of the great library at Alexandria, or the desecrations at Delphi and Eleusis. We also must consider the operative validity of Vasari's thesis as extended in time, even to testing it against the virtually total destruction of the Gothic in the Netherlands by puritanical Calvinist Christians, the physical assault by Roundheads on megalithic monuments in Great Britain, the cultural bonfires and human bloodbaths attending the advent of the Spanish Inquisition, the scurrilous, murderous knavery of the colonials at Plymouth and the subsequent American seasons of genocide, the abysmal depredations of the London Missionary Society, essentially wiping out the entire culture of the Polynesian people across the Pacific, or the contemporary kind of Red Neck Bible Belt Christianity that froths at the mouth at the very mention of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Not that all the destroyers have called themselves Christians. The history of China recounts waves of destruction, vengeance and retaliation: sometimes Confucian, then Buddhist, then Taoist or Mongols--back and forth--until the Kuomintang; then Mao who had killed an estimated fifteen million traditional poets, artists, scholars, acupuncturists, herbalists, T'ai Chi masters, and gentlemen, with all their families; the Gang of Four, terror in Tianamen Square and Tibet.

The Cantos of Ezra Pound supply a pithy, pungent, panoramic account of the Chinese experience with dialectics of good and bad government (and comments on the consequences of each for the arts), from archaic, mythic times through the classical centuries. Arguably the greatest American poet of the century, Pound was savaged by the jingoist media for his ill-timed expression of possibly ill-considered political-economics, while seldom a word has been heard about the captains of American industry who continued to meet in Swiss board-rooms throughout the Second World War--General Motors having helped to build the Nazi Panzer Division's Tiger tanks. Poets are predictably more naive, and altogether easier marks for the ballyhoo, since the organs of mass media do not care much for the values of poetry. The U.S. Army occupying Italy treated the old man of letters like an animal, and literally hanged him up in a cage; he had an artistic revenge by composing, while in that inhumanly cruel predicament, the profoundly moving Pisan Cantos. Ezra Pound was then shamefully sent to an American psychiatric gulag at St. Elizabeth's. He did not live on this Earth quite long enough to update the Chinese thematic material in the Cantos for our time when the human beings in the People's Republic now number over one billion, fully a fifth part of mankind.

All of us who love the arts may bathe in the shower of a nervous sweat contemplating the narrow escape from doom for the ancient Japanese imperial city of efflorescence of temples and shrines, with centuries of carefully preserved sculpture and painting, a deeply rich history and studios of living craftsmen in wood, ceramics, weaving, puppetry, the masters of theater, music, dance...and the rest. Yet, (almost unbelievably!) this same city of Kyoto was the first-choice target for dropping the atomic bomb. The secret senior military advisers of the Pentagon and a few select people from the highest political circles were actually going to destroy Kyoto. Members of the armed forces' brass speculated that destruction of the entire city, in which was located the greatest concentration of prime national treasures, might defeat the will of the Japanese people to prolong their war effort. A more balanced historical perspective now suggests (also with more likelihood) that Japan was about ready to capitulate anyway, and that the dropping of these bombs was hastened, to have it done before the war ended, to avoid robbing the Pentagon admirals and generals of their opportunity for field trials of the ordnance. Ethically atrocious as the decision was to develop, and then to use atomic weapons AT ALL, at least Kyoto was spared the direct wrath of Amerika's spiteful barbarity. The outraged, adamant refusal to condone such an act came from one man. Professor Ernest de Wald was then a flag officer, but upon retiring from the military became a teacher and the Director of the University Art Museum at Princeton. His forthright courage saved the city of Kyoto, for which present and future generations of humanity, and the Japanese nation in particular, must be truly grateful, although not so Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

All days of war are dark with destruction or bright with the fires of death, but often the very worst are the last days, just when it seems as though both an end to devastation and the reprieve of peace are closest. Enormous casualties were reported at the very end of World War I, in the last official minute of fighting. The word had gone around to everyone in the trenches, on both sides, that an Armistice was assured--and moreover, that a specific date and time had been agreed to: November 11th, at eleven o'clock in the morning. The problem was that all of the soldiers--however tired and bored, or deathly sick of war they might have been--all of them who could get to a gun, or rifle, or field piece, wanted to be the one who got off the last shot of the war...the kid in highschool assembly who wants to be the last one to applaud syndrome. But the results were not at all funny. When the smoke finally cleared--it must have been about ten or twelve minutes later, poetically (let's say) at 11:11 a.m., marking the moment as 11-11, 11:11--all up and down the front on both sides were wails and screams, bleeding and dying, smoke and shrapnel, dust billowing, fires raging, and mad cheers celebrating peace in our time.

They seldom tell you about that in history class. Nor do the usual history books--sniffed and scanned by puritanical religionists, frightened fundamentalists, and parental censors looking for a squeal of rapture here or the hint of a bared breast there--overcome pious moralizing to inform America's students about Japan at the end of the war. Historian Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University and a decorated World War II bombardier, tells the following story:

I have a friend in Japan who was a teenager when the war ended. He lived in Osaka. He distinctly remembers August 14. It was five days after the bomb dropped on Nagasaki (August 9), eight days after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (August 6), and a day before the Japanese agreed to surrender (August 15). After Nagasaki, it was very clear that they were about to surrender in a matter of days. But on August 14 a thousand planes flew over Japan and dropped bombs on Japanese cities. He remembers on August 14, when everybody thought the war was over, the bombers coming over his city of Osaka and dropping bombs. He remembers going through the streets and the corpses and finding leaflets also dropped along with the bombs saying: "The war is over."
Howard Zinn, Power, History and Warfare, Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, PO Box 2726, Westfield, New Jersey 07091 (April 1991); lecture first given at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (March 21, 1991).]

We see sanctimonious public posturing against atomic weapons, usually on August 6th, memorialized as Hiroshima Day, and correctly so, although a more wide-spread and heart-felt sense of national compassion would seem to be called for. Nagasaki--upon which the second atomic bomb was dropped, and ironically the most important home of Christianity in Japanese history--doesn't even get its own day of remembrance. Harry S. Truman, then President of the United States of America, took cocky pride in the little sign on his official desk which read "THE BUCK STOPS HERE." Again, it comes down to humanist individualism: Truman was the one man who could have said "No" to the entire misadventure--or at least "No" to the final decision to drop the atomic bombs. He could have ended the war when the first one had been dropped. Or he could have declared the war ended when Nagasaki had been obliterated. But he did not. Instead, he perpetrated one of the saddest and most shameful moral lapses in the history of the planet. In addition to all of the dead and disfigured human beings, there will be a mutant posterity of plants and animals through thousands of generations which, by virtue their mere being, hurl the worst of curses upon his memory and upon his name...the terrifying, terrible irony of that name, which sounds so much like "true man."

Meanwhile, at this writing, the chronicle of the fourth estate emblazons daily the depredations of Japanese financiers. The yakuza (Japanese crime syndicates) were allegedly entangled in money-laundering scams tied to sensational purchases of fine art, such as Vincent Van Gogh's Irises. Never mind that in the last decades of the present millennium Japanese bankrolling--much of it traditionally secret and corrupt--has incurred monumental moral, karmic responsibility for extensive pesticide pollution from golf courses alone...insults to the environment which, however, pale next to Japanese financed desecration of global forests for paper and disposable chopsticks, contamination and extensive destruction native habitat, or the shameless effrontery of Japan's cruel, unremitting assault on the worldwide population of dolphins and slaughtering whales in the open sea.

What, we may ask, has been the role played by the traditional orthodox institutions devoted to the guidance of the soul, the heart, and the mind of mankind--the monitors of righteousness? As for the track record of the world's fastest-growing religion, Islam: though enjoined to be tolerant, compassionate and merciful, Muslims laid waste to Byzantium, Egypt, India. The marble columns from Christian Byzantine churches can be identified in the Grand Mosque at Cordoba built in Muslim Spain. However, the Christian community later (after the Reconquest completed in 1492) indulged an architectural counter-strike by building, right in the middle of the mosque, a full-blown Gothic church. It still stands, and from the exterior can be seen protruding above the roofline; but the scale of the mosque is so enormous that inside, the other structure is visually lost amid the forest of marble columns. The Mameluks built the city of modern Cairo with the casing stones they literally ripped off the pyramids at Giza. Islam has inundated and oblitterated the native cultures of Africa, from the Sahara to the north and east. Babar and his Muslim army devastated northern India, even though they tried to turn it all into a lavishly landscaped garden. Shah Jehan built the calendar-beautiful Taj Mahal, but his predecessors wreaked obsessive destruction upon whatever venerable Hindu temples the armies could reach. Now it is the Hindus who want to raze a mosque in northern India, to rebuild on that particular site their own temple which, they say, stood there first.

Who gets off the hook in this lachrymal litany of squandering the material, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual resources of the Earth? Without wishing to slink into a slough of despair, nor merely to flaunt the rancor of madmen, we feel obliged to come at this business of artistic creativity, and the ways history records it, with a corrective attitude for the smugness of those who would always and ever fawn over the precious scraps of "high culture" that have been tossed (or chanced to fall) from the tables of the priests and kings, the erstwhile and occasional patrons of the arts, but perennially the principal agents of destruction and death. Having set forth these ideas quite simply, as they appear to be, and calling things by their proper names, we must be prepared, ultimately, to grant forgiveness from our hearts for all the crimes and passions of the past. Yet that can come about more swiftly and sincerely after, first, we grant to history the right and the charge to bring these things to light, which may be why we symbolize scholarship by the iconic image of a lamp.

The history of catastrophes is not often taught. Nevertheless, an objective account of destruction ought to be contemplated by serious educators, busy extolling themselves for the imagined accomplishments of their self-titled humanistic research. It would serve as a darkly instructive reminder about the flip side of pride. Otherwise, there seems to be self-deception in writing about art and culture without, from time to time, stopping to take stock of humanity at large, in the conventional real world. This may also help maintain perspective for supporting reason and sanity while providing a foil for beauty and love, and a good laugh. But not everyone is laughing. It would take immense resourcefulness to laugh in the teeth of the proud announcement by the President of the United States of America in the late Spring of 1992, who crowed that the U.S. "victory" in the Cold War had cost the nation the round figure of four trillion dollars. Who knows what else, besides weapons, FOUR TRILLION DOLLARS might have bought? Our purpose here is not to chronicle all the execrable acts that masses of people--and also specific individuals--occasionally perform. One of the truly amazing things is how very hard governments have to work to mobilize populations to go to being just as important a part of any human nature to share, to cooperate and enjoy life. If there is sometimes a Polyanna complex on the part of scholars who write as though they have just come from, say, the planet of lost art historians, as Howard Zinn reminds us the newspapers and many of the grimmer historians also ignore the history of creativity and kindness.

They dwell on wars and cruelty and the beastial things that people do to one another and they don't dwell a lot on the magnificent things that people do for one another in everyday life again and again. 
          -- Zinn, Power, History and Warfare, p. 4. ]

The disquieting tone of these observations may strike some readers as obtrusive in the context of writing about the world of art. But that is precisely our point. As members of the generational bridge that will pass along to the earth's children and to its posterity what is known and worth remembering of the real history of this planet, we are obliged to remind ourselves constantly about the grander frame of reference within which we can still find the time to be talking of Michelangelo, or of Marcel Duchamp. The logics (or the different ways, mentally) of dealing with--on the one hand questions about art history, and on the other hand the distressing reality and mindless rapacity of planetary exploitation--DO converge and coalesce in a realm more subtle and complex than can be represented by the mere dichotomy of creation and destruction. Our present thesis explores these interactions in terms of revelations and secrets or, more generically, as issues of information transmission or control.

We are well aware that efforts to penetrate the protective beliefs and self-serving mythologies that becloud global history's objective record can be attempted safely only in a nation of laws guaranteeing the separation of church and state and the freedoms of speech, expression and inquiry, as specified and implied by the Constitution of the United States of America and, most importantly, by the Bill of Rights. From the beginning, this idea was continuously assaulted and subverted by the elitist commanders of wealth and privilege; it is not much different today, except that subtler repressive modes are more deviously employed, as in the passive-aggressive perversities of "political correctness," or in the subliminal self-righteousness of media control.

To seek the truth of the matter has been the principal aim of academic inquiry for the last eight hundred years in the Western university tradition, although admittedly most societies have jealously guarded access to the training of those minds in preparing for such a task. However, things are supposed to be different in these United States of America: the great visionary democratic proposition guaranteeing full access to education for every child is one of the most enlightened accomplishments of a noble, living heritage, and we still do, in this great free nation, promise liberty and justice for all.

Kurt von Meier
From A Ball of Twine: Marcel Duchamp's "With Hidden Noise"
Circa 1991