Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sins Redux

First Family of Art

The most famous American family of artists of the last century are the Wyeths of Chadds Ford, PA a place in the Brandywine Valley within several miles of my boyhood home. The patriarch of the clan, N. C. Wyeth was a celebrated illustrator at the turn of the century—imagine the romantic, lush illustrations for the Charles Scribner and Sons edition of Treasure Island, probably his best known work. Of N.C.s several children, two daughters and a son became successful painters, too. Son Andrew became a popular painter of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Perhaps his popularity joined to an out of vogue realism earned him the scorn of “serious” art critics. (Is his iconic portrayal, “Christina’s World” of a paraplegic woman in a dress, seemingly crawling up a shaggy Maine hillside toward decrepit buildings on the crest, great or trivial art? Its reputation surely suffered from reproductions of it hanging above too many suburban sofas in the 1960s.) Grandson Jamie, now in his 60s, also paints, often animals that he encounters as a matter of course on the family owned island of the coast of Maine or in the still somewhat rural countryside of Chadds Ford, near the Brandywine Museum where many family paintings can be seen. Jamie’ own iconic work greets visitors, a hyper-realistic, oversized profile of a hog.

Scandal adds poignancy to the Wyeth family saga: NC and an eleven year old grandson’s death in an automobile by a once-a-day, slow moving freight meandering through Chadds Ford might well have resolved an affair with a daughter-in-law—the grandson likely a son by that liaison. And Andrew’s 15 years of secretly painting a German immigrant named Helga, some nude portraits, fueled speculation a while ago about that relationship.

Such shadowed family legends only enhance the source of my remarks today, a remarkable series of recent paintings by Jamie Wyeth depicting the traditional seven deadly sins through evocative paintings of ordinary gulls.

Jamie has had years of observation and painting gulls. He doesn’t see them in any souvenir-shop, sentimental sort of way. "They're always depicted as white doves, when, in fact, they're evil scavengers … and they're edgy," he’s declared.

In a most remarkable, transformative way that art sometimes attains, Jamie Wyeth has taken carefully observed behavior of ordinary gulls and rendered that behavior into allegories rather than representations of the 7 deadly sins long said to lead to hell. (You can take the notion of hell to mean a hell of here and now.) In case they’re not on the tip of your tongue these 7 deadly sins are: envy, anger, gluttony, sloth, lust, greed and pride.

Reputedly, Jamie’s muse for the seagull series was a curious, hellish sight seen on the beaches of Monhegan, ME: a portable garbage burner fashioned out of an oil drum, around which gulls, drawn by garbage, fly. Jamie said, "It was something out of Wagner — this angelic little kid would shove the garbage in and the gulls would try to feed on the garbage but the flames would belch out," he said. "It was something you couldn't make up. It was just unbelievable." In the painting one gull flies so close to the flames its wing seems on fire. This large painting, “Inferno, Monhegan” accompanies the series in its ongoing exhibitions.

[Here’s an image of the artist and the painting.]

Ordinary Gulls and the Seven Deadly Sins

When I first encountered this series a few months via the World Wide Web I immediately judged it a work of genius. These paintings invaded my psyche, archetypes of universal behavior within the human condition. I wasn’t concerned with theological understandings of sin,-- hot or cold,--or the origin and evolution of the 7 deadly sins in Christian thought. I’ve revisited the 7 deadly sins through the years and have taken such cerebral approaches. This time, through the unsettling, even disturbing visions of the gulls, I merely projected the respective 7 deadly sins into our time and place and found considerable resonance.

[Let’s take a moment, without spoken word, that you might see and respond to these 7 paintings I’ve been describing.

As you looked on these depictions, did you imagine how a deadly sin corresponded to an aspect of contemporary life? I did and here are my responses.]

First anger. I’ve watched gulls in a similar pose as in this stark portrayal by Jamie Wyeth—on a beach or in a parking lot well removed from water, but near to fast food restaurants. (Gulls are not only voracious but wide ranging, clever foragers.) Whatever the setting I’ve wondered what are these creatures protesting, anyway? Is there squawking real, that is grounded in circumstance, or just raucus posture and display?

In the past few years I’ve had similar thoughts as I’ve listened to hectoring media personalities. You know the usual suspects, but in this context they’re worth repeating: Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin(who makes my wife Ellie’s stomach knot up),Savage, Beck, O’Reilly and even Miller and Medvev. You’ll find at least one of these on air, radio or TV, at any given moment, ratcheting up the emotion and to my estimation at least, being angry. Too often to my ear their anger is false anger, anger for the sake of ratings (that is, to sell commercial time) and to deliberately incite an audience. Often they invoke the fictional character, Harold Beale, from the movie Network: “I’m made as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”) I would argue that Beale is a cautionary character rather than a role model.

Such media populism has encouraged what has been called, not so much a grass roots, as an Astroturf movement embodied by the so called “tea party” protesters. Ugly expressions of populist anger burst out late this summer when Representatives and Senators held so-called town hall meetings, where shouting sprees in some instances degenerated into physical confrontations, while a few armed 2nd amendment advocates stood on the wings manifesting wit arms their right to bear arms.

Anger, both faux and incited, makes me ashamed of my society, if only for the marbling of incivility; but then, of course, civility is necessary for a functioning democracy. And there’s a deeper vein of something more fearful, a dangerous license for crackpots to do their violence.

Next, envy: Dante, who had much to say regarding the punishments of hell and associated sins, had this to say about envy: "Love of one's own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs."

In the recent polarized discussions regarding health care reform I’ve been astounded by a number of logical and moral disconnects. The most egregious for me is offered by seniors who enjoy the benefits of Medicare and fear that the extension of such benefits to more or all of the population will lead to a diminishing of what they enjoy. Is there any clearer exposition of "love of one's own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs?"

Actually, much of the opposition of health care reform evidences envy. Consider the possibility of taxing health benefits already received. Consider the imposition of higher taxes on the wealthy. Consider the argument, which I actually offered by a physician, that there are not enough doctors to go around should everyone have access to health care, so let’s not extend service. Isn’t that an astounding argument?

After envy, greed: Isn’t this gull, standing on a lattice-top brerry pie at surf’s edge spot on. There’s surely is a strong sense of the transitory. The next wave might wash the prize into the ocean to be lost forever. Yet at the foaming edge the gull lifts a cry of possessive triumph to the sky. This transitoriness represents what we’ve all experienced the last two years.

“Greed, is good,” intoned another cinematic character, Gordon Gekko of Wallstreet. And greed imploded in a subprime scandal that threatened to overturn turn the largest financial institutions in the world, eroded overnight pension plans and other personal investments including the equity of homes, shut down lending to a trickle, and levelled millions of jobs.

And all of this and more was a consequence of greed—a reciprocal relationship between Main Street and Wall Street.

And let’s not neglect the likes of Bernie Madoff and a towering pyramid scheme of investment that literally went unregulated. As any con artist knows the con works on the greed of the person being conned. As wise caveat is: “If it’s too good to be true, it is.”

Greed is the deadly sin that unregulated capitalism, unchecked by government and/or conscience must accept.

Greed has taken the deadly sin of lust to a new place—the Internet. I believe that it is still true, pornography is the most profitable business on the World Wide Web.

I hardly consider myself a prude. I doubt if many, if any of you are prudish. We also have strong commitments to First Amendment rights of speech and expression.

For me, looking on Jamie Wyeth’s rendition of two mating birds there is a sense of violation.

My quarrel with Internet pornography is twofold. It is grossly misogynist. Women, the sex most often portrayed in the pornography, are objectified by subservience, humilation, violence, and other forms of egregious behaviors. The misogyny alone challenges claims to healthy erotica, freedom from convention, or whatever justifications are routinely offered that such misogynist pornography has value.

My second objection follows the first. Internet misogynist pornography influences the impressionable: children and youth who with any Internet connection can instantly access unlimited misogynist pornography. Too easily the kind of sexuality portrayed on the Internet is normalized and/or becomes normative. And being essentially non-relational it negatively influences this area of human behavior.

My nearly 6 year old grandson is a navigator of the World Wide Web. My four month old grandaughter will surely, in imitation oh her older brother, be as adept. And for the same reason but with different manifestations in their two genders, I worry for how they will be influenced negatively by Internet pornography.

[I need a break,from these intense remarks, a song to inspire and uplift.]

Now, gluttony. The old church fathers had a real obsession with food and had well nuanced notions of gluttony. Obsessive anticipation of meals, eating too soon or too expensively or too daintly or too eagerly, and of course overeating were all forms of gluttony for Thomas Aquinas. (And he didn't have benefit of the Food NetworK.)

We are a food obsessed culture and are probably guilty of all ofAquinas’s categories of gluttony and more. For example, we are charged to think of agricultural sustainability and supporting small farmers: eat locally and eat organically! Aquinas couldn’t have imagined the burden of fast food and supersized, corn sweetner laced sodas. Nor did he have worries about depletion of the oceans varied resources or the suffering inflicted on factory farm animals.

But with Aquinas and the ages we shoulder the timeless guilt of enjoying plentitude while there are many who go hungry or can’t, for economic reasons, eat nutritionally.

Study Jamie Wyeth’s depiction of a gull gobbling a fish while claws are buried in more to be gulped down. At what point does eating to simply survive cross the line into being an obscenity for reasons of aesthetics, morality, or health?

Sloth is the only deadly sin Jamie Wyeth included a human being—a leg that had been lethargically suspended over the edge of a rowboat and is being shredded by gulls. And what do you make of the gull in the foreground?

My take on contemporary sloth is very UU. It involves having the incentive and doing the work necessary to progress as a human being. Be alert. Be open. Be responsive. Seek truth. Live according to the truths you know. Never be content. Continue to grow for as long as you live.

Sloth is the condition of those who are hard of heart, who give in to the seductions of society, who prefer to be entertained, who give into resentments, who abuse alcohol or drugs, who pull away from relationships—in one phrase, who by their lack of doing the work diminish their full humanness.

And finally the 7th deadly sin, pride, usually considered the cardinal sin from which all other sins follow. Dante defined pride as "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor." In this regard pride is a social sin. Jamie Wyeth places the prideful gull with a prized lobster in its beak in a tableau of other gulls, one upon which the prideful gull stands. There is tension here. We sense the other gulls are just waiting for the chance to rip away the lobster.

I bring a Taoist interpretation to this portrayal, drawing on the counsel of the Chinese sage Lao Tse in the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tse spoke of the the irony of possessions, of status, of power—you can never really be secure with such things because others seek to wrest them from you. Your possessions ironically mock you--and mor, put you in jeopardy and even danger.

In our common life, nation and society, we suffer from Dante’s definition of pride as "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor." In my experience there has never been such a contentious political climate based on this deadly sin of pride. (And so the nattering nabobs of negativism seek to pull down President Obama.)

In closing, if you find these gulls allegorizing the 7 deadly sins as unsettling as I do, I offer you a reason. They are archetypes of our unconscious—personal and collective. Through them we encounter ourselves.

These paintings are works of genius, windows into the American postmodern soul..

1 comment:

  1. I too encountered these paintings via the internet, as I was casting around for images to use for a popular talk I was giving on how the Eight Capital Vices of the desert Fathers became the Seven Deadly Sins we recognize.

    The gulls are genius! Wonderful portrayals of those dark stains in our own souls reflected in one of the animals who perhaps embodies them exceedingly well.