The differences between revolution in art and revolution in politics are enormous....Revolution in art lies not in the will to destroy but in the revelation of what has already been destroyed. Art kills only the dead. – Harold Rosenberg
Look at prints of art masterpieces too long and you forget how potent the real pieces are, with the power to wreak havoc on a soul. So I was caught off guard when I rounded a corner at the Denver Art Museum last summer and confronted a dark angel in Robert Motherwell’s perfect visual for evil, one of the more than 150 paintings he titled “Elegy to the Spanish Republic,” a protest against European Fascism.
The stark, absorbing blackness of the huge forms; the slightly arched contours and suggestion of wings bearing tidings of bondage and destruction; the scratchy outlines, hinting at both disintegration and restless movement; the meekness of the sky-white background in contrast: evil at its finest hour in an ever-forward thrust to take center stage. Museums place benches in front of paintings for the kind of undoing moment I had at that point.
Motherwell called his procession of variations on the theme that spanned his entire career, “a funeral song for something one cared about.” He was dogged in his conviction that “the world could, after all, regress,” and he’s right, for though Fascism had been exposed when the artist began painting his Elegies after the war, that spirit that forces arbitrary value on human life is alive and well in its many forms. Do I possess enough of the Original to pray in front of an abortion clinic not just once or twice, but 150 times, sing that radical funeral song for the unborn? What if the musings of bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel in Why I Hope to Die at 75 became the “logical” framework for public policy that restricted life at the far end? We better all sit down on that bench. Without heavy doses of the Original, how easily we can become mere reproductions.