Thursday, 30 September 2010


Rant Number 413 1 October 2010

‘On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ is a tract by the English writer Thomas De Quincey. A witty and provocative oration. Ranging from Cain and Abel through the medieval Assassins and on to Burke and Hare, via the murders, real or imagined, of thinkers like Descartes, Spinoza and Kant. But murder as a moral or judicial act did not much interest De Quincey. Rather, he dealt with the subject aesthetically, from the point of view of a philosophy of ‘good taste’. England had seen societies for the promotion of vice, Hell Fire Clubs, even an association formed for the suppression of virtue. (A topical concept, surely. It now exists and it rages on.) Could not a new society be set up for the encouragement of murder, he wondered? Or, more euphemistically, a society for the aesthetically curious in homicide, the connoisseurs in murder? The murder-fanciers, so to speak? Good job De Quincey restricted himself to satire, black humour and literary conceit, or Scotland Yard might have haunted him.

Although Brazilian artist Gil Vicente might never have heard of On Murder, his art has distinctly Quincean echoes. Nine of his charcoal drawings currently in the Sao Paulo Biennial exhibition depict him about to slaughter some recognisable public figures. Israel’s Ariel Sharon, Brazil’s President Lula, George W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Benedict, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the like. For the artist’s, they are all ‘enemies’. ‘They kill so many people’ he allegedly claimed. Most of them he just shoots, whereas for his own President he chooses the butcher’s knife, cutting his throat, like a sheep offered in primitive sacrifice.

The chosen sitters evince a certain shrewdness or low cunning in the artist. Sharon’s execution might have aroused fearsome pro-Israeli wrath. (The comatose ex-PM is virtually dead, anyway. What would be the point of killing a corpse?) Ahmadinejad’s shooting redresses the balance. Despite his apparent daring the painter follows a sensibly bourgeois via media. He gives ‘un colpo al cerchio e uno alla botte’, as we say in Italian. The maverick Iranian leader has become everyone’s favourite whipping boy. I don’t reckon Sao Paulo is teeming with vengeful Shia Muslims. You know how to play it safe, Gil.

Murdering the Pope? That is not so irrational. I don’t mean to invoke the strident atheist brigade and the liberal lovelies that agitate against Benedict. It is not that. As a living icon of Christ, the Pope is called not only to serve and follow Jesus but also to represent him in a deeper way. He has to be, as Supreme Pontiff, an Alter Christus, another Christ. As human intolerance and hatred of the light murdered Christ 2000 years ago, it would not be unfitting for the Pope to fall victim to the same odious inhumanity. Indeed, the drawing shows the Pope raising up his hands towards his murderer, as if he was acting as High Priest, celebrating the great sacrament of the Eucharist. So, if the drawing was meant as a smart-alecky joke, it has actually turned out to symbolise something really true and significant. The image conveys a mystical truth – and the joke actually is on the painter.

The assassination of the Queen the priest cannot make any sense of. She is a constitutional monarch. Indeed, a mere figurehead. As such, she reigns but does not rule or govern. When she opens parliament, she simply reads out speeches written for her by the Prime Minister. She is not morally responsible for the actions of her government and ministers. The anarchists and nihilists of old might have felt justified in butchering Tsars and other tyrants. (None of Vicente’s Enemies is a dictator, strictly speaking. They all came to power after elections.) Shooting in the back an 84-year-old grandmother, however, is no act of bravery. It makes me really angry. I am trying to think of a condign punishment for this impudent Brazilian cuss....oh, yes! I have it! I’d have him bitten to death by the Queen’s corgi dogs. Those lively Welsh pets with short legs, long ears and sharp teeth. They would savage the impudent fellow ferociously. It would serve him right.

One thing is certain, Gil. You are no Michelangelo or Leonardo. Not even a Salvador Dali. Your drawings look like the sort of cheap stuff aimed at tourists you can see hanging here in London at week-ends on Green Park railings. Monochrome and crudely representational, they are telltale. Yes, they tell the tale of the utter mediocrity, the poverty of your craftsmanship. You spent too long training with the gun, perhaps. Shooting at close quarters requires no great skills but painting...oh, man, the painter’s hand needs real training. And flair. And genius occasionally, too. De Quincey’s murders were example of Fine Arts. I see nothing fine or artistic in your exercises. Sorry, I have got to break it to you – cruel to be kind - you are in the wrong job.

Preaching, moralism and didacticism are perennial artistic temptations. Artists who succumb to them end up producing crap. Rarely, they succeed, like in Picasso’s Guernica, or in Goya’s Caprichos. Most of the time, however, the conjunction of art and virtue results in the stultifying banalities of Soviet art, the banal socialist realism sponsored by Stalin and his ilk. And artists who pursue the romantic model, who turn their own lives into a work of art, usually do so at their peril. But at least a Byron and a Van Gogh and a Burroughs put their own lives on the chopping block. They had guts. What could Gil do to emulate them? Hmmm, tricky.

The legend about the mysterious Austrian actionist Rudolf Schwartzkogler could perhaps serve as a model. That chap allegedly displayed bits of his own body in various exhibitions. Starting with innocent nails clippings and hair. Then he moved on to mutilating other bodily parts, a finger, an ear and...I’ll spare you the gory details. A remarkable collection that must have been in art galleries. It seems the artist at last expired through his art. Mad as a hatter, sure but...I kind of respect the guy. He turned his own body into iconography. Brave man!

Is the Spirit of painting trying to tell you something, Gil?

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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