Gerhard Richter

That's My Jesus! by Chris Hall

"Buddy Christ" from the movie  Dogma  (1999).

"Buddy Christ" from the movie Dogma (1999).

“Art is the pure realization of religious feeling, capacity for faith, longing for God. […] The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality. But when we assuage our need for faith with an ideology we court disaster.” Gerhard Richter.

Today I am going to take a little side trip, away from Art, to write about religion and spirituality.  After 166 postings in this blog I have not once deviated from the subject of Art, so I think I can be forgiven in this one instance.

As explained in my previous post, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.  I don't get much out of one size fits all organized religious institutions.  The answers to my questions can not be found before a pulpit one hour on a Sunday morning.  Too much blood has been shed in the name of organized religion.  I can accept a certain amount of hypocrisy within myself and my life, but too often organized religion has too much hypocrisy even for me.  Instead I have long been in the process of developing my own spiritual path.  My self-created religion draws from a variety of sources: nature, art, literature, poetry, music, philosophy, and a variety of religious and mystical traditions.  Those traditions include Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Shamanism, Alchemy, Gnosticism, and yes . . . Christianity.

Christianity is where I started, my religious mother's milk.  It is the skeletal structure with which I base all my moral and spiritual beliefs.  I believe Christian is not something you are, rather it is something one should aspire to become.  You may ask yourself, how can a lefty weirdo pervert such as myself, reconcile their proclivities with Christian doctrine?  It is easy for me, actually. Jesus welcomed outsiders into his party; he rolled with a band of misfits back in the day. Jesus was not exactly, how should I say it, bourgeois?  Jesus was also a man of flesh, a human being with feelings and emotions.  Many would have Jesus be an unapproachable holy marble man, or a neutered Ken doll.  But Jesus was human.  He had his doubts and fears, he experienced pain, and he was even susceptible to anger.  Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that he also had a libido?  Even Jesus had a penis.  And what about his politics?  Jesus stayed out of politics.  Perhaps he would be the first to champion the separation of Church and State.  Jesus did not want to overthrow Rome; his message of compassion and forgiveness transcended the politics of his time.  Nevertheless, politics can learn from Jesus' example.  Reading The Bible, you might be surprised to learn that Jesus was the first Communist.  This is irrefutable.  Jesus, his disciples, and the first Christians all pooled their wealth together (Judas was the treasurer) and redistributed it equally and as needed.  No one went hungry in the first Christian Church.

When I read The Bible from beginning to end a few years ago, I was a little shocked by all that was left out in Sunday School.  It is full of fucked up angry God injustices (particularly in the Old Testament, where genocide, rape, slavery, human sacrifice, and the murder of children is both commanded and condoned), but if you have a dark sense of humor, you can get through the sanctioned violence and bloodshed without being completely turned off.  In the end it seemed to me that the good stuff in The Bible outweighed the bad, maybe not in quantity, but certainly in weight and worth.  The Bible is a fountain of inspiration and solace for those who may have a spiritual bent to them, and even for non-believers as well.  The story of Moses and Jonah, finding the strength to stand up to power, are particularly enlightening, and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes pose difficult questions on the nature of suffering.  The life of Jesus in the four Gospels of the New Testament are also of great value if you are looking for life lessons on how to live.  Jesus' parables are often like Zen koans and are a pleasure to read.  If you read nothing else of The Bible, read that at least.

Sometimes my friends are absent minded around me or just assume that because I have leftist leanings that I am anti-Christian.  I brush off their insults usually without correcting them, being too much of a gentleman to point out their small mistake.  Politicians who do hateful things in the name of Christianity are not much of a help, of course.  But at least Pope Francis is beginning to change many people's perceptions of what it means to be a Christian, and I am thankful for that.

Why I Believe in God by Chris Hall

Paul Gauguin,  The Yellow Christ , 1889.

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889.

“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.  It is like the religious search for God.” - Gerhard Richter.

“Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: 'binding back', 'binding' to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being).  But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself.” - Gerhard Richter.

For most of my life I can honestly say that I have experienced more bad than good.  My life has been marked by suffering in such a way that if I am ever fortunate to finally meet with some success, I fear I may never be able to enjoy it.  Often times it seems to me that my life ledger is grossly out of balance.  In such circumstances, how does one carry on?  Who do we hold accountable for disastrous fate?  Even Van Gogh threw in the towel eventually and clocked out of this mortal coil.  I think I carry on out of some kind of animalistic urge, akin to what Schopenhauer describes as “The Will.”  It is a stubborn kind of thing, and it has prevented me from doing harm to myself in my weaker moments.  At times like this, when I am at my worst, when it feels as if all my inner being is on fire and stuck in a perpetual, howling scream, I suddenly I remember why I believe in God.  Only someone with total omnipotence and omnipresence would have the dedicated time and strength to commit to making my entire life one living Hell.  This is why I say, believe in God, but do not trust.

“...Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” - Graham Greene.  

“Art is the highest form of hope.” - Gerhard Richter.

But there is another reason why I believe in God.  I trace it back to my youth and the old romantic in me.  It is buried deep, and sometimes I have to dig for it, but I know that a more benevolent God can be found in Nature and in Art.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed, as Saint Augustine suggests, squarely in the hands of mankind.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed on the electric chemistry of my brain.  John Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”  This is true, to an extent, but this does not account for the undeniable amount of bad fortune that has has been my lot, only my reception of it.  I have many questions about life, suffering, and the fate of mankind.  Reading, writing, making art are my attempts at trying to find answers to these questions, though I confess I have, for the most part, come up empty handed.  Many of my questions remain unanswered.  At least the process is cathartic, and has, at times, given me peace.  Perhaps the process of making art is God's mercy.  Perhaps God is trying to redeem us through Art.

Paul Gauguin,  Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ , 1890.

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ, 1890.

“Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world.”   Gerhard Richter.

Considering some of Richter's other comments on the connection between religion and art, namely that art is a religion, I think it might be safe to say that in the quote above, Richter is suggesting that artists could, and perhaps should, take on the role of both priest and philosopher.  In the West at least, I feel that there has been a growing doubt in the power of organized religion to solve our modern woes, and a growing doubt that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and benevolent God may exist at all.  If these people are like myself, they may have questions that they would like answered, or at least would like the solace that can only be found in beauty.  Artists, then, can take up the role left behind by priests and philosophers.  I think this might be a noble calling, maybe even more noble than using art as a political prop, but certainly more noble than using art as an entertainment tool, or an advertisement for a product.

The Creative Maladjusted by Chris Hall

In February 1970, SPK (Socialist Patients’ Collective) was founded in Heidelberg, Germany.  Their mission as described in their manifesto:  to “turn illness into a weapon.”  They believed that Capitalism was the cause of mental illness run rampant, and that there could be “therapy through violence.”  At its peak, it was composed of nearly 500 people, nurses and their patients among them.  Some members became militant, making bombs before being arrested.  SPK dissolved in July 1971, though many members were absorbed into the radical terrorist group, RAF (Red Army Faction), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, which had its run until April, 1998.

I don’t condone violence as a method to changing things, but I do admire the spirit of SPK, and am intrigued by their idea that mental illness (or rather, as Martin Luther King would say, the creatively maladjusted) can be transformed from pathology to liberation.  Artistically speaking, though, there has long been a history of alternative mental conditions and notions of liberation, from the first shamans who could go into a trance to combat enemies and illness, to Arthur Rimbaud’s idea that the seer must undergo a “systematic derangement of the senses,” up to Antonin Artaud’s notion that art must be a “Theatre of Cruelty,” to shatter false perceptions and realities, the idea being that if I am mad, so must you be, in order to remove the blinders placed upon us society.  

Concerning purposeful derangement, there is the problem of going too far.  You might not ever come back.   Too many artists have tread this path, gambled, and lost.  

Gerhard Richter, Confrontation 2, 1988

This is a portrait of Gudrun Ensslin, one of the founders of the RAF (Red Army Faction).  On October 18th, 1977, Ensslin and two RAF compatriots committed suicide while in prison.  The details are up for debate, but some have suggested that they were all murdered by prison officials.  Richter's paintings from this series, depicting some of the people and events revolving around the RAF, suggests to me a sad loss and pessimism concerning revolutionary ideals.