crime

No Compromise by Chris Hall

Some good advice, maybe.

Some good advice, maybe.

I admit, I can be a bit thorny concerning my art, but for good reason.  And for all my life's difficulties, I can honestly say that because I've never compromised, I have absolutely no regrets to speak of.

Lately I have been asked quite a bit about compromising my art.  I can not compromise.  Today I saw an artist with a commissioned piece, completed for the owner of the PetSmart company.  It was an airbrushed piece on canvas of the PetSmart owner's fancy vintage car in front of a picturesque theater with a marquee that read, “It's a Wonderful Life.”  Total Hollywood glam.  Perhaps it is a “Wonderful Life” for the PetSmart owner, but if a “Wonderful Life” is defined by how many fancy vintage cars you can own and have portraits of, this is beyond many people's reach.  The artwork, while high quality and technically proficient, was a failure in my estimation.  It may have successfully stoked the ego of the PetSmart owner, but it has no real application beyond that.  When it comes to my art, I have no interest in giving people what they want.  People already get too much of what they want.  My concern in my art is for providing the world with what it needs.  Granted, sometimes the two overlap, but often times it does not.  

Of course it would be nice for me to make a living from my art, but not ever at the cost of my integrity or my soul.  Some have suggested to me that I should hide away my more provocative works from potential buyers who may be too sensitive to appreciate what I am trying to do . . . as if my work is something to be embarrassed about.  If someone is embarrassed by my work, that speaks more to their state of mind, their Puritan prejudices, than to my perceived depravity.  In this case, art is an illustration, not an act.  Drawing a crime is one thing.  Committing a crime is another.  There is a profound difference.  And besides, many of the things that I illustrate that may be considered a crime by the morality police, I argue in the contrary anyways.  I have nothing to be ashamed of.  I refuse to be made to feel embarrassed by my own work.  Perhaps they should spend more time looking at my work and learn . . . what I offer is nothing to be embarrassed about.  

But the world's needs are one thing; I also have my own needs, which are satisfied by making art.  Art is a guilty pleasure sometimes.  It can be a drug with withdrawal symptoms.  It is something necessary for me.  If I did not have art, live, breathe, think about art constantly, I suspect I would be an arsonist, a radical terrorist maybe.  Everyone benefits, whether they know it or not, whether they like my art or not, by my art practice.

The Short and Violent Life of Michelangelo Caravaggio: Artist, Brawler, Murderer, Pimp by Chris Hall

Ottavio Leoni,  Portrait of Caravaggio,  c 1621

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, c 1621

His paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting (chiaroscuro), make it possible for painters like Rembrandt to exist. Caravaggio’s commissions for religious works featured violent struggles, grotesque decapitations, torture and death, perhaps a reflection of his own tumultuous life. 

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599

His early life was colored by the loss of his father, uncle, and grandparents from the plague, and seeing their stripped bodies piled up in cart to be taken away.  As a young man in Milan, he got into a fight with a policeman and killed him.  Fleeing justice he resettled in Rome and began painting. Caravaggio quickly burst into the Rome art scene and despite his paintings being controversial (on one occasion a painting was rejected because he used a well known prostitute to model as the Virgin Mary), he never lacked for commissions or patrons.  Yet he handled his success poorly and lived a violent life, always on the run from the law for being involved in fights and for vandalism.  Caravaggio’s police records in Rome fill several pages.  An early published account of him from 1604 describes how “after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him." 

On 29 May, 1606 Carvaggio killed again, this time it was a notorious pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni.  Caravaggio stabbed Tomassoni in the groin with a fencing sword and he bled to death.  Caravaggio’s motive for the murder is unclear.  Some have suggested it was over a gambling debt, or a contested point in a tennis match, others have suggested that it was because Caravaggio stole one of Tomassoni’s prostitutes for his own stable, or had slept with his wife.  Whatever the cause, the result was that the Pope issued a death warrant for Caravaggio, a Bando Capitale, which means essentially that there was reward out, literally, for his head. 

Caravaggio fled to Malta by way of Naples, taking refuge with sympathetic patrons and continuing to paint.  In 1608, in Malta, Caravaggio was on the fast track to become a Knight of the Order of St. John.  This was not to last, however.  Only a few months later and for reasons unclear, Caravaggio battered down the door of Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, one of the Order’s most senior Knights, and shot him, leaving him seriously injured.  Caravaggio was imprisoned in the guva, a bell shaped dungeon underground, with a trap door exit in the ceiling.  After only being there a week or so, somehow Caravaggio managed to escape, first by climbing up and out of the guva, making his way out of the fortress, and then by climbing 200 feet down a sheer precipice and into the sea, where he swam for three miles and got on a boat bound for Sicily.

Caravaggio, David Holding the Head of Goliath, 1609-1610

Now with assassins on his trail from both Rome and Malta, Caravaggio began sleeping fully clothed and armed.  While he still continued to paint, his behavior became increasingly erratic and he would tear apart his canvases at only a slight word of criticism.  Caravaggio soon made his way back to Naples where an attempt on his life was made.  It is thought that it was the Knights of the Order of St. John.  Reports in Rome said that Caravaggio was dead, but he survived the attack, seriously injured and with his face disfigured, but still alive.   In the summer of 1610 Caravaggio attempted to purchase his pardon from Rome with three canvases.  Ironically, one of the canvases, David Holding the Head of Goliath (1609-1610), features a Caravaggio self portrait, as Goliath’s severed head.  On 18 July he was on his way north by boat with the paintings when he died on route under mysterious circumstances, some saying exhausted from a life on the run, worsened with lead poisoning (from his paints) and a malaria fever, others say by assassination, from someone representing either Rome or Malta.  He was 38.  

Balthus: Art or Pedophilia? by Chris Hall

Balthus,  Therese Dreaming , 1933

Balthus, Therese Dreaming, 1933

Not much was known about Balthus during his lifetime.  He insisted that his paintings should be seen and not read about, and he resisted any attempts from others to build a biographic profile. A telegram sent to the Tate Gallery as it prepared for its 1968 retrospective of his works read: 

NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B.

Was Balthus shy, perhaps a recluse?  Did he have something to hide?  Many of his paintings show young girls in suggestive poses.  Balthus insisted that his work was not erotic, but that it merely recognized the discomforting facts of children’s sexuality.  If anyone sees lasciviousness in the work, then it is a reflection of the mind of the viewer.  For my own part I was once attracted to Balthus’work (they are beautifully painted), but this was also tempered with embarrassment and repulsion.  Anyone who can look at Balthus’ work with detachment (as both Balthus and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who housed a retrospective of his work in 2013, would have us do), well, congratulations.  These paintings were not meant to shock.  I sense too much love in them, and that is kind of creepy.  Balthus died in 2001 at the ripe old age of 92.  Bono of U2 sang at his funeral, which was attended by hundreds of people, including the president of France. 

Balthus,  The Guitar Lesson , 1934

Balthus, The Guitar Lesson, 1934

Shortly after his death the accusations started to come out.  It is now known that Balthus did in fact have carnal relations with his teenage models, he even took as a mistress Laurence Bataille, daughter of writer George Bataille, step-daughter of famed psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.  It is said hindsight is 20/20.  We can now see other facts of Balthus' life supporting the pedophilia claim, his first wife, Antoinette, was renown for looking ten years younger for her age, and his second wife, Setsuko, was 34 years his junior.  

In 2013 the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a Balthus show, but decided against including some of his more provocative works, such as The Guitar Lesson, 1934.  Meanwhile, in Germany earlier this year, an exhibition of Balthus’ Polaroid photographs was cancelled for fear of a public backlash and legal consequences. 

I often make a point of defending artwork from the sins of the artist, but the circumstances are different here.  Irregardless of Balthus’ intent, his artwork, beautiful as they are . . . in the eyes of the contemporary viewer, they glorify pedophilia . . . and I can not support this.  Balthus let his personal prejudices creep into his art, and we can judge the work for that.  I have to say that Balthus’ crimes, as committed on canvas, trumps any aesthetic pleasure I may have gotten out of it.  Goodbye, Balthus.  

Art and Catharsis by Chris Hall

Almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression.  Evelyn Waugh.  

I'd be an ax murderer, if I didn't paint. John Alexander 

I wonder if Waugh’s proposition might be true.  In my artist statement from 1999 I wrote, half jokingly of course, that:  I paint because if I did not I would be a detriment to society.  I’d probably burn your house down.

Would I be a criminal if I did not have art?  No, probably not.  I would like to believe that my moral compass is too strong.  But I can never know this for certain because making art is almost like a bad habit I can never be rid of.  It is ingrained genetically inside my DNA.  Making art is not a choice for me, but a natural activity and response.  Daffy is a duck and a duck swims.  I am an artist and an artist paints.  It is that simple, really.

But can making art prevent criminality in other people?  I can not say for certain, but I do believe making art is a healthy expression and a therapeutic outlet for pent up emotions.  Catharsis is a natural part of being a human being.  It shouldn't be such a dirty word, as it too often is the academic art world.  

Below is my 1999 artist statement:

I paint because I haven’t any choice but to.  It is a strange kind of possession, something very primitive, preternatural, supernatural even, that burns through my blood.  It oozes slow like lava and boils over, suddenly exploding, like a volcano.  It is the occasional earthquake of the soul that has to be dealt with.  Art is my way of making sense of the world; it is a catharsis.  I paint because if I did not I would be a detriment to society.  I’d probably burn your house down.  Art allows me an outlet that safeguards me physically, mentally, and spiritually.  Art allows me to explore avenues of experience that would otherwise be denied to me because of poverty, law, and the physical limits of humanity.  Art is absolute freedom and absolute freedom is what I live for.  I don’t want my art to reflect life, I want it to be life, always growing, unpredictable, and out of control.

Art: The Uncommitted Crime by Chris Hall

“Behind every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” 
Theodor Adorno

What does Adorno mean by this?  Is crime a metaphor for an action or protest against the state?  If so, then is he implying that we should put the paintbrushes away, and instead work using more practical tactics toward making a change in society?  

Is painting doomed to only produce feelings of catharsis or nostalgia in the artist and viewer?  

Is art but a release of pressure from a steam kettle?  

Can art ever change the world?

No, art can not change the world, not directly anyways.  Art can not force change, it can only influence change.  Art changes people, and people change the world.  

So the question is, how effective is art at changing people’s perceptions?  

I haven’t an answer for that, yet.  I’m still hopeful that art can have some kind of impact on people, inspiring them to action, to work towards the good of all humanity.  This is why I still paint.