You’re likely familiar with art shows that are issue-themed on the environment, bigotry, war and the like. Now comes a new art theme: “disgust,” the blanket word for grotesqueries like animal cruelty and dictatorship that multi-media artist Rina Banejee gives to her work at L.A. Louvre in Venice, CA.
But something seems wrong. You can’t tell by the look of her work that “disgust” drove it because her imagery is too well-formed, too appealing to be abhorrent. And here’s the thing: when it comes to making ugly subjects beautiful, her efforts are hardly new. The clash of subject and style, which can be seen in works throughout art history, prompts the unasked question, why isn’t the art world bothered by this? (More about that in a moment).
At least the general public has shown it's bothered. I’m thinking of the year after the WTC disaster, when Eric Fischl’s sculpture “Tumbling Woman” - made to commemorate those who jumped or fell to their death from the 110-story towers - went on view in Rockefeller center and had to be removed due to a public outcry. The sculpture, a nude female positioned upside down as if in free fall, was seen as too graphic, even a year after the catastrophe.
Again, like Banejee’s work, Fischl’s follows a long line of abhorrent things made into art. Consider these examples:
Theodore Gericault’s scene of cannibalism and decapitation, “The Raft of the Medusa,” illustrates a horrific historic event. But given the awfulness of what’s going on in the painting, its unity is too perfect, too harmonious to tell that sad story.
Hieronymus Bosch's depictions in "The Hay Wagon" which, among other horrors, shows a woman with her arms tied behind her back and made to lay on her back nude except for a black toad perched on her genitals. In full color, it comes across like some image out of a children’s book or a Disney cartoon. Bosch’s colorful palette makes the scene look like fun.
Peter Paul Rubens’ "Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus" describes two unclothed females forcibly taken by a pair of muscled men on horseback. But all four figures are so good-looking that they seem like movie stars playacting. How else to explain the reaction of Kerry Downes, a British authority on Rubens, who sees "romance, not, violence” in the painting.
Similarly, art historian Anthony Janson has written that Jan Steen's "Rape of the Sabine Women" - a depiction of smirking attackers tearing women from their loved ones - "explored human folly with endless good humor."
Clearly, the beautifying of bad things blinded these experts.
And given what art gets away with in the name of art, it’s a wonder rapists don’t defend their crime by calling it performance art.