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Science vs. art and the winner is…?

Detail from René Magritte's The Menaced Assassin
Detail from René Magritte's The Menaced Assassin
Museum of Modern Art photograph: Scala Archive

A recent study at the University of Utah that measured facial features in skulls over the last 80,000 years found a decline in testosterone levels and concluded that the decline is responsible for both a reduction of aggressive behavior and for the flourishing of artmaking over that time.


The researchers involved in this study may know their science, but they don’t know beans about art history.

I’m thinking of Gauguin paintings of Tahitian women who he told the French press, he “admired for their simplicity and deep faith,” but wrote in the journals he kept of his sexual conquests in Tahiti: "I wanted them to be taken without a word, brutally. In a way longing to rape."

And while he told the press that he would keep returning to the South Seas to produce something new, he was better known there for his sexual excesses than for his painting.

So much for Gauguin’s reduced testosterone level. His aggressive behavior has also been recorded for many other artists.

Cezanne’s thick, dark, crude-stroked paintings of bloody stabbings, stranglings, rape and other cruelties come to mind.

Even a monk, Fra Fillipo Lippi, a painter of religious subjects full of worshipful faces, was known for abducting a fully pledged nun from a church where he was chaplain and impregnated her.

Agostino Tassi, a landscape painter with a knack for rendering serene and illusionist architecture settings, was known to rape his 17-year-old student, Artemisia Gentileschi.

And Caravaggio, master painter of devoutly religious work, was a malcontent with an uninterrupted record of crimes, including murder.

A prime example in this genre is Rene Magritte's "The Menaced Assassin" shows a nude female spread-eagled on a table while six fully clothed males stand around—one with a club

Then there are all the rape paintings made through the ages, too many to recount in this space. Plenty of testosterone to go around, if you ask me.

And given all the excuses made for these images of aggression by art historians, maybe it’s their testosterone levels that have gone down because they don’t seem to notice.

Describing Cezanne’s tortured scenes, art aficionado Robert Simon used words like "idiosyncratic commingling" and "esthetic density."

Kerry Downes, a British authority on Rubens, has written that "Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus" – a depiction of two unclothed females forcibly taken by a pair of burly young men on horseback – is a "romance, not, violence,” as if the painting were a pastoral and these women weren't struggling against abduction.

Art historian, Kenneth Clark didn’t seem to notice that a rape was taking place in Antonio Da Corregio’s "Jupiter and Antiope" when he wrote, "As our eyes follow every undulation, it passes refreshed from shade to light."

Science may have proved a dwindling testosterone level, but it can’t say the decrease has made us more civilized with a straight face, can it?

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