September 27, 2012
Politics is by nature a brutalizing business. It is a business of ambition and lies. Stay around it too long, and your heart becomes coarsened. It thickens and gets numb.
It happens to cops, from years of listening to predators rationalizing why they did what they did. And it happens to reporters too.
When I was deep in it at Chicago's City Hall, when I could feel the heart inside me sneering, I'd sneak away to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. It was quiet and there were no speeches, no political predators barking about their reasons, when the true reason was always their own ambition.
And there, I'd sit in front of a special painting:
"The Assumption of the Virgin" by Domenikos Theotokopoulos, the artist called El Greco.
Have you seen it? I could sit there for hours, recovering from all those ambitious liars.
In the clean light in front of that painting, I was a refugee, often overwhelmed by the size of it. Sometimes I'd study only pieces of it, bits, wondering how El Greco made the hands and the feet, and how he found that rooted, stony power of their bones. You could see strength under their skin, in the toes, ankles, knuckles, wrists. And those sweeping vivid colors, the Virgin Mary rising heavenward.
A few months ago I visited Turkey to tour the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. We drove up the mountain to that simple stone house where she died. In the grove outside, as evening came, I thought of El Greco.
The artist Andres Serrano wouldn't have thought of him. Serrano would be completely incapable of understanding. And if he ever had been capable, he walled himself off from it years ago, with that piece of his called (and I apologize for offending) "Piss Christ."
He's in the news again. On Thursday in New York, an art gallery opens a new Serrano show including his photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine. The "artwork" made news in the 1980s, when it was learned that Serrano had received a National Endowment for the Arts grant — meaning your money — for his work.
The fact that tax dollars paid him for such an act of religious bigotry was the hook that allowed politicians to engage in what the left mocks as "the culture war."
Beginning Thursday, Christians will demonstrate, surely, and Republicans are already demanding that President Barack Obama condemn Serrano publicly. Politics will ride Serrano like a horse for a few news cycles.
The Serrano show follows the release of a video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad that has triggered spasms of rage and violence throughout the Middle East. But don't expect Catholic nuns and Orthodox priests to gather in some angry midtown Manhattan mob and drag Serrano through the street before nailing him, upside down, to the art house door.
Yet coming as it does so close to the anti-Muhammad video — which was quickly and loudly condemned by the president and other government officials — some Christians are demanding equal treatment. They want the president to denounce Serrano with similar force.
And maybe Obama will do just that. He does know how to pander, and he's surely hoping Christians have forgotten that dismissive wisecrack at a fundraiser during the 2008 campaign, when he said they "cling to their guns and religion."
Obama is a secularist. He must know that he's something of a demigod himself, standing before liberal Democrats who insist that government and scientific reason hold the answers to our problems and that Christianity is a superstition. But others use Christianity as a cudgel in political wars against him, to marshal anger and resentment.
And, I wonder: Does the Almighty care about our politics? Some act as if they know the answer. They seem sure of it. But I don't.
There wasn't as much outrage a few years ago, when Larry David of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" urinated on Christ for a joke. David didn't rationalize the act, as did Serrano, reasoning like some cruel and narcissistic child that he used his art to question what was acceptable.
David just did it for laughs on HBO.
In one episode, David used a washroom, where, on the wall, inexplicably, was a painting of Jesus. The face of Christ was splattered. Some must have thought it awkwardly hilarious. I turned off the TV. And I haven't thought about David for years. I didn't write about it then, or condemn him. I just turned away. He was my favorite comedian. I haven't formed his name in my head for years, until this Serrano business.
Anger about Serrano might make some feel better. But turning away works just fine too. It's quiet. And finding other art, like El Greco's, might help.
A prayer couldn't hurt either; a prayer for those who hate, and another for those who love themselves so much that they don't care whom they hurt.
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