Notes on Enrique Chagoya’s “Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals”

Travel writer, friend, blogger Snarky Tofu has alerted me to a Huffington Post piece about an Anglo woman taking a crowbar to one of a series of lithographs by Mexican-American artist and Stanford professor Enrique Chagoya.

The series is collectively entitled “The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals” and it depicts the sufferings and sexual proclivities of Christ in a crude, but graphic, way.

Here is an edited and expanded version of the comment which Snarky Tofu saw on Facebook and recommended I make at his site.

I’m of two minds about this work. I liked Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” because it, to me, expressed the Aristotelean view of the transcendant as embodied and the Christian (and Dionysian) mystery of the suffering God. “He was despised, rejected of men”. “What if God is one of us, just a slob like one of us”. We’re all getting pissed on in trickle down economics.

Upon examining Chagoya’s work it seems to be in the popular Mexican iconographic tradition of Diego Rivera and the Dia de los Muertes which has always represented Christ as embodied all the way down, suffering torments. He really died, after all.

But: I have two issues about Chagoya and his work. The first is its style and the second is his position in society.

Without giving way to the usual conservative critique, I have to say that it means something when an artist, somewhat privileged in his youth by the class system in Mexico (Indian nurse, service work as opposed to being forced to work as a farm laborer, university education) uses a primitive or crude style.

This is because when a person who is now a Stanford professor dumbs down or crudifies his style, actual contemporary folk artists in Mexico, such as the artists who design tattoos of the suffering Christ or the Virgin of Guadalupe, are trying in many cases to make their work more polished every day as best they can. The guy who gets the tattoo wants it to look good in the popular way.

Thus Misadventures, in my opinion, rather mocks folk art made under genuine conditions of oppression in which the folk artist does the best he can using illustrations torn from magazines and rules of thumb.

There is certainly no indication that Diego Rivera tried to dumb down or crudify his style. Instead, he fused the techniques of European drawing and fresco, techniques that must be learned in the academy, with a very non-European vision of the Mexican body derived genuinely from pre-Columbian art.

What is also interesting is the apparent evolution of Chagoya’s style. “Against the Common Good” creatively pastiches Goya’s etchings of the Peninsular (guerrilla) war in Spain of the 1810s. But Chagoya’s recent stuff gets its force exclusively from an artistically dumbed down critique of politics entirely too reminiscent of Basquiat, a genuine original.

I also think the artist as a Stanford professor, in exhibiting Misadventures, was being a little bit insensitive culturally to the collision between NorteAmericano Protestantism (with its iconoclastic tradition, emphasis on the Word, and of course Puritanism) and the Mexican Catholic tradition, with its imagery, de-emphasis of the Bible, and celebration of the flesh.

He should have known that he would be perceived as one more member of the “elite” insensitive to whites. I frankly don’t think he thought about that. I think he was outraged by sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the permissible, for liberals, “moral panic” about the actions of the few, and the more serious inaction of the Church hierarchy.

And, of course, while many Hispanic Catholics are used to seeing icons of Christ’s torments, they would also be offended by this work.

I would have searched for something more universal in the specific culture. I got into a little bit of hot water as an artist when I exhibited nudes on Lamma Island at Cyan Gallery in 2007 and I don’t need the aggravation so now I factor in Chinese feelings about nudity and drape my figures.

Free speech? Perhaps. But there’s a difference between free and random speech. In a world where most people are voiceless simply by being dependent on wage labour, I’m not amused by recreational freedom of speech. The guy is just not as good as Diego Rivera or Mexican tattoo artists because as a uni professor he may be somewhat isolated from the real world.

The world needs a Beethoven, a free-thinking alcoholic who nonetheless could write a Missa Solemnis which speaks to non-Catholics about the reality of the holy and the need for peace on earth. What it gets are these tiresome tenured “bad boys” who take their cue from that thug, Bertolt Brecht.

The Huffington Post recently showed a photo of a Catholic ordination ceremony in which a postulant was kneeling before the bishop as if to give the bishop a blow job, if you have a dirty mind, and words to that effect.

So what are the rules? Who speaks? Who may be bullied by your art? Muslims? Catholics? Protestants? Women? Men? Priests? Nuns?

Even in the nudes I wanted to communicate the specific feeling form gives me when I create it to music, one of serenity. I wanted the viewer to realize the sacred vulnerability of the flesh.

Today I want to be able to show ALL my art to children because they are so damn honest about art; they don’t say the like it because they want to sleep with you, or think you can be bankable: they don’t say they hate it to wound you or bully you or promote their own crap. I took my kids to art museums post divorce as an alternative to blowing my brains out or taking them to some stupid Kiddie Fun place. Their childish insights were magical.

I don’t want them to have to deal with extensive blow jobbery. I can explain the hermaphrodite in the Louvre to them, and of course, the Venus de Milo’s robe has come down because she doesn’t have any arms. But blow jobs?

If Chagoya is indeed concerned about sexual abuse of children by priests, he should ponder that to have a child see Christ giving a blow job is, whatever the artist means, the sexual abuse of children who are brought to the art museum by parents who are, in some cases desperately, trying to compensate for the near-elimination of art creation or appreciation in schools, and looking for serenity with their kids.

A naked statue that celebrates the body’s vulnerable glory is one thing. Christ half naked on the Cross suffering torments is another. These are long sanctioned by tradition, and kids understand tradition. The (Brechtian) artist who, from a probably tenured perch earned by the brutal class system of Mexico in the 1950s, cocks a snook at the equally strong tradition of silence about Christ’s sexuality, hasn’t done the due diligence which real working commercial, and desperately struggling “fine” artists must do.

They must conform to exacting employer expectations in commercial art while being original and fresh. In fine art, they do indeed take the community’s mores into account and they do indeed take the tastes of potential buyers into account.

For example, most fine artists in Hong Kong’s galleries take pains to ensure that their work can be exhibited without frames, for in China, traditional art works were shown on unframed scrolls. The artists here therefore take pains, in nearly all cases I have seen, to continue the painting on the sides and in some cases even the rear, of paintings.

Real art is a free market. Real art in China is hyper-competitive: the Chinese kid who wants to Paint has to overcome enormous resistance, especially if his school art does not win first (and not second) prize.

American working class whites, and many working class Hispanics, have a perception that the elite laughs at their Protestant or Catholic religion. And deep art history reminds us that the art of historically powerful elites has often included a lot of sexual bullying and the imagery of physical bullying.

The Romans copied the Greeks, who celebrated the athlete rather than the ruler (albeit the athlete had to be of the gentry) but made the Emperor the only man other than the captive slave permitted to show his penis, and in the most famous “captive slave” sculpture, the Gaul is the equivalent of the Emperor only in that he is willing to die having lost.

Which is one reason why Christians put clothes on all but a naked Adam and Eve and a Christ with a loin-cloth.

If you look very closely at 17th century Baroque sculpture in the Louvre, as I have as a copyist, what do you see? You see slaves with Oriental or North American Indian characteristics, because under le roi soleil the function of art was to celebrate France’s glory including her domination of North America, one she lost in the 18th century. Poussin took one look at this and fled to Rome because Poussin wanted to celebrate the mysteries of the ancient world, not the French empire.

Women have since the 1970s identified an element of sexual bullying in the European female nude. In England before Parliament gave the vote to women, “suffragettes” attacked paintings of nudes in picture galleries for this reason.

They did so not because of the pure image. When Shakira shows her body this empowers her psychologically and financially, and Shakira has used this to help the poor of her native Columbia. Wonder Woman is skimpily dressed, not to show the lower orders that the upper classes have the time and leisure to have hot bods, but to fight the forces of evil.

A nude protestor making art to protest war or animal maltreatment is saying “this is my body, the beautiful, magnificent body, capable of such shattering pain” which for me is close to this (my own words):

This is my body this is my blood
Tomorrow you fellows I die on the rood

Whereas Bouguereau, we know, was in a culture in which women were sex objects: a witticism in a San Francisco production of The Merry Widow, inserted in excess of the libretto, was “in Paris of the 1880s, women were considered good for only two things, and one of them was discovering radium”. The feminists of Edwardian England attacked nude painting because of meaning.

If we take meaning into account, Chagoya needs to ponder whether he is telling Hispanic women with children, Hispanic schoolteachers on (rare) expeditions to the museum in Loveland with children that “I know about blow jobs and maybe Christ gave head”.

Chagoya is said to be protesting Catholic priestly abuse in “Misadventures”. I am reminded here of Adorno’s aphorism that “in sexual matters, the accuser is always wrong”, an echo of what Christ said when he came upon a woman bleeding in the dust: “let him who is without sin cast the first stone”.

The Huffington post also has published a jokey photograph of a Catholic ordination in which it appears the priest is fellating his bishop. Not once did The Huffington Post take into account the feelings of the clerics nor those of their relatives at the ordination. Both Chagoya and the Huffington Post seemed, to me, to have engaged in the cheap shot, as cheap in fact as drawing Muhammed throwing a bomb.

Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

And what happens when someone says this? Here He is, and here is his Mom. No I’m not a Christian, no I’m not a commodity.

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5 Responses to “Notes on Enrique Chagoya’s “Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals””

  1. spinoza1111 Says:

    It was wrong for the suffragettes to attack nudes in the National Gallery. Was it wrong for a woman to attack the Chagoya work? Of course. Was it wrong for Britain to deny women the vote. Duh yes.

    But artists ignore political power at their peril. The United States ripped off its Manifest Destiny from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo after the Mexican War. Mexicans were represented as little brown men by Frederick Remington thereafter.

    Hispanics in positions of inarguable power such as Stanford should seek truth and reconciliation with the whites who took their land when their names are still on the street signs of Palo Alto, and not smirk about dumbass white women. And they might want to take another look at Goya’s Kantian sublime. Goya saw more hell on earth than they yet controlled his brush, dammit.

  2. spinoza1111 Says:

    Sure, art is about power, but power is multidirectional and “capillary”, not a single vector. A professorial perch at Stanford represents for Chagoya a chunk of institutional power in an Anglo institution that resulted from California’s being taken by the United States. This means that he doesn’t have to compete in a market which would probably reject Misadventures.

    When a friend and I attended a Jenny Holzer exhibition in the 1980s, containing her visual text meditations on sexual violence, she said “if a man did this he’d be thrown in jail”.

    That is correct and a good thing: see my above comments on the MEANING of a Bouguereau versus the MEANING of Shakira.

    Which means that in societies with freedom of speech the artist has a greater and not a lesser responsibility-for-taking-responsibility for his iconography, his message, his picture-writing.

    Veronese was hauled before the Italian Inquisition for a Last Supper in which Veronese painted “bears and Germans”. Back then the rules were clear.

    The Brechtian rule, of random shock and awe *pour epater*, might simplify things but it’s a form of art bullying of viewers, here white and Hispanic parents with children in Chagoya’s case, Muslim viewers in the case of Dutch cartoons of Muhammed.

    It reduces art to the emotional and cognitive level of fourteen year olds: “nyah nyah nyah, your Prophet is a terrorist”, “nyah nyah nyah, Christ gave blow jobs”.

    Give me an ounce of civet, sweet apothecary.

    If instead of “identity politics” with its ugly jockeying for position of “perfect victim” we could think of victimization as an undefinable but genuine primitive term with no synonym (something expressed by Christ crucified in Christianity), then Enlightenment would be “no more victims”, and an enlightened art would endeavor to support this.

    This aesthetic itself is in danger of being nothing more than Hello Kitty and pixie dust and is the mirror image of *epater les bourgeois*. But taking an aesthetic of rainbows, unicorns, Hello Kitty and pixie dust seriously as the other limiting case is a good way to *epater les epaters*, indeed the only way to run rings around the tenured bad boys.

    [Enter Lear, crown’d with flowers: Shakespeare, in the old play, realized that ranting must have a stop at some point.]

    If art is thinking without accusation or finding fault, without the attempt to dominate nature characteristic of science, then this is what I am talking about.

    The endpoint of Goya’s meditations on the Disasters of War was not an attack on religion. Instead, myth (Saturn eating his children) gave him a way to express himself without getting involved in what would today be called identity politics. He was not proud of being a Spaniard even though his Spain had a very early taste of the business end of enlightenment-at-gunpoint (the Disasters were caused by French-imposed rule and more or less helpful British meddling). This was because the guerrillas gave as good as they got.

    Today, we mythologize/daemonize ordinary men (Nixon then, Bush now, Obama next) as if their elimination would solve all our problems. But it won’t, will it?

  3. You’re terrible
    and i’m not anti-catholic, just your views a pompous and irrational. You argue against invisible people, rebutting arguments that were never made and seem to stray too far from original topics, but still justify these deviations with poor links to original posts.
    I’ve seen your posts on forums and they annoy me. Particularly because you seem to want everyone to listen to you and accept your views whilst, evidence shown in your responses, you overlook what is said. How can you expect people to hear your opinions when your listening/comprehension skills are poor at best?

  4. spinoza1111 Says:

    OK, I’m terrible. If you expect superficiality and reassurance that your conventional views are just fine, which many people expect on the Internet, then I’m your worst nightmare.

    The Internet has empowered too many people to think they can make this sort of judgement because it removes any effort from doing so. So, “it’s easy for you to say” what you’ve said, but not easy for me to say what I’ve said, since I’m starting from a completely different basis…which here includes a greater knowledge of art and the history of art than you seem to possess.

    Furthermore, many people confuse mere correctness of written grammar with “pomposity” and a richness of ideas with “verbosity” for somewhat the same person that today, a male who’s neatly dressed is overdressed, the norm being set by the slob. Likewise, in written language, the norm of correctness, expressiveness, wealth of ideas and so on, on the Internet, is set at such an absurdly low level that at a higher level, it seems that the writer is some sort of pretentious asshole.

    I annoy you. Well, good. I think that you’re a resentment-reader on the model of what Adorno called the resentment-listener to music. This is a person who brings to reading or listening personal “issues” with which he’s not dealt.

    As to “wanting everyone to listen to me and accept my views” that happens to be the purpose of quite a lot of expository writing. By merely commenting here, you want me to listen to you and accept your views. I don’t know how I would do this except by drinking quite a lot of Shut the Fuck Up, and if you want me to drink a lot of STFU, I’m sorry, but I won’t.

    As to “overlooking what is said”, this response right here is typical of me. I’ve addressed each of your points and find each without merit. That doesn’t mean I didn’t “listen”. I realize that it is a favorite claim of the spoiled and self-indulgent brat (such as the typical CEO) that technical specialists and government employees fail to “listen” to their “needs” or the “needs” of the business, and this spoiled self-indulgence is quite the trope of the Baby Boomer and succeeding generations.

    But I don’t have to go along. Here, my belief is that Enrique Chagoya was corrupted into offensive folly by the MFA system which allowed him to avoid a market judgement and instead to fashionably brutalize and downsize the excellent technique of his Goya-inspired etchings, and I have argued for that belief. I don’t know why it so hurts your feelings. Are you in fact Chagoya or a friend of his?

  5. spinoza1111 Says:

    “just your views a pompous and irrational”

    Today, writing appears “pompous” when generally free of idiotic errors in usage such as the above.

    “You argue against invisible people, rebutting arguments that were never made and seem to stray too far from original topics, but still justify these deviations with poor links to original posts.”

    I do my opponents the courtesy of trying to rephrase their arguments sensibly, so they don’t recognize their arguments, being stupid.

    I “stray far” since I know more than most people.

    “I’ve seen your posts on forums and they annoy me.”

    And in a fit of pique you make a fool of yourself. Listen, write if you get work, OK?

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