Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Trial of Veronese

In 1573, the painter Paolo Caliari (a native of Verona, and so more familiarly known as Paolo Veronese) was summoned before the Venetian office of the Inquisition. He had recently completed a depiction of the Last Supper in one of the city’s basilicas, and the Inquisitors wanted to know why he had filled his picture with such seemingly irreverent figures as dwarves, dogs, and a servant with a bloody nose.

Particularly suspicious were a number of figures who appeared German or Swiss, and thus were presumed to represent Protestants. Veronese addressed his interlocutors with great confidence, asserting that it was his privilege and duty as an artist to paint according to the precedence of artistic tradition, and the lights of his own talent. Eventually, he appeased the Inquisitors by simply changing the title of his work.

This little episode, when it is remembered now at all, usually takes its place in the tired modern narrative, as but another example of the Magisterium’s nefarious authority, exercised across two millennia for the exclusive purpose of suppressing every noble and civilizing impulse in the soul of Western man. From this perspective, it is a parallel to the more famous trial of Galileo, revealing the same spiritual despotism of the Church at work in the artistic, as well as the scientific, realm. The notion that any authority - most especially, a religious authority - can have a just capacity to place any limits on the creativity of the individual artist is almost universally regarded nowadays as an exploded myth from the dark days of superstitious tyranny, from which we and our enlightened predecessors have long been liberated. Cries of censorship and dictatorship accompany even the attempt to withhold public funding from the latest abomination on display at the Whitney or the BMA, so perfect is the contemporary belief in the inviolability of the artist's vision.

And yet, this absolute deregulation of the arts is less likely a sign of their liberation, than of their insignificance. The era of modern art began with the "art for art's sake" movement, whose proponents disclaimed any moral import in the work of art. Within less than half a century, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset could claim, “to the young generation, art is a thing of no consequence.” And of course, this is the obvious effect of the Decadent credo, for when art has been divested of any moral content, it has quite simply ceased to be of relevance to the lives of individuals or societies. On account of its irrelevance, the people grow increasingly indifferent towards it, and as the people grow indifferent towards it, their laws grow indifferent towards it. The negligence which modern jurisprudence displays towards the arts is not like the respectful restraint it shows towards property rights; it is like the insouciance it reveals towards the choice of baby names. No modern authority finds it necessary to regulate the arts, precisely because every modern authority is certain that none of its citizens takes the arts the least bit seriously.

But the Inquisitors at Veronese's trial did most certainly take the arts seriously; I would maintain that they took the arts far more seriously than the fine arts professors or gallery owners or non-profit directors, who are so loud in their proclamations of art's importance. They took the arts seriously, insomuch as they believed the arts had a significant influence over the opinions and behaviors of the people, and it is hard to see how anyone can share this conviction, without recognizing the need for some parameters - broad and informed, no doubt - to check the abuses of this potentially momentous influence. After all, it was not only the Church which exercised such an authority over art in past ages; Augustus exiled Ovid for the poet's licentious verses; Shakespeare composed under the gaze of Elizabeth's vigilant censors. And the fact remains, that great poets like Ovid and Shakespeare flourished in ages when such regulations were in place, and that since these regulations have been removed, we have had no such great poets. I think the reason for this is simply because those masters lived in ages which took the arts seriously, and we do not.


C. Seamus said...

I agree with the general claim that "no modern authority finds it necessary to regulate the arts, precisely because every modern authority is certain that none of its citizens takes the arts the least bit seriously." (Guiliani in NYC in '99 is the only exception I can think of right away.) But does it follow that modern authorities SHOULD regulate the arts? Was it good for the Magisterium to coerce (at best) the artist into changing his work?
And just to make sure: in the second-to-last sentence, you're not implying that the regulations are what made the arts superior then, but that they are a sign of how important the arts were, right?

Signor L.E. said...

No, I think the judges at Veronese's trial acted very foolishly (I mean, dwarves!), and I think Veronese gave the right answer - essentially, leave art to the artists, or at least to those with some understanding of art. But an authority improperly exercised is not necessarily an illegitimate authority. There was an article published in First Things a number of years ago called "Freedom and Decency" on the topic of censorship; one of the points the author makes is that legal parameters on the arts would have been an uncontroversial notion in this country just a generation or two ago. Even today, think of the FCC regulations and the Hollywood rating system.

I definitely don't think that regulations caused great accomplishments in the arts; I just think that everything in those ages was of a piece. My point is simply that past generations took the arts far more seriously than we do. Much evidence could be produced to support this claim (differences in education for instance); regulations on the arts is just one more piece of evidence. A judge imposing a fine on an obscene picture, to my mind, is showing more respect for the arts than some joker who hangs curtains in a park and calls that art.

And also, I take every opportunity I can to quarrel with the "progressive" mindset. On this account, as I stated, the poop-smearers and midget-violators are free from legal restraint because our enlightened generation reveres the importance of their work. But the fact is that these clowns are beyond prosecution simply because they are beneath contempt. On this point, as on so many others, the modern liberal is just wrong.

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