Michelangelo’s Pickled Shark by John Robson

Published October 1, 2018

If Michelangelo had any idea what he was doing, he’d have painted a pickled shark. Can we just agree on that?

If your answer is “Heck no”, I think you might not be welcome at Britain’s Royal Academy, whose “The Renaissance Nude” exhibit will feature equal numbers of male and female subjects, and curators, not because that’s what people actually painted back then but because it’s what they should and would have painted if they’d been smart and decent like us not a bunch of dead white men.

The ostensible purpose of the exhibit is to show how the “idea and ideal” of the nude developed in Europe. Except given the decision to select the art according to modern criteria obviously it’s to show how it should have developed, culminating in the sublime irony of an unmade bed or “Piss Christ”.

Such irony is hard to avoid once relativism becomes bourgeois convention. A survey of Western art that I read in the early 1990s, companion to a PBS series, chirped “to reconstruction we bring all our preconceptions. Each generation interprets the past, including art, according to its own needs. There is no truly objective history, only our interpretation. Thus, not only is art itself an expression of culture, but so are art history, taste, and prices – how we select and define reveals our own priorities, our own ways of seeing.”

If this statement were really true, there’d be no point looking at old art because all we’d see is new stuff. If we looked at the Mona Lisa we wouldn’t see an enigmatic smile, we’d see a pickled shark. If we looked at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we’d see a urinal. In fact, on this relativistic interpretation there’d be no point looking at art, period. We could just impose our “preconceptions” on a blank wall, saving time, money and the bother of actually going to the exhibit. It’s all right here in our navels.

Speaking of navels, let me here insert a disclaimer: This column was not written by an equal number of men and women, I did not change my self-identification at the half-way point and I am not writing it in the nude. Medical science may still be puzzling over my physique, but the world of art stubbornly resists labeling it “ideal”, though it’s not immediately obvious why I can self-identify as a woman but not as Michelangelo’s David. But I digress.

The point is, feminists have long objected to major art collections showing too few female artists and too many naked women. Almost as though men can be pushy and have a powerful visual fixation in erotic matters. Which might be regarded as important insights into the human condition rather than swept under the rug in neo-Victorian panic.

Crucially, important need not mean welcome, any more than putting on a display of Renaissance Art necessarily elevates the Renaissance to the acme of human achievement. There is a tendency to do so, part of the long-standing and widespread denigration of the Middle Ages during which artists wasted their time on God instead of showing how great humans are, especially young women with no clothes. But we study history to learn lessons. And there is no promise, explicit or implied, that the lessons won’t hurt.

For instance, the lesson that people in ages past often held very high opinions of themselves on matters where humility might have been warranted. If we’re not careful, reflecting on this one could lead to worrying reflections on our own smugness.

One reason for sweeping history aside with a sneer, or at least one result, is to obscure this lesson, thus hiding not their defects but ours. It would be interesting to ask people tearing down statues of Sir John A. Macdonald and replacing Rudyard Kipling’s “If” with a Maya Angelou poem including “I dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs”(a true story from the University of Manchester, not that we’re sex-obsessed too, you understand) to devise a list of reasons people centuries hence might regard us with dismay.

You’d probably get a long list of “we’re not PC enough yet”. For instance, even if we show equal numbers of male and female nudes, we can’t force the audience to look as long or hard at the former… yet. There were no transgender nudes in the collection. There was body shaming. Future Royal Academy exhibits aren’t slated to have gender quotas… yet.

That we might ourselves stand indicted for intolerance of dissent or corrosive relativism would be unthinkable. Or regarded with dismay because our own sexual attitudes had veered appallingly away from the healthy, natural desire of men and women for one another in lifelong fruitful unions. Or because we had become Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s one-story intellects whose willful lack of perspective on the past caused a juvenile lack of perspective on ourselves. Including thinking a civilization that considers giant spiders and lumps of rust the epitome of art could have told Titian what to paint and how.

Nobody really takes relativism seriously, of course. Or rather, as relativists they hold it to be true at times and untrue at others; they get their own truths, like that Rafael didn’t paint what he painted, but we don’t get to have our own truth about, say, men as oppressors. It’s a tempting road to take, by turns apparently tolerant and intoxicatingly empowering. But in the end, it will bring us to grief. As a correspondent recently wrote to me, “Many feel we are living in a post truth culture. Wrong! Truth is timeless. We are living in an anti-truth culture. If we carry on like this, we are not in danger of being on the wrong side of history; we are in danger of being history.” But who wants to think about that possibility when we’re so great?

Now, back to that pickled shark.

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