ONE PROBLEM WITH ART HISTORIANS-TURNED-JOURNALISTS lies in the requirements of journalism. The art pundit must be interesting; no matter if accuracy suffers. Diversion is the name of the game. Elegant and high-minded, to be sure, but diverting nonetheless. And there really is not time, given the copy deadlines of daily or even weekly publications, to do much homework on the subject one wishes to be interesting about. Art history, like art talk across the board, is useful as a higher entertainment.
Enter Blake Gopnik, brother of Adam and former art critic of The Washington Post. His October 21st posting on The Daily Beast  seizes on one of the photographs of the murdered Gaddafi and juxtaposes it with Hans Holbein the Younger’s great Dead Christ. It is a brilliant visual pairing. What goes wrong is the commentary.
An art historian by training, Gopnik is intimate with Western art’s two millennia of immersion in the Christ story. He just does not have it quite right. Eager to establish his own unbelief (“I am the most convinced of atheists . . . “), he is content with a sentimental dilution of the meaning of what Holbein depicted. He skips across the surface of the Christian story to offer a superficially interesting, but skewed reflection on the meaning of it all.
He starts off nicely, noting the photos as a variety of porn, but slips quickly into a sentimental reflection on the meaning of the juxtapositon:
To my Christian-trained eyes, there’s huge pathos in these images, regardless of the monster they show. Since the Middle Ages at least, Western image-making has had the sight of greatness, cast down and bloodied, right at its heart.
Greatness cast down? The phrase suggests an equivalence between Muammar Gaddafi, in death, and the executed Jesus of Nazareth.
[Our Western eyes] see those photos of Gaddafi, alive and suffering and then as a blasted corpse, and head straight to the crucifixion scenes that are the bedrock of our visual culture. Some Christians would say that this is one of the gifts that their religion and its art give them: That they can understand the suffering of Christ as standing for the suffering that anyone else could ever endure. Even in the case of someone as evil as Gaddafi, say Christians, we profit from being able to see a piece of suffering humanity in him, because what he’s enduring was also endured by God’s son.
That has it a tad jumbled. The Christ story tells of a man—Son of God—who submitted to torture and death unjustly imposed. He was an innocent. His suffering, as Christians believe, was redemptive, a sacrifice freely chosen. In theological terms as Holbein understood them, his dead Christ is the lamb slaughtered in atonement for man’s sins. The death depicted was an act of reconciliation and salvation. Holbein renders the final event of Jesus’ life—his death and the beginnings of bodily putrefaction—as an historical happening. The image mattered to Holbein’s audience because they recognized these events to be also divine mysteries, the harrowing prelude to resurrection. And to the promise of eternal life.
No glory whatever awaits Gaddafi, rightly called a “gilded idol” by Gopnik. He means well, certainly, but his column dissolves into a faulty analogy that serves mainly to remind us of Gopnik’s own tender soul. And the maudlin hash that secular culture commentators are apt to make when they mount the pupit.
We can be glad that Gopnik is sensitive to suffering humanity. But an art historian really ought to have sharper grasp of the meaning of the imagery his profession asks him to know. Without that, our scholar-pundit simply contributes to the religiously impoverished journalism that is one of the chief determinants of a shallow popular culture.
Note: Reader Declan Kane emails to state that the point of Western crucifixion scenes is to reveal to the viewer the reality of a suffering God. Gopnik—well meaning but ignorant—reverses and, so doing, falsifies the very imagery he discusses.
Well said, Declan. Thank you.
© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey