How Crass Can You Get?
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
An essay on politics, sports and art- By Brian Keeler
I periodically have to process some my animus for you know who, as the horrendous stuff from the White House reaches flood tide proportions on a daily basis if not hourly.
Well I am going to choose one incident, a public attendance by the 45 and a few of his hangers-on, that to my mind is emblematic of the rest of the feckless decisions and proclivities issuing forth from this fellow. And on the grand scale of transgressions, it might seem minor, but as it dovetails with an artistic creation, a depiction of brutality as a document of human depravity it fits in with my own study of of art history. The event that I am referring to is a martial arts completion of sumo wrestlers in Madison Square Garden that was reported in the news recently. I suppose after being booed at World Series Game, The DT needed something less bruising to his ego and more vicariously satisfying.
The painting I have in mind as a corollary to presidential entertainment choices is the large canvas of George Bellows in the Cleveland Museum of Art, which I’ve seen several times in that splendid institution, usually while attending the All Balboa dance weekend- but that’s a different story. The canvas is large , 36” x 48”with a beefy frame to match the carnal activity of bloodied bodies smashing and flailing. The painting is titled, “Stag at Sharkeys” and depicts two boxers at an athletic club in 1909 that was across the street from Luks’ studio in Manhattan. It was an illicit or somewhat unofficial club as the venue was attempting to get around existing laws in NY at the time that prohibited boxing. As prize fighting was illegal in NY at the time, this activity has been compared to the speakeasy bars during prohibition.
There is also a pendant painting, an even larger canvas of the same subject by Bellows. This one titled. “Both Members of this Club” is in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. It depicts two boxers as well, but one is black and therefore offers a racial subtext and context. We know this depiction to be an actual event- the bout between Jack Johnson and Jim Jefferies. What is noteworthy here is that the depiction of the spectators is even more vivid than in the Cleveland painting with jeering, leering and shouting men goading on the carnage. In other words, humanity at its most venal and vile.
This may be a stretch but I will make a comparison to two other depictions in artistic productions. One is in the recent film, “Woman in Gold” starting Helen Mirren about the restitution of the famed painting by Gustav Klimt. In that film, Nazis and everyday Austrian citizens on the streets of Vienna are jeering at Jews who are forced to scrub streets. The other, a Biblical narrative captured in many paintings of the including one by Hendrick Terburgghen. In Terburgghen's painting of the Mocking of Christ, it shows Christ being sneered at by fellows with distorted and contorted faces as they deride him for being a pathetic example of a king of the jews.
The content of these two Bellows paintings is powerful and to some they are repugnant as well. Still I appreciate the artistic accomplishment in each as a tour-de-force. We can feel the energy as captured in the strong diagonals, and the glistening sweat portrayed with highlights. The gritty realism of articulated sinews and ribs and muscles shows Bellows to be a consummate figure painter. The long strokes of paint with fully loaded brush to describe limbs in movement earns our appreciation. Rather than finicky detail we get the immediacy of direct observation. We see the homage to other masters of the brush like Sorolla but without the sundrenched beach- instead the smoky and dingy interior of an early 20th century New York city venue.
This visual record, and expression that seems carnal at best is somehow reminiscent of other paintings that express the mere physicality of life. I am thinking first of that painting of a side of beef by Rembrandt- he depicts the flailed carcass in all ochre hues and deep blacks as it hangs with a board holding the flayed flesh aloft. We know Rembrandt to be the supreme portrayer of the ineffable human spirit, but in this canvas he shows the inside o a butcher shop in Amsterdam in the 1600’s as a genre scene. Similarly, Goya’s painting of The Third of May – a massacre scene in Madrid also shows the depths of wartime atrocities in all its unvarnished truth- painful and awful, yet powerful and important at the same time.
In art school, at the York Academy of arts, one of my teachers,Tom Wise compared the work of another NY artist, who was on his career ascendancy at the time, Phillip Pearlstein to depictions of sides of beef. Pearlstein’s work of the human nude, mostly female, often depicted them in cropped views with partial views of their faces, so as to take away any vestige of personality. Lucian Freud’s work of less-than-ideal persons in all their sagging flesh with human foibles have been similarly regarded. I am also thinking of the famed 20th century painter, Balthus. He is regarded as one of the greatest painters of the 20th century along with Freud. He is noted for salacious sexuality as in the novel Lolita, which is to say of an almost pedophiliac nature. One commentator was torn as she recognized his paintings as great art, yet at the same time regarded them as morally reprehensible.
But back to Bellows now. He and his teacher, Robert Henri and their fellow artists, The Eight as they were called, or more often known as the Ashcan School were one of my early influences in art school. Bellows or maybe it was his friend George Luks, who is reported to have said that there are only two great artists in the world, Frans Hals and myself. A statement of artistic hubris if there ever was one, but on the other hand it does express the painting methods of Bellows and Hals too, with bravura wet into wet paint application. And this painting of the boxers fits into that category as it is a tour de force of brushy and loose paint application.
Bellows’ commentary on the wall plaque next to the painting stated that he was merely interested in two men trying to kill each other. His portrayal of the people in the background, the spectators is telling however, as they are characterized by roughly hewn brush chiselings with rather macabre expressions on their faces. As we look at the jeering and riveted attention of the spectators portrayed by Bellows we are reminded of ancient Romans watching a blood sport of unfortunates being slaughtered in arena.
There was a retrospective of Bellows' work several years ago at the Metropolitan Musuem in NYC which I visited on a couple of occasions. This painting was singled out then in the New Yorker Magazine as “Fighters slamming into each other, rendered with brushwork so eloquent-fast sensuous, sublte- as to feel prophetic of William De Kooning.” The PBS art commentator, Sister Wendy Beckett has an interesting take on the painting too. “ Now, if you look at the kind of people who’ve come to watch, you can see that Bellows didn’t respect them… if Bellows felt amazed disgust for the viewers, he didn’t fell that for the boxers. He admires them.”
Recently I somehow got on a hyperlink on youtube that took me to a video of a kickboxing match. This supposed sport takes our competitive interactions to levels of unbridled brutality that would make the patrons at Starkey’s probably become even more enthralled. As I watched this short vid they included some of the spectators goading on as the competitors bludgeoned each other into bloody pulps. Some things never change, some things get even worse. Boxing and this new hybrid sport have been characterized as the only sports whose sole objective is the physical injury of the opponent. This might be the result of other sports, but not the main objective. We are reminded of those who organize and attend such noble events as cockfights of dogfights.
So back to our current events with Mr. DT in the audience of a martial arts event in New York- there he was with a few republican cohorts in the audience. At first I thought the event was a kickboxing brawl, so I suppose there is a modicum of credit due for choosing sumo wrestling over the former. But I would not put a cockfight in the Rose Garden beyond this choices of the DT. We can see this as an update of the Bellows pictorial document in oil, now only with the visage of the Orangeman amongst the crowd. In an interview heard recently people were offering their opinions on qualities befitting a President, and one person said she’d viewed many presidents over her long life, and this guy currently in the office does not even begin to assume anything befitting our president. Back at the start of this foray into presidential misconduct there was an article in the NY Times outlining the many new lows that had been achieved even before the term of the DT began. Now after all these months we see heaped on this growing pile each day new atrocities. The most recent, the pardoning of war criminals, the vile insults tweeted daily at witnesses in the impeachment trials. The list goes on and on and on- our civility and dignity are assaulted daily by a bizarre and grotesque buffoon.
We’ve known for a long time of the DT’s penchant for slumming with other dictators, demagogues and various slime balls and Mafioso-like goons and host of criminals. He seems to love to make the absolute worst choices from mocking the handicapped, to belittling people for their appearance to siding with KKK at the Charlottesville, Virginia. In short we have a leader who does not right from wrong from issues of national importance to the most pedestrian such as his choice of entertainment.
I am appreciative however of artists like Bellows, Goya and filmmakers of the movie Woman in Gold who reflect our lives back to us. Spectacular actresses like Helen Mirren that show the triumphs of human dignity over Nazi thievery and the return of the works like Klimt’s to their rightful owners give us reason to hope.