Pilate asked Christ, “What is truth?” Today, the question would be, “What is art?” Whatever the answer, it is not Hank Willis Thomas’ new monument to Dr. Martin Luther and Mrs. Coretta Scott King.
Entitled “The Embrace,” the statue consists of two pairs of arms embracing each other — apparently, MLK and Mrs. King’s after the former had won the Noble Peace Prize — and nothing else. That would be disturbing enough. That the statue looks like a male appendage from certain angles only makes it worse. Not that this stopped Thomas from defending his monstrosity.
“I think about the potential of The Embrace to be an inspiration for what monuments of the 21st century will look like … there has been a reckoning and conversation about what’s been done in the past, but really, we’re looking at the past as a gateway to the future,” the artist insisted.
Some people were shocked at the statue’s unveiling, but nothing should shock us anymore, in politics or culture. In a world where a banana duct taped to a wall is considered “high art” and Italian
scammers “artists” sell invisible sculptures, anything can and will happen. Since Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal over, signed it “R. Mutt,” and then insisted he was being censored when the Parisian Salon des Indépendants narrowly voted to exclude it from its annual exhibition, art has been on a steady decline.
Gone are the “Mona Lisas,” “Pietas,” “Starry Nights,” and even the dynamic, pulp art of Frank Frazetta, pieces that rescued viewers from the mundane and material and pulled them toward higher contemplation and action. Now crucifixes in jars of piss, Madonnas splattered in elephant dung, sharks pickled in formaldehyde, feminist monsters, piles of bricks, and regular wooden sheds are all praised by the art commune and the self-professed enlightened as breathtaking commentaries, bold truth-to-power statements, or “unique expressions of individuality.”
If art were only about pretty things in public squares, parks, and obscure museums, this would be annoying, another example of “liberals are stupid and crazy,” but nothing beyond that. But then, there wouldn’t be any reason to get upset over a pair of giant arms that look like a sex toy. Art is much, much more than that because it is what sacralizes the world.
The historian Christopher Dawson argued that religion was at the core of every society and civilization. Because man was a rational animal, he was also a religious animal, whether he worshipped natural forces, incarnate and transcendental principles, the god of Abraham, or economics and science.
If religion is the heart of every civilization, the art of that civilization is its blood, the flow of creativity which pumps life to every part of the society by incarnating the religion (mixed with a specific people’s history, language, and customs) and the virtues praised by the religion. Without the religious beliefs of ancient Egypt, there would be no pyramids, physical manifestations of the sun god’s rays; without belief in the Olympians, the Greeks would not have invented the theatre, the space where the gods interacted with mortal men; without Christianity, the medieval cathedral, heaven carved out in stone and glass, would have stayed a pipe dream.
The art didn’t have to be physical, either. The ballads of Robin Hood and the stories of King Arthur were written to give life to the ideal knight and ideal folk hero, platonic forms which personified the virtues expected of nobles and commoners within the parameters of specific Christian societies. And these incarnations did as all incarnations do: They made the ideal tangible, not by diffusing it or diluting it, but by shining through the finite material used to incarnate them. The “Mona Lisa” isn’t just a brilliant painting of a woman with a mystic smile but a contemplation of the mystery of the feminine; the “Riace Warrior” statues accomplish the same for the nature of the masculine.
By allowing the transcendental to be touched, art defends people from entropy; it allows people to ground themselves, make sense of the world, and tell the world and themselves who they are, where they come from, and their telos. The American founders attached themselves to the ancient Roman republicans through portraits and pseudonyms because the American Revolution was viewed as a replay of the ancient battle between liberty and tyranny. The early 19th century was the time of Johnny Appleseed and Natty Bumpo, perfect representations of a people moving into the frontier; Pecos Bill was the archetypical cowboy for the Old West; and the Shadow, Superman, and Batman were created in the ’30s in reaction to the depression and violent crime of that era.
The art changed from decade to decade and generation to generation, but that was because people participated in what T.S. Eliot called the “great labor” of tradition, in which the pastness of the past and its presence in the present were forged to create a novelty for the moment that spoke true to the present generation because it was true to them as a people and true to their religion.
So what has happened to this artistic creativity? We can digitize the entire corpus of Bach’s work but can’t compose anything even in the same ballpark; we can make an entire metaverse out of pixels but not another Empire State Building; we can crank out “sitcoms” a la “Family Guy,” “Rick and Morty,” and “Velma,” but the fluidity and archetypal heroism of Max Fleischer’s Superman shorts are inconceivable despite animation being easier to produce than ever. There are only two choices: The people’s interest in art dried up, or the powers that rule us do not want us to have art. I put my money on the latter.
If religion is as inescapable as rationality (given that, by our nature, it is what we are), then creativity is also inescapable. But what is created can very much be controlled. And the powers that be want a world where cans of excrement and lights going on and off are the pinnacles of “art” for the very plain reason that an ugly society, a society with no spark, can be much more easily controlled.
Take a pop cultural example: “Star Trek.” The original series may be a manifestation of 20th-century liberalism, but it also tapped into the aesthetics and ethos of the Space Race, the Kennedyesque optimism which fueled it, and — most importantly — the old American mentality of frontier ruggedness and self-reliance while extolling classic virtues such as duty, courage, sacrifice, and friendship. Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy were heroes everyone could look up to. Fifty-five years later, “Star Trek” is a canvas for dark dystopias (“Discovery” and “Picard”) and simultaneously fodder for cheap jokes (“Lower Decks”). The very thing that inspired a generation now indoctrinates their grandchildren into a perpetual sense of post-modernist cynicism.
Art allows us to become familiar with the transcendent, but this can manifest as either heaven or hell. The work of Hank Willis Thomas and his comrades, brutalist architecture, and the recently released film “Babylon” are all designed to surround us with Dante’s “Inferno.” By manifesting ugliness, hopelessness, and the creeds of wokeness in every museum, public space, and park (after removing actual heroes), the plan is to devolve us from man to Morlock, something subhuman which, because it has been deprived of beauty for so long, no longer has an understanding of it and can no longer treasure it, let alone appreciate it. Which, eventually, will lead us to accept the regime’s understanding of what is beautiful and good without question. Morlocks are easier to control, after all, than a society of powerful people like Frank Frazetta’s John Carter.
Ultimately, Thomas’ sculpture isn’t about MLK or politics. It’s about whether we want to be human.