The visual arts carry a monkey on their back that none of the other genres of the fine arts have to deal with: the proprietarization of subject matter.
So, no contemporary artist would dare to, let's say, paint ballerinas (sorry but Degas closed that subject), or harlequins, etc.
And some subject matter, by the nature of the subject itself, would be labeled as saccharine by the nicest of critics. Say kittens, horses, puppies, mermaids.
Do we have a screwed up sense of what makes the visual arts tick or what?
This powerful painting, titled "Allegory of a Gay Bashing" by Scott Brooks has been receiving a lot of attention in the "nude gallery" in Seven. It is an homage by Brooks to the brutal murder of Matthew Sheppard.
And this painting swings representational painting's most formidable weapon (and the one that keeps painting as king of the hill in spite of all the critics and curators trying to kill it): The ability to convey an entire and diverse range of emotions with just one glance.
"Allegory of a Gay Bashing" delivers horror, beauty, politics, history and homage all in one swoop.
And this tremendous work will probably never be sold to anyone by Brooks, because it would take immense courage to display this work of art anywhere in this nation; not just DC, but anywhere. Someone can prove me wrong and buy it from Brooks and display it in their home, or office or even a museum somewhere - but I doubt that there's a collector or museum in the USA with the cojones to hang this work.
And to get to the beginning point of this ramble, in spite of the horror delivered by "Allegory of a Gay Bashing", many people get stuck on one area: the cute puppy and kitty at the bottom of the castrated nude.
I've been in the room when I hear people discussing it. It seems like the cute puppy and kitty sitting on the ground, and staring at the viewer, evoke a higher sense of revulsion than the castrated man himself.
I've noted people's sense of repulsion caused by juxtaposing the two disparate sets of images. I think that they are repulsed by the cute animals being forced to share a scenario with a tortured man. Why are they there? people ask each other, a note of discomfort in their voices. Even the eloquent Amy Watson was disoriented by the presence of the animals and (in her terrific review of the show) felt that they undermined the painting.
Cute kitty and cute puppy... taking the attention away from disturbing image. How dare Brooks paint cuteness, especially in this context?
I don't know why Scott did it, but I think that it is the key that makes this painting truly repulsive and immensely successful all at once. Take them out, and you have a strong, powerful painting. Put them in, and you create a million questions, enormous angst and a desire to physically remove the creatures from the canvas itself.
And maybe without even realizing it, Scott has also reclaimed an artist's right to paint or draw anything that he or she so desires, and take the unjustified saccharinity of a subject and turn saccharine into anthrax with a few deft strokes of a painter's brush and a disorienting sense of juxtapositioning of subject matter.
Update: Sam Wolov has some thoughts on this subject.