This is one of my favorite stories about a piece of art.
After Michelangelo was commissioned to paint “The Last Judgment” on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, examined the painting in progress and said it was shameful for a sacred work to depict nude bodies, and that it was a painting more fit for a public bath than the Holy See.
In revenge, Michelangelo gave one of the devils in hell da Cesena’s face, and added donkey ears. (Lower right hand corner: he’s also got a snake wrapped around him. Close-up below the jump.)
Da Cesena complained to the Pope, but His Holiness replied that there was nothing he could do, because this was a devil and his authority as Pontiff did not cover hell.
The painting remains on the wall of the Sistine Chapel to this day, viewed by millions of tourists each year, and while Da Cesena was a rich and powerful man at the time, the only reason we even remember his name today is because Michelangelo snubbed him.
Aside from being hilarious in its own right, this story sits right at the intersection between art, sacred culture, and commerce. Michelangelo was a hired gun, paid a lot of money to make sacred art by people there is every reason to think he didn’t particularly like or respect, and the result has become a fixture of western culture.
We know that money is incredibly ugly when you look at how it gets made. Sure, it can be simple and innocent: a guy can put in a hard day’s work in the sun for a fair day’s pay and go home proud of his accomplishment and with a clear sense that he earned the money.
But when you put a lot of money together, that’s not usually what happens. Quite the contrary: in the world today, large financial institutions are more apt to resemble weapons of mass destruction than pillars of the community.
This is the kind of thing that Burners talk about all the time.
What we don’t like to talk about, however, is that the creation of art has often been just as ugly under the surface. It’s not just Michelangelo: many of the great works of the Florentine Renaissance were commissioned specifically as indulgences and political favors for the Medici family. Wagner’s failings as a human being are well know, but even if it wasn’t quite fair of the Nazi’s to appropriate him, what are we to do with Leni Riefenstahl or Jean Sibelius? Or the fact that the very first popular movie, Birth of a Nation, was a racist screed that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan.
Most art isn’t that ugly, of course, but it doesn’t exist in a realm of pure intentions either. A field attracts that many enfant terribles for a reason. Getting great art is often complicated and messy, and there’s no other way it gets done. Is there?
Then, when you put money and art together – that’s when things get really complicated. This has always been a Gordian knot that Western society has preferred not to untangle, but right now our culture is going through a whole new set of convulsions as consuming art has never been easier but getting paid as an artist has never been harder.
It is possible, today, to devote your whole life to experiencing all the best that has ever been created in literature, painting, and music – and to do it for free. Which is a wonderful, incredible, thing … but also might lead to the mass extinction of “the arts” as we know them. We always like to think that the relationship between art and money gets simpler the more you pull them apart, but it turns out that it only gets more complicated the farther away they are.
In many respects, Burning Man stands at that same intersection today that Michelangelo did in the Renaissance: Art, money (or the lack thereof), and a new kind of “sacred culture” all entwine to make Burning Man what it is.
What responsibility does society – and Burning Man – have to the artist? What are our expectations, what do we want? How possible, let alone reasonable, is that?
I’ll be examining these question, and the relationship between art and money, culture and Burning Man, in the next series of the Burning Book Club. These essays will respond to the book Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class, by Scott Timberg, which I will be reading as I go.
In the preview series I intended to make a good faith effort actually sorta-kinda review the book, only to discover that the book was much more useful as a launching off point for thoughts and discussion about the issue in a Burning Man context. That’s what I’ll be explicitly doing this time: and since I haven’t read xxx xxxx yet, I don’t know what I’ll say until I’ve written it.
But I invite you to read along, and respond, on the topic.
A final note: just because I’m calling this a “book club” and a “series” doesn’t make it in any way official. Neither the selection of the book nor the content of whatever it is I say next are in any way official statements of Burning Man. They’re just my personal thoughts on the topic and, should you choose to respond, yours. Feel free to engage in on-topic dialogue in the comments section below, or to discuss them with me directly, just email me: Caveat (at) Burningman (dot) org.