Two weeks ago, on a beautiful Spring afternoon in Florence, I did what countless travelers before me have done. I found an outside table at the Café Rivoire, sat down with my wife, ordered a negroni, gazed across the Piazza della Signoria, and thought about monsters.

 

Caravaggio (1571-1610). Testa di Medusa. c. 1597. Uffizi Gallery.

We had just left the Uffizi and Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa had done its work. I stood captivated before this beautiful and horrifying thing — a living, enraged decapitation, blood gushing from its neck — as it floated and shimmered in its bulletproof vitrine. She is the very definition of an uncanny hybrid — both living and dead, human and reptile, endowed with the powers of both apotropaic protection and mythic petrification. Hal Foster writes that Medusa, as an art historical subject, blurs all categories — “she is depicted as both young and old, beautiful and ugly, mortal and immortal, celestial and infernal, […] bestial and human as well.”1Foster, Hal. “Medusa and the Real.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 44 (Autumn 2003.) 182. She “fuses genders” and creates a primordial type of fear out of horror and confusion.2Foster, 182. Here quoting Jean-Pierre Vernant. Indeed, this Medusa may be Caravaggio’s self-portrait. Marin, Louis. To Destroy Painting. M. Hjorth, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago. 1995. 135 In another fusion of contradictions, I see Medusa’s silent scream.

This space is electrified by a web of gazes, reflections and projections. I gaze at Medusa. She averts her eyes to gaze downward, transfixed, perhaps, by her own reflection in Perseus’ secret weapon, his mirror-like shield. I see myself and the space around me reflected in the slick, mirror-like varnish of the shield. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek sees gaze and voice in relation, as life relates to death. The gaze, he writes, mortifies — the voice vivifies.3Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso. 2012. 670. And so, in Medusa’s silenced scream, Žižek sees true horror:

At this point an image emerges, an image that stands for absolute death, for death beyond the cycle of death and rebirth, corruption and generation. [To see] absolute silence marks the suspension of life, as in Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa: is not the scream of Medusa by definition silent, “stuck in the throat,” and does not this painting provide an image of the moment at which the voice fails?4Žižek. 670-71.

To be heard, in other words, is life — and to be silenced is a special kind of death, unnatural, a death beyond death.

Caravaggio painted Medusa on a round, convex shield — a ceremonial  Gorgoneion for his patron. The curved, convex surface thrusts Medusa forward, towards us. Yet Caravaggio renders the green background and Medusa’s cast shadow as a concave space. Medusa’s world also recedes. The effect is not contradictory, it is magical — Medusa’s bleeding head floats in a conjured, strangely hyper-dimensional space, a space of joined contradictions, a convex concavity, a space of bothness — a space Caravaggio created for this monster.5Louis Marin discusses this convexity in Panofsky’s terms. With this convex shield, Caravaggio violates theoretical linear perspective, a ‘visual image,’ in order to create the distortions that mimic our actual perception, or a ‘retinal image.’ The distortion creates a more convincing illusion, a more natural monster. Marin. To Destroy Painting. 126-130. See also Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form. C. Wood, trans. Brooklyn: Zone. 27-36.

 

I saw it again, this monstrous space, days ago at the Whitney. Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a meditation on the atrocity visited upon Emmett Till, swells beyond painting’s plane. The lower portion of the fourteen-year-old’s beaten and horrifically deformed face rises, physically forcing itself towards us, as if the crime exceeds the mechanics of its representation. It is a formal effect that eludes any reproduction, either online or in print. The artist has gashed into this protrusion to reveal a broken foundation beneath the painting’s plane. Like Caravaggio, Schutz creates a space both beyond and beneath painting’s plane — and like Caravaggio, she creates a space of monstrous excess. In this case, the ghastly excess is not mythical or metaphysical, it is instead the monstrous excess of human cruelty. The gash is located where Till’s mouth should be — another open mouth, another silent scream, another death beyond death.

Dana Schutz (b. 1976). Open Casket. 2016.

 

Unknown photographer. Page 36 from a travel album in the collection of the Horace Mann School, Boston. 1869. Via the City of Boston Archives. 4020.047.

From the café, I look across the piazza to the Loggia dei Lanzi. It once sheltered the duke’s feared landsknechts, his mercenary force of German pikemen. Now it shelters epic scenes of mythical and historical violence. The open-air sculpture court features depictions of not one, but two rapes — a soldier dying in an ancient war, and Hercules, with a workman-like resolve, beating the centaur Nessus to death with a club.

In the midst of this tumult, I was transfixed by yet another Medusa. Cellini’s Perseus, with Hermes’ wings on his feet, Hades’ magic helmet on his head, and Zeus’ adamantine sword in his hand, holds Medusa’s severed head aloft to the throng of tourists and Florentines, just as he has for more than four centuries. Perseus is a cast-bronze triumph, and at the time of its creation, a technological marvel. Perseus is pure muscular perfection, superhuman, a superman in bronze. He embodies the human qualities of victory: beauty, bravery and cunning. Medusa’s decapitated body lies lithe at Perseus’ feet, a gush of strange, turgid blood bursts from her neck. The same grotesque sanguinity falls from her severed head like a thick braid.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Perseus with the Head of Medusa. 1545.

The victory of Perseus over Medusa seems so definitive, so final. Medusa is decapitated, her lifeless body forever violated. But nothing is never not ambiguous when it comes to Medusa. Perseus and Medusa are uncannily the same, each a reflection of the other. Both cast their gaze down on us, and as we look up, we see a repeated countenance —  their two faces share an eerie resemblance. Julia Kristeva reads Medusa as Perseus’ “grieved double.”6Kristeva, Julia. The Severed Head. New York: Columbia. 2012. 35. She writes:

“An unnerving impression of likeness emerges from this interweaving: lying down — standing, severed — intact, man — woman, old — young. A play of mirrors in which the hero displays, in two parts of the body from which spurt jets of metallic blood, his own castration, simultaneously anguished– as the withdrawn face of the bent Perseus indicates — and triumphant — as suggested by the posture and more insidiously by the living, horribly bloody, proffered torso of Medusa herself.”7Kristeva. 35.

Perseus is anguished and triumphant. Medusa is both living and dead. Contradictions weave themselves together, ambiguities electrify the loggia, bothness prevails.  Eros and Thanatos intertwine and reflect each other in a never-ending mise en abyme.

Medusa’s right arm, as muscular and toned as Perseus’, falls lifeless from the pedestal. And then at the end of her  arm, her index finger rises, as if to say, “Un moment per favore, I’m not dead yet.”

Benvenuto Cellini. Perseus with the Head of Medusa. 1545. Detail of Medusa’s right arm.

 

Medusa appeared again to me this past Winter, on a clear, cold day, on an outdoor terrace at the Whitney. This bronze monster, a goofy grotesque — as ambiguous as Cellini’s, but hilariously funny —  stopped me in my tracks.

Robert Longo (b. 1953). All You Zombies: Truth Before God. 1986/2012 (cast 2012).

Here Medusa and Perseus have finally merged into a single hybrid being, mostly male — he is festooned with the kitschy accoutrement of twentieth-century violent machismo — yet this being retains the essential hybridity and bothness of Medusa. For example, Longo’s monster has a doubled face — but rather than being separate and ambiguous, these faces are merged and monstrous. Each bestial mouth is caught in silent scream, a monstrous howl. Medusa’s reptilian hair snakes under this monster’s ridiculous samurai/gladiator/viking/football helmet. The creature’s right arm holds aloft not a severed head, but an inverted and doubled flag, American on one side, Soviet on the other. He seems to stab himself with the flagpole’s spear-shaped finial. Here Thanatos has gotten the upper hand, along with a Reagan-era makeover.

Robert Longo. All You Zombies: Truth Before God. 1986/2012 (cast 2012). Detail.

This beast’s body is comprised of a rough aggregate of hundreds of small objects: toy soldiers, man-sized bullets, snakes, springs, nuts and bolts — the detritus, perhaps, of some imaginary battle. It’s all held together with chains, industrial hardware, a bicycle tire, and garlands of belted machine gun ammunition. An Alien-like hand reaches out from the monster’s chest — as if Medusa is within and trying to escape. A vestigial Medusan breast sits atop the bones of an exposed ribcage. The creature is armed to its canines, not with the magical tools of the Greek gods, but with the ordinary weapons of petit destruction with which we are familiar — a revolver, a Ka-Bar knife, grenades, and a weapon that looks borrowed, not from Athena, but from the set of Ghostbusters. In place of Zeus’ sword, this monster carries a sawed-off electric guitar neck, his axe. In place of Hermes’ magic sandals, a bat-wing sprouts from one of this beast’s reptilian ankles. He displays his genitals, but they echo less Perseus’ pudenda than a penis-scaled ballistic missile, a little Minuteman caught at the moment of launch. On his rump, he sprouts a pig’s tail. Just below that, a brace of thunderbolts shoots out of his anus, as if an angry Zeus up there, somewhere, clamoring to get out. As one viewer put it on that cold afternoon, “This thing is awesome!”

Longo’s Perseus/Medusa is an equal-opportunity wrecker, ideologically pan-denominational, a testament to intersectionality. Around his neck, along with symbols for the world’s religions, he sports a swastika, a peace sign, a dollar sign, and the ancient astronomical symbols for Mars and Venus, the realms of masculine and feminine. Ambiguity acquiesces to universality. No one ideology can claim this monstrosity, but this monster can claim them all. In that sense, Longo seems to be delivering not a warning, but a premonition. Or, if we dare take the title seriously, an all-too-human truth before God.

Robert Longo. All You Zombies: Truth Before God. 1986/2012 (cast 2012). Detail.

 

What Caravaggio, Schutz, Cellini, and Longo have created are textbook examples of bad art. Someone, at some point, claiming some position of authority, tells us so. But what is bad art? It seems to be an amorphous, subjective, and ill-defined concept, yet making moral judgements on objects, as ridiculous as that sounds, appears to be the major preoccupation of art critics, art historians, teachers, and the army of scribes that have produced our immense library of art writing. For example, one art historian denounces Cellini’s Perseus as a celebration of tyranny, patriarchy, and collective sexual deviance.8Even, Yael. “The Loggia dei Lanzi: A Showcase of Female Subjugation” in Women’s Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1991), 10-14. Medusa, as an art historical subject, is now seen as a perpetual female victim — a victim of an original sin buried deep in our ancient mythological past, a symbolic rape recommitted with each retelling of the tale.9See Elizabeth Johnson, The Original ‘Nasty Woman’ here. Schutz’s painting was the subject of a recent art-world controversy. It was considered by some to be so exploitive — and so dangerous to look at — that the only reasonable remedy would be the work’s destruction. Critic Jerry Saltz, writing about Longo’s monstrosity, confesses a certain shame in liking the work, even though it is so irredeemably bad; it is ugly, bombastic, cartoonish, hyper-masculine, and a relic of the high renaissance of bad art in America — the 1980s. Just describing it, Saltz writes, is embarrassing. And yet here he is on the roof of the Whitney, bubbling up from the past to confront us once again, rising from some art-critical grave, not miraculously, like Lazarus, but monstrously, like some undead ghoul impervious to its own terminal badness — and he’s looking hale. Saltz wonders if terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ lose their power when considering the risen art of the recent past, and I think this is so. Longo’s Zombieland is a place beyond good and evil.

 

[F]or [Asclepius] had received from Athena the blood that flowed from the veins of the Gorgon, and while he used the blood that flowed from the veins on the left side for the bane of mankind, he used the blood that flowed from the veins on the right side for salvation, and by that means he raised the dead.10Apollodorus. The Library. Trans. J. Frazer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1921. Vol. II, 17.

The Medusa story ends with a gift. According to the Bibliotheca of Apollodorus, after receiving Medusa’s head from Perseus, Athena gave Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, blood that fell from the veins in Medusa’s neck. This Medusan blood is magical, it has the ability to both kill and bring the dead back to life. This bothness is captured in the Greek term pharmakon, a term famously retrieved from Plato’s Phaedrus and developed by Jacques Derrida.11Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination. London: Athlone Press. 1981. 61-172. Pharmakon is a strange term with multiple and contradictory definitions — it can mean either medicine or poison, a philter or a spell, either curative or deadly. But in fact, the pharmakon is neither good nor bad — Athena’s gift reduces Medusa’s monstrous hybridity to the potential of opposites. Pharmakon only becomes paradox when seen through Manichean eyes.

Asclepius (center) in the Bracchio Nuovo at the Vatican Museum. He holds the Rod of Asclepius, still used as a symbol for medicine and healing, entwined with its snake. The Ancient Greeks recognized that venom was both deadly and beneficial — a pharmakon — a poison that is its own antidote.

Art is pharmakon, a potential that stands before us neither good nor bad, neither guilty nor innocent, but always suspect because it is powerful medicine. In Phaedrus, Socrates discusses the emptiness of mimesis, whether painting or poetry, word or image. Art appears to us as wisdom, but that wisdom is a conceit, a trick — an empty semblance of actual knowledge.12Plato. The Collected Dialogs of Plato. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, eds. Bollingen Series LXXI. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1961. Phaedrus 275a. 520. Painting is particularly dumb:

Socrates: You know, Phaedrus, that’s the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words: they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.13Plato. Phaedrus. 275d. 521.

Socrates argues that art’s emptiness and silence and as-if vivacity leave it not dangerous, but vulnerable. Sent out into the world, art drifts all over, gets into the hands of those who understand — or not — and when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused, it is utterly defenseless.14Plato. Phaedrus. 275e. 521.

 

Ancient Athens, in times of trouble, relied on ritual to save it. In order to purify the the city and propitiate the gods — to keep pestilence, bad harvests, and devastation away — a sacrifice was made. An unclean man — disabled, criminal, or simply the ugliest man around — would be taken into custody and fed a ritual meal. He would have been adorned with figs, beaten about his genitals with branches and squills (drimia maritima, a plant that, coincidentally, is both medicinal and poisonous), led solemnly to the gates of the city, and with the possible encouragement of a few thrown stones, sent out, forever, bearing, as Louis Farnell writes, “the sins of the people into the wilderness.” This is the best-case scenario from the victim’s perspective. Depending on local tradition, he might have been hurled from a cliff into the sea, or burned alive, or stoned to death.15Farnell, Louis R. The Cults of the Greek States. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1907. Vol. IV, 271.

This is the cleansing ritual of the scapegoat, or, in Greek, the pharmakos — a cousin of the pharmakon, and sibling to the ejaculatory pleasure of expulsion that I have written about previously. When art is attacked — as ugly, impure, transgressive and bad — it functions precisely as the pharmakos. Like it, art is neither guilty nor innocent, and by virtue of its singular disability — its majestic silence — art is utterly defenseless, making it such a tempting scapegoat. Bad art bears not the guilt of its own badness, but the anxieties of its beholders, a burden thrust upon it, to be carried out into some make-believe bad art wilderness, to be made gone forever.

But art makes a spectacularly poor scapegoat because it does what scapegoats should never do — it keeps coming back. After many years, Longo’s monster pops up to surprise a critic on the roof of the Whitney. Schutz’s painting remains, silently bearing its new burden. Medusa’s head, still caught in her silent scream, has been recently raised from some phony sea, and awaits my gaze on an island in Venice.16Early reviews of Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition are in — and the art isn’t just bad, it’s a disaster. I can’t wait to see such epic badness for myself!

— Michael Westfall

Damien Hirst (b. 1965). The Severed Head of Medusa, part of the exhibition ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.’ 2017.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Foster, Hal. “Medusa and the Real.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 44 (Autumn 2003.) 182.
2. Foster, 182. Here quoting Jean-Pierre Vernant. Indeed, this Medusa may be Caravaggio’s self-portrait. Marin, Louis. To Destroy Painting. M. Hjorth, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago. 1995. 135
3. Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso. 2012. 670.
4. Žižek. 670-71.
5. Louis Marin discusses this convexity in Panofsky’s terms. With this convex shield, Caravaggio violates theoretical linear perspective, a ‘visual image,’ in order to create the distortions that mimic our actual perception, or a ‘retinal image.’ The distortion creates a more convincing illusion, a more natural monster. Marin. To Destroy Painting. 126-130. See also Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form. C. Wood, trans. Brooklyn: Zone. 27-36.
6. Kristeva, Julia. The Severed Head. New York: Columbia. 2012. 35.
7. Kristeva. 35.
8. Even, Yael. “The Loggia dei Lanzi: A Showcase of Female Subjugation” in Women’s Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring-Summer, 1991), 10-14.
9. See Elizabeth Johnson, The Original ‘Nasty Woman’ here.
10. Apollodorus. The Library. Trans. J. Frazer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1921. Vol. II, 17.
11. Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination. London: Athlone Press. 1981. 61-172.
12. Plato. The Collected Dialogs of Plato. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, eds. Bollingen Series LXXI. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1961. Phaedrus 275a. 520.
13. Plato. Phaedrus. 275d. 521.
14. Plato. Phaedrus. 275e. 521.
15. Farnell, Louis R. The Cults of the Greek States. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1907. Vol. IV, 271.
16. Early reviews of Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition are in — and the art isn’t just bad, it’s a disaster. I can’t wait to see such epic badness for myself!