Wednesday, March 09, 2011

welcome to the abyss

Guardian | In the history of painting one can sometimes find strange prophecies: prophecies that were not intended as such by the painter. It is almost as if the visible by itself can have its own nightmares. For example, in Breughel's Triumph of Death, painted in the 1560s and now in the Prado museum, there is already a terrible prophecy of the Nazi extermination camps.

Most specific prophecies are bound to be bad, for, throughout history, there are always new terrors. Even if some of the terrors disappear, there are no new happinesses - happiness is always the old one. It is the modes of struggle for this happiness that change.

Half a century before Breughel, Hieronymus Bosch painted his Millennium Triptych. The left-hand panel shows Adam and Eve in Paradise, the large central panel describes the Garden of Earthly Delights, and the right-hand panel depicts hell. And this hell has become a strange prophecy of the mental climate imposed on the world, at the end of our century, by globalisation and the new economic order.

Let me try to explain how. It has little to do with the symbolism employed in the painting. Bosch's symbols probably came from the secret, proverbial, heretical language of certain 15th-century millennial sects, who believed that, if evil could be overcome, it was possible to build heaven on earth. Many essays have been written about the allegories to be found in his work. Yet if Bosch's vision of hell is prophetic, the prophecy is not so much in the details - haunting and grotesque as they are - as in the whole. Or, to put it another way, in what constitutes the space of hell.

There is no horizon there. There is no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past and no future. There is only the clamour of the disparate, fragmentary present. Everywhere there are surprises and sensations, yet nowhere is there any outcome. Nothing flows through: everything interrupts. There is a kind of spatial delirium.

Compare this space to what one sees in the average publicity slot, or in a typical CNN news bulletin, or any mass-media commentary. There is a comparable incoherence, a comparable wilderness of separate excitements, a similar frenzy.

Bosch's prophecy was of the world-picture that is communicated to us today by the media under the impact of globalisation, with its delinquent need to sell incessantly. Both are like a puzzle whose wretched pieces do not fit together.

And this was precisely the phrase that the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos used in an open letter about the new world order. He was writing from the Chiapas, southeast Mexico, where he leads insurgents fighting for liberation from the Mexican state. He sees the planet today as the battlefield of a fourth world war. (The third was the so-called cold war.) The aim of the belligerents is the conquest of the entire world through the market. The arsenals are financial; there are nevertheless millions of people being maimed or killed every moment.

The aim of those waging the war is to rule the world from new, abstract power centres - megapoles of the market, which will be subject to no control except that of the logic of investment. "Thanks to computers and the technological revolution," he writes, "the financial markets, operating from their offices and answerable to nobody but themselves, have been imposing their laws and world-view on the planet as whole. Globalisation is merely the totalitarian extension of the logic of the finance markets to all aspects of life." Meanwhile, nine-tenths of the women and men on the planet live with the jagged pieces which do not fit.


John Kurman said...

Hey Nulan San,

Completely OT, but Disqus and Safari don't seem to play well together. If I want to post a comment, I need to switch to Firefox on the Mac, or use the IT Explorer platform. FYI.

Regards the Bosch "prophecies". Bullshit. The symbolism behind Bosch is known to be satire, parody, inside jokes, visual puns. The audience of his time found the visions of hell ot be funny as hell. That's why they bought them up, especially the Spaniards. But then, burning cats and torturing bears were funny to them...

CNu said...

lol, sounds like a perfectly valid justification for you ditch that fruity POS Safari to me John!!!

{somebody is threatening to saddle me with an iPad here before too long, so I hope I'm not frivolously uttering any famous last words}

Are you perchance conversant with alchemical symbolism in other work from this era, f'zample the Isenheim alterpiece;

John Kurman said...

Grunewald? I'd have to dig out my thirty-on-something-something-old college age Art History notes for that.

And honestly, at this stage of the game, I'd rather swallow my tongue.

CNu said...

No matter how high the quality of the edumication you received, those notes would be of absolutely no use wrt the goetic/caballistic payload in the Isenheim alterpiece.

While not vouching in any manner, form or fashion for John Berger's interpretive take on Bosch, I suspect that something very similar is afoot in this triptych, as well...,

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