Beauty and Cruelty

In the 1550s, Titian painted seven great paintings for Philip II of Spain. Philip, who drove the Netherlands to revolt and succession by imposing the Spanish Inquisition on them, who channelled the wealth of the New World into building the Escorial palace and pointless wars, who burned thirty-one Protestants in the main square of Valladolid in 1559, displayed paintings in which Gods exercised their power without remorse or pity over helpless humans, in pictures where the viewer is invited to take pleasure and amusement in the victims’ pain. The paintings show the skill of one of the greatest artists, and are beautiful.

Jupiter descends to impregnate Danae, in a shower of gold.

Jupiter, in the form of a bull, carries off Europa. A putti mocks her, mimicking her movement.

Actaeon, hunting in the woods, comes upon Diana and sees her nakedness.

Diana hunts him down with his own dogs, which rip him apart. This painting was never delivered and is not always included in the set.

Diana punishes Callisto, for her pregnancy to Jupiter.

Adonis, the hunter, pulls away from Venus, who loves him.

Andromeda, chained to be eaten by a sea monster, sees Perseus coming to her rescue.

All show naked women. In three, the woman exercises power, and in four she is its victim.

My blog is now ten years old.

The Orrery

Joseph Wright of Derby made the drama and magic of science a fit subject for art. The Orrery, showing the motion of the solar system, is named after some lord or other because only one man can stick food between slices of bread for the first time. Just as in An experiment on a bird in an air pump, the scientist here is an entertainer in the red robes of a learned man,

irritated by the note-taker,

who is not writing down that Saturn orbits outside Jupiter, but stealing his material.

I love the children’s wonder.

The two young people are gazing at the planets, not each other.

Jess de Wahls

Jess de Wahls’ patches are no longer stocked by the Royal Academy shop, because of complaints about her transphobia. In 2019 she wrote in a 5000 word transphobic essay that she had no problem with trans women expressing female, but objected to our assertions that we are women or entitled to women’s rights.

She is an artist, born in East Berlin in 1983. Once, she ran a vagina sewing workshop at Tate Modern. In 2019 after her transphobic essay she lost her job dressing hair at the Soho Theatre. An exhibition in Australia was cancelled. And now she has lost some work for the Royal Academy.

On twitter and even The Times, she is incited to sue the Royal Academy for Beliefs discrimination. Well, the RA was not providing her with a service, or employing her: only buying some stuff she made or designed. That is not subject to the Equality Act. The Times should employ fact checkers. On twitter, random people who have never willingly entered an art gallery are incited to complain to the RA. So then it becomes a poll: are there more transphobe bots to attack the RA than trans allies to support it?

That transphobic essay is no longer on line. Who knows what was in it. It could have been as vile as JK Rowling’s. Why now? An artist, not of Tracey Emin or even Charlotte Prodger levels of fame but whose art has won her a platform, loses an income stream, and Janice Turner of The Times writes a broadside. It’s the usual propaganda. Transphobe’s virtues include “immense thought”, she’s “funny, outspoken… freethinking and bold”. Trans allies are “merciless”, or envious.

I am trying to think my way into it. I spend little time in art gallery shops, hardly any in the gift section. How would I feel, seeing Jess de Wahls’ patches there, if I knew about her essay? Would it be yet another thing making the world a slightly less tolerant place, increasing my fear?

I hope not. Tate, RA, National Gallery are safe spaces for me, where most people are tourists or nice, middle-class types who like Art or feel they ought to, and are not going to be overtly hostile to a trans stranger. There is less chance of someone shouting out “It’s a fucking bloke” in the Bridgewater Hall than on Princess Street. (Why pick there? Because that experience lives with me twenty years later.)

If I recognised the patches and knew who Jess de Wahl was, at worst they would be a symbol of the pervasive anti-trans hate in the world. A stack of The Times in a newsagent is a far more visceral symbol of that, but The Times, or JK Rowling, cannot be cancelled. I am desensitised to such symbols of transphobia in my world. Were I not, I might not go out at all. Just possibly, that Jess de Wahl patch would be a symbol of transphobia which would be the last straw.

The confected anger at this cancellation is terrifying me. I look at the Guardian Opinion section today, and Kenan Malik is on about culture war again. Free Speech!! He is mostly on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay which is the only thing on her site, which before was a normal author website. I don’t think Chimamanda is transphobic, even though she attacked a nonbinary writer. So on balance I count it a loss to cancel the patches. The hate explosion has affected far more trans people than the patches would have. Malik again frames this as “trans activists” rather than ordinary trans people against “feminists” rather than transphobes. As Janice Turner says, it could be envious embroiderers who want their work in the RA gallery shop instead.

I also agree with Janice Turner (though she claims she got this from Adichie) that calling out transphobia on twitter is an outlet for base feelings such as “amorphous rage”. The closest Adichie gets to this thought is “the delusion that malice and opportunism is principled feminism”. Of course, transphobia is also an outlet for rage- punching down at a safe target, rather than responding to your real oppressors. I hate twitter wars so much I almost hate the rage and self-righteousness of trans people and allies as much as that of the transphobes.

Completely abandoning fact for propaganda, The Times reported that a transphobe had “called for” the EHRC to “launch an inquiry” into the RA. It did not bother to check whether Equality legislation applies to a shop stocking goods. The hate raced through Radio 4 and The Telegraph.

23 June. Coming back to this, I can’t see a clear ethical position I can commit to. One part of me says, Rupert Murdoch must not be able to prevent action for trans rights. That The Times will hate every action to support trans people, and create a controversy, which the BBC will take up, is not a reason for not supporting trans people. Then, is it supporting trans people to discontinue that product line? What should de Wahls’ essay be compared to- an essay supporting white supremacy fits. Like a white supremacist, she is saying that other people are less important than her and people her readers should care about, and a danger to vulnerable people.

Excluding her embroidered patches from the shop is equivalent to complete ostracism. Would you have nothing whatever to do with a white supremacist?

Should a white supremacist working in, say, the production of embroidered patches, have them discontinued, judged on the morals of the producer rather than the quality of the product? Should the producer lose income because of their vile opinions? The RA have shown Caravaggio’s work- but Caravaggio will never kill another man again, whatever the RA do.

People campaign, march and demonstrate for white supremacy. Should our disapproval of such campaigns only run to arguing when they state their views? Or, worse, only when they assault a minority ethnic person? What is worse, trying to bar one trans woman from one changing room, or trying to ban us all, for ever? Does the effectiveness of the attempt make a difference?

And yet- I was cooking yesterday, with the radio on, and suddenly there’s Jess de Wahls interviewed by a friendly interviewer. If there had not been objection to her patches, almost no-one would have heard of her. Her transphobic essay had been taken down.

11.30am: The Royal Academy has apologised to de Wahls, and is in talks on stocking her patches. Yesterday the Times reported on the “fear” she suffered after the discontinuance- my fear delights them, and there will be no reports on that. Google “Royal Academy” and the first thing you see is their site. The next is “Top Stories”, all about de Wahls as victim, martyr, persecuted by trans activists.

Here is the RA press release. It refers to free speech and free thinking. Yes, art has to be about free expression. What about antisemitic art and speech? What would it think of that? De Wahl’s long blog post is back online. It attempts to create fear, anger and derision at trans people.

The Wedding at Cana

Jesus turned water into wine. The monks of the San Giorgio Monastery commissioned a painting of the event, eleven yards wide, to hang in their refectory. Napoleon stole it, and it hangs in the Louvre.

Here the miracle is demonstrated. The gentleman is painted lifesize.

They are a lively lot, but I am not at all clear what they are doing.

I doubt such Corinthian columns were in style in Galilee.

I think this is the happy couple. As Jesus is at the centre, they are shunted to the side.

People ignore or distract the musicians. They are not valued as they should be, and not by Veronese, either: a bow could not play that lute.

It hangs opposite the Mona Lisa, so most people pay it no attention.

Real and conventional feelings

How does it feel, to be real?

I am scrolling facebook, feeling the things one feels scrolling facebook. At a joke I feel happy. At something moving, I feel moved. At something political, I feel the feeling appropriate for my tribe- anger or hope, derision or inspiration. Other tribes feel the same feelings at different stimuli. These are simple feelings I share with many people. It is easy to know the right feeling, and to feel good at feeling it. So facebook is a warm comfort-blanket, insulating me from reality. I could be plugged into the Matrix.

There is something I promised to do. Scrolling, I am only dimly aware of it. I will do that later, and that makes me feel mostly OK about not doing it though later never comes. The conventional feelings get in the way.

I close my computer. How do I feel about what I promised to do? I do not want to do it. I feel fear. I sit with that and discern underneath that is a feeling of hopelessness: I find myself creating arguments why doing it is counter-productive, and though I promised I would be forgiven for not doing it. And also self-loathing, at perceived uselessness, which is exacerbated by scrolling facebook. I am writing this today because I did what I promised, just in time. Yesterday I did not, because I got into arguing with a transphobe on facebook.

Doing it, I have fantastic things going through my mind and realise they are symbols or indicators of anger. The anger, now, is at something particular, and energy for the task I am completing. It is so good when that happens. I take care to complete the task: this requires love. Doing it at another time, I gave myself encouraging pep-talks. Do you still feel the fear? Yes. It’s not enough to stop you doing it, though. There is the feeling being and something else giving the pep-talks.

This is human. When I find myself bullying myself, that is probably a bad thing, but an inner dialogue, from two different points of view, can be advantageous: just as a group of people will make a better decision than individuals, so an individual may make a better decision having worked through different ways of thinking about a problem.

The only motivation is desire. If the desire is merely to survive, it wears us out. I need desire in my life that is more inspiring.

A Tory party leaflet, before the local elections. Vote Conservative because of the vaccine, it says! Ha! We have vaccine success because of public enterprise, with only a tiny input from business required by Tory ideology, because that particular public enterprise has not been Toried yet. Bribe-taking, body-piling, trans-hating, racist, lying Tories!

Looking for the art-work for this post, I had an experience I have not had since the last time I went to the National Gallery, over a year ago. With this Vermeer on my screen, I was overwhelmed with delight at the beauty of the pure colours, and their relationship to each other- that blue of the table-cloth, and the yellow of the sleeve, as an abstract composition before I spend time on the skin, and then the facial expression. It is ravishing. I get that experience with real art in galleries, and rarely with copies on screens. If you don’t get that with this picture, I hope you have it, somewhere in your life.

The Adoration of the Kings

Art to delight the eyes.

Andrea Mantegna, c1460, Venice.

StanisĹ‚aw Durink, c1480, Poland. The head and the body of the kneeling king appear naturalistic to me, but I don’t think he has quite got the way the head should sit on the neck right, or the roof supports. I love the faces, though. The kneeling man on the left seems more real than the others. Perhaps it is a portrait, of someone paying to be shown as a Wise Man seeing Christ, who looks out to catch our eye.

The Master of the Virgin among Virgins. This is a “Notname”, where the artist of several pictures is known by one of them. They were craftsmen, not honoured by remembering their names. Delft, 1490. It is customary to paint the building as a ruin, as Christ will make all things new, and the old world passes away.

The Master of the Antwerp Adoration, which is a different adoration to this one from c1510.

The Master of Hoogstraeten, early 16th century. Mists make the mountains in the distance blue, though the change in colour seems too sudden, to me.

Francesco Bassano the Younger, Venice, c1568. They seem tired, at the end of a hard journey:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

Raphael, 1502, when he was 19.

Merry Christmas to you

However you are spending Christmas, alone or with others, catching covid, getting drunk, may you be blessed by the coming of Christ.

Eugene Delacroix, the education of the Virgin

Elizabeth Siddal, Madonna and child

Alice Havers, But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart

Bouguereau, the song of the angels

Albert Aublet, the child sleeping in the desert

Marianne Stokes, angels entertaining the holy child

Bosch, The Adoration of the Magi

The Wise Men pay homage to the King of Peace.

Why are there four of them? Four richly dressed men, one hurriedly covering his nakedness but wearing his crown. I love the tassel on Balthazar’s sleeve, and the embroidery. His page looks at the naked man, not the Baby. Here’s Mary, calm and regal.

Above them, there is the star, and a far city with a windmill and fantastic towers.

The side panels have some lovely details: the people in the fields have no idea of the rich gifts, or they’d be over for a gawp. A man in a woman’s headdress tries to dry nappies before a fire. The smell of smoke might mask the smell of Jesus-poo. St Peter escorts a donor, portrayed in piety, identified by his coat of arms and motto “One for all”. How strange, to buy your way into Heaven!

The fleur de lys identifies a female donor and her same-named saint Agnes. A wolf menaces a woman, and a bear engulfs a man. At least the sheep is peaceful. I wonder what those long spoons are for.

When the triptych is closed, the faded outside shows Christ crucified, and a devil taking Judas’ soul to Hell.

Here is the whole.