|The Execution of Lady Jane Grey|
by Paul Delaroche (1830).
(click to enlarge)
Because I started to appreciate art at so young an age, I’ve got a healthy promiscuity in my tastes, and lack any snobbery about what can be great art. Pop music or academic paintings, cheap industrial design or refined Swiss watches—it’s all good to me.
What I loved was the high you get from discovering a truly great work of art. I loved the familiarity that great art produces in you—the sense that you’ve seen this work before (when of course you never have), heard this music before (when of course you never have), heard this story before (when of course you never have). Few people can remember the first time they heard The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” or The Beatle’s “Yesterday”, or saw The Godfather or Casablanca—they can’t remember because they are such perfect works of art that they slip into your consciousness as if they’d always lived there. As if they are as much a part of you as breathing.
So I went to the Louvre today, the first of a six day exploration I have mapped out—and it was a bit disappointing: I’d seen everything already.
Certainly it was a thrill to see, say, David’s The Coronation of Napoleon in the flesh. The sheer size of the painting made it memorable—after all, all of the version’s I’ve ever seen fit on a computer screen or a coffee-table book. None of those versions could compare to the brilliance and life and sheer size of the 60 square meter original.
But there was nothing novel about that painting, or in fact, any of the other works that I saw: They were all paintings and sculptures that I’d either seen countless times before, or in fact had studied and memorized; or works which, though I didn’t know them, I recognized as part of a movement, or as a lesser example of so-and-so’s work, or as a—
—then I came across Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey.
It was overwhelming. I was overwhelmed. It was like stumbling on a scene I had always had in my mind, yet could not recall. The brightly lit, white central figure—helpless, as she reaches out to keep from stumbling—reaching out to the discrete executioner’s block, which will be the end of her. The grave men beside her, at once determined yet sorrowful. The wailing, duplicitous women. The plush velvet cushion—to absorb the weight of the young girl’s knees, and protect them from injury—contrasted with the coarse straw matting—to absorb the young girl’s blood, and protect the ground from its stain.
The longer I stared at the painting, the more its beauty overwhelmed me.
As I write this, I have on my computer screen a small, paltry reproduction of the massive painting–I can only glance at it from time to time, because if I look too long at it, I know that I will weep at the beauty and sorrow of the painting.
I estimate that between three separate passes today, I must have spent altogether about an hour and a half with this single painting at the Louvre. (I’m not counting the approximately fifteen to twenty minutes I spent studying the sketches and studies Delaroche made in preparation, and which were helpfully displayed alongside the painting.)
The painting is big: A good three meters tall, and about four meters wide. So you have to stand back to fully appreciate it. Of course, some people take this to mean they can stand in front of you, and block your view.
Such as happened to me with an American family.
They were mom and dad and junior and juniorette. Except for junior, who looked like a scarecrow, all in the family were overweight. From their accent, I guessed the northern Plain states, and from their clothes and demeanor, I guessed middle middle-class people, at the Louvre on one of those dreadful group tours.
They all dutifully stared at the painting. But they clearly had absolutely no idea what they were looking at—it might as well been a street-sign in a foreign language.
Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant about something—so long as you’re willing to learn, and then use what you know to change your point of view.
So somehow, I wound up talking to this family—and somehow, I found myself giving them an impromptu exegesis of Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
“Look at the young woman’s dress,” I told them, pointing to the painting. “See how perfectly white it is? The bright white of satin—the bright white of virginity, of innocence and purity—yet contrasted to the pale greyish hue of the young girl’s skin. That is the contrast between the young girl’s innocence, and the palor of her imminent death.
“Look at the young girl’s ladies-in-waiting—they are wailing, but they are not looking at the young girl. They are both looking away. And see the heavy gold chains they wear on their necks? Around their waists? Contrasted to Lady Jane, who wears nothing but the white (virginal, pure, innocent) dress. Delaroche is signalling that the ladies-in-waiting aren’t wailing for their mistress—they’re wailing for themselves, for their now-uncertain destiny. That’s why they’re duplicitous: They don’t care for their mistress—they only care for their own fate.
“Yet contrast that with the attitude of the two men,” I continued. “The executioner is not indifferent to the young girl—you can tell by his posture, by how he leans on his ax, bent at the waist, as if to get a better look at the young girl, before he carries out his dreadful task. But he is not trying to get a better look at her out of some lascivious or sadistic need—no, because his face is serious to the point just shy of sorrow. He is not sorrowful—he cannot be, he is an executioner. But he is unhappy with what he is obliged to do.
“Now look at the gray-haired man. He is at once guiding the young girl and trying to protect her. His shoulders seem flared up—as if trying to make himself bigger: A larger shield against the inevitability of her fate. Yet he is guiding her to the executioner’s block: Like the executioner himself, the gray-haired man can do nothing to change what will be.
“Finally, look at Lady Jane herself: She is blindly reaching forward—as we all do. We are—one and all—blindly reaching forward to find our destinies. But you and I have many days or months or years ahead of us—while the young girl has only the executioner’s block ahead of her. She is reaching forward, as we all do—but there is only death ahead of her. Notice how it is her left hand—the Hand Sinister—the hand of death—that is about to touch the executioner’s block.
“Look at the bandage covering her eyes. Look at those tiny half-moons of shadow under where her eyes should be. Delaroche is telling us that, even though her hands are blindly outstretched, and even though her eyes are supposed to be blindfolded, she can in fact see her fate. She can see the executioner’s block. That block is the whole point of the painting—in fact, it has the most central position in the painting, aside from the Lady Jane herself.
“Lady Jane’s eyes are the only ones looking at it: Though she is blindfolded, she alone among all the characters in the painting is looking at the executioner’s block. And she is reaching forward towards it. In fact, she is almost touching it. She is resigned. That’s why her skin has such a gray palor—the palor of death. She is already with God. That’s why her dress shines with the purest white. That’s why the light shining upon her is so overwhelming that we cannot tell if this scene is taking place indoors or out: God has already allowed her to join His Realm, and is shining His light on her.
“All that remains is for her to lay down, and accept her fate,” I concluded. “All that remains is for her to die.”
The American family looked at me, then looked away, silent. They weren’t even embarrassed by my mini-lecture—which I would have understood. After all, some random guy all of a sudden pouring out crazed ramblings about some silly painting is enough to get anyone embarrassed. Hell, I’d’ve been embarrassed, if I’d accosted myself as I did this family.
But they weren’t embarrassed by my ramblings—worse:
They were indifferent.
When I was done, they all just nodded wanly, and then wandered away, without so much as a glance at the painting. The mother, as if thinking her family’s reaction rather rude towards me, self-consciously said, “Thank you.”
No apology was needed—what was needed was for the family to take another, longer look at the painting, and come to understand what it meant. Come to see the truth that it represented.
But they didn’t—they didn’t even glance at the painting. They simply waddled off to “do” another room at the Louvre.
Nothing that I said mattered.
Glenn Greenwald has a post out today about how Obama deliberately had a Yemeni journalist jailed—jailed and tortured. It’s a good post, about a serious subject. Yves Smith at naked capitalism consistently posts tremendous pieces about the Mortgage Mess, and the shenanigans of the so-called “Mortgage Settlement”. Zero Hedge hammers away day after day at the rampant corruption of Wall Street—a corruption confirmed today by Greg Smith’s op-ed piece in the New York Times, lambasting Goldman Sachs’ culture of corruption.
But what does it matter, if nothing changes?
Lately, I’ve been posting less and less. I’ve been trying to understand why, even as I’ve tried to up my posts—but I can’t seem to manage it. I can’t seem to work up the enthusiasm that I used to feel, and which fueled my writing.
But when I explained the meaning of The Execution of Lady Jane Grey to that American family—and saw their reaction—I suddenly understood what had happened to me, and why I can’t seem to work up the same enthusiasm as before.
Americans don’t care.
Greenwald can write until he’s blue in the face about all the hypocrisy of the Obama administration—and it won’t matter, because nobody else will be outraged. Yves Smith can go on and on about the utter unfairness and corruption of the “Mortgage Settlement” process—and it won’t matter, because nobody else will be outraged. ZH can insist that Goldman and Jamie Dimon between them are the Anti-Christ—and it won’t matter, because nobody else will be outraged.
They pretend that they do. They stand in front of the painting, their eyes staring vacant and glazed, and put in the time—say three or four minutes. They read Greewald, they read Smith—they nod sagely and say, “How awful!”
But it’s all pretense—it’s all show. It’s not even to assuage consciences—it’s just to pretend to others. “Oh, we did the Louvre in three hours flat! Saw the whole thing from end to end!” That’s what it is—show. “Isn’t it awful what Greewald wrote about? And what about Yves’ columns—aren’t those banks just awful?”
And then they turn and walk away.
In my own case, I have analyzed what I can do best, to help make a better society—and from every angle, I always come to the same conclusion: Writing about things that matter is how I can best helpd my society.
But increasingly—and it’s been gnawing at my motivation—I keep wonder, Why bother? If what Greenwald or Smith write doesn’t change anything, what makes me think that what I write will be any different? Any less useless?
See, if your audience doesn’t truly care about what you’re telling them—if they’re just going through the motions, pretending to care in lieu of taking what you have told them and actually doing something—then why bother?