Friday, May 1, 2015

When the Customer is King

Foreword by the author: This essay originally had a different ending that was far more indulgent, but I sometimes tire of my curmudgeonly self. For reasons that will be clear to the reader, I think I made a better choice of words, even if they take an abrupt turn.

“The Last Judgement” by Michelangelo.
1536-1541 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s every artist’s nightmare: The specter of micro-managing of a project by committee, client or patron.

Rarely are artists able to create work without interference and still earn enough to live. The ugly reality is that we must work to eat, and we are more often than not dependent upon the artistic desires and demands of others.

On occasion, I have had the pleasure of creating art without strings attached and with free rein, but those pieces were not my sole source of income – in fact, they were a tiny fraction of it. It is somehow comforting to know that I am not alone in being bridled, to some degree, by others. In fact, many of my more-illustrious artistic forebears often found themselves in the same boat – or worse.
“The Coronation of Napoleon”
by Jacques-Louis David.
1805-1807. (Louvre, Paris)

Michelangelo certainly had his detractors. “The Last Judgement,” a  Sistine Chapel fresco finished in 1541, was commissioned by Pope Clement VII. The artist avoided convention by depicting nudes and partial nudes in a vision of heaven and hell. Seems reasonable enough, depending on what side of the church you sit. The Pope defended Michelangelo’s work, but Cardinal Caraf and Monsignor Sernini, among others, took umbrage at the scandalous painting. Never mind the fact that the artist’s colossal “David” had been standing around in the buff for nearly 40 years with its patriarchal junk only a few feet above eye level. It took the heavy guns of the Council of Trent to finally smudge over family jewels depicted in Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement.”

The French master, Jacques-Louis David, also had to deal with a bit of micro-managing from someone who suffered from a deplorable Napoleon complex – Mr. Bonaparte himself. While painting the ambitious “Coronation of Napoleon,” the emperor had David make several changes to the canvas to suit his royal fancy. We can assume the artist was only too glad to comply, after reinventing his political leanings from friend of Robespierre to supporter of the Napoleonic court. Funny how a guillotine can change one’s mind.
“Man, Controller of the Universe”
by Diego Rivera. 1934.
(Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City).
This is a near copy of “Man at the
Crossroads,” renamed and painted
by Rivera, using photos of the
destroyed original.

Muralist Diego Rivera, too, got a taste of politics vs. art when he inserted a likeness of Lenin in his mural, “Man at the Crossroads,” painted for New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1933. Oops. The mural was removed in a furor. It didn’t matter that Rivera was expelled years prior from Moscow and lost his standing in the Mexican Communist Party because of his involvement with anti-Soviet politics. if you say you’re no longer a Communist, you should probably avoid playing the Lenin card. Ever.

I’m sure that even prehistoric artists had their micro-managers. Carl, the caveman artist, probably had a svelte figure in mind when he first envisioned the “Venus of Willendorf.” But the local shaman with a weight problem threatened ill-will on the uni-browed artist. Thus, we have been handed down a herd of Venuses who appear to weigh more than their namesake planet.

To be fair, artists sometimes don’t have brains enough to preempt the handling of a project by a shaman, let alone the handling by a whole nation or a leader of the same.
“Venus of Willendorf” Older than dirt.
(Scientists have assigned an ambiguous
“28,000-25,000 BCE” to the piece in order
to cover their own ignorance.)

Occasionally, though, that special customer is no shaman or emperor or national leader. Sometimes the patron trumps the Pope by a measure of infinity. When confronted with such an assignment, I turn off the snarky attitude and get very serious about the work at hand. I don’t presume to work directly for Him, but sometimes The King of Kings uses my talents – in spite of who I am.

The Lord has a penchant for using the most lowly of things and the most imperfect of folks, and I certainly fall into both categories. Some time ago, when I needed a little absolution and a massive dose of encouragement, a dear pastor told me that The Lord needs me to paint His portrait.

That came as a bit of a shocker, and I had not thought of sacred art from that angle. One does not lightly consider such a commission or trifle with the sitter who rules from a heavenly throne. In all honesty, I need The Lord’s micro-managing. I need His input, I need His direction and I need His every help. An artist venturing into the realm of sacred art exchanges the wealth of the world and the hollow honor of flawed men for something far more precious and fruitful and rewarding – even if that reward won’t come in this life. The artist then assumes the role of servant and asks to be bridled so that The Word may have free rein. If The Lord does indeed need me to paint His portrait, I know it isn’t for His benefit – it is for yours. And it is definitely for my own.
Detail of “Ecce Homo,” by Edward Riojas.
2014. (Collection of the artist)

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