People are more interested in evil than in goodness, over ten times so, to be linguistically precise. A thesaurus gives you over 50 synonyms and only 4 antonyms for the noun “evil”.
People don’t want to be evil, but they are attracted to it so much they’ve invented a word for each and every aspect of it. These words give people a rainbow of meanings, all the way from absolute evil to its mildest form, “wicked”, which is even sexier than the cover-winning combination of “upright, fit and sun-tanned”.
We never ask for details when we are told someone is a good person. “She’s a good woman” fatally poisons a conversation with incurable boredom. A casual remark, “oh, but he is an evil man” is guaranteed to be followed by the excited “Did he kill anyone?”, “How many did he kill?”, and “Is he single?”
We are drawn to evil, but we don’t like it too close to ourselves. We prefer to be interested in it at a safe distance. We read books about evil, like Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, or we watch movies about evil, like Omen, to learn the 50+ shades of evil because we want to be able to recognise it when it gets to us. How can we know the steak is good unless we heard of someone who had the nasty experience of having their cutlet well-done when they specifically insisted on “Medium-rare, s’il vous plaît”? I know this is a bad example, as it is obviously beyond evil.
Evil’s extreme manifestations are well-known and easy-to-recognise (rape, murder, and not putting your plate in the dishwasher after dinner). The problem with evil is that its everyday presence is not necessarily registered, even if you’ve read the full set of 19th century Russian writers, correspondence included.
Everyday evil is clever, cunning, and has changed its Prada shoes for another luxury brand since its Prada addiction became known.
At times like this, painters come to the rescue.
They can’t surpass Guy Ritchie in parading all sorts of murder, excel in a zombie apocalypse better than, well, Zombie Apocalypse, or outperform Justin Bieber in raping music, but they can show the banality of everyday evil in such a way that we look at it, recognise it, and know what we must do to liberate ourselves from it, or at least compensate for it with something good (Important notice: I am NOT advocating alcohol under “something good” here. Strong alcohol doesn’t give answers, it just helps to forget the questions. Hangovers are never wicked, they’re always hell-approved evil!)
The first painting on everyday evil that comes to mind is The Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon (painted in 1953).
In my previous post about Good-and-Evil balance in great works of art, I wrote about this painting, as a rare example of art that shows mostly evil but creates something good in the mind of the viewer.
What is the first impression this painting creates in the mind of most viewers (who are at least aware this is not a drag-queen, but a man in the picture)?
The man is suffering and screaming in a way that you’d expect a tormented soul in Hell to suffer and scream. In a contest of Painting-Hell-Convincingly this work is guaranteed to come first.
It is generally accepted that there’s nothing good in Hell, for it will be no different from the regular life were there anything worth a second look. And while there are people who find screaming men enjoyable, I prefer to believe none of them can be found among my readers. So what good can come out of this painting?
Oh, but at this point, the second wave of impressions and questions hits the viewer. And this time, it is more personal and subjective.
The instinctive reaction to a screaming man is to wonder what made him scream. Our brain does it involuntarily: we want to safeguard ourselves against a possible danger. We want to have this question answered before we dial 911.
Different people answer this question differently, but there are three interpretations that are most popular:
Art historian: “The man of power vents out his frustration, isolation, inner torments, and anger. He is rooted to his chair which is grounded in some hidden depths we don’t even see. He can’t move. He has to sit in that chair of power that seems to be torturing him.”
Philosopher: “This is an ordinary man who is tied up by his responsibilities (that come with authority). It can be anyone. A middle-level manager, a top executive, simply an adult answering to and for his family. He has to sit in the chair of life the society assigned him, isolated, deprived of a life he could have. He can’t do anything to free himself from societal bounds. He screams because he realises he lives in a personal hell.”
Observant viewer with common sense: “Come on, guys, there is blood splashed on the white clothes of the man! See these red dots? The guy’s screaming at some atrocity he is somehow responsible for and is unable to prevent, and which gonna stay with him until his last day, and beyond!”
Regardless of the answers’ specifics, their commonality is obvious.
The cause of the man’s anguish is a combination of three ingredients:
- Impossibility to get free or to act as the man would like to
- Torment caused by something immaterial (power, society, witnessing an atrocity, etc.)
This is the moment when a man of culture is tempted to use the phrase “existential conflict” to awe a half of his listeners into reverential attention (because the other half shuts down or leaves the room). I am not a man of culture, fortunately. I will keep my story plain and blunt.
The blunt question is how on earth watching someone else’s isolation and torment can make one feel good.
It’s not because you’re not him, or rather not only. The vertical lines create a veil that separates the viewer from the dreadful world of the man in the painting. He is like a lab rat you’re watching with horror – but the horror is about his condition, not yours.
And if you happen to be someone who is almost like him, a man of power daily facing dilemmas when you have to choose the best of the worst, you now realise any decision that doesn’t lead you to this world is a good one. Even a decision that may result in dying, which is in many ways better than the man’s existence.
Don’t be tempted to automatically attribute yourself to the group of lab scientists and not the lab rat. Most of us are men of lesser power than a Pope centuries ago, but we can be just as locked inside the societal boundaries in our comfortable sofas and office chairs. The everyday evil of isolation disregards status.
Unlike the man locked inside the painting, the viewer still has a lot of choices and a few chances. Make children, find love, roam the Alps, wind-surf from a tropical beach, read books of gloomy Russian writers (a lifetime is not enough, don’t worry to run out of their supply), in short, keep doing things that people with a stiff upper lip call “eccentric”. Scream, as the last resort. Swear, for God’s sake!
You see how much good motivations this painting can create in the mind that realises what the picture is about.
Now, there’s one thing to remember.
Don’t get hooked on a work of art. Especially an expressionistic work of art. An expressionist artist doesn’t give a damn about the viewer. Expressionism is all about expressing the artist. Very often, an expressionist artist lets loose a psychosis or phobia that are 100% his own. One of the vitally important rules in psychiatry says it is a grave mistake to get included or involved into the patient’s delirium. So, on those occasions when the outpouring of an expressionist artist resonates with you, remember to separate your life from the artist’s obsessions.
The artist may dictate you an interesting essay, and you may enjoy listening to and writing it, but don’t take what you’ve put down for your own thoughts.
Bacon is intellectually attractive globally, but emotionally he is a purely English artist (even despite his somewhat Irish origin).
Other nations would scream, swear, sing, and dance to vent out their frustrations, but the English would stoically maintain their stiff upper lip and the integrity of their personal island, regardless of the tempest raving on the inside. I absolutely adore my English friends for that, and will never abandon my attempts to teach them bear-hugs and proper swearing as a life-improvement method.
And now, for art masochists, a brief summary of this work in terms of “how the hell did he do it”.
We’ll never know how his mind worked (unless he used to sneak out to a therapist whose heirs might decide to publish his notes), but we know what stimuli he used.
The portrait of the Pope by Velazquez was the main inspiration.
The face of the nurse from Sergei Eisenstein’s movie about Potemkin battleship and the uprising of its crew (for the face of Pope):
The portrait of a cardinal by Titian:
These three stimulus went into the melting pot of Bacon’s very personal psychosis and – with the yellow cage that Bacon invented himself – solidified into a painting that had a 1% chance of resonating with other people, but used this chance to the full.
So, is this a work of a genius or an accident?
It is an ingenious creative representation of one’s man paranoia that accidentally hit the bull’s eye of subconscious fears massively experienced by other people.
Bringing these fears to the surface takes a year for experienced therapists. Francis Bacon can accomplish it in a single session. It is a lot of money saved for a lot of people. It is perhaps, one of the few instances of a painting generating value for the global economy on an on-going basis.