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Cathedrals and Bath Houses, Michelangelo and The Lust Judgment

Recently, in a review of the current big show at the British Museum, Michelangelo, The Last Decade, Jonathan Jones of the Guardian bemoaned a lack of any substantial reference to the great artist’s love life. His piece, entitled “Where Has All The Lust Gone” decried the show as essentially boring, and asserted that the curators have chosen to obscure the most relevant fact about Michaleangelo, that he was gay at a time when being gay was forbidden: 

“Michelangelo’s monumental art isn’t so much timeless as always happening in the moment. The drawings, not so much…Yet that needn’t make an exhibition of his drawings dull. This show manages it by taking the drama out of his life…Even when he was still painting it [The Last Judgment] he was accused of turning the Pope’s Chapel into a “bath house” by filling it with nudes. There’s no hint here of the gossip that underlay this, that Michelangelo was sexually attracted to men.” (1)

As I read Jones' article I became increasingly uneasy, despite his persuasive prose, it was unpleasant to witness the whittling of Michelangelo down to more prosaic and normal size. Jones gets one thing entirely right, that of those seeking to assess Michelangelo, he numbers among the crowd who couldn't see past the nudity, or tremulous memories of the bath house. In fact, his reference to this early critical response, in support of his argument, actually demonstrates clearly why his opinions should be ignored. The anecdote he sights illustrates the inadequate critical faculties of most people, that is it's function, but not only that, it points in the direction their ignorance will lead them.

The most relevant thing about Michelangelo was not his sexuality. Gay or straight, the obstacles facing any person in 14th century Italy, in their journey to artistic competence, were tremendous, but Michelangelo did not simply become competent, he became one of the greatest artists in Western history. It is reasonable to compare Michelangelo with Phidias, that is to say, in 2300 years there have been two artists of comparable stature, all others, however great, were not as great. Is it relevant that we don't know anything about Phidias’s sexual orientation? 

To their credit, in the Guardian’s weekend guise as The Observer, this Saturday a much more sympathetic piece, by Rachael Cooke, entitled “Michelangelo: The Last Decades – feels close to a religious experience” balanced things out:

In her article, Cooke, admitting to having no real religious inclination, celebrates the spiritual power of Michelangelo's work as coming from something other than simply it’s religious subject matter: 

“In Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John the Evangelist (c1555-63), Mary presses her cheek against Christ’s naked thigh. Her body half curled, her hand resting on her chin, she seems in her bewilderment and her sorrow more child than mother. It is one of the most daringly intimate depictions of the crucifixion I’ve ever seen, and for all that I’m more or less entirely godless these days, it brought me almost to tears.”(2)

The disappointment Jones expressed in his piece and his desire for a more raunchy show, exploring the drama of Michelangelo's struggles with mortality and morality, may seem like reasonable expectations. It has become the fall back position of most historians today, to look for elements in the life story of our cultural heroes, which make them relatable, more human and perhaps more or less sympathetic, it is so normal to do this now, that reading my words, you might well be wondering what the alternative is. The alternative is to recognise that however normal a person like Michelangelo was in most regards, as an artist he was not normal, and it is his abnormality that we should be interested in. Conflicted feelings are common to many, the ability to sculpt the Pieta or David are not. 

Judging the drawings of Michelangelo as “not so much” in terms of their being “not so much timeless as always happening in the moment” the hyperbolic praise he meted out to Michelangelo's monumental art, leaves me struggling to find words. Doubtless there is an adequate emoji for being facile, which could articulate my disdain, and Jones probably knows what it is.

At some point, in order to facilitate its growth and continued survival, our culture needs to come to terms with the reality that some people are just better than everyone else. Every now and then, someone is born who, despite their human flesh, and various human proclivities, is simply exceptional in some regard. It is not true that we are all remarkable to the same degree, and all that is needed is to find our individual special something. Some people are better, they are greater and they are worthy of our respect and in some cases adoration. 

It is folly to believe we can assess Michelangelo's genius, or that it is more worthwhile to attend to his sexual behavior than to his art. We can revere his genius, and if we want to concern ourselves with his sexuality, we should stop bothering with the great man entirely. The reason his work baffles us and is so hard to penetrate is not because he was sexually and religiously conflicted, it is because even under the same circumstances, receiving the same education, and all of the same advantages and disadvantages, we would have been like every other apprentice artist in the studios of masters at the time the Michaelangelo was beginning to forge history. We would have been either, able to survive as artists, or not had enough talent to do even that. We would not have been another Old Master. How do I know? Because genius like his is not circumstantial, were any of us of similar ability, we would be doing something comparable now. It may be comforting to believe otherwise, but the fact is, there are only so many Picassos, Einsteins, Leonardos born every so many hundred years, they change the world and we all benefit.

I firmly believe that there is a hierarchy of ability and brilliance, within which I fit, able to gaze up in wonder and admiration. I can be inspired to pursue my art with greater vigor by the genius of my masters, not because I hope to be equal to them, but because I hope to achieve more than I currently can by emulating and meditating on their achievements. I can ask questions, try to fathom, and feel a greater fondness for certain works, but when my admiration is tempered by the fancy that I can actually judge the merit of their work, then the question has to be, by what yardstick. 

Someone might respond to this, “critics have always judged the work of artists, it's a valuable service” but compare the judgments, the two I have cited here, for instance. One critic recognizes that Michelangelo is so profound, her criticism needs to be limited to her own ability or otherwise, to comprehend, the other believes so fully in his own faculties, he reckons himself qualified to dispense with the art in favor of the genitals.  

Our’s is an age horrified by hierarchy, there is a palpable terror in spaces like Instagram and Tic Toc of finding oneself among the common place. Among the common place, however, is actually no bad place to be, because we are in excellent and abundant company. From this vantage point we can really appreciate the view, we can look up in wonder, like pilgrims entering a great cathedral, and we can be filled with joy and the sense of something transcendent and humbling, having made the hard slog to get there. If we reject that, what we are left with is not the option of becoming great, instead it is our mediocrity. We can be great, to the extent that we fully invest in our potential, but we can only do this, if we recognize who our mentors are and treat them as wiser and greater than us. 

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