From the Curator's Desk

Ray Kass on John Cage

Rusty Freeman - Friday, December 04, 2020

This week’s blog introduces the interview with Ray Kass and Howard Risatti, co-founders of the Mountain Lake Symposium and Workshop, a Virginia institution from 1980-2017.  In this excerpt, Ray Kass characterizes the influence of John Cage on the greater art world. 

Mary Lou Parker

Rusty Freeman - Friday, November 27, 2020

Mary Lou Parker was a well-known and respected professional artist, poet, newspaper journalist, art teacher, her church’s minister, gospel song-writer, and pianist who made her family’s home in Mt. Vernon, Illinois.  Ms. Parker married local mortician Joshua Sanders Parker and was the mother to Betty Hawthrone and Roberta Derixson.  Parker is remembered today for writing the gospel hit “Do You Know Him?”  It is still performed and recorded today.  

Photo from front page Mt. Vernon Register-News February 4, 1991.  

A very socially-engaged, outgoing person, Parker was one of the first Cedarhurst Administrative Counselors (1973-1978), she taught in the Mt. Vernon Art Guild, and chaired the 1974 Southern Illinois Artists Open Competition (now the Cedarhurst Biennial).  Parker had solo exhibitions at the Mitchell Museum (“Through the Eyes of the Artist” 1974) and Rend Lake Junior College where Parker also taught art.  

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Parker grew up in Centralia, Illinois, and studied at Mt. Vernon Community College.  An award-winning visual artist, Ms. Parker was also an ordained minister who wrote a religious column for the Mt. Vernon Register-News.  She excelled at poetry and music, writing the gospel hit, “Do You Know Him?”. Parker also wrote “It’s a Long, Long Way,” and “Jesus When Troubles Burden Me Down” which were recorded by Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, Charles May/Annette May Thomas, Cora Martin/Sallie Martin, and the Christian Tabernacle Choir/Reverend Maceo Woods.  

Parker’s visual talent and professional expertise was recognized by the Amoges Studio of Chicago where she painted china dinnerware that sold in Marshall Fields and Saks Fifth Avenue, New York.  

Winter landscapes covered in snow were Parker’s favorite scenes to paint.  

Today, Parker’s winter landscape may be seen in the permanent collection of Cedarhurst.  

MARY LOU PARKER, Des Moines, Iowa (1918) – Mt. Vernon, Illinois (2009),
Untitled, [Winter barn scene], 1974, watercolor, Gift of Carl Schweinfurth Estate 2013.51 

American Values in Art

Rusty Freeman - Friday, November 20, 2020

Schjeldahl on the Guston Affair

Rusty Freeman - Friday, November 13, 2020

The art world can be and is a microcosm of the world-at-large.   

Peter Schjeldahl wrote recently in The New Yorker, October 19, 2020, a piece titled “Us Cosmopolitans” questioning the postponement of the Philip Guston retrospective.  (Written in all caps, the title becomes a telling double entendre.)   

Schjeldahl, now 78, born Fargo, North Dakota, is an art critic you can trust, no matter which value system you may subscribe to.  Raised in Minnesota and living in New York City, or close to it, since 1964, Schjeldahl is the rare writer where one can literally find no filler words or sentences in his writing.  No matter his topic, always a learning delight to read.  


First page of Schjeldahl essay.  Photo: R. Freeman 

He writes, “The Guston affair is a symptom of a society-wide deterioration of trust in institutions and tolerance for uncongenial expression.”  

“In a small way, the controversy exemplifies divisions that are splintering the United States: votes of no confidence in the good will of contending interests.”  

Schjeldahl put on the table for discussion a broad understanding of the positions and causes that have contributed to a division within the art world itself.  

Questioning the art world’s current status, Schjeldahl bears “I’m the kind of liberal who is perhaps oversensitive to the feelings of all constituencies.”    

Schjeldahl is, with good reason, pessimistic.  “Cold winds are blowing from the future onto aspirations to provide society, or even segments of society, with a capacity to bridge differences with mutual respect.”  

These winds will continue for some time, but not without hope of amelioration.  As Schjeldahl reminded, “Art goes on.”

Second page of Schjeldahl essay.  Photo: R. Freeman 

Healing can be an aesthetic methodology for individuals that also trickle into as well as throughout a nation.  One of the ways art-making can help with healing is to do what art does best, examine values, to place values on the table for discussion.  (Something the Guston exhibition aspired to explicate with the artist’s own “moral anguish.”) 

The exhibition Rural Avant Garde: The Mountain Lake Experience and Cedarhurst itself follow a model of art-making, at the local community level, that allows for collaborative interactions among community artists and the local audiences that will be consuming those locally made art works.  Consuming in the sense of enjoying them, acquiring, making, but also questioning and understanding the values that went into the making of the artworks themselves.  Art is a way to see and appreciate each other’s values.  

Using art as a way to celebrate shared community values, finding common ground, understanding differences, is a way, one way, of moving forward together as one nation to ensure that no one is harmed, anywhere, for any reason.  

Art can celebrate our differences and possibly expose the benefits of our joyful differences.  

Dylan & Miles

Rusty Freeman - Friday, November 06, 2020

Midwestern cultural identity is explored through two of its most widely cherished national figures and the art form, Regionalism, which helped link local community values to an American identity.  

When Bob Dylan was asked why he left (the Midwest): “There’s no place I feel closer to now, or get the feeling that I’m part of, except maybe New York; but I’m not a New Yorker. I’m North Dakota-Minnesota-Midwestern. I’m that color. I speak that way. I’m from someplace called the Iron Range. My brains and feelings have come from there.” 

Dylan at 22, he was born in Duluth, Minnesota, photo 1963 by Rowland Scherman, National Archives and Records Administration, public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia 

Miles Davis: “Listen. The greatest feeling I ever had in my life was when I first heard Diz and Bird together in St. Louis, Missouri, back in 1944. I was eighteen years old and had just graduated from Lincoln High School, just across the Mississippi River in East St. Louis, Illinois.  I learned all that back in St. Louis, so I always wanted to play something different than the way most trumpet players played.” 

Born in Alton, Illinois, raised in East St. Louis, Twenty-one year old Miles Davis playing with Charlie Parker (left, with Max Roach behind Parker), 1947, photo by William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress, Music Division, public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia  

“One could argue that Midwesterners are at their most passionate in their pursuit of normalcy, when they take pride in being typical rather than unusual, when they boost their families, towns, and states as better versions of some vague, elusive American norm.” Historian Andrew Cayton, The American Midwest.  

Alton, Illinois is the birthplace of Miles Davis.  Stan Masters, Third Street, Alton, 1989, watercolor, Cedarhurst permanent collection; Barry Vance, Beverley, 1979, oil, Cedarhurst permanent collection, photo R. Freeman 

“If nothing else, Midwestern identification with a region is about communities of human beings who decide that their sense of place unites them more than questions of religion, race, gender, class, or any other way of constructing identity.” Cayton.  


A dominant style of modern American art during the 1930s, Regionalism, also known as American Scene Painting, was storytelling art in a decidedly optimistic mood.  Three painters led the way: Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry.  Hard work, self-reliance, and community were the values immortalized in their art.   

The round barn architecture was unique to the Midwest, Dan Anderson, Untitled (Round Barn), c.1990s, stoneware, Cedarhurst permanent collection; Gregor farm painting on wall, photo R. Freeman 

“Regionalism’s brand of modern American art became a means of regaining the self-esteem and social respectability undercut by the Great Depression.”  Art historian Erika Doss, Twentieth-Century American Art

The family farm is a leading icon of the Midwest.  Detail of Harold Gregor, Illinois Landscape #25, 1978, oil, Cedarhurst permanent collection, photo R. Freeman 

Regionalism as Benton and Wood painted it, portrayed local community values as the standard for a cultural nationalism,  striving to have the Midwestern ethos regarded as the essence of American national identity. 

The Spiritual in Art

Rusty Freeman - Friday, October 30, 2020

Space has long been explored as a metaphor for the transcendental, the mystical, and the entity we call by various names, the spiritual.  

It would difficult to find a better metaphor for all those subjects, because as we’ve longed known, science determined outer space to be infinite, it never ends.   

Space shows up, no pun intended, in our stories of religion and the mystical.  Here, today in this blog I want to share how artists have materialized, or made physical, intangible space, and how they’ve related intangible space to metaphysical, spiritual ideas.  

Our current exhibition, The Invisible Landscape, Paintings by Ethan Meyer portrays the artist’s interpretations of the metaphysical space, a spiritual dimension.  

Installation view of Ethan Meyer’s The Invisible Landscape at Cedarhurst, photo: R. Freeman 

Meyer’s aesthetic is his own creative and original expression representing the mystical force that we feel created nature. The “mystical force” is unseen; absent from our sight, but we sense its presence.    

Meyer’s painting teem with energy, thousands of multi-layered structures within structures animate his surfaces.  Meyer’s art is historically related to P. D. Ouspensky and Max Weber, both of who have made fascinating statements speculating that the metaphysical can indeed by represented in the 3D world in which we live.  

Detail of Ethan Meyer, The Invisible Landscape,  2018, acrylic, yarn, photo: R. Freeman

Ouspensky said “Matter is a section of something,” that section a non-material space.  He also said, “Art is a path to cosmic consciousness.”  

Weber was even more explicit about what the 3D world can do.  “There is a fourth dimension (or metaphysical space) which may be described as the consciousness (awareness) of a great and overwhelming sense of space-magnitude in all directions at one time, and is brought into existence through the three known measurements.”  (My emphasis.)  I love the boldness of Weber’s statement.  

Artists and poets since the beginning of time have tried to capture the presence of this absent signifier.  Representing the absent unknown is what artists, poets and musicians do best.  

Jun Kaneko and the Japanese conception of Ma space characterize the function of empty space to create, literally and figuratively, the stories of our lives.  Ma has a consciousness.  Ma is spiritual.  For Kaneko, space and scale only exists and can only develop in a state of comparison.  The comparison is a kind of Yin-Yang relationship where each informs and develops the other.  For example, there is no conception of up without a down; they work together.  “Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful.” 

We think with metaphysical space metaphorically to define and enrich our physical spaces and our spiritual lives.  “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known, but to illuminate what has been hidden.” says the poet Louise Glück.

Art critic Donald Kuspit wrote “Reconsidering the Spiritual in Art” examining the role of art in today’s market-driven world and the role Kandinsky played in establishing a Western version of spiritual art.  Kandinsky published his own account in “On Considering the Spiritual in Art” in 1912.  Kuspit’s essay on Kandinsky is the best introduction to the artist I’ve ever read.  Highly-recommended.  

WASSILLY KANDINSKY (1866-1944), Study for Composition No. 7, 1913, watercolor, 31x39”, public domain, courtesy of WikiMedia 


Kuspit considered Kandinsky more of a revolutionary than Picasso.  Kandinsky was a very learned man, highly respected throughout his lifetime.  He believed all of his adult life that art could be a spiritual inspiration.   

Kandinsky’s canonical art has an amorphousness quality seen as suggesting the immeasurable.  Remember my metaphor of the infinity of outer space as metaphysical?  As outer space is immeasurable, Kandinsky’s paintings were analogous to that immeasurability.  

Color, for Kandinsky, represented emotion.  He experienced color as unmeasurable and thereby analogous to the infinite.  Color is sensed solely through the eye, and not the body.  You know color by sight, not by touching it.  Color thereby represents space and seems boundless and intangible.  Kandinsky did not use color to describe objects.  Color was used in his paintings as spaceless, timeless non-objective forms.  In Kandinsky’s paintings, color represents nothing but itself, which infers human emotions and implies a relationship with the spiritual.  

Kandinsky regarded color as a sign of life and an indicator of mystical experience, of transcendence.  His paintings were intended to be mystical experiences.  

During Kandinsky’s lifetime, he philosophically questioned the value and role of art in a time of rampant materialism (or as we know it today, consumerism).  It was also a time of unprecedented accomplishments in science and technology.  In that world, Kandinsky questioned the value of art; what could art contribute when compared to science or the crass lust of materialism?  

Ultimately, Kandinsky hoped for the best and saw art as inspiring “the will to transcendence.”  Offering his paintings as the means for elevating one’s self.  Kandinsky regarded art’s potential over science and technology as a mediating one, standing between the outside materialistic world, and pointing to the spiritual plane.  The artist, in Kuspit’s words, had to be heroic as she or he pursued the spiritual impulse in a world going the other way.  

Kandinsky sketched the relationship between art and the human spirit:  “The harmony of color and form must be based on solely upon the principle of proper contact with the human soul.”   

The ultimate metaphysical space is the inner realms of existence within each of us.  Art, poetry, and music are some of the ways to access and celebrate that inner space.  

John Cage Values

Rusty Freeman - Friday, October 23, 2020

John Cage is not a household name, though his music influenced Frank Zappa, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, Stereolab, the Kronos Quartet and reached well into the visual arts. 

The occasion for my blog post is the traveling exhibition Rural Avant Garde: The Mountain Lake Experience now showing at Cedarhurst until January 4.  

If you are a fan of Sonic Youth, then we might ask, what does Sonic Youth value in the music philosophies of John Cage?  

A fabulous quote from Lee Renaldo, guitar player and co-founder of Sonic Youth, on his first impression of hearing John Cage. 

“I would liken it to the one I first had when I encountered mid-century avant-garde American film: at first you don’t know what to make of it, and then you realize it’s an entirely new language that you’re trying to understand. In a sense, you have to work your way into a language, or into a new art form; it’s like coming to an understanding of abstract painting. If you’re coming from the history of popular and classical music, you’re confronted with a group of people working with a completely new set of concerns and tools. It takes a while to find your way in from the outside, and to understand the motivations and reasons why this music is being made, and how they got to this point.”  

The following six musicians were asked in 2012 to respond to the question: “John Cage, What does he communicate?”  See their full remarks here at NPR’s article.  

Glenn Kotche, drummer, Wilco

“John Cage communicated the freedom to rethink, to ask questions, to reinvent and to trust.  He showed how to trust and learn from the world that we live in: how to trust chance and the subtle cues that surround us every day.” 

Robert Spano, symphony conductor 

“He called us to question our own perception before too quickly classifying a sound as beautiful or ugly, and to find beauty in the meeting of perceiver and perceived.”  

Colin Stetson, plays with Bon Iver, Arcade Fire

“That music (and all art for that matter) is at its core experiential. That it is the interaction with and manipulation of consciousness.” 

Chris Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti, founding members of Throbbing Gristle 

“It's that freedom, the breaking down, embracing and conflating of visual and audio structures, and the notion of democratizing presentation by also removing the barrier between audience and performer.” 

Ryan Seaton, founding member of Callers

“Through a lifetime of wrenching people away from their assumptions and into the present moments [that] exist within performances, John Cage consistently provided occasions for listeners to shed their preconceptions.” 

The Recording Academy, the Grammys, recognized Cage’s oeuvre with a special merit Trustee Award in 2016.  

John Cage and Sun Ra meeting for the first time in 1986 New York City.  Photo courtesy of The Vinyl Factory, London.   

The “spiritual leader of chance music” Cage is known for his “prepared piano,” (see the free apps iPhone, iPad, Android), the notorious composition 4’33” (iPhone); his early use of electronics in music, and his innovations in graphic music scores, and aleatory procedures. 

Cage’s most notorious (and well-respected) composition is known as 4’33” or Silence.  It is four minutes and thirty-three seconds in duration or “performance.”  I say performance because in it, the piano player sits at the piano and does not play for four minutes and 33 seconds.  The point?  To refocus our listening powers to what’s happening in the performance hall around us.  To listen closely, and perhaps appreciate, the ambient murmurs, rustles, clamors that form the “soundtracks” of our lives.  To regard noises in a new way.  To see in a new way.  

This refocus is not any different from when your mom told you to go outside and play.  To play outside is merely to investigate what’s out there and discover what’s interesting.  Close listening is “going outside.”

Cage’s refocus takes on a profound dimension in Zen Buddhism where close listening to the world, a kind of mindfulness, becomes revered practice.  4’33” is about mindful listening.  

Cage was interested in expression, but not self-expression. His approach follows a Zen Buddhist concept that acceptance, rather than control, makes it possible to open the self to the surrounding world. With Zen practice, Cage had come to believe that to truly experience the world, one needed to free the mind and self from control by the ego.  Chance and indeterminacy were his methodologies.   

However, use of “chance” for Cage does have its rules; he does not intend for it to mean anything goes.  Cage sees the potential to explore as a vast terrain, and in order to not keep returning to the same old points, Cage urges chance operations to determine new places to explore.  

Chance offered a way to rise above control by the ego and proceed into new and unexplored territory. For Cage, chance was a discipline, not a way of giving up choice. “My choices,” he often said, “consist in choosing what questions to ask.”   

Cage’s offbeat definition of music: it “should not be concerned primarily with entertainment… or the symbolic expression of the artist’s ideas,… but should rather perform the specifically useful function of helping men and women to attain a more intense awareness of their own life, not only in the concert hall but during every waking moment.” 

Cage’s philosophy of life and for making art stood for “an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”  

A John Cage tune, “Six (3rd take)” performed by Sonic Youth members Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo, Steve Shelly with musicians Jim O’Rourke, Takehisa Kosugi, William Winant from the Sonic Youth album Goodbye 20th Century, 1999.  Sample courtesy of Sonic Youth.  

The Mountain Lake Experience

Rusty Freeman - Friday, October 16, 2020

This blog introduces the exhibition Rural Avant Garde: The Mountain Lake Experience showing at Cedarhurst October 18 through January 3, 2021.   The exhibition was organized by the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts in Farmville, Virginia.  In 2018, the companion book was published as The Mountain Lake Symposium and Workshop: Art in Locale.  Edited by Ray Kass and Howard Risatti.  

The Mountain Lake Symposium and Workshop (MLSW) was begun in 1980 by Virginia Tech art professor Ray Kass and co-directed with art historian Howard Risatti of Virginia Commonwealth University. The conferences were held at a rural retreat center at Mountain Lake in the Appalachian region of western Virginia and has evolved into an ongoing art project.

Installation view of Rural Avant Garde, Finster left, Cage right. Photo: R. Freeman 

From the beginning, Kass’ goal for the MLSW was to bring together the leading art critics with the best collaborative visual artists and also invite the local communities to participate. Some of the participants included artists John Cage, Howard Finster, and Sally Mann with critics Donald Kuspit, Clement Greenberg, and Rosalind Krauss.  

Primal elements were used in art making at Mountain Lake. Photo courtesy of Longwood Center for the Visual Arts.  

The MLSW might be explained with one word, collaborative.  Kass nurtured collaboration in the symposium where literary critics talked with visual artists and this interdisciplinary approach continued in the workshops.  Kass’ background as a poet-painter led him to venerate the interdisciplinary benefits of merging the literary with the visual.  

Installation view of three Howard Finster collaborative paintings. Photo: R. Freeman.   

In important ways, MLSW questioned the role of art in society today asking the hard question: “Does Art stand for something beyond existing as a mere commodity?”  Howard Risatti answered, in the book’s epilogue, that the MLSW approach to the artist’s role was to work with and for local communities.  MLSW used cross-disciplinary approaches involving a variety of skills and talents, all collaborating to create art works representing the shared values of all participants.  Risatti summarized the MLSW programs as providing “a pathway to give the individual and collective imagination the potential to realize a meaningful and socially responsible relationship to the world... through the aesthetic experience.”  

Detail of Howard Finster, Empty Road, 1987, silkscreen. Photo: R. Freeman.

There is a parallelism to their approach and what we do here at Cedarhurst. Kass and Risatti believed that high principled art making could be a collaborative event and that the art making and discussions take place in the very community that makes the art.  So does Cedarhurst.  

John Cage was an inspiration to many disciplines of artists, here, painting at Mountain Lake.  Photo courtesy of Longwood Center for the Visual Arts.  

Communities produced art at Mountain Lake that were collaborative explorations of the meanings and functions of art. Experts from computer science, physics, biology, and the social sciences worked with visiting artists and the community to make new artworks and explore new research initiatives. Participants were encouraged to take risks and experiment with indeterminacy, a concept used by composer and artist John Cage.  “Indeterminacy” meant taking the risk to make art relying on chance and trusting in the many possible results instead of relying on pre-determined outcomes.

The Mountain Lake experience exemplifies Ray Kass and Howard Risatti’s risk-taking dream for cross-disciplinary projects melding art with science. 

R.E.M. & Talking Heads

Rusty Freeman - Friday, October 09, 2020

In the 1980s, Howard Finster may have been the most well-known evangelical preacher in America. If you’re not familiar with Howard Finster, you may be surprised to learn that he was considered the second most popular American artist after Andy Warhol.  

The most important thing to know about Finster’s art is that he considered every one of his paintings to be Christian sermons.  

Talking Heads, Little Creatures, 1985, album cover art by Howard Finster. Photo: R. Freeman

Hailing from working class rural Alabama, Finster rose to national prominence on the visual vitality of his painted sermons and his charismatic personality.  

Born in 1916, Finster worked odd jobs to support his family including a bicycle repair shop. But most prominently, he became a Baptist reverend and hosted a radio program in the early 1940s.  He would come to realize that his congregations did not remember his sermons, so he would repeat them in either song or poetry. In the 1960s, Finster began his famous Paradise Garden; a kind of private sanctuary filled with hand-made sculptures composed of repurposed home building supplies, old bicycles, and detritus all built as “memorials to God.” Then, in 1976, Finster said God spoke to him to start painting his sermons.  

Finster literally made thousands of paintings, typically with help. His colorful and joyful paintings teem with an overwhelming abundance, an endless cascading of written words and pictures of people, wildlife, farm animals, fantasy creatures, flying saucers, Jesus, angels, and celebrities and icons from pop culture, including Santa Claus, Elvis, Abraham Lincoln, and many, many more. All with hand-written sermons and life-affirming aphorisms.  

Howard Finster, Burn Your Candle into Another World, 1985, oil on wood, 49”x98”x5”, Collection of Taubman Museum of Art, Photo: R. Freeman 

In 1983, Finster’s art first appeared to a national audience on R.E.M.’s first music video Radio Free Europe. The video filmed the band members walking through Finster’s Paradise Garden and greeting him at the end. In 1981, Michael Stipe had met Finster while an art student in Georgia. Finster and Stipe collaborated on a painting for the 1984 album cover of R.E.M.’s Reckoning.  

R.E.M., Reckoning, 1984, album cover art by Howard Finster.  

Talking Heads followed suit and in 1985 commissioned Finster to make a painting for their album Little CreaturesRolling Stone awarded Finster with the Album Cover of the Year. His sermons had reached millions.  

The highly-regarded curator Marcia Tucker included Finster in her exhibit Paradise Lost / Paradise Regained: American Visions for the 1984 Venice Bienniale. Finster died in Georgia in 2001. 

Detail, Howard Finster, Burn Your Candle into Another World, 1985, Collection of Taubman Museum of Art, Photo: R. Freeman 

This October, Cedarhurst will host, Rural Avant Garde, a group exhibition featuring Finster. Every Finster work in the exhibit was made in collaboration with the Mountain Lake Symposium and Workshop participants. Finster’s workshops became the epitome of community artmaking and participation.  

The legacy of Finster is more than the sum of his incredible life and fantastic, artistic oeuvre. Finster opened the door for other self-taught artists to be recognized into the bigger art world. Feted as the “backwoods William Blake” Finster is still revered today as the authentic, passionate artist true to his faith.   

Teju Cole's Caravaggio

Rusty Freeman - Friday, October 02, 2020

Teju Cole is recognized for his interwoven skills of using just the right words to articulate his acute and nuanced observations of today’s visual world.  Cole teaches at Harvard University where he is the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing.  

I admire the recent NYT essay by Cole where he put words to the paintings of Caravaggio.  I unpack his long essay zeroing in on those words and sentences that bring a modern relevance to the 17th-century Baroque paintings.  

Apprehension of the visual world can only unfold through words, discourses, and ideologies.  Language remains an imperfect tool that cannot grasp all the dimensions of the human experience.  For example, Can I fully describe my love for my partner?  Words fail, pictures help, and writers like Cole show how the two can work together.  

An integral dynamic of his explications are Cole’s careful contextualizations of place, mood, and history.  Cole prepares us for his descriptions of the painted image through his illuminations of the worlds that surround the paintings, then and today.  

Cole began his essay by introducing Caravaggio historically, and then tell us he has been studying Caravaggio since he was a child.  Cole’s knowledge of Caravaggio is formidable, equal with any art historian.  Cole knows what he is looking for in the 17th-century era paintings but leaves himself open to discovery.  Cole I believe is after those contradictions that exist in highly developed works of art where ambiguity plays off of fixity of meaning.  Where forms oscillate and you are left astonished at the complexities existing in a static image.  Cole: “I longed for the turmoil I knew I would feel in front of Caravaggio’s paintings.”  My emphasis. 

Cole’s essay traced his 2016 summer journey to Italy to see Caravaggio art works.  Along the way, Cole meets friends, makes friends, interviews refugees fleeing poverty, all the while synchronizing his discoveries to current world events.  The paintings are the catalyst.  

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Flagellation of Christ, 1607, oil, 9 feet 5 inches by 7 feet; Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy; image courtesy of the New York Times 

Confronting “The Flagellation of Christ,” Cole described its aesthetic originality and posed an unanswerable question, “As so often with Caravaggio, there is the story that is depicted, but beyond it, and often overwhelming it, is an intensification of mood accomplished through his use of unnatural shadow, simplified background and a limited color palette.  It is an image of brutal injustice, an image that makes us ask why anyone should be tortured.”  

Cole demonstrated reading the reader objectively: “The very act of looking at an old painting can be so strange.  It is an activity that is often bound up with class identity or social aspiration.  It can sometimes feel like a diverting, or irritating, stroll among white people’s ancestors.  It can also be wonderful, giving the viewer a chance to be blessed by a stranger’s ingenuity or insight.  But rarely, something even better happens: A painting made by someone in a distant country hundreds of years ago, an artist’s careful attention and turbulent experience sedimented onto a stretched canvas, leaps out of the past to call you -to call you- to attention in the present, to drive you to confusion by drawing from you both a sense of alarm and a feeling of consolation, to bring you to an awareness of your own self in the act of experiencing something that is well beyond the grasp of language, something that you wouldn’t wish to live without.”  

Cole pinpointed the prime aesthetic issue: “[Caravaggio’s] key, as usual, is his trust in realism: Show what things look like, and the feeling will come.”  

This next quote brings for me the Cole essay to fruition with his understanding and melding of a 412-year-old painting with events in today’s world, events that unite humankind into a singular community across generations and diverse cultures.  

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 1608, oil, 11 feet 10 inches by 17 feet; St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta; image courtesy of the New York Times

“‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptist’ was difficult to absorb into my understanding of whatever it was I thought painting was.  More than a year would pass before I found a key that helped me process what I saw in Malta.  I saw two brief videos clips from Libya made in 2017.  The first clip is of men being sold at a slave market.  The second, the men being sold are migrants from Niger.…  In those clips, what I saw was life turned inside out, life turned into death, just as I had seen in Caravaggio’s painting.  Not simply what ought not to be, but what ought not to be seen.”  

Cole bends time to show Caravaggio’s relevance for today.  Cole, like Caravaggio, situates the Body as the nexus where all significations flow through; paintings and representations construct identity and the body reflects that knowledge.  As Cole put it: “on the surface of [Caravaggio’s] paintings [is revealed], knowledge of all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear, and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.”  

Painting exemplifies the freeze-frame construction of social discourse, a discourse which over time has the subtle power to influence our thinking.  Class, gender, and ethnicities are but three of the societal identities that can be influenced.  These influences become second nature, reflexively enacted.  These meanings circulate through society and into bodies.   

Through representation we construct models of conduct and identity we want to see performed in society.  The rub is that not everyone has the resources to construct representations.  Large segments of society succumb to its power, and worse, it is forced upon others. Cole showed how Caravaggio called into question these imbalances.  At the center of these swirling constructions of societal relations are our bodies.  Caravaggio makes that clear and Cole related the 17th-century to the 21st.  

Cole was after the clearer representation of human relations and though he never stated baldly that quest or its prize, I know he found it.  He’s not finished with the Baroque painter.  We’ll be hearing more about Cole’s Caravaggio.