Protestantism and Exoticism


Walking into St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice is entering another world. It is dark inside compared with the dazzling Venetian light outdoors, which seems to emanate from all directions. What is also disorienting is the undulating floor. Centuries of settling have made it like the surface of the sea, but the waves are frozen and mosaic tiled. Above, it is another sea, this time of gold. Opulent and heady, everything seems to be encrusted with gold, with spectacular mosaics lining the multitudes of domes that make up the ceiling.

I wanted to share an idea that popped into my head after visiting Saint Mark’s in Venice. Plainly put, what if the Protestant Reformation was not what it claimed to be about—a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church’s corruption and intention to act as a gatekeeper between man and God—but a rejection of exoticism and “orientalism” as represented by Saint Mark’s Basilica? Christianity, after all, is a Middle Eastern religion, and I cannot help but wonder if the Reformation, centered as it was in Germanic (including Anglo-Saxon) northwestern Europe, was a reassertion of a Germanic sensibility. I am reminded of certain undercurrents in Norse mythology, which (itself derived from Teutonic myths), namely a suspicion of the feminine and of mysticism. I suspect that these cultural undercurrents were merely dormant as Christianity spread throughout Europe, and reasserted themselves in Northwestern Europe.
I am trying to make this a brief blog post, just to get this idea out into the world. The subject is so complicated, and I am aware that I will be stepping on a lot of toes, offending some. Yet, an idea is an idea, and I wanted to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind, especially since I was inspired by my visit to baroque Venice. This baroque opulence was the visual manifestation of the Counter-Reformation. If the Protestants in the north where going to be iconoclasts, the Roman Catholics intended to further embrace visual imagery as part of the religious experience. I should mention that St. Mark’s dates from the byzantine era with later additions, some of which date from the baroque period, if I have my facts correct. Most significantly, it represents a lavishness that was antithetical to Protestantism.

Please feel free to post comments. I’m grateful for comments and encouragement regarding my nascent theory that I received from my fellow students at IDSVA, Lorena Morales and Shadieh Mirmobiny, our professor, Simonetta Moro, and last but not least, the inimitable Brittany Olsen.

“There is no here here.” Venice Biennale 2013

The following is a blog post I wrote as the final assignment for the first-year summer residency for IDSVA in Italy. It’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but also to point out the odd relationship we have with a work of art. Personally, I make no distinction between “low” and “high” art. For instance, ceramic ware can be beautiful as well as functional. Painting, on the other hand, aspires to be fine art, but there are plenty of examples of really awful paintings. Sincerity is a bad word these days. We don’t use it to refer to art any more because it sounds sentimental and old-fashioned. Instead, we have catch-words like “intentionality.” Obviously, the words don’t mean the same thing. Intentionality means, typically, that the artist is saying that what they are doing is “art.” If it’s a pile of trash, and they call it art, it’s art. Sincerity, though, to me means that the artist is striving not just for audacity (or perhaps not striving for it at all), but to create something meaningful, using their skill and intellect as well as they can. My post is an answer, to some extent, to the question “Is it art?” I am trying to be funny, but the following really did occur, and I was trying to accurately document my impressions and feelings.

Installation view of “Cripplewood”

At the Belgian pavilion after walking around the amazing “Cripplewood” tree installation, I walk through a doorway into an adjacent room and expect some kind of artistic experience, an encounter. But there is apparently nothing there in the murk. I have a feeling of dismay; I am disappointed. Then I am disappointed by my own disappointment. I have stepped into the abyss, taken the plunge, ready for adventure, with my biennale maps and catalogs in hand, like so many travel brochures for far away places, but there is no destination in this room. I have merely stepped into an empty room. My anticipation that something interesting might be there turns into self-consciousness as I meet the bored gaze of the guard, whose eyes seem to say, “there is no here here.” This peripheral room is purgatory.