By assembling six masterpieces painted by Tiziano Vecellio (c. 1488-1576) — known to modern audiences as Titian — over a period of years during the mid-16th century, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has pulled off one the great coups of American art in recent years.
The six great canvases based on Ovid’s epic poem “Metamorphoses” were painted for King Philip II of Spain (better known for his launching of the Spanish Armada at England roughly 25 years after the paintings were finished) and originally displayed in the Alcazar in Madrid. But the sextet has since been separated. The Gardner, which purchased “The Rape of Europa” — the last of the six to be painted — 125 years ago, has brought them together for the first time ever to be seen in the United States.
The works are among the best examples of what art historians call poesie — painted poetry — in which classic literary texts are reinterpreted through complex visual depictions of myths and ideas brimming with luscious human forms and gorgeous landscapes filled with colors and texture. They are among the great works of Western civilization, and Bostonians and those visiting the city are lucky to have the opportunity to view them in all of their glory much as the Spanish court did when the Venetian-born Titian produced them for what was then the world’s most powerful man.
Trigger Warnings on Great Works of Art
But in 2021 America one can’t simply appreciate art, even a sumptuous feast such as the one the Gardner has assembled, without providing equal time to the very forces in our culture most interested in critiquing Western civilization through the prism of 21st-century leftism. So it is hardly surprising that the Titian show is not only being presented by the museum with apologies and companion exhibits meant to deprecate the paintings but also has prompted responses from important critics asking, “Can we ever look at Titian’s paintings the same way again?”
The problem with the Titians is that the scenes they depict from Ovid’s poem involve behavior that would not be considered acceptable in polite 21st-century society. Most outrageously, “The Rape of Europa” represents the story of how Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, disguised himself as a white bull and lured a beautiful woman away to have his immoral will with her. “Danae,” which shows Zeus entering the locked chamber of another beautiful and scantily clad woman in yet another creative disguise (a shower of gold dust), is equally problematic. The other paintings are worrisome for the same reasons.
That is why the Gardner felt it had to answer whether it is possible to depict sexual violence or harassment — even if the objects in question are 16th-century paintings of ancient myths — in order to hold the show. The agonized response on its website tries to have it both ways. They want us to celebrate the paintings but also engage in pearl-clutching about the Renaissance patriarchy and the admission that today’s version of oppressive maleness is no improvement.
Depicting Evil Doesn’t Mean Endorsing It
It’s true that Europa is a victim of a powerful male predator who is just as gross as Harvey Weinstein. But the realization that Zeus is a bad guy is not an original observation to the 21st century. His behavior would have been no more socially acceptable in Augustus’s Rome when Ovid’s poem was first published or Phillip’s Spain as today’s Boston, even if toleration of rape and misogny was far more prevalent in the past.
Outside of religious works, great poetry and art have never been solely a catalog of human virtues. That was something that, for all of their problematic attitudes, the denizens of Phillip’s court probably understood.
But today’s arts audiences are not as sophisticated as those 16th-century Spanish grandees. Rather than see Titian’s poesie for what it is — beautiful depictions of fantastic stories involving the full panoply of human desires and faults — without taking them as instructions as to how to live, contemporary Americans apparently require reminders that what they are viewing is not to be tried at home.
Thus, the Gardner provided space for responses to Titian in the form of an exhibition about “body language” and a film in which Europa is transformed into a limerick-spouting feminist who has no inhibitions about showing us her bodily functions. These contributions along with trigger warnings — which include the requisite “resources for survivors and supporters” — are an effort to both salve the consciences of the Gardner’s curators and ward off cancelations from critics who take pride in eliminating Homer’s epic poems and other classic works from school curricula for similar faults as those found in the Titians.
The Cancel Mobs Come for Art
In this case, the hand-wringing wasn’t limited to the museum. The chief art critic of The New York Times weighed in with his own lengthy attempt to justify the fact that he still thinks the Titians are “great” art even if he knows that he should feel bad about it.
Holland Cotter’s essay on the Gardner exhibit is a classic in its own way because it shows that even the most prestigious writers must now crawl to avoid being purged by the paper’s youthful staff censors. Cotter wants to gush in sheer joy over the Titians but knows he mustn’t, so he demands that we all look at the paintings differently in the Me Too era.
To mock his circumlocutions and that of the curators is not to condone sexual violence or even the dilemmas that art lovers are now confronted with by woke mobs. Woke mobs are vigilant in many fields, not least in journalism. Cotter doubtless knows that what happened to his paper’s op-ed editor — when he committed the unpardonable offense of publishing a piece by Sen. Tom Cotton about the need to stop violent Black Lives Matter riots — can just as easily happen to him.
But the arts world is particularly intolerant. Last year, a respected art historian and curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art was subjected to a Cultural Revolution-style struggle session and humiliation for making an oblique (although entirely apt) comparison between the mobs of thugs pulling down statues in American public squares and those of the French Revolution. Indeed, this new groupthink is so intolerant that both Times culture reporter Robin Pogrebin and her editors thought it unnecessary to include even a single voice of dissent about this spectacle in her account about what had happened.
If we need the kind of context the Gardner thinks is necessary for great art to make it palatable to modern audiences, one shudders at whether they think the same should apply to any number of classics of literature, history, or even religion, such as the Bible. But we already know that the same people are eager to tear down the foundations of Western civilization in a vain effort to purge it of what they think are bad thoughts and behavior.
The Gardner and the Times want to stop just short of canceling Titian and his wayward subject Zeus. But an intellectual environment where art is measured solely by its conformity to an intolerant ideology is not so far removed from their tyrannical mindset as writers at the Times would like to think.
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