Fernando Botero is perhaps Latin America's most renowned painter, and his trademark bourgeois fatties are a badge of honor among any ambitious collector of high art. So when officials at UC Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies opened a showing of his latest work, a series of graphic paintings and sketchings of the torture at Abu Ghraib, the allure was irresistible. Stories abounded in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland Tribune, and the San Jose Mercury News, and an AP wire piece raced around the country. The back story was particularly delicious: One of the most marketable contemporary artists was begging to show dozens of new works about one of the most profound and troubling world events in the last few years, and no museum in the United States would touch them. After a gallery showing in New York, it took UC Berkeley to break the blacklist and bring the dark side of American foreign policy to light.
But perhaps there's a simpler explanation why no American museum showcased the Abu Ghraib series: It isn't any good. In a recent cover story, New Republic art critic Jed Perl wrote that Botero's pieces "had as much sense of form and structure as mushy brown gravy poured over marzipan." He continued: "Botero appeals to an old-style philistinism, to the idea that works of art should have meanings so obvious that they grab you by the lapels. Perhaps any stand in art now seems better than no stand at all, and never mind the art."
For years, Botero's work has suffered the double edge of excessive popularity. His paintings can fetch more than $500,000 apiece, but many critics take one look at his cherubic, kitschy figures and see nothing but a shallow gimmick. Rosalind Krauss famously dubbed his corpus "pathetic." Even his Abu Ghraib series has taken withering fire from some quarters: Time magazine reported that New York University's Robert Storr called it "a willed attempt by a comedian to do tragedy," and Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott asked, "Is Botero just playing Abu Ghraib dress-up with his Botero people?"
None of that stopped more than 800 people from showing up for the unveiling at UC Berkeley's Doe Library. Three days later, at a roundtable discussion of the work, Harley Shaiken, the chair of the Center for Latin American Studies, opened the talk with an excerpt from a blog by Oakland artist Chris Ashley. "It is important because the subject matter is crucial to America's current image and reputation, and Botero has made a permanent record in this unlike that made in any other medium," Ashley wrote. "It is important for the way in which it was organized outside of the museum and gallery channels and for where it is shown in the library of the university known for being the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement."
Perl believes that these circumstances are behind Botero's newfound appeal, and explain why so many people who would otherwise dismiss the artist as a purveyor of high camp will genuflect at a set of mediocre pieces. "I've always found Botero's work kind of banal," Perl said in an interview. "A lot of people go because they're upset, because they feel horrified at what's going on in Iraq, as well they should. ... But then the question is, are they looking at the work as a work? Are they having an experience of the art, or are they massaging their own feelings?"
In fact, the problem with Botero's Abu Ghraib series isn't just that it's overrated because it addresses a profound subject. It actually inhibits true moral reflection by conveying the sense among its audience that by coming to view the paintings, they are on the side of the angels. It feeds into Berkeley's most nagging character flaw: its overappreciation of its own virtue. Botero's present work is unremarkable. His clichéd Christ figures impose a Latin Catholic context where none exists, the rivulets of blood are cartoonish, and he just can't stay away from his peculiar style, which breezily satirizes his more ordinary subjects, but here does nothing but distance us from the nameless whose cause he is taking up.
But then, few of the viewers came to observe the paintings as art. Take a look at the exhibit's guestbook, where viewers write down their thoughts on the pieces. Almost none of the writers commented on the artwork itself; instead, they almost exclusively focused on their political views.
"This is so sickening," one wrote. "Of course, it happens in the US every day, especially regarding African Americans and immigrants of color."
"Thank you Botero, thank you UC, for an artist who has a duty to bear witness," wrote Jette Chalsel.
And John Paige wrote, "The man whose twisted language gives the Bush administration legal sanction to continue torturing at Abu Ghraib is at this moment teaching constitutional law at UC's Boalt Hall School of Law, about 1,000 yards from where we stand. His name is John Yoo. What are we going to do about it?"
This isn't the only time an overrated artist has achieved renown for tackling a dicey political subject; according to Perl, Anselm Kiefer, a retrospective of whom was recently displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, hit the big time because he was one of the first Germans to address the totalitarian impulse on canvas, however clumsily. Francine Masiello, a Berkeley professor of comparative literature who sat on the Botero panel discussion, said the politics and backstory of the Botero exhibit have distracted viewers from truly absorbing what the artist is trying to say, or assessing whether he's succeeded. "There's a lot of vectors of meaning that cross the exhibit we saw," she says. "The marketability, the stature of the artist, the question of the war. And all that seems to take over the question of composition and quality."
When tallying the artists whose depictions of suffering reach through the centuries, the same three names come up over and over: Grunewald, Goya, Picasso. Each of these artists bound the infliction of pain in the specific contexts of their era, and found a way to enshrine their zeitgeists for posterity. One could argue that by ignoring the soldiers, Botero has refocused our attention on the dignity of their victims. But at last week's panel discussion, Berkeley art professor T.J. Clark claimed that this was exactly how Botero failed to capture the essence of Abu Ghraib and humanity's latest dalliance with cruelty: the ubiquity of the cell phone camera, and the cavalier way soldiers recorded their own unspeakable acts.
"It's going to take a dangerous and probably nauseating act of the imagination to enter into this particular mutation of the banality of evil," Clark said. "The frat-house hijinks, the big pileup at the end of the porn flick. ... I want to see the torturers, in other words. Male and female. And with faces turned as usual to the camera, mugging. I'm interested in the torturer with the Toshiba, not the fantasy degenerate."
Viewers of the Botero exhibit aren't really experiencing a profound artistic moment. They're seeing past the paintings and looking at the photographs they remember with such horror. Anyone imagining that showcasing this work is an act of courage will eventually have to ask themselves if all those cowardly museum curators had it right after all.
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