PRINT October 1990


As everyone must know by now, the contemporary arts in America are under a campaign of intimidation by opportunistic politicians and spiteful bureaucrats. Issues of content aside, there is more to public backlash against the arts than a periodic overflow of the traditional anti-intellectual current in American life. People know that the promises of American ideology—daily reiterated in the idiom of merchandising—have been betrayed and that there’s nothing they can do about it. They know that the fundamental promise of freedom has been betrayed when freedom boils clown to “disposable” income, to the money to “buy time.”

Grants to artists, on whatever basis they are awarded, look like—and are—dispensations of privilege insofar as they help to buy time for the very people whose lives are conventionally understood as symbolic of a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of doing the work they do. Small wonder that there are people not identified with “culture,” cheated of freedoms by the structure of their own working lives, who resent the demand of artists for the right to apply for unconditional government grant support. Political opportunists have a nose for that kind of resentment and know how to cash in on it.

The pressures of tacit or overt censorship now impinging on the visual arts are symbolic culminations of the growing difficulty of being an artist (not privileged by the market) during the Reagan-Bush era. With the cost of basic needs like housing and health care at the mercy of entrepreneurs and speculators, living decently on the margins of society has become increasingly arduous. The respites from anxiety that promote creative experimentation—in the arts or in ways of living—also come at ever higher prices. Criminalizing benign consciousness-altering practices along with destructive ones, the “war on drugs” has become a war on the very desire to awaken from the coma of good (unquestioning, self-repressed) citizenship. The specter of AlDS casts a chilling shadow over the intimate dimensions of sociability, deepening the endemic condition of personal isolation in mass society in an unprecedented manner.

In short, we appear to have entered a time when desire itself is being increasingly punished or is under suspicion or attack, except when it meshes—like the rapacity of young MBAs—with approved agendas of profit and power. Hence the accompanying portfolio of images of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony.”

Hence? Yes: in a time of asceticism, whether imposed or chosen, the iconography of Saint Anthony offers figures of hope in a completely irreligious sense. For the argument of these images of fear, lust, doubt, morbidity, and neurasthenic (as opposed to divinely inspired) ecstasy is that the imagination cannot be starved out: the denial of desire induces visions.

The point, of course, is not that there is a silver lining to repression, but that, at the level of individual consciousness,it doesn’t work for long. (Obviously, state terrorism can be very effective, but as recent events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union attest, social repression, too, tends to create the conditions of its own dissolution.) Nor should we look for moral direction in the lush torments inflicted on Anthony by artists of centuries past and present, for many of these are tainted by misogyny and moralizing opprobrium. What is heartening is the dialectic of excess consequent upon the denial of desire. As Freud saw it, fantasies that manifest instinct occur “in a more unchecked and luxuriant fashion if [desire] is withdrawn by repression from conscious influence. It ramifies like a fungus, so to speak, in the dark and takes on extreme forms of expression.”1

Anthony, an Egyptian saint who lived around the turn of the fourth century A.D., is regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism. After giving away his worldly resources, the well-born young man retreated to an abandoned desert fortress and lived in total solitude for 20years on a regimen of salt, bread, water, and spiritual discipline. Athanasius, Anthony’s contemporary biographer, avers that the devil took a special interest in the saint, presenting him continually with visions of horror or pleasure to tempt him to slacken his devotions. In every case, Anthony resisted and dispelled the phantoms. (Every major religion has parallel heroes of exorcistic self-defense.)

For centuries, European artists have delighted in representing the temptation of Saint Anthony because the subject licenses flights of invention and technical prowess as few themes (other than visions of Hell) do. (Curiously, Saint Anthony has been cropping tip in contemporary art, too: in a 1987–90 series by Tim Rollins + K.O.S., done on pages of Flaubert’s novel La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, and in several 1983–84 works by Jasper Johns that abstract a demon figure from the Temptation of Saint Anthony panel from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.) The range of invention occasioned by Saint Anthony’s ordeal is itself a celebration of the mind’s fecundity. In 1634, for example, Jacques Callot produced an etching of a landscape so teeming with demons that the saint himself is difficult to locate within it. In contrast, Paolo Veronese’s 1552 painting on the same theme is so visceral, it is physically uncomfortable to contemplate. His shallow, shadowy picture space is crammed with the prostrate saint, who receives a beating from a muscular satyr as a wench with long clawlike fingernails lolls just above him. In its simplicity and power, it makes a completely different sort of argument from Callot’s Tentation de Saint-Antoine (or Bosch’s or Grünewald’s or Dail’s) for the captivating force of inner (arid externalized) visions—be they rejected or embraced.

Aldous Huxley cast a secular, post-Freudian eye on the matter: “A thousand pictures of the Temptations of St. Anthony bear witness to the effectiveness of restricted diet and restricted environment,” he writes. “Asceticism, it is evident, has a double motivation. If men and women torment their bodies, it is not only because they hope in this way to atone for past sins and avoid future punishments; it is also because they long to visit the mind’s antipodes and do some visionary sightseeing.”2

From our perspective, the iconography of Saint Anthony’s temptation bears witness to the mind’s unstoppable need and power to make representations to itself, no matter how isolated or how worldly it may be. There is even a note of secular optimism in the composure Anthony exhibits in so many premodern representations of his temptation: he is not unbalanced by the prolixity of his own mind or of reality or evil, whatever may be the source of the spectacle presenting itself to him. The artist, too, who would thrive under conditions of asceticism (chosen or not) must be balanced enough to use what the denial of desire releases, to objectify it in a manner that might transmit and enlarge its potentially subversive effects.

Kenneth Baker is a contributing editor of Artforum and the art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle.

1. Sigmund Freud, quoted in Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Philosophy, Art, and Criticism, Chicago: at the University Press, 1988, p. 52.

2. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception Heaven and Hell, 1954, new ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990, p. 88.