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“Everyone is a moon and has a dark side, which he never shows to anybody,” claimed writer Mark Twain about 150 years ago.
But his hidden world was clearly not comprised of evil tidings, gruesome tales or taboo subjects – he wrote about those freely with absolutely no regard to public opinion.
I suspect Twain was referring to vicious behavior, to the deadly sins and general “vice” that all Victorian children were taught to despise. Secular, church bashing and caustically flippant, Twain had a deep reservoir of something he sensed as deserving of shame, which he kept sealed safely in the darkness.
Yet artists in the 21st century are made to understand all morality is like a pair of lead shoes in a footrace towards authenticity and significance. Boundaries must always be “transgressed” in an endless mantra of modern art, but rarely does anyone ask, “Why?”
Because of indiscriminate use of art as a kind of shock therapy for personal attention, the public is now pretty well dulled to any type of imagery. They’ve lost a lot of their raw power from the time when a thing was either acceptable or not. I’m not suggesting a return to former constraints and taboos, because I think this is a deep social issue that restrictions won’t change a bit. Censorship in art could be compared to the Prohibition, which ultimately only made alcohol more of a hoot.
All these musings began with my intended subject, the genre “Dark Art” (as distinguished from the “dark arts”). Dark Art is definable somewhat by subject, which could be vaguely morbid, ominous, depressed or reach to the edges of violence and extremely dark fantasy. Style scrambles all over the map from classical painting, surrealism, faux Victorian etchings, cartoon graphics and video. Almost indistinguishable from “Goth” art, it overlaps with surrealistic and apocalyptic ideas.
Even the terrifying themes of Dark Art don’t necessarily assign it “anti-Christian,” vampires and mutilated babies aside.
Possibly the most renown “dark” artist is Hieronymus Bosch, who has only gained stature in the 500 years since he painted in the Netherlands. Swooningly eerie, his fantastic paintings remained solidly planted in Christian worldview and were installed and commissioned by churches. Even now his famed triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights” has power to agitate viewers centuries later.
Panels representing Eden and delights of this earth are disturbing and “wondrous strange,” perhaps, because almost nothing seems natural. Egg-like forms and horned arabesques replace flora, and mutant beings are harbingers of the modern obsession with aliens.
Although rare in orthodox Christian circles, modern versions of dark or “Goth” art tears at least half their subjects straight from the pages of the Bible. Heaven, hell and death are the big triumvirate, and crucifixes seem ever popular – some mocking and others neutral or even respectful. Angels of varying degrees of decease and darkness are abundant, although they may be especially sexualized, terrifying or splattered with blood like celestial gangsters after a shoot-out.
And what is it with the gouged eyes? Vast portions of the superhuman population in this genre come dragging in blind and bandaged, which could be a metaphor for the horrors they behold in this world. I suspect most of the (relatively young) creators of “dark” art just think it’s intriguing but there are exceptions.
“Vile,” a contributor to Nancy Kilpatrick’s “Goth Bible,” explained why Dark Art appealed and spoke to him: “Goth is having learned very tough things at a young age and being able to see past lies and falsehoods … we live in sorrow, no, depression.”
Secular Dark Art plumbs every depth of fear, violence and morbidity known to man and still comes up with new ones. Like almost everything now, a certain proportion of Dark artists seem to gravitate toward pornography with regularity. Nasty nuns and creepy cathedrals are common as well as many lesbian-themed pieces.
Doing research for this column I probably came face to face with very hard-core pornography for the first time in my life. Although designated as art, some images seem to revel in gore and left me nauseous. Lots of blood, violence and sex in a combination boudoir/abattoir, is as dark as it gets. I assume they’re hoping to hear from a Hustler editor any day.
As the genre gains in popularity, a few more serious artists stand out. Swiss artist H.R. Giger studied architecture and industrial design and is remarkably successful. His machine-like hellish creatures, often sculpted in metal, inspired the 1980 film “Alien,” which won him an Oscar for the “Best Achievement in Visual Effects.”
David Stoupakis, a younger realist/gothic artist works in paintings such as “Repercussions,” featuring a resigned-looking child in a red uniform besieged by thousands of white rats. The title implies a metaphorical image of the possibilities and the contrasts between his lovely painting and horrific subject make it more powerful.
Stoupkakis says his themes include death, decay, God, rebirth and the “juxtaposition of the impossible with the unreal.”
Dark themes have a traditional and important place in classical and even Christian art, sans the excess violence, gore and sex. Much of the Bible deals with ominous and foreboding subjects: chiefly death, judgment, the apocalypse and eternal torments. Beyond that I can imagine Christian artists expressing thoughts on abortion or religious genocide, which concern the church. What could be more suitable?
Why has Dark and Gothic art mushroomed into such an incredibly popular form in the last few decades, influencing fashion, music, literature, film, music and graphic design? I won’t try to answer that, but only observe that its tamer versions are popping up in cartoons and appeal to teens madly. Unfortunately, the entire death and despair theme seems to fit a worldview of many younger people
Decidedly dark Victorian artist Aubrey Beardsley found a way to escape a life of cynicism and despair. The poster child and illustrator of 19th century decadence, he converted to Christianity (Catholicism) shortly before he died at 25. Knowing he was very ill, Beardsley begged his publisher to destroy all copies of his erotically illustrated “Lysistrata” and “by all that is holy, all obscene drawings.” The publisher never honored his request and even sold knock-offs, but Beardsley was said to have died at peace with himself and his God.
“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:5)
By the way, the Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation is sponsoring a competition to create a game based on the art of Hieronymus Bosch. Sounds interesting. Accepting entries on ideas (pitches) until December 2012 – information found here.