Martyrs of Art: The Dangers of Creating a Masterpiece

Martyrs of Art: The Dangers of Creating a Masterpiece

Photo Credits: ALLYSON KO / AGGIE

Some critics ignore controversial art, others require blood

Throughout history, artists have suffered for their work — some by way of their own creatios, and others because of how that art is received by the public. There are some bemusing accounts of artists inadvertently perishing by their own hand, such as Michelangelo Merisi, also known as Caravaggio, who died from lead-based paint poisoning. Then there is the tragic, such as Delbert “Demz” Rodrigues, who was a 21-year-old graffiti artist that died in 2014 after being struck by Detective Michael Cadavid’s unmarked police cruiser during Art Basel weekend in Miami. This was the same weekend during which undercover units were assigned to bust taggers during the festivities. In 2015, when 12 Parisian artists at Charlie Hebdo Magazine published a caricature of the prophet Mohammed they were subsequently met with machine gun fire by an Islamist terrorist group that resulted in their untimely deaths — deaths that carved their names into history as martyrs of art.

These attacks, whether unintentional (according to Detective Cadavid) or intentional, are in some mysterious way a show of honor for the artist. Though violence is not a constructive show of appreciation for art, the artist themselves might welcome their fate if they were given a foresight into the universal call-to-action for progressive change that would follow their deaths.

Murder, of course, is not an adequate response to artistic expression, but all artists would agree that a masterpiece is not meant to invoke passivity, but quite the opposite. The fact that there still exists a culture in which paintings, film, philosophy, etc. are not a harmless commodity creates a threat to creative freedom of artists and puts damper on their imaginations. It poses the questions: is all art dangerous? Is all art controversial? The artist is then left to ask themselves: am I willing to die for my art?

Art is often characterized as obscene whenever it’s deemed controversial, but it’s difficult to think back to a time in history where art hasn’t been considered controversial. Always in the art world, there will be an institution that exists to constrict artists, but these institutions are a testament to the fragile, normative ideological values that aim to censor and not foster creativity. It’s difficult to imagine where our world would be without those daring geniuses that were hellbent on challenging the society they lived in and the rules of that society to which they were forced to adhere.

Socrates is one of the oldest examples of those put to death for their art. Sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth” and “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state.” Through his philosophical discourses, he broke the mold of structured intellectualism within his ancient Greek society. Not that the unwritten texts of Socrates and the caricatures of Charlie Hebdo are identical in quality, but they both challenged specific, widespread ideological values which resulted in the death of their architects.

The list of martyrs is not limited to philosophers and cartoonists. In 1952, a massacre known as “The Night of the Murdered Poets” resulted in several significant Soviet Jewish figures being executed in the Lubyanka Prison on charges of espionage, bourgeois nationalism, treason and a “lack of true Soviet spirit.” The group consisted of several Yiddish writers, all of whom were a part of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

Under the order of Joseph Stalin, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee leaders were arrested, tortured, beaten and isolated for three years before being formally charged with said crimes. In court, there were no prosecutors or defense attorneys, only three military judges. Some defendants admitted their guilt, others plead partially guilty and some maintained their innocence. The men received “the severest measure of punishment for the crimes committed by them jointly: execution by firing squad, with all their property to be confiscated.”

After the execution, there was no reference to the men in Soviet newspapers. The defendants’ families were charged with crimes of “being relatives of traitors to the motherland” and exiled in late 1952. They did not learn about the fates of their family members until November of 1955 when the case was reopened.

Then there are those who have died directly at the hand of the system. In the 1960s, Lenny Bruce, a revolutionary stand-up comedian who was leading the way in counter-culture comedy, often integrated rants about his court battles over obscenity charges and other tirades against fascism. Though by today’s standards, Bruce’s stand-up would be considered relatively tame, in the 1960s he found himself blacklisted from almost every club in the country.

The provocative material and frequent use of expletives that Bruce factored into his routines made him both a star and a blip on the authorities’ radar, which led to his repeated arrests. Bruce became bankrupt due to the compounding of his obscenity charges and his lack of employment. With his spirit and career destroyed by his battles with the U.S. justice system, he turned to drugs to cope with the downfall of his career.

“Without Lenny Bruce a lot of us wouldn’t be able to do what we do today,” said Brendon Burns, an Australian comedian, in an interview with the BBC. “He pioneered stand-up about things everyone does and everyone thinks, but it just wasn’t polite to talk about.”

In August of 1966, Bruce died because of a drug overdose in the bathroom of his Los Angeles home. His premature death and professional decline have since led to him to be defined as a martyr of free speech.

But sometimes it doesn’t require a painting or a poem for an artist to be murdered for their genius. In the early 1980s, Jewish radio talk show host Alan Berg was killed by automatic-weapon fire released by four members of The Order, a white nationalist group that was dedicated to the separation of the races and the annihilation of Jewish peoples. Berg made their hit-list not only because he was Jewish but because of his liberal views and his combative on-air persona, which often focused on challenging members of the Christian Identity movement who believed Jewish peoples were descended from Satan.

Anath White, one of the last producers to work with Berg, insists that even if Berg had known how dangerous the people and supporters were of the Christian Identity movement, he would not have canceled or changed his tack for those shows. “He was a person who took risks for his beliefs,” she said in an interview with the Denver Post.

If a posthumous Berg were to look back at the cause of his death, what would he say? An eternal mystery, admittedly, but would he choose to take back his interview and the questions he asked that challenged the dispositions of a hateful organization? Would he choose to die again, as a symbol for all those who wish to diverge from the norm with their art?

According to Plato, Socrates felt the same lack of regret. When the hemlock finally passed his lips and began to numb Socrates’s body, his final words were, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

Written By: Clay Allen Rogers — arts@theaggie.org

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