This isn't a kind of apotropaic response on my part to figurative art in general - I'm a great fan of Wood, of RB Kitaj, Eva Hesse, and Balthus. Perhaps it's just that Botero's figures, vast, puffy, cherubic, and even when butt-naked absolutely sexless, seem to have been sieved of all human interest, leaving nothing but a kind of piggish contentment. These aren't George Grosz's fatties, who seem to be the human equivalents of rather savage wild boars, but a endless stream of humanized gelded cats.
So I was rather surprised when a family member alerted me that her old philosophy prof Arthur Danto was reviewing Botero in a recent issue of The Nation – and that the works he was reviewing were a series of paintings about the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib – frankly the last thing I would imagine Botero painting. It's like imagining Thomas Kinkade painting Guernica, or Norman Rockwell illustrating the Bataan Death March.
But it's true: Botero has done a very long series of canvases & drawings based on the reports of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, tho not based, he insists, on the widely circulated photographs of that abuse. Danto makes a nice point about that distinction:
We knew that Abu Ghraib's prisoners were suffering, but we did not feel that suffering as ours. When the photographs were released, the moral indignation of the West was focused on the grinning soldiers, for whom this appalling spectacle was a form of entertainment. But the photographs did not bring us closer to the agonies of the victims.In contrast – according to Danto – Botero's paintings
are masterpieces of what I have called disturbatory art--art whose point and purpose is to make vivid and objective our most frightening subjective thoughts.... Botero's images, by contrast, establish a visceral sense of identification with the victims, whose suffering we are compelled to internalize and make vicariously our own. As Botero once remarked: "A painter can do things a photographer can't do, because a painter can make the invisible visible." What is invisible is the felt anguish of humiliation, and of pain. Photographs can only show what is visible; what Susan Sontag memorably called the "pain of others" lies outside their reach. But it can be conveyed in painting, as Botero's Abu Ghraib series reminds us, for the limits of photography are not the limits of art. The mystery of painting, almost forgotten since the Counter-Reformation, lies in its power to generate a kind of illusion that has less to do with pictorial perception than it does with feeling.Leaving aside for a moment whether or not Botero's paintings "establish a visceral sense of identification with the victims, whose suffering we are compelled to internalize and make vicariously our own," I am appalled by Danto's initial assumption that when the Abu Ghraib photos were first disseminated "the moral indignation of the West was focused on the grinning soldiers, for whom this appalling spectacle was a form of entertainment" to the exclusion of any sympathy with "the agonies of the victims." What West does he refer to? Donald Rumsfeld's? Time magazine's?
My own outraged reaction to the photographs stemmed from a combination of disgust at the touristic, sadistic poses & expressions of the American soldiers posing for the photographs and precisely an immediate sympathy for the men being abused – a sympathy that I can't imagine any viewer outside of the present American administration wouldn't feel: yes, Professor Danto, we shrank from that snarling dog, we felt the degradation of being piled into a naked pyramid, of being forced to grovel at the end of a leash.
It's the very verisimilitude of the photographs, in my own experience, that elicited immediate sympathy, the fact that the naked and degraded men in them had individual bodies and faces – they looked like my friends, my students, the guys I used to see in the communal showers in my dorm. And that's why the Botero paintings, while they have a certain weird postmodern fascination, ultimately fail to move me. It's strange indeed, and somewhat disturbing, to see Botero-figures put through Abu Ghraib tortures – but it's a weirdness that's akin to seeing Smurfs crucified, or seeing Mickey Mouse shooting up & having sex. These are not human beings being tortured: they're Boteros being put thru unfamiliar paces. Botero's very success at making his friendly chubbies into a world-recognized brand-emblem, it would seem, has deprived him of the ability to do anything more than continue to sell the brand.
Perhaps it's the very middle-brow allure of the standard Botero that makes these horror-Boteros so strangely unmoving to me. In contrast, I find the iPod/iRaq graphic – which was surreptitiously inserted into a number of Apple street advertisements in New York two years ago – to be far more emotionally compelling, & to pack a far more intellectually incisive punch.