Leo J. O'Donovan
For a while, boundaries in art have been fading. Life and art, the world and the way we imagine it interpenetrate one another.
Nowhere in New York these days is there punchier, closer-to-earth religious art than at El Museo del Barrio on upper Fifth Avenue. The exhibition there, “Testimonios: 100 Years of Popular Expression,” has lots more than religious material. Its point is to show how largely self-taught or folk artists have imagined their world, and its more than 300 pieces trace the interplay of family life, cultural heritage, community relations, dislocation, oppression and liberation.
About “early holiday decorations and shopping,” it seems, little more can helpfully be said. But what can be said about the “Christmas story” will always be inexhaustible. Even, for example, about demigods and demagogues before whom, unaccountably, human beings have so long been inclined to bow their knees.
In the ancient Near East, kings represented the gods -- and were reverenced accordingly. Israel’s monotheism provided a sharp critique not only of polytheism but of all ruler-worship. But after Julius Caesar, deification of the Roman emperor became common (probably of course taken most seriously among the less educated classes). Augustus was certainly regarded as a god, and on the denarius that Peter found in the fish and showed to Jesus there would have been the inscription “Son of the Divine Augustus.” In the Greek-speaking but multiethnic East, ruler worship was even more common.
Nor was the practice simply ancient. Think of the way Nazi crowds idolized Hitler (and how neo-Nazi terrorists are active today).
When 22- year-old Willem de Kooning arrived in New York Harbor in 1926 as a stowaway on the SS Shelley, he came with academic training in commercial and fine art from his native Netherlands as well as a ferocious hunger to discover America. What he could not have known at the time was that he was to show America how to see itself as it never had before.