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Enduring CreationReview - Enduring Creation
Art, Pain, and Fortitude
by Nigel Spivey
University of California Press, 2001
Review by Gretchen Williams Jurek
Aug 8th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 32)

This book does not belong on your coffee table – that is, unless you would like to have people stop and catch a look at it, or wonder what you are up to now.  The portrayal on the dust jacket, of a satanic figure being slaughtered, is enough to stop almost anyone.

To begin with, it is essential to understand that this book is in a class by itself.  This subject is not widely known or studied, and I seriously doubt that even the most avid art historian would go through this heavy tome word-by-word. 

Nigel Spivey is very knowledgeable, and leaves no pebble unturned in his research; that is obvious.  But that very characteristic does prove to be somewhat distracting, as the reader is going along trying to grasp the subject at hand and then has a number of side issues brought up.  The man knows too much!  These characteristics would be quite suitable for a man in his position, however, as lecturer in Classics and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

The prelude lays it out: this is a book about art, about the aesthetic of feeling for others.  So, he continues, it is also a book about horror, fear, death, ghastliness and grievous bodily harm; it is, predominantly, a book about pain.

Then, somewhat paradoxically, Spivey writes that it is Art that soothes us in our lives.

Understandably, the opening chapter goes into Spivey's trip to Auschwitz – very vivid and very visual.  Then on to the feelings of guilt and disgust that might engulf anyone after seeing and feeling the horrors of Auschwitz - that we can claim to see or feel anything beautiful, anything of culture after those unspeakable acts of humans upon other humans.

It was humans who made the Holocaust, some of whom even enjoyed the lovely Alpine wildflowers in spring and Schubert songs.  Humans.  They claimed to be ridding their nation of rubbish - “disposable rubbish,” such as Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and Marxist agitators.  Book burnings started in 1933, “degenerate art” and the artists who were persecuted for producing it.  Surely nothing before had been so inhumane.

Then we get into the history and social attitudes surrounding crucifixion as punishment and death around the time of Christ.  Apparently, crucifixion was not practiced all around the Mediterranean.  It was utilized as a fitting end only for the lowest of the low, and only by “Easterners, Greeks, Carthaginians, or Jews.”  All of these people were considered by the Romans to be total Barbarians.  The Romans did use crucifixion, ultimately, but supposedly reserved it for especially low criminals.  Perhaps they preferred the more exciting methods of mass murder, such as staging massacres of Christians by lions at the Coliseum. What a thrilling way to socialize, to spend time with friends and family.  Spivey points out that Caracalla was tender-hearted as a boy, but became “hardened up” by trips to the Coliseum, where he was forced to watch these dreadful slaughterings.  It is well documented that he became a most bloodthirsty individual!

This book brings up numerous subjects that most people know nothing about, and most of them not bloody.  The major obstacle faced by Paul and the other apostles, for example, when trying to convert non-Christians (everyone, initially) was the question of why Christ, if he were truly the son of God, would be murdered by crucifixion, which was reserved for the lowest and most horrendous criminals?  Additionally, the idea of burial and resurrection didn't fit at all.  Crucified victims were cremated, not buried.  So the images of the crucifixion and the symbol of the cross weren’t even used until many centuries later.  Since the masses could not read, seeing visual images and hearing verbal depictions were the ways they learned.

This book is an odd one in its primary subject – a very thorough examination of the portrayal, in our art tradition, of torture, misery, despair, and death, beginning with the very start of western art – in Egypt, and bringing us up to WWII, and the resulting upheaval in art.

But these sentiments invariably lead to feelings of hope for betterment in the future. It seems to be only human to have these cycles in our societies. Seeing the wretched seems to lead us to a determination to improve. It is part of human nature.

The masterly passages about ancient history, customs, and traditions of various individuals as well as nations, the thorough etymological tracings of phrases and words, and the amazing comparisons of imagined of historical figures help to shed light on the earliest times of western culture.   Spivey moves effortlessly from history to art to Egyptology, to ancient Rome, and so on, throughout the book.

At the beginning, I could not get into the book at all.  When I finally overcame that major hurdle, I had already determined I would not like it – too gruesome.  But Spivey's knowledge and excellent writing pulled me in, and I ultimately even enjoyed the book!  He is not only capable and scholarly, but also funny enough that I heard myself laughing out loud.  This is amazing for a book I could not pick up for so long.

I do fault the proofreading somewhat, and dislike the fact that there is not one speck of color.  It is a weighty book about a serious subject, but very enlightening, and even humorous.  And I still think that it has its own little niche in the vastness of literature.

 

 

© 2002 Gretchen Williams Jurek

 

Gretchen Williams Jurek, Auburn, California              


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