Everything is compromised. Nothing is worthy. Strip it down, strip it down. Take off the sugar-coating, the veneer, the gilding, the velour, and what is left? Nothing. Emptiness. Posing, pretending, preening, delusion.
Those of us who love – truly love – sometimes feel like the prey of shadowy hunters. We are huddled together for safety and warmth, stroking each other’s fur and whimpering. We are small, fragile animals cowering before heartless, ravenous forces of violence, decay and darkness.
A child endures abuse that seals their world as Hell. Wolves are all around in sheep’s clothing. There is nothing better. No one can be trusted. Danger, predation, punishment is all there is.
A young woman experiences sudden and life-changing loss for which she was not prepared. Her life and spirit descend into the abyss.
An accomplished father, seasoned and hale, is struck with painful and long-lasting illness. Life becomes unendurable, and all his confidence, all his convictions, are lost.
Where is God in all of this – the god religious people speak of? He is nowhere. His emissaries are charlatans, and his worshippers are fools. Better to be honest – to face the void with quivering defiance. It is better to hold and comfort another miserable creature than to indulge in delusions of gods and angels. There is no God, but there are other people who suffer. Giving solace is the sole good purpose of life.
Modern Art Exposes Our Pain
So much modern art expresses these sentiments of heroic doggedness and cosmic loneliness. In many ways, what I’ve described above is the very essence of the modern (and now postmodern) condition. Even very religious people feel it at times of great or unexpected suffering. And that sentiment prevails, I think, among my college students right now – most of whom seem to face financial, relational or health crises that are almost crushing.
Among modern artists, the British painter Francis Bacon perhaps best captured this disposition. Bacon was abused as a child, became an abuser himself, and eventually committed suicide. His images capture the existential despair of godless modernity more than those of any other artist. And they capture it by stripping things down – burning away the dross. Turning ornament into ashes. What is left when the false promises and pretty embroideries go away?
In Bacon’s Pope Innocent X (based on a 17th-century portrait by Diego Velazquez), 1 a formerly confident figure, with powerful limbs and crafty eyes,2 becomes a flickering column of pain, all pretenses dropped, hands gripping his papal throne in desperation. It is a study in existential vacancy and unmasked hypocrisy.
In Bacon’s enigmatically-titled Painting of 1953, a similar spiritual emptiness is extended to everyone. Here, a well-dressed British gentleman looms in eyeless, ravenous unrest, surrounded by hanging sides of meat. Dead flesh. We are, all of us, nothing – nothing – Bacon seems to say. From dust we come, and to dust we will return, devoured by time and entropy.3
The Spirit Knows Its True Home
But Bacon’s harrowing images, with their charred and stripped-down forms, also expose something else.
They expose the core, primal injustice and absurdity of modern, materialist despair. Why mourn our soullnessness and isolation if it is natural? Why feel such repulsion and disgust at the supposed “truth,” albeit bluntly told? Why do we feel tenderness and pity toward artists like Francis Bacon, and why did Bacon surely feel pity toward himself?
It’s because there is a diamond-hard part within us – within all of us – that cries “No! No! No!” It cries “No!” to the spirit of emptiness. It cries “No!” to hopeless, sightless, screaming desperation. It cries “No!” to grinding patterns of violence. Deep within us it squares it shoulders and swings at the darkness with spiritual swords. It faces the devil, heart thumping, and looks him daringly in the eye.
This is the part of us that are sons and daughters of God. This is the part of us that intuits our true, royal – even divine! – destiny.
Francis Bacon’s most celebrated image – the one that launched him on the world stage – was almost a religious image. It was Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, painted just as World War II was ending in 1944.4 Though Bacon’s three, mourning figures – naked, eyeless, screaming, sagging – are incomparably eerie, I have always found them to throb with hidden hope. Or if not hope, then at least blunt defiance. These figures mourn the death of God, but their very mourning suggests how great that God had been. He could not be contained in vessels of flesh; hence flesh itself strains and contorts to lament His loss. Because He was so great, we know He abides. We will see Him rise beyond the valley of the shadow of death.
In the season of Lent, Christians are encouraged to strip down and burn away external pleasures. They do this – we do this – to face what is truly at our core. Are we creatures of existential emptiness, papered over by duties and ornaments and pleasures? Or have we found a strength that relies on Something beyond ourselves? Are we prepared to answer those who charge us with wishful thinking? In the midst of suffering, can we affirm that God is still there? Can we say with confidence that those who seek will surely find?
Artists like Francis Bacon do us a service by burning our pieties to ashes. What is left is Crucifixion for all of us; all of us will die. But because our God suffered for us and before us (“slain from the foundation of the world”5), we can face evil with confidence. We can fight the good fight until we come to our radiant Home.
- Rev 13:8