Colombian artist Fernando Botero is famous for his depictions of blimpy figures that verge on the ludicrous. New Yorkers may recall the outdoor display of Botero’s bronze figures, many of them nude, in the central islands of Park Avenue in 1993. Their bodily proportions insured that their nakedness aroused little in the way of public indignation. They were about as sexy as the Macy’s balloons, and their seemingly inflated blandness lent them the cheerful and benign look one associates with upscale folk art. The sculptures were a shade less ingratiating, a shade more dangerous than one of Walt Disney’s creations, but in no way serious enough to call for critical scrutiny. Though transparently modern, Botero’s style is admired mainly by those outside the art world. Inside the art world, critic Rosalind Krauss spoke for many of us when she dismissed Botero as “pathetic.”
When it was announced not long ago that Botero had made a series of paintings and drawings inspired by the notorious photographs showing Iraqi captives, naked, degraded, tortured and humiliated by American soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, it was easy to feel skeptical–wouldn’t Botero’s signature style humorize and cheapen this horror? And it was hard to imagine that paintings by anyone could convey the horrors of Abu Ghraib as well as–much less better than–the photographs themselves. These ghastly images of violence and humiliation, circulated on the Internet, on television and in newspapers throughout the world, were hardly in need of artistic amplification. And if any artist was to re-enact this theater of cruelty, Botero did not seem cut out for the job.
As it turns out, his images of torture, now on view at the Marlborough Gallery in midtown Manhattan and compiled in the book Botero Abu Ghraib, 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 astonishing works make us realize this: 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.
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.
The Catholic Church understood this well when, in the final session of the 1563 Council of Trent, it decided to use visual art as a weapon in its battle with the Reformation. One of the pillars of the Reformation’s agenda was its iconoclasm–its opposition to the use of religious imagery, over which the church enjoyed a virtual monopoly. The Reformation feared that images themselves would be worshiped, which was idolatry. The Catholic response was to harness the power of images in the service of faith. Artists were instructed to create images of clarity, simplicity, intelligibility and realism that would serve as an emotional stimulus to piety. As the great art historian Rudolph Wittkower observed: