Okay, so this post very much started as a comment at the bottom of Michael Rennier’s post “Come Rack! Come Rope!*” but got way too big for it’s own good. And then forgotten for approximately eight months. Whatever. Anyway, in case you haven’t read it yet (in which case: do), Michael writes generally about the reality of martyrdom and specifically about St. Edmund Campion’s contribution to the, well…genre?
After I finished reading it (as well as the ensuing comments) I found myself thinking a lot about the complicated relationship between art, martyrdom and the ghost that’s never far behind either of them: politics.
Art & Martyrdom
One of the main, if implicit, links made between art and martyrdom comes expressed in the very body of Campion himself. Rising Oxford star though he was, he eventually came to convert to Catholicism, receive ordination as a priest and leave England during the reign of Elizabeth I – not necessarily in that order if I understand correctly. On his eventual return he was arrested, tortured and executed during a time when Catholic priests were seen as enemies of the state and a potential threat to the Queen’s vision of stability and order.
Political issues aside for a moment, Michael writes: “If his speech as a young student at Oxford brought the whole of the upper classes to admiration, his masterpiece is his death at Tyburn” – it’s a loaded statement that points to a sentiment embodied in a (keyword:) willing martyr, no matter what they end up dying for: look, my death means something. This isn’t senseless. The way I die expresses something, it screams how I lived – it might even fulfill my life. They get what almost none of us do: a clear climax. No falling action.
At the very end of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the charmingly, exhaustively manipulative Lord Henry Wotton sits across from his protégé, the eponymous Dorian, for what turns out to be the last time in their lives (spoiler, sorry). Looking at the eternally youthful Gray, he shuffles through his usual witticisms and ironic postures before, in the end, being unable to hold back a sigh: “Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days have been your sonnets.”
The fact of this convo being placed the context of hyper-hedonism (one the author himself deconstructs through the novel) aside, Wilde still pretty much encapsulates the final mission of the consenting martyr: they articulate (in their very bodies) what it is that they’ve lived for – eventually becoming, for all intents and purposes, art. Their final moments prove to be sonnets. Blood itself the melody, the ink. Edmund Campion expressed, dangling as he did, more than most artists ever do.**
Politics & Martyrdom
The problem’s that, at the moment, words like “martyr” tend to conjure associations with manipulation. The amount of scattered references to various militant and religiously-affiliated political movements, in particular the Islamic State, just in the last year alone were staggering. Now when most people hear the m-word in the media it’s hard not to immediately think of sand, bullet casings and and a theatre packed with terrified French citizens.
Generally, the concept of martyrdom can be hijacked for political purposes in two main ways:
Firstly, there’s how martyrdom as an idea can be used to bring people to your cause. It seems whacked-out to some, but martyrdom, as seen from the Islamic State’s savvy media output,*** isn’t treated as a potential discomfort on signing up so much as the very main event indeed. Within the context of their interpretation of Islam (see “salafi jihadism”), martyrdom is both an inevitable reality for around 95% of their fighters (Google “Future Battles at Dabiq/Constantinople” or read this informative piece over at The Atlantic) as well as a potential shortcut to purification, holiness and a privileged place in paradise. Cue eye-rolling (and sarcastic tweets) from your local chorus of enlightened millenials.
If you try to see things from the other side, though, the pull starts making more sense. It doesn’t matter, for example, what kind of person you are or what crap you’ve pulled in the past – you can redeem yourself in the eyes of God with a single act. You can find a piece of solid ground in a painfully shifty modern world. Glory, forgiveness, sanctity, an escape from shame, it’s there. For real. And then suddenly there seems no end to new stories of young people dropping everything and moving to Syria.
These stories are everywhere. We can read, from whatever corner of the globe we occupy, about intensive recruitment strategies, the approaching of socially isolated youth and that particularly suspect promise of seventy-two virgins (which, I’ve heard before, isn’t a number attributed to the Koran so much as taken from supplimentary literature). Even if there’s something inaccessible to us about the draw it has, we can’t possibly deny its gravity. Martyrdom still, to but it bluntly, moves units.
Secondly, and still common in every part of the world, martyrs are used as symbols to further the goals of particular groups. There doesn’t have to be an overtly “political” or nefarious goal involved; it can serve something as simple as the local blood drive. Heck, the martyr doesn’t even have to die – there just has to be some kind of demonstrated cause-related suffering for people to start buying in.
Take, Emily Davison, the British suffragette who died by being trampled by King George’s horse while attempting to loop a pro-suffrage scarf to it’s bridle. Or Sister Dorothy Stang, who was killed in the line of defending the rural poor in Brazil. Terry Fox didn’t have to die right away to be considered to be living a kind of martyrdom by running across Canada raising money for cancer research while, himself, dying of the disease. By suffering for a cause, by expressing a clear idea by their life and death, their existence as a symbol outlives their persons and is used in a surprising (and sometimes disturbingly high) amount of cultural transactions.
Those particular causes (women’s suffrage, rights for rural farmers, cancer research) are not bad things at all, but the personhood of Davison, Stang and Fox begins to fade in the public eye as we forget their flaws and praise their strengths. And then we go on to project our own opinions on them as we start asking what Davison would think of the pill, or what Fox would think about fetal-stem-cell-based cancer research. Their faces, quotes and ideals are taken and used to support causes which they may or may not have supported in life. Which is kinda what happens anyway when famous and influential people die, but there’s an additional magnetism surrounding someone who believed in something to the point of having costed them dearly. We don’t see a whole lot of that around, in any age.
But the part that gets me most is the dehumanization of it all. Alan Moore’s graphic novel (turned hollywood film) V For Vendetta has a martyr/terrorist hero who wears a rather famous mask not only to hide his identify from the world, but to chuck his very personhood into the shadows. He doesn’t want to be seen so much as a human being as an idea (because ideas, he says, “are bulletproof”). The end of the movie (spoiler spoiler) involves hundreds of people donning the same mask and, in a speech from Natalie Portman’s character, a declaration of how he was really “all of us. He was you. He was me.” That mask has since transcended the film/comic and now serves as a symbol for the hacker group Anonymous as well as any anarchisticish sentiment towards organized government/corporations/goon of the day.
So, basically, the martyr becomes a symbol, and a symbol can be used.
While using the image of Terry Fox to get people to give more money at the annual cancer research drive is one thing, it gets a little dicier when martyrs are used for political purposes. The above image is of a common Ukrainian phrase: Героям слава (pronounced “heroyam slava”); after the final, bloody days on the Maidan Square when dozens of protesters were killed by police forces and snipers (leading to the storming of the government buildings in Kiev and the formation of a new parliament), the phrase was later used to encourage (and/or guilt) people into being anti-Russian and utilized to justify acts of (obviously not uncalled-for) resistance against Russian-backed forces in the east as well as acts of atrocity on the part of rogue (and, later, government sanctioned) militia units across East Ukraine.
And the dicyness grows even further when political and religious purposes start blurring together. Western Ukraine, for example, happens to be a bastion of Catholicism, further complicating the ability of Catholics to critically apply where support can or should be lent.
In the current incarnation of the Islamic State, as in the Christian Europe of a few hundred years ago, there is a very thin line between church(/mosque?) and state, meaning that imams aren’t the only ones preaching the glories of fallen fighters or suicide bombers: those with more political interests (land-grabbers, anti-Kurds, anti-Assad factions) use the dead to effectively promote less-than-spiritual policies. In the European Christiansphere of yore, to venerate Edmund Campion was to spit in the face of Queen Elizabeth and her Majesty’s gov’t. To venerate Martin Luther was to set yourself in opposition to the German Catholic bishops, who later went on to support very particular political leaders. In our invocations of the martyrs, what other (perhaps unintended) heavy pieces of cultural baggage might be coming along for the ride?
As it turns out, works of art (particularly masterpieces) can be used in the same way.
Politics & Art
While there’s still a lot of diverse opinions over how close religion and a particular government should be, it’s generally admitted that any more-than-passing relationship between art and well-defined political goals is usually a crapshoot.
This doesn’t just refer to the sentimental and politically-charged works of government-regulated art movements like Socialist Realism, or even to art merely sanctioned/ordered by the powers that be (painfully mediocre poems selected for American presidential inaugurations come to mind) so much as any art where the art itself very much comes second to a particular message. And that’s no matter how well-intentioned or true the message is.****
This is the primary reason why a lot of self-defined Christian art falls flat on it’s face – namely for the fact that “Christianness” is seen as the key component…making artistic merit more of a side-show than a crucial element.***** Art in itself is a language that speaks to people in a visceral, intuitive way – great art goes straight for your heart, your nervous system and your bones all at once. An overly clunky message-piece, on the other hand (especially one that clearly doesn’t know how to use its medium of choice) trips over itself trying to make an impression and eventually does more to hurt than help the cause – often because the elements of that art (colour, motion, word associations) are either too rigidly controlled or left completely unattended. Most of the artist’s efforts are going towards making sure the message will be clearly understood by the audience, often with the subtlety of a grand piano thrown from a window on the tenth floor. I’m sure examples are already flooding your head.
This point is confusing for some as, well, isn’t speaking the gospel enough?
Well, it depends. Any message, the gospel included, can appear as a spoken truth or an incarnated truth. The difference between the two is the same as between two mothers, one of which says “I love you” without doing anything to prove it and the other who says the same and backs it up with action. So yep: sloppy Christian art pretty much amounts to a hollow chorus of “love ya” – and how many parents out there exist who find it hard to say those three words but all the same make it a fierce priority that their kids know it anyway? Sometimes being too focused on communicating truth gets in the way of actually embodying that truth in the world – I mean, how many current pastoral crises in the North American Church (poverty, abortion, queer issues) are exacerbated because we’ve forgotten that basic precept? Hearing someone loves me is great, but I’d much rather experience that love if I had to make a choice between the two.******
Another issue is that art, by its very nature, does weird things to people. It connects us to ourselves in a way that often bypasses the frontal lobe (read: that part of the brain having an awful lot to do with our personality, inhibitions and conscious mind) and gets right down into the gritty, sometimes abandoned corners of the human heart. It literally brings a lantern into the darkness, which sometimes turns out to be super awkward. Because, yeah, sometimes something’s in the dark because we’re really, really not much into dealing with it. Think trauma. Think concupiscience. Think the desires we have (because, yes, we have them) that deeply, deeply disturb us. Think one of those oh-what-did-I-just-really-have-that-thought-I-mean-that’s-just-a-kid-wait-does-that-make-me-a-pedophile?-NO-FREAKING-WAY-let’s-just-not-go-anywhere-near-that-again-normal-normal-normal-I’m-normal days. Good art confronts us with ourselves, not just with how we want ourselves/the world to be. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, there are more than a few of us who don’t frankly like ourselves/the world all that much.
People might also be hesitant around real, visceral experiences of art because we can be liable to freak out if someone touches us too deeply. Too much kindness or harshness can bring someone to tears, and what use are we to anyone if we’re a nervous wreck (albeit one with legs and various nine-to-five commitments)?
Art with a cause (political, spiritual, whatever), if we’re blunt, is meant to direct people – to bring them over to a particular side and, in extreme cases, control people. Touching someone too deeply is not really condusive to that, because an overly sensitive person can be an unpredictable person. Comfort and respectability are more reliable tools for maintaining a general populace.
But of course, on the other side, if you’re wanting some kind of radical change, then channelling someone’s emotional/psychological vulnerability can be a useful tool – and it’s easier to manipulate folks with, say, a martyr they identify with. Look, they killed some kids. They shot a priest. They stabbed our saint. What are you going to do now? Look us up: we have options.
However, these are always their options. Simplified art for the sake of maintaining control/a regime/a status quo has another name: kitsch. But more on that particular word another time.
Thinking about it too much leaves our heads spinning – it’s a cultural landscape completely full of mines. None of this is to say that honouring martyrs is something inherently a problem – but we just have to be aware that we’re treading on incredibly tricky ground. Adding to that, the practice of venerating saints/martyrs (or any worthwhile examplar from the past) is already sticky enough without ending up dehumanizing the person as a symbol. And that stickiness is, inevitably, made stickier because, as with any martyr, there’s always an “offender” involved.
But more on those guys in Part II.
** This is not to ignore the fact that many artists do suffer (and sometimes get knocked off) for their work.
***For more on the Islamic State’s media savvy, check out this account of a guy’s time reading every issue of Dabiq, ISIL/ISIS/Daesh’s regularish mag. Be aware that it’s from Cracked.com, meaning liberal sprinklings of language you may or may not find kosher.
****A lot of beloved kids TV shows tend to be the exception – somehow the producers found enough magic to elevate the program above its merely educational roots. Or maybe it’s just the power of nostalgia working on me.
*****There is another long-overdue post in the pipes about the various ways we’ve put art to use over the years.
******The first chapter in the Imitation of Christ has that zinger of a line: “I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it.” Substitute “contrition” for “love” (or any other virtue) and we’re on the same wavelength.
Josh Nadeau lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.