I didn’t expect to experience an epiphany when I visited the Tucson Museum of Art for the first time.
My visit was late on a weekday. The museum was nearly deserted with a sprinkling of security personnel and a few clerks manning the entrances. The serenity I experienced by taking in some “culture” that day was soon disturbed.
The violence depicted in the museum’s section of Spanish Colonial art was stunning. The collection included a painting of St. Catherine with a severed head at her feet. Another painting depicted St. James killing a Muslim. Yet another oversized painting was titled “The Slaughter of the Innocents” in which a baby is shown impaled by a pike, among other scenes of horror.
Next, I discerned a smallish white marble sculpture of something lying on a plate under plexiglass. I was fairly certain from 30 feet away what I was looking at. As I drew near, I realized that I was correct in my precognition. The lump of sculpture was the severed head of John the Baptist.
After experiencing these unsettling scenes, I gladly moved on to the display of pre-Columbian Latin American art.
My serenity was restored.
In contrast to the brutality just described, the magnificence of nature and the wonder that is man was clearly on display, created by ancient native artists.
Included in this section were splendid examples of pottery etched with intricate designs and the beauty of the human form. Dazzling ceremonial animal masks looked down upon me. Nature and man were depicted as being good, not debased.
We know, of course, that all cultures have their dark sides, Latin American civilizations are no exception. However, violence was not a preoccupation of the Mesoamerican artists I encountered that day, unlike the dreadful and explicit offerings provided by artists of the supposedly culturally, morally, and religiously superior Europeans.
This got me rethinking our traditional teachings of Western history in relation to others on the planet.
Exactly who is civilized and who is savage? Does the depiction of violence in European art serve some higher purpose or does it unwittingly reveal a telling flaw?
Extreme violence is expressed not only in Western art but also in many of its most ancient and revered texts. The Bible and the Iliad both teem with accounts of appalling brutality.
So, my epiphany was this: Who has the standing to declare some civilizations ‘savage’ and others ‘superior’?
Louis Pasteur once wrote that “I am on the edge of mysteries and the veil is getting thinner and thinner.” I feel my own veil of ignorance has been lifted to improve my understanding that no civilization is inherently superior, much less perfect, especially when violence enters the equation.
My hope is that by recognizing our own fierce Western heritage, we can deal more humanely with those at home and abroad who differ from us. We need to understand that we possess brutal proclivities that have been instilled in us for millennia by texts, traditions, and, in part, by art.