The Canadian Art Database

Terrence Heath

Robert Arneson
The Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina

BorderCrossings, Volume 7 Number 3, Spring 1988, pp. 32-33.
[ 1,059 words ]

Outside of religion, we are all familiar with Manicheanism from childhood onward; it is the pseudo-religion of the superhero comics and animated cartoons. It is the substructure of The Lord of the Rings and the stock in trade of horror movies. It is officially espoused by every nation, apparently no matter how 'civilized', as it feeds its propaganda machines for war. It tends the fires of the abortion issue. It is the 'culture' of genocide. Sometimes, it seems relatively harmless; at others, its underlying and pitiless face can be seen. It brooks no compromise, no luke-warmness, no reasonableness, no compassion. It wins adherents by its simplicity of message and invests ideology with urgency.

In the 12th century, Europe was rocked by powerful heretical movements which took root and challenged existing church teachings, mores and organization. They developed a foothold in the wealthy new towns of the Lowlands and in the cultured courts of southern France. One of the most persistent and ubiquitous of these was Manicheanism or Zoroastrianism, which came on the trade routes along the Danube from its homeland in the old Persian empire and the Baltic lands. It spread into the Lowlands and, eventually, into southern France. Officially, the devastation which the northern French nobles wreaked on the south in the famous, and infamous, Albigensian Crusades was carried out with the goal of extirpating the Manicheanism of the south. The last verbal vestige of the hatreds of these times is our word 'bugger', coming from bourgre, French for 'bulgar', the source of the heresy which reflected a prevailing belief about the sexual practices of the heretics.

The castles fell, but Manicheanism persisted and has become so intertwined in western thought and religion that it rarely is identified, or to be more honest, can rarely be identified with any certainty. Manichean theology posited two gods, one Good, the other Evil, one of the world of Light, the other of the world of Darkness, one of the Spirit, one of Matter. These two fight for the souls of humans in an eternal, unending and uncompromising battle, in which the extremes of purity and of impurity are demanded of the adherents of either side. Whenever Christianity fractures, the opposing parts move rapidly into a Manichean stance, in which the Devil reigns again. Through exaggeration and, increasingly, emotional tension, all mitigating, spiritual traits are eliminated from the enemy.

Robert Arneson's sculptural caricatures of American generals and military war mongerers are truly Manichean. These figures come from the Evil Kingdom and they exhibit no traits that would make them human for us. The enemy wears a uniform and is so singularly grotesque that his intent can not be disguised, condoned or mistaken. These powerful, larger than life busts have erect missiles for noses and blood dripping from their hands. Their faces are speared with tusks. Their shoulder epaulettes are skulls. As a piece like Just a Test argues, these are 'cock sucken, motha fucken, shit eaten' buggers who are going to give it to us right, once and for all. We would never mistake them; never.

The Manichean world is a simplistic world.

This is an anti-war exhibition which the munitions makers and department of defence bureaucrats can safely enjoy, because it lets them off the hook. The generals are easy targets; they naively wear uniforms so that we can identify them. The politicians who enjoy saber rattling, the defence contract companies that feed on death, the research scientists who advance the technologies of destruction, the investors who know stocks that have done nothing but rise, and all the well meaning and proud patriots of national nuclear programs stick to civvies.

They are much harder to identify and caricature. They slip out of the categories of Arneson's work. His work is not an analysis of nuclear war. He is making war on war.

Arneson is depicting the secular apocalypse. By subsuming the evil in apocalyptical and imminent death he pushes his art beyond Good and Evil, beyond Manicheanism. No one will be saved, no one redeemed, no one go to Heaven or Hell, no matter what side he or she is on. There is no prescription in this work. There is nothing that can be done. King Death comes on as inevitably as he did in the terrifying art of the late Middle Ages, only this time, he does not take one person and leave the next. This time, he takes all.

In effect, Arneson is not making art by any standard we try to apply. The very subject matter and the passion with which he presents it drives out aesthetic considerations. He does what Bertold Brecht did not manage to do in his socially and politically committed dramas. Arneson forces the viewer to talk about nuclear war. Other sculptors, such as Edward Kienholz in the United States and Mark Prent in Canada, have forced on their viewers a similarly dominating subject matter. Ironicallv, considering the playfulness of much of the art of the late 60s, Arneson carries out a basic ploy of Funk Art. He uses parody, puns and humour, ghastly as it may be, to break down the very concept of fine or high art. To do it, he has turned back to his early cartooning and used it for new and horrific purposes.

As I left the Dunlop Gallery a question nagged at the back of my mind. In Arneson's all out war on war, is he not guilty of 'overkill'? Does the caricaturing not lessen the seriousness of the message? Does horror not become in a bizarre way acceptable if driven beyond the point of human involvement? The caricatures of the generals tell a story but for me only once. The other pieces, the bronze works, Forge, Minuteman and Nuclear Warhead, have stayed with me, telling their stories repeatedly, impressing my memory with the monumentality of the subject matter, the passion of Arneson's concern and the accomplishment in his expressing it. It is true, these works are the very ones that are most like 'art'. But I have no desire to discuss them in formal terms or to analyse them in aesthetic categories or even to trace their historic derivations. They have made a lasting impression and, if we have the time left to us, that is one characteristic of art which may be useful for our survival.

, Volume 7 Number 3, Spring 1988, pp. 32-33.

Text: © Terrence Heath. All rights reserved.

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