Stalin and Mao, BFF

Stalin and Mao on currency, 1950:



I post the above currency image because I’ve been thinking about how images function to make the individual viewer feel like Dorothy before the Wizard of Oz (small and weak before The Great and Powerful). In the above image, for example, Stalin and Mao are Godzilla size, more massive than the buildings.

So much of art functions like this, suggesting, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly, some favored hierarchy, some totalitarian (or at least totalist) structure to which resistance is obviously folly. Thus in medieval art, Jesus, the angels, and the saints hold center stage and you aren’t shit. And the inter-generational cathedrals of Europe also dwarf your short and insignificant life. In royalist art, the Sun King takes center stage in his furs and tights, and again, you aren’t shit. The architecture of the Palace at Versailles also has this effect (as does Paris, for that matter, with all its massive and implicitly totalitarian neoclassical columns everywhere–a city of stone penises before high walls).

And going back to Versailles for a moment, even its very gardens send a message: the Sun King is not content to rule only man, he must assert his dominance over Nature. Likewise Romantic painters, rebelling against the royalist impulse, enthrone Nature over all (God, king, and man). From the paintings of Turner and Friedrich to the photographs of Yosemite by Ansel Adam and the deep space images of the Hubble telescope, the message is the same: there is something very large and you are very small.

One reason scientists promote deep space images to the public is what they imply about who should have power in society. The Christian era had its priests, the royalist era had its court, the democratic era had The People (and the democratic era’s communist countries had their Dear Leaders). But Nature is the new totalist Big Thing and the Book of Nature requires its own priesthood, the scientists who read the road and drive the spaceship (think of Carl Sagan in Cosmos).

Contemporary art sometimes attempts to meet the scientist’s vision of deep space and deep time through impenetrable abstraction, via negativa, and silence (as with The Rothko Chapel). And sometimes it captures Nature ironically (Damien Hirst’s shark).

Kant wrote that the sublime is about an encounter of a single human mind–with its infinite imagination reaching for the infinite–standing before what is colossal or monstrous (infinite) and feeling the vibration and tension between these two infinite things. I guess I’m asking why this phenomenon even exists. What is this overgoing within us and outside of us? And how absurd it is if, in the end, we discover that there has never really been any worthy emperor anywhere (neither within nor without) and that God does not even exist.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Stalin and Mao, BFF

  1. Interesting. Some might look at the deep field Hubble photographs and think I’m small and there is a universe that is so big. I just think “where’s my starship?” I look at a cathedral and I don’t see something bigger than me, I see a thousand workmen and their helpers working day after day to make each little detail. Perhaps this ‘bigger than me’ perspective works only on certain types of people? I see the argument over the corner stones and the placement of each arch. I see the arguments over the shade of paints used and so on.

    Perhaps we must look on and in blind ignorance assume we don’t know how it’s made and feel awe and wonder? Are the scientists really priests or simply the educated who wish to share more than all else they know how to do?

    I think that to see with awestruck eyes requires a certain kind of little mindedness. It takes someone to admit they couldn’t do something to find it awesome and inspiring and bigger than themselves. I think that is a myopic way to see the world.

  2. Staffan says:

    I think we are incapable of discovering that God doesn’t exist, regardless of the evidence. Anyone who does so ends up painting Mao (or Darwin) like that without even realizing that he switched one god for another. We just assume that we have a choice in the matter. But what if it’s a basic need like food, sleep, or sex?

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