Michelangelo’s Pieta, 1500
Michelangelo’s Pietá came to the New York World’s Fair in 1964. I was 20 years old when I saw it, and knew little about art but the required college art history course I took made me aware of this genius artist and his sculpture of 1500 for the old basilica of St. Peter’s. Michelangelo was 25 years old, and the Pietá made him famous. The sculpture was the sensation of the fair. I had to see it. Enormous crowds lined up for hours to get into the Vatican Pavilion. I stood in line on a hot and humid day for three hours to see it.
A three-tiered conveyor belt moved us past a gigantic fabric-draped cross hovering above and the blue illuminated young Mary and the dead Jesus below. Mary holds the crucified Jesus across her thighs with his right arm falling slack over one of her knees, his head bends back face upward behind a raised shoulder, and his two lower legs dangle over Mary’s left knee. You could see the beauty of the softly rubbed white marble, the deftly shaped folds of Mary’s cloak, and the stable yet dynamic composition of the two figures. However, this theatrical placement, more like a movie-opening extravaganza, was not how the sculpture should be seen. The Pieta’s white surfaces were meant to resonate in the half-light from the basilica’s rotunda windows above. They needed no enhancement by the blue light shadows cast over the bodies. Nor was the Pietá to be seen from below as the three moving walkways positioned the visitors. The sculpture’s full effect of the glorious death could only be appreciated by the viewer being on the same level; otherwise the upturned face of the soon-to-be-resurrected Christ was obscured. I didn’t know that when I visited, but what I did see was unsettling; something wasn’t right.
The Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair 1964-65
The image stayed with me as a troubling benchmark for the art experience for decades. Since living the artist’s life starting in the 1980s and crossing into the new millennium with visitations to galleries, museums, and other spectacular art locations, where dissonant sensations became more pronounced, reasoning for what I first felt 50 years ago emerged. Art is being stripped of meaning. It has become an amusement park for the consumer-driven and authenticity-barren culture. The Pieta positioned in a pavilion as a destination for ogling of those briefly passing by, who can mark it on their list as seen and therefore recognized. It loses it’s meaning, but maintains its historical reference by keywords: Renaissance Art, Great Artist, Michelangelo, Florence, Italy, Gone-but-memorialized as a marker of significance.
The Pieta was mined of the capacity to inspire spiritually or to generate passion by several means. The experience of seeing didn’t allow the viewer to halt and contemplate either the sculpture’s ecstatic refinement, its composition, or its inclusion of spiritual importance. The Pietá became a thing seen on an endless itinerary of things needed to be seen that validate the viewer. In this sense it was no different from another great attraction of the fair, the “it’s a small world,” boat float by Walt Disney that provided an amusing, but totally irrelevant ride through models of toy soldiers and sunny animated flowers. Disneyfication is an apt metaphor for the displays at the New York World’s fair.
“it’s a small world” at the New York World’s Fair, 1964-65
The Pietá was elevated, made precious, and removed from close experience. The Madonna and dead Son of God were diminished as art, but reinterpreted by the soft blue illumination as an important statement of western culture. In this sense it relates to another great attraction of the New York World’s Fair, the IBM pavilion, where Charles and Rae Eames installed the immensely influential Mathematica Exhibition. The Eameses were masters of enhancing information. The New York World’s Fair made them master communicators of the new American-driven computer culture. The Pietá installation was heavier handed, but the principle of enhancement is similar. The purpose was more emotive. Nonetheless the emotion was hollow based on allegiance, either as a Catholic or an admirer of art as learned in a college textbook, collected on a postcard, seen through TV, or in a toured visitation to an identified monument.
IBM’s Mathematica Exhibition at the New York World’s Fair 1964-65
This is what the art world, its institutions, and many of its monuments have become: an amusement park for sanctioned culture. Driven by visitation counts, money received, and justification of the elite, art drifts toward emptiness teetering on the abyss of irrelevance. Pity the Pietá, marred by fame and overfamiliarity, which later in 1972 was badly damaged by a deranged man and now lies isolated behind a bulletproof glass in the Vatican, removed forevermore from anyone to experience close at hand its majesty and the inspired vision of the artist who chiseled it. There is residue of wonder in the Pieta, but much has been drained away. Similar diminishment has happened to other great works and other great locations. This sorry circumstance is perhaps inevitable, when art becomes a rich persons collectible, a financial asset, and celebration of celebrity. Art shouldn’t need augmentation. More on this in the next installment: jewel boxes, gift shops, and restaurants.