“The medi�val church could not have remained both sane and impeccable – it chose to remain sane, knowing impeccability to be impossible in a fallen world.”
Walking past this building – as I did every day for four years of undergraduate education – a man might be reminded of any of several philosophical or religious traditions – Renaissance Humanism, Protestantism, Enlightenment, Americanism – quite contrary to each other, but all likewise self-congratulating for being more advanced, more free, and more knowledgeable than the supposedly barbaric, authoritarian, and ignorant culture of medi�val Christendom. If one commonality exists to all the supposedly great ideas of the last six centuries, it is their sense of superiority compared to those terrible middle ages – the names renaissance, reformation, and enlightenment themselves suggesting that the preceding age was dead, deformed, and dark.
Baker Library suggests this sort of respectability, with its classical proportions and whitewashed wood and flat red brick.
The reserve corridor in the basement of the library is something altogether different – within a decade of the building’s completion, the college invited the communist muralist Jose Clemente Orozco to fresco its walls. The Epic of American Civilization is a ghastly nightmare of an artwork. About half is devoted to pre-Columbian Mexico, its migrations and pagan gods and ritual sacrifices. But the other half – the Marxist history of modern Latin America, that is more frightening. There are revolutionaries plunging their daggers into the backs of generals and dead capitalists clutching bags of spilled gold, a New England town meeting interpreted as a brainwashing ritual, forests of industrial metal and gun barrels and tanks, piles of corpses and rivers of blood. Orozco turned on his own patrons and viciously attacked academia – he painted the Gods of the New Age as skeletons in academic robes, coldly watching another skeleton sprawled over a pile of books, giving birth to hundreds of fleshless infants in glass bells, wearing mortarboards and clutching diplomas. On the far wall, a giant Christ with bright yellow skin and a fierce stare hacks down his cross with an axe.
All the ugliness, violence, and insanity of the twentieth century is on display, and I cannot think of the contrast between this room and the exterior of the building except as an unintentional metaphor – the horrors of the twentieth century gestating in the respectable philosophies of the of the 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th, and 15th. For all their respectability, these supposedly great ideas departed from the sacred tradition, divine revelation, and natural law of Catholic religion. The gnawing beast of modernism was growing in their belly.
I like the way Daniel Mitsui sees the world. His musings on art are educational and thought provoking. And he has great photos.