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July 12, 2004

Mel Gibson, Conceptual Artist

Mel Gibson is the most powerful celebrity in the country, says Forbes magazine. He is also the head of a production company, Icon, rolling in filthy lucre ($608 million) earned worldwide by The Passion of the Christ. He is involved in several new projects, from family-friendly TV shows to historical action features. And he is the world's leading conceptual artist.

What? Mel Gibson a conceptual artist? Aren't conceptual artists supposed to do things like talk to dead animals (Joseph Beuys) and cover billboards with obscure theoretical statements (Joseph Kosuth)? Isn't the whole purpose of conceptual art to "make us think"?

Well, yes. Which is why Gibson qualifies.

What's the first thing a conceptual artist must do? Attract attention. This is harder today than back in the 1960s, when all Lawrence Weiner had to do was light a flare outside an Amsterdam museum and call it The Residue of a Flare Ignited Upon a Boundary. Today the would-be conceptual artist has to light a pre-release media firestorm, which Gibson did by lacing his film with anti-Semitic tropes from medieval art, Passion Plays, and the visions of the 18th-century German stigmatic, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich.

Most of this furor died down when the movie was released, perhaps because most Americans didn't notice such anti-Semitic tropes as demon Jewish children throwing rocks, Jewish crowds baying for Jesus' blood, and donkey-riding Sadducees gloating at the cross. They didn't notice because the popular imagination in this country associates anti-Semitism with Nazis, not medieval iconography. As one of my colleagues at Boston College quipped after we led a student discussion on the topic, "If they donít know itís anti-Semitic, should we be telling them?"

Whether or not he meant to, Gibson also satisfied the most important requirement of conceptual art: He made us think.

First, he made us think about truth. To a remarkable degree, The Passion galvanized two groups who process truth for a living: academics and religious leaders. During the controversy I dove into several scholarly and religious websites and immediately hit the rapids of historical, philosophical, linguistic, theological, pastoral debate over the nature of biblical truth. Before going under, I wondered: When was the last time thousands of teachers and preachers got so worked up over a movie?

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that a movie should be truthful. Then by what standard of truth do we judge The Passion?  Here Gibson pulled off another feat: he got biblical scholars using the Gospels as a standard. For example, Paula Frederikson in The New Republic objected to the presence of Satan and of a "post-crucifixion Mary-and-Jesus pieta" on the grounds that "No such scenes exist in the Gospels."

Hmm. Does this mean we should cut all those Satan bits from Milton's Paradise Lost? Toss a tarp over Michaelangelo's Pieta?

And whether or not our idea of truth is Gospel, why are we suddenly using truth as an aesthetic standard? Aren't artists supposed to create their own truth? Isn't it dangerous, potentially censorious, to make them toe the line of some externally defined truth? The flap over The Passion reveals a sobering fact: When people become exercised about matters of truth, they become less forgiving of art.

The other topic stirred up was violence. Many critics accused Gibson of turning Jesus' last hours into a big-screen bloodfest, like Braveheart and Lethal Weapon. I confess to not liking designer violence, but it was strange to see it embraced by people who normally share my dislike.

For example, most Protestant denominations have prayed for generations before a bare cross, in principled rejection of what their forefathers saw as an unhealthy Catholic obsession with Christ's blood and suffering. Yet according to a number of reports, many evangelical Christians found themselves deeply engrossed in every spurt, splash, smear, and spatter of blood in The Passion.

Finally, Gibson is a conceptual artist if we define the term broadly enough to include the century-old desire of artists to gain instant notoriety through mass media. Filippo Martinetti was one of the first, publishing his Futurist Manifesto on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909.

Today this impulse is so mainstream, we half expect media feeding frenzies to be deliberate, the work of clever prestidigitators for whom publicity is in itself an artistic medium. Deliberate or not, Gibson's media blitz went far beyond the stale formulae of sex and violence. And he provoked millions of conversations about art, truth, faith, history, and freedom of expression. As provocations go, that's pretty impressive.

Posted by at July 12, 2004 10:00 AM