A Permanent Accusation

“Art is a permanent accusation” Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib exhibition of paintings


The Colombian artist Fernando Botero would at first glance appear to be an unlikely candidate for most outspoken artist against the outrages currently being perpetrated in Iraq.


The work that has made him famous; candy colored paintings filled with swollen globular people who float around his canvases, weightless despite their huge size would seem to be the antithesis of any serous artistic dialog. The analytical philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto has written that Rosalind Krauss “spoke for many of us when she dismissed Botero as ‘pathetic’.”


I can say that before seeing the current exhibition of the artist’s Abu Ghraib series of paintings at the UC Berkeley’s Doe Library I felt almost the same way. Although, I think I would have leaned towards ‘bathos’ rather than ‘pathos’ in describing his work. On the other hand, as a child of the 70’s, raised with images from the oeuvre of Maurice Sendak and Margaret Keane, Fernando Botero’s bulbous hot air balloon people have always struck me as somewhat sinister and ominous — nightmares pretending to be daydreams.


So in some perhaps subconscious way, it does not surprise me that Fernando Botero should be the artist to step up to the proverbial plate; a place so few of America’s contemporary artists writers and cultural cognoscenti have dared to tread.


In this conflicted culture where our own government seems determined to undermine our national identity, we seem to have lost the voice to protest this current wave of gratuitous brutality and crimes against humanity. Having had our identity as a nation shaken to the core, first by allowing a man to ascend to the presidency  without the democratic vote and then by exploiting a national tragedy as an excuse to start a bloodthirsty crusade we remain unfortunately mute. This is, of course, no excuse for such a baleful silence. But I think we find ourselves voiceless not because of censorship, but because we lack the vocabulary to express our outrage: It is one thing to condemn the atrocities of others it is another thing entirely when we need to reproach ourselves – What do we do when we have become ‘them’?


Confronted by the atrocities of WWI and feeling betrayed by an idea of a civilization that had been credited to the ‘adult’ rational mind, but that had turned out so horrendously wrong, many artists rebelled and sought solace in the idea of the ‘child-mind’ creating the artistic language of Dada. And although the Dadaists celebrated that ingenuous psyche, they did not take into consideration that it is the nature of the child (even the child of the mind) to imitate the adult. Within the first generation Dadaist art had begun to incorporate the very horrors they had originally rebelled against. In many ways, however, it is exactly this shock of discontinuity that makes Dada work.


But what happens when you live in a world where there is ‘no shock of discontinuity’? Or where discontinuity is often the norm? Can the language of Dada still work in a world bursting with television “reality shows” which are both entirely staged and heavily scripted?


To surmise that we lack the vocabulary to express our most undeniable outrage begs the question – why? Is it for some lack of human education? Is it created by a poverty of another sort? Can it be based on a poverty of spirit or a poverty of soul, perhaps?


I was moved by Arthur Danto’s amended description of Botero in his article for The Nation titled The Body in Pain as “disturbatory art–art whose point and purpose is to make vivid and objective our most frightening subjective thoughts. Botero’s astonishing works make us realize this: We knew that Abu Ghraib’s prisoners were suffering but we did not feel that suffering as ours.” Mr. Danto is referring rather directly to Susan Sontag’s noteworthy 2003 essay Regarding the Pain of Others, where she states, “One of the distinguishing features of modern life is that it supplies countless opportunities for regarding (at a distance, through the medium of photography) horrors taking place throughout the world. Images of atrocities have become something of a commonplace.” And she continues, “Is the viewer’s perception of reality eroded by the daily barrage of such images? What does it mean to care about the suffering of others far away?”


Botero’s paintings poignantly address such questions and he points out that he did not work directly from photographs but rather from his reaction to the photographs.


Even on a material level, Botero has altered his usual pictorial language to address the subject matter at hand. His normally ebullient painter’s voice has changed into the Spartan-like tones of a scenic painter. Gone are the allusions to Diego Velázquez, Rafael Sanzio da Urbino and Jusepe De Ribera, replaced by an almost uninterested utilitarian need to cover the canvas. He strips the oil paint of its quintessentially sensual nature, applying it thinly and with careless brushstrokes, thwarting it from being anything other than a colorant. He makes mockery of Willem de Kooning’s oft-repeated statement “flesh is the reason oil painting was invented.” He forbids the colors to build up or to glaze the surface and there is no varnish, except in a few uneven, strangely sticky and arbitrary places. Despite their size these painting give the appearance of having been painted in a day or in a few hours, they have a kind of immediacy in their nature that the subject seems to demand.


He replaces his normal rich palette of chromatic hues for unpleasant shades. Ignoring the prohibition every first year painting student is familiar with almost every color used in the Abu Ghraib series has been dulled downed and mixed with black, with the exception of a few oddities: the rubber glove, the gaudy pink bra and panties each an intimately recognizable icon for the viewer. The dogs in his paintings, more hellhounds than watchdogs, are that strange color of green that can only be created by mixing black with yellow.


Indeed these paintings are painful to look at and not just for the subject matter. Up close nothing seems to work — the drawing is coarse, the painting uninteresting and the colors oppressive. On the whole the work seems to be what is commonly called “badly painted.” But this is entirely an illusion and the painter’s conceit is revealed if the viewer can achieve some distance – seen across the room all aspects of the paintings fall into place and Botero’s intention becomes apparent.


Unfortunately, for the viewer, circumstances concerning this current exhibition of paintings do not allow for this space to be achieved easily. In fact, the whole of the display adds another dimension to this exhibition; the lighting is hideous, the room is unsuitable for a painting presentation; it’s too long and full of furniture but the very ugliness of the room gives it a clandestine nature fitting for what is being shown.


It is dismaying and somewhat heartbreaking to read Robert C. Morgan’s plaintive entreaty in his essay A Note on Botero’s Abu Ghraib (echoed almost verbatim by Mr. Danto in his article in The Nation) when he writes “Given the importance of these works, there is a curious irony that hovers over the exhibition. Botero has made it clear that he is willing to give the entire suite of paintings to any American museum that wishes to take it. As of two days before the closing of the exhibition, not one museum had come forward with a serious interest. Given the reticence of American museums to take a clear position contrary to right-wing ideology, one can only imagine the outcry that would surround any director’s expressed interest in responding to the artist’s offer. To do so might constitute a heroic decision in contrast to the bureaucratic inevitability that continues to stifle any real progress towards the advancement of democracy.”


More than any other species, warm or cold-blooded, it is the nature of the human being to adapt. When faced with natural catastrophe this evolutionary propensity is awe-inspiring. That humanity tends, not only to survive, but in so many cases to flourish after deluges, ice ages, conflagrations and whatever else that’s included in nature’s repertoire is admirable. The ability to adjust to the equally horrific waste of manmade horrors, while just as profound, is also quite disturbing. The aptitude to overcome the wreckage of natural occurrences attests to the species capacity to survive, while the seemingly innate inclination to adapt to manmade horrors would at first glance be its opposite. Logically the species should refuse to adapt, refuse to accept, and thereby refuse to repeat behaviors that negatively affect its survival – but this is not the case.


I wonder if we are adapting to the atrocities encouraged by the present U.S. Government by becoming numb to the responsibilities of humanity? Do we really lack the vocabulary to express our frustration, or have we refused to develop such a vocabulary because it has been deemed to be impolite to acknowledge the pain of others?


If so, then, it is not that Botero speaks for the victims of Abu Ghraib, it is that he speaks for all of us.


The following books and websites were used in researching this paper.



Botero Abu Ghraib. Catalog with essay by David Ebony. Prestel Verlag, Germany 2006

Regarding the Pain of Others. Susan Sontag. Picador. New York. 2003



Marlborough Gallery. www.marlboroughgallery.com


Berkeley Daily Planet. www.berkeleydaily.org

Article The Power of Botero’s Abu Ghraib Images. By Peter Selz. February 6, 2007


Brooklyn Rail. www.brooklynrail.org

Article: A Note on Botero’s Abu Ghraib. By Robert C. Morgan. January 2007


Counter Punch. www.counterpunch.org

Article: Fighting Torture wit Art. By Mike Whitney


The Nation. www.thenation.com

Article: The Body in Pain. By Arthur C. Danto. November 27, 2006


NY Times. www.nytimes.com

Article Botero Restore the Dignity of Prisoners at Abu Ghraib. By Roberta Smith. November 15, 2006


SF Gate. www.sfgate.com

Botero’s distinctive style evokes moral energy. By Kenneth Baker. January 29, 2007


NPR. www.npr.org


Revolution Interview. www.revcom.us


Daily KOS. www.dailykos.com


Zombie Times. www.zombietime.com