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NEW YORK ENCOUNTER/ Congdon: “Reclaiming the Freedom to Reclaim the Object”

At the New York Encounter, Francis Greene spoke on Liberty in Modern and Contemporary Art showing the impossibility to detach art from the basic human call for freedom. By ADAM GIANCOLA

William Congdon (Archive image) William Congdon (Archive image)

Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy ‘shock’, it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum – it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft.” These words, first spoken by Pope Benedict XVI at the 2009 Meeting with Artists, were repeated once again by Dr. Francis Greene this Saturday at the New York Encounter, an annual public cultural festival hosted by the members of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation and the Crossroads Cultural Center.

Dr. Greene, who currently serves as the Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Fine Arts at St. Francis College, presented on Liberty in Modern and Contemporary Art, exploring the ways in which the artists of the last two centuries sought to break free from the constraints that they perceived to be limiting artistic innovation. Yet his underlying point was clear: the serious artist does not simply react against an artistic tradition for the sake of liberty. Rather, the serious artist is the one who seeks ‘freedom from’, but always with the intention of pursuing ‘freedom for.’

Greene’s lesson began at the place where “liberty became incarnate”, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. In this painting, Greene describes how Delacroix, by representing liberty during the July Revolution of 1830 in the form of a woman, could develop all the forms around her, therefore celebrating freedom as the point of reference for the entire painting. In this first work, Greene suggested that we are obligated to begin our study of modern art in the nineteenth century, because it is here where ‘those things that sit well’ were for the first time directly challenged.

So too was Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa a direct criticism against the neo-classical directive of the eighteenth century. While his painting was not openly subversive, Géricault made use of the internal mechanics in his art to free himself from age-old artistic canons. For instance, Greene described how the decision to produce a painting of such an enormous scale, something reserved for works of mythology, portraits of the monarchy, or scenes from the Bible, scandalized the general public, because it served as an implicit criticism against the monarchy.

Greene suggested that what these artists of the nineteenth century initiated was a movement towards the subversive so that they might ‘free art up’. Thus while the artists of this time were working within an established artistic tradition, what distinguished them from their contemporaries was a persistent and outward search for freedom.