May 2003

Bill Viola's Passions--No Kinship to Rubens

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

"Video artist" Bill Viola's latest exhibition, The Passions, recently closed at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. It will also be shown at the National Gallery in London and the Munich State Paintings Collection. As those august foreign venues suggest, Viola (who represented the United States at the 1995 Venice Biennale) has become one of the biggest names on the international art scene. When one considers that the London and Munich collections boast masterpieces of European painting by the likes of Leonardo, Jan van Eyck, Velazquez, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, however, it is reasonable to ask what entitles Viola, who is not even a painter, to enter their eminent ranks.

According to a press release issued by the Getty, The Passions

explores how changing facial expression and body language express emotional states using flat-screen monitors of various sizes, some resembling portable altarpieces of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. After filming the actors at very high speeds, Viola replays the action in extreme slow motion, with riveting results.

"Riveting" perhaps--possibly even "moving," as many viewers indicated in comments posted on the Getty's website. Such responses are understandable, since human beings are predisposed to be drawn to, and affected by, expressions of emotion in their fellow beings. But what makes Viola's "explorations" (a notion much abused by postmodernist critics) art? Surely his work's claim to that status must rest on more than a superficial resemblance between his flat-screen monitors and portable altarpieces of medieval and Renaissance Europe.

In their attempt to shore up Viola's shaky artistic credentials, the Getty curators claim a kinship between him and the great Flemish baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, because (as noted in the production credits on the museum's website)

Rubens had to be a producer, an organizer, and a supervisor of a team of assistants, a collaborator with other specialist painters and printmakers, and a manager of an ambitious enterprise for picture-making--in short, a virtuoso. [Similarly,] The Passions couldn't have been made without a rare ability to mobilize and inspire a lot of other people, understand their specialties, organize their work, and delegate authority.

"Much like Rubens," concludes John Walsh, Curator and Director Emeritus of the Getty, "Viola had to call upon his ability to mobilize and inspire actors and a large production crew to make The Passions come to life." This may sound plausible enough to uninitiated museumgoers. Walsh, however, should know better. Having served as a curator of painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, he must surely be aware that Rubens's reputation as an artist is due to more than his mobilizing, inspiring, and organizing other people; that it has mainly to do with his astonishing ability to give vivid form to events of great historic, religious, or mythic moment, to bring them so throbbingly to life on such a monumental scale that even viewers repelled by the beefy proportions of his figures can be struck by the drama of the scenes.

Contrary to Walsh's vacuous analogy, it was primarily Rubens's keenness of observation and extraordinary powers as a draughtsman--not his management of other people--that enabled him to vividly embody the visions spun out by his fertile imagination. These were the attributes that made Rubens--or make anyone--a great visual artist (all the rest is of secondary, tangential significance). And these are precisely the capacities that Viola and other "video artists" lack. These would-be artists employ video because they cannot draw or paint. In the main, they are simply videographers-- technicians recording aspects of reality, much as photographers do.

Like the postmodernist photographer Cindy Sherman, Viola goes to considerable lengths to stage and manipulate the scenes he records, so that they become, in effect, tableaux vivants or a species of performance art--neither of which amounts to a true art form. And despite his employment of video, Viola's work in fact resembles still photography in more than one respect. By making use of slow motion and mechanically repeated "loops" (a favored device of postmodernists), Viola deliberately downplays the temporal nature of his images, so much so that they often become nearly static in their effect. Most important, he does not attempt to provide the dramatic or narrative coherence necessary to art in temporal media such as film and video.

Notwithstanding the pretensions of curators and publicists, it is not to the artistic tradition of Rubens that Viola belongs, but to the anti-art impulses of the 1960s--impulses still being played out in the artworld. Viola's true predecessors were not the Old Masters of European painting, they were the "video art" pioneers Nam June Paik and Bruce Nauman.

Happily, not all museumgoers are gulled by the artworld hype surrounding Viola's work. "I longed for the context that Viola has said he purposefully doesn't provide," remarked one astute visitor to the Getty. "You call this art?" quipped another.