The Ballad of Laszlo Toth

I do a fair bit of driving, and so I like to keep a healthy variety of podcasts on my iPhone. One of my favorites is a podcast on the history of the Catholic Church called Catholic Under the Hood by Fr. Seraphim Beshoner, a Franciscan.

This last week’s episode was, as always, very good, and is relevant to ArtVoc for some obvious reasons. (Listen to the podcast here or subscribe to it in iTunes here.) The podcast centers around a man named Laszlo Toth (a fella whose story I’d like to put into a folk song someday).

Long story short: Toth was a (perhaps still is?) a Hungarian-Australian geologist famous for flying past the guards of Michaelangelo’s Pieta in 1972, shouting “I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!,” and attacking the statue with a hammer. Toth took off the arm and nose of the Pieta (the nose has never been recovered) and chipped the eyelids.

Fr. Beshoner gives a fuller account of the event, along with an account of what the restorers found during their work.

What I found particularly interesting was one result of this attack, namely the christening of Toth as the “Artist of the Hammer” who “remodeled certain Michaelangelo sculptures to a more modern sensibility.” Soon after, the so-called Lazslo Toth School of Art was formed by a small group of sympathetic artists who arguably saw in Toth’s actions an example of a call “to address severe imbalance is by some sort of provocative, even revolutionary, behavior.” (I say ‘arguably’ because this linked article does not specifically address Toth in any great detail, but it does make clear what its author thinks needs to happen to classical art to make way for the new.)

I understand the desire of an artist to want to carve space for himself in the pantheon of his cultural forebears. In fact, I think there’s a great deal of truth to theories like Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence that seek to explain the interplay between an artist’s competing desires to mimic those he loves and add to something he senses is already complete.

But I think Toth’s attack on the Pieta is less an apt image of the old being cast aside for the new, and more an apt image of the violence against Beauty that has marked the last century.

The danger to any artist in any age is to too highly esteem the significance of his own creative powers. This is easily understood: creation is a remarkable thing, to give form to matter and generate something new — this is one of mankind’s most wondrous faculties and can be a potent wine.

But in past pages, I think artists had a stronger check against this temptation to esteem their own creative powers too highly. These were  ages more grounded in the idea that all Creation is ordered, that the Universe is ultimately unified, with each element having its place in the grand and beautiful scheme. The Artist may be the creator of worlds, but he is not the creator of his world.

But in our age, this check on our artistic egos is much weaker, if present at all. Without a sense that our world is firmly rooted in another Artist’s purpose, what is to stop us from not only believing that our potent, creative powers are worthy of the greatest praise (and would yield it if only the ignorant, watching world would only understand us!), but from also believing that we are indeed the genesis of our own being, whose life takes on whatever meaning we dictate and whose actions are accountable to only our own fickle appetites?

When we become the center and sustainer of our own being, all Being that opposes such a notion, all that is Granite Reality, becomes competitive to us. And unless we are to bow to the goodness, truth, and beauty frozen in stone before us (thus admitting we are not the Metaphysical Top of the Heap)  — well, then our only option is destruction, to make the Beauty of Another more amenable to ‘modern sensibilities’.

I suspect today we have two choices as artists: declaring “I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead” and destroying whatever doesn’t ‘suit’ our atomized sensibilities, or declaring little or nothing and working faithfully, humbly in the Vineyard of Beauty.

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