Animals and Grace
Only a person, a human being, it seems, can be rightfully referred to as a beast – as a stupid. [J. Derrida]
Animals do not enjoy (or suffer) reflective thinking. In other words, they do not lay plans, neither do they build machines or plot revenge. Perhaps for this reason their eyes are round and their gaze is so impenetrable to ours. Perhaps this is why animals remind us of children. How likable animals are! But nature (which is essentially Taoist) is never one-way: each of us conceals traces of an atavistic fear of the Beast deep down inside; the wild beast, the killer, the animal to be tamed. Neglecting this consideration poses the risk of slipping into kitsch and viewing animals only as cuddly teddy bears.
Kitsch is a mass perversion of naiveté. But what does naive mean, to be precise? Firstly, it should always be written with two dots over the “I” that stare back at you in eyes-wide wonder. Naïve is someone without hidden purposes, or – a bit more roughly – someone who doesn’t interact with the world through culture. In the strictest sense, however, this has never happened, and when it comes down to it, only animals are completely naïve.
Douanier Rousseau (Francia, 1844-1910), Antonio Ligabue (Italia, 1899-1965), and Edward Hicks (USA, 1780-1849) have all been considered naïve painters. The most famous paintings of all three feature animals as protagonists, often ferocious species such as tigers and lions, animals never seen in the European or North American countryside. Nearly always, whether the animals are communing peacefully together or roaring fearfully, or whether the surrounding vegetation is wild or cultivated – he atmosphere in the painting is one of great calm. There is life, and there is death – tout va bien.
I have the feeling that painting has something to do with all this. To me it seems that painting, at its very heart, is a naïve pursuit (technical expertise and talent have little to do with it). It’s a question of purity of outlook, acceptance. Painting means being entirely there, in that given image, in that given moment, tuned in to one’s body, forgetting all else one knows for a moment. “He’s a painting animal” I once heard say of a certain painter, a man so very well-bred that this definition could not have been meant as an insult even unintentionally. It was just a way of saying that whenever he painted, his instinct prevailed over reflective thinking.
“When man is led and moved by sovereign grace” Hicks wrote, quoting the Bible, about one of his many paintings entitled The Peaceable Kingdom. And when I inspect the works of John Finneran – and not only these, his latest, in explicit dialogue with the work of Hicks – the word that comes to me is grace. I think of the pursuit of grace. What is the viewer searching for after all, in any work of art? Whether he knows it or not, his intention is to be able to accept without understanding, or rather, to realize he has understood something specific that he cannot express in words. The emancipated spectator is only asking to be admitted entry to another world, a realm of peace in which – at least here – contradictions cease to exist, plans are not laid, machines are not built, and revenge is not plotted. A naïve dream, utopia, grace, bêtise.
Luca Bertolo, August 2011
 Bête in French means both “animal” and “stupid”.