Reflections on Philip Guston's The Tormentors (1948)

(c) Philip Guston, Fair Use
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One of my favorite paintings is The Tormentors (1947–48) by Philip Guston. Guston was famous for a style of art known as "Social Realism." In some of his paintings, he used hooded figures after the KKK had attacked one of his murals in LA. He once said that he was trying to imagine himself as the person behind the hood, asking himself "What would it like to be evil?" An example is Gladiators (1940)—in which everyone is hooded and fighting against each other.

The Tormentors, is one of his first transitions from figurative to a non-objective style painting. Though, he once argued that there is no such thing as non-objective art: "Everything has an object. The question is just what kind."

One major emphasis in my own theology is that the Spirit of God brings a wisdom that causes us to see the sacredness of creation in a way that causes a break in our understanding, forcing us to see that the world is not under our control. The work of the Spirit is to unite us, blurring our lines of division and our illusion of control. This means that wisdom requires a break with the notion of objectivism as a mode of learning. All knowing, Parker Palmer said, is intimate and relational.

Several times this week I have thought about Guston's paintings. It is easy to demonize others. One gift of being human is that we are beings capable of empathy. We are capable of seeing ourselves in others. Thus, the real work of being human is to break out of the "predator-prey/us-them/good-evil" paradigm and work toward universal reconciliation and wholeness.

That is what I imagine is going on in Guston's paintings. We are being invited by Guston to see that things are not as they seem, that the world is not as clear as we imagine, that our greatness is not in our ability to control, that the lines we have drawn are not the building blocks of reality, and that there is life to receive from the world when we let the the deep love at the heart of the universe teach us how to see what it is trying to teach us.