My beautiful wife was recently appointed an unpaid member of the board of advisors at the Museum of Biblical Art, so I guess you can take the following with a grain of salt: I love the MoBIA (its peculiar acronym) and its weird current show, "The Art of Forgiveness: Images of the Prodigal Son," Oct. 4, 2007-Feb. 17, 2008.
This show was assembled largely from the Jerry Evenrud Collection, promised to the Luther Seminary in Minneapolis. It includes vodka bottles, snuff boxes and posters, as well as classic works of art based on Jesus’ parable in Luke, Chapter 15. When reading the parables of Jesus, whether you believe them to originate in the Aramaic source of Jesus’ sayings or redacted by the Gentile Luke, one should remember that they were addressed to an audience steeped in the Pentateuch and were designed to turn the ethical and salvational precepts of the Old Testament upside down.
The hearers of the Prodigal Son parable hearkened to Deuteronomy 21:19: "If a father have a rebellious son. . . then shall his father and mother lay hold on him and bring him unto the elders of the city, and they shall say unto the elders of his city, ‘Our son is rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ And all the men of the city shall stone the son until he die."
Jesus turns this grim prescription on its head. There are two sons, a loyal one working on the farm, and another who takes his "portion of goods." When a famine comes, the second son, having "wasted his substance with riotous living," indentures himself and "would fain have filled his belly with the husks the swine did eat." He resigns himself to become a servant in his father’s household.
His father runs to him, "fell on his neck and kissed him," then anoints him with robe, ring and the sacrifice of the fatted calf. But there is more here than forgiveness. The elder son complains at the injustice of it all, saying, "Thou never gavest me a kid, that I might merry with my friends. But as soon as this son was come, which has devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf." Engulfed with joy, he father responds, "It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again, and was lost, and is found."
The Prodigal Son parable has justly resounded throughout Christian culture, from St. Paul’s famous proscription that "sin might abound that grace might more abound" to the words of Amazing Grace to the black spiritual Prodigal Son ("my son is found and that will be the way to carry on"), covered by the Rolling Stones on Beggars’ Banquet.
The friends of Jerry Evenrud were so thrilled by the MoBIA show that they pooled together $800,000 to buy Jacques Lipchitz’s Return of the Prodigal, a sculpture featured in the show, from the Marlborough Gallery, as a gift to the collector. That is a fatted calf, indeed! The parable provides a rich template of indulgence for the artists in the show. Thomas Rowlandson’s 18th-century cartoon depicts the Duke of York genuflecting before his father, the wasted King George III. Thomas Hart Benton’s lithograph shows the father’s house burned to a crisp, with cattle bones in the yard: nowhere to return to in Depression America.
Feelings range from the Old Testament judgment of Leon Golub to the homeroticism of Duane Michals. Is license forgiven or tacitly endorsed in the absence of stones and the promise of further feasting? Nathaniel Currier’s Wasting His Substance could occur at either celebration. James McNeill Mesple’s 1990 depiction emphasizes the kiss, father and son shamelessly entwined, as does Britt Wilkstrom’s The Prodigal Embrace.
The aforementioned Lipchitz almost depicts intercourse, and the general feeling of the MoBIA show is that human love, however passionate, is redeeming in all its physical and pleasurable manifestations. In a world in which fundamentalists of all stripes are gathering stones to murder sinners, this is a powerful message indeed and a reminder that the Bible itself can transcend its most puritanical and authoritarian advocates.
"The Art of Forgiveness: Images of the Prodigal Son," Oct. 4, 2007-Feb. 17, 2008, at the Museum of Biblical Art, 1865 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10023.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).