From Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory, a novel about the market-driven contemporary art world, I moved on to Mark Haber’s recent novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. Saint Sebastian’s Abyss (Coffee House Press, 2022) is about a painting of that name, a mere twelve by fourteen inches, but “a miracle, a masterwork, a trembling jewel” of a painting, and the two art historians who have built their careers admiring, studying, publishing on, and lecturing about this tiny gem. “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” is one of only three paintings that survive by the (fictional) painter Count Hugo Beckenbauer (1512- ?), a man who spent most of his abbreviated adult life in Berlin drinking and whoring, “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. “Count Hugo Beckenbauer,” we are told by the unnamed art historian who narrates the book, “was probably what we today would call a sex addict.”
The two art historians are the unnamed American narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have had a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day said a “horrible thing” that angered Schmidt and led to a rupture that ended their friendship thirteen years ago. But as the novel opens, Schmidt has summoned his ex-friend to Berlin, where he lies on his death bed. He has discovered the answer to the one secret to “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” that had previously flummoxed the two art historians, and now he wants to pass along the information in person to the narrator before he dies. The thoughts and memories that the narrator has as he makes his way to Berlin constitute this short novel.
To paraphrase the late, great stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield, artists and art historians “don’t get no respect” from Mark Haber, who has great fun exaggerating the stereotypes of the artist/genius and the hyper-fixated art historian. Based on the diary of Beckenbauer’s landlady, written nearly five hundred year ago, the two art historians have convinced themselves that Beckenbauer was ill, nearly blind, and daily exchanging paintings for sex when he painted “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss.” “Schmidt and I agreed that a sublime vision is the only way to account for the masterpiece, for even though I didn’t believe in God, and Schmidt didn’t believe in God, in fact we’d always taken great pride in being vigorous and committed nonbelievers, we always nurtured a conviction in something other. Hence something other was responsible for bestowing vision to the blind madman in the Düsseldorf farmhouse in the balmy summer of 1541 as he took a small canvas, no larger than twelve by fourteen, in fact exactly twelve by fourteen. . .” The painting was, in other words, the artistic equivalent to a virgin birth. But somehow, even as he headed out to the bordellos day after day, Beckenbauer “knew enough to leave the painting behind, sensing perhaps that he’d fulfilled his artistic legacy, creating a work that he hadn’t seen but felt, a work of unequivocal sublimity.”
In “true” academic fashion, both men have been able to wring long and steady careers out of this small, once-obscure painting hanging in a museum in Barcelona. The narrator has published ten books on Beckenbauer, and Schmidt nearly as many. Schmidt’s first book, August in Rhapsody, more than twelve hundred pages long, “explained in comprehensive, almost exhaustive detail with nothing left out, no stone unturned, no argument untested” that “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” was “the greatest painting in history.” And each art historian’s succeeding book sounds just about as silly.
But the heart of Haber’s book is not so silly. It’s the focus of the horrible thing that the narrator said in answer to a question at an art history conference on day in New York City. “I’d said, in essence, art is subjective and art is for everyone, namely a layman’s opinion is equal to an expert’s.” Schmidt’s response to this was to accuse his friend of “crimes of art criticism” and to cut off all communications between them. When the two art historians finally meet up again in Berlin, Schmidt vented to the narrator: “you want to criticize art but not offend, which is ludicrous, you want to exalt yourself, the art critic, while telling everyone else their opinions are just as valid, when their opinions, you and I both know, are less valid, in fact their opinions are valueless.”
Schmidt’s concern about his colleague’s objectivity actually goes back decades, dating, in fact, to the moment when they made their first trip to Barcelona to stand in front of “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” together for the first time. When the narrator started weeping at the power of the painting, Schmidt had berated him. “Leave the heart out of it, Schmidt had said, the moment the heart is involved you’re no longer a critic but a spectator and he’d said that word spectator as if it were the worst thing a person could ever be.” Schmidt, on the other hand, sees himself as an “authentic critic,” operating in a universe that sounds downright Darwinian. “Each time I’ve written about ‘Saint Sebastian’s Abyss’ . . . I’ve suppressed all the feelings and subjectivity I had . . . I’ve abolished my pulse . . . my job as a critic, was to lay waste to the work and when the work survived, when the work was resurrected despite my attacks, when the work prevailed despite my many attempts on its life, then I had succeeded as a critic.”
The narrator, however, doesn’t buy this. “Each time Schmidt insisted that I leave the heart out of it I knew it was his overabundance of heart that plagued his conscience, his flood of emotions that demanded he suppress and renounce the heart at all costs, and this contradiction or hypocrisy, I began to believe, originated from a youth in Vienna that Schmidt would mention in only the most superficial terms before quickly changing the subject.”
Head or heart? How should we react to art? Should critics and art historians leave their heart at home? This is a variation of the theme that rears itself throughout Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory as his artist, Jed Martin, tries to make all of his art honor “the essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world” that is the Industrial Age, which he believes is mankind’s highest achievement. Jed does this by trying as an artist to stay utterly neutral and detached, to strip his work of any political or social implications.
It’s clear where Mark Haber’s sympathies lie. As an art historian myself, I can say that there are fewer and fewer people like Schmidt and the narrator of Saint Sebastian’s Abyss in the discipline, men or women seeking refuge from the chaos of our world in the imagined order of another era. Haber deliciously nails this tendency to impose one’s own wishes on the life of an obscure artist in a distant century when he has the narrator brag about his book Hugo’s Paradox. In “this work of peerless and original speculative art criticism” (in the narrator’s own words), the narrator “conceptualized” the entire body of work by Beckenbauer that has been lost to history, imagining every painting that we can no longer see. Now that’s art history.