Bastille Day 2012. Why we should celebrate July 13 instead

As you prepare for Bastille Day, think about its dismal aesthetics. The Place de la Bastille in Paris is disappointing: apart from that blinding opera house, there’s not much to see. The prison which was so famously stormed on July 14, 1789 had long been dismantled by the time the Third Republic government came up with the idea for a French Fête Nationale in 1880. Is it any wonder that by the 1940s, some people were calling for a celebration on July 13 instead? July 13, 1793 has a lot to offer. Although the Bastille may have better name-recognition than the murdered martyr Jean-Paul Marat, few people today can tell you what it looked like. As for Marat, he’s that naked man in a bathtub, grinning and bleeding to death. July 13 makes for better art.
Unlike other symbolic stories inherited from the Revolution—the Women’s March on Versailles of October 1789 or the King’s Adieux of January 1793, both of which have remained stable over the years—Marat’s assassination is infinitely malleable. Consider Picasso’s sexy “Woman with Stiletto” (1931) or Vik Muniz’s riff on the naked-man-in-the-bathtub in “Marat (Sebastião)” (2008). Muniz’s version was a wonderfully vapid example of meaninglessness layered onto the icon. Until the modern-day Marat re-ignited the revolutionary spirit… Before Sebastião—and the thousands of people who are pinning their hopes on him—slip out of sight, it is fitting to honor the Marat of Muniz.
Most everyone has heard of Brooklyn-based artist Vik Muniz by now. Since the stunning success of Lucy Walker’s documentary “Waste Land” in 2010, he has become one of modern art’s rising stars. His willfully controversial method involves copying great paintings by famous artists with media such as ketchup, chocolate sauce, or garbage, and then photographing and selling the results as Art. (Pricey art.) The serious-minded are not amused. Canadian artist Robert Bowers has slammed Muniz’s work on http://www.ted.com/, calling it “silly little things,” “the sort of things that artists do when they are showing off in bars and parties.” Bowers meant to be disparaging, but in his emphasis on the social he rendered a perverse kind of homage to Muniz.
Muniz claims to favor collective creativity over solitary work, and to prefer the company of ordinary people, the poor, and children, over celebrities. He wants to enable anyone to experience the wonder of watching odd bits of rubbish, thread, or sugar grains suddenly take shape and produce meaning. Or not. “Art has always been superficial,” he claims, insisting on the element of chance in meaning-making. But what happens when his sitter is so inspired by the experience that he foregrounds the original meaning over the floating signifier and reignites the spirit from the past? That is what happened to “Marat (Sebastião).” It was a chance encounter that galvanized its sitter, burst into the public consciousness in 2008-10, and touched a nerve world-wide. But now that the garbage dump organized by Muniz’s Marat is being closed by the Rio municipal government, the workers on behalf of whom he organized are dispersing to who knows what, and preparations for the 2016 Olympic Games are forcibly evicting the poor from the nearby favelas, the spark that made “Marat (Sebastião)” come to life may soon die out.
Describing his experience in making the portrait, Sebastião dos Santos (b. 1979) explains how the political force of the original painting crept up on him gradually:
“At first I didn’t know who Marat was. I had never heard of him before when Vik approached me to do the photo. Then, I did some quick research and had a bad impression of him, because all I knew was that over 2000 people were dead because of him, so I thought he was just a revolutionary leader, but not a good one.
Then, just a bit before we were going to the Oscars [in 2011], I got a book about him and fully understood who he was, what he did, that he represented the legitimate French quest for ‘liberty, freedom and equality,’ and that he was one of the first people to fight for justice. He was very fundamental for what we have today of [jury] trials, for example.”
Over time, Marat took on meaning for Santos: first as a very bad man, then as a democratic icon. He now embraces the cult of Marat, concluding: “So, it makes me feel very proud of having my photo / art as Marat and I think I will forever be associated with him.” Through his identification with Marat, Santos has entered history. After awarding “Waste Land” with its Human Rights Film Award in 2010, Amnesty International has joined forces and is currently battling the forced evictions of people like Santos from the Rio favelas for the 2016 Olympic Games. So this year, let’s celebrate July 13 instead. Jean-Paul Marat is dead; long live “Marat (Sebastião)”!

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