Vik Muniz and Marat, revisited

In my October 26, 2010 posting on Viz Muniz and Jean-Paul Marat, I concluded on an idealistic note that “Ashes to ashes, sewer to junkyard, l’ami du peuple would have been proud.” Returning to the topic now in preparation for next week’s exciting conference on The French Revolution in Global Popular Culture, I am starting to see things a bit differently.
Although Ellie Bronson argued in a 2011 article in Art Critical that Santos was “fittingly styled after David’s ‘The Death of Marat,’ I now wonder: what is “fitting” about Muniz’s reappropriation?
The more that I learn about Sebastião dos Santos (known as Tiaõ) and the more that I study Vik Muniz’s project, the less sense this connection makes.
Unlike Jean-Paul Marat, Tiaõ dos Santos received a minimal education. He began working as a garbage picker (more precisely, as a picker of recyclables) in the Jardim Gramacho landfill at age 11. The stunning successes he has attained as founder and organizer of the ACAMJG, the union that has embraced the needs of the Jardim Gramacho workers, are the result of his formidable intellect and drive to make something of his life. It is interesting that the primary influence he mentions is The Prince, by Machiavelli, which he found in the trash. “I learned so much from that book,” he says.
(Marat, on the contrary, was born into what appears a comfortable family situation in Neuchâtel; both he and his brother were sent to school and his brother eventually attained a prestigious post as professor of the Lycée impérial of Tsarkoïe Selois–now known as Pushkin, a city nearby Saint-Petersburg, Russia. Marat pursued studies in medicine, traveled widely in Britain where he attained a certain success as a writer and scientist, and for a time had a flourishing practice among wealthy Parisians.)
In Wasteland, we learn that Santos is a good father, caring, warm-hearted and tender. We see Santos walking hand-in-hand with his young daughter, and sitting cozily next to her on a couch, where he stokes her dreams of going to school to become a psychologist. He is also a good son: we see him telephoning his mother in tears of joy after the London auction where the portrait was first sold.
(In his later life, Marat was apparently estranged from his family. It is uncertain if he married. He had no children. These facts have long been used against him, and have helped forge the portrait of the cold-hearted terrorist that prevails today.)
The final credits of Wasteland reveal the fundamental disconnect between these two men: the portrait of Santos as Marat is juxtaposed against a text mentioning that “a lot of people now believe in Tiaõ and look to him as a leader; some dream that one day he could become president.”
Although Marat achieved a powerful following among certain groups in Parisian society during the mid-1790s, and was elected deputy to the Convention government in 1792, he was not a gifted statesman, to put it mildly. He was a writer of corrosive prose and a divisive figure. Some claim he mounted one of the bloodiest errors in revolutionary history (the September massacres of 1792). His fame was not due to his humanitarianism, but rather to his inflammatory newspaper and prowess at self-fashioning himself as the truth-speaking “man of the people.” His assassination at the hand of a royalist was almost too good to be true: it launched a hack writer into martyrdom by realizing what he had long been telling readers of L’Ami du peuple.

By now, Santos has likely learned that Marat was more than just “an intellectual” (the only adjective used by Muniz to describe him in the film). I wonder if he still appreciates the connection? And I wonder if Muniz regrets yoking his friend to this villain of international disrepute?


4 thoughts on “Vik Muniz and Marat, revisited

  1. The inspiration to have Tiao mimic that painting was merely the fact that Tiao found a copy of that painting in the garbage. He recognized it, and said how much he liked it. So they emulated the same image, except they used garbage. I speak Portuguese, and I wasn’t reading the subtitles…maybe that got lost in translation? I wouldn’t over analyze it, though. The documentary has a simplistic approach. The art portrayed only had meaning to the people portrayed in it, not the story itself, per se.

    1. Thanks for writing, and regrets that it has taken me years to discover this unanswered comment. I would say that when one redoes a classic work of art, one must expect a multilayered response from spectators. Even if, as you write, “The art portrayed only had meaning to the people portrayed in it, not the story itself” that does not mean other spectators will not see through the remake and wonder about its relation to the original. That’s the beauty of art: its ability to stir so many diverse reactions in viewers over time and to create meaning in lives far removed from the original context… I remain wary about the connection, despite what the principals might have thought at the time. No one in their right mind would want to be known as a modern-day Marat.

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