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Art I Love: The Dying Lioness

She's originally from the palace of Nineveh, the citadel of the last great king of the Assyrians, Ashurbanipal. Around the years 645-635 BCE, a master sculptor created a series of reliefs for the king that depicted him "hunting" lions. I put hunting in quotations because it is more like ritualized slaughter, akin to bullfighting. The animals naturally don't stand a chance of escape. Far from a hunt in the wild, the massacre begins with dozens of animals brought to the killing area in cages.

Bewildered and frightened, they emerge to face the king who kills them from atop his chariot--the closest thing to a tank in the ancient world. Any lions who get too close to Ashurbanipal are quickly dispatched by his attendants.

There are a multitude of interpretations as to why these reliefs exist. Certainly they portray a relationship between men and animals that differs from our own (at least those of us who loathe big game hunting). My reaction looking at these images is one of horror for the cruelty and sadism inflicted on the hapless big cats. That level of psychopathic violence could easily direct itself toward human beings as well. Ashurbanipal, like many rulers, relished viciousness. Scholars might protest that he was an intellectual king--one who endowed a library discovered by Iraqi archeologists in the 19th century that held priceless treasures of Near Eastern literature like the Gilgamesh. But aside from collecting cuneiform tablets, Ashurbanipal also decorated the trees in his garden with the heads of his enemies. Assyrians routinely tortured and killed captives by flaying them alive, blinding them, and impaling them on stakes. Cities who resisted them had their children murdered, their women enslaved, mounds of skulls made of the adult men, and the ground sowed with salt. The Assyrian military was so terrifying that one king committed suicide rather than face them in battle.

Many art historians have remarked on the fact that the lions in the Assyrian reliefs have more life to them, are more noble and heroic in their stoic suffering, than the supposedly majestic king who slays them. Scholars argue over what this means. Some say the reliefs are a form of propaganda which seeks to glorify the king as a superhuman conqueror, the big cats bestial symbols of Assyria's enemies. As a consequence, the artist was constrained to portray them as redoubtable and terrifying--not as any credit to the opposing side's armies--but as a testament to the king's power to defeat such mighty opponents. To read it any other way--to view the sculptor's portrayal of the lions as sympathetic--is simply to project modern sentiments onto the past.

That assumes art is a monologue. I think, on the other hand, that art is a dialogue we, the viewers, have with the artist--and with the past itself. If the work and I can't find a common language in which to communicate, then the work's simply an artifact--an inert, meaningless object that has no relevance to my life. I never feel that way when I look at the Dying Lioness. There's something about this image that makes me project myself into the past and feel the emotions these creatures feel. They're my emotions. And I think they're the artist's too.

Submerged emotions and traumas have a way of resurfacing in your art like radioactive waste that refuses to stay buried. It doesn't matter what the overt, official narrative is. In the stories we tell today, we're supposed to side with heroes and jeer at the "bad guys." Yet over and over again, it's those bad guys who grab our imaginations and emotions by the throat and refuse to let go. When you're watching Star Wars, you're supposed to align yourself with Luke Skywalker. But the minute Darth Vader steps onscreen, all eyes are on him. His sinister mask is a cultural icon, not Luke's face. He is our shadow, reflecting things about ourselves that we are ashamed to admire and fear to recognize. He allows us to feel the truth in ourselves that we cannot countenance.

Just like she does.

Imagine what it would be like for an artist to live in an atmosphere of barbaric violence and terror. Is it possible the sculptor was channeling emotions into the lioness that were impossible to consciously think--let alone express? How does one endure living in a society where a single person wields such terrifying power? Where torture is unleashed at any moment, on a whim? Considering the brutality most ancient people were forced to witness, it's probable that practically everybody suffered from post-traumatic stress. I can't help but feel that the artist is snarling at the king through her eyes, just as I would. Just as I do.

When Albert Camus selected Sisyphus as his existential hero, he opted for the dignity of resilience and quiet resignation in the face of certain doom. I choose the Dying Lioness instead. I don't care what the Assyrians might or might not have thought about her. She and I face off against the same enemies: inscrutable fates, implacable tyrants, wanton cruelty, and sacrilegious contempt for nature. She is me in the face of my own powerlessness and mortality and all the suffering we inflict on the world and the world inflicts on us. Three arrows have pierced her, severing her spine and paralyzing her hind legs. And in spite of this unendurable pain, she lifts her face to death itself and snarls in roaring defiance.


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