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Critic’s notebook | Sebastian smee

Confronting the unthinkable in Goya’s art

Francisco Goya’s “Attack on a Military Camp” (circa 1808-10), on view at the MFA.
Francisco Goya’s “Attack on a Military Camp” (circa 1808-10), on view at the MFA.ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

There are many dimensions to the art of Francisco Goya, as “Goya: Order and Disorder,” an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, goes to great lengths to remind us. With their slicing and dicing and reconfiguring of Goya’s career — mixing media, discarding chronology — Stephanie Stepanek and Frederick Ilchman, the show’s curators, have emphasized the range and unpredictability of this astonishing artist.

“Seated Giant.”
“Seated Giant.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But as the show comes to a close, I find myself returning repeatedly to what feels almost too obvious about Goya — so obvious, in fact, that one hesitates to dwell on it, for fear of falling back on platitudes.

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I am talking about Goya’s insistence on the stupendous, the monstrous, the scarcely creditable stupidity of human beings.

Revisiting the show, which ends on Jan. 19, and leafing through copies of the catalog and of Goya’s great print series at home, I find myself wondering: Is it permissible, today, in an enlightened, pluralistic society, to insist so vehemently on this stupidity, and in particular on the stupidity of violence?

Aren’t we supposed to understand violence, the better to get to grips with it? Shouldn’t we be more reasonable and tolerant, more enlightened than simply to insist on its senselessness? After all, there’s always a cause.

Even in the most horrendous cases, isn’t violence usually understandable, perhaps even forgivable, when we see it outside of a chillingly deadpan news report, a shocking photograph, or a black-and-white print — that is to say, when we see it in context?

I don’t know. A recent scenario, one of hundreds on offer, springs to mind. I could say “Yo lo vi,” as Goya wrote (and used as a title for one of his prints): “I saw it.” But the events in question, which unfolded in my hometown of Sydney, were in fact “covered” by CNN, and what we all saw was very limited. And maybe I’m grateful for that. (Goya didn’t actually see most of the atrocities he depicted either. But you can be fairly sure they happened).

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So: A man with a record of criminality and religious fanaticism, big chips on his shoulder, and delusions of grandeur walks into a café in central Sydney. He takes the customers and staff hostage for 16 excruciating hours. He uses his hostages as human shields. He wears a headband inscribed with the words, “We are ready to sacrifice for you, O Muhammad.”

He demands, among other things, the flag of the organization calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to be delivered to him, and asks to conduct a conversation with the Australian prime minister on live radio. He forces several of his hostages to record demands that they must then post on social media.

The world waits. In the sudden and bizarre denouement — God knows what exactly happens in there — two people are killed. One, a 38-year-old barrister, was the mother of three children under 10 and the sister of an old college friend of mine. The other was the 34-year-old manager of the café.

For what? Precious lives, nurtured and built, through love and luck and great labor, summarily undone by a pathetic, muddle-headed fool.

“Why?” (from “Disasters of War”)
“Why?” (from “Disasters of War”)Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Is that what he was? It is always hard, of course, to find apt words for such narratives. Even harder, perhaps, to find words for the Boston Marathon bombing, the insane massacre of 132 schoolchildren that took place in Pakistan on the same day as the two deaths in Sydney, the slaughter of 20 small children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary, the routine, virtually random executions that take place in our inner cities daily, or — more dismally breaking news — the eye-rubbingly futile murders that took place at a satirical newspaper in Paris on Wednesday.

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When words do flow, they tend to be uncomfortably heavy, or weirdly abstract. We say “evil,” because what else could it be? We use “tragedy” and “nightmare” because — well-trained in empathy — we reflexively see things from the point of view of the victims and their inconsolable loved ones, and imagine that suffering and anguish on this scale must have a commensurate cause.

But usually the cause is not commensurate, nor is the effect, and there are other words that in many ways feel more accurate. Senseless. Idiotic. Pathetic. Grotesque. Feebleminded beyond belief. These are the words that I think Goya might have used had he been interested in words.

He was not, of course — or not particularly. He had, instead, a genius for images. Look at his “Disasters of War” etchings, some of which are in the MFA show, and you see this genius in action. It is a genius that combines stunning virtuosity with a freewheeling, almost manic quality that is unlike anything in art, before or since.

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“All This and More” (from “Disasters of War”)
“All This and More” (from “Disasters of War”) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Wild-eyed men are cut down at close range by soldiers with rifles. Women are yanked from their babies and raped. They retaliate with spears and stones, and spur on their menfolk to wilder, more brutish acts. “What courage” writes Goya in one of his sardonic titles, and you know he is also thinking, “What madness.”

A man retches over a pile of corpses in “This is what you were born for.” Men steal clothes from the recently slaughtered in “They avail themselves.” A man and woman cover their mouths and noses over terrain strewn with naked corpses in “Bury them and keep quiet.”

Other images of base murder and its aftermath have telltale titles such as “All this and more” and “One cannot look at this.” Naked bodies are thrown in a hole in the ground: The image is called “Charity.” In “Rabble,” a body, naked from the waist down (is it even alive?), is about to have a long stick shoved up its rear end.

Infamous etchings of clumsy, unceremonious lynchings, dismemberments, and impalings have such titles as “This is too much!,” “Nobody knows why,” “What more can one do?,” “This is worse,” and simply, “Why?”

Why, indeed. There is no reason. Reason is conspicuous only by its absence. Instead, Goya impresses on us, we are dealing with sheer derangement. Monstrous folly.

Our Age of Reason inheritance tells us that violence — even of the most egregious, vile, unconscionable kind — has causes, and that we would do well to study and come to terms with those causes. I am not ready to let go of this idea. I see its value. But Goya makes me realize that it is an idea of limited efficacy.

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“What one does to another” (from “Caprichos”)
“What one does to another” (from “Caprichos”) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

As his images of senseless violence accumulate, a deeper apprehension sets in — one that goes beyond diagnostics. It is a visceral registration of that which is most putrid and pitiful about humans. And that recognition triggers in turn a dangerous idea: the possibility that the most helpful response to these depredations may be not so much to shine the light of reason on them, the better to understand and digest them, but rather to swear never to come to terms with them, never to tolerate them.

Instead, we might be better off cultivating the art of intolerance, and doing so in the same spirit in which Goya produced the “Disasters of War” and “Caprichos” etchings. Bear witness, Goya was saying. Do not close your eyes, do not let things slide. But have no truck with catastrophic stupidity. Declare it for what it is.

In the meantime, love reason and everything it has given us, but recognize that reason is not a free-floating faculty that leads inevitably to the right answer, and ultimately on to Utopia. That illusion, a vestige of the same Enlightenment that produced Goya, met its comeuppance almost as soon as it was proposed.

In France, the comeuppance came in the form of the mob, the guillotine, the Terror. In Spain, it came in the form of the Inquisition and the Peninsula Wars, both of which Goya lived through.

The 20th century did everything it could — everything we would wish not only undone, but unimagined — to prove that the divine faculty of reason was no match for human baseness, and was in fact more than willing to put itself in service to such baseness.

And the 21st century, on all the available evidence, seems bent on reiterating the point. Idealistic revolutions — in Egypt, in Libya, and elsewhere — are still being twisted into travesties of their original, often noble impulses. Powerful nations, meanwhile, blatantly betray their most loudly trumpeted ideals, perpetrating torture (with dogs and hoods, repeated near-drownings, anal penetration, and unstinting humiliation), and then redefining torture with Orwellian shamelessness and utter impunity. They are surprised at the hatred this stokes.

A deeply troubled teenager in Connecticut, the offspring of a “gun enthusiast,” is somehow allowed to spend most of his waking life playing dementedly violent video games and given free access to a whole arsenal of murderous weapons. In the wake of what ensues, the talk is of evil, and gun control, and care for the mentally ill. But none of it is remotely commensurate with what happened, minute by minute, in those classrooms that day, or with the trauma and grief that the surviving small children and their families still live with today.

It is called “unimaginable.” But Goya knew the reverse was true. It is all too imaginable, and it is stupid, grotesque, and humiliating, is it not?

Back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Goya was extremely quick on the uptake. Reason, to him, was precious — and not only precious, but beautiful. In his art, he endowed images of its betrayal with a visceral charge, a haunted revulsion.

“The unique power of his work,” wrote the art critic John Berger, “is due to the fact that he was so sensuously involved in the terror and horror of the betrayal of Reason.” He was an artist, after all, and art is a sensuous, not a rational medium.

Goya was never interested in making his art embody reason, decorum, hope, or anything approximating utopian thinking. He was far too alert to humanity’s dark side. His most reasonable pictures are by far his most boring. Isolated from the others, they can make him look third rate.

What he wanted to show us, with an eagerness and urgency that still scalds, was the remorseless, terrifying stupidity of irrational violence. Seeing it, I shiver, and occasionally think of something the Italian Curzio Malaparte wrote in “The Skin”:

“I do not like to witness the spectacle of human baseness; it is repugnant to me to sit, as judge or as spectator, watching men as they descend the last rungs of the ladder of degradation. I am always afraid they will turn around and smile at me.”

Goya was afraid, truly afraid, of exactly this smile, as all of us should be. It is the imbecilic smile one sees on the face of his “Dancing Giant,” who capers about freakishly before a terrified huddle, as two heads howl monstrously in the background. And it is the smile one doesn’t see but involuntarily imagines, just faded or about to break out, on the face of his “Seated Giant.”

You may wish to see it again before the show closes. Then again, you may not.

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Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.