you are sinful, part 1
Written March 25, 2021.
Consider this photo taken in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood.
And then consider this depiction of hell on the ceiling of the Baptistry of Florence.
Which one motivates you more? Which one do you think is truer to reality?
Are you, in fact, beautiful—currently, right now, no matter what? If so, how are you beautiful? Physically, spiritually, generally? Does your beauty come with any obligations? Does this statement/fence make you feel better?
Or are you, in fact, a loathsome sinner worthy of hell? Have your deeds made you a delicious snack for a demon? (I love his expression; you make it after your fifteenth Cheeto—dude is zoning out.) If you are not currently a stand-in for one of the munchable-damned in this painting, do you think you could be if you gave in to a few temptations? Do you see something like this and not laugh from the safe distance of the post-Enlightenment, but instead react like Rilke before the torso of Apollo and hear a voice saying, “You must change your life”?
If I had a choice between walking past a lower-case “you are beautiful” sign every day or some graffiti replica of this demon, it would be the hungry demon for sure. Without a doubt. Whenever I see one of those “you are beautiful” signs, which are unfortunately common on the North Side of Chicago, I think: Fuck you, sign. You don’t know me.
“you are beautiful” is an art project by Matt Hoffman. "I landed on that phrase just because I believe that it's true no matter what," he told the Chicago Tribune in 2015, presumably including HATERS like me in the no-matter-what category. The Tribune noted that, “Thirteen years and 2.5 million stickers later, the project has evolved into big public art installations and led to collaborations this holiday season with shoe company BucketFeet and home decor company Unison, both based in Chicago. Real estate company @properties and philanthropic organization Chicago Community Trust recently commissioned Hoffman to help with campaigns as well.”
Simple math indicates that Hoffman creates 192,307.69 stickers per year. Therefore, in the 19th year of this self-esteem boosting graffiti campaign, there are 3,653,846.15 stickers attesting to your beauty. No more, no less.
The demon mosaic is not by Matt Hoffman— it’s by a different guy, Coppo di Marcovaldo, a 13th century Florentine artist and exact contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas. “Tom and I hang out a lot,” he told the Florence Sun-Times in 1271.
@properties hired Matt Hoffman to write the word “love” in cursive and of course the L is not capitalized. @properties, aka @, is a high-end real estate firm in Chicago. Cursive “love” stickers adorn many a North Side BMW. Wave the driver down, she’ll sell you a 5-bedroom, 5-bath for only $2.9 million!
I get what @ is saying:
We sell homes;
Homes are a source of love;
Therefore: we sell love.
Why mock it?
Well, because it is not cynical to mock an ad campaign that uses a childish lower-case script of “love.” It is cynical to commission, create, and copyright it. “love” does not mean “Love,” it means something far more materialistic. The childishly lower-case “you are beautiful” claim is also perfectly mockable because it is deliberately uninspiring. “You need not change a thing!” it says. “You are fine, regardless of whether you are or not!” This is an affirmation of stasis more likely to lead to narcissism than a “positive self-image.”
Despite my preference for di Marcovaldo over Hoffman, I’m not the kind of Catholic who is fixated on hell. I am not sure I fully believe in it, certainly not as a place where monstrous horned giants eat people in æternum. I believe God, not @properties, is love, and that mercy is more likely His reaction to sin than fury. I also am not a misanthrope, and I do believe each person has an inherent dignity and holiness no matter what. Call that beauty, sure, which means I do not totally disagree with all those stickers and signs.
I respond to the gory hellscape and not the terse affirmation because I think only one of them calls me to be a better person. And while I don’t pine for the harsh, hell-focused Christianity of di Marcovaldo’s time, I do wish there was more acknowledgement today of how we are often not beautiful, how we have the capacity for ugliness—like sin. Sin may not lead you to the maw of a hellbeast, but it can lead somewhere bad. Just as heaven can start here on earth, so can hell.
My understanding of hell is that it is a place of desolation, of total removal from God and therefore of love. My interpretation of di Marcovaldo’s mosaic and the many like it in Italian churches and baptistries is: check yourself. This place—all these beasts, all these impaled, flayed, and half-eaten departed—this is all just a metaphor, sure, but being alienated from God can feel a lot like this or worse. So knock that shit off.
Yeah, "Knock that shit off." That's worthy of a fence. And I should paper this essay all over town. Just need to hit print 3,653,846 times.