Guilt Trip: Robert Snyder’s “Michelangelo: Self-Portrait”

Michelangelo spent most of his life on a massive guilt trip. When he painted The Crucifixion of St. Peter in 1550 (pictured), he inserted not one, but two self-portraits. To the left of the martyr, a young Michelangelo stands beside a soldier gesturing to the cross, as if Michelangelo were responsible for what was happening for his years of following the pagan ideals of beauty over the glory of God. To the right of the martyr, an old Michelangelo stands disconsolate, realizing the cost of his embracing God over the god of beauty too late.


Robert Snyder’s 1989 film Michelangelo: Self-Portrait, finally available on DVD from Microcinema, takes us along this long guilt trip as he presents these and many more self-portraits in vivid detail along with Michelangelo’s own self-portrait in words from his diaries and poems. In this film we step inside the mind, heart, and soul of a titan of the Renaissance and shed light on the long shadow he continues to cast on our culture.

Snyder filmed this portrait of Michelangelo over the course of 10 years. It begins with Michelangelo writing about his final self-portrait in the Florentine Pieta in which he cast himself as Nicodemus, the man who donated his own tomb to house Christ’s fallen body. Snyder then wheels back to the beginnings of Michelangelo’s life, showing the Caprese landscape of his childhood home and the stone quarries that became his life-long obsession. This beautiful cinematography soon centers around the works of art themselves, giving us a close-up of the master rarely seen before. Snyder gained permission from the Vatican to film the Pieta from behind its protective glass for the first time since 1972. Michael Sonnabend’s sensitive and masterful selection of texts from Michelangelo’s diaries and poems as well as his contemporary biographers allows Michelangelo to speak for himself without the intermediary of art critics. Just as Snyder brought the glass wall between us and the Pieta down, Sonnabend brought down the wall of interpretation to allow us full access to the genius’ mind and spirit.

It’s illustrative to view the DVD extra of The Titan: The Story of Michelangelo, a 1951 documentary that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary that year. Snyder produced that film, but it pales by comparison to his second effort to capture Michelangelo on film, and not just because the 1951 version is in black and white. In 1951, Snyder chose to tell the story too much by himself, whereas in 1989 he allows Michelangelo the first, and final, say. Placing the two films side by side will show you, too, how far Snyder had come in realizing how to sculpt a portrait of the great sculptor.

Unfortunately, Snyder filmed before the restoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, so the images in those scenes lack the pop and verve we now experience post-restoration. (Treat yourself to the Vatican’s new virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel to see what I mean.) However, the loving attention he pays to the sculpture spanning Michelangelo’s career. From the highly finished renderings of his youthful obsession with beauty to the unfinished, almost raw renderings of his old age’s obsession with the crucifixion and God, Michelangelo grew as a person and an artist. Robert Snyder’s Michelangelo: Self-Portrait takes the full measure of the man as few other artists have ever done.

[Image: Michelangelo’s The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1550).]

[Many thanks to Microcinema for providing me with a review copy of Robert Snyder’s film Michelangelo: Self-Portrait.]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.