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William Holman Hunt's Scapegoat

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William Holman Hunt's Scapegoat
William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat
Click here or on the painting for the source.

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: November 2, 2000
Latest Update: August 29, 2005

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Index of Topics on Site Religion, Iconology,
and the Social Construction of Our World

I chose this piece because it demonstrates for those of you who are new how long we've been working on social issues of religion, their representation and expression in the art which surrounds us daily, and how both the issues and the art interactively shape our world. The scapegoat takes on our sins or errors and suffers for us. Many religions use blood sacrifice to represent the expiation of sin. And that leads us into a discussion of "cheap forgiveness" and what that means in a world that must within some philosophical positions be a loving world (Lear.) As we consider love and forgiveness in today's world some of you might be tempted to consult some polls and see where the American population stands on those issues. That means this piece relates conceptually to religion, love, and statistical understanding.

You'll find it also relates to the role of love and forgiveness, including cheap forgiveness, in the process of trying to help others, which is what many of us want to do with our careers. And finally, it says something about what that tells us as we consider leadership in the agencies, institutions, and corporations with which we work.

Let's talk about the scapegoat.

The Scapegoat A critical essay by George Landow. Online.

"[T]his mere animal, this goat, is intended to serve as a meditative image from which we can derive all the wonders of Christ's sacrifice for man. It not only provides us with a powerful physical image of suffering, which we are to understand as referring to the far greater sufferings of Christ, but it also places the image of this animal in its proper spiritual context, enabling us to observe how wonderfully God structured sacred history to inform man of coming salvation. This picture of a suffering goat was intended to furnish the occasion for a profoundly moving meditation on the life of Christ, and on the nature of sin and suffering and God's entire gospel scheme as well.

"Unfortunately, however effectively such a program might work within Victorian sermons and poems, it does not do so in The Scapegoat. For one thing it is a very realistic painting, and Hunt's image of a suffering goat is far too obtrusive: it commands our attention too much, distracting us from precisely those spiritual ideas it was supposed to convey. Part of the distraction arises in Hunt's realistic technique which renders so well every detail of the animal's wool, for this detailed portrayal of visual fact really has no iconographic significance and hence dilutes the picture's intended meaning."

Scroll about half way down the file for this citation.

Landow suggests that part of the painting's failure lay in its appeal to Evangelicals and the literalness of interpretation of the Scriptures, except that Evangelicals were not much drawn by art. And the more conservative church members, drawn to art, included very few who were familiar with the Evangelical reading of scriptures.

Landow further suggests that Hunt's religious paintings were typically far more complex, with little focus on a single iconographic symbol, like the suffering goat.

"Hunt employs but a single image, that of the scapegoat which prefigures Christ's sufferings and redemptive death. This greater iconographical simplicity, which I believe is partly responsible for the work's failure, makes it an uncharacteristic example of Hunt's typological paintings; therefore I think that Herbert Sussman is essentially incorrect when he takes it as representative of the artist's productions. ("Hunt, Ruskin, and 'The Scapegoat,'" Victorian Studies, 12 (1969), 83-90.)."


  • love - as Freud meant it, and Jonathan Lear interprets it. Freud isolated the love drive as a drive when he realized that it detached itself from its first object (the mother's breast to relieve the hunger drive) and attached itself to the infant's own thumb in thumb-sucking. Freud noted that "Even if what we take into our mouth is nourishing, it may also have a sexual significance." (Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature, at p. 144) Freud took the death drive from biology, noting that there was no sound psychic explanation for it. Sadism and aggression were seen by Freud as outwardly directed "a deflected instance" of the death drive. But he still found no psychic reason for the death drive. True, love pulls us toward the world which includes the parents who nurture and protect us. The drive has a purpose. But everyone and everything dies. There is no need for a drive to reverse the process of life. Thus, Lear concludes that "[h]uman sexuality is an incarnation of love, a force for unification present wherever there is life."

    And in the beginning, if you recall Mead, the infant does not know where self ends and the real world out there begins. The first learning must be to distinguish self from the mother, and then gradually from the rest of the world. As we do this, we learn that the self doesn't always control what it wants in the real world. But in a world not inimical to it, the infant learns that its own social construct of the world, as the infant continues to interact with the real world and to socially construct its self, is a good context, one that favors its growth. And so that world is lovable, in that it provides not everything the infant wants, but enough to satisfice the infant's major needs. "Love," concludes Lear, "is not just a feeling or a discharge pf energy, but an emotiional orientation to the world." It is in this sense that we will study love. (Ibid., at p. 153.)

  • social construct - An object or a concept which does not have any real world existence that you can touch, feel, see, recognize as "there." For example, democracy is a social construct. We pretty much know what we mean by it, but we can't find it as an object anywhere. The way that we socially construct democracy is by agreeing with one another what it is or is not, and we surely won't get consensus on that one.

    Sociologists speak of the social construction of reality, by which they mean that the real world always exist, for each of us in a context that affects our perceptions of that world. Now, you can't socially construct a chair. It is either there or it is not. But, as we socially construct our selves by interacting with the world that exists in our context, we invest our loving energy into those parts of the world that respond positively to us. The world we experience is as loving toward us as we can make it. And in constructing it as our world, we choose interpretations that will satisfy our needs and wants, and incorporate them unless reality out there refuses to acknowledge those interpretations. So if we conclude we can fly, on our own, no plane, reality is gonna take that illusion away from us quickly. It is in this sense that we construct our world by interacting with the world that others with whom we share that world and the world itself will accept.

    You might want to look at Wickipedia on the social construction of race. I was a little uncomfortable with all that argument. Doesn't seem to me to be such a difficult concept. Some things, like chairs and tables, are there. You certainly can't socially construct them away. Other things, like race, democracy, freedom, racism, and so on, are not things we can see, or stumble over. That doesn't mean they don't exist, but do exist by interacting with us, so that we can place them into a context that works for us in our world. If you want a measure of race by which you can put everyone in the world into a race box, you're going to find that you can't, because the concept of race is socially constructed. Which race, or class, or even gender you're in, depends on passing, or on the acceptance of others, to work in the real world context.

    Now, we are prone to think of things that have been settled scientifically, such as the concept that the earth is round, or ovoid, or whatever, as facts that we can see evidence of, touch, feel, be sure of. Except that string theory today has led physicists to recognize that they must merge astrophysics with particlephysics to understand the world at all, and that the world may very well be flat, with only gravity able to slither off the edge. That does not mean that we can socially construct the world. There is something we perceive out there that can fit several of our theories about what it is, but ain't none of us sure which social construct we've come up with is right: round or flat? Nor is that a problem, as long as we avoid the arrogance of knowingness, and develop a self that can thrive in uncertainty.

  • the arrognace of knowingness - pride of knowledge, especially when one is sure one's own knowledge is "right." Freire refers to this as "circles of certainty." I refer to it sometimes as closing off the apperceptive mass. Whatever, we're all pretty much saying the same thing: that knowledge for us is still accruing; there's not much we can be certain about, but reality let's us know when we've stretched too far and tried to fly without the assistance of a plane. Nothing wrong with that uncertainty. When the world we're socially constructing behaves in an unlovable way, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. Just stay enough aware to get the message that you've strayed too far from some reality out there before you jump out of a very tall building on the assumption that you CAN fly.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Read Professor Landow's essay.

    Is the Scapegoat a success or a failure for you? Does the naturalism with which the goat is portrayed distract you from the suffering of christ to which Hunt alludes? Notice how the painting works for narrative illustration and on its own. What about the iconology in today's world?

    Evangelicals are sometimes said to emphasize the sermons of the preacher (narrative) over ritual. How might that affect your feelings about the Scapegoat? Bear in mind that the scapegoat was a sacrificial goat, blood sacrifice.

    Bear in mind that some churches are more elitist than others. Would members of elitist churches be more prone to have studied and to appreciate fine art? How might that affect their reaction to the scapegoat? Suppose they'd be influenced by Landow's assessment of the work as a success or failure?

  2. Prof. Landow disagrees with the critic Herbert Sussman's interpretation of the Scapegoat as a representative work. How would an essay such as Landow's support Jonathan Lear's insistence that we must remain open-minded and resist "knowingness?"

    Consider that critical interpretations have a perspective, the critic's perspective. And bear in mind that a "representative work" is a judgment call influenced by the critic's interpretation.Jonathan Lear's approach on "knowingness" reminds us that there is no knowledge outside of context, for knowledge and context are interactive.

    The Tortured Student Scapegoat.
    Graffiti by jeanne.

  3. Suppose that jeanne submitted this painting to the Brooklyn Museum of Art as a satirical study of William Holman Hunt's Scapegoat. Do you think that Governor Pataki of New York might object? On what grounds?

    Consider that Governor Pataki recently set up rules for Ground Zero and the Drawing Center that nothing they exhibit may disparage from New York City or freedom. Remember that "In 1999 the Brooklyn Museum of Art opened an exhibit entitled “Sensation,” which featured the works of young British artists. Included in the show was a work by Chris Offili, an artist of Haitian Catholic heritage, which incorporated elephant dung and a collage of genitalia cut from magazines as part of a depiction of the Virgin Mary. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani found Offili’s materials offensive instead of celebratory, as the artist intended. He began proceedings to evict the institution from the building it leases from the city and to withhold funding appropriated in the City's budget for the museum."

    Now, if the goat represents the suffering of Jesus, and I lampoon him as a "tortured student," have I diminished the gravity of the iconology? It's not quite elephant dung and the Virgin, but it's pretty disrespectful if the iconological interpretation is known. Offili said he meant to celebrate the Virgin, not dishonor her, by the elephant dung. How is that possible? Is there a cultural interpretation? Might it relate to the omnipresence of elephant dung in Zimbabwe where i think Offili spent a year or two on some kind of fellowship?

  4. William Holman Hunt's "Oriental Mania" and His Uffizi Self-portrait (III)
    The goat was painted on a trip to Israel and Hunt is wearing an Oriental costurme, with easel in hand. What appeal did Jerusalem and the Middle East have for Hunt in the case of the goat and the oriental costume of his self portrait?

    Recall Edward Said's Orientalism. Hunt was one of the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites. They enjoyed the luxury of not having to work because the produce of the empire enriched them. But these young artists didn't have enough wealth to buy Victorian homes and support families in the manner to which they were accustomed. Do we have a similar situation today?

    Consider the competitiveness of the workplace, nepotism, and privilege.

    Consider also how the exotic might have appealed to such a group.

  5. Typological Interpretations of Scripture in Nineteenth-Century Britain By George Landow. See the second full paragraph for more information on the typological symbolism of the goat.

    Scroll about 3/4 of the way down the file to find an anlysis of the Scapegoat.

  6. William Holman Hunt. Our English Coasts, 1852 (Strayed Sheep). 1853.
    Oil on canvas, 17 x 23 in. Tate Gallery, London.

    William Homan Hunt, Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep)

    Link on image to go to source. Our English Coasts is on page 10 of 11.

  7. Look again at Landow's essay on the Scapegoat and why he says it fails. Contrast the little sheep at the bottom of the Strayed Sheep painting with the goat. I happened to come across the Strayed Sheep in planning Mind Candy. It reminded me so much of the Scapegoat, I went looking for the Scapegoat. What parallels and what differences do you see? I happen to dislike the Scapegoat. It looks like it's hurting, and I want to pick it up and take it to the vet's. Why do you think I went in search of it? (Consider my discomfort with "knowingness.")

    Consider Landow's assessment: "Unfortunately, however effectively such a program might work within Victorian sermons and poems, it does not do so in The Scapegoat. For one thing it is a very realistic painting, and Hunt's image of a suffering goat is far too obtrusive: it commands our attention too much, distracting us from precisely those spiritual ideas it was supposed to convey. Part of the distraction arises in Hunt's realistic technique which renders so well every detail of the animal's wool, for this detailed portrayal of visual fact really has no iconographic significance and hence dilutes the picture's intended meaning." Do you think that's a problem? Letting one part of a painting overwhelm others, as in a choir? How else might you solve the problem?

  8. Does Landow's explanation of why he thinks Hunt's Scapegoat fails help you understand the difficulty of communication through art? How does that difficulty work in our favor in terms of avoiding "knowingness?"

    Consider that there is no definitive right or wrong in painting. Popularity comes and goes. How does that compare to life? Especially if you consider the Freudian perspective that each of us socially constructs his/her own world context?

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