Left: Vito Acconci, Seedbed, 1974 (Courtesy of the Sonnabend Gallery N.Y) | Right: Ron Mueck, Big Man, 2000
Vatican’s recent decision to modernize the concept of the seven deadly sins so that they correspond to the contemporary social reality and capture the essence of contemporary ethic caused the comeback of the subject matter of sin in the discussions regarding civilization.
Even though we justify the growing presence of sin in our conscience, it is always a fact that the discussion concerning this subject matter, in a matter of minutes or even seconds, turns into a discussion over sin’s causes, its inner logic, the nature of its mechanisms, even its possible practices.
Questions like: «What does the sin constitute? Which internal or external code defines it? Is there a scale to measure it? » have been preoccupying human beings for centuries, formatting the “Ethic” of each era.
Going back to the distant past we encounter the dictum of the Delphi’s oracle: «Self-awareness signifies the knowledge of the divine and the knowledge of the divine signifies the awareness of the sin». Thus, we conclude that the awareness and the acknowledgment of the sin constitute, maybe, the only way to achieve the desired self-awareness.
Many centuries afterwards, under the shelter of the recently established Christian dictum, the sin is identified with the concept of failing: to commit a sin means to fail, to fail following God’s path. The effort to define the concept of sin has already taken place since the first century A.D. when some early catalogs of sins appeared, signposts to a virtuous life. However, the official list of the seven deadly sins was established during the 6th century A.D. by Pope Gregory the Great and consisted of the following sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. For a lot of years this list constituted the ethical measure, according to which people should realize their mistakes and evaluate their ethic.
The ensuing reference to the seven fatal sins takes place during the late Middle Ages, when Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) in the «Divine Comedy» defined the seven sins as misdeeds against love, classifying them into three categories: “Perverted love: arrogance, envy, wrath/ Inadequate love: sloth/Excessive love of the earthy pleasures: greed, gluttony, lust.”
In the following centuries, from Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution and the Rationalism of the 18th century, reason dominated the popular imaginary and superstitions, thus revising human’s expectations for celestial life and producing a death culture, which promotes the present, earth world and not the supposed celestial one.
In the contemporary world, the concept of the seven deadly sins is almost superseded and is considered to be a trace of obsolete theological and philosophical traditions. As a result these demons are not only considered as incurable wounds but also as motivational powers for life and art…
Left: Dinos & Jake Chapman, Hell, 2000 (Courtesy of the White Cube Gallery) | Right: Fabien Verscaere, Last Dinner, 2007 (Courtesy of the artist)
—In this text one can read an imaginary dialog between the seven deadly sins and seven examples of contemporary art.—
Among the seven deadly sins, gluttony has the most peculiar history, which was determined by shifting social conditions and cultural obsessions . Thus, while from the beginning of the Middle Ages to the early Renaissance, the Christian conscience commanded the austere way of living and convicted gluttony as a form of paganism, since Renaissance and the rise of the bourgeois, gluttony has become a sign of pride and a symbol of prosperity. Even in our days gluttony is a fixed characteristic in the course of the western civilization, thus legitimating and symbolizing the insatiable quality of the human soul.
Paul McCarthy criticizes this phenomenon through his performance «Hot Dog» (1974), which was realized at his atelier’s basement in the presence of few spectators. The artist takes off his cloths and shaves his body. He stuffs his penis into a hotdog bun and tapes it on, then smears his ass with mustard…He approaches the tables and sits nearby, drinking Ketchup and stuffing his mouth with hot dogs. He finally tapes his bulging mouth closed so that the protruding mouth looks like a snout…He stands alone… trying to prevent his own retching. It is apparent that he is about to vomit… Should he vomit he might choke to death, since the vomit would have no place to go.
«In the souls of people humans souls the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heave for the vintage…».
Nancy Fried through her artworks delivers the autobiographical experience of female wrath. After being subjected to a full mastectomy, the artist made a series of terracotta sculptures capturing her reactions. In «Exposed Anger» (1988) an enraged face immerges through the chest of a female torso screaming wrathfully for what had already taken place.
In the context of modern commercial culture where sex is a commodity, the sin of lust has been disempowered. However, in spite of the apparent liberal ethics, sexuality and the body continue to be fronted with culpability and embarrassment, often hidden. In the beginning of the 1970s Vito Acconci through his performances examined the limits of sexuality in the context of the public domain. In the performance «Seedbed» (1972) Acconci, hiding beneath a low wooden ramp, attached to the ground of Sonnabend Gallery in New York, was masturbating while listening to the steps of visitors. The visitors could hear the fantasies that their presence provoked to the hidden artist. «You are standing right next to me… you are moving away but I am pushing my body against you, into the corner…you’re bending your head down… you’re in front of me…I’m moving from point to point, covering the floor…I have to continue all day -cover the floor with sperm…You can reinforce my excitement».
Through Acconci’s artwork a personal, private moment becomes a public statement and action. The sexual desire, traditionally associated with deeper instincts and hidden lusts, obtains deliberately the character of a public «commercial» trade.
«Envy can be the most popular among the seven sins, as it penetrates the others…».
Envy is an ecumenical feeling, in a personal as well as in a collective level. Nietzsche for example believed that envy triggered the French Revolution and the posterior ones.
The brothers Dinos and Jake Chapman captured the phenomenon of the collective envy and the intolerance in their artwork «Hell»(2000). The artwork consists of nine shop windows forming a swastika (following the demands of the great collector Saatchi who bought the artwork). In the windows 5.000 toy soldiers, 2.5cm tall each, perform decapitations, amputations, cannibalisms, hangings, rapes and other violent actions. The artwork, criticizing directly the absurdity of war, expresses at the same time the effort to tame and even to surmount the reality represented.
The sin of the sloth, the voluntary refusal to the action of life, is considered nowadays more of a human psychological need towards the hectic pace of everyday life, rather than a corporeal choice. Ron Mueck‘s «Big Man» (2000) is a milestone of this contemporary pathogenesis. The oversized hyper realistic sculpture represents a huge, naked man, sitting at a corner, facing/affronting the world in a melancholically discontent mood. If the association of this particular artwork with the concept of sloth is not clear, it is worth mentioning that the alternative term for the aforementioned sin is «acedia», referring to the sense of sadness, that governs man into unwillingness, negligence and indifference.
In Great Gregory’s list, pride, also known as vanity and hubris, held a superior place among sins, as it was the one that obliterated the virtues of bravery, self-restraint and wisdom, which sustained order and assured virtuous life. In contemporary world pride became a quality of the human nature, aggravating interpersonal relationships and disturbing the social balances.
Through his ideologically charged artwork Fabien Verscaere unravels his personal mythology, in order to criticize the human situation. In the context of his exhibition «Apocalypse Please», Verschaere presented the installation «Last Dinner» (2007), a contemporary version of the Last Supper. Thirteen almost identical figures, alluding to religious and political personalities sit around a big table. On their ostentatious faces the pretended solemnity and arrogant superiority are captured.
Among the seven sins greed is the one, which provoked the widest acknowledgment and conviction in the history of the civilization. Greed, consisted of insatiable desire and infinite inquiry, is a steady characteristic in the course of the western civilization, forming the so-called society of consumption. In the context of this society man feels he can sacrifice everything on the altar of pleasure. Mark Dion examines an aspect of this phenomenon, bringing up as a subject matter of his artistic creation man’s relation with the environment. Through his artwork, contemporary environmental issues obtain a character of protest and social calling.
In «Flotsam and Jetsam» (1994) the artist brings into the space of the gallery, the landscape of a seacoast where an abandoned boat, some thrown nets and a pile of rubbish, compose the image of a polluted marine ecosystem.
The intention of the artist, through this artwork, is to comment on the unwillingness of people to think and act effectively toward problems that threat their personal existence now more than ever.
Mark Dion, Flotsam and Jetsam, 1994 (Courtesy of De Vleeshal Gallery)
 Prose Francine, The Seven Deadly Sins, Gluttony, Athens 2006, p.13.
 Paul McCarthy, Contemporary Artists- Phaidon, London 1996, p.43.
 John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Athens 2006, p. 17
 Vito Acconci, Contemporary Artists- Phaidon, London 2002, p.41
 Epstein Joseph, The Seven Deadly Sins, Envy, Athens 2003, p.17