August, Art and the Catholic League
to cope with cultural dementia
It is August. The slurred click of cicadas pulses in rhythm
with heat waves rising from the road. Great arching canes of
old forsythia look invalided. My grass is beyond saving and
rabbits have done away with patches of clover that pinch-hit
in the bare spots. The rabbits, reckless in the heat, are sprawling
on rocks to find cool, off guard to ravens and foxes.
Watering is out of the question. This town boasts a state-of-the-art
water filtration system. Not a single bacterium should get through
the plumbing to the lips of young Greens grooming for Yale and
Brown. Pipes are lined with platinum. Its cheaper to pour
Chateau Margaux on your hollyhocks than turn on the hose. So
we save water for the Norwegian spruces and Japanese maples.
Only bittersweet vines hold up against thirst. Bittersweet
is the anaconda of plant life around here, a marauder that slithers
out of the ground everywhere. Splendid to look at, it is a serial
killer, strangling anything that cant run. Today it is
snaking through my hydrangeas and onto the last ancient dogwood
that still flowers. New tendrils, from shoots cut back last
week, glide again into the ramblers and grandiforas. But its
too hot to war with an assailant growing at the speed of Texas
stink weed. And with a root system to penetrate Tora Bora.
Its just too hot to work. Too hot to do anything but
swing in a hammock and take bribes.
Galleries close in August. Cruising renovated industrial lofts
in Chelsea comes to a halt. [You only go to Soho these days
to shop for shoes. The art crowd, in bore-me-later black leather
and Manolo Blahniks, catches the M23 crosstown bus for the Chelsea
piers.] No more receptions with pompous blather made worse by
bad jug white. No more starvelings and freebooters scarfing
down the donuts before the artist even shows up. Best of all,
artists get time out from the strain of looking over their shoulders
to see whos gaining on them.
It is a month without gossip. This is the only time all year
when nobody bothers guessing what kind of stunt young Brits
will pull for this years Turner prize. Or which Whitney
curator prefers the "narrative" of soiled sheets and
tampons to paint. Not that it matters. Artminds are wondrously
I was reminded of just how predictable by James
Lilkeks, gifted observer and übercrank. I took my laptop
into the hammock to reread his delicious screed "The
Follies of Modern Art: a bilious harangue." It took
me back a season to the dust-up at the Brooklyn Museum over
Charles Saatchis collection of juvenilia packaged under
the label "Sensation." The magnet was Chris Ofili,
an unknown painter out of some old British colony or other.
He had decorated
the Virgin Mary with delicate cuttings from porn portraits
and dried elephant droppings.
Viewed from a distance, it was mildly pretty. Up close, it
was Our Lady of Feculence. Virgin Bitch for the cognoscenti.
The Catholic League rose to the bait. It catapulted Ofili [a
pun on offal?] to big-cheese status with noisy demonstrations
and righteous press releases. The audience came in droves to
watch Rosary Society matrons and retired Knights of Columbus
pass out "barf bags" to attendance lines. It was the
first time most spectators had been within ten metro stops of
the Brooklyn Museum. But everybody shows for a panty-raid on
While the League congratulated itself for its powerful blow
against demon blasphemy, Ofilis resale value skyrocketed.
Gratified by the Leagues complicity in its shock tactics,
the art establishment appealed piously to the First Amendment.
Saatchis cat swallowed the cream and art marketeers understood
a very different moral to the tale than did Bill Donohues
So lets guess who has been chosen to represent Britain
in next years Venice Biennale. Chris Ofili? Really? Wow,
imagine that! Whod athunk it. Take a crack at what
his likely entry will be? Word is out that he will exhibit "Upstairs
Chapel," a group of twelve paintings of The Last Supper
depicting the assembly as a gathering of monkeys.
Hats off to you, Bill. You sure know how to lend lusterand
lucreto otherwise forgettable ephemera.
The League has time to prepare its response to the Biennale
menu and its inevitable spin-offs. If anyone at headquarters
has some subtlety of mind, they will plan on ways to defuse
provocations, not feed them. Leave them toothless.
Prospecting for insults mimics the larger cultural drift toward
a society in which subjective feelings trump every other reality.
In regard to the arts, the Catholic League itself is a corrupting
influence, no matter how many apologies it racks up. It becomes
one more self-referential deflection from the common good. If
feelings are king, whoever parades the most raw nerves about
a particular topic can squelch debate on the issue. Does Bill
Donahue want to take us any farther down this demagogic road?
Poised to catch the world sticking its tongue out, the Catholic
League lends credence to the very anti-Catholic bigotry it wants
to combat. Finding sacrilege under every rock obscures understanding
of the sacred. In the end, it is counter-productive. A culture
war is not a street fight; and territory ought not be confused
with press attention. [Bill Donahue: "It made the front
page of the New York Post!"]
James Lileks own attitude is more instructive: "If
art contains shit we should take it at its word." No false
piety here. No inflating an adolescent art-prank to heroic proportions.
His dismissal cuts through the cultural dementia that is the
opiate of our art professorate. I love Lileks blunt response
to press releases insisting that Ofilis African heritage
lends Third World caché to the contemplation of dung:
"Well, when you lack access to oils and watercolor, yes,
Mothers Against Judgmentalism should keep their kids away from
Lileks. And Bill Donahue should take a few tips.
Lileks "Follies" makes passing reference to
Andres Serranos "Piss
Christ," target of another, earlier, misfire by the
Catholic League. It is a topic worth revisiting if Catholic
groups like the League are as serious about engaging contemporary
culture as they are about grandstanding. The arts are home to
a barbarism significantly more corrosive than the Catholic-baiting
that preoccupies the League. If Shoutin Bill cares about
having a humane effectsomething more substantial than
scoring verbal apologiesthe League should approach the
arts with all the care of missionaries in Papua New Guinea.
Simply as an image, without regard to its provocative title,
Serranos infamous photo is quite lovely. The crucifix
floats in a pale golden, effervescent haze. Ginger ale? Champagne?
It could read as a celebration of the means of redemption. Only
the title tells us otherwise.
Taking offense is the anticipated and desired response. Imagine
the confusion among our culturati if the League welcomed the
image as a true picturenot necessarily to its taste, but
nonetheless validof the way the world treats its Redeemer.
In truth, the world pisses on the cross every day. Catholics,
sinners all, are not exempt.
Imagine a press release along these lines:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
We, members of the Catholic League, acknowledge the power of
vulgarity in exposing the raw indecency of sin. While some might
have reservations about the prudence of Mr. Serranos composition,
we unite in applauding the sound theology behind it.
The Spirit works in mysterious ways, even to transforming the
questionable taste and bad manners of artists. Not every artist
is gifted with powers of exalted expression. But even lesser
gifts bear witness to the effects of original sin. They, too,
serve who only stand and stun. Mr. Serrano has given us a graphic
image of a point made daily, if less colorfully, in pulpits
from Seattle to Amsterdam. Especially Amsterdam.
The League remembers that the Church has its own iconographic
tradition that many find unseemly or shocking. Think of statues
of St. Agatha carrying her breasts on a plate, like cherry-topped
meringues. Then theres St. Lucy, her eyes served up as
canapés. Picture St. Roc, lifting his skirt like a chorus
girl to point coyly at horrid sores on his inner thighs. The
crucifix itself is startling, an image of violent cruelty.
Andres Serrano has brought up to date an ancient pictorial
pairing of the sacred and the grotesque. He has helped us see
the crucifix with fresh eyes. Bravo!
Pssst, Andres! Youre a Catholic, right? Here, take the
Mass schedule at St. Agnes. If ever you feel like praying with
usor for usplease come by. Dont be shy about
stopping at the rectory for coffee and crullers after Mass.
Wed love to talk about your new work. God bless. You too,
Chris. See ya.
© 2002 Maureen Mullarkey