Art-Smart Catholicism
Review of “Post Modern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art” by Eleanor Heartney. New York: MidMarch Arts Press, 2004.

The contemporary art world is home to a barbarism more corrosive than the Catholic-baiting that preoccupies Bill Donohue’s Catholic League. The arts are mission territory, to be approached with as much charity and cunning as the dugout of aboriginal tribesmen.

Ron Athey

That is the unintended message of Eleanor Heartney’s Post Modern Heretics. The conscious one is rather different: Ms. Heartney hopes to ease adversarial relations between art and religion. An experienced, award-winning art writer, she explores “the carnality of the Catholic imagination,” building a case for public understanding of controversial art considered blasphemous or transgressive. Ms. Heartney argues that deep veins of Catholic spirituality inform the very art that religious conservatives love to hate.

A surprising number of controversial artists, playwrights, performers and film makers claim Catholic upbringing or consider themselves practicing Catholics. So the book asks an appropriate question: Why have artists who were raised as Catholics figured so prominently in the battles of the Culture Wars? In framing an answer, Ms. Heartney records the meager religious understanding and facile political stances of the many artists under discussion. But she brings to her subject no greater discernment than theirs and, consequently, cannot recognize the abyss that she describes.

Ms Heartney leans superficially on Fr. Andrew Greeley’s The Catholic Imagination but lacks Greeley’s theological agility or sly self-knowledge. She mistakes attitude for substance, missing Fr. Greeley’s essential, albeit suggestive, sobriety. Fr. Greeley knows a tour de force when he creates one. Ms. Heartney accepts at face value both his incitements and the cruder ones of artist provocateurs: Andres Serrano (“Piss Christ”), Chris Ofili (impresario of elephant dung), Robert Mapplethorpe, Madonna and Karen Finley, among others.

Take Ms. Finley, who smears her naked body with chocolate-as-excrement, enlists the Virgin Mary in her pro-choice cause and calls for a female pope. Ms. Heartney, faithful to the artist’s press releases, claims these stunts derive from rage against a religious culture “that negates the humanity of those who refuse to abide by its dictates.” Issues such as personal pathology, neurosis, exhibitionism or ignorance are not admitted.

For Ron Athey, an HIV positive, tattoo-covered man active in the S&M subculture, masochism is an “act of healing.” Elements of that culture—piercings, bloodlettings, flagellations—appear in his performance works. Ms Heartney describes them as “visual and theological symbols of the Imitation of Christ.” She remains deaf to the pitiable—quite unChristlike— narcissism of Athey’s purposes: “While horrible things were happening to me, I was getting extra love and attention.” Asking what role S&M or heroin addiction played in his contracting AIDS to begin with is a forbidden question.

Ms. Heartney never examines art world orthodoxies, chief among them the conviction that artists’ achievements are identical to their stated intentions. With skepticism toward artists’ pronouncements banned from the get-go, Ms. Heartney has no ear for humbug, no means to gauge the cogency of her subjects’ animus: “Serrano remains disturbed about official policies of the Catholic Church, particularly with regard to the status of women and its failure to carry out its mission to aid the poor and oppressed.”

In Ms. Heartney’s lexicon, religious vocabulary is drained of meaning. What remains are the externals of a reductive, demi-Catholicism providing fodder for art that mimics religious practice. As she uses it, redemption signals a kind of alchemy that renders all behaviors benign, all substances palatable. Ms. Heartney’s comment on Serrano’s “Piss Christ” is typical:

The yellow-orange radiance which surrounds this the cheap dime store crucifix is made possible by the medium of urine through which it has been photographed. As a result, the work redeems this socially unacceptable substance.

It is hard to tell for whom Ms. Heartney is writing. Anxious to disassociate herself from her likeliest audience, she confesses to abandoning the folk ways of her Irish Catholic upbringing. She deplores “the religious right," “right-wing scrutiny” and “the conservative onslaught” waged by Republicans and related lowbrows. And, yes, the Catholic League.

Why read this sad and silly book? Precisely for its pathos and the depth of its vacuity. Ms. Heartney’s case histories are testaments to a desolation that cries to be addressed, not dismissed with mirror-image grandstanding. They make compelling reading for anyone who would understand why Catholic League tactics, borrowed from the Left’s own sensitivity squads, misfire in the act of obtaining their objectives.

Taking offense is the anticipated and desired response to shock art; it ratifies art world images of the Church as punitive and censorious. Imagine the confusion among our culturati if the League welcomed “Piss Christ” as a true picture—certainly not to its taste, but nonetheless valid—of the way the world treats its Saviour.

A culture war is not a street fight. The difference is pivotal if Catholic groups like the League are serious about having a humane effect—something more significant than scoring apologies or closing events. The arts, too, wait to be redeemed.


A version of this review was first published in Crisis Magazine, September, 2004.

Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey

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