August, Art and the Catholic League
How 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. It’s 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 can’t 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 it’s too hot to war with an assailant growing at the speed of Texas stink weed. And with a root system to penetrate Tora Bora.

It’s 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 who’s 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 year’s Turner prize. Or which Whitney curator prefers the "narrative" of soiled sheets and tampons to paint. Not that it matters. Artminds are wondrously predictable.


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 Saatchi’s 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 cultural depravity.

While the League congratulated itself for its powerful blow against demon blasphemy, Ofili’s resale value skyrocketed. Gratified by the League’s complicity in its shock tactics, the art establishment appealed piously to the First Amendment. Saatchi’s cat swallowed the cream and art marketeers understood a very different moral to the tale than did Bill Donohue’s troops.

So let’s guess who has been chosen to represent Britain in next year’s Venice Biennale. Chris Ofili? Really? Wow, imagine that! Who’d a’thunk 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 luster—and lucre—to 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 Lilek’s blunt response to press releases insisting that Ofili’s African heritage lends Third World caché to the contemplation of dung: "Well, when you lack access to oils and watercolor, yes, shit happens."

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 Serrano’s "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 effect—something more substantial than scoring verbal apologies—the 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, Serrano’s 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 picture—not necessarily to its taste, but nonetheless valid—of 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:


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. Serrano’s 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 there’s 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! You’re a Catholic, right? Here, take the Mass schedule at St. Agnes. If ever you feel like praying with us—or for us—please come by. Don’t be shy about stopping at the rectory for coffee and crullers after Mass. We’d love to talk about your new work. God bless. You too, Chris. See ya.


© 2002 Maureen Mullarkey

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