Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
Propaganda posters are a fascinating genre in their own right. Early Soviet posters are graphically compelling, and among my favorite works of art. It is a topic to come back to on a later date. But let me just touch on it for the moment in response to readers who emailed to comment on the reproductions in the previous post.
The earliest, ranging from 1918 to 1929, were heady with exhilaration for the fledgling workers' state, and the aspirations of Bolshevik internationalism. The monarchy had been toppled, tsarist Russia disintegrated, and the air was thick with revolutionary fervor. It is palpable in the posters of that first decade.
Soviet art began to flourish on posters in the months following the revolution. Initially, the Soviet agencies relied on publishing proclamations. Illustrations accompanied some of them, but there was little worth remembering. Midway through 1918, things began to change. The Red Army, founded by Leon Trotsky in April of that year, became a generous patron of graphic artists. Some of the finest work of that first decade was ordered by the military and dealt with military themes. Social motifs, such as literacy and health care, carried the same militant charge.
Later, in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky described the young workers' state:
[It] had a seething mass basis and a perspective of world revolution; it had no fear of experiments, searchings, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fiber, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years. All the best youthful forces of art were touched to the quick.
The poster was an ideal medium for reaching a population that was largely illiterate and suffering the after shocks of civil war. Few could read; paper and printing presses was in short supply. Posters were vivid, inspirational, the graphics fully intelligible apart from text.
Soviet art degenerated during the rise of Stalinism into the stock commonplaces of socialist realism. But that early generation of poster art remains stirring apart from politics. It radiates a certain martial beauty, estimable as art no less than as historical record.
The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit this earth and the kingdom of heaven, too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.
Eric Hoffer, The True Believer
A great many of our attitudes and principles which we adopt as Christian are nothing but products of our subjection to the world.
Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom
Marxism thought itself to have progressed from Utopia to science. Environmentalism makes a corresponding claim for itself.
Dimitri Stakhevich Moor. Have You Volunteered? Poster, 1929.
In his 1981 foreword to The Captive Mind, written some thirty years earlier, Czeslaw Milosz observed that the West, no less than Eastern Europe still in the Soviet bloc, was burdened with ideological pressures to conform. But he cited one essential distinction between them: “The difference is that in the West one may resist such pressure without being held guilty of a mortal sin.”
Some thirty four years later, that distinction is close to disappearing. Growing mightily all the while is the cult of environmentalism, a burgeoning state religion summarized in the catechism of sustainable development. It is the ascendant idol of our time, as magnetic—and totalizing—as the Leninist-Stalinist doctrines were to Milosz’ contemporaries. What the poet referred to as “the magic influence of the new faith,” is replicated among ourselves with a new, seemingly benign, identity.
Orthodox environmentalism is about very much more than saving giraffes or cleaning up the Hudson. The faith we are asked to embrace is the holy cause of building a new social order—a just, sustainable, and harmonious global society—by means of messianic environmentalism. We are pressed on all sides to shun skepticism and align ourselves with the ectopian gospel.
A populist pope, Peronist by culture and inclination, is preparing to lend magisterial heft to the Green creed. In the minds of the faithful, assent will become a quasi-infallible demand. Cached in theological language designed to legitimize a premature, scientifically unsettled judgment, a politicized—essentially materialist—agenda will assume the mantle of God’s will. False knowledge, already given sanctuary in academia and the press, will receive immunity to criticism on high moral grounds. Agnosticism toward the diktats of climate-change evangelists will be further marginalized. Its tincture of depravity will deepen. Catholics will find themselves pressed to enlist on God's side in the cosmic war against demon unbelief.
Francis' encyclical will arrive as a call to conversion.
Conversion here is key. Redemption is of ultimate significance, too urgent to be left to the reasoning mind and the risks of frank, unfettered argument. It is far, far too pivotal to wait for the raw data on which conviction rests. Empirical results might not come soon enough. Or at all. The only thing that can save is a prompt change of heart and habit: pre-emptive metanoia.
A.R. Golenkina. The Torch of the Third International Inflames the Whole World. Porcelain Plate, 1922.
On November 10, 2014, Václav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic from 2003 to 2013, spoke in London at an event commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. Standpoint published his address under the title “Communism's Comeback?” Klaus lamented a post-Communist lessening of democratic and economic freedoms in his homeland:
It was caused partly by the victory of social democracy in our country and partly by the importing of the European economic system, with its over-regulation, high taxation and redistribution, welfare state, and fascination with all kinds of anti-market measures, connected nowadays mostly with environmentalism, with its anti-democratic social ideology which successfully hides its real substance while pretending to care about nature, the environment and our Blue Planet. We may be oversensitive in this respect because of our long Communist experience but we see many similar phenomena, tendencies, ambitions and arguments around us today.
Gustav Klutsis. Let Us Fulfill the Plan of the Great Project. Poster, 1930. Russian State Museum, Moscow.
There is little need to wait for the climate encyclical to know which way this trolley is headed. On its website, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences announces an April 28th conference: Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: the Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Humanity. Its mission statement is steeped in the received wisdom that enchants today's collective mind. Discernible within the Academy's rhetoric, buoyant with exalted intention, is the will to dominion that drives the global environmental movement:
The goal of this workshop is to raise awareness and build a consensus that the values of sustainable development cohere with values of the leading religious traditions, with a special focus on the most vulnerable; to elevate the debate on the moral dimensions of protecting the environment in advance of the papal encyclical; and to help build a global movement across all religions for sustainable development and climate change throughout 2015 and beyond.
John Heartfield. Capitalism Robs You of the Last Piece of Bread (1932). Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich.
The Vatican's slouch toward salvation-by-ecology did not begin with Pope Francis. Daniel Stone, writing in National Geographic in 2013 stated that one lasting legacy of Benedict XVI, dubbed the “Green Pope,” was how he steered the global debate over climate change: ” . . . the pontiff has made environmental awareness a key tenant of his tenure.” In Caritas in Veritate (2009), Benedict signaled his hope for a “world political authority.” This global political body—a Brussels universalized and sacralized—would dictate procedures governing multiple global issues, environmental among them.
World political authority. It is a chilling phrase, one that runs counter to Christian understanding of the limits of politics. It is also an odd one, coming from as astute and subtle a theologian as Benedict. The mission of the Church is to keep man mindful that he has another life to live. When the Church maneuvers to be counted a player among the principalities and powers, the subversion of Christian truth and charity has begun. The true object of Green globalism is not human needs, but those of the planet. The culture of death wears many guises. Among them are the anti-humanist assumptions of environmentalism.
Yesterday's Gospel reading (John 6: 28-29) hovers over this discussion:
Then they said unto him: What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?
Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God: that you believe in him whom he hath sent.
All the rest, with its time-bound, tragic burdens, is the work of man. And men of good will, in their God-given freedom, differ in definitions of the common good and in means to achieve it. Turning stones into bread is not a work for the Pontifical Academy.
Trufim Lysenko speaking at the Kremlin, 1935.
Remember the Lysenko affair. It was the twentieth century's most notorious instance of the scandal—and tragedy—of politically correct science. By stacking the deck in favor of a manufactured “consensus” over the still-contested issue of man-made global warming, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences risks comparison with the ideologically driven postures of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era.
You might not like the comparison. But it merits consideration.
It has been some time since I gave thought to the day my soon-to-be husband and I bought our wedding rings. But the spectacle over RFRA—all the panting hysteria of a predatory media and toadying politicians aided by timorous clergy—brings it back with great clarity. And even greater poignancy.
Our wedding date was set. It was time to pick a ring. But where to look for one? How to shop? The two of us were young, broke, and scrappy. It would be some years yet before we could afford to pay retail. Besides, my intended was a combative shopper, born to hondel. He did not believe in fixed prices. There were only asking prices begging to be negotiated.
We started in Manhattan’s diamond district in the west Forties. No diamonds were on our shopping list. But 47th Street was a place to haggle, draw swords, dicker away until the doomed asking price dropped in exhaustion. His ring was easy. A plain gold band was all. It was mine that took hunting for. I wanted something chaste and spare, low keyed but rich with symbolism. No glitz. Modest but not severe. It had to be unembellished but eloquent—a sort of Grail for my ring finger.
I had no idea what my adjectives might look like in the concrete. So we trooped from stall to stall in the Exchange scouting for . . . what, exactly? Then, finally, there it was. In the showcase of an older jeweler, forearm tattooed with his identification number from a concentration camp, were simple gold bands embossed with phrases from the Tanakh. They were cut in the identical ancient block script familiar to Jesus of Nazareth, who grew in wisdom and study of Torah.
James Tissot. Jesus Teaching in the Synagogue (c. 1897). Ann Ronan Picture Library, London.
The graphic beauty of the Hebrew characters—heightened by our inability to read them—seemed a visible link to Him in Whom we would marry. One square letter followed another, spacing calculated to encircle the band with no marked beginning or end. The indissolubility of marriage seemed imprinted in the very design. Add the romance of indecipherability. This was my ring!
Next came the contest over cost. The groom-to-be went into gladiatorial mode. The seller was good at the game. It was a lengthy, spirited match. Eventually the two settled on a price. All that was left was to decide on the phrase from a sheet of suggested lines. My heart set on a passage from the Book of Ruth that reads in full:
Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go, where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.
Only the central portion (“whither thou goest . . .”) could fit around the ring but the entire antiphon is implicit in the fragment. Ruth’s pledge to Naomi is the purest and most stirring statement of friendship I have ever known. I ached to claim it for myself and wear it for the rest of my life.
Marriage. Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible (13th C). Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.
Was one of us Jewish? The jeweler wanted to know. Was either of us leaving another religion to become Jewish? No, we were not. Well then, he was sorry but he would not give us that particular quotation. The point was non-negotiable.
The rebuff was a sore let-down but we did not press. We deferred to his prohibition because, in some unspoken way, we understood. The story of Ruth is one of conversion that affirms the Jewish nation. It testifies to peoplehood. The intensity of this man’s concern to honor the sacred core of the text moved us. Here was a man who had suffered the unspeakable for no other reason than he was part of the people Ruth pledged herself to.
There was grace in his refusal. Had he granted me the words I craved, he would, in conscience, have violated the grandeur of them. Ruth’s commitment was not simply to another person but to a covenanted community bound together since the call of Abraham. Her words were his inheritance; he was not free to extend them to us.
Disappointed, I settled for words from the Song of Songs: “I found him whom my soul loveth.” Over the years, my second choice proved to be the better one. The ring is dearer to me than anything else I possess. But I did not feel that then.
• • • •
What innocents we were. It never entered our minds to challenge the denial. We took for granted the man’s moral right to refuse us; any legal issue, then, was irrelevant. But by today’s lights, we gave in too readily. We could have raised a stink. Demanded our rights as consumers. Bullied the vendor with accusations of anti-Christian bigotry. We did not have to submit to the discomfort of being told we were ineligible for what we desired.
“Something there is that does not love a wall, / That wants it down.” Pace Frost, not every barrier should be cleared away. Not everything is permeable. A nation cannot survive without borders; no culture endures without limits. Walls provide a bulwark against chaos and dissolution. That day in the Diamond Exchange, we stumbled against the very wall a man had clung to in the camps. It was the same one that had kept Jewry from disappearing centuries before modern nation states existed.
Had we been noisy enough, I might have gotten the thing I wanted at the time. But at what price to the commonweal?
Anonymous engraving. Riot in Saint-Omer, 1780s (Incitement over a lightening rod placed atop a house.)
How to discern which walls, like dikes, have to be maintained, and which left to crumble? Aggressive shows of grievance are meant to deflect discernment, not advance it. The nervous response of the five Roman Catholic bishops of Indiana cooperated with the machinery of deflection by rushing forward with anodyne assertions of the dignity of all people, all genders, as if that were in the balance. It was not. The bishops were anxious to appease malcontents whose agenda trumped conscience and the rule of law. If the bishops could not attend to the specific content of the bill—which provided standing in court for anyone substantially burdened by demands counter to their religious beliefs —better to have kept quiet.
The way to protect religious liberty is not to bleat for it but to expose the distortions, conjectural ploys, and rabble-rousing used against it. It requires tooth. By contrast, the bishops’ bridge-over-troubled-waters approach signaled to RFRA antagonists that self-serving outbursts really do work. It cooperated with bootlicking politicians in ceding ground that was never in play. Reassurance misapplied is a sentimental concession to demagoguery.
For all the anecdotes recorded in the Passion chronicle, there seems a lacuna at the heart of it. Something goes missing. Something in the text lacks explication. The politics of it are plain enough. But is there not a rupture in the psychology of the crowd, an unaccountable fickleness? Why the discontinuity between Jesus’ reception into Jerusalem and the calls to crucify him days later? Were the Jews that mercurial and unstable?
Anonymous. Fresco (14th C). Basilica of San Abbondio, Como.
Romano Guardini anticipated the question and answered it in The Lord. A magisterial reflection on the Gospel story, the book revivifies our grasp of Jesus within the contours of his time. One chapter, “The Trial,” abolishes all thought of a breach in the behavior of the multitude. In Guardini’s retelling, those who spread their clothes under his feet and, in Luke’s words, “came early in the morning to him in the temple, for to hear him” were not the same ones who cried “Crucify him:”
Pilate is skeptical but sensitive—possibly also superstitious. He feels the mystery, fears supernatural power, and would like to free the accused. He counts upon the masses to demand Jesus’ release. There is a man in prison who has been really seditious—and in addition committed murder. His name is also Jesus, Jesus Bar-abbas.
Pilate: Whom shall I give free, Jesus the Bar-abbas, or the Jesus called Messiah? But the Procurator has reckoned falsely. The crowd outside is no real cross-section of the masses composed in the main of serious, hard-working, long-suffering, honest men and women, but mob, plebs. The High Council has seen to that, and its agitators are busily and successfully spreading ‘public opinion’ among them. So they yell: Bar-abbas!
Pilate tries to placate them: “What then am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
All: “Let him be crucified.”
It is a stunning passage. So convincing. Why did we not see it before? Through Guardini's words we understand the complexity of pressures on Pilate. And we recognize that mob. It is the poison fruit of a political machine, one as old as politics itself. It lives among us. We meet it in the news, in our own streets.
Flash points change; sources of ignition differ with time and place. But from Sennacherib’s day to our own, the mob is the same: angry and relentless. From the banks of the Tigris to Crown Heights in 1991 or Ferguson last summer, resentments smolder, poised to catch fire. The Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day operated no differently than today’s party apparatchiks. Agitators, zealots, militants, monomaniacs, young Turks, influence peddlers, race-baiters, community organizers—plus ça change . . .
Guardini presents Pilate as a man who understood mob psychology as we do: The mob will not be satisfied until it inflicts pain. Blood must flow. Send an innocent to the flogging post, if only to quiet things down.
One might suppose that Pilate was simply without conscience. But this would not explain his behavior during Jesus' trial. Had he really lacked integrity, he could have directed the trial or have let it direct itself so that the sentence against Jesus would have been inflicted as against a dangerous agitator. Actually, he does nothing of the sort. He insists upon the defender's innocence—repeatedly, to the end—and then, fully conscious of the illegality of the decision, pronounces the sentence of death, and what a death! We are likely to overlook the contradiction, or to explain it away with Pilate's ‘weakness.' This is insufficient. The procurator is sucked into the depths of “the powers of darkness,” into a confusion so dark and deep that he is no longer sensible of the gruesome and ignominious folly he is committing.
Guardini passes on to Calvary by reminding his readers that they should not retreat “before the horrors recounted here, but should read them through, will all the concentration of his heart, remembering that they were suffered for him.”
. . . millions of Americans now regularly eat French-fried potatoes with their fingers. We have sunk, anthropologically speaking, beneath the level of the fork. The daily, unrecorded habits of a people are measures of its values. A disintegrated civilization shows not only in the low level of the arts, but in its pop entertainment and its lunchbox.
John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture
Nothing is more exhilarating than counting oneself an accomplished spotter of cultural decay. We relish the frisson of it even while we wring our hands. So I know what you think when you hear that the world’s first art museum catering to selfie mavens has opened in Manila. You say to yourself: We have descended from finger food down, down, all the way down to wanton flippancy in a temple of art. Worse, a pretend temple—a garish, tacky, tongue-in-cheek anti-temple.
Quite right. Yet despite that, there is something endearing about this goofy, impertinent, interactive sacrilege. We have enough vulgarities to purse lips over. This does not have to be one of them. Let me try to explain.
Previously tagged the social network capital of the planet, the Philippines have now been anointed the selfie capital to boot. According to research by Time Magazine, Manila, followed by three other Philippine cities, averages more selfies per 100,000 people a day than anywhere else in the camera phone world. You can tunnel into the sociology of this on your own. What interests me is the museum itself, Art in Island.
The whole point of Art in Island is to let people pose for selfies in front of the art on the wall. They can even touch it. And they are exempt from the absurd hush that we museum-goers adopt to prove ourselves pious appreciators of strict observance. Visitors to Art in Island can hold up their selfie-sticks, open their Instagram app, noodle the image, add a caption, and send it giggling into the wide world. It is Everyman’s catchpenny variant of the hoary old message in a bottle tossed on the high seas.
What is the message here? It is in code, but bear with me. I think it is this: that we, in our First World affluence and leisure, have made a fetish of art. The gift that it is has swollen like a puff-adder into a dogma. And a moral tonic. The Philippines, by contrast, have not had the same history of grand acquisitions that find their tax-advantaged way into public collections. Art in Island is a poor nation’s finger in the eye of the cult of art. It is an antidote to the peculiar twist taken by modernity’s bent toward idolatry.
We are a happy band, we aesthetes. We tell ourselves that art awakens the faculties by which we perceive God. Yet, quite possibly, it runs the other way around. It is the religious mind—quickened but still restless—that grants to visual art its status as a locus theologicus. (Gilson was terse: “There is no necessary connection between the fine arts and religion. . . . Religion exists in religious men.”) We distill art from the labor of its making, and quarantine it from the boundless variety of human creativity. Thereby, we raise it to an object of devotion.
Once we dematerialize art and make it a springboard for other interests, philosophy and theology among them, we hardly have to look at it. Much art-and-beauty discourse is less about art—the thing seen—than a display of the observer as an acolyte of the beautiful. Often as not, the true object of consideration is that golden panorama visible from the piazza of one's own sensibility. It becomes a selfie of another kind. Behold the beholder.
Christianity decreases while art-consciousness intensifies and spreads. More than half of American art museums were founded after 1970. New ones continue to open; older ones renovate and expand. Meanwhile, church attendance shrinks. Table 75 in the 2012 U.S. Census shows those who self-identify as having “no religion” more than doubled between 1990 and 2008. Upsurge in the authority of art is a useful index of the atrophy—or displacement—of faith in Judeo-Christian sources of revelation. On the evidence of Art in Island, Filipinos have ducked a First World god.
The Mediterranean after the beheading of twenty one Copts. Photo: Universal News & Sport.
While Christian circles contemplate the redemptive power of beauty, a conquering Islam reasserts itself. It advances in defiance of our trust in art's contribution to “the good.” The Cross was bloody awful. Harrowing. Few of us can bear to look. It is easier to repeat the mantra—unearned by you and me—that beauty will save the world.
Our beguiling but deceptive stress on art and beauty brings to mind The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vittorio de Sica’s 1971 film about a sophisticated Jewish family in Italy during the rise of Mussolini. Their ease and cultivation obscured the magnitude of the threat marshaling against them. In the end, they walked politely to their extermination, the refinement of their upbringing no stay against barbarism. It was annihilated with them.
Art in Island could not have come at a better time. Join me in praying for franchises to open in Paris, New York, Berlin, Florence, every art capital in the Western world.
Note: Art in Island has no website but the museum does have a Facebook page.
You would not pass a dollar bill on the sidewalk without picking it up. Maybe not even a quarter. I am sure of that. But a penny? Do you stoop for that? I do.
Thomas Rowlandson. Two-a-penny Buns (1799). Museum of London, London.
And I just did this morning. Two at time were lying by my car in a local lot when I ran out for groceries. That makes three so far this week. The first was lying on Lexington Avenue outside of St. Jean Baptiste earlier in the week. As I bent to retrieve it, a passerby saw me and admonished: “It's not lucky, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” I told him. “But it's unlucky to leave it there.”
And I believe that. It is the one superstition I permit myself. Never mind black cats, Friday the thirteenth, or pressing #13 on an elevator. Walking under ladders does not faze me. And where I live, a bat in the house is not uncommon. But the smallest coin, even a penny, cries to be picked up.
Thomas Rowlandson. London Penny Post (c. 1800). Museum of London, London.
Why? Perhaps because it seems too complaisant, even arrogant, to leave it there. If I snub so much as a penny, abandoning it to be stepped on, am I not tempting the gods to put me in my place? Won't the gods of the purse pay me back in some unwelcome way? I can hear them: “She's too flush to bother over pennies, is she? We'll show her.”
In day-to-day transactions, I do not trouble over pennies or any change at all. But a coin on the ground is different. You have to break your pace, bend down, and get your fingers dirty. And be seen doing it. In its way, all superstition aside, bobbing for a penny is a small genuflection made in gratitude that I do not need the very thing I stoop for.
Domenico Fetti. Parable of the Lost Coin. (17th C.). Berlin
The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.
William Burroughs, Introduction to The Naked Lunch
That book seethed up from forgotten shallows while I watched a recent episode in the third season of House of Cards. Robin Wright’s character, Claire Underwood, wants to avenge herself on a male diplomat who has slighted her. In a previous scene, he scanned her body, and told her how good she looked in the dress she was wearing. It was no compliment. It was a sneer: she was a woman playing at a man’s game.
Scorned, Mrs. Underwood—First Lady and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations—determines to act like a man. She invites the offender into the ladies’ room to negotiate just the way real men apparently do, at the urinal. Unequipped to stand, she sits on the toilet with the cubicle door open, conversing all the while. Door still open, she pulls up her pantyhose and smooths her skirt. Dead pan. Unselfconscious. After all, urinating is just another one of those natural things women do, like dressing well.
Denise Colomb. Student with Chamber Pot (1954). Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimone, Paris
A pillar of sang froid, the First Lady walks to the sink to wash her hands and dismiss the embarrassed man. The scriptwriter intends us to cheer the bold Mrs. Underwood, who looks as good with her pants down as up. She humiliated the smug s.o.b., did she not?
The scene made me wince. I had just watched something corrupting, something not meant to be seen. I felt like washing my own hands and was grateful to be watching it alone. The sense of violation was visceral, a spontaneous and instinctive recoil. The last time I flinched so reflexively to a filmed moment was when I saw Luis Buñuel’s camera slide a razor across an eyeball in the silent classic Un Chien Andalou.
Now, this morning, I read Marilyn Penn’s review of Map to the Stars, the latest film by Toronto director, David Cronenberg. Amid other vignettes crafted for us sophisticated moderns, Julianne Moore appears on the toilet. She defecates while bellowing instructions—just like a man?—to her assistant.
Max Beckmann. Medea (1949-50). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
When Medea sought revenge, she killed. Modern woman takes to the potty. One was tragedy; the other . . . travesty? low camp? We are meant to witness the second as an advance for women. An empowerment. The sight levels the playing field between men and woman. It is a liberating assault on regressive sex distinctions. I want to think that Ms. Wright and Ms. Moore have given us anomalous spectacles, a freak coincidence, not signals of a looming trend. But I am not so sure.
We have been watching men at the urinal on TV and in the movies for years now. We have become quite used to it, forgetting that an earlier generation of actors would never have been filmed at a toilet. Rarely does any plot require a men’s room scene. (Dinner Rush, with murder on its mind, was an uncommon exception.) Yet, somehow, male characters are routinely viewed, back to the camera, at a urinal. American Standard tethers good guys to bad, shoulder to shoulder. A plumbing fixture reduces hero and anti-hero to the same bodily reality, the same exposure. Here’s looking at you, kid.
Is it girls’ turn now? We cannot imitate the male stance but we can shed our mortifications. Stuffy relics of prudish, bourgeois attachment to privacy are the last obstacles to full surrender of shame. There is no getting back to Eden until we rid ourselves of taboos of concealment that every society until our own enacted and secured to mark the boundary between man and animal.
Pier Ghezzi. Monk with Carrot & Woman with Chamber Pot (18th C.). ©Metropolitan Museum of Art
In her groundbreaking study, Purity and Danger: an Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), social anthropologist Mary Douglas took the techniques of research into non-Western cultures and applied them to her own. Dame Douglas, a practicing Catholic, warned against modernity’s lust for the abolition of taboos that accompany a sense of the sacred. Building on a vibrant body of anthropological material, she argued for the social necessity of boundaries between what is public and visible and what demands to be shielded from view.
Not only is that separation fundamental to an ordered society—the crux of social justice as the term was traditionally understood. To Douglas, it is also the bedrock of meaning itself:
An unstructured society leaves us prey to every dread. As all the veils are successively stripped away, there is no right or wrong. Relativism is the order of the day.
Her essay “Environments at Risk” acknowledges that relativism is the summons offered by our times. It is an “invitation to full consciousness” that we cannot avoid. We are compelled to accept:
But we should do so knowing that the price is William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. The day when everyone can see exactly what is on the end of every one’s fork, on that day there is no pollution and no purity and nothing edible or inedible, credible or incredible, because the classifications of social life are gone. There is no more meaning.
In a world bereft of reticence, intimacy vanishes together with shame. And alongside them both, goes all coherence in our common life. At the end of our forks is disarray. And absurdity.
Children were lifting their tunics for each other before pants ever existed. You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine. It is an ancient dare, a forbidden game, played behind bushes, in stairwells, or in rumpus rooms with the door shut. In secret.
But when a grown woman plays it by herself in the Musée d’Orsay, under lights, and in full view of other grownups, we know we are not in a playroom anymore. Not even one in Sin City. We are somewhere close to the Central London Hatching and Conditioning Center. (The d’Orsay is in what we still call Paris but one part of Huxley’s World State is just like another.)
On Ascension Thursday last May, Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah de Robertis went to the Musee d'Orsay in a gold sequined mini-dress. Barefoot. No panties. She sat down in front of Gustave Courbet's famed Origin of the World (1866)—that peerless beaver shot—spread her legs, her labia, and showed the world her own smiling orifice. She titled her performance Mirror of the Origin. Her cameraman videoed the stunt for broadcast later on Vimeo.
Ms. de Robertis abjured any hint of exhibitionism. She told Le Monde:
I behave in a very natural manner, which is why even when there are guards around, sometimes they don't say anything. They see something in my demeanor that isn't shocking. I always try to convey something very pure, with my feminine sensibility.
Out of delicacy, she exposed not herself, you see, but rather a wanton gap in art history. Missing until then had been the “point of view of the object of the [male] gaze.”
In his realist painting, Courbet shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.
You have to suffer higher education to learn to talk—to think—like this. Set aside the pathetic fallacy that grants to body parts the consciousness required to have a point of view. Disallow even the prank itself. What matters most is the ruined intellect behind it.
Thomas Couture. Romans of the Decadance (1847). Detail. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
We can only mourn the spoiled intelligence that devises an apologia for a blue movie caper, and enshrines it on video—Ave Maria playing on sound track—in mockery of high seriousness. Yet, in a crooked sort of way, the artist’s faux-solemnity is comical. The true barbarism of Mirror of Origin lies less in its vulgarity—there is always room for one more custard pie—than in the timid, almost deferential, response of authorities.
Add the applause of onlookers rooting for shamelessness raised to a principle. (Which principle? Try female empowerment. Or gender expression.) You listen to the clapping and understand how it came to be that our politicians and newscasters feel free to lie to us: We admire their cheek, and envy them for getting away with it. It is the temper of well-behaved grownups who wish they had spilled their porridge when they had the chance.
If you feel up to it, you can watch the age-restricted video here.
Most startling was the reaction of the guards. Too intimidated to respond assertively, they tried—unsuccessfully—to shoo cheering gallery-goers out of the room. Not one of them risked lifting the prankster to her feet and pulling down her skirt. Or simply throwing a jacket over her knees. Instead, a female guard stationed herself in front of Ms. de Robertis in a feeble effort to block the view.
Eventually, police arrived to escort the artist away. The museum and two guards filed a complaint against her for sexual exhibitionism. But the prerogatives of art carried the day. Charges were dropped.
Imagine if a male onlooker, in the spirit of participation, had unzipped and given the artist’s “eye” something to look at. Quite likely, guards would have acted more energetically. The man would have been carted off to 36, quai des Orfèvres while women's groups demanded his comeuppance for a priapic insult. But Ms. de Robertis is a woman. Women cannot be flashers. And, of course, Mirror of Origin is an artwork. Who would challenge that? Inarguably, it is an act of self-expression to which we are each—artists above all—entitled.
Bettina Heldenstein, art historian at the Casino Forum of Contemporary Art, Luxembourg, strode forward to declare Ms. de Robertis’ performance one of those catalysts “which change the perspective on the relationship between men and women, artists and gallery owners, or even artists and models.” Mirror of Origin entered cyberspace as a ground-breaking art historical intervention.
• • • •
That was last year. What brings it to mind ten months later? Here in hand are recent articles in the Canadian press detailing Ontario’s brave new world of sex education. Beginning September, 2015, pre-pubescent children will begin immersion in explicit information about sex. By the time they are Ms. de Robertis’ age, they will have marinated in Ms. Heldenstein’s changed perspectives. And they will be well groomed for what sexual liberationists call the orgasmic imperative.
First graders will learn to “identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology.” By third grade pupils study such topics as sexual identity and orientation. In grades 6 and 7 they will be introduced to terms like “anal intercourse” and “vaginal lubrication.”
Wally Wood. Disneyland Memorial Orgy (1967).
Pete Baklinski, at LifeSite News, expands on the sixth grade curriculum:
When asked about what is “normal” development, teachers are to respond: “Exploring one’s body by touching or masturbating is something that many people do and find pleasurable. It is common and is not harmful and is one way of learning about your body.”
Children are taught to dismantle “what is ‘normal’ or expected for males and females” since such “assumptions . . . are usually untrue, and they can be harmful.”
Children will hear nothing of courtship or tenderness. Instead, there will be much about prophylactic measures to avoid pregnancy and HIV. Brian Evoy, president of the Ontario Association of Parents in Catholic Education, tells The National Post that “our organization is very much in favour of the curriculum and all of the changes that will be made.”
By the time Ontario’s little scholars reach puberty all reticence will have been vanquished. Steeped in government run sex-ed, they will understand sex as a value-free, mechanical activity, a recreational choice like any other. They will know all about the social construction of “gender” but nothing of morals, self-control, or commitment. Any lingering sexual shyness will have been coaxed out of them. Sexual shame will be the only sin left. Children will enter adulthood as the free, consenting, rutting species that Huxley anticipated.
And performance pieces like Ms. de Robertis' will be obsolete. No taboos will be left to violate. The culture will be on a soma holiday of another kind.
There can be no question that it [religion] has lost the organic relations with culture which it possessed in the great religion-cultures of antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture
Art Be With You
Slogan on website of the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo
Of all the forces that bind Western civilization, no anchorhold has been stronger than the Bible. It has been a monumental, creative driver of Western culture. Scripture provides the vaulting under literature and history; it has inspirited majestic visual art. Our own national identity is indecipherable without understanding the centrality of the Bible in the emergence of modern Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries and of the Puritanism which suckled America at birth.
Abraham Lincoln’s claim that the Bible is “the best gift God has given to man” finds little purchase in contemporary culture. Since the 1960s banned it from public school classrooms, Christians themselves—particularly the young—no longer know what it might mean to grow like a cedar in Lebanon or dance, like David, before the ark. Bereft of a common fund of metaphors and allusions, believers and unbelievers alike are displaced from the civilization that housed us.
To counter this diminuendo the American Bible Society established the Museum of Biblical Art (MoBIA) in 2005. It began bravely as a gallery within the American Bible Association headquarters, overhead of a Bible sales room. Location, off Columbus Circle and near Lincoln Center, seemed ideal. And its fifty-plus exhibitions have been small, imaginative, often splendid jewels.
Luca della Robbia, The Art of Dialectic (1437-39).
Yet attendance lagged. Christopher Dawson's contention that “religion is the dynamic element in culture” does not play well at the box office. After a time, the Bible showroom was swept out of sight and MoBIA sought distinction from its parent. Still, traffic never rose to the quality of exhibition. Now, the ABA is moving to Philadelphia; the building has been sold; and MoBIA—living rent-free these ten years—is scrambling to relocate to an economical space.
To date, the museum's crucial support has been the generosity of the ABA. Come June, MoBIA will be dispossessed, a concept in search of affordable housing. (Why concept? Because MoBIA, like many non-profits using the word museum, has no collection, nothing to store or conserve. It exists as a Kunsthalle, a vacant hall that displays revolving installations of borrowed art works.)
MoBIA needs money. On the eve of displacement, the museum’s new director and fundraiser-in-chief Richard Townsend has responded by expanding the bureaucracy. He hired more staff, enlarged the Board of Trustees, introduced a Director of Finance and Operations, and inaugurated partnership with Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. While the Duomo’s museum is undergoing refurbishment, it has loaned MoBIA works removed from the baptistry, the bell tower and the cathedral in the course of alterations. It is hoped that the prestige of the Duomo will raise the profile of MoBIA.
Enter Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral.
Nanni di Banco, St. Luke the Evangelist (1408-13)
Expensive to crate, transport, insure, and install, this showcase occasion is oddly disappointing. Its mix of grand and lesser (including badly damaged) works, together with skittishness about the religious basis for the work, has the air of a pre-auction event at an architectural warehouse.
Isolated from their liturgical setting, the art on view bespeaks a Church submissive to secular pretensions. Without intending to, the Duomo and MoBIA collaborate in late modernity’s view of Christianity as a spent tradition, one that requires injections of museum prestige. Museumization allows Christianity to linger as an historical phenomenon, no longer a creative cultural force but compliant with the conceits of a post-Christian culture.
MoBIA follows the reigning practice of translating enhancements for a sacral setting into museum stock on shelves in the cultural pantry. Struggling for mainstream recognition, the museum declares itself a neutral, demilitarized zone that has ceded claim to any investment in the religious substance of the art on display:
The Museum takes a secular perspective on the Bible’s pivotal role in art history, and looks at how this text impacts artistic practice in both familiar and surprising ways. MoBIA is inclusive and non-sectarian . . . .
A pivotal role in art history. There you have it. Not a pivotal role in civilization, but in artistic practice and its revelatory harvest of artifacts. The imperatives of art history form a magisterium tolerable for our times. Every item is presented in standard art historical terms: stylistic affinity, artistic identity, authorship, the like. What they affirm—and why Donatello’s name tops the cast list—is modernity’s conventional reverence for the cult of individual genius.
Donatello and Nanni di Barolo, known as Rosso . Sacrifice of Isaac or Abraham and Isaac (1421).
That said, there are several magnificent sculptures here. The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo, is chilling to look at. The biblical incident is depicted in gestures evocative of what we watch now on YouTube: the knife at the neck of kneeling innocents. The work is on show as the stunning technical achievement that it is, carved from a single block of marble. But what commands attention is the contemporaneity of the image. The full impact of Abraham's fidelity—the ferocity of it—arises from what we bring to the sculpture from life. In Isaac, we see Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach and shrink from the sight.
I came away from the exhibit in love with Nanni di Banco. Outstripped by Donatello and Ghiberti in the art historical sweepstakes, di Banco was co-equal in introducing the expressive realism that is the hallmark of Renaissance sculpture. His monumental Luke the Evangelist, evocative of a Roman consul interrupted in his reading, transcends the era of its precedent and of its making. We know this man. We have met him at conferences, on faculties, on institutional boards. Or perhaps in tweeds in one of David Lodge’s academic romances. That face, that posture—you ache to ask him something.
Across the room are two youthful, standing figures each labeled simply profetino, small prophet. One is attributed to Donatello, the other to di Banco. The Donatello is an all-purpose set piece, useful for filling architectural gaps. But the di Banco is a rhapsody of boyhood on the cusp of manhood. This round-faced boy has the power of life, of breath and movement. I welled up with an urge to bring him food—a pizza, or a home-cooked meal—and listen to him talk. (MoBIA flattens him into “a clear instance of stylistic variety” in the cathedral’s decorative program.)
By any measure, MoBIA has staged fine exhibitions over the last decade that would honor MoMA or the Metropolitan. Biblical themes are indivisible from our cultural history and need not be relegated to an independent institution. MOBIA’s very existence concedes a hidden starting point: that motifs drawn from scripture—and without irony or disdain—have become a world apart from contemporary culture.
Thus, the Duomo’s self-abnegating publicity slogan: “Art be with you.”