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.
Conservatives whaled me for “degrading” America, purists for representing things, and the radicals were mad because I didn’t put in Nikolai Lenin as an American prophet.
Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America, 1983
If it’s not art, it’s at least history.
Thomas Hart Benton, New York Times, 1968
But it is art. Incontestably and splendidly so. With the politics and dogmatic arguments of American modernism behind us, Benton’s first mural commission can be seen for the glory that it is. His ten-panel cross-section of American life, America Today—donated to the Metropolitan Museum and on display until next April—is an epic kaleidoscope that embodies the intimacy between visual art and United States social history in the first third of the twentieth century. Here is the restless pulse of the Jazz Age, painted just before an intoxicated nation sobered in realization of the full effects of the 1929 stock market crash. This is the mural series credited with prompting the federal mural project of the WPA in the 1930s. And it put Benton on the cover of Time, 1934.
Thomas Hart Benton, City Activities with Dance Hall (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
A bastion of progressive adult education, the New School for Social Research commissioned the mural series for its board room in 1930. José Clemente Orozco had just received a commission to paint murals for the school’s public dining room and student lounge. Uninterested in the pure fresco Orozco practiced, Benton was eager to experiment with mural techniques on large panels to be installed upon completion. So eager was he that he took no fee for the commission, asking only to be compensated for materials. (“I’ll paint you a picture in tempera if you finance the eggs.”) He was ambitious for stature; America Today achieved it.
It seemed an inspired paring, Benton and Orozco. Both artists were committed to grand themes imbued with social significance. Both counted themselves on the left. Both were the nation’s most prominent spokesmen for mural painting as the premier medium for public architecture. Their work was complementary in intention and technique. Yet Orozco’s New School murals have not aged well while Benton’s retain their persuasive power.
José Clemente Orozco. Struggle in the Orient: Slavery, Imperialism & Gandhi (1930). New School, NYC.
The Mexican painter’s sententious fresco cycle lingers as a visual correlative to the rhetoric of social revolution promoted in the 1920s by editorials in New Masses. Popular in their time, today his murals carry the weight of a blunt instrument. I cannot look at his fervid assertions of the brotherhood of man without thinking of heavy machinery and the Red Army. The sensibility inherent in them hints—despite self-conscious commiseration, devoid of warmth, with the wretched of the earth—at the inhumanity at the heart of the millenarian ideology that inflected Orozco’s art.
By contrast, Benton’s dynamic Instruments of Power, the central panel of America Today, is animated by the ebullience of a decade that witnessed the flight of Charles Lindbergh and the passenger-carrying Graf Zeppelin. Benton understood the motive sources of industrial power—water, steam, electricity, the internal combustion engine—to be, also, the prime movers of an industrial democracy. The Machine Age had no lovelier apotheosis than this.
Thomas Hart Benton. Instruments of Power (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
While not a member of the Communist party, Benton was a Marxist himself in the early Twenties. His disenchantment with orthodox Marxism came later, as it did to his friends Max Eastman and Sidney Hook. Still, he remained a populist, his cultural leftism refined by a pragmatism that led him to tell the socially-conscious Survey in 1930:
I realized that the supposed and much-harped-upon standardization of America was a neat descriptive formula which bore only a surface relation to fact. My experience had brought out infinite varieties of ways of living and doing which the formula did not fit.
The hero of America Today is the working man: the farmer, steel worker, construction worker, coal miner. But Benton’s enthusiasm for technology and American vitality was not naive. Coal, below, is an exquisitely rendered depiction of a bleak, back-breaking industry. The panel, aflame with social protest, is the single work that comes close to unrelieved pessimism. The stooped miners, the slag heaps, the shanties on a hill—all in service to a giant electrical plant belching smoke. The artist’s personal ambivalence toward a troubled industry in the Twenties is conveyed through formal means that maintain their aesthetic appeal even while withholding assent from their subject. It is a commanding performance that has few equals in modern painting.
Thomas Hart Benton. Coal (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
Benton’s preparatory drawings for the murals are exhibited in a room adjoining the reconstructed board room setting. These are a feast in themselves. He had a firm hand, drawing with force and expressive intensity. Master of the classical essential—line—he brought to it a bold confidence that endowed with life every form he modeled, from machine parts to the human figure. His drawings obey William Morris Hunt’s dictum: “Draw firm! And be jolly!” Spend time with them. They tell us why Ingres referred to drawing as “the probity of art.”
Thomas Hart Benton. Dancer (1930). Whitney Museum, NYC.
Balmoral Castle, 1874. It was a Halloween to remember. Queen Victoria planned an elaborate party, taking charge of designing every element of the night herself. Something in the incongruity of that touches me. Victoria, living with the ghost of Prince Albert, sought to stave off the monstrous with a Halloween bash.
W.S. Stacey. Queen Victoria’s Halloween. From The Life and Times of Queen Victoria, 1897.
Diana Millay’s The Power of Halloween, is a witch-friendly potboiler that you need not bother reading. But even a bad book can have something worth plucking:
The Queen’s lavish preparations and attention to detail may have run a close second to her coronation. Masked balls were nothing new to her. Nor were holidays which she believed she was born to celebrate.
The Queen invited not only friends and royal relatives, but also her tenant farmers and castle servants to join in a torch light procession around the palace grounds. They walked while she rode in a four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage. With a fiery torch in every hand (including the Queen’s), this strange but exotic procession was only the beginning. How cleverly she had set the stage for her indoor celebration: Balmoral by candlelight. It must have been hard to tell the ghosts from the guests.
That last sentence is a bit breathy but it suits the day. More precisely, it is of a piece with what the day has become. I prefer real ghosts to the cheesy inflatable ghouls that sway on every front lawn between here and the Henry Hudson Bridge. Even the city—the Upper West Side, for heaven’s sake!—has its growing share of orange lights and fake cobwebs. The campiness of it all irks me. I prefer a good fright. Something to curdle the blood.
Eugene Grasset. Three Women & Three Wolves (c.1900). Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.
Either that, or bring me some sign of genial accommodation with the dead. Each of us lives with ghosts. We call them saints to console ourselves for the mystery of their whereabouts. There is solace in the word saint. It deflects dread but does not erase it. Some humor brought to the unseen, to all that is concealed and goes unnamed, complements the hope we have for ourselves and for our dead.
Contemporary Halloween aims at nothing more than mocking the death-conjuring unease inherent in mortality. There is no humor in our Halloween stuffs, only inanity.
George Cruikshank. The Ghost of Mrs. Leckie (1830).
To clear the palate from all things synodal, let us go look at a painting. One in particular deserves a place of honor. Among the loveliest images of Mary that we hold as our own, none delights me more than Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation.
Henry Ossawa Tanner. The Annunciation (1898). Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Tanner (1859-1937) was this country’s first major African-American artist. Within nine years of moving to Paris—a crucial destination for artists of his generation—he had become an international success. By 1900, he ranked among the leading Americans in Paris and, released there from the burdens of race, was counted the premier biblical painter of his day. He exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon, attracting even greater critical acclaim than Thomas Eakins, his friend and former mentor at the Pennsylvania Academy.
The first of Tanner’s works purchased for an American museum, The Annunciation is a marvelous blend of academic realism and abstract invention. No winged angel appears, no benedictory gesture.
Francisco de Zubarán. The Annunciation (1650). Madrid.
Feathered messengers are an ancient technology. Angels, as we are used to imagining them, are a pictorial device somehow off-kilter a mere five years before the airborne marvel of Kitty Hawk. This is Paris, 1898. Pigeon post—winged angels a variant of it—will not do today for depicting divine address to the daughter of Zion. The God-bearing word travels, as ever, at the speed of light. Tanner’s Gabriel arrives as an electromagnetic pulse, a shimmering Doppler effect that proclaims a wonder in heaven and another within the soul of a girl.
And the girl! Gone is the Lady of medieval imagining, interrupted at her psalter. Here is a dark-haired, adolescent peasant from the hills of Galilee, who never held a book. Teenaged Miriam, hands in her lap, looks into the light, weighing the message. She does not shrink back in awe, as in the Sienese version below. She makes no gesture of excessive humility. Her body language is attentive, poised. Composure in the face of the miraculous hints at something in the very nature of revelation. Gabriel’s extraordinary message bursts into the ordinary. Domesticity is no stranger to epiphany.
Simone Martini. The Annunciation (detail), 14th C., The Uffizi, Florence.
Notice that single, sturdy bare foot peeking out from a cascade of drapery. It is a small touch but one that marks Tanner’s intentional distance from centuries of Marian typology. The Virgin might have bared one breast to suckle her baby but she was rarely, if ever, depicted barefoot. As if she never really touched the floor. But those traditional images of Mary nursing had a doctrinal purpose: to affirm the humanity of Jesus. Here, Tanner emphasizes the humanity of Mary. No need, then, for the exaggerated modesty of a shod foot.
The scene’s exaggerated drapery, however, serves purely compositional purposes. Too lavish for the historical accuracy which was crucial to Tanner, its undulating spread provides pictorial counter to the spare geometry of an otherwise austere interior. Moreover, the technical demands of that pendant droop declare Tanner’s brotherhood with Bouguereau, Meissioner, Géròme, Cabanel, Bastien-Lepage, and other prize-winning stars of the Salon. Pride in craft makes a proclamation of its own.
Just arrived in this morning’s email is this broadcast from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa: “Francis’ Patient Revolution.” Reading it, patience is the last quality that comes to mind:
There was no agreement at the synod on homosexuality and divorce, but in the end it will be the pope who decides. And he already has in mind the changes he wants to introduce, or rather is already putting them into practice.
Paul Anthony McGavin writes:
It is not true that Francis was silent during the two weeks of the synod. In the morning homilies at Saint Martha’s, he hammered away every day at the zealots of tradition, those who load unbearable burdens onto men, those who have only certainties and no doubts, the same against whom he lashed out in the farewell address with the synod fathers.
He is anything but impartial, this pope. He wanted the synod to orient the Catholic hierarchy toward a new vision of divorce and homosexuality, and he has succeeded, in spite of the scanty number of votes in favor of the change of course, after two weeks of fiery discussion.
One paragraph startled me some. In the early days of his pontificate, the romance of Francis was stoked with charming stories of his humility. He scrambled his own eggs, tied his own shoes, took the bus. An ordinary Joe, just like you and me but more so. We saw nothing in the press like this:
On communion for the divorced and remarried, it is already known how the pope thinks. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he authorized the “curas villeros,” the priests sent to the peripheries, to give communion to all, although four fifths of the couples were not even married. And as pope, by telephone or letter he is not afraid of encouraging some of the faithful who have remarried to receive communion without worrying about it, right away, even without those “penitential paths under the guidance of the diocesan bishop” projected by some at the synod, and without issuing any denials when the news of his actions comes out.
Set aside, if you can, the specific moral teachings that are in the dock. Suppress for a moment whatever conscientious sympathy you might have with Francis’ aims. What bewilders me here is the precipitous end-run being made around collegiality and subsidiarity, with scant regard for the trust of the faithful in the validity of the Church’s essential moral suasion on essential matters. If McGavin’s report is correct—what reason to think it is not?—Francis is more a covert operative than the shepherd we welcomed at the outset.
The law of unintended consequences is inexorable. And fearsome. We already have one seditious authoritarian in the White House. To think there could be another on the Chair of Peter breaks the heart.
Read the entire essay here.
Throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, while the Barbary corsairs ranged freely around the Mediterranean, these pirates also sailed by the dozen up the [English] Channel and even into the Thames estuary, plundering local fishing and coastal towns. . . . The Algerians were said to have taken no fewer than 353 British ships between 1672 and 1682, which would mean that they were still picking up between 290 and 430 new British slaves every year.
—Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters
Historical truths become casualties of preferred narratives in the present. Modern scholarship, preoccupied with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, gives little more than a passing glance to the scope of corsair piracy. Yet, as historian Robert Davis reminds, the systematic enslavement of white, Christian Europeans by Muslim’s on North Africa’s Barbary Coast, is a crucial, if politically disfavored, aspect of modern slave studies.
Moroccan Slave Market. Anonymous woodcut (17th C.).
Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 leaves no doubt that Islamic slaving was far from a minor phenomenon, not mere corsair hysteria as some would term it. In Davis’ densely documented account, white slavery in the Mahgreb was enormously consequential. In the three centuries of its flourishing, Muslim predation entrapped as many as a million victims from France and Italy to Spain, Holland, Great Britain, the Americas. Even Iceland suffered slave-hunting raids.
The diary of Thomas Baker, English consul in Tripoli from 1679 to 1685, took careful note of ship traffic in and out of the Libyan port. In addition to the usual run of European-bound merchant ships were many local vessels openly setting out “in corso.” Baker was blunt: they were “going out a-thieving,” stalking seas and coastlines for poorly defended Christian prizes. Davis notes that Libyans were particularly fond of what Baker’s contemporaries called “man-taking” or “Christian-stealing.” Their dedication prompted the consul to remark: “To steale Christians . . . is their Lawfull Vocation.”
Ransom of Catholic Slaves by a Monk in the Barbary State. (17th C.).
The Cambridge World History of Slavery estimates the attrition rate for white slaves at 20 percent a year in seventeenth century Maghreb:
Given the age of captives seized from European sailing ships, the hostile epidemiological environment of North Africa, and the harsh working and living conditions [Read Davis for these.] the crude mortality rate among whites was probably higher than among black in the Americas, even on sugar plantations.
Consequently, a steady resupply was needed to sustain existing slave populations. The seasoning of new captives could take several years, leaving half or fewer captives to survive the first five years. Read Davis for detailed descriptions of slave taking and breaking, slave life and labor, including the death-in-life of galley slaves. After examining various slave lists, he concludes that those captured by Muslim corsairs and taken off to Barbary stood a less than 50/50 chance of being ransomed: “They left their bones in unmarked plots, often in shallow graves where dogs or waves could unearth them. . . . Or simply thrown into the sea.”
Davis quotes Piero Ottoni’s 1997 essay in La Repubblica lamenting Italy’s turn inland, and inward, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: “We retired to the countryside. We lost [our] freedom and love of the sea.” In the face of corsair piracy, the people who had produced Columbus, John Cabot, and Amerigo Vespucci were no longer “a nation of navigators, although we did become a nation of bathers.”
Davis’ study offers a rein on the Church’s timorous, conciliating urge—in the wake of Nostra Aetate—to list toward accommodation with an ideology that has sought dominion over Christianity since it first burst out of the Arabian desert. Today’s Boko Haram is not an aberration. Rather, it is a portent of our likely future if we lull ourselves with a flawed understanding of Islam, one dangerously installed in the 1992 edition of the Catechism.
The Catechism refers readers back to Nostra Aetate. As the encyclical’s name suggests, the document is very much of its time. Unhappily, that time happened to be 1965, epicenter of a decade of jingle-jangle mornings and heady student rebellion against reality. “Be reasonable—think the impossible” was one of those utopian slogans that, migrating from the Sorbonne, seeped like gas into popular culture and under the door of the papal apartments as well.
The vapor of 1965 drained into the Catechism three decades later: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslim.” Those words were not intended to apply simply to the human dignity of individuals. Forgetful of how much was owed Britain’s containment of the Ottomans, the Vatican miscast itself as Ophelia, strewing herbs a-Sunday over the dogma and mandates of Islam. Official dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate by Ataturk in 1923 gave the West forty-some years to forget centuries of brutal predation. Rosemary—for remembrance—shriveled in the sun of victory and wafted away. Only rue remains.
The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, founded in 1964, still bears the marks of the decade of its birth. In its recent condemnation of Islamic barbarity toward the Yezidis (without whom Christians might have gone unnoticed), the Council sweetened its censure with this:
We cannot forget, however, that Christians and Muslims have lived together —it is true with ups and downs—over the centuries, building a culture of peaceful coexistence and civilization of which they are proud.
It was the Beatles all over again: “Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play.” Only that it was not. Those downs were severe and consequential. The Council, hobbled by bureaucratic courtesy, fell back on multicultural fantasy. That oblique reference to coexistence offered as history the prevailing myth of medieval convivencia, an illusion of harmony that has drawn fire from contemporary historians. David Nirenberg, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Chicago, put paid to that romance with his magisterial Communities of Violence (1996).
It is time to send members of the Pontifical Council a copy of Davis’ text—Nirenberg’s, too—before we strangle on our own good manners. Anbar province is not as far from Rome as we like to think.
Christopher Columbus is the patron saint of everyone who misses the turnoff and winds up in Cleveland.
The finest way to spend Columbus Day weekend is to put down whatever else you are doing and sit awhile with Samuel Eliot Morison’s Christopher Columbus, Mariner. It is the popular version of his magisterial two-volume Admiral of the Ocean Sea, which won a 1942 Pulitzer. America’s pre-eminent naval historian, Morison was a commissioned officer in the Naval Reserves, a seaman himself. During World War II, he saw active duty aboard twelve battle ships, reaching the rank of Rear Admiral by the time he retired in 1951. In a lovely assessment by James Hornfischer, writing for the Smithsonian: “For Morison, fine writing required deep living.”
The man who called himself “a sea-going historiographer,” lived his subject by leaving the archives. To research the life of Columbus, Morison abandoned the safety of the stacks for five months on a three-masted sailing ship, retracing Columbus’ ten thousand mile odyssey across the Atlantic and around the Caribbean. That radical empiricism is the hearts’ blood of Morison’s narrative. No matter how many times I have read his opening salute to Columbus, it still stirs me:
At the age of twenty-four, by lucky chance he was thrown into Lisbon, center of European oceanic enterprise; and there . . . he conceived the great enterprise that few but a sailor would have planned, and none but a sailor could have executed. That enterprise was simply to reach “The Indies”—Eastern Asia—by sailing west. It took him about ten years to obtain support for the idea, and he never did execute it because a vast continent stood in the way. America was discovered by Columbus purely by accident and was named for a man who had nothing to do with it; we now honor Columbus for something he never intended to do, and never knew that he had done. Yet we are right in so honoring him, because no other sailor had the persistence, the knowledge and sheer guts to sail thousands of miles into the unknown ocean until he found land.
. . . Born at the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he showed the qualities of both eras. He had the firm religious faith, the a priori reasoning and the close communion with the Unseen typical of the early Christian centuries. Yet he also had the scientific curiosity, the zest for life, the feeling for beauty and the striving for novelty that we associate with the advancement of learning.
Artist Unknown. Columbus Showing His Crew Guanahani Island (17th C.)
Son of a Genoese wool weaver and a weaver’s daughter, the boy took to heart the legend of his namesake, St. Christopher:
In his name, Christopher Columbus [Christoforo Columbo] saw a sign that he was destined to bring Christ across the sea to men who knew Him not. Indeed, the oldest known map of the New World, dated A.D. 1500, dedicated to Columbus by his shipmate Juan de la Cosa, is ornamented by a vignette of Saint Christopher carrying the Infant Jesus on his shoulders.
The Roman calendar has erased the great Discover’s namesake. Contemporary academicians have erased all honor due him. Entering the past from the poisonous ambitions of the present, historians such as Kirkpatrick Sale (The Conquest of Paradise) and David Stannard (American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World) reduce his life to an excuse for moral outrage: a symptom of European egocentrism and a genocidal calamity. They would have us repent one of the most significant achievements of human history. Christopher Columbus—an imperfect man of imperfect times—has been dissolved in the acid bath of the self-flagellating ideologies of our time.
Better to leave the last word to Morison:
He had his flaws and his defects, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great—his indomitable will, his superb faith in God and in his own mission as the Christ-bearer to lands beyond the seas, his stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty, and discouragement. But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities—his seamanship. As a master mariner and navigator, Columbus was supreme in his generation. Never was a title more justly bestowed than the one he most jealously guarded—Almirante del Mar Océano, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.
Could Morison’s sympathy for Columbus find a publisher today? I read him and tremble for a generation raised against itself, instilled with suicidal guilt, and poised to denounce protagonists of the civilization that sustains them.
Anonymous Woodcut. Columbus Landing at Hispaniola. Historia Baetica (1494), Basel.
In Painting and Reality, Etienne Gilson argued that painting should be experienced on its own terms. That is to say, aesthetically. He insisted that audiences greet art without thinking of it as something to be understood, decoded, or interpreted. A painting is not an essay, not a set of propositions. Whatever literary, philosophical, or narrative content might be claimed for a work, the art of the thing lies elsewhere and exists to be welcomed for its own sake. To do otherwise, he wrote, is to turn a work of art into a book.
Painting, like music, requires no essential bond to either imitation of the real world nor readable content. The only ideas it is responsible for as art, are pictorial ones. British-born John Walker, an artist of singular power, echoes Gilson: “In all painting, it’s not about how many ideas you have; it’s about what you do with that idea.” Significant subjects have come down to us as great paintings. But it is not subject matter than makes painting memorable.
John Walker. Tidal Touch (2014). 84 x 66 inches. Alexandre Gallery, NYC.
Now into the fifth decade of an illustrious career, Walker is in full possession of his craft. This current exhibition, his first at New York’s Alexandre Gallery, illustrates the reasons his work has been collected by major American museums and is in public collections worldwide from London to South Africa.
It illustrates, too, why my long-standing admiration for his work coincides with a certain tension between attraction and resistance. The gravitational pull tugs both ways at the same time. His painting is at once beautiful and combative. Scale is one of the determinants of mood. The larger his work, the more assertive its innate aggression, even pugnacity.
On exhibit are seven new monumental paintings, a selection of mid-sized ones, and a lively medley of small oils on board. The appeal of them lies in their unapologetic materiality: the patterning of invented forms, balance of color, and robust laying in of paint. Before anything, painting is an earthly thing. (“Colored mud,” Walker likes to say.) The source of delight in Walker’s work is the characteristic physical richness of the surface, that furious complexity of encrusted layers of color.
John Walker, Brush Fire on the Bay (2013). 20 x 16 inches. Alexandre Gallery, NYC.
Walker’s abiding pictorial idea draws from the light and landscape of Seal Island, Maine. Following the earlier American modernists Marsden Hartley and John Marin—both drawn to Maine settings—he abstracts from the landscape, fragmenting it to emphasize inherent rhythmic qualities over natural forms. The sea coast, with its outcroppings, mud flats, and swirling eddies is a resource mined for its wildness and movement, not scenic charm. Refusal of scenic clichés lends his painting a force appropriate to the advance of the sea. In the oversized canvases, Walker’s ambition to capture the assault of tidal currents on the shoreline can move you to back up, keep clear of the offensive.
John Walker. The Sea II (2011-14), 48 x 36 inches. Alexandre Gallery, NYC.
Over decades, Walker has won his way through to an expressiveness capable of a broad diversity of performance. Here, his distillations of landscape shapes, mapped as if from an aerial view, owe their abstract patterning to the aboriginal bark paintings he fell in love with during his early years in Australia. In place of the linear refinement of Oceanic design, Walker substitutes a gestural bravado inherited from Abstract Expressionism.
Wandjuk Marika. The Sun Rising (1959). Art Gallery of New South Wales, AU.
The patterned rhythms and repetitions of Oceanic art anchor Walker’s exuberance of invention. The swagger of gesture is contained within an schematic architecture all his own. His appetite for the grand things of nature transmitted through the paint itself makes visible George Braque’s words: “A painting is completed when it has wiped out the idea.” In other words, when it exists for itself alone.
Christian mission is not to preach Christ, but to be Christians in life.
—Fr. Alexander Schmemann
The new evangelization is hardly different from the old. It resides, as it has from the first century, in the lived witness of individuals to a risen Lord—to the sacramental character of the world, of time itself, and of each other’s place in it. It inhabits right relations between persons. And it endures in confession of inexhaustible sorrow over failure in those relations.
Mathias Gruenwald. Head of a Crying Angel (c. 1520). Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
For generations in New York, the calling of the Church took up residence in its schools. The Sheen Center is a monumental white flag signaling defeat in the Church’s ordained mission to the young. In its place is a misnamed “mission to the arts.” By offering itself as a trendy landlord to the arts, the Archdiocese is furthering the momentum of its own displacement. Inflated reverence for the arts is something to be countered, not accommodated.
Louis Bouyer, writing thirty years ago, looked on the dilation of culture—our art-and-culture syndrome—as a symptom of deep degeneration, the herald of a “monstruous civilization” emptied of meaning. More recently, Louis Dupré expanded on the theme: “Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, absorbing traditional religion as a subordinate part of itself.” That subordination, sweetened by the word mission, is the very basis of the Sheen Center.
The pathos of prelates bent on becoming players in the art scene is disheartening. The New York Archdiocese is no reincarnation of the Hapsburg courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Philip II is long dead. So is the character of the patronage he represented. Threatened orthodoxy will not be buttressed by an estimated $177 million renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral nor the undisclosed millions of the state-of-the-art Sheen Center.
St. Pat’s is no more “America’s parish church,” as Cardinal Dolan calls it, than New York is the “capital of the world.” The cathedral is a tourist attraction at the fag end of New York’s Museum Mile. And it is dressing up for the role at the expense of less glamorous, more humane undertakings.
Remember the 2011 closing of Rice High School. Run by the Christian Brothers, it served the city’s young black males with notable grace and efficacy. Bankrupted by lawsuits in the wake of the sex scandal—none having anything to do with Rice—the order was forced to close the school. A fraction of what the archdiocese has spent polishing St. Pat’s or creating the Sheen Center could have been gifted to sustain the work of Rice. The building is now a YMCA.
Vincent Van Gogh. Sorrow (1882). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The ambiguously named Sheen Center—“Martin? Charlie? Michael? Who’s this Fulton dude?”—is anxious to be agreeable to all comers. It is on record as being progressively open to performances that might raise eyebrows among those stick-up-the-spine traditionalists. It only shakes a finger at “anything that is hateful about one group of people.” (We People of the Book can trust, then, that cordiality toward the Religion of Peace will be never be shaken.)
Its own supine, politically correct courtesy puts the Church at odds with itself. It is caught, like Buridan’s ass, between two bales of hay: outreach to the religiously minded and edgey downtown appeal to the secular, liberal theatre scene. Who will ultimately evangelize whom remains to be seen.
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, past production of the Voyager Theatre Company, a client of Sheen.
The Sheen’s plush performance space for dance and theatre troops is rationalized as a decoy to lure the faithless to the fold. We are to greet the scheme as a spare-no-expense preface to the Kingdom where heating and lighting systems come from God.
Earthier enticements, though, have already run the other way. In March, Msgr. Michael Hull was pastor of Guardian Angel and executive director of the Sheen. At the end of April, on Divine Mercy Sunday, he announced from the pulpit that he was leaving his flock to get married. According to a priest familiar with Hull, he and his young bride—formerly an intern at the Sheen—are living now in Venice.
Well, the heart wants what the heart wants. By Woody Allen’s reckoning, Hull’s sentimental truancy is just another New York story. Less neighborly, however, is the incongruity of his lavish renovation of the fourth floor rectory of Guardian Angel within the last year. The parish is small, hardly prosperous. Yet the renovation was designed by an associate at Richard Perry Architect, an upscale firm that serves deep-pocket clients. A visitor to the rectory called it “mind-bogglingly beautiful.” Did Hull acquire a taste for living large as Cardinal Egan’s protégé? All that can be said is that the renovation raises questions about funding.
Max Beckmann. The Disillusioned (1922). Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
Funding of the Sheen Center remains another mystery. Neither the Sheen personnel nor the office of the chancellor, Msgr. Gregory Mustaciuolo, will disclose the cost of the project. How much was covered by private donation? What percentage was Archdiocesan monies? What is the combined cost of the salaries of the senior staff? Will an annual report become available? The chancellor’s office, which oversees budgetary matters, refers questions to the communications division. The spokeswoman at that end stonewalls: “We have no information at this moment.”
How can that be? Surely the chancellor’s office has records from Cost+Plus, the cost management firm hired to vet proposals from the chosen team (the award-winning Acheson Doyle Partners, architects, and Harvey Marshall Berling Associates, theatre design and acoustics)? Again: “We have no information at this moment.”
The Sheen Center owes existence to the assumption that our predicament results from bad art and a failure of education. A fashionable, art-conscious version of continuing ed is the cure. (Hull had a phrase for it: “dynamic dialogue between artist and audiences.”) Pére Bouyer had a clearer eye. He understood our descent into post-Christian culture in terms of the old adage: Corruption of the best is the worst of all. He wrote:
It is not ignorance of Christianity among those who were never evangelized, nor its negation by those who were never able to accept it, but rather by the betrayal of Christianity by those who received the Gospel and were brought up as Christians.
Recognition of the mote in our own eye precedes evangelism, new or old. And it helps to stay mindful that every genuflection by the Church to secular idols—under the pretext of promoting the gospel—ends as Vigo Demant foresaw: a proclamation of secularism in a Christian idiom.
Among letters responding to recent posts are two from Dublin. One is from a parish priest uneasy with Rome’s Disneyfied wedding fest and its predictable press response. One of the uncountable shepherds of a stumbling contemporary flock, he writes to say:
The last two weddings I had were of couples with a child - and the vast majority now cohabit before their nuptials. The apparent attempt to spin this with details released to the press was puerile and offensive —not to mind a breach of confidentiality of those concerned.
Jan Bulhak. Evening Light. From series on Vilnius in the 1930s).
Previous reflection on the movie Calvary, prompted words from a teacher at the Scoil Talbot National School, Condalkin, Dublin. His summary of the religious temper of contemporary Ireland is bleak. And his final sentence is an unspoken indictment of the sensitivity-saturation that cripples adults in transmitting stories of a suffering redeemer:
Just to say from an Irish reader in Ireland of your reflection on ‘Calvary’ that yours is the first review I’ve seen that has noticed the obvious links with the story of Calvary!
The film came out here much earlier in the year and the mainstream film critics I read and heard and saw did not see what it was about. My guess is it’s because the vast majority of the population nowadays do not know the story of the Passion in any detail at all. I thought it was an amazing film, one that challenges everyone. . . .
I know it sounds dramatic, and I’m not a fan of making dramatic comments, but it is true. Most people in Ireland no longer go to Mass. It’s been many years since most have; and even on Christmas these days the churches aren’t packed out like they used to be. Attendance is still plummeting — older people dying, not being replaced by younger people. I’d say most people are of course aware of the [Passion] story, but definitely do not ‘know’ it.
Post-primary religious education had been wishy-washy for many years . . . . And so most adults in Ireland have relied on their memories of primary school classes and their understandings as children of the story. And since the Passion is obviously quite violent, primary school teachers may not really engage as deeply with it as they might with other stories with Jesus.
Amico Aspertini. Teacher with Students (early 16th C). Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.
The writer included a link to Help With the Tough Questions, an online resource created and maintained by primary school teachers for their own use in the classroom and for as many other Christian parents and educators who might find it helpful. It is rich trove of quotations on a broad range of topics from the nature of Jesus, the saints, and suffering, to prayer, animals, and the necessity of gratitude. Much more.
This from Fr. Eamon Devlin, CM, suggests the sensibility that informs the site’s approach to religious education in lower school:
Children do no need explanations so much as they need someone to open up their gift of wonder. All you have to do is bring God into their sense of wonder.
Jean Baptiste Greuze. Idle Boy (18th C).Musée Fabre, Montpelier.
Note: It was Fr. Devlin, Provincial of the Vincentians in Ireland and England, who intervened earlier this year to stop the proposed auction of letters between Jackie Kennedy and Vincentian Fr. Joseph Leonard. The letters, considered Mrs. Kennedy’s unwritten autobiography, have been returned to the Kennedy family.
Would Lena Marie and Walter still be together if they had been married by the pope?
Thomas Theodor Heine. Bride-to-be Admiring Herself in Mirror (1898). Simplicissimus. Munich.
Lena was the first of my old high school friends to marry. From wedding march to wedding cake, the nuptials were grand. Preliminaries, too, were imposing—the showers, the parties, the trousseau. Yes, a trousseau! A chest of linens with trim crocheted and tatted by Aunt Philomena, nightgowns hand-smocked and embroidered by Cousin Lucy back in La Spezia. Family silver. More.
The ceremony was moving, the homily inspirational; cast and setting were as dazzling as solemnity permitted. Bride and groom were Ave Maria-ed and Mendelssohned to kingdom come. (Though we would not have phrased it that way then.) At the reception, Uncle Anthony, a diocesan priest on Lena’s side, said elaborate grace and delivered a certificate of papal blessing—on parchment—to the new couple. With a prayerful flourish, Walter’s aunt followed with rosaries hallowed by the pope himself. Husband and wife left to honeymoon, their troth pledged in stone.
Anonymous. A Royal Marriage (c. 1850). Pictures of English History. Routledge & Sons, London.
Around the time of their first anniversary, the wedded pair invited friends over to their Fort Lee apartment. Dinner done, Lena suggested that Walter show guests the way back to the George Washington Bridge. And, while you are at it, please take out the garbage. A good-natured host, Walter obliged. While he was gone, Lena skipped out with the contractor who had installed a swimming pool on the roof of their condo complex. Their getaway had been cleverly plotted, laudably executed. The two decamped to his ancestral home in . . . Caracas or Costa Rica? I forget.
Walter never saw it coming. Last we heard, he eventually remarried. A quiet, civil ceremony in Borough Hall. He had had his fill of church weddings.
Solange Gautier. Bride Running from Toad Groom (early 20th C.).
I have not thought of Lena in years. Why do I remember her now? It is something to do with the three-ring wedding that ran for one performance at St. Peter’s last week. The press was euphoric. Here, finally, was a pope scraping cataracts off the blurry eyes of a sclerotic Church. In poetic terms: He hath abolished the old drought/ And rivers run where once was dry.
Yahoo News served the predictable headline: “Pope Breaks Taboo by Marrying Couples Living ‘In Sin.”” ABC News was giddy at witnessing a Catholic Spring sprung by a with-it, transformational pope:
In another signal that Pope Francis’ Catholic Church is not your mother’s Catholic Church, the transformative pontiff married 20 couples at the Vatican on Sunday, some of whom had lived together and one who had a child out of wedlock.
Yes, you read that right. Couples who had lived together, couples who had sex before marriage, even one with a grown child were married in the Vatican by the pope himself.
Yes, you read that right. Media Wunderkinder think something new and startling occurred at St. Peter’s. In reality, Francis did no more than is done every week in parishes around the world by nameless priests in charity toward their own parishioners. These twenty couples were each presumably shriven and eligible for marriage. No rules were broken; no protocols discarded or overruled as far as we know. What good priest would not take grateful joy in welcoming couples to marriage, most especially those who already have children?
Heinrich Aldegrever. The Wedding Musicians (16th C.) Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
Perhaps that is why this matrimonial extravaganza leaves me cold. However much the Catholic press purrs over yet another instance of beautiful symbolic action, this one falsifies existing reality. It was staged for media consumption in full understanding of how the media was likely to receive and report on it. The show encourages recognition for the generosity of working parish priests to accrue to Francis himself. It is an image-enhancing spectacle that creates a mirage of the Church by which consumers of “news” deceive themselves about pastoral clemency and concern pre-Francis.
In light of the easily anticipated press response, last Sunday’s spectacle was tantamount to theft. It was a moral theft that appropriated standing credit for compassion from legions of unrenowned, conscientious priests; and it laid the spoils at papal feet. Worse, given the way the press was ordained to recount it, the orchestrated expo can only further weaken already feeble inhibitions against cohabitation or child-bearing without marital commitment. (No big deal. The pope gets it.)
Francis is keenly attuned to the way things play in the press. It was he, remember, who let others distribute the Eucharist at Mass to avoid all possibility of being photographed giving the sacrament to a public sinner. Marrying forty strangers chosen as if by a casting director for theatrical expedience—magnified by the pomp and panoply of St. Peter’s—extends the celebrity-life of the papacy on the illusory chance that showboating is a stay against cultural demoralization.
We are all dancing with the stars now. But ultimately, that dance ends like any other, in exhaustion.
Note: Just arrived in this morning’s email is the latest broadcast from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa. It details the clash between supporters of change and defenders of existing doctrine regarding the divorced and remarried. One proposed change is to permit recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation “even without absolution.”
My assumption, then, that all the couples married at St. Peter’s were “shriven” might not necessarily be warranted in each instance. In that case, media excitement would be more justified than it had seemed. What remains, though, is the circus atmosphere surrounding the use of these couples as symbolic pawns in a contest yet to be resolved. The publicity itself serves to weaken standing prohibition against cohabitation and extra-marital child-bearing. A rule so publicly at issue does not encourage observance. On the contrary, it assists the pressures toward nonobservance.