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.
Why did the snapping turtle cross the road? To lay eggs, of course. But you knew that.
I had started the Subaru and was releasing the clutch before I saw a carapace big as my steering wheel in the rear view mirror. The town turtle was resting in the middle of the driveway, blocking me from backing up.
Please do not mind if I talk turtle for a little while. It has been three years since I saw her last. It touched me to have a glimpse of her again yesterday. Snapping turtles live thirty five to forty years; so she is likely the same one who passed by in previous Junes. She was on her way home this time, hiking back to the pond where her clan has lived for as long as anyone remembers.
A snapping turtle pair has lived in the town pond since it was dug, many decades ago, to channel the Saw Mill River away from town center. Less a river than a shallow, winding tributary of the Hudson, the Saw Mill meanders through local marshes. But the pond is dammed, making it deep enough to satisfy summering geese, an occasional heron, black crappies, sunfish, and the resident turtles.
The Tortoise and the Hare. Illustration for The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine (1880 edition).
Every spring the female makes the long, grueling trek uphill and beyond to find a suitable nesting place. No one knows precisely how far she travels. All we know is that the Chelydra serpentina sisterhood has stamina. My neighbor will migrate as much as a mile away from home for her accouchement.
She digs a hole, lays her eggs, scratches a bit of covering over them, and leaves. After so much toil and travel, she has no interest left for the nursery. Eggs are abandoned to the kindness of ravens, raccoons, coyotes and snakes. The sex of her hatchlingsif any eggs make it that faris determined by the caprices of atmospheric temperature.
Our turtle’s route is limited by the pond’s location at the very edge of town. If she heads east, she lands on concrete by Starbucks or Citibank. Going north, she would be taking too high a chance on a two-lane truck route. To the south, the odds are only slightly less lethal. A sensible turtle would travel west, toward the secluded wetlands that feed the pond. So she does.
Her reptilian GPS points uphill, across my neighbor’s septic field, over rocks, and through dense tangles of hydrangea, pachysandra, barberry and forsythia roots. By the time she reaches the top of my driveway, she has already journeyed several hundred yards up from her ancestral home. It is a placid, deliberate creep that prompted the anthropomorphic generosity of Fontaine’s version of the sturdy Aesop fable:
Let the tortoise go her gait
In solemn, senatorial state.
She starts; she moils on, modestly and lowly.
And with a prudent wisdom hastens slowly.
When we met this time, she faced downhill. She was homeward bound on a trajectory that would take her, if she held a straight line, to a drop over a eight-foot stone wall. But navigating was her problem. Mine was different: How to drive past her to make an appointment?
I thought of putting on work gloves and moving her by hand. It was a very quick thought, hastened along by the nasty look of those claws and the long, flexible neck (retracted when I came close to take a photo). She was quite capable of reaching around to sink a sharp beak into me if I picked her up.
There was nothing to do but let the engine idle until she decided to get up and keep walking. While I sat in the car she did not move. So I ducked into the house to busy myself with odds and ends for a few minutes. I came back outside just in time to see her disappearing into the hedges, still on track for a tumble over the wall.
It was getting late. No time to wait to see if she had managed a detour. I backed up, turned the car around and drove off. But I left with vague regret, a shiver of rue. A descendant from the age of dinosaurs had stopped outside my door. Had she waited on the asphalt, in full view, to mock the novelty of my race? Taunt me for the pity of my own brief span?
Her species emerged tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of years ago. Her kind is so much older than mine and might wellwho knows how? outlast it. She rose from ponds immemorial. Her stock will endure down the ages in settings too cruel for my own. Divested of conscience, of maternal scruple, fellow feeling, and all religious presuppositions, she embodies the terrible beauty of creation. The hidden God manifests himself in the genius of chelonian longevity.
The Giver of life is a fearsome Lord.
We are too accustomed to prefacing the word scandal with the modifier sex. We lose sight of scandal’s insidious range. What we witness in Sunday’s carnival of prayer at the Vatican is scandal of a different stripe: the abuse of prayer.
Israeli President Peres, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas (nom de guerre Abu Mazen) will meet in the Vatican garden. Imams will read selectively from the Quran, rabbis will read from the Tanakh. Christians will flourish the New Testament. All will conspire to ignore the elephant in the topiary: Islamand Islam alonecontains a theological imperative to violence.
Daniel Mauch. Two Popes, a Bishop, a Canon, and 7 Monks in Prayer (c.1505). Louvre, Paris.
Heads will bow. Peace will be kissed on all four cheeks. Abbas, co-founder of Fatah, will walk away with the sheen of a man of prayer. Terror attacks against Israel will begin anew tomorrow or the next day, just as they did after Francis’ visit two weeks ago.
Jew hatred does not submit to interfaith dialogue. Marquis of Queensbury rules do not obtain here. Race hatred is too visceral, too primitive even for politics, though political processes must keep on. Abbas knows that. And while the occasion pressures Peres to make the obligatory anodyne noises, he also knows it. Apparently, Francis does not. Or he chooses to forget.
Yet Francis is the one ordained in testimony to the grievous truth that the peace that passeth all understanding is an eschatological one. Jesus did not promise peace between the Hatfields and McCoys. Nor in the Middle East. That would be peace as the world knows it. He told us himself that he does not give as the world gives.
Frederic Lix. Ottoman Turks Quell Cretan Uprising of 1896. Le Petit Journal, 1896.
But let us pretend Jesus did not quite mean it. Papal theater is a soothing opiate to lull the dread and anguish of the complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli condition. Francis’ interfaith pageant soothes because it posits a moral equivalence between the Palestinian Authority with its newly sworn in unity governmentHamas and Fatah conjoinedand the state of Israel. Who benefits from that equivalence? To this day, Fatah’s charter commits to the destruction of Israel. This new alliance of the two terrorist groups fulfills Abbas’ 2007 statement: “We must unite Hamas and Fatah blood in the struggle against Israel as we did at the beginning of the Intifada.”
Prayerful performance in the Vatican garden will not erase those words. What goes on in the dazzle of international media is not prayer. It is circus. It is a pious, image enhancing spectacle that lends luster to the false narrative of Abbas as a political moderate.
To Israel, peace means being left alone. To the Palestinians, it means a Judenrein Middle East with Israel gone from the map. On March 15, 2013, Abbas told Russia Today TV: “As far as I’m concerned there is no difference between the policies of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.” This is not the peace that Francis seeks.
Palma il Giovane. First Turkish Attack on Constantinople in 1453 (late 16th C.). Ducal Palace, Venice.
What is Francis to do?
He can pray for the conversion of Abbas. He can pray on his knees in private, off camera, and away from the seductions of press attention. Detached from hubris, he can pray for the nullification of Hamas and Fatah. In the solitude of his bedroom he can plead, in charity, for the dissolution of Islamic ambitions for a universal caliphate. He might even suggest to bishoprics around the world that they add such pertinent lines to their petitionary prayers from the Sunday pulpit.
If that proves too unwieldy, perhaps Francis could pray simply for the courage to admit which side he is on. The future of the West has a huge stake in that.
Note: This was written hours ahead of the scheduled event. Nothing to change but verb tenses.
Anyone thinking of taking the L or G train to the fated Domino Sugar Refinery to see Kara Walker’s installation should keep in mind literary critic Hugh Kenner’s words about conceptual art. In his definition, it is art that only needs to be described. It does not need to be experienced.
Destined to melt in a heat wave, Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” was not meant as a permanent work of art. It is a temporary conceptual project fashioned from software that permits artists to replicate their creations in real space and in almost any scale desired. Walker created the concept; the rest was an industrial process that you can get a glimpse of here.
The sugar daddy behind Walker’s Sugar Baby is Creative Time, a non-profit with a deep-pocket board and the obligatory dedication to making the world a better place. Their mission statement explains:
Creative Time commissions, produces, and presents art that engages history, breaks new ground, challenges the status quo, and infiltrates the public realm while engaging millions of people in New York City and across the globe. We are guided by a passionate belief in the power of art to create inspiring personal experiences as well as foster social progress. We privilege artists’ ideas. We get excited about their dreams and respond to them by providing big opportunities to expand their practices and take bold new risks that value process, content, and possibilities.
How fine that sounds, a high-minded echo of older utopian impulses in the arts. Like an aging torch singer, the temper keeps staging comebacks, playing to audiences that never heard it in previous voice. Creative Time’s mission statement should bring to mind Italian Futurism and the incentives of the Russian and German avant-gardes of the 1910s and 1920s. Instead, adjusted for our times and scheduled plans for the Domino property, it raises visions of bike paths, lattes on the grass, and such upscale amenities as an urban farm (organic, for sure) and a yoga studio.
Utopia has gone soft, gluten-free, and green. And it sells real estate.
On the board of Creative Time is Jed Walentas, real estate macher and co-developer, with his father David, of DUMBO. Father and son are the principals of Two Trees Management Company which owns the landmark refinery and surrounding acreage. Scheduled plans for the waterfront site include a Dubai-like high-rise complex with a gentrifying mix of luxury rentals, affordable housing, shops, office towers and public park.
I have no comment on the development itself. What matters to me here is the synthetic significance of art commissioned as a public relations gesture meant to sweeten a real estate deal.
Here, the Two Trees development earns cultural caché in an extravagant effort to defuse strong local opposition to both the demolition of the factoryonce the lifeblood of blue collar Williamsburgand the scale of the development itself. Meanwhile, Creative Time board members who collect as well as promote contemporary art see the value of their Walker pieces enhanced. It is not going out on a limb to suppose that any trustee who might not have owned Ms. Walker’s work earlier did the sensible thing and added it to their portfolio once Creative Time decided to grant her the Domino commission. This is simply the reality of museums and of arts organizations similar to Creative Time. Their boards are filled with collectors of contemporary art
Stay with that thought a few minutes. The curtained interrelations of the kind of blue-ribbon philanthropy in the arts that Creative Time represents is of far greater cultural import than Kara Walker’s installation. A sampling of the board is illustrative.
Board members Elizabeth Swig and Ellen Taubman rank high in property circles. Ms. Swig is both an heiress of the Macklowe real estate clan and ex-wife of Kent Swig, New York realtor and son of San Francisco developer Melvin Swig. In their divorce, Liz was awarded close to $12 million dollars worth of contemporary art.
Ellen Taubman, a curator in her own right, is the wife of shopping center developer William Taubman. His father, Albert, was the former owner of Sotheby’s and trustee of the Whitney. Dad was convicted in 2001 of price fixing artworks. Both Taubmans know their way around the contemporary market.
Trustee Renee Rockefeller is married to Mark, son of Nelson and Happy. This past December, The New York Times did a spread on Renee which included photo credits of the contemporary art that fills their Park Avenue maisonette. Renee acts as a consultant to the Frieze art fairs, prime movers in the contemporary market.
Suzanne Cochran lives with husband Robert on Fifth Avenue. In 2007 they bought a 5,000 square foot pied-à-terre in Tribecca to display the contemporary art they were beginning to collect. And collect they have done. With a vengeance, going by the number of times Ms. Cochran appears in the archives of Patrick McMullan’s full-service feeder of images to national and international society pages. Since March of this year, Suzanne has been photographed at The Drawing Center Gala, at Ross Bleckner’s swank opening at Mary Boone; the New York Academy of the Arts’ Tribecca Ball; and the Brooklyn Museum’s 4th Annual Brooklyn Artists Ball.
Trusteeship, couched in the aura of public service, is a potent instrument of investment. It places the trustee-collectors on the inside where they know ahead of time who is buying what. They know which artists will receive coveted prizes (e.g. the Whitney’s Bucksbaum Award, instituted by trustee Melva Bucksbaum), which will be exhibited or acquired by a museum. In short, they have all the advantages that in the financial world comprise insider trading.
Agnes Gund, president emeritus of MoMa’s board of trustees, phrased it quite nicely some years ago to Andrew Decker of ArtNews: “Why should they [trustees] give something, and get one day of parties and a champagne toast and that’s it?”
Art is serious business. And that is okay. Art’s collusion with the marketplace restores to artists their own humanity. It permits them to be what they have been all alongnot priests or seers but skilled workers like any others, morally indistinguishable from their neighbors. What is not okay is the smug aura of high-mindedness, the vanguard posturing of a media event like “A Subtlety” that wants to have it both ways.
How many beholders does it take to declare something objectively beautiful? Or not?
Kara Walker. “A Subtlety” (2014).
That is a stumper. The riddle becomes easier to solve if you lower the register and ask how many are needed to declare a thing significant. The answer comes immediately: Not many, just so long as they are equipped to finance the project and generate tactical promotion. In short, those with the assets and affiliations to create both an image and the yardstick by which it is measured.
Kara Walker. “A Subtlety” 2014.
Who might be those blessed few? One way to find out is to look behind the funding curtain of Kara Walker’s colossal installation, “A Subtlety:The Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World,” currently on view in Williamsburg’s doomed Domino Sugar Refinery.
First, though, let us stay with the project itself. That is the thing that is making the news. The backstage stuff can wait until later.
In keeping with Walker’s signature allusions to race and slavery, her sententious subtitle promises a critiquethat is the chichi term of the sugar trade. The sculpted piece itself conjures up old, postbellum caricatures of black women. Part Sphinx, part black mammy, “Subtlety” is a 35-foot high minstrel effigy, constructed of styrofoam, and coated in 160,000 pounds of sugar. There are reports of people flying into New York for a day trip to gaze at a trumpeted exposé of America’s squalid past, its ill gotten addiction to sugar, and its historic objectification of the black female body. And, truth to tell, for the fun of being mooned by Aunt Jemima.
“A Subtlety” is a clever, brassy, soft-core diversion. Before anything else, it is an out-sized tchotchke too big for its pretensions, most of them resident in the sphinx’s bare rump. Frédéric Bartholdi, commenting on the height of his monumental Liberty Enlightening the World, insisted that the size of an artwork should be scaled to the size of the idea behind it. Critics are out in force inflating the idea behind Walker’s installation, ready to shake a finger at anyone who snickers. Roberta Smith is a reliable guide to the preferred interpretation of whatever removes itself from criticism by referencing race or sex. Her New York Times review strikes the desired note of sanctimony. She looks the sphinx straight in its proffered genitalia and sees the origins of the world:
A powerful personification of the most beleaguered demographic in this country the black woman shows us where we all come from, innocent and unrefined.
Awakened by the sight, she rises to jeremiad in loathing of the stigma still on us:
Which brings us to our own self-destructing present, where sugar is something of a scourge, its excessive consumption linked to diseases like obesity and diabetes that disproportionately affect the poor. The circle of exploitation and degradation is in many ways unbroken. No longer a luxury, sugar has become a birthright and the opiate of the masses. We look on it like money, with greed. Heavily promoted, it keeps millions of Americans of all races from fulfilling their potential an inestimable loss in terms of talent, health and happiness.
Sphinx on the grounds of Belvedere Palace, Vienna. Photo by David Monneax.
If the pundits had come down sooner from their sugar high, they might have recognized in Walker’s mammy a 3-D variant of an old literary trope: the loathly lady motif that gives us the Wife of Bath. Echoes of Dame Alys and the beastly bride are as resident in Walker’s installation as Al Jolson’s Mammy. If there is any surprise in the righteous reviews of the installation, it is the absence of all reference to the art history Walker draws on without mention. The sphinx is an ancientin company with the gorgons, harpies, and griffins of Iron Age Greeceemblem of the tease. And teasing is Walker’s metier. Her mammy sphinx is the latest version, suitably vulgarized for its time, of a rich device: the elusive man-eater Hegel recommended as a symbol of symbolism itself.
Gustave Moreau. Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Busty female sphinxes made cameo appearances among the Romantics; they were popular with the Symbolists as well. Sphinxes are famous for their tricks. No reason, then, Walkerwho invokes African charms and whatnots as inspirationshould not play a few herself. Personally engaging, Kara Walker is a canny inheritor of both the accusations of the feminist art movement and the fashion for victim art. Her mock heroic public stance of never “kowtowing to the dominant culture” is as much a put-on as this mammy sphinx. Blatant bias for art that presents itself as a socially conscious statement about the condition of the world is the keynote of the dominant culture of arts bureaucracies. Add a bit of shock valuehere, mammy’s upturned hindquartersand you have a complete repertory of cutting edge conventions.
Lead sphinx possibly by Pietro Tacca (17th C.). Parc d’Enghien, Belgium. Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont.
In the end, Walker’s installation is as orthodox as it is dishonest. It relies on the reigning politics of identity to provide meanings that are not there. The content of the piece hovers somewhere between vague sympathies and the eye, settling nowhere. Devoid of information, this is entertainment packaged as labor history and cultural commentary. In place of historical knowledge, the installation substitutes a knowing stance, an image of content where very little exists. Posture without substance dissolves the capacity to understand the past on its own terms. Therein lies the obscenity of “A Subtlety.” One more bare backside in our face won’t harm us. The descent of history, including recent history, into image will.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. [Jeremiah 6:14]
There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. [Lord Acton]
The papacy is swaddled in sycophancy in the best of times. Add to that the exultant adulation induced by celebrity culture. It is a heady mix that can beguile a decent man into a grandiose conception of himself that blinds him to the limits of his office. And encourages conceit in his own sympathies.
Anonymous. Pope Innocent III Approving Rules of the Franciscan Order (16th C.). Monastery, Cholula, Mexico.
Francis’ excursion into Middle East politics illustrated the danger of a pope assuming office as a saint-in-waiting. His incautious behavior ought to have received more scrutiny from the Catholic press than it did. Instead, the amen chorus crooned about peace, prayer, and fraternal dialogue, as if fine words pull the sting from the scorpion’s tail.
Any claim that this was a trip for religious purposes was disingenuous. Clearly it was not. Helicoptering directly into PA controlled Bethlehem from Jordan, bypassing the diplomatic route out of Jerusalem, was itself a political act. As Fr. Kamal Khader of the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem told Agence France-Presse, “It’s a kind of sign of recognizing Palestine.” It was an opening move that lent credence to the earlier Israel National News report:
Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a member of the Argentinian parliament and close friend of Pope Francis said that the pope intends to define himself as the “Che Guevara of the Palestinians” and support their ‘struggle and rights’ during his visit.
Doubtless, that was off-the-cuff hyperbole. Still, coming from an old friend, it indicates something worrisome about Francis’ affinities. And his ambitions. Possibly, Francis sees for himself a role similar to that of Karol Wojtila in Poland? But John Paul stood with the force of NATO behind him, in the persons of Thatcher and Reagan. The last thing needed in the Middle East is a grandstanding pope using the Petrine office as a platform for high-profile and misleading sanctimony.
Abraham Oertel. Kingdoms of Israel and Judah (16th C.). From the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Antwerp.
Kissing the Israeli-built barrier as if it were the Wailing Wall at the very point where anti-Israel graffiti would show to Palestinian advantage? Jonathan Tobin, writing in Commentary, is a model of restraint:
But by stepping into the controversy over the security barrier, the pope left the realms of both religion and state protocol to lend his enormous international credibility and popularity to the Palestinian narrative about the fence. That he was led to a particular spot on it that was filled with English as well as Arabic graffiti was the perfect photo op for those who attempt to argue that its placement is a symbol of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Israel’s foes have attempted to claim that the fence is a new version of a Nazi ghetto wall in which Palestinian victims are hemmed in and deprived of their rights. The truth is that it was built reluctantly by an Israeli government that did not wish to divide the land in this manner but had to do something to make it harder for Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists to cross into Israel to slaughter innocents. Rather than a tangible manifestation of Israeli colonialism, it is a monument to the bloodthirsty decision of Palestinian leaders to wage a terrorist war against the Jewish state when they could have instead had independence and peace.
Francis’ reckless empathy endangers the prospect for coexistence he seeks. Good intentions notwithstanding, all the hackneyed pieties of “Peace, peace!” obscure the unyielding fact that sometimes peace has to be imposed. And vigilantly guarded.
Caroline Glick wrote in The Jerusalem Post of a telling incident ignored by fawning media. During a public meeting with Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister mentioned innocuously that Jesus spoke Hebrew. Francis rudely interrupted his host to interject “Aramaic.” Flustered, Netanyahu responded, “Jesus spoke Aramaic but he knew Hebrew.”
Anonymous. Jesus Among the Doctors (15th C.) Chapel of St. Sebastian, Lanslevillard, France.
Netanyahu was right the first time. Francis was both impolite and wrongheaded. Whether Jesus spoke Aramaic or Hebrew at table with family we will never know. We know only that as a Torah observant Jew, Jesus certainly spoke Hebrew. In the multi-lingual society of his time, Hebrew was, as it still is, the sacred language of Judaism. Luke tells us: “As was his custom, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read [the Torah and Haftarah].” The twelve year old Jesus could not have discussed the fine points of Torah in temple without speaking Hebrew. Nor could he have spoken readily with the Samaritan woman at the well since Samaritans spoke Hebrew, not Aramaic. A generous amount of textual evidence for Jesus’ knowledge of Hebrew exists.
Francis’ imprudentand needlessdiscourtesy was surely not lost on the Palestinians.
Justice is not achieved by trying to split the difference between a terrorist state and a democratic one. God help us all if the West is as luckless in a pope as Americans are in a president.
Whoever writes about religion and art comes into contact with two sorts of people: Christians of the most varied stamp, and connoisseurs of art. Both are rather difficult to get along with.
Gerardus van der Leeuw
Stay awhile with Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950). His lyrical and provocative analysis of consonanceand distancebetween beauty and holiness is indispensable for any lover of the subject. There was no one better prepared than hepoet, theologian, philosopher, historian of religionto write a theology of art or discuss the problems of a theological aesthetics.
Anonymous woodcut. Dancing Peasants (16th C.). Staatsbibliotek, Berlin
Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, first published in Germany in 1932, was widely known in Europe decades before being published in English. Writing the preface to the 1963 translation, Mircea Eliade called it “the masterpiece of his maturity.” Van der Leeuw surveys all the arts with the eye of a loverdance, drama, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. He locates the origins of each in man’s religious sense, and goes on to describe their historical growth away from those beginnings.
At the end of each chapter, he outlines the theological burden of the particular art under discussion. Chapter headings read: “The Theological Aesthetics of Music,” “The Theological Aesthetics of the Image,” et alia. The significance he finds in each testifies to the harmonic character of his own religious sensibility:
The dance reflects the movement of God, which also moves us upon the earth. The drama presupposes the holy play between God and man. Verbal art is the hymn of praise in which the Eternal and his works are represented. Architecture reveals to us the lines of the well-built city of God’s creation. Music is the echo of the eternal Gloria.
Anonymous painting. The May Tree (16th C.). Musée Carnavalet, Paris.
As he well understood, the effort to define a theological aesthetics is a hazardous undertaking, as delicate as it is dangerous. He does not presume to map where those two paths, beauty and holiness, cross. Nor does he desire to. Each is complete in itself, an absolute: “Religion and art are parallel lines, which intersect only at infinity and meet in God.”
How can we make art itself religious? At what point or in what way does art become religious? Van der Leeuw rejects the questions as empty:
This would be too external, as though holiness and beauty were two ingredients which can be mixed together according to certain principles. . . . There is no particular art that can be designated religious. Still less is there a religion which we could call aesthetic. There is only a single art and it is first of all art. There is only a single religion, and it is always and everywhere religion.
His chapters on dance are the most exhilarating for me. Not sure why. It is the art I give the least thought to. Perhaps because of that separation, I am grateful for van der Leeuw’s bridge over the gap. He opens with a quote from Johan Huizinga’s study of man at play, the delightful Homo Ludens: “Dance is one of the purest and most perfect forms of play.” His insistence on the original unity of dance and religion begins in the Stone Age. In prehistory resides both the wellspring and the summit of creative dance:
The art of beautiful motion is far and away the oldest. Before man learned how to use any instruments at all, he moved the most perfect instrument of all, his body. He did this with such abandon that the cultural history of prehistoric and ancient man is, for the most part, nothing but the history of the dance.
We must understand this literally. Not only is prehistory mostly dance history, but dance history is mostly prehistory. Like a giant monolith, the dance stands in the midst of the changing forms of human expression. Not only as an art, but also as a form of life and culture, the dance has been grievously wounded by the general disappearance of culture.
Costume design for the ballet Narcissus. Leon Bakst (1911).
It is no stretch to believe that Hans Urs von Balthasar owes much to van der Leeuw. (With equal debt to Clive Bell’s 1914 theory of Significant Form.) For that reason, Catholics have a particular interest in this Dutch scholar. But there is a better, more gracious reason: his breadth of scholarship, intellectual daring, profundity of insight, and grace of style.
Van der Leeuw represents one of the earliest attempts to distinguish between theology and the study of religion as a cultural practice grounded in history. A minister of the Dutch Reformed confession for a time, his own immersion in the thought and language of Christianity tends to blur the intended distinction. Yet it is just that cloud of reciprocation that makes reading him so compelling, particularly to a Christian audience. This, despite possible disagreement with his conclusions or challenges to his approach.
Listen to the timbre of his commentary on architecture:
The City of God, the New Jerusalem, needs no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:22). But in the old Jerusalem, building must go on; God’s house as well as ours.
His prose remains, to this day, more limber and comely than any that has followed its lead. Only the lover sings, we are told. Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art is that rare thing: scholarship that rises to song.
A person who is passionately fond of music may quite well be a perverted personbut I should find it hard to believe this of anyone who thirsted for Gregorian chanting.
Is there any such thing as a distinctly sacred sound? Can any single sound summon us to the divine? Does any particular one convey the essence of holiness? Lead to the depths?
In absolute terms, no. Sacred sounds are as various as the cultures and the instruments that produce them: a ram’s horn, a kettle drum, trumpet, or sitar. Bells, cymbals, gongs, and bamboo flutes are liturgical tools that speak to diverse peoples of that hidden reality which has no sound. Music and song, rendered in a treasury of modes, are native to worship. And to mystery.
Luca della Robbia. Cantoria, detail (1399-1400). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Still, for Western Christians no other sound brings the holy to utterance so completely and with such soaring beauty as Gregorian plain song. In Sacred and Profane Beauty, Gerardus van der Leeuw, theologian and musician, lauded the gentle melancholy of it.
He called it “a foretaste of the calm of paradise,” and saw it as an analogy in sound to the visual art of Fra Angelico. Searching for an example of harmony attainedits struggles resolved and no longer apparenthe named Gregorian chant:
. . . [as] the sung prayer which has ascended to God through all the centuries and in all churches, and to which Pius X referred as “praying in beauty.” The Gregorian melody breathes a peace and a clarity, a calm and a self-possession, which makes it comprehensible that the Church, having progressed through the dizzying heights and chasms of polyphony and romanticism, always returns once more to the unison of Gregorian plain chant. Nor will a Reformed Catholic Church music be able to do without it.
Van der Leeuw was writing as a Dutch Protestant in the 1930s. But his comment held prophetic import for corporate worship within Roman Catholicism decades later. Abandonment of chant was a nod to the culture of modernity and its conceits. Gregorian chant did not come into being as an occasion for the expression of personality. Like the majestic severity of Romanesque architecture, it is the purest form of expression of steadfast faith in another order of existence. We sing to our Rock, our Redeemer, in chant.
Square notes, from a 16th C. Venetian manuscript. Rossini Conservatoire, Bologna.
Let me illustrate with a story:
A family friend recently attended the funeral of a colleague. An older man with wide professional affiliations, my friend is no stranger to memorial services and funeral Masses. But he confessed that he had never been to any like this one before. Just what was this extraordinary thing? It was a traditional Latin Requiem, the ancient Mass of the Dead that had escorted Catholics to their graves for centuries. Displaced in the Sixties, it has narrowed since into a curio, a fragment of a heritage almost in exile. It was no surprise that this man had never encountered it.
The setting itself was an act of prayer. The draped coffin rested in the sanctuary, below the altar step. The priest was vested in black, our color of deepest grief. No organ played. There was no other sound but the tones of the priest chanting the liturgy, accompanied only by a choir of six voices. No flowers lightened the timbre of mourning. This was Lent; the austerity of the season was in communion with the gravity of death. The exalted serenity of Tomás Victoria’s choral melodies filled the little church. The music lent a resonance and depth to the choreographed movements of priest and servers that non-Catholics attending could discern.
My friend is sensitive to the power of music and gesture. Deeply moved, he confided to me the loveliest thing: “It felt like the service was a call to conversion.” A non-Christian, he did not mean conversion to Catholicism. He meant a change of heart. Metanoia. In that moment, he recognized in the dignity and solemnity of the old Massa numinous balleta call away from the secular and toward God.
Arguments by apologists go no farther than the reason, that slippery part of us susceptible to blandishments of every stripe. Gregorian plain song touches the soul.
I like to think it speaks well for John XXIII that the mandatory miracle had to be waived on his behalf. There was none to be found, not a trace. No pious Catholic had the heart to come forward with a crumb of evidence that the man who had convened Vatican IIits touted spirit and all its workswas released from purgatory so soon.
No need to fret over the waiver. It is just possible that John was either too reticent or too canny to deliver the customary cure. Better to greet its absence as a signal refusal, a sign of sanctity more compelling than any custom-made cure. Certainly John knowsmore keenly now than everthat miracles, like grace, are everywhere. To pull one out of a zucchetto for his own glory might have seemed ignoble to him, a catchpenny wonder that served bureaucratic concerns over salvific ones. Perhaps he thought the requirement too ornate? Utilitarian?
Daniel Chodowiecki. The Boy with the Sausage Spit (1764). Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
There is no way to know. All we do know is that this year’s double canonization, in combination with the coming beatification of Paul VI, opens a window onto the politics of saint-making. Like sausage-making, into which we are advised not to look, it is a less than edifying sight.
This is Rome honoring its own in an end run around debate that continues to dog Humanae Vitae. Not infallibly proposed but infallible nonetheless? Sound in part, unsound in another? In beatifying its author, the Vatican canonizes the encyclical, entrenching it as litmus test to distinguish true Catholics from pretenders. On another level, it buttresses the novus Ordo Missae, experienced by many as desacralized and neophiliac. This year’s triple play is a megacanonization that amplifies and reinforces the authority of a man’s works by venerating the man himself.
Paul’s beatification swats at what Francis is reported to have called, in audience with bishops of the Czech Republic, “a kind of fashion” for the Tridentine Mass. Come October, seminarians drawn to the Latin liturgy are likely to find themselves more marginal than they are now. Parishes on the fence as to whether to introduce the traditional Latin Mass will have a disincentive to proceed. Catholics seeking the solemnity of the old liturgy might have to travel farther to hear the sharp, plangent treble of a Sanctus bell.
Jean-Baptiste Greuze. The Butcher (18th C.). Private Collection.
At the same time, Paul’s elevation is poised to outjockey resistance to the encyclical’s blanket rejection of any contraceptive act under any circumstance. The logic of principled, good-faith demurrals can be left to suffocate under the weight of Paul’s proclaimed sanctity. A transparent maneuver, the beatification further burdens conscientious Catholics who sufferand suffer they dothe gap between their own marital scruples and credence in the Church’s teaching authority on the matter. The thunder of denunciation“intrinsic evil,” “intrinsically disordered”extended without nuance to non-abortive contraception used by responsible spouses open to parenthood, continues to roar confusedly in many consciences.
Paul’s advancement, conjoined with that of his successors, is a ritual of enforcement. Its object is to enfeeble unresolved opposition by leap-frogging over critical arguments in all their complexity. It looks to blunt suspicions that Paul’s encyclical, however beautiful its hymn to conjugal love, masked a failure of nerve.
The personal holiness of these three popes is not in question. The issue is quite different. What we are witnessing, in triplicate and garlanded with ceremony, is the exaltation of ecclesiastical politics.
There is pathos in that. And danger.
John XXIII once remarked that the Vatican was the hardest place on earth to remain a Christian. The pope’s impish bon mot floated like skywriting over the double canonization in St. Peter’s Square on the Second Easter Sunday. On the glittering heels of this production came advance notice of another: London’s The Tablet reported that Paul VI is on the books for beatification this coming October.
Thomas Nast. Boss Tweed. Late 19th C.
Are we at the point where election to the Petrine office is itself a signal of godliness, a guarantee of eventual canonization? Will each pope canonize his predecessoror two or three of themwith the unspoken assumption that his own successor will return the compliment? Is election a promissory note drafted in white smoke, and redeemable at death for public elevation to the rank of saint? It begins to look that way.
Not only the faithful but their shepherds, too, are susceptible to media-induced semblances of sanctity. Devotion to the aura of sanctity and to the machine that produces it makes cult figures out of mere men. Like that talking snake in Eden, it murmurs in the ear. It excites the illusion that every papal opinionhowever lacking in prudence or responsible factsis oracular.
This expedited exercise in saint-making was a premature apotheosis, a pageant of synthetic piety staged for immediate media consumption. With this as a precedent, canonization risks becoming one more pseudo-event, like bread and circus, thrown to a culture besotted with virtual reality.
In our lifetime, we have watched the papacy descend into spectacle. By now, showboatingfrom kissing feet to a mega-Mass on Copacabana Beachis an established feature of the modern papacy. As if spectacle itself could cure the malaise that has emptied churches, closed parishes, and turned cathedrals into pay-per-view tourist sites.
Benedict seemed to have little appetite for the parade. During his reign, he appeared more a captive than an agent of it. Yet even he cooperated with his captor. In his last general audience in St. Peter’s, he lapsed into the kind of mutual deception that fans celebrity culture: “The Pope belongs to everyone, and so many people feel very close to him.”
James Tissot. The Golden Calf (late 19th C.). Jewish Museum, NYC
No, the man does not belong to everyone. Any suggestion that he does is a saccharine oblation to consumers of image. That illusion of intimacy, so seductive and so crippling, is the very ground of demagogic populism. It is a dangerous chimera, as lethal to the judgment of a faith community as to electoral politics. Catholicspopes among themare no less subject than anyone else to the lure of the star system and its crafted emphasis on personality.
It took no time at all for Francis to degrade into a celebrity. And like any politically astute showman, he takes to the camera for carefully designed photo-ops. (Posing with an anti-fracking T-Shirt in November, he conferred on activist filmmakers the kind of endorsement we expect from Yoko Ono and Matt Damon.) Media-conscious symbolic gestures are mirrored in an airy, imprecise rhetoric that is a receptacle for whatever meaning the public drops into it.
Francis clearly likes the elusive phrase “economy of exclusion.” He has used it before. Imprecise, it is a phrase for rent to fixers and mongers of any stripe. This time he served it to Ban Ki-Moon and visiting attachés of that grand sepulcher on the East River. But what do the words signify? Are they a gloved jab at the crony capitalism disabling his native Argentina? Do they aim at an American president who obligates an unborn generation to insurmountable debts not of its making? Was Francis making veiled reference to the debased status of imperiled Christians in Syria? Or, perhaps, to Islamo-leftism and the price of totalitarian theocracy? Might the phrase have sideways, metaphoric application to Vatican recognition of a Palestinian state that refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist?
None of these. Uttered in concert with an autocratic injunction for “legitimate redistribution” of wealth, our pope was lending his office to apostles of the same tired, ideological hostility toward the market that ends in economic slavery under the guise of social justice. Papal messianism, bolstered by lack of competence in economics, is the road to a familiar hell, however finely paved with lovely intention.
We know the old curse: May you live in interesting times. This might be a good time to expand the malediction to include the charm of popular popes.
Viewed through the radiant trefoil window of aesthetics, my love of Gothic architecture is boundless. Approached through the tighter, denser lens of prayer, however, that love shrinks. It pales and contracts to where I can barely see it. If at all.
The Cloister of Gloucester Cathedral
Christianity’s great truths come to us through a Nazarene carpentera tekton, a builderwhose handiwork we have no clue to. Neither do we have the faintest inkling of his response to Herod’s monumental temple complex. The whole of it, with its plaza, porticos, columns, and stairs was a glory of limestone, marble and gold. Yet Jesus directed eyes to the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, to bread, weeds and mustard seeds.
His inattention to cultivated Herodian aesthetics mortifies me some. It pulls me backsometimes not far enoughfrom making a golden calf of my own sensibilities and everything they revel in. Once destined for the faithful, Christendom’s magnificent cathedrals remain great goods. But they are not ultimate goods. And when we honor them as ends in themselves, we fall into idolatry.
Kathe Kollwitz. Woman with a Dead Child (1903)
Gerard Manley Hopkins, a theologian of surpassing lyricism, condensed into a single exquisite stanza all a Christian needs to knowor sayabout beauty:
. . . Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
To the Father through the features of men’s faces. The call to charity implicit in that line is the governing principle and crown of the gospels. I cannot dislodge it from memory. It repeats like a mantra, an unceasing reminder that compassioncaritasis a vehicle for worship. And that our faith is simpler than we make it. Simpler, certainly, than the grandees of theological aesthetics would have us believe.
The greatest cathedral of all, the only one capable of rising to the Paraclete, is the suffering human being next to us. Until we can worship on the crosstown bus, we have yet to greet the living God.
Kathe Kollwitz. The Widow (1922-23).