In a recent post, Michael Linton defends the Christian potential for works of art originally designed to offend and mock Christians. The idea is that the divine invasion of space and time in Jesus Christ is a pretty big shock to our otherworldly spiritual imaginations. The cross, as St. Paul observed, is a scandal and offense. Prophetic judgment is uncomfortable and unsettling.
I don't know about you, but that's not my reaction to Serrano's photograph. I yawn and roll my eyes. Gee, transgression. What a novel and threatening idea. Hold on, this is really unsettling ...
No, I'm not offended. I'm bored and wish that artists couldn't get away with the profoundly complacent and smug belief that offending pious Middle America counts as being avant-garde. Hello, this is very old news.
And it is more than old newsit is establishment art of the worst kind. One of the great French painters of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was Jacques-Louis David. His dramatic neoclassical paintings were meant to give heroic expression to French public life, first in scenes of Revolution (see his Tennis Court Oath) and then in images of Napoleon's imperial grandeur (see Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass). He was the impresario who designed and oversaw massive public spectacles in Paris. All in all, David's art was meant to reassure elite French sentiment by assimilating it to the authority and success of classical Roman culture. I don't support the revolutionary or imperial sentiments, but I admire David's élan. The man knew how to manipulate his viewers, and he was one of the first to do so with a modern sense of the public role of propaganda.
Serrano and a great deal of the foundation-supported and gallery-championed artists of today play exactly the same role. His work is part of a transgressive tradition that may have started as a shocking, liberating experience for its viewers but is now a profoundly reassuring and confirming experience for most. We congratulate ourselves for our critical superiority. If we have faith, then we think ourselves brave and sophisticated for not taking offense. If we are a Blue State types, then we say, "Isn't it great that Serrano has the courage to take on religious authority." Either way, Serrano and those like him reinforce and reassure the dominant, supposedly critical and cutting edge, but covertly conventional, attitudes of elite American opinion.
And let's be honest folks, transgressive art tends to be a caricature of the grandiose ambition of David's work. (Although I must give Robert Mapplethorpe credit on this score. His bullwhip in the anus photo evokes the authority of ancient images of the devil and his tail, and this is more akin to the sophistication of David's neoclassical presentation of French public life. But it is not clear to me that Mapplethorpe is a transgressive artist in any clear sense.) Moreover, most transgressive artists lack self-conscious awareness of what transgressive art is really all about. The upshot is the worst of all possible worlds: conventional, establishment art that is self-deceived.
Recently, we had a speaker come to my campus. He was dean of a school of education, and his talk was titled, "The Movement from Cynicism to Joy in Critical Education." News tends to come by pony express to education programs, so I sat up and took notice. Could it be possible that the educational establishment has finally realized that our postmodern students just block out so-called "critical education"? The advertised eye-opening shock of critique has become so thoroughly integrated into pedagogy that it is experienced as a ritualized, habitual performance necessary to satisfy the course requirements. In the creaky machinery of the educational establishment, the only genuine function of critique is to reassure teachers of their own sophistication and moral authority.
I don't think our situation is too complicated. My students tend to be shocked by self-discipline, piety, loyalty, and love. One of my former students is a monk at a local monastery. I had him teach a class on Thomas Merton. The students were taken aback.
I am convinced that the avant-garde today is to be found in piety and love. Serrano's silly photograph is entirely loveless. He loves neither the form of the cross nor the urine. The postmodern educational aesthetic of critique is loveless, or maybe more accurately, it lives on the hollow love of its own impiety. It is the professor who conveys his love for Henry James or T.S. Eliot who wins the day. It is the novelist who loves humanity who is cutting against the spirit of the agewhich is why Tom Wolfe is such a crushingly conventional, establishment author. He has the same high disdain for the cartoon characters that populate his novels as self-congratulatory critical thinkers have for the complex realities of piety that they turn into tin-foil simplicities easily debunked over an espresso.
And the church musician or Christian artist? To Michael Linton, I would say that what really shocks is not Isaiah's voice of judgment; it is his love for and loyalty to a polluted Israel. I'm pretty sure that training listeners to distance themselves from the sins of America by the bombast of a grotesque version of "The Star Spangled Banner" fails to convey the shock of that kind of love.
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