Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

After years of premature Christmas celebrations, even evangelicals are learning to reclaim Advent, the season of preparation. Might the enclaves of high culture do the same? What follow are a few suggestions.

Among the holiday specials on offer at the Museum of Modern Art right now is the Robert Gober retrospective, The Heart is Not a Metaphor. But it unfurls far too quickly. Art-loving audiences are confronted all at once with a decapitated Jesus, a trash-can baptismal font, genitally themed wallpaper, cryptic sinks, decontextualized fragments of Hieronymous Bosch paintings and androgenized body parts roasting in a fireplace. Why not mete these gallery features out slowly, over four weeks?

To isolate one example, Gober gives us a papier-mâchémodel of a church, the roof ripped off Godzilla style, with scenes of everyday degradation and obscenity replacing the interior iconography. But why not turn it into an Advent calendar to be progressively defiled day by day? Then the effect could be properly savored. And why, furthermore, does water stream from Christ’s nipples at all times? Just as Bernini once delighted Pope Innocent X by delaying the waterworks in Rome’s Fountain of the Four Rivers to an unexpected moment, so on Christmas morning, Gober could delight viewers by signaling the nipples to gush into the depressing floor pit just as the St. Thomas Fifth Ave. Christmas bells began ringing a block away. Surely audiences would then say, as did Pope Innocent to Bernini, “Segnor, you have added ten years to Our life!”

You’d think the theater would have been more privy to the need for dramatic anticipation, but I’m sorry to report the thespians also rushed ahead. After an unsuccessful two week run on Broadway, the play based on Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary recently came to Chicago, where I had the pleasure of taking it in last weekend. Some ambiguities of the novella are here intensified. An embittered Mary tells us that the resurrection was a fantasy—just a dream, and she will not dream again. Mary says: “I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it.” They are less central in the novella, but Chicago’s Mary, played effectively by Linda Reiter, passionately proclaimed these lines to conclude the play. Then the same message one last time, from the gut. “It. Waaas. Not. Wooorth. Iiit!!!”

Why not take more time making the declaration? I’m imagining here a Marina Abramovi?–inspired act of protracted performance art, maybe even with an ironic Advent wreath that begins fully lit, with a different candle snuffed out each week. The “It” could be forcefully issued after a full performance on the first week of Advent, the “Waaas,” in the same way on the second week. The committed audience would gather again to hear the “Not” on the third week. The penultimate suspenseful “Wooorth” bitterly pronounced on Christmas Eve, and all would come full circle with the final culminating “Iiit,” spat out on special Christmas morning matinee for the whole family. The message then complete, perhaps “It was not worth it” could be set to music, complete with a procession to interrupt the Christmas services at the five surrounding Lincoln Park churches that are still suggesting that it actually was. Maybe even a special greeting could be formulated, inspired by Orthodox Easter traditions. “It was not worth it,” we could say to one another in the marketplace, followed by a full hearted reply, “It was not worth it indeed!”

At the risk of gilding the lily, is there room here for combination? Gober and Tóibín both have Catholic backgrounds. I wonder, would dipping one’s head under the flow of MoMA’s nipple fountain while ritually murmuring “It was not worth it” be an anti-sacrament sufficiently powerful to remove holy baptism’s indelible mark? 

Of course not. And the reason none of these directives would be followed is because neither of these artists, I suspect, are interested in letting their experimental wisps of blasphemy coalesce into enduring conviction. Which is to say, they might tip-toe on desecrated ground, but I doubt they’d want to be buried in it. Half-hearted abominations only betray that traditional faith remains un-ignorable—for the sake of ticket sales of course, but for other reasons as well. The holy cannot be casually dismissed, but must be confronted or contorted. A case could even be made that The Heart is Not a Metaphor and The Testament of Mary are the spiritual equivalent to the jagged green peaks on the hospital monitor—beeping to signal the soul is not yet dead. “Whereas blasphemy might once have been a sign of spiritual corruption,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “it might now be rather taken as a sign that the soul is still alive, or even that it is recovering animation: for the perception of Good and Evil—whatever choice we may make—is the first requisite of spiritual life.”

Offended Catholics who took the bait and protested The Testament of Mary understandably called for “reparations,” but there are more creative ways to achieve that goal than with picket signs: Call the bluff instead. Get me his address and I’ll be happy tosend Tóibín a copy of a book that came out the same year as his novella. Surely he would be interested in the fact that a long-lost Testament of Mary, a seventh century Life of the Virgin (the earliest!) that languished for centuries in the Georgian language, has finally been translated into English. Arguably, the agony that Mary went through is more severe in the earlier account. “She suffered with him in everything,” Maximus dares suggest, “and suffered even more. . . .” The truth of Resurrection, of course, pervades Maximus’s biography; but it does not cancel grief. Instead, such hope enables grief to be more fully inhabited. “At the time of the Passion her heart had been wounded more than any other, and she had stood inseparably by him, so also she saw his glorious Ascension and filled with joy.” Or to translate that into Tóibínese: It was all worth it.

And rather than protesting the Museum of Modern Art, maybe a member of the Church of Saint Brigid-Saint Emiric could invite Mr. Gober this Christmas to a Midnight Mass. Curiously, the MoMA gave an approximate (if inaccurate) address for the church that Gober used for his papier-mâché defacement, and so I paid it a visit, only to learn that it recently underwent a dramatic rescue thanks to an anonymous donation (I cherish the hope that it was Gober himself.) I imagine the artist breaking the art world’s last rule to return for a sincere visit—an act of performance art entitled, “The Eucharist is not a Metaphor.” I even imagine him settling in, and then going on an Ignatian retreat with a competent spiritual director. Gober’s evident difficulties with Christianity would be worked through, and forgiveness extended both ways. In a guided spiritual exercise, Gober’s tragic defacements would be replaced with the equally grueling Stations of the Cross, the trashcan baptismal fonts would become marble again, and the contorted body parts would become whole. Then the long-awaited break-through moment. “Imagine the Lord Jesus with me, Robert. But this time,” the director patiently smiles, “with a head.”

Matthew J. Milliner (@millinerd) teaches art history at Wheaton College.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles