Religion, Faith and Sprituality

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Art Exhibit No Catholic Should Miss: "Hide/Seek" at the Brooklyn Museum

November  17

When I see "Hide/Seek:Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" tomorrow night at the Brooklyn Museum, I'll see it at preview for museum members. As I consider the controversy surrounding the show -- particularly the local Roman Catholic bishop's objection to David Wojnarowicz's film "Fire in My Belly" -- I'll bear in mind all I learned during my two years studying with a poet/professor, Allen Ginsberg,  whose first book, Howl, spurred an obscenity trial and is now widely regarded as an American masterpiece. I will see Hide/Seek as a working artist -- I'm a poet. I'll see the show as an amateur painter; I'm a painting student at the Brooklyn Museum. I expect I shall walk through that exhibit a few times, and on each occasion I will bear in mind the truest thing about art that I know: art at its best tends to be ahead of its time.

All one needs to do is read the Brooklyn Museum's press release to know why some Roman Catholics whiners are quietly protesting this show. This show is not for the "god hates fags" set:

Hide/Seek includes works in a wide range of media created over the course of one hundred years that reflect a variety of sexual identities and the stories of several generations. The exhibition also highlights the influence of gay and lesbian artists who often developed new visual strategies to code and disguise their subjects' sexual identities, as well as their own.

The local Roman Catholic bishop, Nicholas DiMarzio, has been rather restrained in criticizing the show current U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner and conservative Roman Catholics .strenuously protested a little over a year ago when it opened at the Smithsonian Institute. (Theiruse of a crucifix in David Wojnarowicz’s video, “Fire in My Belly.”  Boehner et al managed to have the video pulled from the show on the grounds that it was “hate speech.”) The local (Brooklyn) bishop tried to persuade the Brooklyn Museum not to include Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in the Belly” in the show, but was unsuccessful in this.  Bishop DiMarzio has called the video it “sacrilege” but has stopped short, in this condemnation, of demanding that Roman Catholics not see “Hide/Seek.” This soft attack is due in great part to concern that excessive fervor on their part might boost attendance. David Wojnarowicz's "Fire in My Belly," the film a contingent of “Christians” managed to have pulled from the Smithsonian Institute almost a year ago, is the focus of the Roman Catholic whinging at hand. The Brooklyn Museum has been down his road before and is unlikely to surrender to any latter-day fig leaf campaigns.

Wojnarowicz uses a crucifix in the "Fire in My Belly," and lthose who feel the show is somehow anti-Christian view this as a clear example of sacrilege. They are is wrong. this show -- that's his right.

It is certainly the locak bishop’s right to pronounce Hide/Seek sacrilegious. Certainly some of his flock will heed him -- but those are the sheep who wouldn't have seen "Hide/Seek" anyway.

Half of DiMarzio's own priests will leave their Roman collars at home and flock to see this show. Any sophisticated Catholic who has the slightest interest in art will shrug off the bishop's recommendation.

Every time the discussion of Roman Catholic sacrilege in art comes up, I'm astonished by the cognitive dissonance involved. Even the most traditional Catholics readily acknowledge that the same Sistine Chapel angels most Catholics now view as the work of divinely-inspired genius were once deemed sacrilegious by Catholic bishops. Despite this, we continue to see Catholic clerics with no background in art making the same mistake over and over again.

In Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio's mouthpiece, Monsignor Kieran Harrington provided a case in point:

Certainly we don't think this would be tolerated if this was the image of the Prophet Muhammed or any other religious symbol," Msg. Kieran Harrington, a diocese spokesman, told the paper.

We have no way to know whether this would be tolerated if "this" were the image of the Prophet Mohammed." Therefore, it is not reasonable to claim that the refusal to tolerate it is a 'certainty.' Mohammed is not a symbol. To compare the crucifix, a ubiquitous symbol belonging to a religion that is deeply attached to the use of symbols, with a prophet in a religion that, for the most part, views the use of religious symbols as idolatry, is inane. Furthermore, there is something unseemly about a man of the cloth trafficking in such facile and not very subtle anti-Islamic sentiments especially when his St. Joseph Church in Brooklyn, is located in a part of town heavily populated with Islamic believers.

This anti-Islamic "if it were Mohammed" refrain reminds me of children squabbling at the table! ("Don't say 'shut up!' to your sister!" "What about her? She said it to me!'' "Are you going to punish her?") No artist should ever have to work in fear of the kind of violence to which the monsignor alludes. We do not know whether an image of Mohammed covered with ants would be "tolerated." To assume the worst is disrespectful to many of

Harrington's own Islamic neighbors. Would the monsignor be more satisfied if the Knights of Columbus were threatening gay artists with intifadas?

That Catholics have an imperfect but solid track record of bringing expansiveness and imagination to the appreciation of art is a good thing. I should think this strength would be cherished by any Catholic cleric in a contemporary church so compromised by weakness run amok. Regardless of whether a Mohammed overrun with ants would be tolerated, it is fundamentally illogical to compare the crucifix with any image associated with Islam. Roman Catholics have been meditating and reinventing the crucifixion for 2000 years. The cross is of interest to the American artist, in great part, because it is everywhere.

Do the Catholics who would put the kibosh on all art that offends their Catholic sensibilities wish to turn back the clock and erase, retroactively, all the art Roman Catholic hierarchs have deemed blasphemous? Do Catholics really want to default to an "I-don't-know-anything-about art-but-I-know-what-I-like" disposition toward the arts? I don't think so.

In an interview with a Catholic online media outfit, Nicholas DiMarzio notes that Wojnarowicz's work is "offensive... because it "is done in a sacrilegious way." I confess I was surprised by the bishop's overall restraint in this interview. (DiMarzio is, after all, the man who used the public airways not long ago to remind us all seeking to marry one's same-sex lover was akin to seeking to pledge one's troth to one's dog.) In this interview, the Roman Catholic bishop simultaneously condemns and defends "Fire in My Belly," conceding that although that that the artist's aim to express his own suffering through an association with the suffering of Christ's might   be worthy and well-intended, Wojnarowicz failed to execute the art in a respectful enough way. To DiMarzio's credit - he has not advised Catholics to boycott the show his office quietly and unsuccessfully aimed to prevent from opening (He sent a letter the museum shortly before the show opened.) Rather he is advising Catholics to "use judgment" in deciding whether to attend.

Is the crucifixion imagery in Wojnarowicz's film profane? Yes.

As well it should be. The crucifixion is obscenity incarnate. It should always be disturbing to behold. Is Wojnarowicz's cross nearly so obscene as the

the diamond encrusted one that hangs around the neck of a big-tithing church lady in chinchilla in the front pew at St. James Cathedral at the Christmas vigil? I think not.

But it's not really the ceramic crucifix crawling with ants that Catholic critics of the show (most of whom haven't even seen any of it) don't like. It's that the crucifix appears in a film made by a gay man in a show that will project LGBT identity as blessed. Gay activist artists -- men like Wojnarowicz – helped to get the gay revolution ball rolling, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy is losing its war against gay people. It is the LGBT focus of the show, not Wojnarowicz's sacrilege, to which the bishops and their small lockstep contingent really object.

David Wojnarowicz was an orphan who worked as a prostitute in his youth and died of AIDS at the age of 37. There is a lot of Christ in a life like his; even Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio seems to grasp that much. But the AIDS theme hits a little too close to home for some in a church whose pontificate stands credibly accused of helping to spread AIDS in the developing world by refusing to adjust its teaching on the use of condoms. (Fortunately Joseph Ratzinger appears to be coming around on this critical matter.)

DiMarzio is smart to proceed with caution. He's a reasonably well-educated man who knows that histrionics in response to "Hide/Seek" are not in his best interest. He's rebuilding St. Joseph's Church, a cathedral-sized church (The aforementioned Harrington is its pastor.) a half-mile away from the museum. This extravagant restoration is very costly, and all around it dozens of neighboring parishes, upon which poor and elderly Catholics depend for worship, solace and community, are folding. Being seen as an "I-don't-know-much-about-art-but-I-know what-I-like" bishop as he parlays the tithes of Brooklyn and Queens Catholics to build an adorn in high style a gargantuan church the diocese doesn't need -- would be bad for business. DiMarzio will not be Brooklyn's bishop for much longer. The last thing he wants is a another blot on his already highly tarnished legacy.

But good on DiMarzio, for recognizing, even in the small ways he does, in this instance at least, that Catholics have a long and rich tradition of not merely tolerating but supporting artists who take up the cross in art. All but the most ignorant of Roman Catholics recognize that Pope Paul III's Master of Ceremonies was wrong when claimed that Michelangelo's fresco "The Last Judgment" (currently in the Sistine Chapel) belonged in a barroom. No thoughtful, intelligent Catholic today would support the
painting of shorts on Michelangelo's nude angels because those angels bishops once called "sacrilegious" are now held, by Catholics, as holy.

The great irony in the matter of Catholic opposition to "Fire in My Belly" is that (at least the version of the footage currently available to the public) it is not blasphemous. To the contrary. "Fire in My Belly" is an intensely spiritual and ritualistic meditation of suffering and the quest for hope.

The image of Jesus on the cross is aggressively carnal. Any child who grows up in a home with a crucifix on the wall knows that the traditional, mass-produced, papally-sanctioned Jesus on the cross is disturbing. Why? Because the figure is anguished, humiliated, nearly naked, dying and murdered. Wojnarowicz lays the sum of all that profanity at his audience's feet, demanding that we not look away. Catholics reiterate the ideal of the resurrection of the body every week through recitation of the Creed. Catholic churches are filled with depictions of Jesus bloodied, whipped, weeping and crippled with agony. Catholics eat God's body and drink His blood at every mass. The psalmist's undraped genitals in the Uffizi are now acceptable to Roman Catholics who claim the sculptor as one of their Catholic own. Catholics love that part of John 20 (19-31) when "doubting Thomas" thrusts his hand into the side of the risen Jesus so as to ascertain (by the tell-tale gash) that the unrecognizable person before him is truly Jesus risen.

Yet ants crawling on Jesus is sacrilege?

Wojnarowicz's Jesus covered with ants is a Christ hijacked, Christ prostituted, Christ overrun with battalions of tiny, hard-working, strategic pests. I can see why this image would vex a Roman Catholic bishop. I can see why the libidinous creativity of a queer tormented orphan who turned to prostitution and then made his mark as a prodigious artist might vex a bunch of men in gowns who lack healthy sex lives.

Wojnarowicz offers us a perfect image of systematic, well-orchestrated appropriation of Christ on the cross. Does Wojnarowicz hit a nerve? Does he ever. Wojnaricz's crucifixion scene does not profane Christ -- it profanes His profaners.

What is the cross for if not to give women and men a path to marrying the light of heaven with the crap of earth? What is art for if not to push us past where we sit. It is proper that artistic investigations of Christ touch upon
the obscene.

In 1999, (then) Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to shut down "Sensation," another Brooklyn Museum show the bishops didn't like. Ironically, the show opened just a few months after the married, Roman Catholic mayor had begun sneaking around with the mistress he'd later marry. Perhaps Giuliani hoped his fervent crusade to shut down the show he called "disgusting" (while himself engaging in disgusting behavior) might win him some kind of plenary indulgence.

I saw "Sensation" alone before seeing it a second time with my three young children. The older children liked looking at the works; they were frequent visitors to the museum. Being four years old, they were, of course, unaware of the controversy. I knew, nonetheless, that I wanted to be able to tell them that they had been to that show. When I visited the second time with the baby strapped to my chest and a pair of toddlers in tow, I avoided works I knew might frighten or upset them. Chris Ofili's painting "The Holy  Virgin Mary" was not one of them. Finding reverence in Ofili's "Virgin Mary" doesn't require much of a stretch. A glance is enough.

Then as now, the Roman Catholic histrionics had more to do with politics than with Ofili's painting. The religious indignation spearheaded by Giuliani et al steered attention away from actual sin. "Virgin Mary" became the totem.

In protesting "Hide/Seek" now, the Catholic hierarchs and their chauvinistic minions are looking outside for the purification that is wanting within.

Perhaps it is difficult for those who do not work as artists to get their heads around the idea that often artists discover and rediscover God in the making of art, that is a labor of love. That sometimes it is prayer. Rare is the Christian artist who does not take on the cross in some fashion. For a Catholic artist, it is ever the first order of business. We grow up in the difficult, passionate, sensual cathedral of this - I'll say it --"agony and ecstasy."

I'll watch "Fire in My Belly" tomorrow, and later on this month with my husband and children. I'll see it as an amateur painter, with my classmates. I'll see it as Ginsberg's student. I'll see it as a poet who has translated the poems of Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross and and Saint Francis of Assisi.

But when I finally see that crucifixion segment in a museum, I'll see it as a Roman Catholic who never misses mass on Sunday. I'll see it for what it really is.

November 20, 2011

On Friday morning, the day the Brooklyn Museum exhibit opened to the public, I listened to a Catholic guy on the radio who called "Hide/Seek" which I, a practicing Catholic, working artist and Brooklyn Museum art student had seen the night before, "garbage." He likened the newly opened show to "Sensation," the Brooklyn Museum exhibit which aroused the ire of certain Roman Catholic in 1999.

The Catholic guy reminded listeners that Ofili had used elephant dung as a medium on his painting, "The Holy Virgin Mary." The 'hold-on-to-your-seats!' inflection in the Catholic guy's voice as he noted with surplus indignation that Ofili had also incorporated "women's genitalia!" left me feeling that Catholic guy could not imagine a more offensive image (than that of "women's genitalia!") to affix to a Madonna.

Poor fellow, how it must torment him to know that Jesus Himself came into the material world through one of those things.

As I listened to the Catholic guy rant about the "garbage" produced by Jasper Johns, Georgia O'Keefe, Thomas Eakins and George Bellows, I wondered whether he had even seen any of the art in "Hide/Seek." I wondered whether he thought, for example, all of George Bellows's work was "garbage." The Irish Catholic granddaughter of a pug, I found it hard to imagine any Catholic guy in over 50 in New York thinking George Bellows's most famous painting ("Dempsey and Firpo" which is not in "Hide/Seek") an example of "garbage."

I had to assume that the Catholic guy had never seen reproductions of any of the several Medieval and early Renaissance lactating Madonnas one finds in the world's greatest Museums. Prostitutes sat as models for the painters of these works and very often the nipples of the Virgin are quite
precisely rendered. In some, the Virgin is seen lactating into the mouth of St. Bernard. Would the Catholic guy exhort Catholics to boycott that and other "garbage" hanging in the Prado? Some of these highly eroticized, bare-breasted Virgins were painted in Portugal and Spain during the Inquisitions! How far have some Catholics failed to come in 500 years?
But the truth is that those who objected to "Sensation" were not reacting nearly so much to elephant crap on paintings as to the libidinousness of the show as a whole. The same applies to to "Hide/Seek." It's the personal politics and erotic expression people like Catholic guy don't like. The crucifix crawling with ants is just an object to which they can pin their larger discomfort. These holy crusaders are not nearly so muchfor Christ as they are against sex.

I don't believe the local bishop who objects to David Wojnarowicz's "Fire in My Belly" truly finds the ceramic body on the crucifix overrun with ants "sacrilegious." What he finds distasteful is the presence of Jesus in a visual litany of images, some of which are erotic.

The Catholics who criticize shows like "Hide/Seek" think homosexuality is perversion (They also view much heterosexuality as sinful.) A significant number of the men who set this homophobic agenda of the church are closeted gay men, many of whom detest the out, gay artist because he has what they covet.

The Vatican and their sheep see the erotic self as the opposite of the divine self, when the truth is that the erotic self and the divine self are often intertwined. (See Dante.)

Ironically enough, one could see that white ceramic ant-covered crucifix we've heard so much about as the church itself overrun by industrious, pin-prick vermin, who conspire to drape its pristine beauty with a creepy-crawly shroud.

About ten or eleven years ago I became friendly with a Roman Catholic priest who was interested in poetry ('m a poet.) One of the first gifts he gave me was a first-person magazine piece by a young, Catholic, poetry-writing undergraduate written in response to her mother's concern that her daughter had stopped making it to mass on Sundays. Indeed the young woman had stopped attending mass - but she had taken up poetry writing, and had come to view her writing as a Sabbath devotion for her. After The
reading the piece, I joked with the priest who had given it to me. "Why give this to me? You know I write poetry and always get to mass on Sunday!"

A few years later, I sent him some verse I'd written, which would, by the standards favored by Catholics protesting "Hide/Seek," this week, easily constitute "sacrilege." His response: "You're the best Catholic I know!" He was exaggerating for effect, but his point was a serious one; it appeared to him that I was getting at what Christ is. Artists have always been good at shedding light on the matter of the Incarnation.

One of the first things one sees as one enters is Thomas Eakins photograph of the high priest of American poetry, the queer patriot after whom many a mall and high school is are named. How we (as a nation) have lauded this man for what he communicated while failing to apprehend the coded truth it was not permissible for him to utter.

Standing before Glenn Ligon's "Mirror #12," in which an over-sized printed page of a text by James Baldwin serves as an underdrawing, made me feel the way I felt when I (recently) saw a Torah for the first time. The first word on the page - and the clearest one -- is "see."

As a poet who descends from a tradition shaped by some of the poets whose words, faces and bodies appear in "Hide/Seek" I was especially moved by what I might characterize as the poetry ("word made flesh") aspects of the exhibit. Wojnarowicz incorporates a mask of the face of Rimbaud (who influenced everybody) into a series of photographs. There are a few portraits of poet Frank O'Hara, including the famous over-sized, full-body one by Larry Rivers of O'Hara clad only in boots.

"Memory of My Feelings" is the title of the Jasper Johns's painting about his heartbreak in the aftermath of the end of his love affair with Robert Rauschenberg. Its title comes from O'Hara's beautiful poem by the same name. ("My quietness has a number of naked selves...") Marsden Hartley's elegy in paint, "Eight Bells Folly: Memorial to Hart Crane," reminded me of the extent to which suicide has been a solution for those whose sexuality has been viewed by their world as perverse - and catapulted me toward a long overdue rereading of his famous long poem, "The Bridge."
No piece in "Hide/Seek" so directly asks one to think about God as does "Fire in My Belly."

The ant-covered crucifix is one of the least disturbing images in a film that
consists of a frenetic catalog of disturbing images somehow haloed by a brightness that defies the suffering at hand. Wojnarowicz's camera delivers poverty, junkyards, physical deformity, death masks and circus freaks. His soundtracks are built of whispers, static and the wonderful chanting of Diamanda Galas. The sequence in which a man (Wojnarowicz? His undershirt bears the Roman numeral 37 - the age the artist was at the time of his death) disrobes.

My guess is the brief "beating the bishop" scene (which functions as a ‘coming to life’ in the context of suffering and death) juxtaposed as it is with flashes of Christ's head and cross - is probably what most vexes Catholic critics of the film. The concert of images in "Fire in My Belly” is meticulously shaped. Nothing is gratuitous. Nothing is wasted. Any intelligent thoughtful viewer watching Wojnarowicz's film easily and quickly sees that Jesus covered in ants is a more reverent than not image of Jesus profaned.

The fleshy aspect of God (Christ) - that Jesus thirsted, hungered, respired, secreted, excreted, and desired is essential to Christian worship. Absent the meat of that matter, the passion of Christ is an airbrushed, neutralized event no one can truly feel. There's a lot of meat in "Fire in My Belly." Through the vehicle of flesh that the physical pain of Christ's suffering registers. There's a lot of hell in "Fire in My Belly" but there's also a hell of a lot of hell in the passion of Christ. Wojnarowicz's use in "Fire in My Belly," of the head of Christ, the sides of beef and elements of DiĆ” del Muerto indicates hi determination to meditate the Incarnation of Christ. This, as his own death neared.  

I had a hunch I would I not find "Hide/Seek" sacrilegious, but I was not prepared for how rich with what I can only describe as – innocence – it would be. My 17 year-old daughter, who studies at the Brooklyn museum, was awake when I came home from the members' preview on Thursday night. "How was it?" she asked. I urged her to see it. I felt obliged to warn her about the "several penises" in the show. Maria is a young but sophisticated 17. She laughed it off as I reminded her we'd see plenty more of them when we finally made our trip to the Vatican. 

Two days after the show, Maria visited the show with her class. This past year, she and her super-smart girlfriends all read Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning Just Kids, Smith’s memoir about her loving odyssey with Robert Mapplethorpe; my daughter was excited to see Mapplethorpe's photos in the show.

There are three Mapplethorpes. Two (both self-portraits) are intensely pure and angelic. The third is obscene.

It's the face of Roy Cohn staged to look like the death mask it is.  It's the face of a self-loathing homophobe bully whose hatred for what he is defines him. 

So why has the local bishop called this show "sacrilegious?"  Why does the Catholic guy think it's "garbage?" 

One reason doctrinally adherent Roman Catholics don't like "Hide/Seek" is that many of the works focus upon the scourge and specter of AIDS. Gay male artists were not the only community "cut off at the knees" (an image of which Wojnarowicz makes perfect use in "Fire in My Belly") by AIDS in the 1980's. Large numbers of Roman Catholic priests began to present with the virus at that time. Some feel that the AIDS crisis contributed to the outing of the Roman Catholic priesthood. If ever there were a genie the bishops would love to stuff back into a bottle, the gay priest genie is it. There is the aforementioned sensitivity relative to the perception of many that the Vatican policies on condom use are accusing AIDS to spread in the developing world.  

"Hide/Seek" advances the idea that all sexuality is both spiritual and bodily. That message is simply not compatible with the current teaching of the Magisterium.  Even the more orgiastic content in "Hide/Seek" radiates an ethos of fellowship, yet that message is very much at odds with the doctrinal insistence that same-sex attraction is disordered, a moral hop, skip and a jump away from fornication with one’s pet.

It's not the perversion of "Hide/Seek" from which the bishop would shield Catholics -- but the erotic salubriousness the work radiates. The light-seeking bravery of artists who document living and dying with AIDS doesn't sit well with the current pontificate's "hate the sin love the sinner" message.

Even if "Hide/Seek" were sacrilegious, I would support the museum's choice to exhibit it. All taxpayers support programs and services they do not like. Many who object to "Hide/Seek" show would rather not fund art of any kind, but even most of them would admit that if we are to support
museums at all, an "I-don't-know- much-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like" approach is not optimal.

Art is always ahead of its time. There is value to letting the test of time work its magic, in the hope that time will tells us which works created today might be tomorrow's masterpieces. Most people who care at all about art agree on that. 

But "Hide/Seek" happens not to be sacrilegious. It happens to be the opposite of sacrilegious. It happens to take as its subject matter the premise that Eros can no more be distilled out of the soul than it can be banished from the flesh. "Hide/Seek" takes to heart the notion that the flame of the (Holy?) Spirit resides in the flesh ("Fire in My Belly"). Its subject is the tendency of the divine body and the divine soul to intertwine -- in both directions. The word made flesh motif in "Hide/Seek" reflects the Catholic Incarnation. Desire engulfs and incorporates the soul -- and the other way around.

There are a hell angels in Hide/Seek. The word "angel" comes from the Greek word for "messenger." We shouldn't silence the angel messengers of "Hide/Seek." We shouldn't hide from the plain truth they've had to hide, for so long, in plain sight. We should be awakened by the agony that accompanies the hiding, celebrate the ecstatic process of the seeking, and be warmed by the new light the works in "Hide/Seek" shed.

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