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Critics Debate Collision of Art and the Sacred


Have modern artists’ works desecrated that which Catholic and other religions hold sacred, or is there a deeper cultural chasm at work? Could it be that America’s commodity-driven culture is desecrating the creation of great art itself?

The views of two leading art scholars converged around the subject of shocking depictions of sacred images in art to conclude that, most of the time, so-called “blasphemous” art—and today’s discussions surrounding it—is less shocking than it is mediocre and spiritually starved.
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“The art world has been in a state of embalmed arrogance for a number of decades, it keeps on borrowing from the great achievement from the avant garde, but the avant garde is dead . . . there are no great artists left in the visual world,” said Camille Paglia, Ph.D., renown art and culture critic, and University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at University of the Arts.

The spiritual principles at the heart of works by artists such as Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollack—and even among those considered blasphemous—is absent from new art. Works like Chris Ofili’s “Black Madonna” with varnished elephant dung, and Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” are second- and third-rate works that depend on provocation to create meaning, she said.

“Does anyone think [“Piss Christ”] is a good work of art? No. It is a work of schlock. It has gained importance because it causes big political dustups.”

Paglia further blamed this mediocre, provocative trend, which led to a swirl of controversy in the 1980s and 1990s over National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding, for the gutting of art programs nationwide, especially in school curricula.

A former Catholic who grew up steeped in the “sacred and the sensual,” Paglia noted that both religion and eroticism were both important aspects within the history of art. She documented that long history through a slideshow, noting that even Michelangelo’s use of genitalia on the Sistine Chapel was mired in controversy.

“If you are going to have blasphemous art, let it be done with some kind of imagination and sense of history,” said Paglia. She referred to Salvatore Dali’s “Young Virgin Autosodomized by her own Chastity” (1954) as art that creates a “fantastic parody” of the Annunciation, mimicking the way Mary was shown in medieval paintings, and using ascending phallic rhino horns in place of angels.

“This whole invasion coming down from heaven – it is extremely witty, and a first rate work of imaginative art,” said Paglia.

Having seen so much of the celebrated cases of provocative art, Former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture for the University of Southern California, said that what is offensive in art is always subjective, or “in the eye, or the ideology, of the beholder.”

A viewer can find a nativity crèche offensive when it is in a public space, just as a viewer might enjoy seeing “Piss Christ” in a private gallery.

What is at play, he said, is a deeper cultural chasm, between a church that has lost its spiritual truth, and an art culture that is increasingly irrelevant. When a painting like the elephant dung “Black Madonna” creates as much controversy among Catholics as a masterpiece like Picasso’s “Guernica,” he said, it suggests that the church has “abandoned artistic culture and retreated mostly into sentimental kitsch.”

“For Catholics, this represents a radical departure from the church’s traditional role not merely as the patron and mentor of the arts, but as a faith that recognizes an incarnate existence in humanity,” said Gioia.

It has also weakened the church’s ability to attract people to its message of faith, he said.

“Dante, Hopkins, . . . Michelangelo, El Greco, Bramante and Gaudi brought more souls to God than any preacher,” he said. “As the church has lost touch with the arts, and gradually lost its ability to reach the corporeal side of human nature [and]the passionate, emotional side, it has become diminished.

“You see this reflected nowhere more than in the flight of artists and intellectuals from the church,” said Gioia.

The event was sponsored by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture.


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