Postmodern Heretics: Catholicism and Art Today. (Roundtable)

By Heartney, Eleanor | Conscience, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Postmodern Heretics: Catholicism and Art Today. (Roundtable)


Heartney, Eleanor, Conscience


WHY DO ARTISTS WHO WERE RAISED AS Catholics figure so prominently in the battles of the Culture War? Are there religious roots to their tendency to create work that is perceived as blasphemous, sacrilegious or pornographic by the moral crusaders of the religious right?

A surprising majority of the controversies tied to the Culture War in the United States involves artists from Catholic backgrounds. In case after case, an artist shaped by the carnality of the Catholic tradition runs afoul of a religious or political establishment that equates that carnality with pornography or sacrilege. The controversies that erupted in recent years over the work of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Karen Finley, Robert Gober and Chris Ofili follow a frustratingly similar course. The complex nature of their work is deliberately ignored by conservative politicians who fan public outrage to promote intolerant and anti-democratic social agendas.

These artists, whether they continue to be practicing Catholics or have a conflicted relationship to the faith of their childhood, share an incarnational imagination rooted in Catholicism's emphasis on the body. The entire drama of Christian history hinges on the moment when "the Word was made Flesh," and God became man in order to assume mankind's guilt and absolve its sins. The central events of the Christian faith--Christ's incarnation in human form, his physical death and his bodily resurrection, the Immaculate Conception and the transubstantiation of the Eucharist in the Mass--follow from this principle and focus our attention on the body's role in salvation.

Not surprisingly then, from the early Christian era on, Catholicism's incarnational consciousness has manifested itself in devotional literature and art which uses metaphors of bodily pleasure and pain to bring the believer closer to a loving relationship with God.

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