The Bawdy Art of Catholics: Catholic Imagination Shapes Contemporary Art in Daring, Sometimes Shocking Ways

By Heartney, Eleanor | National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Bawdy Art of Catholics: Catholic Imagination Shapes Contemporary Art in Daring, Sometimes Shocking Ways


Heartney, Eleanor, National Catholic Reporter


If you think about the high-visibility art controversies occurring in the United States during the last 15 years, it's a striking fact that nearly all the artists involved were raised Catholic. These artists include Robert Mapplethorpe, whose 1989 retrospective nearly shut down the National Endowment for the Arts and brought a respected museum director to trial for "pandering obscenity"; Andres Serrano, creator of the infamous "Piss Christ"; Karen Finley, the so-called "Chocolate-coated woman"; Robert Gober, whose chapel installation at a Los Angeles museum became known as the "Virgin impaled on a pipe"; Chris Ofili's supposedly dung-smeared Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; and Renee Cox's photographic recreation of da Vinci's Last Supper with her own nude body in the central role as Christ. The most recent controversy is currently unfolding at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., where artist Jerry Boyle is exhibiting a sculpture of a bishop whose miter, some say, resembles a penis.

Why are so many controversial artists from a Catholic background? The usual assumption (something I heard again for the umpteenth time at a recent dinner party) is that these artists are engaging in a full-scale rebellion against their childhood indoctrination. My research suggests that something far richer and more complex is going on.

The artists above differ widely in their public stances on Catholicism. Their attitudes range from angry rejection (most pronounced in gay artists stung by Catholicism's position on homosexuality) to anguished questioning to serene acceptance and belief. But despite such differences, all acknowledge its considerable influence over their artistic imaginations. Significantly, the form that influence takes is remarkably consistent. Whether or not they use overtly Christian symbolism, these artists all create work that focuses in some way on the physical body, its fluids, its processes and its sexual behaviors.

I believe this body focus can be traced to Catholicism's incarnational emphasis. Christ's status as "Word made flesh" infuses the Catholic faith with corporeality, creating a situation in which the human body serves as the portal through which humanity makes its approach to God. Catholicism--to a much greater degree than Protestant versions of Christianity, which evolved to counter Catholic "decadence" and carnality--relies on the sensual experiences of visual art to convey the truths of religion. One need only contrast the theatrical spectacle of a Baroque cathedral with the plain white simplicity of a Congregational church to grasp the difference between these approaches to faith.

As an art critic from a Catholic background, I'm interested in what connection might exist between artists' religious training and the potentially inflammatory nature of their work. In the midst of my explorations on this subject, I discovered Andrew Greeley's The Catholic Imagination. This book cogently encapsulated what I was discovering. Greeley argues that Catholicism sees this world as an extension, however flawed, of the next, while Protestantism posits a more absolute break between the realms of body and soul. According to Greeley, "The Catholic imagination in all its many manifestations ... tends to emphasize the metaphorical nature of creation.... Everything in creation, from the exploding cosmos to the whirling, dancing, and utterly mysterious quantum particles, discloses something about God and, in so doing, brings God among us. The love of God for us, in perhaps the boldest of all metaphors (and one with which the church has been perennially uneasy), is like the passionate love between man and woman. God lurks in aroused human love and reveals himself to us (the two humans first of all) through it."

This carnal, even sexualized imagination helps explain why artists from Catholic backgrounds are so often mired in controversy A "Catholic imagination" tends to produce art works that deal with sexuality and body in ways that may seem offensive, even sacrilegious and blasphemous in a culture shaped by a more Protestant sensibility Obscured in the fray is how close such work often is to canonical examples of devotional art and literature. …

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