Register Radio News correspondent Rich Rinaldi spoke with Father George Rutler of St. Agnes Parish in Manhattan about the Brooklyn, N.Y., art exhibit “Sensation,” which features a desecrated image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Rinaldi: Why has an art exhibit caused such an uproar?
Father Rutler: It has caused a widespread scandal particularly because of one painting which is supposed to represent the Blessed Virgin. The picture itself is almost a cartoon-like figure. It's not meant to be a realistic representation. I cannot talk of the motive of the artist. It would really be amusing, if it were not so appalling, to hear the justification for what the artist was doing: The elephant dung is supposed to represent fertility and nutriment according to an African iconography. Fifty years ago, if one had been told that an artist had been doing such things they would not have believed it.
Is this indicative of a trend?
I think, first of all, we have to remember that, in the world of art, as in philosophy and in universities and our general culture, there has been a breakdown of cultural reference. We are in what is called postmodernity which is really the nervous breakdown of modern conceits; we are just living with the fragments now.
So art is going through this frustration and is grabbing any kind of medium, any kind of imagery, basically to express a general neurosis about the meaning of things. So I would not really impute the artist with intent of blasphemy … but it certainly is appalling that this is the level that art has attained.
I also have real reservation about it being politicized. Every politician weighs in with one motive or another which is not altogether helpful. But the prominent political voice in this controversy has been the mayor of New York and I think he's very right when he makes the distinction between censorship and subsidizing of art.
Its demagogic to reduce this controversy simply to a matter of censorship. At the heart of the matter is the fact that tax money is being used to subsidize this kind of art. The mayor has simply said they can paint what they want, sculpt what they want, amuse themselves and get a thrill out of scandalizing others — but taxpayers’ money should not be used for it.
What is the motive of true art? Money or beauty?
Well artists do work for money, and it's been a false myth that artists have always starved. There have been very successful artists who were also great businessmen. But they were really driven by a love of beauty and beauty lies in conforming to truth. It is the expression of something greater than the self.
In recent generations, we lost that model and we easily began to think that art is self-expression, that the artist is expressing himself. This is a mantra which we've accepted uncritically — but that's the voice of people who have lost the sense of the transcendent, lost a sense of objective truth.
Thomas Aquinas and a whole scholastic tradition define beauty, drawing on the Greeks, as that which pleases the eye. But we have to remember that, for all these great philosophers, the eye that they spoke of was the eye of the virtuous person, one who was committed to the good.
But there's an undertone here. We have to bear in mind in this exhibition that we are simply dealing with contempt for the beautiful and the true and the good. I don't think it's simply Catholic bashing. I think its total nihilism.
So we are dealing with a deeper meaning here.
In very important periods of art there were artists who scandalized people who had a reduced vision of the glory that the artist could see. In Venice there were many controversies. There were artists even [sent] to the inquisition for subtle reasons when we look back on now and say that the critics wrong.
Goya expressed his contempt for war and cruelty by depicting it in very ugly pictures on occasion. But it is vainglorious for every artist to think that just because his painting upsets people that he is a prophet.
Every artist who thinks himself brave for challenging a great institution like the church is being a hypocrite. You wouldn't do that with a Muslim image. No artist in his right mind in New York would put up a painting mocking the Ayatollah or mocking a Jewish symbol because he knows it would be immediate political outrage. Catholics have been a little too passive on this.
What will happen next in this controversy?
Well, first, I think it's a barometer of culture. What happens to this kind of artistic display depends on what happens to culture in general. It's reached the level of a swamp, and either we will drown in it or there will be some kind of cultural resurrection.
But I think you have to be very careful about how the situation is addressed. People who want publicity will get it. They wouldn't mind, but it does raise the question of the role of government in subsidizing art — always a questionable project. We have to remember that Michelangelo had troubles with [the Vatican] about what he was painting and there were popes after him who disapproved of his art. But we also have to be very careful about how politicians exploit this situation.
I would compliment Mayor Giuliani for what he has done. One can say, “Well, he's being political.” Well, we can't fault a politician for being political. But I think in being political, he has taken the right stand. Mrs. Clinton has shown again another defect in her general cultural analysis in the position she has taken.
Rich Rinaldi is the director of Register Radio News.