One of this week’s readings for Mass came from Chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul stood up at the Areopagus and delivered a discourse to the Athenians that was oddly apropos to our times:
The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything. Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything.
He made from one the whole human race…so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us.
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination.
God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent.
Reading these words on a Wednesday, after a Tuesday of pundit-and-social-media hoopla over Monday’s Met Gala—the fashionista event which helped to open the Metropolitan Museum’s latest exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”—I couldn’t help but wonder at the peculiar timing of the readings.
After all, on Monday—the day of the gala, which featured many sumptuous fabrics and embellishments—we heard mention “of a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth” who quickly became a baptized believer in the early Church. Then, amid the controversy as to whether some gala attendees had been “sacrilegious” or mocking the faith with their designs, we get a reminder from Paul not to ascribe aspects of the divinity of God to pieces of art, whatever the medium, because they possess no power or meaning beyond that which we assign to them. Before the Reality of the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” they are as nothing.
Art can attempt to reflect the beauty and majesty of God; that beauty can help lead us into adoration, right worship, and a surrender of our lives and manners unto God as we pursue a deeper understanding of his Truth and Goodness. Within Catholicism, art put into service for the sake of the kingdom—in every medium—has done that, and spectacularly, for 2000 years. Because that is true, we do assign some power and value to it.
But how much is too much? And how much power do we give over to “bad art” if we find it offensive? What if someone doesn’t take offense at a design while others do—does that make them irreverent? Should we call them “bad Catholics” because their measure of insult does not match ours?
And if we’re doing that, are we—with the best of intentions, out of pious love for the Church—assigning to bad art the power to somehow “hurt” God (who, as Paul said, needs none of it) or even to impair someone’s ability to find God?
That’s giving bad art an awful lot of power, isn’t it?
When I was little, my mother hung a depiction of the Madonna and Child on my bedroom wall. It was the very model of sentimental Catholic kitsch. The image suggested that Mary had brought the Baby Jesus to a photographer’s studio and posed for a portrait in Kodachrome. Her unnatural eyebrows seemed inspired by Joan Crawford; the model wore lipstick and eye shadow and was dressed in Marian-blue robes, with a veil that vaguely suggested religious architecture. She gazed at the infant, who gazed back at her, and both were so rosy-cheeked they looked feverish.
I loved it. My five-year-old sensibilities saw a human lady holding a baby and looking happy about it. Often at night, lying on my bed while my tumultuous family engaged in verbal rampages, I would contemplate the scene intently, noting the serenity of Mary’s brow, the chubby cheeks of the grinning Savior. Sometimes, it seemed to me her smile would broaden, as though Jesus had gurgled at her, and I would feel privy to a moment of intimate joy.
Others, seeing the image, might justly feel horrified, even insulted for Mary’s sake and Christ’s, because this was exceedingly bad art, so garish and full of artifice that an esthete might call it ironic—a mocking parody of the great icons of Mary and Jesus.
And yet, it managed to convey something about Truth and Love to me at that age, within my station and understanding, and that made it beautiful and consoling to me.
The Holy Spirit can use anything, even confoundingly bad artwork, to work God’s purposes.
I’ve been recalling that image as I talk to those outraged by the Met Gala, some of whom insist that lovers of God and Holy Things must take offense, or be consigned to hell.
The gala excited me as both a Catholic-themed fashion show and as an opportunity for outreach and evangelization. Parked in the #MetGala Twitter feed, I saw a man describe Zendaya’s stunning take on Joan of Arc as “some sort of Catholic soldier” and shot him a note identifying the saint and urging him to look her up. When another praised a nunnish look, I replied, “Then you’ll love the real thing!” and sent a link to an article on millennial contemplative nuns. One brilliant fellow used the hashtag to showcase beautiful church interiors, inviting people to visit and explore them.
Were some of the outfits outright failures? Yes. Kim Kardashian apparently thought applying a few crosses to her standard body-hugging-bosom-displaying style sufficiently met the theme. It didn’t. I’m not sure what Solange was doing, at all. Jared Leto’s vague suggestion of Christ the King reminded several wags of the Beatles in India. Meanwhile, Lana Del Ray’s designer seemed to have encountered the Seven Sorrows of Mary, thought, “Oh, hearts and swords! Edgy! Let’s do that” and only managed to create a mess.
But was intentional mockery of the Church or her beliefs actually on display?
Decide for yourself. In my opinion, had Rihanna’s costume not featured a bishop’s mitre, she could have been accused of ignoring the theme, because the only other Catholic reference was the staggeringly beautiful and well-done embellishments that covered her fabric. Some saw mockery of the pope. I saw an appreciation of Catholic sartorial history in keeping with the theme, and respectfully done.
Had she worn fishnet stockings or one of Madonna’s old cone bras, then yes, I’d have called it mockery, and duly taken offense. She didn’t, though, and I think her mitre should be added to the secular artist’s portion of the Museum’s exhibit. It’s that beautiful.
Truly, I didn’t get a sense of malice, or that anyone was trying to mock the Church. Rather, I saw artists appreciating the greatness of Catholic art (and hopefully realizing how much they owe to its influence). I saw people trying to address the theme in good faith, even as some were hobbled by how to do that while remaining “edgy.” Others seemed to simply not have enough understanding of Catholicism or Catholic art to pull the thing off. There was no garish make-up; there was no cross-dressing, no men in nuns’ habits; the one woman who styled a cardinal’s cassock into feminine wear did not “sex it up.”
No one showed up as a bejeweled skeleton which, yes, would have been a mockery of the faith and our reverences.
Some friends expressed the wish that attendees had dressed as penitential sinners. I am thankful none did, because an unrepentant sinner dressed up as one would be deeply offensive; it would have been a great mockery of both the notion of repentance, and the mercies of God.
But if someone had shown up in sackcloth and ashes, doing the Met stairway on bended knee like the penitents who climb the Scala Sancta in Rome, I would remain convinced that the Holy Spirit could use even such offensive behavior as that, if he wanted, “so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us.”
I mean, who would ever have guessed that a Pharisee would one day preach such words to the Greeks?