Monday, September 14, 2015

Art For A Degraded Age

Warning: the post below deals with material inappropriate for small children, for adults with artistic taste, or for anyone with a sense of decency.


Is it art, or is it architectural smut?
   The other day I heard a commentator on Catholic radio say that the Church has always "considered church buildings to be arguments”, where not just the paintings and statues, but the architecture and use of space itself teach us what it is to be part of an ordered universe with God at its head.  This is a theme  I’ve broached a few times myself, here and here in terms of church architecture, and more broadly in regard to the arts in general here and, just last week, here. Catholicism has always  understood that art and the arts play an important role in shaping our understanding of our world and our place in it.
    Today I want to take a quick look at one recent example of a very different argument in the architecture, an instance of where, as a society, we’re going in the wrong direction. The ugly little building pictured to the left, designed by Atelier Van Lieshout for the Ruhrtriennale Festival in Bochum, Germany, is supposed to resemble two people engaged in the sexual act. According to Rookje Meijerjink, a publicist for Atelier Van Lieshout, many people are delighted by it.  The Daily Mirror (full article here) quotes her as saying:


The response by both professionals, press and the general public has been very positive, the installation has featured in a large number of renowned Dutch and German newspapers, magazines and television stations, and has gathered a lot of attention online.


With all due respect to the professionals, press, public, etc., I’m afraid I can’t agree: I contend that the building is ugly, degrading, and anti-human, and the very fact that an angry crowd hasn’t burned it to the ground is a sad commentary on the sorry state of a once Christian culture.
    It’s defenders, of course, roll out the usual quasi-intellectual artspeak gobbledygook in an attempt to make this eyesore seem like a respectable artistic creation.  The Daily Mirror tells us that it “is intended to show the power of humanity over the natural world, and our disrupted relationship with nature”; Ms. Meijerink assures us that  


The artwork pays tribute to the ingenuity, the sophistication and the capacities of humankind, to the power of organisation, and to the use of this power to dominate, domesticate the natural environment.


Indeed.  It looks more to me like something a perverted pre-adolescent might make out of lego blocks, which I suppose is in keeping with the infantilism of much that passes as “art” these days. Specifically, while it is obviously intended to resemble a sexual act, the participants don’t really look like human beings.  The crude, block-like design of the structure is suggestive of people, but could just as easily be robots, animals, or any combination of the above.
    Also, while I don’t believe that it’s really possible to express the true beauty of the marital embrace in a work of representative art (for a variety of reasons both moral and aesthetic), this creation doesn’t even try. Everything from the not-quite-human crudeness of the forms to the functional rather than intimate postures of the figures seems to be an intentional mockery of anything that could be called “love making” in favor of “mating”,  or perhaps other words too uncouth to reproduce in this space. In short, rather than showing "the power of humanity over the natural world", it is showing humanity subjugated by unthinking animal passions.

The open arms of St. Peter's Basilica
    Those aren’t the only reasons why this structure so perfectly captures the spirit of its age.  It isn’t hidden in a private gallery, or in some xxx domain on the internet where the prurient-minded must intentionally seek it out: it is huge, public, and in-your-face, where no man, woman , or child could possibly miss it. One can’t help but be impressed (granted, in a somewhat nauseated way) by how this one piece of . . . um . . . "art" . . . so perfectly incorporates within itself so many of the most toxic features of the current popular culture: the celebration of ugliness over beauty, a pornification of human sexuality that insists on infusing it into everything while at the same time turning it into something no more exalted than bestial rutting, and the aggressive insistence that everyone, willing or not, must wallow together in the filth.
What a contrast between this nasty little piece of work and the sweeping colonnades of St. Peter's Basilica, which are meant to represent loving arms open to embrace the whole world with the love of Christ.  Now, I know that it's tempting to dismiss the whole thing as a puerile, harmless prank.  I disagree.  Sure, this one piece of ugliness, which will probably soon come down anyway (the show of which it is a part is scheduled to close in a couple of weeks) is not the end of civilization as we have known it.  But it's not just one piece; it is one more piece, one more bit of degradation, pushing the boundaries of the acceptable just a little beyond the last thing that was "no big deal", one more step toward cultural oblivion. And there will be something else, just a little more "transgressive", after this, and another, and another.  The Devil is in the details, and he has nothing else to do with his time; he'll keep on pushing, forever if given the chance.  
    That's why the "culture wars" shouldn't be dismissed as a distraction, or a waste of time: they have become the front lines in the eternal combat between the armies of Christ and those of Satan.  We know our General will win in the end, but there are still plenty of battles, and souls, we can lose along the way if we refuse to fight.