The Art World’s Catholic Problem

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The art world’s peculiar relationship with Catholicism might not seem like a newsworthy topic. Catholic influence on modern and contemporary art discourse remains remarkably under-theorized beyond retelling the same old story about Mayor Rudolph Giuliani shutting down the Brooklyn Museum over Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996). The ostensible offense […]

The art world’s peculiar relationship with Catholicism might not seem like a newsworthy topic. Catholic influence on modern and contemporary art discourse remains remarkably under-theorized beyond retelling the same old story about Mayor Rudolph Giuliani shutting down the Brooklyn Museum over Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996). The ostensible offense was that Ofili incorporated elephant dung into the work. For what it’s worth, the Gospel of Luke describes Mary giving birth to Jesus surrounded by shit in a stable. Yet the Ofili anecdote still dominates the conversation. That’s exactly what the Vatican wants, so that other storylines do not emerge. It’s time to blow that cover.

A shallow understanding of Catholicism diminished the reviews of the Brooklyn museum’s Andy Warhol: Revelation (November 19, 2021–June 19, 2022). That exhibition sought to explore enigmas in Warhol scholarship. Why did Andy Warhol remain a Catholic throughout his life? Did he experience cognitive dissonance between his regular attendance at mass, his inner prayer life, and his antics and provocations as an artist? Was his complex relationship with the closet shaped by Catholic theology? Did his hidden spirituality enhance his work as an artist? These questions went largely unanswered. Most writers seemed satisfied to observe the obvious affinity between the icons of his local church and his paintings, to remark on the curious eccentricities of his spiritual life, and to end it there. Although no reviews were factually incorrect, all that I saw could have gone deeper into the way Warhol navigated the contradictions of the closet and his deeply felt Catholic faith.

The problem is that what feels like the right way to write about Catholicism, or Christian iconography more broadly, to most art critics today is heavily influenced by the discourse they absorb at museums, which is far from neutral. Many writers are not cognizant of the hidden incentives and tradeoffs that play into museum/Church relationships, and in turn shape our shared discourse.

Donatello, “The Penitent Magdalene” (1453–56), collection of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence (photograph by George M. Groutas via Wikimedia Commons)

For most museums, the way Catholicism is officially discussed is grounded in political calculation. Mounting major Old Master exhibitions — which remain the domain of White prestige that many museums and donors seek for their own legitimation — requires close cooperation with the Vatican and local Catholic dioceses. It’s important to remember how much sought-after art remains under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. For example, the Church is still in possession of Donatello’s riveting wood sculpture of Mary Magdalene (1453–56). These holdings give the Church leverage to shape art historical discourse. This predicament is not probed enough. If the Roman curia or the local bishop take issue with a museum, they can deny a key loan and narrow an exhibition’s scope. Curators and museum directors tread carefully, sometimes even leaving out key facts and crucial observations in wall texts, press releases, and catalogues in which scholars are edited — or censored. As long as the Church is not offended, the loans will be delivered.

For example, the recent Donatello retrospective in Florence was the largest show of its kind in history precisely because the Catholic Church agreed to lend several pieces for the first time. But at what cost? Although curator Francesco Caglioti acknowledged in passing the undeniable literary evidence that Donatello was queer in the catalogue, his catalogue entries did not discuss how many of the pieces are dripping with homoeroticism, which I took up in my review for Hyperallergic. As the queer content of many of Donatello’s sculptures has been the subject of intense scholarly debate, it would have been intellectually rigorous for the catalogue to address these debates more directly. Instead, silence was observed in deference to the Catholic Church.

More problematically, this silence seems to extend to an art world that purportedly does not share the Vatican’s outdated dogmas. Of the major English reviews I’ve seen, mine was the sole one that outed Donatello and examined this important retrospective in relation to his queerness. In considering reviews of the Brooklyn Museum’s Warhol show, as well as the neglect of Donatello’s sexuality in reviews of the Florence retrospective, it seems evident to me that many art critics unwittingly parrot the Vatican’s lines of thinking about Catholicism, which they observe at museums, not cognizant of what the museums have been pressured to leave unsaid.

Andy Warhol in Moderna Museet, Stockholm, photographed by Lasse Olsson, February 9, 1968 (Wikimedia Commons)

A similar silence infiltrated the Met’s Heavenly Bodies show in 2018. Diana Vreeland famously coined the term “faction” to convey her exuberant passion for blurring fact and fiction in order to put on a dynamic fashion exhibition. To his credit, curator Andrew Bolton is attempting to honor her legacy without obscuring or ignoring facts. Alas, Vreeland’s older approach reared its ugly head when Bolton, despite being out as gay, left important queer issues unsaid in Heavenly Bodies. Many Catholic priests would identify as gay, bi, or queer were they not wearing the collar. This is one area where Bolton and the Met team beat around the bush. When Elizabeth Dias wrote about the dilemmas faced by gay priests for the New York Times in 2019, she grappled with the varied opinions regarding the exact percentage of gay priests. People who are willing to talk off the record peg it at somewhere between 30% and 70%, although there is no way to ascertain this number precisely. Yet it is an open secret that a significant number of priests are not straight. Of course, gay blogs regularly churn out fresh click bait of a young Catholic priest or seminarian caught on Grindr.

This is not a new phenomenon. St. Peter Damian, an 11th-century Benedictine monk, wrote a notorious treatise on the prevalence of gay sex among medieval gay priests. It is well documented that priests throughout history were secretly gay, including Marsilio Ficino. Satirists delighted in poking fun at Italian gay priests. The Scottish travel writer William Lithgow (1582–c. 1645) once wrote, “Lo there is the chastity of the Romish priests … who forsooth may not marry and yet may miscarry themselves in all abominations, especially in sodomy, which is their continual pleasure and practice.” In 1684, an English restoration drama entitled Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, attributed to John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, satirized Rome as a “cistern of sodomy” — criticizing the Pope for tolerating gay priests. A book sketching out a history of remarks and documentation of gay priests remains a queer history goal. The point is that the priesthood’s history is far more of a rainbow than current accounts let on.

Perhaps, it is too much to expect the Costume Institute to integrate this intellectual frontier of the gay priest phenomenon into Heavenly Bodies. Nevertheless, what the exhibition neglected is that the ornate, jewel-encrusted vestments worn by many priests double as queer fashion outlets. Anyone who has seen a papal tiara can recognize in these ornate vestments an echo of the familiar strategy wherein gay men use fashion to express their alternate identity as not straight. It’s unlikely that the Church would ever endorse an exhibition of the vestments within a queer framework at the Met. That Heavenly Bodies was heavy on Catholic-inspired women’s clothes and light on men’s priestly vestments underscores this point as it glosses over the queer dimensions of those vestments. The Faustian bargain is that for the Vatican’s vestments to be loaned and displayed, the museum must put the queer theory on mute. It’s up to writers to say what the museum can’t.

Artist unknown, “Tiara of Pope Gregory XIII” (16th c.), Treasury of the Basilica of St. Peter, Vatican City (photo by Matthias Kabel, Wikimedia Commons)

But many writers don’t go there, likely because they think with, instead of against, the museum. For example, critic Jason Farago’s discussion of Heavenly Bodies with fashion critic Vanessa Friedman and Catholic writer Ross Douthat did not directly address the issue that gay priests wear these opulent vestments. The omission is ironic because Farago is himself out as gay. In his exhibition review, he lamented the intellectual lightness of the show and deftly observed that Cardinal Dolan was probably happy with this light touch and its “factions.” In all fairness, perhaps it had not occurred to these critics that many priests have a tormented relationship with their own definition of queerness and masculinities, which a glorious, jewel-encrusted vestment both glorifies and conceals. Nor might they be aware of the queer history of the priesthood. Nevertheless, a gay designer like Jean Paul Gaultier connects with this thinly veiled camp sensibility. But if we want to seriously explore origins of opulence in the Catholic imagination, it is an egregious error of omission to avoid the queer and campy visual culture shaped by a highly closeted priesthood. It’s too bad Susan Sontag didn’t live to see Heavenly Bodies. She would have gone there. But since she can’t, I will.

At the same time, critics don’t know what they don’t know. For many writers, Catholicism is a retrograde institution promulgating backwards conservative ideas, and is unworthy of further consideration. For me, it is a spiritual path, a family tradition, a source of renewal, and, yes, sometimes a family feud. Like Warhol, I experience art history and fashion through a different lens because of it. And different thoughts come up when I encounter the same material as my colleagues — although it is often hard to find the words, let alone the chance, to put them in print.

First, let’s get political polarization out of the way. Like most Catholics in the US, I am not a social conservative. The website of the advocacy organization Catholics for Choice compiles these statistics that may well disrupt outside perceptions of what most American Catholics believe. According to a 2020 Pew survey, 68% of American Catholics supported Roe v. Wade, while a 2018 Gallup Survey notes that 75% of American Catholics think abortion should be legal in either all or certain circumstances. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 98% percent of American Catholic women surveyed have used birth control. A 2020 Pew survey states that 76% of American Catholics think the United States should be accepting of homosexuality; a 2016 Pew survey relays that 73% of American Catholics rely on their conscience “a great deal” when answering difficult moral questions, as compared to 21% who rely on Catholic Church teachings, 15% on the Bible, and 11% on the Pope.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Julia Yost claimed that conservative Catholics are experiencing a renaissance in New York City. None of the above statistics were mentioned. Why does a vocal conservative minority get to define what my religion is about? Why didn’t Yost mention the extraordinary work of the Catholic Worker House on the Lower East Side, which continues the legacy of Dorothy Day by serving the poor as Jesus commanded? She also left unsaid the great work of Out of Saint Paul and Dignity / New York in creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ Catholics in New York City. Of course, these energized Catholic spaces fall outside the rigid ideological framework of Yost and many other conservatives. It is also lost on many that the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States are staunchly Catholic and hold pro-choice and pro-gay views, like most American Catholics. We — Catholic liberals — are just as devoted and spiritual as the conservatives Yost addresses in her article. To write a piece that entirely ignores the liberal values to which most American Catholics actually subscribe betrays Yost’s profound myopia.

Jamie Manson, Executive Director of Catholics for Choice, December 1, 2021 (courtesy Catholics for Choice)

In the midst of this culture war, now may seem like an odd moment to ask the art world to become more conscious of the nuances of Catholicism. The challenge is that many arts professionals are not aware of how the Vatican is actively engaged with influencing the discourse of art history. Refusing to reckon with this phenomenon allows the Vatican to reinforce its dogmatic hegemony, and deprives us of nuanced insights that happen to fall outside of its ideology. Less controversially, strands of Catholic mysticism often fly under the radar but are intrinsic to an artwork’s iconography.

To cite one example, at the Met Museum’s Fra Angelico retrospective in 2005, I saw a Franciscan monk in a full brown robe kneel before “Christ Crowned with Thorns” (1438–39). It felt delightfully subversive. While the guards had the decency let the poor friar pray for a short time, the entire room gazed on as he venerated, intrigued by this moment in which the mystic pierced the veil of the museum. It was hard not to have a spiritual and emotional response when I had my own moment with the piece; 17 years later, it still comes back to me when I pray. It is a deeply embedded idea in Catholic mysticism that sometimes the right thing is difficult. In this mystical strand, propagated by Saint John of the Cross and others, the suffering Christ is our companion in enduring the distinctive pain of the high road of integrity. This is a point that I think Julia Yost, the monk at the museum, and I could all agree upon. This subjective devotional perspective is often left out of art historical discussion, in favor of dry, supposedly objective observations. But Fra Angelico was himself a friar. This painting was designed for devotional spiritual encounter and remains at a cathedral in Italy. So what is actually closer to the artist’s intentions and aspirations? Isn’t the entire point of art historical revisionism to get closer to the artist’s intentions?

Perhaps it seems odd to call out the art world’s concepts of Catholicism. But it is necessary to examine and revise the way that we discuss artists as diverse as Warhol, Donatello, and Fra Angelico. Are we going to settle for “factions” and the closet, as in Heavenly Bodies? Even if an unspoken agreement has been negotiated between museums and the Church in order to secure loans, it is disheartening to see so many of my colleagues unknowingly reiterate certain lines of Vatican thinking without any criticality. Catholicism is undeniably one of the pillars of Western colonialism. Why are we as art critics getting it wrong? Why does the Vatican get to play the ventriloquist, subtly but effectively influencing what we write and do not write. Who is willing to go off script and speak truth to power? Isn’t that what real art criticism is about?

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