Saturday, March 31, 2007

S'More Controversy About Jesus?

I don't suspect that it's only because I live in New York City that the artistic rendering of Jesus executed by artist Cosimo Cavallaro. You can both read a report and watch news footage on CNN's website concerning how Cavallaro has sculpted a life-sized and anatomically correct statue of Jesus out of chocolate.

Apparently thousands of NYC Catholics - including Cardinal Egan and the Catholic League's Bill Donohue - have demanded that the exhibition of "My Sweet Lord" at the art gallery of the Roger Smith Hotel be canceled. In fact, on Friday the hotel released a statement that they will not be hosting the exhibit of Sweet Jesus - set to debut Monday - a date which just happens to coincide with Holy Week, the most solemn and holy week of the Church's year.

Here's my thought: I think people have, yet again, blown this totally out of proportion. I can't quite call his art tasteless - the 200 lbs of milk chocolate that went into creating this piece resists such attack - but I can say I don't particularly care for it. I think it's garish and ugly, although I'm impressed that Cavallaro has such skill with chocolate crafting (perhaps he could take his piece to FoodTV where they have chocolatier contests?).

The piece didn't involve human urine or elephant feces. I don't see it as a slam against Christians. Nor does the fact that the sculpture is of a fully naked Jesus bother me terribly - after watching the brutal scourging of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ where chunks of Christ's flesh were torn from his body as he lost more blood in one scourging than the Red Cross collects nationwide in one day, I can handle the fact that Jesus did in fact have genitals.

It's interesting that this particular rendering of Jesus is scandalous to many. Artistic merit aside, consider what could be seen as a deeper spiritual movement: do we respond so viscerally because it is really offensive, or is it because it challenges our image of Jesus? Why is the blue-eyed Jesus of the Passion okay, but the chocolate Jesus an offense? Should we reflect on how quickly it is that we can domesticate Jesus, reducing him to the unobtrusive, kinda boring "I'm okay, You're okay" model affirming us even when we ought to be challenged? We often want Jesus to fit into our categories, to be clearly delineated in a way that allows us to remain complacent with our Christianity.

"My Sweet Lord" comes to us as one unknown. This Holy Week he has broken into the world of many Christians, challenging them with another view, another image, another rendering of the Christ. Even if (and I don't believe he did) Cavallaro intended it to be hugely offensive toward Christians, we should pause before demanding the closure of the exhibit. Why is it offensive? How does it challenge us?

I guess I experience art as an encounter, which is probably why I can pray at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even when I react viscerally to something, I try not to walk away from it; rather, I stay with it trying to discern just what it is that bothers me. Knowing the intent of the artist helps, but I do have to search within myself to see why I react the way I do. Such discernment is illuminating of my own prejudices and preferences, leading me to a greater knowledge of who I am and how I view reality.

I'll be candid: I think it's foolish to close the exhibit. This sculpture will, undoubtedly, appear elsewhere (not during Holy Week) and will probably be a huge draw. But then the opportunity will have passed: a challenging image of Jesus that breaks in upon us just as we are going (yet again) through the Passion. I feel as though a good opportunity for conversation and discernment has been lost, a chance for us to interrogate our own images of Jesus - potentially even breaking down idolatrous constructions - that we might come to know the Lord more fully.

Were it to have run, I'd probably have gone to see it. I'd have brought friends, my journal, and some graham crackers and a marshmallow. 200lbs of chocolate? I'm sure they could spare a big toe....


Anonymous said...

The "intent" of the artist doesn't matter at all. The final product is all that concerns me.

First off, we wouldn't even know about this statue is it weren't for the hypocrisy of the liberal media. It's not okay for them to show offensive images to Muslims, but that same courtesy doesn't apply to us? Hypocrisy noted. Now for the image itself:

Two hundred pounds of chocolate with a title of "My Sweet Lord." You said it yourself, makes you pretty hungry. But it seems to me the artist is mocking the doctrine of transubstantiation, which should probably concern you as a Catholic more than it concerns me - as a Protestant.

Unknown said...

Hi Mark,

I had thought to mention the hypocrisy, but I don't see much use in that line of thought. I take it for granted that there are double standards and that Christians are going to be pilloried much sooner than any other tradition.

I don't see this as a mockery of the doctrine of transubstantiation. I mean, as you said "the 'intent' of the artist doesn't matter at all." So if that's his intent, I don't see it. Besides, even if it were, he's done an awful job of it. His claim is not that this is "Jesus fully present" but, rather, that it is a 200lb sculpture of Jesus. Transubstantiation expresses our belief that Jesus is fully present in the Eucharist, not that he's represented by bread and wine (or chocolate!).

As I said, I am much more interested in the discussion that can/will/may result from the work. Hopefully more people will weigh in!

Joe said...

1- The statue bothers me.
2- It doesn't bother me as much as some OTHER things bother me.
3- But it still bothers me.
4- Part of the reason why it bothers me is that whatever the artist specifically intended, it was not positive.

The main reason why it bothers me is because it strikes me the artist was aiming to scandalize the faithful.

When considering materials for representing Christ, we naturally presuppose that some materials represent Christ in a reverent way. Marble, wood, etc. are generally considered to be materials reflective of a sense of reverence. Chocolate, Play-Doh, Silly Putty, Cheez Wiz strike me as somewhat deficient in the reverence department.

Furthermore, while Our Lord had reproductive organs, traditionally reverent art has seen fit -- wisely, IMO -- to deemphasize this with varying modes of concealment. A blocked view, a strategically placed cloth, etc. Taking the focus off the private parts helps us keep present the enormity of crucifixion.

That said, the ultimate goal seems to me to be making those people who get worked up about this sort of thing look stupid and overreactive, and, by extension, making the faithful look stupid as well.

Just because it's a milder form of Tweak The Believer than the usual stuff, doesn't mean it isn't Tweaking The Believer.


Anonymous said...

This is offensive to me. I wouldn't want to see anyone I love portrayed like this, much less my Lord. It concerns me that you're trying so hard to be philosophical about it.

Unknown said...

I'm curious as to what you would rather me do - to decry it? To be offended?

I'll be candid: I'm more mortified by those who walk by homeless people on their way to Church and refer to them as the "homeless problem."

For me, the scandal is how we treat the Body of Christ that we are baptized into. An artistic rendering (which I don't find particularly artistic but, then again, I don't like sculpture) doesn't bother me. I'd concern myself much sooner with the broken Body of Christ I see every day in the Bronx or in other parts of the world than I would with "My Sweet Lord" who, given enough heat, will melt away.

Joke said...


I think the point is not to seek to slot it in the Blasphemy Top 40. "It's more offensive than people saying 'Oh my God!' on TV, but less offensive than people beating up orphans."

By this I mean that whatever one thinks of the thing ought be derived from the work in se. Otherwise it implies your views would change if you didn't have bigger fish to fry.

And I think this work merits not an official decrying, but a shaking of the head and pursed lips.



Karen said...

All controversy aside (I have an opinion that would open up a whole new can of worms, and I'd rather do that sometime other than holy week) I don't think -- give your previous posts -- you should go anywhere near chocolate Jesus!

Judy Vaughan-Sterling said...

Hi Ryan,

I think it's just a big hunk of chocolate. Jesus can take it! He may even be smiling at being everyone's favorite foodstuff. I'm saving my moral outrage for stuff like unnecessary wars, world hunger, and the AIDS epidemic in Africa.