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....
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