« Not the Least of Bergoglio's Sins | Main | The Anthony G. Flood Book Service . . . »

Friday, November 17, 2023


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The modern world cannot build like this anymore. (Chartres cathedral). We used to understand, and be commonly able, to build things like this:


The modern stuff? I would not use the word "art" to describe it. If you call it art, you are aiding the left in its destruction of language.

Signed, Joe Odegaard, architect.

Along with your insightful remarks, I think that the late Roger Scruton’s analysis of this sort of “art,” which points to its terribly degrading impact on the aesthetic and spiritual life of man, has great value

“Imagine now a world in which people showed an interest only in Brillo boxes, in signed urinals, in crucifixes pickled in urine, or in objects similarly lifted from the debris of ordinary life and put on display with some kind of satirical intention, in other words, the increasingly standard fare of official modern art shows in Europe and America. What would such a world have in common with that of Duccio, Giotto, Velazquez, or even Cézanne? Of course, there would be the fact of putting objects on display, and the fact of our looking at them through aesthetic spectacles. But it would be a degenerate world, a world in which human aspirations no longer find their artistic expression, in which we no longer make for ourselves images of the ideal and the transcendent, but in which we study human debris in place of the human soul. It would be a world in which one whole aspect of the human spirit, the aesthetic, would have become stunted and grotesque. For we aspire through art, and when aspiration ceases, so too does art” (“Art, Beauty, and Judgement,” https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/art/art-beauty-and-judgment.html).

(A bit off topic, but worth noting in passing) Keeping the above observations in mind, the invitation of this blasphemous creature to the Vatican by Bergoglio is not at all surprising, since the latter has made the attack on the beautiful and transcendent, that is, on orthodox Catholic art, thought, and ritual, the principal objective of his pontificate.

"Religious art is the measure of human depth and sincerity; any triviality, any weakness, cries aloud."

— Henry Adams, in his book "Mount Saint Michael and Chartres," chapter 1.

This book gives you a good idea of what we have lost, and I really wish I had a time machine.

Indeed, "The modern world cannot build like this [Chartres Cathedral] anymore"; nor, increasingly, can it resist the temptation to deface these religious treasures of the past, as in the case of the aesthetically jarring and spiritually vacuous "liturgical furniture" (altar, baptismal font, lectern, and seating) that the archbishopric of Paris approved for the repaired Cathedral of Notre Dame (https://revivre-notre-dame.fr/amenagements-interieurs-de-notre-dame-annonce-des-artistes-retenus/). Needless to say, these modernist horrors, typical "artistic" productions of the Vatican II Church, gave rise to much protest in France (see, for example, https://www.change.org/p/catholiques-demandons-un-mobilier-digne-de-notre-dame).

The word 'archbishopric,' though used correctly by Vito, is a temptation unto snark. I shall resist the temptation.

The Left is fascinated by the ugly, the grotesque, the malformed, the transgressive, the abnormal, the decadent and deranged, the pornographic, the demimonde. The celebrate the loser, the low-life, the grifter, 'rough trade,' the tattooed, the tackle-box heads, the pretty girls with bolts and bones through their noses aping primitive peoples . . .

Sometimes the new things can be good (rare though). Here is a photo of the new baptismal font in Salisbury Cathedral, it is cruciform and very fine, I think. (The jarring modernity is in the garb of the two people in the background. )


The center spire of Salisbury was the tallest structure in the world when it was built. (The pyramids don't count, because of their very low aspect ratio.)

I agree, Joe, the baptismal font for which you provided a link is handsome, both in its design and its compositional elements, and does not violence to its setting.

Thank you Mr. Caiati. It is worth noting that William Pye, who designed that beautiful Salisbury Cathedral baptismal font, was born in London in 1938; so he almost certainly has memories of how wrong things can go; and that he designed the font for the year 2008, the 750th anniversary of the Cathedral, when he was 70, and that in working with water, one has to deal with the physics thereof, which is a very non-arbitrary constraint. I believe all these things would temper one's designs and move them in the direction of beauty. There is even a non-arbitrary definition of originality: "Originality is a return to the Origin." (Antonio Gaudi).

Dang. Those chairs proposed for Notre Came are ugly. But there already is an appropriate chair, the Thonet No 14:


The round seat echoes the circular drums of the main columns of the nave, even. Plus, it is a French design. And the historian Lewis Mumford, in his book, "Technics and Civilization," (1934) mentions the Thonet bent-wood process as belonging to the Middle Ages ("eotechnic"), so that would be fitting for Notre Dame as well. When I was a young architecture student, seeing the cathedrals of Europe for the first time, I thought the moveable chairs therein were a great improvement over the fixed pews of the American churches with which I was familiar. I would say now, that moveable chairs, which can be whisked away, are a trace of the emptiness of the Holy of Holies of the Temple of Jerusalem.

But anyway, what do I know? I'm just a guy on the perifery (sp), not a big-wig of the RCC.

Here's a video showing bending hot, steamed wood for a chair:


The Thonet company still exists, but as far as I can tell they are not currently making chair No. 14.

Mr. Odegaard, I thank you for the information on William Pye, which allowed me to learn more about the baptismal font that he created for Salisbury Cathedral and other of his works. I have been a life-long admirer of medieval architecture, Romanesque and Gothic, particularly French and English, and have long been interested in changes that the original buildings have undergone, both structurally and in their details, successful or otherwise, over the centuries, so it is particularly satisfying to see a modern piece of liturgical furniture that works so well in a very old medieval masterwork.

We are in agreement on the proposed chairs for Notre Dame, and I see the merit of the Thonet, No. 14, especially its round seat, which harmonizes with the early Gothic pillars of the cathedral. I have encountered all sorts of chairs and some benches (Cathedral St. Cecilia at Albi, I think, for one) in French churches and cathedrals, some acceptable (if I recall, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Rouen) and most not. Your professional comments allow us to see that what are too often judged to be small, unimportant details are, in fact (as I think Viollet-le-Duc, for one, well understood), essential in maintaining overall harmony and balance.

Thank you! And I have an erratum to make on the No. 14 chair; it is only French by it's adoption by the bistros; the Thonet Company is originally from Moravia, a kingdom which doesn't exist anymore. How the maps have changed. But you can still get No. 14 chairs on E-bay. Originally they were cheap, they cost each about as much as a bottle of wine, so they say. Now they are a few hundred dollars at least.


Since you asked for my views I'll sketch them in detail in the hope they'll be of some interest to you.

I was intending to email you about Serrano's visit to the Vatican! Surely, whatever the intention of the invitation, whoever organised it must've known that it would be interpreted by many thousands of the faithful as an insult. Strange times.

I agree with much of what you say. The doctoral student - of what? I hope it's not art history! - gives a very poor defence of Piss Christ. I could do much better for the sake of argument. Let's propose that Serrano, who professes to be a Christian himself, is depicting the contempt with which Christ is held by the world. I think Sister Wendy Beckett had a similar interpretation - though she was also clear that she thought the work was poor and Serrano untalented. We might also point out that urine is a very ignoble form of matter - an unavoidable waste product of living as embodied beings - and this relates to Christ's incarnation, humiliation and suffering in this base, fallen world of matter. Is this a plausible reading?

I doubt it. There are some obviously offensive qualities and other elements of the work which contradict it. Firstly, the crucifix itself is a cheap plastic ornament, which hardly suggests the point about matter and spirit I made above, which, assuming this logic, would've been better made by submerging something of genuine value and beauty - unless Serrano wanted to make some point about the non-degrading quality of plastic. As it is the artist's own urine this undermines the idea of a more general point about matter and the Fall. For 'pissing' on something is a sign of contempt - as in the threat 'I'll piss on your grave'.

There’s more evidence that contradicts my attempt at a favourable interpretation. The photograph comes from a series called Immersions - almost all of which feature a Christian symbol (in a few cases, classical Greek sculpture) submerged in a bodily fluid, usually urine. Serrano has thus intentionally chosen imagery with fundamental iconographic significance for our Graeco-Roman-Judaeo-Christian civilisation, so it's not some kind of one off or accident. Serrano uses bodily fluids in many of his photographs; it's almost his 'signature' style (we could make some point here about the bodily excreta being a literal signature of the artist - but this was already a tired old trope in contemporary art by 1987. The 1961 work Artist's Shit by Piero Manzoni - which is intended to be satire on the commodification of art - already made the point). Also, my interpretative hypothesis would stand up better if the photograph wasn't so vulgarly prettified - that is, if it didn't look so much like Serrano was trying to make an attractive image designed for extra shock-value when we learn from the title it's true nature. So I’d argue this attempt to find an interpretation that diminishes the offensiveness is largely unconvincing.

The doctoral student's claim that the photograph is 'a beautiful image filled with pathos' 'unless you're told' the crucifix is submerged in urine, is especially silly. Firstly, he just has bad taste. The photograph is in fact technically banal and the lighting cliched. Secondly, we are aware of the title; and in modern art the title is often fundamental to interpreting an artwork (perhaps in itself a worrying sign of the loss of a legible shared iconographic inheritance and the diminishment of the visual in favour of the linguistic; in most pre-modern art, the title is simply an art historian’s ascription - or a traditional name - based on the iconographic content or subject of the work - 'The Last Judgement', 'Crucifixion', etc). Examples of modern or contemporary art works that are almost entirely dependent on the title for their interpretation would include Damien Hirst's dead shark in a tank pretentiously called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and Tracey Emin's tent covered in names she has sewed into the fabric, Everyone I've Ever Slept With. Duchamp's Fountain title alters the way we see the work - if he'd just called it Urinal it would’ve made a different point. Even Picasso's Guernica has a title that does a lot of heavy-lifting.

Outside of commercial portraiture for publications like the New Yorker and vapid photographs of homeless people and Native Americans, most of Serrano's oeuvre seems to consist of offensive subject matter - photographs of Klansmen, racist memorabilia, quasi- and not-so-quasi-pornographic images, and photographs of cadavers in a morgue with lighting reminiscent of softcore pornography etc. (plenty of examples at his website https://andresserrano.org/). These are not even original ideas. Diane Arbus had a similar freak-show aesthetic decades before. Joel-Peter Witkin has also used corpses in his work in still life arrangements that are far better photographs technically than Serrano's work (they have an eerie combination of visual brilliance and deeply disturbing horror, and are vastly more effective than Serrano's work - am I defending this work? No. It's a shame someone of Witkin's obvious talent couldn't find a more positive way of renewing the iconography of our tradition - proof talent alone is not enough to be a great artist). So we have little reason to think that Serrano isn't trying very hard here to be shocking or offensive - if he weren't it'd be contrary to his usual modus operandi as an artist.

No one would've heard of Serrano outside of a provincial enclave of New York photographers (is anywhere more provincial than NYC?) if it weren't for Piss Christ. This just shows why talentless people try to use shock and novelty in order to attain fame. The audience for this kind of crap is like the libertines in a Marquis De Sade novel, jaded and bored and looking for ever more extreme ways to excite their perverted inclinations. Of course, these people are not offended by transgression - they applaud it, because they have no beliefs to offend other than that they themselves and their exquisite feelings are profoundly important. The only thing that would offend them would be to assert the truth of spiritual transcendence, objective value, Christianity and 'right-wing' politics - and even this they’d probably just ironise. The novelty of transgression and novelty-for-the-sake-of-novelty long ago wore off. Indeed even within the now long-standing tradition of 'transgressive art' Piss Christ is tired old stuff and a simplistic and rather tame example. There are far more interesting transgressive artists and writers such as George Bataille and Pierre Klossowski. Serrano's photography is boring and often not even very well lit. His photos series of Nomads, mostly depicting homeless people in NYC, are dull and characterless, they convey nothing of the lives of these people and look like portraits from any commercial high street portrait photographer (perhaps that's intentional, to make some deeper point about these homeless people. But again, this seems unlikely as the same flat affect is present in his portrait series of Native Americans). And aside from his lack of ability in framing, lighting or choice of colour, none of the photos I've seen by him show any intelligent relationship to our iconographic traditions. They don't say anything about anything other than our own degraded art culture and Serrano's character. Serrano's biggest offence is that he's boring, unimaginatively vulgar and he fails even to truly shock - it's all the more offensive because it's so lamely and childishly intended to offend.

As for the point about taxpayer money, I think, within reason, that taxpayer money can and should be used to fund good and promising art (I could tell you a horror story or two about state UK funding bodies though). I'd say that this should generally be reserved for those types of art that often require large capital investments to produce, such as theatre, classical music or cinema (tax breaks can also help). France has the greatest serious cinematic tradition in the world and I believe it has a system of state subsidies and tax rebates. When used intelligently this is politically a good policy as many of these films are valuable for soft power purposes when internationally distributed, not to mention they often do make a return on investment.

Thanks for this post, Bill. It relates to something I noted in your “War, Torture, and the Aporetics of Moral Rigorism” thread about aesthetic autonomism. (See my comment on Nov. 10 at 7:40 AM.)

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Serrano’s piece counts as a work of art. It might well NOT count -– what exactly is its aesthetic value, anyway? -- but whether it counts or not involves the difficult question of what art is. To avoid that question for now, let’s assume arguendo that the piece qualifies as art.

Serrano seems to be a practitioner of transgressive art, which involves the use of art as a means to the end of violating moral standards and generating outrage associated with such violation. (Serrano apparently has denied that he intended his work to be violative in this way. Hard to believe. But let’s assume that the work counts as transgressive art.)

One might try to defend Serrano by assuming autonomism and arguing that, given autonomism, Serrano has done nothing morally wrong. Art is independent of morality, i.e., in artistic activity, morality is teleologically suspended.

But if Serrano’s piece is an example of transgressive art, then this defense fails, since transgressive art seems to presuppose that art falls within the bounds of morality. In other words, to violate morality, one must do so from inside its realm. One cannot violate moral standards from a position outside morality any more than one can commit a foul in basketball by playing backgammon. To commit a basketball foul, one must be in the game and play according to its rules. Similarly, to violate a moral standard, one must be in the moral game, not autonomous from it. Hence, transgressive art is inconsistent with autonomism, but is instead practiced inside the realm of morality and thus subject to its rules. Transgressive artists produce art that is morally objectionable. Serrano’s piece, in virtue of being transgressive, is morally offensive.

If the claim in the prior sentence is true, it seems the Vatican was endorsing Serrano's immoral work -- and doing so from within the venerable walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Kimball: “When the artistic significance of art is at a minimum, politics rushes in to fill the void.”

Quite right. Horror vacui. Politics abhors a vacuum. Art is politicized when its aesthetic significance is minimized.

Political kenophobes seek to leave no empty space untouched by their irrational politicization, which occurs in art, but also in education, science, technology, religion, sports, and many other areas.


Thanks for your impressive commentary. I wasn't aware that Sister Wendy had weighed in on "Piss Christ." She's one squishy 'liberal' and a big fan of Bergoglio the Termite. And yet she's spot on about Tom Merton: https://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2022/11/a-contemplative-nun-on-thomas-merton.html


I read the exchange on Merton with interest, thank you for the link.

I don't know enough about Sister Wendy to comment. I get the impression she was trying to be charitable about Serrano but rightly thought the work was pretty bad. I haven't read Merton's journals but from what I've read by and about him I think that no one role in the world could comfortably suit a man of his nature, not in the modern world anyway. I sometimes feel the same about myself so I sympathise!

I wonder whether we could see his personal oscillation between monastic solitude and worldly activism as similar to a medieval figure like Bernard of Clairvaux - a Cistercian monk who became one of the most politically powerful men in Europe.

Have you ever read Merton's only novel 'My Arguments with the Gestapo'? I just bought a copy out of curiosity.


Serrano's claim that he wasn't trying to offend is even more dubious when you consider that he was raised a strict Catholic. Anyone raised a strict Catholic surely knows that dunking a crucifix in his own urine and taking a photo of it will be construed as sacrilegious by the faithful; if he didn't know this then the alternative explanation is that he's very stupid, which I doubt.

On aesthetic autonomism: could a 'snuff film' ever be a great work of art? I highly doubt it. The appalling moral trangression involved in its production could not be ignored. In fact, the attempt to make beautiful something so horrifying would make it even more ugly because the aestheticising of an evil act would only compound the offense. Of course, Western art history is full of images of violence and the grotesque - but these are sought to be transcended through their aesthetic expression (we'll put aside the issue of the intentional obscenity often used by satirists such as Rabelais, Swift, Burroughs or Zappa). We also have to distinguish between photography and film - which (usually) instrinsically require a subject in reality for their production - and the older artistic media. They have a different relation to reality than the older art forms. An obscene photograph or film is more obscene than an obscene novel or painting (is there such a thing as an obsence piece of music? I doubt it until I recall the last time that I tuned the radio to the wrong station). Now photographic media can depict real moments of violence, sex etc. in a way a painting or novel cannot - even if the painter was painting the sexual act, bizarrely, 'from life', it would still be translated through his mind rather the mechanism of a recording device. A painting or novel might be the cause of sin but the former can depict and indeed must rely on in these cases for an actual sinful act. A pornographic draughtsman does not need models at all but a pornographic photographer or filmmaker (unless he is an animator - such things exist in Japan) cannot make his work without exploiting someone or inviting them to act in a manner that is morally wrong. Therefore his creation of the work in fact compounds the severity of the immoral act.

Another problem is that even if the work of art itself is morally neutral, it is not clear that this moral neutrality extends to the context of its display and funding. For example, it is not morally wrong to be bad at art but it is morally wrong to knowingly sell your bad art for extortionate prices to gullible people. The moral wrong of the lyrical content of (at least some) gangsta rap is (or was - it's a bit old hat now, I believe) vastly compounded by its promotion and distribution by enormously powerful media companies.

I wouldn't say the primary aim of transgressive art is necessarily to generate outrage; or perhaps it's better to say there are two types of transgressive art (which might sometimes overlap): a) art intended to offend moral sensibilities for whatever reason (Serrano, for example); b) truly transgressive art in the mode of the novelist George Bataille which seeks a form of transcendence through trangression, and sees itself in a tradition going back to the Marquis de Sade's fiction and Nietzsche's 'transvaluation of all values'. The latter type has a considerable pedigree in nineteenth and twentieth century culture, some of which is rather hard to ignore (Baudelaire for example).

Bataille developed an entire philosophy around transgression and was a major influence on all the poststructuralists - Jacques Lacan even married his ex-wife! He formed a dissident movement of surrealists around the journal 'Acephale' and the related College de sociologie in the 1930s, which included Roger Caillois, Jules Monnerot and Pierre Klossowski (translator of Wittgenstein and Heidegger into French, among other things).

This group ‘rehabilitated’ the Marquis de Sade and took him seriously as a thinker; they also sought to ‘rehabilitate’ Nietzsche from his appropriation by the Nazis (Klossowski's writings on both figures are fundamental to postwar French thought). Bataille sought or described what he called 'limit experiences' (a concept later taken up by Foucault in particular) - the search for the dissolution of the ego through extreme experiences (which could be transgressive and/or violent), a sort of sublime-through-the-abject. Bataille saw parallels in many religious rituals in primitive (and not so primitive) cultures studied by anthropologists which involved the suspension of moral taboos. He even developed an economic theory around these actions.

My point in writing all this is that these guys were serious thinkers and artists and, unlike Serrano, not so easy to dismiss. And I think your point about morality is actually stronger in the context of this understanding of transgressive art. The truly transgressive artist seeks to transcend morality through the aesthetic experience which suspends or brackets morality for the sake of access to the transcendent experience. Bataille and co are well aware that they are playing *within* the rules of morality, and thus are far more honest (and serious) than the likes of Serrano.

Thanks, Hector. You raised many interesting points to think about. I’ll respond to one question you raised:

>>is there such a thing as an obscene piece of music?<<

If we include a song’s lyrics in its value (or disvalue), I believe there are examples of obscene pieces of music. There are works of hip-hop and rap with lyrics that are very obscene insofar as they refer to women as mere sex objects. Such lyrics portray men as beasts interested only in sex, material resources, and survival and women as mere means to the first of this terrible triptych. And some of the female performers, instead of challenging these debasing themes and showing the inherent value of their personhood, disseminate songs with lyrics that endorse the debasement.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo
Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 10/2008



February 2024

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29    
Blog powered by Typepad