Priests in Black Gowns

Children of Light 2 by Erich Erving

I’ve been wanting to post something about tragedy. There seems to be a lot of discussion about tragic events or tragic deaths lately, and I wanted to address the difference between a horrifically grotesque event and a tragedy, but I’ve not been able to locate my Aristotle, so that weighty affair will just have to wait.

I went to an opening yestereve. It was an activist sort of gallery opening, in which artists submitted digital reproductions of their work on a theme. The work was then printed out on 8.5 x 11 inch paper and hung on the walls of the gallery. The show was called UNCENSORED: Queer Art and the Church. The exposition took place at the Leslie-Lohman Annex, 127-B Prince Street in New York, and will be up until April first.

In response to the church’s recent call to censor the groundbreaking exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Brooklyn Museum, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is hosting Uncensored: Queer Art and the Church, a week-long exhibition to which anyone may submit artwork and all submitted artwork will be shown.

This was an activist show, and like most art produced by activists, it was not necessarily the most subtle, or nuanced. As this was sponsored by the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art there was a large showing of both erotic-art and cock-art. Much of the work was angry or polemical, but I was interested in works that went beyond the brash depictions of religious oppression, church corruption, or eroticised saints. As a participating artist, I was interested in seeing the works of other erotic artists dealing with sex and sexuality as it relates to faith. Who is producing erotic work (regardless of their own religious beliefs, or oppression from christianists) that has a connection to the radical truth of the Gospel?

Piss Christ by Serrano (1987)

There were, of course, erotic depictions of Jesus on the cross, or aroused men with halos. There were works by artists who feel that they have been hurt by the Church and who make works depicting the bible being pissed on. These are not new topics. Andres Serrano famously put a crucifix in a glass of urine to create his controversial Piss Christ. Serrano chooses to be enigmatic about the meaning of Piss Christ enjoying a certain ambiguity of interpenetration while at the same time alluding to a certain commentary on the cheapening of Christian Iconography and culture.  There is something to be said about a critique of the Church and culture that is not necessarily an indictment of religion or faith. Art as political action can be powerful and powerfully misunderstood, as can political action as art.

I remember being very upset in 1989 when a member of ACT UP, as part of a an action at The Cathedral of Saint Patrick in New York, broke and stepped on the host during a communion liturgy. The event is described on ACT UP’s website:

“In December of 1989, ACT UP made history with a massive protest at St.Patrick’s Cathedral. Five thousand people protested the Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s public stand against AIDS education and condom distribution, and its opposition to a women’s right to abortion.”

Some years later I mentioned this to a former Jesuit friend of mine. He asked me this: Isn’t that what Jesus does? Doesn’t He offer himself to be stepped on for us all.

I’m not sure that the activist-artist, or the artist-activist always gets the difference between the church and faith, or even the church and God.  I’m reminded of the poem “The Garden of Love” by William Blake. Blake made a distinction that is difficult for most people to understand. He was no Satanist. I believe he was a Christian that was willing to critique the church and injustice in ways that were not always as clear as they were beautiful.

In his work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Blake identifies the Devil as being the same person as Jesus. He identifies God, the Church, as satanic, but what he is really doing is critiquing the power structures of the Church. Blake sees Jesus and God as creative, as energy, as joyous, but when he went to church, he encountered a priest preaching the Law. There he is in his black gown announcing what thou shalt not do, giving no encouragement to love, to create, to be an energetic force for the better. He is a personfication of sterility and restriction. It is the Devil (as seen in Milton’s Paradise Lost) that has the creative energy. It must be that the church has somehow turned things upside down, mixed the nomenclature and confused Christ and the Devil. There’s no way that a God of love would confine, would restrict with a thou shalt not.

The Garden of Love

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys & desires.

I did find work at UNCENSORED that seemed to critique yet keep the faith. There was criticism and grace. Unfortunately the imagry is unavailable to me but…

Dale Pierce had a recent photograph called “Father Forgive Me.” It depicts a nude man in the left foreground holding a  Roman Collar with his back to the viewer. His stance is menacing. Against the back wall on the right is a youth in a ripped surplice, his back bared. In the center of the picture on the wall is projected a cross. A model floats in front of the cross depicting Jesus, his right hand on the cross beam, his left held out to the frightened and ashamed youth. Dale wanted to show a moment of grace, Christ who died to save us, our protector. The cross that stands between the abuser and the abused.

Another piece in the show was a collage. I could not read the name of the artist, but it was called “Jesus Crowned with Flowers.” Working from a well known lithograph, the artist replaced the crown of thorns with flowers, playing with issues of masculinity and masculine depictions of Christ, as well as ideas of agony and ecstasy. It made me think of Georges Bataille who said, “Eroticism is assenting to life even in death.” Perhaps it’s just that we’re in the midst of Passiontide, but the image also started me looking ahead to Easter: the agonized Christ, ecstatic with his crown of thorns replaced with a crown of flowers.

There was also a print from the artist John Paradiso that I quite liked. It depicted a crucifix hung on a wall. Both the crucifix and the wall were painted with the same pink and grey camouflage, obscuring the subject matter and making connections to war, religion, and pop culture.

The image at the top of this post is one of  my own slikscreens. It is called Children of Light 2. The text on the image is from the Bible, I Thessalonians 5:5. In English it reads: “Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.” I used the Polari Bible for my translation. Polari is a cypher language. It was used by gay men in Britain to mask cruising activities before the decriminalization of Homosexuality in 1967.

By the way, Aristotle means ass, or arse, in both Polari and Cockney rhyming slang.


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