What would Jesus do?

The below essay appeared at the Broad Street Review on February 20 and is republished below with its permission. I exchange further relevant remarks with the BSR‘s founder and Senior Editor Dan Rottenberg at the end of the original post here.


Last Wednesday, February 14, West Philly’s Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral was scheduled to open Paul Cava/Inks, a solo show of works by the Bala Cynwyd-based artist. Planning for the exhibition had been under way for months, and this would have been a major exhibition of his work.

Cava, an internationally renowned artist, has been active in the Philadelphia art community since 1976. Cathedral staff twice reviewed the images to be used in the show, which were framed and hung. Then, that morning, Cava announced on Facebook that the exhibition had been cancelled “due to censorship.”

Eye of the beholder

The next day, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story by Stephan Salisbury about the cancellation. According to the story, parishioners visiting the cathedral for Ash Wednesday services were uncomfortable with six of the works: one-third of the exhibition. The Very Rev. Judith A. Sullivan, dean of the cathedral, called Cava to ask him to remove them from the show following its opening reception.

Cava refused, feeling that their removal would violate the show’s integrity. The cathedral didn’t budge. The artist then broke the stalemate by withdrawing the exhibition. It will now open, in its entirety, on March 3, 2018, at Old City’s Moderne Gallery.

Dean Sullivan assured me of the cathedral’s admiration for Cava’s art in an email on February 15, 2018, but she also took issue with Cava’s perspective. “This was not a simple matter of prohibiting nudity,” she wrote. “As Anglicans, we clearly understand the goodness of God’s creation and that we are each made in the image of the Creator.”

She emphasized that the cathedral is neither a gallery nor a museum, but a sacred space and primarily a place of worship and prayer. “It was not a matter of ‘caving’ to the demands of a few parishioners. I concluded that the images were not appropriate, removed them, and then phoned the artist.”

Is it censorship?

Cava maintains that cathedral staff had access to, reviewed, and accepted without qualification all the work well in advance of the opening, then suddenly reversed their decision. He believes their action constitutes ex post facto censorship.

“One very important issue, it being the basis for my claim of censorship, is that the images were provided to both the curator and to the dean on two occasions to review and approve,” Cava said. “If the dean didn’t bother to enlarge the JPEGs I provided, that is no excuse. … Given that context, I feel the artwork was censored.” Citing the church’s ongoing visual arts program, he adds, “The cathedral has to decide if they are going to have a serious legitimate art program or not. Art, real art, is not always comfortable. That’s the point: it’s disruptive at times.”

I admit I was angry and frustrated at the clumsy handling of the situation (full disclosure: Cava is a longtime friend and I am Episcopalian), but I wouldn’t call it censorship. Whatever else an Episcopal cathedral might be, it is not a government body, and in these heady days of polarizing rhetoric, I’d count to 10 before calling their actions “suppression,” of nude images or anything else.

Governments censor; nongovernmental institutions sanitize for their own protection. And — I must report with a sigh — the supposed protection of children. “Cava said that a family with a young child objected to the work,” Salisbury reported. However, one might think the parlous state of Philadelphia public schools or the Parkland massacre deserve more disapproval from concerned parents than six naked ladies on a church wall. 

Drawn and quartered

Both art and religion share the aspiration of inspiring awe in contemplation of the human and the divine. The show’s structure illustrates that we are often kept from recognizing the divine in the human, and vice versa, by our own corruptions.

Inks is organized into four distinct parts. First, viewers see photographs of Khmer Rouge victims’ faces, taken from the archive of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Next, a series of photo collages of male and female bodies are bisected, trisected, and overlaid, one upon the other. The third section features manipulated images of female nudes by photographer Jeanloup Sieff. The fourth and final section includes a series of pages torn from a book of reproductions of Old Masters’ paintings of Christ.

Cava stained or overlaid each of these with black, white, and gold inks. In some, the effect distorts, obscures, or darkens the underlying image of faces or bodies. In others, the stains produce bursts of white that leap from the gray or brown photographs. The stains stand in for our own preconceptions of the human body’s vulnerability.

The images are of perpetrators, victims, objects of political violence, objects of desire, beings to be punished, hated, or loved. As the show closes with the Christ prints, we are reminded that the central figure of Christianity was himself the victim of political violence, as vulnerable in his physical body as we are in ours. This is a vulnerability to which all the show’s other images — Cambodian faces, male and female nudes — equally attest.

“Love better than wine”

Obviously, whether one calls the cathedral’s decision censorship or not, Cava’s work brought not peace but a sword. One of the messages of Matthew 10:34 is that Christ forces us to face and accept unpalatable and even objectionable truths. These will, at times, bring us into conflict with our own families, friends, and communities.

The cancellation of the show was the product not of ideological censorship but of Realpolitik, as common in the church as in any human organization. I would have hoped an Episcopal cathedral would keep its word to an artist, whether a parishioner or not, and refuse to cave in to perceptions that belie their own puritanical, censorious strains.

But there you have it. Dean Sullivan denies she caved to that sentiment, but given the chain of events, Salisbury’s report, and her own admission that the images were “too sensual in the judgment of some,” it’s hard to conclude otherwise. After all, images don’t suddenly become more sensual on their own.

Even the Bible has room for the Song of Songs, a celebration of erotic love and other things besides. It reminds us that sensuality, like the body, is a gift of God.

The New Puritanism strikes again

I’ve been an enthusiast of the work of the Philadelphia visual artist Paul Cava for more than ten years now — several of his prints have found places of honor on my apartment walls — so it’s saddening to find that he’s the latest victim of the neo-Puritanical narrow-mindedness that seems to have made such inroads into American cultural life over the past few years.

Inks, a solo show of Paul’s work, was scheduled to open today at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral; plans have been laid for the show for the past several months. News comes this afternoon, however, that on the eve of the show’s opening, the exhibition has been cancelled. Paul wrote on Facebook today that:

The administration was supportive of the work and excited about the exhibition, however, after seeing the show installed, a few constituents objected to certain elements of nudity in about half of the works. This created an untenable situation relative to the cohesiveness and meaning of the work.

Paul also says that the entire show — including the nudes — had been reviewed and approved by cathedral staff before today. Twice.

Paul’s work has always emerged organically from concerns of tradition, spirituality, and intellectual perception, the very concerns that form the bedrock of Anglican and Episcopal theology itself (not to mention its open-mindedness and tolerance), which makes this decision doubly damning. It’s a shame that these few “constituents” have been unable to perceive this affinity between Paul’s work and the theology of the Christian denomination to which they belong; it’s a crime that their influence will prevent others from confronting the work themselves.

I do hope that another venue can be found for Inks; in the meantime, you can see several of the works in question at the Od Review web site here.

Culture shock

When I first visited Vienna about 25 years ago, a city gallery was presenting an exhibition of black-and-white photographic nudes of some kind. What particularly struck my American eye were the advertisements for this exhibition pasted on kiosks and the sides of trams around town — advertisements which featured details from these nudes that included both male and female genitalia. I was at the time perhaps much more Philadelphian than I am now; hence my somewhat uncomfortable surprise to see these depictions plastered in various public spaces. As a tourist, though, I was in the minority. The Viennese men, women, and children who passed these advertisements every day seemed particularly comfortable with them, rarely glancing at them a second time. By the end of my stay, I was comfortable with them too, and even pleased. These public displays of the naked human body, I thought, were admirable in a way — far more admirable than the ads for violent movies and cheap consumer goods that surrounded me on the streets of the City of Brotherly Love.

Apparently it wasn’t only my Philadelphian blood that gave rise to that original discomfort. In the past few weeks, the Vienna Tourist Board has been buying advertising space in Cologne, Hamburg, and London to promote upcoming Vienna exhibitions of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele (their Viennese Modernism 2018 web site can be found here), but the posters they created have run into some problems in those cities. According to Kimberly Bradley in the New York Times,

According to a Vienna Tourist Board spokeswoman, Helena Hartlauer, Transport for London rejected the original images, citing trepidation about depicting genitals in public space.

Ms. Hartlauer said that modified advertisements with pixelated genitals were also declined. Ultimately approved were versions using the same artworks (Schiele’s “Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait),” 1910, and “Girl With Orange Stockings,” 1914, and other paintings by the artist, all from the Leopold Museum collection), but with certain bits covered by a banner.

The banner reads: “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today.” The modified images are now on view on bus shelters in Cologne and building facades in Hamburg, and, since this week, in tube stops in London.

The original ads were also banned from Facebook as obscene, Ms. Bradley reports. Right now the big New York show is the Michelangelo exhibition at the Met, and ads for that are everywhere too, though obviously they don’t generate the same angst.

The Vienna Tourist Board is playing the controversy big, “highlighting images of the public ads with the hashtag #DerKunstihreFreiheit (#ToArtItsFreedom in English) on social media,” Ms. Bradley writes:

The hashtag comes from the slogan “To every age its art, to art its freedom,” still visible in German on the facade of the Viennese Secession, an exhibition venue co-founded by Klimt in 1897 and still operating today as an autonomous artist-run institution. And the controversy certainly echoes discussions that took place in Schiele’s time. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, an era of dramatic shifts in both art and society, many considered the artist’s work to be pornographic. Schiele’s first broader acceptance didn’t come until early 1918 with a major exhibition in the Secession — later that year, the artist succumbed to Spanish flu at age 28.

“We want to show people just how far ahead of their time Vienna and its protagonists really were,” Mr. Kettner said. [Norbert Kettner, that is, chief executive of the Vienna Tourist Board.] “And also encourage the audience to scrutinize how much really has — or hasn’t — changed in terms of openness and attitudes in society over the times.”

Both Klimt and Schiele were products and agents of the sensual revolution in fin de siècle Vienna (though, obviously, to say that they were “ahead of their time” ignores the observation that they were of their own time and apparently no one else’s). This revolution was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s air itself from about 1898 to 1914, and the current controversy underscores the fact that, if the rest of Europe and the United States ever caught up, they’ve retreated from that openness and social attitude since then, regressing into a consumerist puritanism instead. Erotics, gender, and sensuality became central philosophical and aesthetic concerns in Central Europe in the years before World War II, taking on an atonal, irresolvable tone, far more revolutionary than similar thinking in France, for example — a tone evident in its visual art (Klimt and Schiele), literature (Musil and Doderer), and music (Schoenberg and Webern). The dissemination of this art through the Secession — and more recently through posters and tram ads — is an acknowledgement of the extent to which this erotics forms a part of our daily public and private lives, even when we’re just grabbing a subway train from one place to another.

Klimt, Schiele, and Richard Gerstl were all dead by the end of 1918, and as the Viennese coped with being reduced to a provincial capital from the seat of one of Europe’s largest and most powerful empires, the center of this activity moved to Germany, where the Neue Sachlichkeit movement revisited the inner workings of the erotic and sensual self from a more urban perspective. In many ways, though, it was an extension, not a rejection, of Austrian Expressionism and its erotic concerns. And though we tend to look at these artists through the hoary glass of history, their explorations remain ours. The erotic, the sensual, is public too, and the attempts to bury it point to a recidivist authoritarianism that in the past has led to people like Hitler and Stalin. In Cologne, Hamburg, and London — and possibly New York, too — they’re still getting out the shovels. In Vienna, though, you can still breathe it in.