Image: Screengrab (YouTube/Vogue)
The MET Gala has long been an elitist cultural touchstone in New York City, a high profile and bedazzling gathering of Hollywood, fashion, and art elites. With the aim of raising money for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, this “Oscars of the East Coast” asks guests to dress in accordance with the theme of the opening exhibit. This year’s theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”
Never a chance to miss a chance to show off, the celebrity guests took their own secularized and largely ignorant stabs at the symbols of “Catholicism”, including highly ornate female Pope and archangel costumes. Conveniently placed crosses and halos can be seen throughout the red carpet gallery, while one actress wore a dress which Reuters described as: “a gold Dolce & Gabbana gown embroidered with sacred hearts and a towering nativity scene headpiece.” Even more sinister objectifications also made their way into the display, from a cleavage hugging “seven swords” to a Catholic themed bondage mask.
Predictably, none of the organizers seemed to apply their hyper-sensitivity to a new favorite victim category – “cultural appropriation” – to the Catholic symbols quite literally being “appropriated” out of their intended context and meaning. Various Catholic groups and even secular media commentators rightfully pointed out that the organizers of the event would not dare to take a similar approach to Islam or Hinduism, nor was anyone decorating their cleavage with a Star of David.
And yet does much of the outrage on the part of various high profile orthodox Catholics carry authentic weight, or is it perhaps a bit misplaced and disingenuous? Seen in the larger and sorry picture of Catholic “culture” in the west, one easily perceives the general abandonment of the Catholic aesthetic, its traditions, and its liturgical practices in favor of a culturally-flavored homogenized pastiche. Many of those complaining at the appropriation of Catholic symbols are no better than children who – having not thought about a previously cherished toy for a weeks – suddenly express dismay when another child seizes it for her own purposes.
There is a simple maxim that we can follow: “If Catholics do not boldly and clearly teach our truths, then the secular culture will address them in its own way, being that they are true and ultimately compelling.” Consider the mainstream take on purgatory and exorcism in various Hollywood films, to the repurposing of marriage or spirituality along secular lines in recent decades. Consider the prevalence of Catholic imagery in various popular music videos, and you can see the truth of this. The same principle can be applied to Catholic culture and various successful Christian aesthetics. Surely there was something sinister and even demonic in some of the appropriations of Catholic symbols and art into the Met gala event. Yet another reason that our symbols and artworks are routinely targeted in such a way – as opposed to other major world religions – is because of their singular beauty and power: emerging out of the majesty of Christendom from Byzantium to Northern Europe, reflecting the splendor of truth, the historical reality of the Catholic aesthetic is one unmatched in human history. Little wonder that it has proven fascinating to those who would run the gamut from ignorant use and appropriation to downright blasphemy. Furthermore, in our time the symbols have been stripped of their power in the larger culture, and Catholics have duly played along or turned their heads away altogether from their self-inflicted cultural disintegration. There is blasphemy here surely, but also simple ignorance borne of longtime neglect.
For all we know, some of the Hollywood attendees, being culturally-sensitive West Coast types, may have checked out the most local major Catholic event – the Los Angeles Religious Education Conference – just to make sure that they weren’t stepping on any toes. If they encountered one of the many Masses on display, they’d be safe in assuming that Catholic art was no longer what it used to be, and that nobody would really care if they donned the odd Bishop’s mitre or slapped some sacred hearts on that Dolce Gabbana. After all, look at how comfortable a Bishop of the Church is in the glitzy modernist LAREC setting? Yes, much of what Bishop Barron says in this talk is philosophically and aesthetically good, but what is the value of such a speech when it fails to denounce a “mass” like this? With such sights and sounds at home, how can we possibly complain about what those outside of the Church are doing? Compared to the previous linked mass video, some of what happened at the MET recently is downright tasteful and respectful by comparison.
And some of the ignorance on display at the Met can further be forgiven when one considers that the Vatican gave its blessing for this theme and display, working personally with the MET for over a year to curate dozens of items for the display. If the Vatican blesses the union, who are we to judge? If the Pope himself eschews the trappings of his office – clearly telegraphing the bygone nature of Catholic hierarchical symbolism – who are we to judge? If the princes of the modern Church eschew tradition in favor of commissioning homoerotic altar art, who are we to judge? If the Sistine Chapel itself is being appropriated for a celebration of pop culture (instead of picking legitimate Catholic artists to create such a show), who are we to judge? One wonders that the Vatican didn’t request to host the opening event, as we hear that they can now throw quite the after party.
Yet if this is the age of the lay person as is so often claimed, the question must therefore be asked: where have our offended modern “orthodox” Catholics been for the past fifty years as the aesthetic and liturgical legacy of the Church was decimated? There has been no shortage of occasions for those concerned parties to reclaim their heritage or protect it from further internal desecration. To give just one poignant example: where were these offended Catholics when perhaps the greatest modern example of American Catholic sacred visual art – the stunning Ken Woo revitalization of the Sanctuary of the Church of Our Savior in New York City – was torn down only a few short years after it was completed? Despite receiving the rare dual accolades of both secular and sacred art critics, drawing tourists, and having being sponsored by the life savings of a businessman turned priest along with Vatican funds, a pastor of dubious reputation was allowed to tear down and whitewash a modern masterpiece with barely a peep from those same people who would be offended at the MET display. Where were they when such literal Catholic vandalism was taking place? Why should they respect our traditions when we can’t even respect them ourselves? And was the highly charismatic bishop of New York City too busy planning his next Hollywood luncheon to notice?
An even deeper question to the dedicated lay Catholic is this: why, in the myriad of high energy Catholic apostolates out there, is a secular aesthetic the general mainstay? Open the videos on the front page of many Catholic apostolates, and you see secular-looking people (dressed a bit more modestly) having a great time to popular-sounding music. What exactly is the message being telegraphed in such instances? One can almost hear a stereotypical announcer chime in and say: “Catholicism, just as cool as the rest of the world, but with Jesus.” Is that really what we are selling?
Many of the readers of this publication are doubtless members of that brave resistance to pressures external and internal. They drive long distances, donate money, volunteer, and stretch limited resources well past the breaking point in order to create small centers of authentic Catholic liturgy and culture. Therefore the preceding observations are intended for those of the general Catholic “conservative” body, those clinging to some manner of orthodoxy in their religion while still making détentes with modernism and the surrounding culture. Tell me, dear friends: did your Church this weekend have any real Catholic beauty? Were any of the garments as well made as those parading down the Met Gala red carpet? Were any of the religious symbols or art as carefully crafted as the misappropriated symbols at the Met event? Did your Church, liturgy, and its trappings come even remotely close to echoing the majesty of some of the curated Vatican pieces now displayed – as if from a forever bygone era – at the museum?
Many prominent conservative Catholics regularly attend parishes and liturgies that Catholics even two generations ago would not have recognized as aesthetically Catholic, and their personal aesthetic lives are hardly more refined than those of their secular peers. Many of these same Catholics pay no more than lip service to the Church’s duty to curate the creation and propagation of authentic artistic Beauty. Many of these same Catholics were educated in otherwise orthodox Catholic universities with little to no degreed art, music, architecture, and media programs to speak of. When these same Catholics then take offense at an understandably ignorant culture with no real point of Catholic reference, then they are being disingenuous indeed. You weren’t playing with it, son, and now you can’t be angry when somebody else wants their turn.
Far more useful than protesting understandable ignorance is the building of something beautiful in your own neck of the Catholic woods. There is no shortage of Catholic churches in need of de-wreckovations in our nation, no shortage of churches in need of an authentic sacred music program. And in our time, having followed the call of John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” and the further promptings of Pope Benedict XVI, there is no shortage of Catholic artists, composers, architects, and artisans waiting to be commissioned to do this vital work. (And it must be fairly paid work, as these artists have worked a lifetime — and often taken significant student loans — to hone both the technical craft and aesthetic vision to do the work which must be done). Therefore those people of financial means and those in prominent organizational and educational positions – the ones potentially being called by God to be educated and active patrons of Beauty – are especially responsible for the forming of committees, gathering of funds, creation of endowments, and every means of securing material support for these dedicated Catholic artists waiting in the wings.
Be authentically Catholic. Have beautiful and reverent liturgies. Beautify your Church. Do not be afraid to reject secular musical conventions. Take an aesthetic retreat of silence and ask God to show you a deeper way. Commission new music and art and liturgical vestments. And when these things are in place, march them straight in to town as part of large Eucharistic processions at every possible occasion. And then invite others into your beautiful Church, to witness the true Beauty of the authentic Catholic experience. Create the valid Catholic cultural alternative.
If you build it, they will come. If you don’t, worldly powers will rightfully assume that your symbols are a part of a bygone era, subsequently re-using them as they see fit. Yet we can have hope, as there are centers of Catholic culture around the world where the very practicality and power of Beauty has been put on full display. The call now is to multiply their fruits.
The richest nation in history can certainly do better in helping resurrect an authentic culture of Catholic Beauty. It may in fact be harshly judged if it fails to do so.
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a scholar and composer whose music has been performed internationally and released on the Gramophone-praised Naxos Records album, “Blood, Forgotten.” His writings on Catholicism, music, aesthetics, and music technology appear in numerous publications regularly, while he also maintains an active schedule as a composer and professor of music. A proud native of Chicago, he currently lives with his wife and three children in Ohio.