The Problem of Worldly Art

Here’s a question: How much secular culture can you live with and enjoy, without becoming an unwitting secularist? I mean: functionally not Catholic.

I admit I don’t know. Recent history clearly shows the inexorable flow of the worst of secular culture, like lava from Kilauea, is scorching traditional Judeo-Christian life. You know what I mean; no need to recite a litany of profane outrages.

Anyway, my concern is with how a devout Catholic may watch and listen and even appreciate contemporary arts and culture without succumbing to embedded premises antithetical to faith.

Of course, we must always remember the faith and its transforming power. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) And we’re all sinners. Remember too that Christ ate and drank with “those” people. The folks at Levi’s banquet (Luke again: 5:29-39) are pretty much the ones who today churn out much of what passes for popular culture: Hollywood, Madison Avenue and other parts of New York – and the rest of these United States.

The sludge is pervasive. You feast on the Super Bowl or the World Series and you’ll get extra helpings of woke-ness and immorality that, if you’re not steeled against it, can ruin the games and, slowly, slowly your life too.

There’s a wonderfully useful phrase: custody of the eyes. One of our Lord’s most startling statements (Matthew 5:29) is that “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Of course, Jesus wasn’t suggesting self-mutilation, and “eye” is akin to “vision.” What needs plucking out are the sinful thoughts that distort perception of an already warped world.

Conventional fig-leaf nudity*

Custody of the eyes may certainly involve blocking out what you ought not to see – but it also means being of a sound mind about whatever you do see: having perspective.

Take the case of nudity. Some people are offended by Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel because key Biblical figures are presented “full-frontal,” Adam and Eve in particular. There was plenty of rancor about it as he worked (for four years) on his masterpiece, but Michelangelo’s answer to his critics was simple: our first parents were naked. Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work, let the artist paint as he pleased. A later successor, Adrian VI, wanted the ceiling stripped, and the last of the eight popes Michelangelo worked under, Paul IV, ordered him to paint over the genitals. Michelangelo refused.

But we know from Genesis that the naked human body is good, which is why St. John Paul II called the Sistine Chapel ceiling “the sanctuary of the theology of the human body.” As the Psalmist says (139:14), we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Western Biblical art has long and often featured unclothed figures, because, really, you can’t paint Adam and Eve before the Fall as did Michelangelo (1508-12), or Susanna spied on by the elders as did Guido Reni (1620-25), or David watching Bathsheba as did Jean-Léon Gérôme (1889) without nudity.

I’m fond of the work of the American artist Edward Knippers, an Anglican and a member of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), whose “The Woman Taken in Adultery” (2004) shows the woman in the all-together, which seems appropriate because it imparts a dramatic immediacy: she has just been dragged from her illicit liaison and is about to be stoned. We know how that turned out, but the painting’s shocking pathos arises from the woman’s naked vulnerability before her salvation.

It’s easy, I think, to temper moral judgment about painting and sculpture, in which – however dramatic the art may be – the imagery is static: museum media, I like to call it. It’s more difficult with motion pictures.

Take the case of one of this year’s best films, the Best Picture nominee Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of Queen, the British rock group, from their start in 1970 until their 1985 performance at Live Aid, a benefit concert for African famine victims. Charity aside, there’s nothing Christian about the film, most of which deals with the talent and tribulations of lead vocalist Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara), played by Ramey Malek in a fine (and Oscar-nominated) performance.

Queen’s music was never designed to appeal to a Christian audience (one early song, “Jesus,” might have, though probably not). And far from being guided by the Holy Spirit the band clearly followed the spirit if the age. But few people have not heard and enjoyed Queen: you can’t get through a season in most sports, amateur or professional, without hearing one or another Queen anthem, “We Will Rock You” or “We Are the Champions” – or both.

The film’s title comes from the band’s nearly six-minute track from the appropriately titled album, A Night at the Opera (1975). “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a mashup of rock, classical (opera obviously), and words connected to and disconnected from the story of a condemned man. In the film, Mike Meyers, who helped give the song new life in Penelope Spheeris’ Wayne’s World (1992), plays – with a wink – a record producer who predicts the song will never succeed: it’s too long and complicated to get radio play. Director Bryan Singer puts you vividly into that Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium, a year before Mercury’s career was brought to a halt by AIDS. It’s scary the power performers can have. (A lawsuit against Mr. Singer for abusing underage boys was filed but dismissed. Ah, Hollywood . . .)

Oh yes, there’s sin aplenty in Bohemian Rhapsody (although the film is rated PG-13), but I found it moving because of its attention to the temptations of fame and fortune and especially in the way it captures the band’s creative process.

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, wrote the Roman playwright Terence: “I’m a man, and nothing human is alien to me.” Watching Bohemian Rhapsody moved me; it didn’t corrupt me.


*Image: The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio, c. 1425 [Brancacci Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence]. In the 18thcentury, Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, ordered the fig leaves painted in order to respect the latest rules of decorum. The leaves were removed in 1980s restoration.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.