This Saturday I spent a lovely afternoon at the Whitney surveying the treasures of the Biennial, a special collection of the latest (and best of?) contemporary American art. It was a very interesting exhibit. A lot of it was edgy and provocative, and challenged viewers to encounter art in new ways. On the whole I found it quite intellectually stimulating. It is hard to comment on the exhibit as a whole because it was so large. I found much of the art interesting, engaging, and entertaining, but much of it I also found depraved, chaotic, juvenile, and alienating.
The one installation that made the biggest impression on me, and was also probably the most expensive to create, was a faux-trailer remake of the 1979 movie Caligula, possibly one of the most controversial movies ever made. The trailer was made by Francesco Vezzoli and starred such Hollywood actors as Benicio del Toro, Courtney Love, and Karen Black. The costumes were done by Versace. The focus of the trailer is on the orgiastic lifestyle of Emperor Caligula. There are lots of quick takes of orgies, young boys led on chains, and acts involving golden dildos.
To be frank, I’ve become desensitized to this sort of thing and the trailer failed to shock me. I actually found it quite funny. I think it was meant to be a sort of elaborate joke. From the moment Courtney Love claims to be the embodiment of Caligula, I had to chuckle. But in all the explicit content of this five-minute trailer, there was one image that disturbed me. It appeared for only a split-second, but it was the last image to appear: that of a pope.
At that instant, the trailer ceased to be a perverse joke and became an anti-Catholic statement. By placing the image of a pope as the last in a series of climatic orgiastic images, the trailer stopped being about Caligula and seemed to be a statement equating the perversion and corruption of that emperor with the papal state. (I didn’t get the chance to see which pope it was and I didn’t stay to watch it a second time. I couldn’t find out on the Internet who it was. Some saw Pope John Paul II, others our current Pope, Benedict XVI.) Perhaps Vezzoli intended it to be an anti-Catholic or a message about the problem of a concentration of power in any one figure, be he state or religious. Or maybe he just wanted to create a stir and see if conservative religious Americans would call for the removal of his film from the museum. But as a quick search of the Internet reveals, if that was the case, he failed. Either conservative Catholic folk aren’t going to the Whitney, don’t care about anti-papal statements, or simply don’t think this is something worth taking on.
I’ve been thinking about this film in relation to previous discussions on this blog about art, beliefs, and morals. Suddenly the question of intent is raised. Is the film a joke? Was the image of the pope thrown in an afterthought or was the film intended to have this political statement from the beginning? Should I be surprised that something possibly anti-Catholic would come from the studios of pornography?
Let me start with my first question. If it is a joke, I don’t believe that excuses it. Jokes can be offensive, and I believe art can be offensive too. Just as I don’t believe in excusing racial jokes as harmless on the grounds of comedy, I don’t believe in excusing offensive art on the grounds that it is art. Of course determining what is offensive is subjective and so the issue is tricky.
I have a feeling the image of a pope was thrown in as an afterthought. I think simply remaking Caligula for the sake of remaking Caligula in a humorous, slick-Hollywood fashion was the original intent and heart of this film. However afterthought or not, that doesn’t diminish the fact that it is there. I have no problem with art expressing anti-religious or anti-papal themes. That’s freedom of expression. However this manifestation seems particularly vicious. Having one’s loving and celibate religious leader compared to one of the most licentious and depraved Roman emperors seems rather uncalled for.
Someone might argue, “What was a morally sensitive Catholic person doing watching this pornographic film anyways?” In my defense, let me explain the setup: The trailer is shown on loop in a room with theater-like seating. There are perhaps a dozen film-installations going on in the Whitney this Biennial. I wandered into many film installations that day without reading the titles or captions that go with them. There was no warning about explicit content. True, I did stay for the entire film. In large part it’s because I’ve already become desensitized to sexual imagery. As I mentioned earlier, it failed to shock or surprise me. But I ask, what is the role of the Whitney in showing this film as part of the most acclaimed achievements in art the past two years? I’m not sure I saw the artistic value. In fact there didn’t seem to be anything new or unusual about it. I also ask about the Whitney’s responsibility for how the film was shown. I don’t expect the secular art world to censure itself, but what about individuals who want to shield children or themselves from such content? Shouldn’t there have been some warning?
I walked out of the museum that day mostly disenchanted by what I had seen. A few things struck me as interesting and innovative, but mostly I was let down. If this is the direction art is heading and if this is the legacy of art for our time, I’m afraid I’ll have to steer clear of it in the future.
I recently went to the Dada exhibit at the National Gallery in DC. While Dadaism celebrates the absurd, I would still argue that a lot of the art had a purpose. It was a cohesive movement, a response to the absurdities of man that had arisen in the past two World Wars. It deconstructed language, movement, light, color, and sound. It deconstructed our systems of sense and showed them to be senseless. It was a voyage in existentialism.
But the Biennial art seems beyond existentialism, beyond relativism. We have entered into a strange new world of chaos and, dare I say, depravity. It is a world of total alienation from any meaning.
The one room I enjoyed the most in the exhibit was the political room full of anti-Bush, anti-war, and queer political artwork. While I often did not agree with the politics behind the art, at least these works had a dialogue. They conveyed some of the urgent issues of our time in tangible ways. There were assumptions behind the works, and the most common assumption was that people matter. This room alone gave me a space to breathe, to remind myself that these works are fashioned from human hands and I wasn’t just on some bad acid trip. I could stop and mourn with my fellow men at the harrowing atrocities of war and weep at what darkness the human heart is capable of. At least there I was centered in humanity and not lost in abstractions of space and objects.
Vezzoli’s Caligula disturbed me most, as much porn does, not so much because of the explicit sex, nudity, or because of the image of the pope, but because it seemed to reflect the depravity and alienation of our society today — or where it seems to be heading, anyway. Even though so many people were having sex together, the film seemed to be devoid of human contact. The individuals were wrapped up in their own pleasures and experiences and could only view others as a conduit through which those pleasures could be obtained. There was no hint at any subplots about friendship or relationships; it was simply about madness and sex. As long as we have the capacity to form relationships with others, we are still sane. When we have lost that and devalue meaningful relationships, we have lost the core of our humanity and become like the terrible Caligula.