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Art and Heresy

Natalia J. Garland

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We should not be surprised that artists continue to produce works which many Christians find offensive and perhaps heretical. The most recent work of art to provoke public outrage is entitled My Sweet Lord, by artist Cosimo Cavallaro. It is a six-foot high sculpture of Jesus, made from over 200 pounds of milk chocolate. Jesus is suspended in the air, positioned as though on an imaginary cross, in total nudity. No cross. No nails. No Golgotha. But, yes, the genitals are exposed, and Jesus also has a ponytail.

The chocolate Jesus was supposed to have been exhibited during Holy Week, from Monday evening after Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday. It was to be shown at the Lab Gallery, located in the Roger Smith Hotel in Manhattan, New York. Local Catholics, including Cardinal Edward Egan (St. Patrick's Cathedral), expressed outrage over the gallery's insensitivity to Christian beliefs and the Holy Week cycle of worship. Some Christian leaders recommended a boycott of the hotel. It is also reported that death threats were directed at the artist. For safety reasons, the hotel cancelled the exhibit. The gallery artistic director then quit in response to the show's cancellation.

What was the purpose of creating a chocolate Jesus? The artist states that his works express "the struggle between need and desire; the known and unknown; the warm security of the womb and the chill uncertainty of the world." Is Cavallaro saying that society desires a Jesus that appears annually like the chocolate Easter bunnies in the supermarket, and then disappears? That would be a plausible interpretation if only he had wrapped the chocolate Jesus in cellophane and tied a pretty bow around it.

Is Cavallaro saying that we really do not know everything Jesus did? Does nudity make Jesus more knowable, or somehow more revealed? It is true that we do not know everything about the life of Jesus, especially His pre-ministry years. Yet, the Bible contains the Word of God which many Christians regard as adequate for understanding the teachings of Jesus. We know about His birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. This information overpowers that which is unknown, and eliminates any need to know more on this earth.

How is a chocolate Jesus related to the "warm security of the womb?" That sounds like unhealthy psychological regression. And how about the "chill uncertainty of the world?" That sounds like the role of the devil. Followers of Jesus can acquire and increase qualities of hope and faith, and decrease crippling anxiety and fear.

Perhaps the chocolate Jesus is a display of heresy--dissension against the traditional doctrines of Christianity--disguised as art. The use of chocolate goes against the standard materials used for making a crucifix, such as terracotta, wood, stone, and gold. Chocolate has to be kept refrigerated. It is not durable. Is the artist saying that Jesus is perishable? Or that Holy Communion, the body and blood of Jesus, is nothing greater than a chocolate treat?

A naked and exposed Jesus is not biblical. The suspension of Jesus in the air is not biblical. We can assume that these things never happened because this kind of behavior would be out of character for Jesus. Such ideas reduce Jesus to an X-rated curiosity, a comical figurehead, an adult version of the Easter bunny. The absence of the cross obliterates historical accuracy and spiritual purpose. The suspension in the air gives an aura of magic and obscures the resurrection. The crucifixion and the resurrection are doctrinal foundations of Christianity.

Let's not be naive about or surprised at controversial works of art. Christians have been persecuted since the days of the disciples, and heretics have always tried to taint doctrine to suit personal preferences. Although the chocolate Jesus was to be exhibited in a private gallery (i.e., no taxpayers' money was involved), New Yorkers were still within their legal rights to object to the insensitive timing and to defend their Christian beliefs and practices. If Cavallaro really wants to learn about the "chill uncertainty of the world," perhaps he would consider a chocolate Mohammed for his next sculpture. Islamic extremists might clearly define chill for him. Heaven forbid. (Written 04/04/07: bibliography available.)

[NOTE: For an another essay on a similar topic, see Art, Decency, and Money (written 02/02/04).]

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2007 Natalia J. Garland