*The following is a wonderful theoretical take on the theological significance of the Met Gala and the themes of V&R generally. It is by my good friend Dr. Chris Wojtulewicz, who has been a guest-blogger here before. Thank you, Chris, and I hope you all enjoy.
As with so many things which seem in some measure to be wrong in their outlook or execution, the tendency is to argue for absolute withdrawal. I would prefer to suggest something more along the lines of: its problem is that it did not go far enough. Christianity is the religion of spiritual excess. In any criticism of the Met Gala therefore, I want to characterise whatever may be singled out as wrong as being wrong, not for being excessive, but for being a withdrawal. It is, as with the structure of sin, the missing of an opportunity for excess.
We could mount the following question: is the outrage over the Met Gala couture in fact because so much of it (perhaps all of it?) was just not good enough? The richness of the aesthetic tradition in Catholicism is without parallel. One does not find it more beautifully theorised or enacted than in the aesthetics of Catholicism. Sadly, this has been woefully misguided in many places and times, especially in more recent decades of Church history. But this seems to be in part because the aesthetic standard is higher. And I do not just mean in critical terms, turning our noses up at things that do not conform to the standards internalised during studying at some esteemed cultural institute. I also mean in the sense that Catholicism has a fully developed metaphysics of beauty. As the medieval tradition so greatly elaborated upon, beauty is a transcendental, and as such is convertible with being, goodness, unity, and truth. There cannot be a ‘bad beauty’, or a ‘disunited truth’. It is a whole package deal.
My argument is not that there is anything intrinsically wrong in attempting to design fashion based on the aesthetics of Catholicism. My argument is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has picked possibly the most difficult subject to do well. But from that we can at least glean the fertility of the project—there is an opportunity here to reflect on some important things.
Is it, to put this another way, that the fashion items donned by the celebrities at the Met Gala were not transcendent? Were they dragging the heavenly down to earth with an almighty crash? One must tread carefully here. This is not as straightforward as it seems. Ask yourself what view of God and the world these last few sentences sit upon. Is God opposed to the world diametrically? Does it, perhaps, sound a bit iconoclastic? Even in spite of making a distinction between the sacred and the profane—that the only point of connection between God and the world is to be found in that which is set apart as ‘sacred’—the answer here has to be yes.
The point is that there is no way of answering the question ‘what did you make of the fashion items worn at the Met Gala?’ without espousing a metaphysical worldview. Enter Erich Przywara, stage left.
Przywara is absolutely masterful on all of this. No one has more expansively explored the nature of the aesthetic as a metaphysical phenomenon in Catholic Christianity. He does this in many places, but especially of note is his Analogia Entis. The essence of his argument for a Catholic doctrine of analogy is this: how ought we to correctly conceive of the relationship between God and the world? Could any question be more apt to pose as the backdrop to anything discussed about the Met Gala?
For Przywara, the answer to the former question is, at least in principle, straightforward: analogy. The detail of this analogical relationship, however, is far from straightforward. At first glance, there appears to be a dialectic: God, on the one hand; the world, on the other. What Przywara highlights for us is how the various strains of philosophy and theology throughout history have tended towards polarising this dialectic. Under various guises, they embrace one, conceived to an extreme, to the diminishment (or even exclusion) of the other. The way forward, however, is not in reducing the extremities to a spectrum of human proportion, nor in mystifyingly extruding them beyond all knowledge, nor in somehow maintaining the extremes whilst transcending them in some sort of synthesis. Instead, Przywara says, we need some sort ‘in-and-beyond’ conception of their relationship. There can be no either/or. It relies upon Christ himself being the true form of the analogia entis; God made man, the transcendent in-and-beyond the world.
This briefest of sketches of Przywara’s position serves to highlight the metaphysical background to the creation of the sacred objects displayed in the Met Museum. Their aesthetic, therefore, goes far beyond the beauty of their form, as well as any utilitarian conception of their function as liturgical or semi-liturgical objects; they are possessed of a theological aesthetic. The question, then, of developing fashion based on this is to ask how we might extend the remit of this analogically conceived theological aesthetic. The Catholic response to that, perhaps, ought not to be a desire to anxiously contain the analogical to the sacred. This would be to imitate the pattern of the modern philosophical endeavour as Przywara criticised it: to embrace one extreme to the exclusion of the other. Instead, the analogical requests that we think carefully about created perfection—that nothing created is beyond the touch of the analogical.
Various articles have appeared treating the issues of the dresses seen on the red carpet, and the exhibition itself. Something here has clearly divided opinion. On the more negative end of the scale they range from accusations of pure sacrilege and blasphemy, to the playing out of a Proustian nightmare-prophecy. I have some sympathy with all of this, and I find the Proustian prophecy of a museum-like re-enactment of Catholic liturgy, after Catholicism has passed out of all cultural memory, to be particularly arresting. The problem arising from this, it seems, is with its juxtaposition with the fact that Catholicism is very much alive.
Criticism therefore seems to go one of two ways: either it is (Proustian) re-enactment—a kind of tawdry parody—in which case it prematurely pronounces the death of Catholicism with the vulgarity of discussing funeral plans at the bedside of the terminally ill; or it is profanity—the appropriation of sacred things in order to mock or belittle them, or reconsecrate them to an erotics in which God has no part. Neither, I think, are strictly true. But here is where the dialogical essence of the Met Gala is most poignant. The situation asks of those who do not share the Catholic worldview to think about the Catholic nature of analogy, and thus what the sacred means—to see God in and beyond the bejewelled. To the Catholic it asks for a consideration of the Divine and the erotic—the analogical orients us towards saying that these are not two irreducibly dissonant regions of experience.
Nobody was wearing Catholic vestments or sacred objects. Nor was this an up-market fancy dress party (despite some examples which seem to the contrary). Whatever the intended meanings of the creations, their inspiration was no quaint handshake with the dead. In real terms, therefore, even thinking through the aesthetic of the sacred objects in an attempt to internalise and create something in response to them is to refute the charge that Catholicism is dead. It presumes a vitalism in the sacred objects. It does not even seek to change the purpose of them. It is much more like conversation. But conversation only works where the two parties are not talking at cross-purposes. If the couture can be considered art, it is up to the task. And by art I mean at least something beautiful. (I have discussed before Przywara’s distinction between art and sacred art in reference to Jago’s Habemus Hominem).
At this level, only two charges can be seriously laid at the Met Gala couture. The first is where the fashion objects too closely resemble a sacred object (Rihanna’s mitre). The problem is not that they thereby become mockeries. The problem is they have failed the aesthetic analogy. The second is where their creations are kitsch (Sarah Jessica Parker’s nativity scene), because they have failed the aesthetic full stop.
One might ask why the fashion has to be analogous at all. The answer to that lies somewhere between the fact that the items from the Vatican are consciously analogical in their sacredness, and that it is the essence of Christian analogy that all things are in some measure already analogical. Having Catholic imagination as the subject matter merely ups these stakes—to their limit.
The juxtaposition of the Vatican items and fashion creations is what was originally anticipated as being the real epicentre of controversy. As to sacrilege, is displaying items the same as using them? Their juxtaposition need not suggest equipollence. In fact, it already gives prominence and deference to the Vatican’s items, because the fashion is considered to be somehow derivative of their aesthetic. The real question to answer is: what is fashion? For the purposes here, I want to suggest at least the following: the fashion creations are a response to the sacred aesthetic. This is why I say it is more like a conversation. The two are already united in an analogy of proportionality: fashion items and sacred objects are intended for unique purposes, not everyday wear. They thus share an analogical relationship to two kinds of ‘work’. One is sacred work, the other aesthetic work. The natural deference to the sacred objects must come from the fact that their kind of sacrality already subsumes the beautiful. Enter a Przywaran chink of light, stage right.
The ‘sacred art’ of the Vatican’s items subsumes what is achieved in ‘art’ per se in virtue of two things. (Here we must add that it is specifically Christian sacred art, which Przywara distinguishes from the general category of ‘sacred art’). As Przywara identifies, whether one considers (1) the kind of beauty that the objects are (gothic, baroque, rococo, and the like), or (2) the sacrality of the art (in the sense of the ‘clumsy folk art’ of popular piety), their most important dimension is their specifically Christian sacred beauty. This means they are subject to an eschatological orientation—to their final destruction in order to be ‘raised up’ by Christ who is Himself ‘sacred beauty’ for the Christian—but also that they are always breaking through, however resplendent they may be, to the ‘scandal and folly of God’ in the Cross. The pluriform ‘weaknesses’ revealed in material objects are theologically identifiable with the Incarnate Christ.
The Met Gala couture failed to recognise this latter, essential, primitive Christian reality beyond the splendour of the sacred objects. In this sense, one could argue, the fashion merely imitates (or at least tries) the magnificence—the ‘art’ alone—of the sacred objects. But this is not the essence of conversation. One has to say something, and not just repeat, in order to converse. The ‘mysterium between the beautiful and the sacred’, as Przywara puts it—the most one could hope for in the absence of the Christian faith—is eclipsed by this. The sacred objects are both beautiful and sacred according to the twofold division above. In one sense they have the beauty of the art-forms of the great masters. Yet in the degree to which they have been used, for sacred purposes, they have become sullied and soiled, bashed and worn, and thus have taken on the sacred, as in the roadside shrine or the ‘miracle-working’ statue of the village church: the face of God in the primitive folly of the object as material.
Although the Vatican items are only being displayed, one might see a certain displacement of the sacred objects—that their consecration to God is somehow being redirected to a secularised erotic of the human body. But therein lies the possibility of refusing an erotic ontology in the name of an anxious asceticism. Erotic ontology belongs to created perfection, and thus to God. Erotic beauty therefore ought not to evoke merely one kind of response from us—and certainly not a response which would throw the proverbial baby of erotic ontology out with the bathwater of depersonalised erotic fantasy. This ontological dimension persists despite—and is even objectively prior to—our moral sensibilities. Without this, one forecloses the Catholic analogical position in favour of a dialectical theology which, albeit temporarily or selectively, excludes God from His creation. Moreover, the redolence of the sacred in the erotic ought not to be dismissed as intrinsically incompatible. No aspect of human life is beyond the reach of analogy, and however imperfectly realised or recognised, all things are subject to consecration to God.
A real object of beauty cannot be pornographically sexualised without totally distorting its real meaning and purpose. It does so by decoupling the person from the erotic. But the coupling of the personal and the erotic is not a dialectic or admixture: a body becomes erotic, in the proper sense, in virtue of it revealing the person. Every manifestation of this erotic is good; but that means either in the nuptial mystery of marriage, or in celibacy. Both are chaste, but not thereby withdrawals from erotic ontology; rather, they are engagements with its (innocent) excess. It is unchaste construals and perceptions which, masquerading as erotic excess and freedom, in fact eclipse or withdraw from the excesses of erotic ontology.
The bottom line here, then, is that low-cut dresses and high splits may well be too sexually evocative, but if they are, it is only insofar as there is a refusal to see the connection between the erotic and the Divine—and that this is true, for different reasons, both for the non-Catholic as well as the Catholic: the erotic as unconnected to the Divine; and the Divine as unconnected to the erotic. No depersonalised sexual fantasy erases the erotic ontology; and every transcendence of its distortion is achieved by grace—for any construal of the body is capable of being subjected to depersonalised erotic fantasy. There is nothing necessarily sexual about a nude model posing for a group of portrait painters. But, flick the mental switch, and it could easily be so. Through grace leading the individual ever more towards the perfect recognising of the personal, any and every construal of the body is able to be rescued from impurity on the observer’s part.
Through all of this, let us say that the sacred objects ought not to be conceived as a separate realm of experience. And let us also say that the erotic belonging to God points us in the direction of viewing the Met Gala as an invitation to see sacred aesthetics and erotics in terms of the person, and not in terms of discrete objects of self-seeking pleasure. Insofar as the latter is manifest, let it stand as a realm to which Christ descended, and thus awaits consecration to God in Him.
The value of the Met Gala appears to be in its invitation to conversation. Notwithstanding any way in which the couture fails analogy as art, or fails the erotic, it is nevertheless an occasion to elaborate on what these things are in Christianity. At the very least it is an invitation to the ontological excess of Christianity, whether from the analogical rendition of Christianity’s material and formal exigencies, or from the generosity of perception required to assert the relationship between the erotic and the Divine. The non-Christian should not withdraw from encountering the sacred in the beauty of the Vatican’s items. The Christian ought not to withdraw from the assimilability of erotic ontology into the sacred.
Perhaps all of this is to apply far too high a standard of criticism. But if we cannot apply such a standard here, where can we?
For the arguments of Przywara, see his essay ‘Beauty, Sacred, Christian’ in Analogia Entis, trans. John R. Betz and David Bentley Hart (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2014).