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Chocolate Jesus, but Seriously

Jerry Harp, in his characteristically soft-spoken way, explores the idea of Cavallaro’s sculpture at length:

Whatever the status of Cavallaro’s milk-chocolate statue might turn out to be for me or anyone else, for the moment I find the photograph of this vulnerable, naked image of Christ suspended in the air, in the position of a crucified body but without so much as the support of a wooden crossbeam, to be uncannily compelling. The expression on the face is some ambiguous combination of serenity, pain, and resignation. The body looks like it might have been vigorous once, but now it hangs there helpless.

Is it the medium of milk chocolate that the statue’s critics find objectionable? I tend to think of this medium in terms similar to those that Sister Wendy voiced about the effects of Serrano’s “Piss Christ”: Cavallaro’s choice of medium hints at something of what so much of our culture, what so many of our intersecting cultures—including those of the religious tradition to which I belong—have done to the teachings and person of Jesus. We have taken this courageous and challenging person and turned him into a sweet, a kind of after-dinner treat rather than the disquieting figure that one encounters in the Gospels. If one is seriously to encounter this Jesus about whom the Gospel writers, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Theresa of Avila, Kierkegaard, Rudolf Bultmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others have written so powerfully, then one must encounter him in more complex and challenging terms than the sweet and sentimental dessert so much of our culture has turned him into.

Is it the fact that one can see Cavallaro’s Jesus’s penis that so upsets certain critics? If one believes, as I do, that Jesus was God incarnate, then one must also accept that he had a fully functional penis. Furthermore, as I understand the practice of crucifixion in the ancient world of which Jesus was a part, he would have been crucified nude, putting his penis fully on display, as it is in Cavallaro’s statue, adding to the compelling vulnerability of the image. Back when I was a college student in a Catholic seminary—I did not go on to be a priest, though I’ve carried my seminary education with me these years–one of the professors of religion suggested that the church might not have served itself well by its long preoccupation with matters of sex–that is, its at times obsessive preoccupation with, I take it, which actions are to be prohibited when, where, and how. There are many ways to talk about what is appropriate and of value in one’s sexuality, including which actions are best avoided and which pursued, but a language of simple prohibition may never have done well to respond to the depth and complexity of what sexuality is. Nor is simple repression likely to help much either. It’s unfortunate that so many of our cultures, including (perhaps especially) our religious cultures, have yet to develop a widespread and nuanced vocabulary to talk about sexuality, Jesus’s or anyone else’s–and I should specify that when I refer to sexuality here, I do not mean simply, or even primarily, explicit genital activity, but rather the whole array of issues involved in what it means to be a sexual creature. For one continues to be a sexual creature irrespective of whether one is having sex at a given moment, or whether one has made a vow involving abstinence from explicit sexual activity. I have known priests, observant celibates, with very healthy attitudes toward sexuality. It’s regrettable that in many Christian circles the issue of sexuality, whether that of Jesus’s or our own, is met with either vulgar jokes or silence.

If such an experiment as Cosimo Cavallaro’s nude, chocolate Jesus might help us in even a very small way, as I think it might, confront some of these issues with a little humor and insight, then I’m in favor of its display. But then I’m in favor of all manner of artistic experiments. Often enough it’s the free play with the materials of one’s art—whether these materials happen to be words, sounds, paint, wood, stone, chocolate, or something else—that yields something compelling and new, something that will call forth new experiences, insights, and languages of commentary. To tolerate such free play, a culture must also have a high tolerance for what is ephemeral, for most of the artistic experiments of any age fall away–and yet this often ephemeral culture also forms much of the matrix out of which more lasting work grows. For the health of our culture, I hope these experiments continue.

I recognize that the point of Harp’s short essay is less to understand the critics of Cavallaro’s sculpture—though he does invoke them—than it is to explore the intent and value of the artistic expression. For that I value Harp’s thoughtful, almost vulnerable openness; his analysis of the sculpture has the mark of one who has spent years contemplating the figure of Christ—something which I, as a Protestant of the most radical sort, value but hardly know myself. Nevertheless, it’s worth recognizing that the loudest critic of the dark chocolate Jesus was Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, a man notorious for complaining first and not asking questions at all. He was central to the Amanda Marcotte/John Edwards campaign blogger brouhaha last month and has been a major PR force behind a number of other scandals that often weren’t so much (follow the links and you’ll see what I mean). I think Harp wrongs critics by allowing Donohue’s complaints to be actual criticism. Generously, Donohue trades in reaction in order to intercept criticism before it can take place; it’s worth acknowledging as much.

 

Comments

I know guy who went to Harding about 8 years ago who used to think that “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” actually said, “Just a Little Chocolate Jesus.”