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A consecrated critic

Art in America, July, 1998 by Eleanor Heartney

Moyers presses on, asking whether she was offended by Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a work which, he claims, "denigrates the central figure of your faith." Again, she begs to differ. While advancing her opinion that Serrano is "not a very gifted young man, but he's trying to do his best," Sister Wendy absolutely refuses to see Piss Christ as blasphemous. Instead she reads it as an admonitory work that attempts to say "this is what we are doing to Christ."

Her views on guilt are also illuminating. She declares, "I don't think being truly human has any place for guilt." She elaborates, "Contrition yes. Contrition means you tell God you won't do it again, you're sorry. Guilt means you go on and on beating your breast ... you're just sitting in a puddle and splashing."

Finally Moyers raises the question everyone is waiting for. How can it be, he asks, that Sister Wendy feels no shock at the Western canon's immersion in nudity, lust, violence and passion? "It wouldn't ever have occurred to me to be shocked," she replies, "I'm a Catholic." As for suggestions that artistic depictions of sexuality might be inappropriate viewing matter for a "consecrated virgin," she briskly brushes them aside. "God looked at his creation and saw that it was good," she maintains serenely. "There is nothing amiss in any part of the human body." She affirms that she and her companion nuns "are not cramped by the false idea that sexuality is wrong. It's something we have sacrificed." In it final memorable sound bite on the subject she notes, "God wouldn't give you a toy and not let you play with it."

Sister Wendy's refreshing openness to the carnality of the Western canon is startling primarily because we have been so thoroughly bombarded of late with the self-righteous moralism of the religious right. Her views on art and artists suggest that there is no necessary contradiction between religious and sexually charged art work. Her Catholic faith refuses to relegate representations of the body, its functions and its desires unequivocally to the realm of sin. As a result, her commentaries illuminate the extent to which the American debate over the clash between "Christian values" and contemporary art turns on a very specific, and highly limited, interpretation of Christianity.

Throughout her television series, Sister Wendy presents works of art as moral tales designed to remind the receptive viewer that there is "something larger than yourself." However, her tales could not be further from the tidy moral prescriptions of William Bennett. In "The Story of Painting" she speaks without censure of the homosexuality of great artists like Leonardo and Caravaggio. Reflecting on the latter's tumultuous existence, she remarks: "It is tempting to think that his violent life-style gives this work its excitement." She celebrates works which explore the dark side of human life -- seeing in Botticelli's Mars and Venus the loneliness of the loveless marriage; noting that the subject in Rembrandt's Bathsheba, in contemplating adultery, is making a difficult choice which will determine the course of Jewish history; extolling the proud vulnerability of the prostitute depicted in Manet's Olympia.

 

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