Catholic’s criticism of art misguided?

A disclaimer, this post is not intended to be an affront to Catholics. Please keep this in mind while reading the following entry which does discuss the denomination, as evidenced by the title above, and feel free to correct me on any points where I may have misrepresented any related doctrine or theology espoused by the Catholic Church.

A story via ArtsJournal reports the Catholic League’s Bill Donahue is at it again. I mentioned him last year when he raised Cain over Cosimo Cavallaro’s Sweet Jesus.

Donahue and the League are upset about a series of paintings by one Felipe Baeza, a student at the private Cooper Union. Baeza’s offending works combine erotic images with traditionally Catholic symbols such as rosary beads and a Crucifix. I haven’t seen the paintings in question, and by their description have no desire to see them, but I don’t agree with the Catholic League’s approach to these exhibits. Donahue also lead other recent protests against questionable art, such as Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibit and Andres Serrano‘s Piss Christ.

By no means do I condone the way the assumed subject matter in works such as Baeza’s — based on description alone, mind you — is presented. I did a Google search for some images of the paintings but, thankfully, didn’t come up with anything. I did find his Facebook profile, and the following painting which seems to be by the same man:

[Per a comment from a friend of Baeza’s on another site — which I’ve added to this post — I removed the image after receiving clarification that it was not done by this particular Felipe Baeza.]

I’m not a fan of censorship, but there is a balance to be struck between an artist’s exploration in subject and media, and resulting useful (read in part, “tactful”) artwork. It’s not too difficult to think of the messages Baeza might be trying to get across when reading slightly more elaborate descriptions of these paintings than I’ve posted here, but I can’t help but think he could have approached his canvases in a more deft manner. I’m not suggesting here that an artist change their intent, merely that they rework their presentation. Difficult (but still valid) subjects aren’t easy or fun to look at either way; works that come across as overtly sensational probably won’t garner enough respect to communicate to the generally hoped-for broad audience.

Regardless, I don’t think people in the Church, Catholic or otherwise, have much right to complain about works of art that don’t exactly put the best face on this fallible institution. The manner in which such artistic commentary is crafted might be worth noting, but not necessarily making public statements about — which I’ll get into shortly.

Referring back to Donahue’s criticisms, perhaps he believes his own denomination to be Divine and therefore infallible. I’ve known of Catholics with this attitude, although I don’t sense it’s a prevailing conviction. If I may be so bold, this would in fact be a naive belief, and I don’t understand how anyone could presently think so highly of the Catholic Church in light of the recent scandals that — unfortunately — plagued this enduring institution. No part of the Body of Christ can say with a straight face that they or their particular congregation has not made certain gross missteps along the way. I’ve grown up in, and still attend, non-denominational churches where scandals also mar the image of the Body. All such circumstances do harm to the name of our Holy God, which goes without saying. We are all guilty. We are all human.

However, this naive understanding is the only way I can validate The Catholic League’s public criticisms of such “ugly” paintings. Making formal statements against these exhibits only heightens awareness of them. This creates more publicity for the artist, which aids his or her career — unless they only intend to market themselves to a very narrow group of people — likely encouraging them to create additional similar pieces. With few exceptions, all publicity is good publicity. It seems to me that Donahue and the League are inadvertently doing themselves and their cause a disservice. Were they to keep quiet about the artworks, or keep their discussion and disgust internal, it’s much more likely such shows will go unnoticed. I’d never heard of Cooper Union before today, and were it not for the fuss raised by Donahue I would probably still be ignorant.

Art has historically addressed social and political ideas. It will likely continue to do so within its cycles. The Church’s past and recent Faux pas will remain potential targets, so to speak, for paintings and sculptures, just like war, politics and other cultural ills. Artists have every right to broach these subjects. The ones that do so in a respectable way will likely be the ones named in history books.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

9 Responses to Catholic’s criticism of art misguided?

  1. Davey says:

    thank you for this intellectual and impartial opinion on this dispute. I myself am a friend of Felipe Baeza and own one of his “controversial” works, and i see no reason for such hostility. and also, that Girl with the Pearl Earring is not his…

  2. a fyiing we will go! says:

    Your understanding of what is meant by infallibility is not what the Catholic Church means by it. You are referring to what the Church would call impeccability — being without sin. The Catholic understanding of infallibility has a fairly precisely defined meaning which refers to teachings on faith and morality, not the living out of those teachings by individuals, even those in positions of authority up to and including the pope. You could see the document Lumen Gentium or the Catechism of the Catholic Church if you wish to deepen your understanding.


  3. mh says:

    We eagerly await the “courageous” Mr. Baeza’s erotic depiction of the life of Muhammad. Such a daring artiste!

  4. Brendan says:

    I would like to reiterate the second comment, which is entirely correct. Any believing and faithful Catholic should attest to the fact that the Catholic Church was the visible Church established by Christ and given the protection of the Holy Spirit to pass on the deposit of faith without error (this includes only teachings on faith or morals). This has nothing to do with whether members of the Church sin (which they most certainly do, sometime scandalously so — i.e. the cases of sexual abuse). There’s no question the Church is filled with sinners, but its teaching authority is protected from error and this is an important distinction to make. Another misunderstanding I often come across with non-Catholics is what the Church actually teaches (formally, officially) versus what certain people within the Church have merely commented on, or versus teachings which have not been formally defined. Whenever one hears of a “teaching” of the Catholic Church, always check whether it actually IS a formal teaching of the Church (the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a good place to start) or merely an individual’s own comments or even a teaching that does not regard faith or morals.

  5. Rachel says:

    First of all, has anyone who has commented upon these prints have actually seen these works? I think it is hard to judge anything without firsthand experience, especially art.

    Secondly, as we are in America, freedom of expression is protected. The Cooper Union will not censor student work, so these personal expressions of inner conflict are displayed, a democratic representation of student work.

    As one of the hundreds of students who has work in the seminal End of Year Show, these prints (four) comprise an extremely small portion of the exhibition. They record a personal struggle to express inner conflict, and in no way mean to vulgarize the church itself.

    Felipe is a student experimenting with personal voice. While you may not understand it, I think the authors display of bigotry, hatred, and racism in this blog entry is much more appalling than anything in his student work.

  6. Ginkgo100 says:

    During his presidency, Bill Clinton was the most powerful man in the American federal government. He did some scandalous things, including lying under oath. Are the beliefs he protected and laws he executed as President suspect because he did scandalous things? Clearly not!

    Likewise, when men (and women) in the Catholic Church do scandalous things, the beliefs and ideals of the church are not therefore suspect. They would only be suspect if they endorsed scandalous behavior; but instead, the ideals of the church reject this behavior.

    You said, “I don’t understand how anyone could presently think so highly of the Catholic Church in light of the recent scandals that — unfortunately — plagued this enduring institution.” This sentiment is a form of the ad hominem fallacy.

    Sacrilegious images such as those in Baeza’s work are deeply hurtful and personal to Catholics, in the same way that such images would be hurtful and personal to you if they involved, not crucifixes and rosaries, but members of your family.

    I agree that Bill Donohue is shooting himself in the foot by calling attention to this exhibit. Would anybody know about “Piss Christ” if it had not received such negative publicity?

  7. TAE says:

    “This sentiment is a form of the ad hominem fallacy.”

    I can understand why you might think that, but please note the word “perhaps” in the same paragraph. I was conjecturing, and made it clear at the beginning of the post I’m generally ignorant on the details of the Catholic faith. I’ve already been corrected by two previous commenters, as you may have noticed, with respect to the infallibility of the Catholic church and my previous observations which I referred to in the post.

    “Sacrilegious images such as those in Baeza’s work are deeply hurtful and personal to Catholics . . . “

    Let me first say that BY NO MEANS do I condone this kind of presumed hurtful intent, however just because something is hurtful to a certain group of people does not necessarily invalidate it.

  8. Ginkgo100 says:

    I was conjecturing, and made it clear at the beginning of the post I’m generally ignorant on the details of the Catholic faith.

    Reading your exact statement more closely, you are right — you didn’t say “nobody can think highly of the Church” but rather “I don’t understand how anyone can think highly of the Church” (paraphrasing). So this cannot be an ad hominem fallacy.

    Let me first say that BY NO MEANS do I condone this kind of presumed hurtful intent,

    I apologize if you took me to mean that I thought you did condone it. Indeed, your post makes it clear that you don’t. I meant this only as a general statement of how this type of “art” is hurtful. I did make it sound personal in mentioning “members of your family”, for which I apologize.

  9. TAE says:

    Don’t worry about it. I’ve come to realize that most people online (myself included) read too quickly and are equally as over-eager to respond to things. I’ve tried to be more intentional about slowing down, but I don’ think it’s worked . . .

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