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kate kretz and related topics [Jan. 9th, 2007|10:10 am]
Dreams of a Technicolor Romantic Revisited

In 2002, Kate Kretz exhibited in “No Agenda But Their Own,” a show of women artists I curated for Agnes Scott College, a painting called “The Sacred Ovaries,” which presented the Virgin Mary as a working-class housewife in her kitchen, except that the figure was luminously transcendent, and her ovaries were presented in a manner imitating Catholic iconography of The Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The director of a well-known Catholic defense organization wrote a letter of inquiry, and for a while I thought we had another Andres Serrano on our hands, but after writing him some e-mails reflecting on Catholic doctrine regarding embodiment versus the Eastern Church’s versions of theosis, I got an indignant response that he wished artists would leave theology alone, because they clearly didn’t understand it, and that he was now going on to deal with more consequential anti-Catholic assaults. I e-mailed back my academic credentials, if I recall correctly, and suggested we could have a productive discussion about a considerable amount of church history regarding celebrations of the Incarnation and Mary’s essential role in same.

I was disappointed, because I thought a moment for real dialogue had been missed, not to mention that Kate is an amazingly talented artist trained in sophisticated, traditional technique, oil glazes and all, but her palette is redolent of the alternative stream of realist painting from the Romantics through the Pre-Raphaelites. I don’t vouch for her entire oeuvre, which has developed for two decades and gone in deliciously unpredictable directions, but I’ve always felt she deserved more recognition than she has gotten.

Now she is kicking off 2007 by stirring up the cultural storm that “The Sacred Ovaries” failed to provoke. “Blessed Art Thou,” her painting of Angelina Jolie as the Virgin Mary hovering on clouds over a Wal-Mart checkout line, was reproduced in yesterday’s New York Times, having previously emerged in online sources and sparked a small explosion of controversy. A look at Kate’s blog and following of just a few links takes us into territory most of us have not explored previously…ranging from ill-spelled vituperation to thoughtful misunderstandings, the latter from bloggers with perspectives and interests that I am happy to have encountered.

What fascinates and alarms me is that not even Kate explicates her painting adequately. Yet the symbolism is so obvious to an artworld type that the whole outburst of anger gives us a useful glimpse of the great gulf fixed between literalism and the metaphoric imagination.

We know this cognitive chasm is there, but we have to have it bite us in the butt occasionally to be reminded just how frightening the gap in perception really is. It is, however, a readily comprehensible gap, and to that topic I shall return, eventually.

The message this in-your-face painting sends requires a modest amount of historical literacy: Jolie and her biological and adopted offspring are presented in Baroque excess, the adopted children taking the place of cherubs flanking her, and her long-expected infant cradled in her arms. She appears as a manifestation, floating serene above the earthly realm that gives her adoration: namely, the checkout line where the celebrity magazines and the tabloids are placed for impulse purchase at grocery stores and big-box discounters such as Wal-Mart. Her earthly worshippers appear as flawed as she is perfect. Pages of art historical parallels could follow here, but let’s stay on track:

“Blessed Art Thou” is plainly meant to be an analogue for how celebrity culture functions: The biographical quirks of movie stars and musicians are reported and inflated and archetypalized in a manner reminiscent of popular medieval lives of the saints. This painting is thus a commentary on America’s operationally defined civic religion, which began with popular lithographs effectively deifying patriotic figures and now has devolved into cycles of adoration of celebrities, some more amenable to psychological projection than others. The psychologies descended from Jung do a better job with this than those descended from Freud, because although star-struck popular culture has a lot to do with sexual displacement, the little details come from the displacement of other energies that were once invested in saints, kings, and heroes.

The idea that all of this is manipulative is, as they say, like, duh. The good thing about the publicity machine is that its whole function is to be manipulative, so we can take that for granted and focus instead on why the manipulation succeeds.

One reason it works is that no one in the popular realm thinks about it, so when Kretz short-circuits the connection by suggesting that the adoration of Angelina Jolie is the secular equivalent of the Adoration of the Virgin, absolutely nobody gets it.

Jolie is particularly appropriate because her whole lifestyle is so aggressively designed to provoke outrage and publicity. I don’t think she does it cynically for the publicity, however, any more than Kate created the painting for the publicity: it’s just what a flamboyant personality such as Jolie does, given the opportunity via wealth and fame and power. But Jolie does know how to push middle America’s buttons. Heck, she even got historically minded types going, with that tattoo of the Latin motto “Quod me nutrit, me destruit” or whatever it was.

And the dirty little secret is indeed that, like some other famous figures whom I will not bother to name, she succeeds by providing psychological hooks for those who are not usually sucked in by celebrity culture. We are so used to celebrities leading lives of total self-involvement that any awareness of our crisis-ridden planet, however half-considered, is taken as a reason to pay attention to the celebrity in question. And so Jolie’s adoptions get as much analysis as her adulteries, from people who are pleased to find something from which to hang larger issues.

As a simple perusal of blogs (obviously including this one) will indicate, we are prone to inflate and archetypalize even ourselves. No wonder celebrities are fitted into the models of saints and great sinners provided by global history, even when they barely fit the forms provided for them.

In our hiply ironic times, of course, the stories have to violate the familiar idealized models of previous generations, and so the biographies are distorted appropriately to fit the sensibilities of the consumers buying the magazines or checking the online sources.

Those who get their news online are seldom as sophisticated as they think they are; whole advertising campaigns exist to exploit the self-aggrandizing delusions of the terminally hip. Nor are the folks who buy the magazines at the checkout lines always as unsophisticated as one might think; they know it’s a game, and sometimes have very perceptive things to say about it. This doesn’t matter much to the marketers of celebrity culture; all that matters to them is that we play the game, not whether we do it out of knowing amusement or out of passionate involvement.

But anyway, Kate should have known that icons are icons because they carry psychological charges. To return to my short-circuit metaphor from a few paragraphs back, when you short-circuit a smoothly operating system, sparks are going to fly, and you and your onlookers may get a nasty or fatal shock. Some things are sacred, as folks like to say, and when you suggest that some things that are not sacred are treated as though they were, but you do so with emotionally loaded symbolism, don’t be surprised when people react with their autonomic systems instead of their cerebral cortexes. All the biochemical reactions designed to promote survival kick into action, and it requires savvy and self-awareness ever to get to the levels of mental functioning that are less involved with primary processes. Operating with this in mind is what’s known in the trade as “having street smarts.”

There are traditional teaching stories that could have reminded Kate of this, but I don’t expect her to share my obsessions, any more than I fully and finally share hers. I just understand hers, and sympathize.

I hope she gets through this one as productively as did that aforementioned scandal-ridden photographer, who set out to critique the flacking of el cheapo religious and cultural knickknacks (Venus de Milo figurines, for example), and also to show that in the right lights, bodily fluids glow like magical elixirs. But those were different times, and different players.

From an insider perspective, I am amused that good old disrespected Art Miami got all the press attention for a controversial work of art, whereas last month’s glittering Art Basel Miami Beach got only sniffy columns on how precious and chi-chi it has all become.

From a scholarly perspective, I am gratified to see that this case [as fringefaan points out, by "this case" I meant Kretz's entire oeuvre, not the painting under discussion] bears out Eleanor Heartney’s contention that it is artists who were raised Catholic who bring to bear the bodily issues that tend to be neglected by those who were raised bloodlessly Protestant or scientific-rationalist. This is not quite so, for Sally Mann and her spiritually minded daughter Jessie certainly explore issues of body and identity, and the Mann clan descends from one who, thanks to the artworld version of the cult of celebrity, we know was a skeptically ironic physician.

But I digress.

From: randy_byers
2007-01-09 04:29 pm (UTC)
Fascinating analysis that has, alas, convinced me that I'm part of the celebrity cult despite my best attempts to disengage (which only becomes part of the game), but as one raised bloodlessly Protestant (Mennonite, to be exact), I don't follow your last argument. How does Kretz's piece bring to bear bodily issues? Your analysis seems to indicate that it's more about biographical and psychospiritual archetypes and roles. Not saying your overall judgment is wrong, just that I don't see it in this case. (Also, is it just my imagination, or do Catholics -- or ex-Catholics -- make better fantasists?)
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[User Picture]From: joculum
2007-01-09 04:41 pm (UTC)
You're right, I was conflating Kretz's overall oeuvre, which isn't at issue here, with the specific work under discussion. "The Sacred Ovaries" and her sculptural pieces are very body-centered, whereas this one isn't.
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From: randy_byers
2007-01-09 04:58 pm (UTC)
Ah, I thought you'd conflated it with Serrano's bodily fluids, but I see, I see.
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[User Picture]From: joculum
2007-01-09 05:00 pm (UTC)
Also, having been raised Presbyterian and seduced to the archetypes of the Catholic imagination by Alan Watts' Myth and Ritual in Christianity, I have a certain jaundiced opinion much as recovering Catholics have of the tradition in which they were raised. I do think Catholics and ex-Catholics seem to make better fantasists, including grotesquerie and satire (I'm thinking of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy here, of course).
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From: randy_byers
2007-01-09 05:18 pm (UTC)
You're obviously much better read on the subject than I am, but I remember Joseph Campbell making the argument somewhere that Catholic writers have a much greater, more detailed symbolic-mythological foundation to work from imaginatively. I believe he argued that Jewish writers have the same advantage.
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