Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Dissing Religion

There are museums that have an instinct to display works that disparage religion. The Brooklyn Museum is one such place. Its latest sacrilege is a huge photograph showing a naked woman at the Last Supper. Predictably, Mayor Guiliani is once more on a tear, establishing a so-called decency panel. This collection of sycophants and misfits has generated an excess of irreverence and has scarcely advanced the cause of religion. It’s hard to figure out what the lame duck mayor has accomplished other than the dubious achievement of being a foolish lame duck.

Though his remedy is excessive and doomed to failure, Mr. Guiliani has a point. There are talented artists aplenty who never have the opportunity to exhibit in our exalted cultural emporia because they aim for esthetic fulfillment and not for momentary shock or monetary gain. There are mediocre artists who know that dissing religion is a reliable meal ticket, an attention-grabber for museums that seek to boost their attendance. The Brooklyn Museum is one of the architectural wonders of the western world, with top-flight exhibitions to boot. It should not have to stoop so often to the tawdry. But it wants to attract more viewers and this results in offensive displays of works by artists skilled at self-promotion who have the cultural illiterati to serve as their claque.

The Mayor again took the bait, thereby providing tons of publicity for that which he purports to loathe and ensuring a far greater turnout for a display that on its merits would have attracted little interest. An explanation of this behavior is better left to students of psychology.

For all of City Hall’s folly, the Brooklyn Museum is wrong and it is contributing again to an anti-religious field day. Cultural arbiters should be able to distinguish between what is constitutionally protected – as virtually all art is – and what they select for display. The art world is, after all, deeply implicated in processes of selection and exclusion, of subjective choices of what is to be preferred or ignored. There is no compelling reason to give preference to what is hostile to religion, unless those who make the choice are hostile to religion.

This latest incident illustrates the ingrained American hypocrisy about religion. We talk a good game and we want our Presidents to go to church. We also revel in symbolic acts that convey the notion that we are a religious people. In fact, we are not, if only because hedonism and consumerism are antithetical to the spiritual dignity that is essential for a religious life.

We had another display of this problematic approach to religion when Jeff Van Gundy, the coach of the Knicks, criticized the pre-game private prayer sessions conducted for some of his players. To make matters worse, said the coach, players from the opposing teams join in these sessions. “Everybody is hugging before games, praying together.” I guess it’s preferable for players to choke the coach or slug each other or engage in off-court antics that may land them in jail. These are the appropriate American role models, not the huggers or the prayers.

Van Gundy acknowledges that he was wrong to speak out, but he continues to believe that prayer sessions are inappropriate. Charlie Ward is probably the Knicks leading prayer, although as a player he is no more than a solid journeyman. He always displays a quiet dignity which suggests that there are other things on his mind, as if he knows that what he does as a Knick is only a game and the spiritual dimension of his life is far more important.

Ward does not accept his coach’s strictures about prayer. This is not the first time that his religious commitment has placed him at odds with the dominant ethos of the sports world. Several years ago, he challenged the policy of allowing women reporters into the locker rooms after the games when the athletes were dressing, showering, etc. Ward did no more than claim for himself a sense of modesty that most of us naturally insist on in our own homes. Furthermore, it has often been suggested that privacy is a basic right. Still, he was rebuffed, largely because the political correctness crowd believes that to deny women reporters the right to enter dressing rooms when male reporters are permitted to enter violates the notion of equal protection. This tenuous position was embraced years ago by a local federal judge who no one regards as a pillar of the judiciary.

As Steven Carter has argued, this country needs to respect religious sensibilities and to recognize that religion is usually (but not always) a force for good.