Culture warriors have no place in Catholic life (full version)


David RastasCrisis, Catharsis and Contemplation, the title of an exhibition at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, was a mouthful. In his review of the exhibition (Quadrant, September 2006), Tim Pemble-Smith adds to these ingredients alchemy, the occult and Catholic Culture Wars. His review provokes reflection on the concept of Culture Wars, and the weaponry used in them.

After describing the exhibition and the controversies associated with it, Mr Pemble-Smith asks a question which he will later answer affirmatively. “Could it be that Catholic pagan and Gnostic groups like Earthsong managed to get their art into St Patrick’s?”

He claims that although it gathered the artworks under four themes—sacrifice, suffering, mental illness and grief—“the exhibition was all but incomprehensible to people of mainstream orientation.” Obscurity offers receptive ground for hiding and finding hidden meanings. When he analyses six of the twenty two works shown, he finds themes such as “sexual identity confusion, androgyny, genitalia, occult spirituality, magical spirits as Creator God and alchemy”. He finds these same themes coded in a conversation between the artists, claiming that although the allusions are not immediately obvious to mainstream people, they are a staple of artistic sub groups.

On the basis of this analysis, he is able to conclude: “The exhibition was laced with disguised meanings and insider references to pagan and Gnostic spirituality. This does, it seems, appear to have been the point: a wicked joke at the expense of those naïve believers who worship at St. Patrick’s.” He adds that the advertised themes of the exhibition “have been used in a Catholic cathedral as a masking device for mockery of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and covert promotion of the Goddess and the ‘sacred feminine’.” He concludes by reminding his readers that a bishop and a religious sister have not accounted for their support of the exhibition, and that its curator remains an employee of the Archdiocese.

If true, this account is damning. It implies deception and perversity in the artists and curator. After setting the exhibition in context, and reflecting on how we might fairly evaluate such claims, I shall return to the evidence that Mr Pemble-Smith offered in its support.

The display of artworks in St. Patrick’s Cathedral was part of a wider outreach to those who visit. In addition to those who come to it expressly to pray, it also attracts tourists from many religious backgrounds. Through events like concerts and exhibitions, it reaches out to this wider public.

In this exhibition, the cathedral was to mediate a dialogue between contemporary art and Christian faith. The exhibiting artists were not necessarily religious, but expressed in their work a deep searching that could be described as spiritual. It was hoped that in the space of the cathedral that was shaped to Christian faith, people might see new possibilities both in the artworks and in their faith. The exhibition might help deepen prayer and appreciation of art.

By these standards, I found the exhibition successful. The large majority of those who commented on it did so favourably. A typical comment was, “It is good to use media, which is otherwise ‘pagan’ and ‘evil’, and use it for the glory of God.” Those who disapproved of it generally believed that it is inappropriate for a church to be used for such a non-religious exhibition.

The exhibition raised interesting questions, that call for leisurely and open discussion: about the relationship between Christian spirituality and other spiritualities, about the possibility of mutual learning and illumination, about the appropriate use of Church space, about the wellsprings of artistic creativity and prayer, and about the relationship between the forms of faith and the forms of contemporary art. I have raised these questions elsewhere.

Mr Pemble-Smith’s criticism of the exhibition is based, in part, on his interpretation of the exhibits. To evaluate such criticism is a complex task, particularly when most of the works are non-representational. Even more than in the case of representational art, viewers here contribute to the interpretation of the work. They do not simply recognise what is clearly to be seen by all. After looking receptively and attentively at the work, they will find meaning in it. The meaning they find may say something about the work; it may say something about what they are disposed to see.

Because the individual’s interpretation is subjective, it cannot of itself claim to be true and authoritative, particularly if it is used as a basis for condemnation. If we wish to claim authority for it, we would need to show that most viewers see the artwork this way, and so it is a natural interpretation. Or we would need to show that it is consistent with what the artist intended.

Crucifix ChairI shall now turn to Mr Pemble-Smith’s analysis of the works and, where possible, reproduce images of the artworks. In two works, he finds androgynous figures; in another four, evidence of the occult, and particularly of alchemy, in another magical spirits. One exhibit, where I shall compare Mr Pemble-Smith’s interpretation with the artist’s, is said to be occult and to mock the Virgin Mary.

I was surprised to find the images of Crucifix Chair and Shrouds identified as androgynous. It was not supported by those who commented on the exhibition, nor by those whose opinion I sought. The carver of the Crucifix Chair, unfortunately, is deceased, and cannot speak for himself, but his devout Catholic practice and the focus on suffering in the gashed sides of the image make this an unlikely interpretation. In the absence of evidence, Mr Pemble-Smith’s remark that “the androgynous aspect of this and other works has a spiritual significance beyond the usual sexual identity crisis: Gnostic groups have long presented their Gods as androgynous,” is irrelevant to the work.

Mr Pemble-Smith says of Shrouds that “rather than Christ, here was Christa, an androgynous but predominantly female figure”. Robert Klein Boonschatte, who painted the figures, says that as he portrayed Christ, he intended to represent a male figure. Nor, contrary to the critic’s judgment, did he have the Shroud of Turin in mind.

The lack of support from those who view the works, and from the artists, for Mr Pemble-Smith’s reading lead inevitably to the conclusion that the androgyny which he has seen in these works was what he was disposed to see. It does not lie in the works themselves.

ShroudsI might add in passing that Mr Pemble-Smith is not alone in wishing to find in Christian art males represented androgynously or as females. This identification is much in vogue today, and is popularised in The Da Vinci Code. There are simple, as well as complex, reasons for minimising sexual differentiation in religious art. Within churches, obvious signs of sexual identity are often thought inappropriate. Furthermore, in much Christian theology, Christ and the saints are taken to represent and to be models for all human beings, not simply for those of their own sex. Both these factors influence the representation of the human body in Christian art.

Mr Pemble-Smith finds evidence of the occult in four pieces of artin the torso represented in Pillar of Paper, in the elements of Fire, Water, Sky and Earth and in the letters scratched on the Hebrew opening to the Book of Genesis in Hope, and in the symbolism of Icon Chamber.

Pillar of PaperHe says of Pillar of Paper, that the torso represents "an athletic male figure, leaning slightly and clearly very relaxed… The torso is languid and just a little erotic… It does not have to be a torso. It serves equally well as the face of an animal or perhaps a demon, with the nipples as eyes and the navel as a nasal opening." Neither I, nor other viewers whom I consulted, would have described the torso as erotic or languid. Despite our best efforts, we could not see a demon or an animal in it. The artist himself, Godwin Bradbeer, intended to represent a human form, marked by suffering, within the constraints of the chosen form. No element in Mr Pemble-Smith’s interpretation was included in his intention.

The title of Claudia Terstappen’s Fire, Water, Sky and Earth suggests to Mr Pemble-Smith evidence of the occult. It represents the four elements that "are central not to the Christian worldview but to the worldview of occultists everywhere". We must ask, therefore, whether this artwork evokes the occult either in its intention or its obvious interpretation.

Fire, Water Sky and EarthWhile the four elements may occur in modern, as in ancient, Gnostic texts, Christian texts and poetry have long used them as a symbol of the natural world. Given that the artist includes, not air, but sky in her title, and her images represent the four aspects of the title, there is no evidence in the work for occult reference. The critic’s remark that "alchemy the 'black art' is the reverse of what Christians refer to as sanctification, the transformation to holiness" may be true, but it again has no relevance to this work.

Of Hope, Pemble-Smith says that it "presents hope as emerging from a defaced copy of Genesis and being found in the healing power of ritual creative actions and works of artpersistent themes among modern Gnostics who, rejecting the biblical fall from grace, embrace a range of occult, indeed alchemical approaches to 'healing'."

HopeNeither I nor others whom I consulted could see any reference in the work to the healing power of ritual creative actions. The painting seemed to represent a journey in which there is pain and defacement, but out of which can come healing. The beginning is rewritten in hope. The author’s notes support this interpretation. If art was indeed part of the healing process, that would have been compatible with Christian experience and theology.

Mr Pemble-Smith’s discovery of magical spirits in the exhibition appears to be tied to his interpretation of Queenie McKenzie’s Pentecost. He claims that it "equates the Creator Christian God with mythical Aboriginal ancestral spirit", and that it "is more than possible that a painting by Queenie McKenzie was prepared in a ritual manner, with the spirit power of the being 'sung' into the work".

Those with whom I spoke saw in this painting, prepared for a Church community, a straightforward representation of the events of Pentecost. God the Father sends the Spirit on the apostles who are gathered around Mary. Queenie McKenzie is now dead. She was a devout Catholic who, as an artist, tried to preserve both the style of Kimberley art and the traditional stories. Neither interest equates the spirits of such stories with the Creator God. It is unclear both how Mr Pemble-Smith could know what is Pentecost"more than possible" and what significance of what he does or do not know may have. It would seem quite as possible, although equally unverifiable, to assume that she prayed to the Holy Spirit in preparing this particular work.

The most serious charge levelled against the exhibition is based on Mr Pemble-Smith’s interpretation of Icon Chamber (The Visitation). In his view, it mocks the Virgin. I have found no one else who shares this view. It may be helpful to set his interpretation against that offered by James Waller, the artist.

On the basis of the subtitle of the workThe VisitationMr Pemble-Smith claims it represents the visit of the pregnant Virgin Mary to Elizabeth. "The womb of the Virgin is presented in the form of a tabernacle covered in soft black cloth parted in front as a lighted vertical slit. This serves as a mocking reference to the Virgin… Around the icon chamber on the floor are place four gold squares. Four feathers can be seen inside the chamber. Numerologically, this is four squared by four squared… Four cubed is a reference to the goddess and particularly to her genitals." The cockatoo feather lying in front of Icon Chamber is said to add an Australian touch "a simple, common and uniquely Australian wordplay‘cock or two’the cock or two being a clear reference to one or two males: the Child Jesus and whoever impregnated the Virgin."

Icon ChamberThis interpretation is again idiosyncratic. The item itself is not easily described as a black cloth parted in front as a lighted vertical slit. The opening extends from top to bottom and is more like a window, allowing the viewer to see a blue light at the top of the chamber, what is on the floor of the chamber and a clutch of white feathers. It does not naturally suggest a womb.

Certainly, such an interpretation was foreign to the artist’s intention. He conceived the work as a meditation on the nature of the Icon, and on the divine visitations that the icon evokes. It does not represent Mary or her Visitation to Elizabeth. It has rather to do with the play of light in icons, and the parallel that the iconographers and therorists of the Eastern Church have long seen with the relationship between the Uncreated Light of God and the created lights of the world. The divine visitation is represented by the blue light and the blue feather in the chamber. The latter is also a tribute to Rublev, who used blue so powerfully in his icons. The tradition of God’s visitation through angels is hinted at in the clutch of white feathers in the chamber, and the single feather outside. White is associated with purity, with closeness to God. The gold squares exemplify one of the key features of iconsthe capacity of gold to appear as a source of light, and not simply as reflecting it. The arrangement in four squares is dictated by aesthetic considerations, and is without symbolic importance.

Given the lack of support that Mr Pemble-Smith’s interpretation enjoys from other viewers and from the artist himself, but it has no authority beyond that. What an artist might feel about the attribution to his work of such vile intentions, may be imagined.

From this analysis, it appears that Mr Pemble-Smith’s reading of androgynous figures, the occult, of alchemy, of magical spirits, and of mockery of the Virgin into the exhibition, is based on his unsupported interpretation. This individual interpretation has then been projected on to the exhibition.

Mr Pemble-Smith complements his interpretation of artworks with an account of the conversation between artists, printed in the Catalogue for the exhibition. He uses the image of the "dog-whistle", claiming that irony and metaphor lurk beneath the surface of this conversation in a way that mainstream people will not understand, but that will be clear to those from "artistic and spiritual subcultures". From this conversation he picks out the words, alchemy, artifice, transformation, which confirm his view of the exhibition as pagan and Gnostic in its content and inspiration.

The best that can be said for this theory is there is a more simple and benign explanation why the speakers used these words. They were invited to discuss the relationship between art and faith. As artists, they began with the experience of making art. The paradox of art is that what is made is much more than its parts. Its raw elements, often themselves already processed and therefore artificial, are shaped into something new that surprises and delights the artist. Metaphors like transformation, alchemy and artifice come naturally to hand in giving an account of this process. To postulate a coded meaning open only to an enclosed sub-group of artists is unnecessary, and is plausible only to those convinced beforehand about the nature of such conversations.

The conclusion is inescapable: Mr Pemble-Smith finds the themes of "sexual identity confusion, androgyny, genitalia, occult spirituality, magical spirits as Creator God and alchemy" in the exhibition because he is disposed to find them there. His interpretation is supported neither by viewers nor by the artists themselves. There are, therefore, no grounds to accept his projection of what he finds in the exhibition onto the artists and organisers of the exhibition. The themes of the exhibition are not a "masking device for mockery of Christ and the Virgin Mary".

Does all this matter, and is it worth taking pains to rebut such a weakly supported argument? The significance of Mr Pemble-Smith’s article is larger than its merits, and lies in his reference to the Catholic Culture Wars. I would like finally to look at the concept of culture wars and the way in which writing such as Mr Pemble-Smith’s review functions in it, independently of the writer’s intentions.

I find Culture Wars a profoundly unhelpful and inappropriate phrase to use. The image of War suggests that there are two sides implacably opposed to one another, and that their goal is total victory by whatever means. To speak of culture wars, too, ennobles the warrior, and suggests aparity between the representatives of different positions. Culture, however, suggests a pattern of relationships that include sharp differences about goals and about ways to live. These differences are best resolved in conversation, based on reasoned and appropriately complex argument about the issues at stake. This conversation has its standards, and you are entitled to a hearing only if you meet those standards. The conversation is ideally about truth, and not about power and victory.

When set in the image of warfare, Mr Pemble-Smith’s image of the "dogwhistle" can have another resonance. The dogwhistle rustles up the pit bulls that can intimidate and maul your enemies. My concern is that articles like Mr Pemble-Smith’s, regardless of the intentions of their authors, can be used in this way. They invite people to use what power they have through position, money, connections or passion, to crush good enterprises, and offer an ideological cover for doing so. By suggesting that an exhibition is pagan, Gnostic and sexually subversive, one can put pressure on Church leaders for whom, after all, the promotion of Christian art is a worthy goal, but not a priority. Although they may not be persuaded by the argument, they will realise that to support an enterprise and a group of people tainted by the frisson of such accusations will demand time and energy.

At the conclusion of his review, Mr Pemble-Smith reminds his readers that a bishop and religious sister have not explained themselves, and that the curator is still an employee of the Church. The bishop and the religious sister surely have better things to do, than to reply to charges as groundless as these. But for those named, the effect of this challenge has nothing to do with being invited to conversation. It threatens marginalisation and intimidation. This is cultural mugging, not cultural warfare.

Culture wars are about power, and not about truth, whether truth is understood as a personal value, or as coherence with reality. This controversy about a past exhibition may seem insignificant, and the stakes to be low. But the Catholic Church in particular bears its history. When people became obsessed with witchcraft, accusations of Satanic cult, sexual ambiguity, coded and secret communications, and black magic were freely made. They found a ready hearing, generated a science to justify them, gathered zealots, mobilised powerful men, and destroyed innocent lives. That was Catholic cultural warfare. It is best remembered with shame.



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Existing comments

I am most grateful to Andrew Hamilton for taking the time to research and write up such a convincing argument to counter Pemble-Smith's subjective viewpoints.
R Lamerand | 05 October 2006

Thanks once again Andrew for awonderfully balanced response to an extraordinary art exhibition. Your own commitment to truth is evidenced in all your articles and public speaking occasions. This is a balance we need in an ever-increasing polarising world.
Maryanne Confoy | 05 October 2006

An excellent rebuttal of some really silly claims. Back in May, I wrote about the exhibit at my blog (

While I don't fully agree with Andrew's point about culture wars, I am very grateful that he so deftly demolished the absurd claims that the exhibit was occultic.

The suggestion that the Archbishop of Melbourne permitted the use of the Cathedral for the promotion of occult beliefs is extremely serious - as well as spurious. I am grateful that Andrew has provided such a reasonable rebuttal.

As I said on my blog during the exhibition, "Crisis, Catharsis and Contemplation" was actually evangelistic. It encouraged the Cathedral's visitors and tourists to contemplate the Gospel. (The exhibition included abstract pieces, installation pieces and even a Pieta.)
Shannon Donahoo | 05 October 2006

Great comments Andrew: lucid, balanced, non-reactionary. This Mr Pemble-Smith attributes to the artists a destructive and negative nature that, it would seem, is really only his own. Rather than the inquisitive attitude suitable to contemplating art, he seems to have come with an inquisitional attitude, which by finding demons where there are none, effects the very discord he claims to oust. "Cock-or-two"? Really. I have much respect for one of the artists, David Rastas, by the way, who is far from an anti-church man. I hope he continues to be funded by the Church. Mr Pemble-Smith reminds me of the valiant knight played by John Cleese who charges into a castle to rescue someone, and in his enthusiasm kills a whole flock of innocent people on the way! I hope that Mr. Pemble Smith could at least have the courtesy of backing out like this knight did in the end, saying, "sorry, I got a bit carried away. It won't happen again, I promise."
Brendan Triffett | 02 November 2006

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Culture warriors have no place in Catholic life

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 16 October 2006

The concept of Catholic Culture Wars is destructive, because it makes truth the slave of power. Its logic can be seen in a recent Quadrant review, which projects onto an art exhibition a preoccupation with the occult and sexually ambiguous.



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