Rhett Gérard Poché

A blog devoted to the study of art, art history, and visual literacy.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Art—Part Two

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Sister Wendy Beckett’s response.

In 2007, Cosimo Cavallaro’s My Sweet Lord, a chocolate sculpture depicting a nude Jesus Christ, was scheduled for exhibition during Holy Week (the week before Easter).  Naturally, many Christians saw the nudity and the timing of the exhibition as a deliberate affront to Christianity.  As with public responses to Piss Christ, Cavallaro’s sculpture was labeled as obscene and blasphemous.  Bill Donohue of the Catholic League called for protests and a boycott of the Roger Smith Hotel’s LAB Gallery, the space where the work was supposed to be exhibited.  In the end, the Roger Smith Hotel was forced to cancel the exhibition.  Yet, due to the controversy, My Sweet Lord made its way onto the national stage and its viewership, once relegated to Roger Smith in New York City, became global—a sweet deal for Cavallaro.

Cosimo Cavallaro, My Sweet Lord, chocolate, 2005

CLICK HERE to watch a debate between Cosimo Cavallaro and Bill Donohue on Anderson Cooper 360° (CNN).  Also, here is Bill Donohue (with the Pope) from an episode of South Park…sorry, I could not resist.

Bill Donohue (right) on South Park

According to Bill Donohue and other critics of My Sweet Lord, the nudity, in conjunction with the sensuous/sensual nature of the chocolate, is obscene and, henceforth, blasphemous.

If you watched the video, I am sure you noticed a fundamental problem with defending Cavallaro’s work.  The artist himself seems unable (or unwilling) to defend My Sweet Lord.  I am sure Cosimo Cavallaro is a very intelligent and thoughtful artist.  Yet, his defense of My Sweet Lord, or lack thereof, is quite disheartening.  After all, one may think that if the artist cannot defend the validity of his work, then it must be impossible for we art lovers to successfully do so.  Well, I have some good news here—we can, and I will, defend Cavallaro’s work.

I believe that we viewers are responsible for providing works of art with their ultimate meaning.  The art exists with or without the artist and his or her explanations.  At some point, the artist is rendered irrelevant and viewers must complete the art by giving it meaning.  So, here is my attempt to defend My Sweet Lord and give it meaning.

  • One could see My Sweet Lord as a critique of the secularization and commercialization of Easter.  Obviously, chocolate bunnies are ubiquitous during the Lenten season. Furthermore, other candied depictions of Jesus Christ are often available for purchase and, obviously, consumption.

  • Speaking of consumption, perhaps one could interpret the edible My Sweet Lord as a symbol of transubstantiation—the Catholic belief that the Eucharistic bread and wine change into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ.
  • The sculpture may be a reminder of Jesus Christ’s humanity.  The Biblical Jesus was, of course, a mortal man—someone whose body was as mortal as ours.  His human body was as fragile and as “perishable” as Cavallaro’s use of chocolate implies.
  • Similarly, the supposedly inappropriate and sacrilegious nudity is also quite defensible.  The figure’s nudity highlights his humanity.  Moreover, it is unlikely that Christ’s executioners would have accommodated his sense of modesty and decency.  They probably did not supply him with a loincloth to wear while they tortured him to death.
  • Other artists throughout history have created nude images of Jesus Christ.  In fact, we have depictions of a nude Jesus from Giotto and Michelangelo.  Would Bill Donohue threaten such venerated artists with boycotts of their work?

View the images (below) to see various works of art that depict a nude Jesus Christ.

  • Baptism of Jesus Christ, mosaic, Arian Baptistry, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century
  • Giotto di Bondone, The Baptism of Jesus, fresco, Scrovengi (Arena) Chapel, Padua, 1305
  • Michelangelo, Christ Carrying the Cross, marble, 1521
  • Passion Façade, Calvary and Crucifixion, Church of the Holy Family, Barcelona, Spain, 1987
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Filed under: Visual Literacy

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