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April 23, 2008

There is one video – linked in my last post – that keeps coming back in my mind. I am talking about that tv clip showing how the sculptor Cosimo Cavallaro got attacked by a representative of a religious group, who in the name of their version of Catholicism and rigid moral order, launched a series of bullying tactics and threatening acts against everyone associated with Cavallaro’s work: a statue of Jesus made by chocolate.

The scandalous point for that religious group was not its chocolate nature of course. It was its anatomically correct representation.

I’m glad that Cosimo Cavallaro has eloquently exposed the morally and conceptually empty stance of his attacker during the TV interview. Yet, if the latter believes that this is “one of the worst assaults against Christian sensibilities ever”, (as reported in the news), an assumption which he then conveniently uses as a pretext in order to justify a wave of violent reactions; should we overlook with disdain his behaviour for obviously manipulating reality and ends, or start worrying about the state of our political thought and the undermined role of art?

I am wondering how to perceive this whole incidence. For example, as evidence of some remaining parochial figures which keep providing a source of identification for easily-led authoritarian personalities? Or, given their apparent capacity to terrorise, to threaten with violence or enforce economic boycotts, is this evidence of the continuing political power and effectiveness of extreme right-wing groups and their discourses?

For many, this represents a kind of anachronism within modern society. Certainly, an example of its current contradictions. Many sociologists, such as Giddens, have viewed these groups in terms of modern fundamentalisms. They try to defend tradition but in such a rigid way that they refuse public dialogue and examination of their ‘truths’. Nevertheless, as it is asserted, we live in times and places where truths have to be decided. Consequently, these fundamentalist movements, following religious, national or other traditional discourses, could often lead to violence, as in our example here.

Violence is in the air, no doubt about it. Although, I would say that this violence arises, not only from the non-dialogic position of such traditional groups (of religion, nation, sexuality, gender, etc), but also from the emotion-based and non-rationally understood reactions of the threatened individuals which comprise them. (In other words, their intolerance might not be responsive to rational approaches, and it seems to me this is the case here too).

Now, whether these individuals of fundamentalist groups face real or actually imaginary threats  to their beliefs and identities, which they seem capable to push them into insular and defensive positions, could be the next big question. In other words, is there really any threat to Christian religion by a chocolate statue made of the anatomically correct features? Or, some groups and individuals use such instances as a pretext to cover up their psychological inability to face bigger destabilising questions and their social difficulty to coexist with others in a democratic society? I leave it to everyone to think about it, whether being one of those individuals or not.

I’ll just continue with three relevant visual traces of thought:


The religious representative above was trying at some point to explain what finds offensive by evoking a comparative image, which would show the artist’s mother to the public, being naked with her genitals exposed.

What would be offensive or threatening about that?

A photograph entitled Flesh by Japanese artist Manabu Yamanaka (© 1995) comes to my mind.

Flesh by Manabu Yamanaka © 1995

Yamanaka, who practiced as a nurse among the elderly for years, shows us a photograph of a naked old woman against a white and empty background. Nothing to soften the image, no beautifying techniques or other trycks. Neither the subject makes any attempt to hide her naked bodily existence.

If the viewers feel, however, an emerging emotion of disturbance or embarrassment, contrasting in fact the subject’s comfortable approach, this owes much more to their own problematic attitudes and fears, rather than the photograph itself. Fears of mortality, or chaos, or secret fascination, or whatever else, can and have to be resolved by the viewers themselves, not the subject or the artist. And if for many the photograph comes as a shock, they should probably question our wider culture which makes images of old age rare and invisible, which is obsessed with health and youth, and which associates nude with young female bodies.


Let’s go to Vertigo, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most fascinating movies. I remembered a point made by the well known scholar Slavoj Zizek.

In the plot of the movie, Scottie (James Stewart) saves Madeleine (Kim Novak) when she fell into the waters of San Francisco Bay. Later we are back to Scottie’s flat where she has been recovering sleeping in his bed and he is waiting for her to wake up.

Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock (1958) Kim Novak
In the meantime, the camera zooms around Scottie’s flat and shows us Madeleine’s clothes hanging in the little kitchen room. So it makes clear that Scottie has undressed Madeleine off her wet clothes before placing her to bed. (After all she later wakes up and questions what happened).

Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock (1958)

But just a moment! If we focus carefully into the picture of those clothes we realise that there is no underwear shown. There is a chance that they are further away, behind the wall, and so not shown in the image, but we can also observe a bizarre piece of clothing hanging there.

Zizek has argued that there was a censorship issue there with a particular ideological twist. It was imperative that no underwear should be shown, (thus they were replaced by some irrelevant old cloth), because the regulators were concerned that the viewers would otherwise assume that Scottie had seen Madeleine naked. The image of underwear hung to dry was seen, in other words, as the signifier of a scandalous act. Its omission was rendered as the appropriate way to avoid evoking such a conclusion into viewers’ mind.

Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock (1958) James Stewart and Kim Novak

But, of course, someone would simply ask: Since we, the viewers, know that Scottie has undressed Madeleine and thus we know that he has seen her naked why do we need this kind of symbolic protection?

In the same way, if people know that their god was at some point an ‘anatomically correct’ man, in terms of genitalia, then why are these (self-appointed) regulators of public morals go to such effort as to make sure that an artifact which shows the already known must not be produced? What exactly, in the end, are we protected from?


The absurdity of modern life often hits us in the face fully-clothed and fully-regulated. Whether it is found in its limits or consists its integral core, and whether it is an issue of collective lies, are not a matter of the image alone.

“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven – a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. Revelation:12″

This was the introductory quote by Diane Arbus in her unpublished article ‘Bishop’s Charisma’ (1964). It included 3 photographs and text written by her. Here’s part of it.


“On a cliff overlooking the Pacific, in a cemetery in the sun, a small lady in damask robes with hair of a phosphorescent pink holds aloft a styrofoam cross encrusted with smaller crosses and raises her eyes till they pale at the vision of Jesus Christ. She is called Bishop Ethel Predonzan of The Cathedral Of The Creator, Omnipresence, Inc. Christ, she declares, has summoned her there to Santa Barbara, California, all the way from Astoria, Queens, to await His Second Coming on December 4th of this year.

I followed the Bishop across the country to hear her story and to listen to God’s voice on a 45 rpm record, as he says to her: “I appeal to you for the future of this earth to lead the people, my dear. You are their Guiding Star. Do not fail Me now that I stand before you. . .” etc. […]

“He has a gorgeous voice,” she says. “What a diction. There is no one on this earth that can speak the diction of The Father and Christ.” Sometimes while the Bishop is talking, a strange sound interrupts her speech. This is how Jesus kisses her in the throat, she explains, blissfully, “like a butterfly.” Occasionally, she relates, He tells her: “I am going to fly with you tonight. You must be pure like a glass of water.” And then He comes, she says, His wings like a hurricane, and takes her to the Heavens (“Ooooooh, what a feeling”), to the different planets. “My Lord, my Lord,” she cries out to Him, “I’m going to fall,” but He touches something in the back of her neck and she is no longer afraid.”

Now, I have begun to wonder about something else… Why was this article by Diane Arbus not published?

posted by Christos Stavrou 24/03/08
One Comment leave one →
  1. wems permalink
    June 10, 2008 9:13 pm

    Wow ! I hadn’t seen this news and thank you for posting it.
    Your article is very well developped too, but you seem to be on the side of the artist. What did you really think about this debate ?

    I think they both are wrong. The artist is into all that ‘freedom’ and free expression, but there is no respect, whereas the said ‘cathoilic’ has no proper arguments to hold up his point of view.
    Yes it is good to debate about moralistic point of views, but if he really was catholic, or even christian, he just wouldn’t have reacted that way.
    Extremists. Don’t you think ?

    If Cosimo Cavallaro was christian and had real faith, he wouldn’t have made a chcolate representation of jesus, whatever his reason was. I think that the justification he made on this cnn news is much more reasoned than the one of his interlocutor (the fault is that he never gives a proper meaning to his art , and he repeats constantly that ‘we should all eat the sweet jesus’. It’s clearly misrespectful, and respect is firt, expression is second. It’s moralistic and it depends on the point of views).

    On the other side, the man that is debating with him and who says he is ‘catholic’ doesn’t look like he knows what he is standing up for. anyway, faith is meant to be personnel. You can not impose religion to pthers. If you have faith, that’s that.

    This is utterly crazy.

    Anyway, great article. And for the censure, I wonder also why the article of Diane Arbus was censured. Censure has always been hypocritical, because people should have to be able to see the truth before being able to choose the one they believe in !

    Thank you again for the article.
    If you have a little time you can mail me, I’d like to know what you really think about this. It looks like you have taken a ‘side’. But your point of view interests me.


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