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The Uproar over Man Ray

The other day, I saw this posted on facebook, followed by a lovely photograph of my friend holding her baby:

The Pontifical Council for Culture used an image for its assembly on women’s culture that comes from an artist, Man Ray, who intended the image to have an erotic and sadistic quality. In response lets flood the internet with positive images of women that truly depict women’s culture.

As I am a curious person and naturally on the side of the Church I was curious what this was all about. I found a few articles briefly describing the foolish use of this image.

Venus Restored, by Man Ray, 1936

I am fairly open-minded when it comes to the arts and I’m not against using provocative art to make a point, but some conditions apply. I do not think art, meant to be provocative, should be vulgar or crude (should use subtlety), blasphemous, or too personal, meaning art which uses photography rather than a less personal representation. Sculpture and painting are the representation of a person, filtered through the perspective and hands of the artist. So, for example, if Venus Restored was a photograph of a naked woman, bound with rope, missing her head and limbs, I would find it highly offensive. On first viewing, I’m not against this piece by Man Ray. I’m willing to take a closer look.

I navigated to the website for the Pontifical Council for Culture, a Vatican site where the uproar started.

“While acknowledging the anger, Cardinal Ravasi has chosen not to remove the image as it speaks clearly for one of the central points of the document: many women, alas, are still struggling for freedom (bound with rope), their voices and intellect often unheard (headless), their actions unappreciated (limbless).”

Hmm, provocative, in a good way. This art is meant to represent the unequal-status that women still suffer from in the world. It is meant to describe the current state of affairs.

A few more clicks, I find this piece by the National Catholic Register.

“What is behind this choice of female bondage image by the (all male) Pontifical Council for Culture?” the group asked in a press release. “What message does it seek to convey?”

As I continue perusing the web to see the outrage, I wonder if anyone has read Ravasi’s statement, and I wonder if the image is a good representation for what the document highlights. Onto the document. This is an outline document titled, “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.”

In response to the above complaint, we do read directly from the document:

“This text has been composed by a group of women in the light of pastoral considerations sent in by our Members and Consultors and will guide us in our reflections.”

So if the temptation existed to dismiss this as a man’s document telling women how it should be, which might have been the reaction of some on viewing the art in question, we can stop right there. This document is written by women about women, if that matters at all.

Does “Venus Restored” Represent the Document in Question?

In order to focus on the question at hand, I will post the summary of the content separately (click here to read). What I will say here is the document takes a hard, realistic look at the culture in the world today, as experienced by women.

It is a good document. It avoids the cliche’s and any rose coloring common to writings about women. The authors are realistic about the culture, which is necessary, but not often noticed by those who live in smaller Catholic circles, sheltered from the world at large. Pope Francis has a special gift of reminding us of our mission to consider what goes on in the deep, and to swim there.

The artist’s motivation in re-imagining the Venus is grotesque, and connections are rightly drawn to Fifty Shades of Gray. The description of Man Ray’s sculpture is as follows:

“…these men tended to objectify women and define them as subordinate. As targets of male desire, women were the subjects of disturbing fantasies and erotic violence.”

Though the facebook post calls for images “that truly depict women’s culture”, unfortunately, too many women do live in the culture represented by Man Ray, and not the culture of life we would like every person to be part of.

The description acknowledges the preservation of the perfect dimensions of the female form. Although not the artist’s intention, we can see this as accurately representing what occurs in real life.  Women are betrayed, abused, objectified, yet their dignity remains in tact. Her goodness cannot be taken away, although terrible things may be done to her.  Indeed it is the rediscovery of that good, underneath the wounds, that can heal the woman of her trauma and restore her to new life in Christ.

But were they prudent in the choice? I think not. Although I think the sculpture is a good choice to represent the document, better still would have been to place that photograph side by side with a piece of art that puts on display the magnificence of woman, particularly in her physicality. This would create a sense of “where we are” and “where we should be” or “where we should be going.” The message would be made clearer. Sensitivity to the use of soundbites is needed if the Church is to use the internet media, otherwise outrage ensues.

Here are some proposals. For a direct comparisons, a Venus bound juxtaposed against a Venus in her original freedom, which would call to mind references to the Theology of the Body (despite the pagan subject).

Birth of Venus, by Boticelli, 1486

Or something Catholic in nature, the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child, by Peter Paul Reubans. Classic and loving the female form.

The Virgin Nursing the Christ Child, by Peter Paul Rubens

Or something modern, and extremely beautiful by artist Kate Hansen.

Madonna and Child Project, by Kate Hansen

I highly recommend reading the original document, or if you haven’t time, my summary of it. It’s common practice online to get distracted from the original, more focus-requiring, content. Let’s fight that urge and take time to really talk about the ground women has covered so far in living out their dignity and how to help those women still suffering under the bondage of use and objectification.

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