A Cultural Dissection by my friend Liz Lev: Who’s Judas? Who’s Lady Gaga?
Whatever qualms about form and meaning that contemporary art might raise, at least Calatrava and Arnaldo Pomodoro can lay some claim to the hard-earned title of artist. This week I was confronted with another use of the title, the pop star.
While I was taking two girls, aged 11 and 13, through the Vatican the other day, just as we left the Sistine Chapel the older one asked me, “Who’s Judas?” I had no illusions that these girls were looking for a catechesis on the passion of Christ, but you can’t blame an art historian for trying. I answered that he was Jesus’ friend who betrayed him by selling him to his enemies for money and then, unable to believe that he could be forgiven, killed himself in despair.
Lighting up, the girls said, “Lady Gaga did a song about him; she’s my favorite artist!” (The “artist” in question had just performed in Rome for a Gay Pride concert.) After an afternoon with Michelangelo, Raphael and classical Greek sculpture, I must admit I found the young ladies’ cultural reference a bit jarring.
Artists of the stamp of Michelangelo — who, 500 years after his death, still draws 5 million visitors a year to the hot, crowded halls of the Vatican to marvel at his extraordinary achievement and glorious declaration of the value of the human person — have little in common with Lady Gaga (neè Stefani Germanotta), whose “message” is remarkably trivial by comparison.
Warming to the defense of their heroine, the girls said that Ms. Germanotta’s message is that people are “born the way they are and should be free to live as they like.” So, I mused, pyromaniacs and kleptomaniacs and serial adulterers who all claim to be born with these tendencies should be allowed to “live as they like”? Germonotta’s mantra “born this way” has to be the lamest excuse for misbehavior since “the devil made me do it.”
My consternation at this message drew the inevitable accusation from the 13-year-old, “So you don’t like bisexual people?”
Somehow, in the eyes of these girls, rejection of Ms. Germonotta’s incredibly irritating music and absurd get-up as art turned me automatically into a “homophobe.” Failure to walk in lockstep with secular culture seems to be the one intolerable act in a self-styled tolerant society. In Ancient Rome, to doubt the emperor’s divinity constituted high treason, as many Christians found out in the arenas. Teaching children to judge their elders in this fashion was likewise not unusual in the Third Reich. Ms. Germanotta may be screaming a message of tolerance, but only for herself and her followers.
On the threshold of St. Peter’s Basilica, I turned to them and said, “I don’t believe that defining yourself by who you have sex with reflects who you really are.” The girls giggled and whispered excitedly to each other.
This conversation remained in my head for the next few days as several points troubled me deeply.
As a penitential act, I watched Lady Gaga’s videos (mostly with the sound off — it’s not Lent after all) and I was struck by the fact that of the enormous casts assembled for the four-minute productions, the only face that is ever featured is Ms. Germanotta’s. The magnificent bodies that gyrate and undulate are almost always devoid of faces. They seem like machines to provide pleasure (and profit) for one person alone: Ms. Germanotta. Her world is decidedly Gaga-centric — everyone else is a satellite in the shadows.
Michelangelo arrayed a similar number of bodies (even less dressed) for his Last Judgment. These bodies revolve around the figure of Christ the Judge, much as Ms. Germanotta’s back-up dancers orbit around her. Michelangelo’s nudes, however, have faces — and more importantly souls. The spectacle of swirling bodies around a 25-year-old girl who proclaims there is no such thing as sin (except not embracing her lifestyle) is like a Mad Magazine parody of Michelangelo’s Christ triumphant who draws souls to him after suffering and dying to redeem the sins of humanity.
Which brings me to the most striking point in Lady Gaga’s extravaganzas. It seems that all these years later, in our secularized world, there is still no imagery as powerful for love, suffering and total commitment as that produced by Christianity. I am afraid that most of her followers don’t know what a religious sister is (indeed the two girls were fascinated by nuns), but the religious habit still proclaims chastity and commitment to something and Someone beyond oneself. It maintains its power, which is why many a pop star has tried to exploit it. In videoland where less (clothing) is more and novelty is everything, tradition can still captivate and unsettle. Ms. Germanotta may try to exorcize her Catholic roots with gags about nuns-in-latex — but the chaste simplicity she ridicules will always be more iconic than her excited buffooneries.
No one has ever been able to surpass the imagery of suffering for love exemplified by the passion of Jesus Christ. The crown of thorns, outstretched arms, wounds and humiliation have been fodder for many a pop star looking for attention. No pop star fantasizes about Aztec heart extraction or the beheadings of the French Revolution, but even as they eroticize the suffering of Christ, they also acknowledge its lasting effects. Jesus did suffer, not for a vain physical titillation as Ms. Germanotta offers, but so that we would know the depth of his love — a love that is available to all. And again Ms. Germanotta misses the point that an omnivorous sexuality is not the same as a universal love.
Stefani Germanotta grew up in a Roman Catholic family. She received the sacraments and went to Catholic school, unlike her adoring fans who are often ignorant of Christianity. Ms. Germanotta took her “talents” as it were, and sold them for considerably more silver than her predecessor, Judas. One can still hope and pray that she doesn’t follow him down the road of despair, bringing her disciples with her.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org