The Vatican’s 2017 Nativity Display is generating controversy. Among other things, it features a largely naked man being clothed—one of several representations of the Corporal Works of Mercy represented in the display. The depicted man is rather muscular—one critic referred to him as “Adonis”. Others note that he seems like he was robbed of clothes after having a good worked out at the gym. I like to think of him as representing the potential for a new “muscular Christianity”.
In any case, social media is abuzz about the controversy (shock), with some people favoring the display and others criticizing it. Unfortunately, some advocates and some critics aren’t helping the situation because they frame their support or opposition with sweeping generalizations about those who disagree. Supporters are, for some critics, “perverts”, defenders of everything-associated-with-Pope-Francis-at-all-costs,”gay-lobby” sympathizers, and so on. Critics are, for some advocates, “puritans”, Francis-haters, culturally ignorant, gnostic body-despisers, and so on.
In other words, some advocates and critics have trouble framing support or criticism of the art in question without resorting to negative characterizations of those with whom they disagree. As one observer noted, this is yet another instance of “all controversy, all-the-time” with yet more demonization of the other. More name-calling in the name of being right about Catholicism.
Of course, one can legitimately criticize this or that work of art’s use of nudity without thereby criticizing the use of nudity in the art of, say, the Sistine Chapel or in Michelangelo’s David or nudity in art in general. Or one can think nudity might well aid the theme of “clothing the naked”, yet still not find appropriate or aesthetically pleasing or thematically well-executed this rendition in the Vatican Nativity Scene. One might raise a question or a concern about some contemporary Catholics’ seemingly negative attitudes toward nudity and the human body without being a libertine or “Francis-is-always-right zombie” (as one person put it) or a “gay-lobbyist”. One can even like the thematic inclusion of the Corporal Works of Mercy and “clothing the naked” in this Nativity Display, and even like what one supporter interpreted as its “Adamic nakedness of fallen man” and our assisting others to “put on Christ”, without thereby underwriting a “whatever goes” outlook towards art in general.
It seems to me that certain advocates and critics can help the conversation if they focused less on their opponents and more on the arguments, for and against, this or that aspect of the art in question. But perhaps that is too much to expect of certain Catholics in social media these days, even in this time of Advent.
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