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The American Religious Grotesque

Arnhold Spring 2010 Presentation Religion and the Grotesque in American Culture (2010.) All material for education purposes only.
by

Richard Lau

on 8 December 2010

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Transcript of The American Religious Grotesque

The Joel Peter Witkin. Penitence, New Mexico. 1982 Nine Inch Nails. “Closer.” Downward Spiral. Interscope, 1994. Joel Peter Witkin. "Naked follow the naked Christ." 2006. Religion What is the Grotesque and In American Culture ? The grotesque can be very difficult to define:

It has such colloquial meanings as 'gross' or 'ugly' or 'weird.'

OED defines it as "2a. Characterized by distortion or unnatural combinations; fantastically extravagant; bizarre."

This is a little too subjective. Who decides what's unnatural? What's bizarre? It comes from the Italian word 'grottesco,' which originally described a particular genre of decorative wall painting found in underground rooms of 1st and 2nd century Roman buildings. The rooms were referred to as 'grottos,' or 'grotte' in Italian.

The art was distinctive, because unlike other forms other ornamental art, did not represent subjects found in nature, instead opting for strange shapes and hybrids of plants and animals. Adding to the confusion, sans-serif fonts like these are also called "grotesques" by typographers. Detail of 'grottesco' art at the Domus Aurea in Rome. The two primary ones are:

Wolfgang Kayser, in THE GROTESQUE IN ART AND LITERATURE, saw the grotesque as an aesthetic marked by hybridity, which undermined the audience's ability to catagorize and thus understand the figures.
Such hybrids did not need to be physical (e.g. plant-animal) but could be formal (tragic-comic) or archetypical (e.g. hero-villain)

Mikhail Bakhtin, in RABELAIS AND HIS WORLD, saw the grotesque as linked to the spirit of Carnivale.
During Carnivale, a season of festival before Lent in Catholic countries, social mores and heirarchies were inverted and the flesh and its functions (eating, sex, defecation, etc.) were celebrated over the spiritual or abstract (the soul etc.) These are two very different definitions, but they have one important thing similarity: they are both dependent on the distortion or inversion of the ideals of society, estranging them from the audience. From this background, critics have developed their own definitions of the grotesque when discussing literature and the visual arts. In light of such vagueness and multiplicity of meaning, it's rather useful to take a look at the etymology of the word: estranges
responds to
critiques In this context, the ideal has an epistemological dimension in addition to the aesthetic. Ideals are the concepts around which human knowledge is organized; how members of a society understand their social and physical reality. Therein lies the rhetorical potential of the grotesque.
As an aesthetic, as a viewpoint, it is contentious. It undermining the ideal is to critique it, to force a new perspective on what is taken for granted or would rather be ignored - it is the essence of satire and caritcature. the ideal the grotesque So when we talk about the grotesque in American media, such an understanding of the grotesque leaves us with an interesting question. What are the ideals being distorted by grotesque
American art and literature A Brief Overview of the Grotesque Flannery O'Connor famously said of writing about the grotesque as a Southern author: "To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological, [...] approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted." - From "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" (1960) Lucas Cranach der Ältere, "Werewolf." 1512 Pieter Bruegel. "The battle of Carnivale and Lent." 1559 Hieronymous Bosch. "Christ Carrying the Cross."1485-1490. Flannery O'Connor 66% of non-Christians believed in miracles.
47% of non-Christians accepted the virgin birth. In 1999, Newsweek reported 40% of the population believed the world will end in a battle between Jesus and the anti-Christ. According to a 1998 Harris poll: - Quoted from Giles Gunn. "America's Gods." (2006) Just how "Christ-haunted" is America? Christianity presents one prominent source of the ideals that authors of American grotesqueries respond to and estrange.
While obviously not all Americans subscribe to the faith, it's a cultural instution prominantly integrated into the "meaning making" practices of American society. In American culture, Christianity is not only a religion, but also a prominant social institution that contains specific conceptions of morality, truth, and the nature of the human. Accordingly, it has taken an iconographic existence in American culture in which the images, figures, and tropes associated with religion are reappropriated for secular purposes. Craig LaRotonda. "Demonstrations of
The Code." 2005 This iconographic existence provices the 'space' in which the grotesque can operate, and allows a malleability and mutliplicity of the cultural meaning communicated in religious ideals. "Even though they are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, both the Ku Klux Klan and the Red Cross share the same basic ceremonial ritual to assure transition of leadership. Many of America's courtrooms still use the Bible to swear in witnesses, along with the pledge to speak truthfully 'so help me God.' Yet it is used as an object representing truth, without any genuine concern for the specific content of the book." Thus, as the grotesque deforms the ideals of religion, it disrupts the practice of meaning making in American culture. iconographic heteroglossia? Religious historian, Mark Toulouse, describes the effects of this malleability and multiplicity of meaning:
- "Iconic Christianity." (2006) Religious ideals are thus conflated with cultural ideals without one having any real dominance over the other, and both ideals are integral to communication and social meanings.
President Gerald Ford observes Dr. Donald S. Fredrickson being sworn in as Director of the NIH. (1975) A Ku Klux Klan demonstration. So who has been portraying the religious grotesque and why? Literature Art Media Grotesqueries can be used to draw parallels between two distinctly American Literary movements American Transgressive Fiction Southern Gothic


Flannery O'Connor, a devout Catholic, is probably the best evidence of the fact that critiques cultural conceptions of the religious ideal are not necessarily critiques of religion itself. Making an oath on a Bible. Craig LaRotonda. "From the Ashes of Angels." 2009. Andres Serranos. "Piss Christ." 1987. Craig LaRotonda. Illustration. Date unknown. Joel Peter Witkin. "A Christ." 1987. Craig LaRotonda. "From the Ashes of Angels." 2009. Nine Inch Nails. “Closer.” Downward Spiral. Interscope, 1994. Promotional Materials for "Carnivale" on HBO, 2003. Still from film, "Dogma"
Dir. Kevin Smith. 1999.
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