Image: Bruce Herman, “The Nailing,” from Golgotha series
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 (ESV)
In my second post, I wrote briefly about the succès de scandale – the 19th century Parisian version of successful “transgressive” art (one of our current day art practices). I mentioned the experience I had, after my adult confession of faith, of being told by an influential Boston museum official that I’d committed “intellectual suicide” by trying to “illustrate the Bible”—and I mused that perhaps sincerely meant religious imagery in contemporary art is the last taboo. Of course, from my point of view my work was not intended to illustrate Good Friday so much as to evoke the emotion, the visceral reaction to Christ’s passion and to see if painting could once again engage a range of emotional and psychological—spiritual realities beyond color fields, gestural paint, and aesthetic compositions.
The scandalous element in my work was twofold: one, that I was returning narrative to contemporary art (which in the 1970s had been abandoned in art), and two that I was acting as though the Christian gospel is still a generative story for our current day culture. This is obviously a heavily contested idea—and is deeply offensive to many secular neighbors. But scandal has a deeper meaning and potentially a deeper connection to art and art making. The work of the anthropologist René Girard and the writing of philosopher/theologian Martin Buber have been decisive in my own thinking about this.
These two thinkers have deeply formed me as an artist and as a man of faith, and recently I began to wonder what they might have in common. Both were clear that they stood in an intellectual tradition stemming from biblical faith––Buber a Jew and Girard a Catholic. Both seem to have had a penchant for writing and speaking about the things that most of us try to hide in our personal and public life––things like the role of desire and rivalry, scapegoating and scandal, personal ambition and power lust. As an artist growing up in the 20th century, I could not avoid the role art has played in scandals, societal unrest, and social criticism. The two (art and political critique) have often been so fused in the last hundred years that they are impossible to tease apart.
At the heart of both Buber and Girard is the observation that we all adopt two basic postures in relation to our worlds: the posture of desire for power or the posture of love. Both address scandal and scapegoating–but neither author is addressing the colloquial sense of the word (light gossip or pop-culture marketing ploys). Rather, they are interested in scandal of the deadly variety––one that brings down or radically reorients an entire community and can even threaten a whole civilization with destruction, dissolution or massive change. The Cross of Christ is just such a scandal (σκανδαλον – skandalon), which, in the original Greek means literally a “stumbling block” or rock of offense.
For me, as an artist of faith, this is a powerful image: the Cross as a block or stone against which or over which one falls. René Girard’s work explores this phenomenon in culture––the emergence of scandal and “mimetic rivalry” which is the heart of the problem. His concept of mimetic desire corresponds well with one of Buber’s central ideas in I & Thou––namely, the unmasking of the I-It posture which views every tree as potential lumber, every person as a means to an end, every situation as a potential bid for power or advantage––the narcissistic drive to “use” people by reducing them to objects in one’s game. Girard addresses the evil corollary of the I-It posture and its ultimate fruit: mimetic violence.
His concept of “mimetic desire” as the engine of scandal can be understood as the selfish ambition of acquiring another person’s aims, prestige, scope, network, position, etc.––through imitation of that person’s actions and postures and attitudes. The scandal comes about as a result of rivalry and its concomitant violence––and the power struggles within a community. Mimetic desire is so basic that it is difficult to even think about it. It is like a fish thinking about water or a bird thinking about air—it is everywhere and is, according to Girard, the engine of all human culture. Children learn through mimesis––and organizations and communities are formed through the influence of powerful images of desire that must be imitated.
If Girard is right then our communities often harbor secret systems of power-seeking and rivalry that are only unmasked when a full-blown scandal or crisis comes. Here’s how it works. A community refuses to acknowledge its internal contradictions––the rivalry, the power plays, the ego jockeying, the internecine chaos. Someone is scapegoated––accused and blamed for these contradictions. The scapegoat is almost always an outsider who doesn’t belong. She or he is, in many ways, a bystander. The Jews of Germany and Poland are a huge example of this––the “bystander” or outsider vilified and killed in unimaginable numbers by the Nazis. But the mystery and scandal of the Cross of Christ, again according to Girard, is that it unmasks the heart of human culture––the murderous heart of darkness that breeds mimetic violence and internecine rivalry and chaos. The stumbling block is very real: it reveals the murky motives of our hearts and brings us to decision: will we confess and change––accept blame for our own actions and turn around––or will we harden our hearts and blame-shift to the scapegoat?
The only antidote to scandal is confession and change of heart––genuine μετανοέω metanoia or turning around. The breaking of the stumbling stone of scandal is ironically accomplished by the biggest scandal of all times: Jesus Christ crucified. He turned the whole of human history around to face the Righteous God who judges––and he took the judgment on himself––reversing the curse of blame shifting. The “stone which the builders rejected” became the chief cornerstone. The Cross subverts scandal, and our own meditation upon it has the potential to free us from the mutual demonizing and scapegoating that seems growingly evident in all quarters these days.
I’ll have to write in a future blog how this “cultural engine” of mimetic desire relates to contemporary art and religion, but suffice it to say that Girard and Buber have helped me to see through the fog of mimetic rivalry and glimpse the Cross—which burns away all deceptions and clears the sky so that we can repent and be freed to make art for God’s glory and not for our own selfish ambition.
How does mimetic rivalry manifest in your own discipline? What are the means at your disposal to see how Christ’s Cross disables the scapegoat mechanism?
Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You and worthily magnify Your Holy Name through Christ our Lord. Amen.
1. I and Thou, 1970 (new translation with a prologue / notes by Walter Kaufmann), New York: Scribner’s Sons.
For more on the image above, see Bruce Herman’s Golgotha series: