The recent spectacle of the “Heavenly Bodies” gala at The Met is a perfect example of society’s confusion and an unwitting rejection of the order of things. The gala does not deserve to be called profane. It is, in fact, merely and weakly vulgar…
For the most part, a society flourishes when there is a clear distinction between right and wrong. Given the contemporary ideological principle of fluidity, in which everyone can be everything and at the same time nothing, it should not come as a surprise that our society is in existential limbo. Nothing gets accomplished, and everyone is caught in the mire of identity politics. I am careful not to say that we are moving toward destruction, mainly because such a historical view seems myopic and inevitably leads to nostalgia. But the current Weltanschauung certainly is that of a contradiction and confusion.
A philosophical distinction between right and wrong is not the only one that is marginalized from the public square. The difference and relation between the sacred and profane is also something that has been neglected and deemed quaint. According to the current trendy norms, to say that something is sacred and that it should be treated as such is passé. But philosophical explorations about what constitutes the sacred and what constitutes the profane are part of the perennial questioning of the human condition and meaning in life.
The recent spectacle of the Met gala is a perfect example of society’s confusion and an unwitting rejection of the order of things. Every year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art organizes a gala in conjunction with an opening exhibit. This year, the gala was inspired by Catholicism and the exhibit called “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” As usual, the gala attendees were celebrities and they were asked to wear clothes that contribute to what the exhibit is about
This yielded some rather bizarre outfits. Singer Rihanna wore what appeared to be bishop vestments that were not exactly covering her entire body. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker wore a dress that was paired up with a crown that had an entire Nativity scene. It was as if she was wearing a mini-sculpture, and frankly, it looked like it might at any moment fall off.
Desacralizing the Holy is not a new concept. Think of the Marquis de Sade for instance (1740-1814), who championed what we might call a “libertine philosophy,” or Georges Bataille (1897-1962), whose works are chock-full of desecrations of the Holy. But just because there was always a movement toward a destruction of the order of things, it does not mean that we should stop talking about it.
Of course, the “fashionable” spectacle at the Met is rather tame compared to someone like de Sade. Whatever the gala’s intentions were, the end result points to a further secularization of the Catholic Church. This was the moment when Catholicism became a fetish in the minds of the celebrities and spectators. It was the moment when the Catholic faith was just an afterthought in this gala filled with people who were hiding behind masks of vulgarity.
Despite what the Met gala has “accomplished,” I do not think that it is an example of the profane working against the sacred. Rather, in the Met’s case, what we are witnessing is vulgarity on display. Of course, as vulgarity goes, this could have been far worse. But I do think that the event itself is leading us into asking the question of what is the relation between the sacred and profane.
It may not always be obvious to us, but society functions in many ways—ethical, political, aesthetic, and metaphysical. It is the metaphysics that are difficult to define and point out because the very metaphysical act involves layers of individual and interior life. These elusive layers or modes are embedded in our relation to each other. Relation upon relation, encounter upon encounter—we move through this world observing and absorbing many different forms of being.
At the center of this metaphysical mode of existence is the relation between sacred and profane. We move between these boundaries at all times, and this movement comprises a good portion of our life. We do not really even do it consciously. It is what makes us human.
On one hand, the sacred, or the Holy has an element of surprise for us. Referring to the works of Rudolf Otto, Gerardus van der Leeuw illuminates what the Holy is and what it represents. Van der Leeuw agrees with Otto that the Holy is “wholly other,” which comes upon us suddenly and unexpectedly. As humans, we do not possess a full knowledge of where this holiness comes from because it is “separated from us and from our world.”
As much as it is separate from us, it becomes embodied in our feelings and reactions to it. Van der Leeuw continues:
“We respond to this intrusion with mixed feeling. The awe which the completely other awakens in us breaks down at once into feelings of fear, of dread, or reverence, of smallness, indeed of nothingness, and at the same time a feeling of being drawn in, of joyous astonishment, of love.”[*]
The profane is part of this reaction to the sacred. It is precisely in the profane that we are revealed to be fallible simply by the virtue of being human. And yet, we are at all times called upon to accept and absorb the sacred. In some way, if we are willing to open those gates and walk that path, the sacred becomes part of us even for a brief moment. We are reminded that it can never remain within us in its fullness because quite simply, we are imperfect.
Alluding again to Otto, van der Leeuw reminds us that “the holy… both attracts and repels. It allows us to become aware of infinite distance and feel a never-suspected nearness.” For van der Leeuw (and Otto), the profane presents itself as a possibility or an opportunity to see the sacred. But despite the fact that this state of being is profane, it does not lack the order of things. The order may be a little bit jumbled, even fragmented (in other words, humanized), but it is the movement toward the sacred that renders the profane existential state necessary for our recognition of the sacred.
The masked ball of the Met’s confused misunderstanding of the Catholic imagination does not deserve to be called profane. It is, in fact, merely and weakly vulgar. Its players may not be wearing theatrical masks, but their faces are not bare. Instead, they are opaque, wooden, and spiritless, attached to empty bodies that are attempting to appropriate, possess, and change the Holy. The appropriation which they have enacted is that of a disordered being, vampirically sucking the life out of the Holy and with this, trying to erase the path between the sacred and the profane.
But since the sacred is something “wholly other,” as Otto has said and by implication impossible to possess, then no amount of fake bishop hats will annihilate the human desire for harmony and order that rejects illusions and lies.
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*Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: the Holy in Art, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1963, pg. 5.