Superheroines on the Streets of London

Regular readers know that I like to play the role of a superhero in social media, and sometimes write about the cultural significance of these mythical figures in our society.  Yet however much I enjoy sporting the big red cape, in real life heroes often take a very different form from those of literature, film, and our imaginations.  You’re about to learn about some real-life superheroines in London…who just so happen to wear a religious habit.

At a two-day conference held at the Vatican this week, Pope Francis and other attendees heard reports about an innovative effort to combat human trafficking.  Since January of this year, a group of nuns from the Madrid-based religious order known as the Adoratrices – formally, “The Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity” – have been going out on patrol with police officers in Central London, to help rescue women forced into prostitution through human trafficking.  The project has proven so successful, that it will eventually be expanded throughout London, and other cities are looking to copy it.

Previously, getting these prostitutes to trust the police had proven to be an impossible task.  In many cases, because they anticipated reprisals if they reported having been sold into sex slavery, raped, or abused, they would say nothing.  Others feared being sent back to their countries of origin, to families or acquaintances who had sold them into slavery in the first place.

The nuns who ride along with the police and talk to these women are able to provide a motherly level of care, which many of them respond to in a way that they could not with a police officer.  With the help of the Adoratrices, the police are able to go after the criminals who put the women in these situations, while the nuns take the victims in and shelter them, so that they cannot be “got at”.  Later they can be returned to their home countries, or apply for asylum.  As Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland explained at the conference, “If they go to stay with religious women, they find the peace and tranquillity they need while going through the horrors of testifying in court.”

In effect, these nuns are making themselves targets for the criminals engaged in these activities.  Someone who has no compunction about kidnapping, raping, and selling a 15-year old into prostitution is probably not going to find it difficult to have a nun threatened, beaten, or permanently silenced.  Unlike the police, nuns are neither armed with weapons, nor can they call for backup, if they find themselves in a dangerous situation, but they go out and do this work anyway.

I think there’s a three-fold lesson to take away from this story.  We should support efforts like this when we are asked to help, because most of us, frankly, would not want to be doing what these sisters are doing.  We should also be inspired to take a look at our own lives, and see whether there is something, however small, that we could be doing on behalf of someone else whom we know is in a bad way or having a difficult time.  And finally, we should always remember to adjust our expectations of what a hero really looks like, rather than selling people short.  Because oftentimes, true heroism comes from where you might least expect it.

St. María Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament (1809-1865) Foundress of the Adoratrices

St. María Micaela of the Blessed Sacrament (1809-1865)
Foundress of the Adoratrices

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Take Up Your Cross and Suffer Through This Exhibition

If you happen to be traveling on the Tube, London’s subway network, during this season of Lent, you may come across some rather provocative billboard images of Jesus on the train platforms.  These posters are advertising an exhibition of the work of a number of contemporary artists called “Stations of the Cross”.  While the pieces are designed to grab the viewer’s attention, in the end one has to reject their premise, and question why a Christian church would host such an exhibition.

Marylebone is the home of the BBC’s Broadcasting House, Sherlock Holmes, and Madonna, among others; this scrivener lived there during graduate school.  It is an area consisting primarily of rather large Georgian and Regency-era terraced houses; among the churches in this former village, now very much a part of central London, the most prominent is the Anglican church of St. Marylebone, built between 1813-1817.  This is the venue for the “Stations of the Cross” show, and one wonders what former members of this church – Charles Wesley, for one – would have made of it.

In looking over the images chosen for the exhibition, some are well-executed, thought-provoking examples of contemporary artists considering the story of Christ’s Passion. There is a cleverly telling piece in which, instead of placing Christ before Pilate or the Sanhedrin, He is stood before a panel on a show like “American Idol”, to judge whether He lives or dies. It is not hard to imagine that He would be condemned by our 21st century pop culture just as He was by 1st century culture.  Similarly, there is a beautifully executed, geometric rendering of the Crown of Thorns that one could see being used as, for example, a stamping on the cover of a hymnal or prayer book.

The majority of the images however, are simply poorly-executed, head-scratchers, or just plain dumb. For example, several of the artists have chosen to make allusions to the practice of capital punishment, and as someone opposed to its use, I understand the point they are trying to make.  Yet putting Jesus in an electric chair denies the lengthy suffering that was crucifixion, which medically speaking is death brought about by asphyxiation. One wonders whether they would portray Jesus being aborted as a baby, or euthanized as an old man, but one can imagine why not.

Another artist has employed altered images of the famous Jacques-Louis David painting of the French revolutionary Marat, dead in his bathtub. Given that Marat was hardly a Christian, – and that’s putting it mildly – it makes no sense why his image would be the basis for this manipulation. Jesus was not put to death for whoring about while writing awful poetry. And then there is a photograph called “Phat Jesus”, which is simply tired old pornographic trash emanating from a diseased mind, the sort of thing that we’ve all seen before in supposedly edgy art magazines.

The apparent moral problem in criticizing this display is that the impetus for the event is a good one. The exhibition hopes to raise funds in the ongoing search for a man who has been missing for ten years, and to raise awareness of a group dedicated to helping find missing people.  Dare one criticize an event that hopes to achieve something good?

Unfortunately, yes, but it must be said, not really because of the artists themselves. The fact that moral relativist artists can create and put on such a show should not surprise anyone: blasphemy is a cliché that has been worked to death since the dawn of Modern Art, for the simple reason that Christians are an easy target, and tend not to fight back. The real issue is why a Christian church would agree to host this exhibition in the first place, particularly during Lent. I will leave that to the reader to decide.

The best that can be said for this exhibition, it seems to me, is that if you are in London and want to engage in a penitential act during this season of Lent, go along and see how much the world continues to hate Jesus. He told us this would happen of course (St. John 15:18), and in an age which is becoming increasingly hostile to Christians, it is perhaps not a bad thing to be reminded of that fact. Clearly this is something that the powers that be at St. Marylebone forgot.

"View of St. Marylebone Church" by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

“View of St. Marylebone Church” by Thomas Shepherd (1828)

Art and Abercrombie: Lowered Standards for Abysmal Times

The headline, “Royal Academy woos new audience from the Abercrombie and Fitch generation” caught my eye in the Torygraph this morning.  In a move designed to attract younger audiences to its halls, the nearly 250-year-old British institution has decided to take a more ill-mannered approach to increasing patronage.  An upcoming exhibition will encourage visitors to lie down, touch works of art, and otherwise “interact” with the objects on display – all while drinking.  The chief executive of the Royal Academy noted that the wing where this bacchanal will take place is located “opposite Abercrombie and Fitch and I think it has the potential to attract a rather different and younger audience. And we’re programming this building in order to do just that.”

The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768 by a group of men and women who successfully petitioned King George III for approval to create an institution dedicated to the study and promotion of art and design in Britain.  Charter members included the prominent 18th century painters Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and Benjamin West.  Its location on Piccadilly, then and now one of the most famous and fashionable streets in London, ensured that society would come and engage with the membership for exhibitions, lectures, and courses.

However in recent years the Royal Academy has increasingly seemed a bit senile, even downright hostile, with respect to the promotion of standards in art.  There is much artifice and little actual art in the types of shows it mounts.  Perhaps the most well-known example from recent years, the infamous “Sensation” exhibition which first opened in London in 1997 and subsequently traveled to New York back in 1999, featured an image of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a collage of female genitalia and adorned with a piece of elephant poo.  One wonders at the selection process that determined this rather déclassé object was found to be worthy of examination, let alone exhibition.

Yet the shift away from the encouragement of actual artistic standards to the celebration of a kind of underdeveloped sense of self-worth is not only a critical aspect of the contemporary art world, at least as pushed by the Royal Academy in recent years, it is also reflected in that often most mundane of tasks, purchasing clothes.  The idea of reaching out to an audience of retail shoppers, and encouraging that audience to behave poorly on one’s premises, may at first seem rather odd for an art institution.  Yet if art was once meant to be inspirational, and is now mainly self-referential, then the aforementioned Abercrombie and Fitch is a perfect example of how a parallel lowering of standards has taken place in much of the rag trade.

The customer whom the once-venerable Abercrombie – founded in 1892 – originally hoped to draw in through its doors possessed some degree of education, leisure time, and disposable income.  They wanted to engage in deer hunting, fly fishing, and other outdoor activities, and sought out the very best clothing and equipment for doing so.  It is hard to imagine today, but the company that now sells fake gym jerseys originally fitted out the well-known and well-to-do among the American haute bourgeoisie with the kind of outdoor clothing that would have looked perfectly at home at Downtown Abbey.  U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt was a regular customer  for example, and the company outfitted Charles Lindbergh for his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.  The customer who shopped at Abercombie and Fitch back in its heyday expected that he was going to walk out of the shop properly dressed for any pursuit, and that if needed he could be educated by the staff on hand as to how to engage in that pursuit well.

Today, Abercrombie and Fitch markets its cheaply-made, Asian-import clothing to the young, and to those who want to pretend that they still are young.  There is something decidedly creepy about their shops, which so often seem to speak not to the individuality of the customer, but rather to the fantasies of the proprietor.  Their dark, poorly-lit stores are so heavily perfumed with an atmosphere and odor reminiscent of a high school locker room, that passers-by ought to be issued with gas masks so as not to be overcome by the fumes escaping from the premises.  The print ads, catalogs, and billboards the company creates sexually objectify unknown young models for the delectation of the public, who oftentimes are not actually wearing the clothes they are allegedly trying to sell.  Sometimes not even the models themselves are shown, but rather suggestively cropped images of their body parts are displayed.

Perhaps then the shift to recognize that the Abercrombie and Fitch customer of today is the art patron of tomorrow is a more shrewd move than it first appears.  The Royal Academy has long abandoned any real claim to being a true art academy, after all.  I have often observed in these pages that its celebrated Professor of Drawing, British artist Tracy Emin, cannot actually draw, for example.  And indeed, I am not the only one who thinks so, see, e.g. Harry Mount’s recent post.

If many of the prominent artists running things at the Royal Academy are not actually capable of producing good art, but are given a platform by which to spread their gospel of underachievement, it is hardly surprising that the customer base that institution would seek to draw upon consists of those incapable of understanding why hypersexualization of the young has an equally negative impact on the culture. There is a natural fit between the vapid and the vacuous here, rooted in another “v”: vanity.  Clearly there is no aspiration in either of these institutions, academy or shop, to better oneself in an attempt to rise above one’s more bestial impulses.  Rather, self-expression (whatever that is), baseness and incontinence are celebrated; diligence, modesty, and self-control are banished.

If this seems too sweeping a generalization with respect to either of these bodies, gentle reader, bear in mind that the real issue here is not whether I have been painting with too broad a brush, so to speak, in a single blog post.  Rather, we ought to be asking ourselves whether we have so whitewashed over these types of observations so as to not even bother to consider them.  The last few decades have shown us what the effects of a self-obsessed culture, which imposes few standards of any kind upon its members, will bring to the world at large.  Whether it is in the arts or in commerce, lowering our expectations and our standards has served not to make things better, but rather to encourage a general embrace of mediocrity at best, and the institutionalization of plain ignorance, at worst.

AandF

Entrance to Abercrombie and Fitch, across from the Royal Academy, London