Monday, December 20, 2004

A meditation on mockery, Part II

I am beginning to rethink my earlier opinion on the nativity scene at Madame Tussaud's, but it will take a while to explain why.
The other day, while thinking about how to continue this discussion, I recalled having read about a controversy in Mexico City some years ago--it was shortly after Mexico hosted the World Cup in 1986--over a painting displayed in a museum there as part of an exhibit that had something to do with contemporary depictions of the Virgin Mary. I don't recall the artist or the name of the painting, but his work, an otherwise conventional Madonna-and-Child rendering, showed Mary holding a baby who had a soccer ball for a head. (I do apologize for the rather vague information--if I had a story or image to link to, believe me, it would be here.) As I thought about that painting, it occurred to me that it wasn't offensive to the Virgin and her Son; rather, just as the painter explained his work at the time, it was instead a rather direct attack on the viewer, asking him/her, in effect, what do YOU worship? On Sundays during Mass, where are YOU? It was just as effective as any sermon directed at backsliders, if not more so. If any mockery is going on in that painting, then, it is mockery of the viewer's priorities, if not a culture's.
The nativity at Madame Tussaud's is more difficult to understand than I had previously thought because I hadn't considered the museum as its context. Its meaning--that is, its intent--is more ambiguous. I was coming close to thinking that the nativity could be understood in the same way as the painting I described above: it mocks not the icons of religion but a culture's values. Good ol' postmodern cultural pastische. But then I considered: Tussaud's is, in essence, an enshrinement of celebrity. It doesn't offer a critique of values but a catalogue of them. I suppose that implicit in the catalogue is the critique. I suppose. I never really got the point of wax museums, anyway. But at any rate, I strongly suspect that one of the wax museum's points is NOT to engage the viewer's critical faculties in an overtly active way.
I feel/fear a Part III to this discussion looming.


Anonymous said...

It should also be noted that the 'casting' for the nativity was by visitors to the museum, rather than the museum itself, so unless those visitors were making fun of themselves I doubt any overt mockery was intended. I do however think that the choices say quite a lot about the sort of people who visit Mme Tussaud's. So in that sense, the very fact that the museum instigated the whole thing, suggests to me that they were (on some level, at least) trying to represent the public sentiment. So in that sense it's comparable to "Jesus is a football", or "God is a DJ", albeit straight from the horses' mouth, as it were.


John B. said...

It's fascinating to know all this. As I noted before, it's my understanding that Tussaud's is a kind of measure of who is, for whatever reason, seen as culturally/historically prominent in the Here and Now: figures are added and retired as the times (and historical/cultural memories/tastes) change. So, knowing this does indeed complicate the issue of mockery--it would seem, wouldn't it, that mockery is an issue at all to the extent that the person/institution said to be mocked has a "sacred" (or a transcendent secular) meaning.
Sigh. This is difficult to articulate, because I'm quickly realizing that mockery appears to exist in the eye of the beholder and, thus, it's hard to establish an absolute ground for what constitutes mockery. It becomes visible only when someone says something; it's not self-evident--or is no longer self-evident, in these times of uncertainty as regards the absolute meanings of symbols . . . or, for that matter, whether those meanings (still) merit our respect and reverence.