Hermes is a cattle thief, messenger, trickster, boundary crosser, and a god who represents a lot of artists. Fresh from the womb he steals Apollo’s sacred cattle, and with cunning covers his tracks by walking backwards. Apollo is the god of the establishment, of architecture, the plastic arts, and the sublime. Transgression always has to do with acts against the establishment, be it Olympus or the old guard. Hermes also steals the fire, as precocious upstarts are likely to do. Some Minimalist artists were upset when Julian Schnabel’s broken plates shattered their dreams of a lasting Minimalist reign. Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto represents the extreme with his loathing and destruction of old political and artistic traditions—let’s toss Raphaels into the canal to make way for the new. Without transgression there is no movement, entrenched ideas stay entrenched. In his alchemical form Hermes-Mercury is quicksilver; the god of uncontrollable movement, unpredictable and impossible to pin down.
Hermes steals the fire sticks and Apollo’s sacred cattle, and then invents a way to cook the meat for consumption. Greedy Hermes saves the best fatty meat for himself, and gives bones wrapped up in hide to the other gods, defiling the sacred for personal gain and passing off the inedible. Today, a lot of transgression has become about eating the fat of the sacred cattle for quick fame and art market lucre. Ever since Charles Saatchi cashed in on Sensation, we’ve known that transgression sells. Transgressive art, some well conceived and some boringly puerile, has become a strategy. You get the most attention by trashing Christianity; the Jews and Muslims don’t put up with it and you risk an Anti-Defamation League lawsuit or a fatwa. In many cases, the underlying motivation seems more about narcissism, the opposite of reflection. Transgression as an art idea is becoming shop-worn; we need artistic creation that is positive and transformational. Where is the artist as light bringer in these dark times?
Why did I refuse to support Free Pussy Riot? As someone who has railed against Popes, is a feminist, and had a gay Jewish cannibal teaching my art history class, I should have. Their trial smacked of Stalinist-era repression. I am not a fan of Putin, and would have joined the chain of protesters encircling Moscow. I don’t fancy the carwash beneath Moscow’s rebuilt Christ the Savior, or the current Patriarch’s gifted Rolex and support for Putin. Many Russian Orthodox followers do not support Putin or the views of Patriarch Kirill. If Pussy Riot had protested in Putin’s office, it would have been fine. For me, it comes down to defiling the sacred. They performed in front of the iconostasis or templon (a wall dividing the altar from the sanctuary probably derived from the Torah screen), a link between heaven and the nave. To defile any temenos precinct—be it Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim—is not okay. To cut down a sacred grove in the ancient world was punishable by death.
First there is the history: between 40 and 60 million Orthodox Christians died in the gulags, including most of the clergy, the biggest martyrdom of Christians in history. The Bolsheviks dynamited Christ the Savior to the ground. For Orthodox Christians this was like the Taliban blowing up ancient statues of Buddha. It was rebuilt after Glasnost by donations from ordinary people as a sign of resurrection and hope. Pussy Riot’s choice of this venue was distasteful, and made many “old believers” hearts sink. Their sentence was harsh, but not as harsh as Pavel Florensky’s. The Russian Da Vinci, priest, scientist, and aesthetician got a bullet in the back of the head in 1937, after 10 years in the Gulag. Maria Alyokhina—who was allowed to watch videos in her Berezniki Prison cell—complained when the authorities confiscated a film by Jean-Luc Godard because it contained nudity. Paval Florensky worked on scientific experiments during his 10-year imprisonment. When his body was carried out, his fellow inmates risked death to kneel. Maria Alyokhina’s complaints seemed trivial in comparison. Heroism is not what it used to be.
Trashing Christian beliefs has become a tired strategy. It is an extension of academic preaching that began with the Frankfurt School. According to their Inquisition, all religion—especially Catholicism—is bad. Their reductive argument for the atomization of religion goes roughly like this: because Hitler was an altar boy all religion leads to National Socialism, is the product of authoritarian fathers, and is the height of bourgeois consciousness. Atheism has been the party line since the 1940s. Much of the theoretical art history establishment places any believer, especially Christians, in the same debunked category as Russian babushkas, naïve Hispanics, and the Christian right. The sure-fire extension of this is to link the scatological with the Christian.
“Shit, shit, the Lord's shit! Shit, shit, the Lord's shit! (Chorus) Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist. Become a feminist, become a feminist shit in the holy of holies.” (Pussy Riot)
That some artists have complex systems of belief (read Teilhard de Chardin) have a Buddhist practice, are Goddess worshipers, or attend shul is never mentioned. Thousands of years of Christian scholarship is dismissed with a wave of the hand as bunk. Linda Montano speaking about Catholic confession and art practice doesn’t fit into the dialectic. Joseph Beuys’s conversations with the priest Volker Harlan can make them foam at the mouth. Eleanor Heartney’s Catholics “run amock” are all right, as long as the prefix “ex” is stressed, and the work is transgressive or involves carnality. Hermann Nitsch is an Actionist, but his well-developed ideas about reviving spirituality by reintroducing the vitality of paganism and the Taurobolium are ignored.
The sacred is needed, now more than ever. It connects art to something greater than ourselves and is the opposite of narcissism. We are living in an era that lacks rituals for transformation. The senior prom is trivial compared to Apache girls anointed with pollen and dancing through a symbolic creation myth for four days. When Wolfgang Laib brought a group of Hindu fire priests to Fondazione Merz in Torino he was suggesting what art needs to do again. Like the Apache maiden ceremony, the Hindu fire ritual is a recreation of a cosmology, performed to bring us in line with the universe. Donna Henes’s rituals do not get a lot of airtime, and she is marginalized and relegated to history of the 1960s along with a host of other feminists. A.A. Bronson, with his healing rituals and degree from Union Theological Seminary, is reviving spiritual practice in the gay community.
One recent night in May was Russian Easter. I attended a service at the Holy Virgin of Protection Cathedral, which was filled with beeswax candles and 400 people. The three hour mass was attended by artists, Columbia Ph.D. students, young mothers, Orthodox converts, Japanese, a Chinese film crew, a Franciscan, and several Russian Jews. The service’s liturgy goes back to 358 A.D. First the church was dark; this represented the time after Christ was taken down from the cross. An icon of the crucified Christ was carried to the altar behind the doors of the iconostasis, representing Christ in the tomb. Midway through the service the area behind the iconostasis lit up, the doors opened, and a priest emerged with a torch proclaiming Christ has risen. Congregants lit their candle from the torch and began a processional around the East Village. Ancient rituals such as this one with dadouchos (torch bearers) are part of many mystery religions, Eleusinian, Mithraic, and Orphic. Osiris was the god of grain, “reborn” yearly with the crops. The Egyptians were one of many cultures with rituals of agricultural renewal; they planted seeds in a mud form of Osiris and placed the plants in their tombs. Polish artist Teresa Murak does something similar today with church runners and garments of lady’s mock, a Polish Easter plant.
Faith is complex. It still transforms lives and still motivates worshipers, including artists. Artists like Mel Chin and Aviva Rahmani are working on ecological reclamation, a much needed topic. Chin’s mandalah shaped reclamation plots reference the cosmos and Self. Rahmani applies her research to develop “Trigger Point Theory as Aesthetic Activism,” to degraded landscapes, a strategy to affect environmental justice and fix the world (tikkun). The tricky part is bringing these ideas into the collective. Today the most transgressive move would be to bring the sacred back into art. Quicksilver Hermes could slip this idea past the theoretical lock down in art departments, editorial offices, and curatorial programs.
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design, and was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019.