Transgression Is Passé

Transgression Is Passé

Written by Carl R. Trueman |
Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Nietzsche noted it takes a long time for societies to grasp the significance of the death of God. But we are surely at that point now. Our artistic class makes that very clear, and so it is time to put these artists in the dock: We get it. You hate Christianity and the Western cultures that it informed.

One of the hallmarks of the modern age has been the death of the sacred. Nietzsche’s Madman understood that this was one of the central consequences of the death of God. But he, unlike the polite atheists he berated in the town square, knew that this was both an exhilarating and a terrifying matter: Now human beings would themselves have to rise to be gods, to create their own systems of value, their own sacred rites, their own meaning of life.

This was never going to be either easy or stable. Nor has it ultimately led human beings to transcend themselves and ascend to some higher, übermenschlich plane. Today we witness merely the desecration of all that was once held to be sacred. Our culture remains trapped by the sacred idioms of the past and doomed to the constant and increasingly conformist transgression of old boundaries.

Take, for example, the latest “art” promoted by the European Union: A series of photographs, currently on display at the European Parliament building, taken by lesbian artist Elisabeth Ohlson. The images depict, among other things, scenes of Jesus surrounded by gay men dressed in leather bondage gear. Now, if Jesus were alive today he would certainly be speaking to such people, as he spoke to prostitutes and tax collectors in first-century Palestine. But Ohlson claims that her work represents Christ “loving LGBT rights.” Whether all gay people like to see themselves caricatured in bondage gear might itself be an interesting question to ask. The left’s favored word “fetishization” came to my mind as I looked at the pictures. What is not interesting, however, is the artwork itself.

The display represents both the bankruptcy of modern culture and its inability to offer anything even approximating a positive vision for humanity. For generations now the artistic establishment has been in thrall to the notion of transgression. But transgression is only significant if there is something—some rule, some custom, something sacred—to transgress. Without such, transgression itself rapidly degenerates into a series of empty gestures that tend to become both more extreme and more vacuous at the same time. Art then ceases to be about embodying and transmitting cultural value and is instead a momentary iconoclastic performance that parasitically and paradoxically depends upon resurrecting icons that have long since fallen. Only because there is a folk memory of religion does the general public have some notion that these banal photographs are meant to be shocking. And only to the increasingly marginal numbers of actual Christians are they truly so.

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