Oklahoma’s Black Mass: Untethered art or Satanic overreach?
So far this year in the United States, we know of two efforts to stage a public Black Mass. The one scheduled to take place at Harvard University in May was ultimately cancelled as Catholics rallied to a Eucharistic Holy Hour. But a new plan in Oklahoma raises even deeper questions.
I would not attempt a complete analysis of the causes and attractions of participation in a Black Mass. For those who do not know, a Black Mass is a “celebration” in which the Body of Christ in the Eucharist is secretly taken from a Catholic Church, ritually desecrated through sexual acts, and offered to the Devil. But even without a full diagnosis, it should not surprise us that we have reached a point in the perversion of the arts that a Black Mass could be scheduled as a form of artistic entertainment. This is the case in Oklahoma. It is being offered as a “performance” in Oklahoma City’s publicly-funded Civic Center Music Hall.
The Virtue of Art
Art is notoriously difficult to pin down. Amid all the arguments concerning beauty and ugliness with which we have greeted what we loosely refer to as Modern Art, few commentators have realized that external (or formal) beauty is not what makes art into art. Of course, we may well consider craftsmen to be artists because of their ability to produce beautiful things, and this beauty certainly adds to their value—whether it be painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, music, jewelry, pottery, furniture construction, clothing design, flower gardening or any other art or craft.
But I would say that what makes art into art is its success in communicating something of the artist’s imaginative gaze into being, so that our own gaze is led to share an insight through what becomes, almost unwittingly, a contemplative moment. If this is true, then even when an artist works (so to speak) by subtraction, leading us to confront what is missing, art must remain in the service of being. And this means the great artistic sin—the one thing an artist cannot do and remain an artist—is to use his creativity in an effort to destroy or even weaken our perception of being.
I would argue that it is precisely a widespread rebellion against being which constitutes the extraordinary ambivalence of art in the modern and post-modern periods. It goes without saying that such a rebellion is inescapably paradoxical and incomplete, and some of the efforts no doubt succeed in undermining themselves. Nonetheless, it is one thing for an artist to work deliberately by subtraction in order to portray, in effect, what is missing. It is another, and still potentially a very good thing, to make a work of art jarring or jagged or even jumbled in order to call attention either to something wrong or to something deeper, something lurking below the marred surface which first meets the eye or ear.
But it is quite another thing to revel in a denial of the depth and wholeness of being, to seek to rob our sensibilities of its fundamental goodness, to subvert being by placing it—all distorted!—at the service of evil. Moral evil, after all, is in the perpetrator not only an absence but a denial of a due good, a willed subversion of the very order of being.
The Artistic Excuse
It is something very much like this which grips some “artists” today, and perhaps grips even more of those among our glitterati who are most concerned to keep up with the latest fads and fashions, in an adolescent thirst for new aesthetic thrills. These turn art into a sort of juvenile rebellion. To such persons, the more art serves to tear down the transcendentals of being (for example, the true, the good and the beautiful), the more such works must be placed on display and defended as a legitimate expression of artistic freedom.
The argument is that anything is fair game for the artist. The answer is that the creator is not an artist if he or she is motivated by a desire to subvert the human vision of being. Judgments may be difficult to make, but human affairs are inescapably muddled, and most often it is better to draw some line and make some judgments than to draw no line and make no judgments at all. Freedom is not the ultimate good. If it were, license would be the norm of life, and life would be destroyed.
Now, the Black Mass was not developed as a work of art. But you can bet that the public excuse for its performance today will be an artistic excuse. That will often be how the participants justify it to themselves, and it will certainly be how public and private institutions justify it to potential consumers. This is, after all, the one modern argument which most of us fear to contest. We are far too likely to say something very much like this: It is deplorable, to be sure, but since it is art….
Except that it is not art. It does not contain, in its motivation or in its results, the sine qua non of art. Art must be, even in a deliberate process of subtraction, directly concerned not with subverting our awareness of being but with increasing our awareness of it; or at least of enabling us to take a kind of unconscious joy in being, which presumably is where beauty becomes so important. This may happen inadvertently, of course. If I witnessed a Black Mass, it would happen to me through a deeply negative reaction. But the creator is an artist in such cases only if the seeds of that reaction are built into the work such that positive values or attributes intrinsic to the work itself are so designed as to precipitate it. We bring our own perceptions to art, but our own ability to draw a deeper appreciation of being out of that which attempts to subvert being does not turn the object of our attention into art.
Overplaying the Hand
The question remains of whether, in our world, the false artist can ever go too far, by which I mean far enough to trigger a compelling reaction. Or to turn the question just a bit, is it possible for the one who inspires in us a hatred of being to go too far?
Clearly something like this took place at Harvard when a Black Mass was scheduled there. The President of the University could not find rational grounds to forbid the event (moral reason having all but disappeared in the modern university), but she knew something was wrong, and made a point of saying she would join the offended Catholics for their Holy Hour. Attendance at the Holy Hour blew the doors off the Church (almost literally). Support for the Black Mass dwindled. The perpetrators changed the venue, skulked about, and gave it up. Something about the extent of the evil—that is, the extent of the obvious denial of being—struck a deep nerve, triggered a deep reaction.
It remains to be seen if the same thing will happen in Oklahoma, but it would not surprise me. The response of the bishops there suggests they will tolerate no mealy-mouthed or Modernist incantations about how differences in culture demand acceptance because they relativize the nature of evil—the kind of cant which has so often muted a wholesome response to grave sin in the recent past. So we have good grounds to hope for another robust response; we can also strengthen it through our own sacrifices and prayers.
One thing is sure. Despite his subtle intelligence, Satan yearns always to come out in the open and rule by fear. Pride was ever his downfall, and this awakens in his victims a genuine desire to escape. So it is not a matter of if but of when. With each person, with the membership of the Church, with the culture as a whole: Eventually Satan will always overplay his hand.
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Posted by: Thomas429 -
Aug. 12, 2014 12:04 AM ET USA
I have a question. Can a concert of sacred music be performed at that publically funded venue without the usual suspects having a fit and suing for an injunction? A "Black Mass" is clearly worship. Inquiring minds would like to know.
Posted by: Thomas429 -
Aug. 12, 2014 12:00 AM ET USA
I pray that Churches, Tabernacles, Temples, and other houses of worship are filled every night this garbage runs.
Posted by: nix898049 -
Aug. 07, 2014 6:00 PM ET USA
We have been asked to abstain from meat and to offer suggested novena prayers for the cancellation of the Black Mass that this blasphemy be averted by the intercession of Our Blessed Mother. Pray to St. Michael. The battle lines are being drawn. For the protection of our families, our parishes & our dioceses, Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us.
Posted by: 1Jn416 -
Aug. 07, 2014 12:24 PM ET USA
As I commented in the related news story, I have no doubt the presence of the Clear Creek monastery in the Tulsa diocese has strengthened the response of these two good bishops. Both have strong ties to the monks, and when Church leaders see ordinary men living lives of intense prayer and asceticism, it hammers home that these things are possible. Which makes it possible to ask an entire diocese to, say, abstain for meet for nine days in prayer and reparation, as Bp. Slattery has done.