On Being Wounded in the Face: Notes from the Catholic Left

Ann McCoy

“In the face the Other expresses his eminence, the dimension of height and divinity from which he descends.” (Totality and Infinity, p. 262, Emmanuel Levinas)

“The face [is] a source from which all meaning appears. (Totality and Infinity, p. 297, Emmanuel Levinas)

……”the face is present in its refusal to be contained.” (Totality and Infinity, p. 194, Emmanuel Levinas

By face Levinas means the human face (visage) but not simply the physical face.  The Other is for Levinas a living presence that cannot be captured conceptually, or reduced to an idea.  The impossibility of capturing the other implies the Other’s “infinity”.  As a Catholic the face has always had multiple dimensions for me.  The Shroud of Turin bears the face of Christ transferred through a miraculous energetic process, the statue of the Madonna has been known to cry real tears.   The face is linked to the numinosum and carries the presence of the divine. This is true in many religions –Oriental and Occidental. The god being present in the image was standard in antiquity. Spirit can incarnate into matter be it a person or an object. In times of despair I remember a priest telling me to find the gold coin of Christ in all I meet, for me this coin resides behind the face.

Our age is marked by an Iconoclasm and the grip of a Critical Theory that pathologizes and demonizes any commitment to Christian religion organized or other. A blanket dismissal of the entire religious experience by Marx is the beginning, and Christian organized religion becomes a cartoon version of George Grosz’s Die Ausschuttung des Geistes, 1928, (where bullets fly from a priest’s mouth in the pulpit).  The church is linked to the rise of fascism and the Catholic Center Party is blamed for the refusal of workers to join the Weimer revolutionary movement, the poor naïve slobs.  This is just the beginning, in cartoons like Der Kirchwnstaat Deutchland (February 1919) the Pope plays puppet master to Matthais Erzberger as an emaciated Bolshevik suffers in silence on a propaganda poster.  No mention can be made of religious dissent like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s or the nuns and priests who were sent to concentration camps. The destruction of the Russian Orthodox Church by the Bolsheviks is considered liberating and icon burning is to be encouraged; discussion of the 30 million Slaves who died under their tenure in the Gulag remains off limits until Theodore Adordo and Max Horckheimer (although not supporters of a strict Leninist platform) renounce Communism.

Being a Catholic does not mean that one approves of the Inquisition, supports Pope Benedict, the sexual abuse of children or the suppression of women and gays. The church is a huge umbrella and includes everything from Opus Dei to Liberation Theology and the Berrigan brothers and Sister Megan Rice (the 82 year old nun facing imprisonment for breaching a nuclear plant).  Many of us stick to it because of the doctrine of the mystical body of Christ, not the politics of the Vatican. Where I have a problem with theorists like Horckheimer, Adorno, and Marx is when all Christian religion is simply dismissed as a pathology suffered by the naive.  In Horckheimer’s Eclipse of Reason the ills of modern society– fascism, National Socialism, mental illness and criminality –are due to authoritarian fathers, as well as the suppression of nature and infantile sexuality.  Both Horckheimer and Adorno view Christian religion as part and parcel with authoritarianism and seem to advocate that the sooner it is atomized the better. All religion is reduced to a psychopathology, especially organized religion.

This characterization of Christian religion as implicit in the rise of fascism by the Frankfurt School members who fled to America has dominated the post-modern cannon.  The only acceptable theological ideas reside below the surface of Adorno’s writing (Negative Dialectics) and involve a God who dare not be named and is essentially saved by atheists. This is best explained by one of his quotes:

“whoever believes in God cannot believe in God” and that “the possibility represented by the divine Name is maintained by whoever does not believe.”  [1]

This summation of the role of religion is presented as the only view any member of academia and the art historical community could possibly share.  The thread goes from Marx, to Horckheimer and Adorno, to Freud and ends with the October Magazine crew and their acolytes.  I fled from art history to philosophy to escape the tyranny of Karl Werckmeister (the king of the Frankfurters) and fulfill my U.C.L.A. graduate requirements.  Werckmeister (known as Dr. Strangelove to some of us) was hostile toward any student who dared explore Klee’s spirituality.  Charles Miedzinski (who assured me mystical Jews got it the worst) warned me off and I retreated to the safety of the Greeks. All of us deluded believers are linked with the uneducated masses sopping up the lowest forms of popular culture and of course are pathologized.

“Visual ideology (commercial movies and television, advertising and product propaganda) immerses its viewers in that type of signification as much as the discourses of religion and neurosis do: to the extent that literally everything within those belief systems is “meaningful” reaffirming the individual’s ties to such systems, the actual capacities of individual development are repressed.” [2]

This Benjamin Buchloh quote, we are to take ex cathedra, allows for no differentiation of thought or levels of discourse concerning religion. Forget the writing of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ, Paul Tillich, Carl Jung and others on the importance of religion. While I love Tielhard de Chardin and Jung, my heart is also with the peasant women who worship at shrines like the Madonna del Divina Amore outside Rome.  From a professed champion of the proletariat (like Buchloh) I find such comments demeaning; they show no sympathy for any religious experience or meaningful selections within a belief system.   Every year I spend a week with the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln and walk the Kruzweg with people of many nationalities and classes. Over the years I have seen people healed of all sorts of maladies by visiting the Black Madonna, ills which had evaded the European health system.  I have had dreams of both the Black Madonna and Paracelsus who was from Einsiedeln; this valley is certainly a sacred temenos for many.

In Adorno’s work mythological gods are characterized as eating children as in Goya’s Saturn.  For Adorno if man is to move towards rationalization, he must be freed from myth. All mythology is to be destroyed and this means Christian and pagan mythology, Jewish girls resurrecting the Shekinah are to be in as much hot water as us Catholics. While I can understand post war Germans being queasy after Hitler’s proposed cathedral to Wotan on the Kurferstendamm and Himmler’s grail castle, this shows an improper understanding of myth.  Mythology is complex and dual in nature and includes the devil as well as the angels; myths explain our origins good and bad.  Myths also link us to the divine. To toss the whole study out denies us psychological knowledge of our origins and the sacred.  Even Freud had to rely on Oedipus to explain boys who loved mother. The great commandments of the post-modern cannon seemed to be, no god, no myth, and varieties of religious experience are verboten.  These commandments have remained largely in place through those to follow like Jacques Derrida. Critics like Benjamin Buchloch are the last adherents to this reductive slant on mythology that only sees myth in terms of a Wagnerian revival of fascism.

“presuming that a public exists that craves myths in proportion to its lack of comprehension of historic actuality. The ahistoric mythology of fascism, to give an example from political history, could only develop and gain credibility as a response to the chiliastic and debauched hopes of the starving and uneducated masses of the German Weimer Republic and post-monarchic Italy.”   [3]

Those of us steeped in mythology beginning with Sir James Frasier and Thomas Bulfinch’s are dismissed; forget the moderns like Carl Jung, James Hillman or Wendy Donniger O’Flahery.  Jung said the archetypes were like old riverbeds that could fill again in a storm.  A deeper understanding of Norse mythology and Wotan as the bloodthirsty beast might have helped stem the flow of German collective madness.  German mythology is also dual in nature, and certainly we have seen the worst resurrected and used by the Reich. There is another side to the story; myths can link us to the best of our culture as well.  In times of trauma Creation Myths may be recited or performed in rituals to take us back to our creativity and our origins as part of a healing process. From the rubble, Joseph Beuys is not resurrecting the old gods of Norse myth, but has found positive seeds of a renewal in both Celtic and German pagan culture to bring us into harmony with nature and love as a force.  When I show my students films of Apache maidens being anointed with pollen they say they wish they had had such a rite de passage to reconnect them with their origins in their troubled adolescence.

Jean Gebser has written on what he calls the magical mythological mutation of consciousness.  While later developments of consciousness have been progressively layered on the mythological, it remains in the basement of our psyche. It is our link to the animal and plant world, something we need to regain if we are to survive as a species. I can see critics associating Beuys’ 7000 Oaks with the oaks planted in each German hamlet by the Nazis in 1933. Beuys’ 7,000 Oaks were about renewal and a very different mythology, not planting another tree to Wotan. The oak was a sacred tree for even the Celts (who were not Nazis), and is a symbol of the axis mundi (an ancient spine reconnecting us to sacred mother earth).  A Polish Catholic artist, Teresa Murak, works with Lady Smock, (a plant used in a Lenten ritual that blooms on Easter) to make garments and runners for cathedrals.  Here the Catholic, the ecological, and the pagan are brought together in art about regeneration.  Murak’s work is heart felt and rooted in the earth; in some of her work she has bathed in mud and Lady Smock in a baptismal rite reminiscent of Constantine’s tub.  It is this fusion of Catholicism with nature that interests me in the work of artists like Beuys and Murak.

The Catholic critic Eleanor Heartney in her Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art has discussed the role of sexuality, carnality, incarnation, and the body in art by Catholics.  Her work seems to stress the transgressive, Catholic bad boys like Mapelthorpe, Serrano, and Robert Gober.  These former altar boys and girls break loose big time, dung on the Virgin Mary, drain pipes through Our Lady’s body, photographs of fist fucking, and Karen Findley smeared in chocolate.  Her thesis relies heavily on role of the body in Catholicism. Catholics are comfortable with the body because God resides there (not as an outside figure as in Protestantism). We eat and drink the body due to the mystery of transubstantiation during the Eucharist (where bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ).  The naked figure present on the cross, and Bernini’s Saint Teresa in orgiastic splendor add to the thesis. Heartney’s thesis seems limited, incarnation as a bigger idea and goes back to the Greeks where one was to fill one’s flesh with spirit, one’s spirit with flesh.  Incarnation is also the goal of the alchemical process, bringing spirit into matter.

Sure. And I think that for artists who grew up in that tradition, as I did, had a certain relationship to sexuality and the body that was very much governed, not just by those iconic images but also by the literature of Catholic devotion, some of which is very sexual. Again, some artists I was dealing with in the book were Serrano, Mapplethorpe, Robert Gober, and Karen Finley. All of them were raised as Catholics and in most cases they had a love-hate relationship with Catholicism, and this is what I think the critics of “Piss Christ’” misunderstood: it wasn’t completely negative. For example, Robert Mapplethorpe used to say that the two most important influences on his childhood and on his artwork were Coney Island and the Catholic Church, and I think you can see that in his work.”  [4]

While Heartney acknowledges the love-hate relationships of lapsed Catholics to the Church, for me there is something missing.  There are Catholic artists who still have a link to religious practice and feel it fuels their work who evade her thesis.  I have discussed this with other Catholic artists like Linda Montano and Rosemarie Padovano. Rosemarie Padovano and Linda Montano have used Christian ideas like washing the body and feet in their work. Padovano had her father (a former Catholic priest) wash the feet of her mother (a former nun) in honey.  Neither of these women are Catholic apologists; both have an active spiritual life. While Montano has when certainly done some work that was out there, her last piece involved taking care of her dying father as a devotion and artistic practice lasted seven years. Montano who entered an order as a novice but left, has assumed the persona of Mother Theresa in performance, and is a practicing Catholic.  Montano in an interview published in the Brooklyn Rail says it best.

“Linda Mary Montano: I always begin with a prayer and we both close our eyes during the interview. Is that okay with you, Charles?

Charles Duncan (Rail): Of course. Please begin.

Montano: Holy Spirit, you are the teacher, you are the talker, you are the inspirer, and you are the artist; so enlighten us so that we can feel our own understanding and then help vibrate our wisdom with the wisdom of the readers. We ask this. Amen.” [5]

When I met Herman Nitsch in the nineties we discussed Jung’s texts the Mysterium Conjunctionis, and Transformation Symbols in the Mass. Nitsch see’s his Orgies Mysteries spectacle at Prinzendorf as a religious ritual linking the Catholic to the Attic taurobolium. The Vatican sits on the site of an ancient taurobolium (pit where the priests of Attis were bathed with bull’s blood); the St. Peters church rests on of a site dedicated to Cybele, the Magna Mater. Nitsch for me represents a positive Catholic and pagan revival of mythology.  I don’t see Nitsch as a latter day brown shirt, I see him as an artist bringing blood (passion, the Rubedo) back into religious and artistic practice drained by Vatican Councils that have stripped the church of much of its symbolic heritage.  Nitsch’s blood soaked vestments and altars are not the work of a Catholic bad boy but of a deeply religious man trying to revitalize religious practice by taking it back to its pagan roots.  Not all forays into paganism produce National Socialism as many a Goddess worshiping feminist artist can testify.

As sociologist and priest Andrew Greeley explains the Catholic imagination, often makes metaphorical connections between creation, the objects of creation and divine godly love. While Heartney’s writing is an important contribution, I am more interested in Catholics and artists of all persuasions whose work springs from active spiritual practice; and how ideas like incarnation can be linked to alchemy, healing, and synchronicity.

Joseph Beuys was able to incorporate Christianity and the work of Rudolph Steiner into a larger holistic artistic vision.  For me Beuys was a path that took art back to a place occupied by Paracelsus where heart, nature, spirit were linked before Bacon and Descartes ushered in a rationality that robbed philosophy of is vital link to both nature and the feminine.  As much as Steiner has been maligned, by writers like Ernst Bloch as a “mediocre, indeed unbearable curiosity”, his work has been prophetic.  Steiner wrote about the problem of colony collapse one hundred years ago, now the death of the bees threaten half of our food supply.  I doubt if any of Bloch’s ideas will have as much staying power, and his condescending tone is unbearable. My brother, a top environmental scientist who founded the Tijuana Estuary, says Steiner’s writing on biodiversity and organic gardening presents a model that could save our bio-system. The fact that there have been three recent Steiner exhibitions at museums must be sending Bloch into a tailspin.

I met Beuys briefly through James Lee Byers in 1977 when I was on the D.A.A.D. Berliner Kunstlerprogram, and was one fan in a group of hundreds. When I think that Steiner sometimes gave three lectures a day to throngs of thousands, Beuys was tame in comparison. For me Beuys was not a messianic figure but a teacher.  His interest in the Celtic world, Catholic background, iconography, Anthroposophy, his alchemy studies, and use of the coyote resonated deeply with me. I was riveted by his What Art Is, a dialogue with a priest, Volker Harlan that took place at St. John’s Church in Bochum. When Beuys said art is a sacrament I was hooked.  I had just left Los Angeles and the only artist I had met who thought like this was Wallace Berman, with his sacred Hebrew letters on a Topanga hillside.  I could not relate to the Venice beach boy artists, or Warhol’s soup cans at the Blum Gallery, or Judy Chicago for that matter, but I could relate to Beuys.

That same year I was working with Dr. Hans Dieckman a Berlin Jungian analyst.  Dieckman had been sent to the Russian front as a boy soldier at the end of the war and had been shot in the face.  He knew Beuy’s work, the story of the crash in the Crimea, and about Beuy’s wounds to the face and head. We spoke about the act of being wounded in the face as a transforming event; the face is the persona, also a portal into the divine. The wound can be like Chiron’s wound with the rusty spear that transformed him into the healing centaur and tutor of Asclepius; Chiron,’s wound also never really healed. Carolyn Tisdall has said that Beuy’s wounds to the head and face always bothered him; he still had a metal plate in his skull.  In his essay Twilight of the Idol (an essay which drips with primary envy) Benjamin Buchloch attacks the Crimea story and dismisses it as a way of denying responsibility for Beuys’ role in the war.  As Dieckmann said getting out of military service could mean death, imprisonment, and a lot of trouble for your family; with Hitler controlling most of Europe your options for escape were limited. Worst case, Beuys had actually dropped bombs over Russia. When asked about the war he always dodged the question and said there were “dead bodies everywhere.”  We know Beuys suffered a mental breakdown after the war, and regretted Germany’s role. Even I have wondered what he saw during his time in Poland. This misguided Icharus fell to earth and was severely wounded in a crash, and the wounds stayed with him.  I can’t see Beuy’s producing the vast amount of work he did had it not come from a pivotal experience.  A traumatic event can produce a profound spiritual change; a Saul of Tarsus can become St. Paul.  My early life was an alcoholic disaster so I understand the possibility of change through a spiritual experience.  A writer who does not believe in the possibility of a radical change through a profoundly spiritual and synchronic event is not able to understand this possibility in Beuys or others. Writers like Bloch and Buchloch are too mired in a one-dimensional rationalism to understand this kind of capacity for transformation, they see art and culture only as a reflection of economic processes, not spiritual agencies.

Artists working with the spiritual, the synchronic, the non-rational are also shot in the face; any idea of art as a spiritual practice is erased from the critical dialogue. What I find frustrating as an artist is that a post-modern critical cannon has been put together by some consensus that often has nothing to do with the real concerns of many of my fellow artists.  Sometimes as I am reading Hal Foster I think to myself if only we could discuss art from a different perspective, say Chinese metaphysics. When Rosalind Krauss in an October essay proclaimed, ”by now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence” [6], a lot of us found her view embarrassing.  With artist friends I often find myself speaking a totally different language than the one used in art journals or taught in the hundreds of curatorial programs springing up like mushrooms.   It is as though we are speaking the language of a secret brotherhood or sisterhood. I would love to see an Artforum piece on Leslie Dill’s work on spirit guides, or Montano’s relationship to the Sacre Coeur.  The boys in editorial would never let this go through. The whole thing has been in a thirty-year lock down.

It is time to try what the Indian philosophers call Anakanta, the approach of multiple perspectives.  One of these multiple perspectives might include what William James called the varieties of religious experience.  When I think of the face I think of the word multifaceted, of the multiple Buddhas in Tibetan tonkas.  Under the lattice stone domes on the top layer of Borobudur sit multiple Buddhas who had leafed faces.  At Borobudur the pilgrim climbs past hundreds of murals, like stations on the cross. to reach these Buddhas to see himself or herself reflected in the faces of the Buddhas. In Beuys Conversation With a Dead Hare he wears a mask of gold leaf and honey. “A halo (Greek: ἅλως; also known as a nimbus, aureole, glory, or gloriole) is a ring of light that surrounds a person in art. They have been used in the iconography of many religions to indicate holy or sacred.” (Wickipedia)  I have never thought of Beuys as a messiah; he wanted us to be reflected in the leaf of his face, like visitors to Borobadour, and see the divine within ourselves.

I only wish the art critical community could be a larger tent where people of faith had some corner. This dialectical materialism has led to a discourse mired in the material. I feel a huge part of the discourse has been shut out and dismissed, or associated with the Christian right as an updated Reich stand-in. A view of art and psyche that so lacks dimensionality robs art of that which resonates and transforms life.  When spirituality is discussed it is relegated to ethnic museums like the Rubin Museum.  Exhibitions of artists working with Buddhism have been a safe bet (it tends to be the sublime Zen variety and not the Tibetan with Goddesses wearing necklaces of human skulls). We need a new post-modern critique that is more holistic, more multifaceted.  I think of the worshipers in Chauvet who placed the bear skull on a stone altar 30,000 years ago, Teresa Murak with her earth rituals involving yeast, Wolfgang Laib with his pollen pieces and Indian fire ceremonies, Linda Montano’s prayers, and Rosemarie Padovano washing feet with honey.  It is time for a change.

Ann McCoy is a New York artist who lectures at Yale in the School of Drama.

Fig.1. St. Therese of Liseaux a.k.a. as St. Therese of the Face

Fig.2.  Anti-Kreges Musuem, Berlin,

Fig.3. Joseph Beuys, photo Carplyn Tisdall,

Fig.4. Joseoph Beuys, Conversations With a Dead Hare, Carolyn Tisdall


1. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (NY: Continuum, 1973) 401-2

2. Benjamin Buchloch, Artforum, January 1980, p.53

3. Bemjamin Buchloch, Artforum, January, 1980, p, 42

4. The Brooklyn Rail 2009/ Eleanor Heartney with Phong Bui 5. Linda Mary Montano with Charles Duncan, February 2012, the Brooklyn Rail

6. Rosilind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Guard and Other Modernist Myths, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985).p.13