by Noah Berlatsky / The Atlantic
15th May 2013
“The Next Day” video: another example of why pop culture needs to cut it out with the salacious-priests trope.
Crude anti-Catholic propaganda has been part of British culture for hundreds of years, so it shouldn’t really be a shock to see Bowie indulging in the tradition. Similarly, plundering religion for excitement and controvery is a pop move of long-standing. Still, there’s something impressive in the banal shamelessness of it. Bowie’s video isn’t really a critique of the Church so much as a kind of Catholic-sploitation; the finger-wagging moralism barely a veneer on the vicarious enjoyment. The camera lingers lovingly on some anonymous woman’s lingerie-attired ass, and then we get the moralistic rush of watching Gary Oldman as the decadent priest turn to watch it too. Somebody sets down a plate with severed eyeballs, or Marion Cotillard starts to spurt blood out of her hands, and we get to giggle at the gory special effects while nodding sagely about the true horror of the Church’s hypocrisy. And, at the start, we get to condemn Oldman for slugging a poor man begging for alms. If you give a crap, David, why not just hand that production budget over to charity? But then we wouldn’t get to feel that satisfying thwak! as Oldman decks the beggar, I guess.
Bowie is probably hoping that his video will generate some of the same horror, or at least some of the same publicity, as the ur-blasphemy controversy of recent times, Andres Serrano “Piss Christ,” created in 1987. Back then, Serrano ignited a firestorm of controversy by taking a plastic crucifix, immersing it in his own urine, and photographing the results.
Folks who have never seen the photograph tend to assume, I think, that “Piss Christ” was simply a provocation—a way to piss off Christians by literally pissing on Christ. The actual image, though, is surprisingly ambiguous. The liquid appears, not green, but red; and the light going through the urine creates a kind of halo around the crucifix. While the title makes it clear that Serrano is mocking Catholicism, the image also suggests that there is something there that the mockery can’t reach. Christ triumphs in his defilement—which seems like a summation of, rather than a repudiation of, the Christian message.
Serrano has said that the piece was in part about the commercialization of Christianity, and the way that Jesus had become a purchasable commodity. “Piss Christ”, then, is in part a criticism of the Church, and in part a criticism of the debasement of the Church.
You might argue that Bowie is doing, or trying to do, something similar, in ridiculing the corruption of the clergy: “They can work with Satan while they dress like the saints,” and so forth. But the critique seems so half-hearted, and so pro forma, that it not only fails to hit its target, but actually turns back upon itself. Bowie isn’t opposed to the hollow commodification of Christianity; he’s actively taking part in that commodification himself. There’s no sense in the video of the Church as a message or a tradition or an institution—not even of the Church as a bad message, or a bad tradition, or a bad institution. Instead, priests and stigmata and Christ himself are just tropes signaling, with some desperation, edginess and daringness and intellectual content. The video is the equivalent of a plastic crucifix for particularly clueless atheist wannabes. Maybe dropping it into a jar of urine would give it some gravitas—though probably not.
“Bowie isn’t opposed to the hollow commodification of Christianity; he’s actively taking part in that commodification himself.”
Again, it’s not like Bowie is alone in this. As Tom Frank has discussed at some length, capitalism is eager to sell rebellion and non-conformity. The Catholic Church in this context is a perfect target: a long-standing institution towards which most of the relevant audience either feels indifferent or hostile. Plus it’s associated with lots of cool imagery to chop up and put in your video. Whether you’re Madonna, or Lady Gaga, or David Bowie, or, for that matter, Richard Dawkins, being anti-religion is a sound promotional move. Bowie’s anti-Catholicism is the equivalent of Tim McGraw singing “Touchdown Jesus“—a branding exercise to secure market share with a demographic niche.
But there’s branding and then there’s art. “Piss Christ” is both viscerally repulsed by capitalism and ambivalently attracted to Christianity—a combination that has a lot to do with why it freaked people out. “The Next Day,” on the other hand, simply uses a half-hearted anti-Catholicism as an excuse to revel. There’s no confusion here; just lots of hand-waving and the holy order of advertising.