Naughty or nice?

Should someone be prohibited from displaying a painting of crucified Santa outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral whether it is Christmas or not?

By Sarah Sidlow

“It’s ho-ho-horrifying!” began the New York Post article on Christmas Eve.

The subject: artwork displayed outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which depicted Santa Claus crucified—literally hanging from a cross—over a pile of Christmas presents.

The painting, by satire artist Robert Cenedella, is now 20 years old—and has lived a rather controversial life, having been protested and removed from a number of displays over its two-decade existence. 

Unsurprisingly, many passers-by this past Christmas Eve were, well, dismayed by the installation.

“You have to be a real piece of crap to try to ruin Christmas for children and families coming out of Mass,” said Councilman Joe Borelli (R-SI). “For shame!”

While the laws about artwork on city sidewalk are nuanced, the basics indicate that art in public (for art’s sake, and not for the purposes of advertising) is protected under the First Amendment. Basically, you don’t have to look at it while you’re walking into, out of, or by the church, but the artist does have the right to make a visual statement in public.

And Cenedella’s piece definitely is a statement. He says he created the piece to depict the way in which Christmas has been commercialized, and how it no longer honors its own religious, Christian foundation.

Actual public responses to the artwork by parishioners ranged from “That’s disgusting” to “You’re not original; we know Christmas is commercialized.” I guess that’s New York for you.

(Free speech protections, by the way, are also the things that protect your right to tell Cenedella you think his unoriginal art belongs in the trash.)

But while some chalk the experience up to bad, but permissible, taste, others wonder if art like this should be prohibited. These people argue that in situations like this one, common sense should reign supreme—and displaying a religiously disturbing piece of art outside of a church (regardless of the season) is much more than simply inappropriate.

Just because you have the ability to exercise poor taste and poor judgment doesn’t mean you should have the authority to do so.

Interestingly, federal trial courts have determined in the recent past that it is unconstitutional to ban public art simply because you don’t agree with it.

In 2015, Ballentine v. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department held that the police department couldn’t cite people for chalking anti-police department messages on sidewalks outside of the police station, because they don’t also cite children or adults who write messages on sidewalks that police don’t take issue with.

If that determination is applied to the Claus-on-a-Cross situation, then the church probably can’t ask Cenedella to remove his artwork just because they don’t like the message.

It’s unlikely that the entrance to St. Patrick’s Cathedral will be the final resting place for Cenedella’s 20-year troll. Perhaps Santa will re-appear this summer, perhaps not until next year. But if it keeps coming back to make us uncomfortable, and to remind us we’re doing Christmas wrong, is it really so different from Elf on a Shelf?


Patron ‘plaints

Santa has always been a convenient symbol for complaints

By Ben Tompkins

This question of whether a person should be allowed to stand on a public street in front of St. Patrick’s Church with a painting of Santa Claus crucified over a Golgothan mound of presents provides me with a pleasant convenience: the word “yes” is a total answer, and should be perfectly satisfactory for even the most casual American citizen, with no further explanation. I briefly considered writing it in lowercase letters in the middle of the page and sending it off, but this does require the presumption that the Dayton City Paper hasn’t moved its offices to, say Bangladesh, where a flippant attitude toward religion can get you killed.

In the end, what swayed me toward a more robust commentary was the depth of irony and absurdity inherent in this situation. The chubby grandfather in red pajamas dangling like a preserved moth from the cross is a transfigured image of St. Nicholas of Myra, an early Christian bishop in Turkey and one of the original founders of the Catholic Church. If it weren’t for attendees at the First Council of Nicaea, trillions of future Christians might have suffered the horror of believing that Christ didn’t exist until he was born on Christmas morning. The heresy that Christ was actually “begotten” by the Father, rather than a continuously existing being who was inserted into a human female stasis capsule by the divine penis, was presented to the council by the priest, Arius. 

Personally, I think the early Christian Fathers missed out on a colossal opportunity to make a mountain out of the few grains of sand available to them three hundred years after the fact. Had they borrowed from the Greeks rather than the pagans, there would have been no need for an awkward pregnancy since Jesus was already fully formed. Imagine how entertaining our traditions could have been if an enraged and cuckolded Joseph bashed her over the head with a carpenter’s hammer in front of a thousand locals in the town square, and Jesus sprang forth in a blinding beam of light, in full battle gear like the goddess Athena, on Christmas morning.

In the end, the only blow to the head that was delivered in the evolution of Christmas came when Father Nicholas supposedly strode across the tiles of the chamber floor and landed a punch on the nose of father Arius. After Nicholas gifted some sacks of cash to a poor father so he wouldn’t have to sell his daughters into prostitution, a Christian legend was born.

It is because of the latter story that it became customary to leave out shoes in hopes that the saint’s reanimated corpse would turn up and fill them with what I assume were farthings or foot shaped holiday cakes and treats. An obvious reference to stockings, this tradition is particularly strong in Ireland, where children line the hearth with footwear on the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 5th. This is where it feels particularly weird to hear complaints from believers in St. Patrick about the presence of “the Fat Man”. Irish Catholics have a strong tradition of telling convoluted tales about how various saints made their way to Ireland from the Middle East. Today, you can visit St. Nicholas’ grave in Kilkenny, where it is said he was reburied after sailors chiseled him out of his box in his homeland of Myra and redistributed him up the Italian coast. While this unnecessary fabrication by an entire country of believers sheds some light on why the Catholic Church has been unable to exterminate the best of the Christmas myths, the fact remains that the northernmost verifiable portion of Father Christmas may have only made it to Venice. The proliferation of holy relics far beyond Venice’s watery borders does have a value, though, as it makes sense out of the question of how he manages to reanimate himself and visit the house of every child on earth sometime between the 5th and 25th of December, bringing with him Krumpus and Knecht Ruprecht for the purpose of beating naughty children to death.

The strangest part of the St. Nicholas saga is that, despite over a millennia of child abuse in the name of the Lord, he was never canonized by the Catholic church in the first place. It didn’t occur to anyone until the 1969 purging of around 90 saints from the books, that nobody in the past 1600 years actually stamped the paperwork to make him a saint. It was at this moment that Catholics could have chosen to disown him once and for all if they were really so cheesed off about Santa Claus, but to the contrary, they explicitly reaffirmed his saintly status, declaring that there was “no doubt” as to his sainthood. 

My biggest wonder with the story of a crucified Santa is whether the leaders of St. Patrick’s actually worry about Santa Claus. With the exception of Constantine who fixed Christmas on the 25th, Nicholas is as much the “reason for the season” as anyone else. Without him, there would be no divinity of Jesus, no gifts, and no switches being left in a pair of clogs for parents to beat their children into shape for another twelve months. I think it’s pretty obvious that Catholics still really want him around, and probably could care less if someone hangs him from a cross, as long as he comes back before the new year.


Outlaw the Santa painting

Free speech is one thing. Gratuitous rudeness is another.

By Victor DeLaine

Spare me your righteous indignation about freedom of speech.  You can outlaw paintings of crucified Santas, and lots of other public imbecility, without being a bad American.

To begin with, put this painting in the right category. It’s right there with Westboro Baptists who scream filth at war widows in public cemeteries.  It has a place of dishonor beside creepy comediennes holding bloodied effigies of presidents’ severed heads. It occupies the same moral space as art museums displaying Madonnas smeared with excrement, rednecks leaving bacon outside mosques, and Nazis parading through Skokie. It contributes zero to civic discourse, stirs adrenaline and violence rather than thought and understanding, and turns sidewalks and other public amenities into gauntlets of offense.

So let me pose a question or two to ACLU busybodies, simple-Simon libertarians, and all the rest of you out there to whom freedom of speech is less a principle than a fetish. How does it advance the cause of civilization, rather than set that cause back, to allow gratuitous insults like these? What horrid consequence would follow if we were to outlaw them instead?

Before you answer, consider the experience of other nations. Germany outlaws religious defamation. Canada has laws against blaspheming religion. Other countries that prohibit insults against religions include Denmark, Finland, Austria, and many others. And the entire civilized world, which means practically every country with indoor plumbing except the US, prohibits hate speech. In all these countries, brandishing images of crucified Santas at churchgoers could land you in the hoosegow.

Those countries are not tyrannical police states. Free-speech Puritans always warn us that such laws would send us down a slippery slope into some dystopian pit of Orwell’s imagining. The actual experience of countries that have them, however, shows that laws controlling offensive speech have the opposite effect. Because of such laws and the norms of public civility that they enforce, Canada, Germany, and the rest are rightly seen as havens of tolerance, reason, and consensus. 

We risk a slippery slope not when we curtail gratuitously insulting speech, but when we allow and protect it. The First Amendment is supposed to protect your right to disagree with presidents, priests, and potentates. It need not also be the bastion of the in-your-face jerk, but that’s what our courts have made it. And the in-your-face jerk is increasingly what we’re getting. The ideal that the First Amendment was supposed to enable is a cerebral republic where contending citizens reason with each other. What it is instead giving us is meanness and name-calling, with tiki torch bearers, pussy-hat wearers, and tattooed antifa sophomores contending with each other on sidewalks from Charlotte to Charlottesville to see who can taunt, provoke, and offend the loudest.  In civilized countries, freedom of speech means an unfettered exchange of ideas in a search for truth.  In America, it means some jackass can station himself six feet outside your front door and simply insult you as grossly as he wants. 

Six feet outside the front door is exactly where the jackass in question here exhibited his crucified Santa.  But creative cretins can come up with far juicier things to put six feet from your door than a Santa painting.  How about putting a photo of Daniel Pearl’s severed head on a placard outside his mother’s front door? Or how about waving a picture of Kathy’s Griffin’s #MeToo beheading in front of Trump’s twelve-year-old son?  If you allow the Santa painting, you’re allowing these other grotesqueries too.  And if you seriously contend that any worthwhile value requires the protection of such conduct, then there is something seriously wrong with you.

But, back to the painting itself. Less a painting than a cartoon, it does not convey any coherent artistic message.  It depicts Santa on a cross, coat unbuttoned, the ground littered with presents.  They say it’s about commercialism or something, but of course that’s not the point.  Commercialism is the oldest, most clichéd yuletide complaint there is.  No, the point of the painting is the cross, the instrument and symbol of Christ’s Passion.  The point is to insult Christianity.  Every art student knows that using the cross as a derisive prop in a comical tableau wins you points for edginess no matter how little talent you have.  And having your art show on the sidewalk outside St. Patrick’s, where churchgoers have no choice but to see it, might even get you on the Six O’clock News.

We’re way beyond a mere lack of politeness.  The crucified Santa is about deliberate impoliteness.  With in-your-face stunts like these, rudeness is not some unsought side effect, some regrettable price we pay for a worthy goal.  Rather, rudeness is the goal itself.

What the rest of the world realizes, which free-speech absolutists refuse to accept, is that you can regulate rudeness without prohibiting ideas.

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Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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