Culture

The Catholic Teenager Who the Media Lynched at the March for Life

Deal W. Hudson

January 21, 2019

The mainstream media, with few exceptions, have become haters. They don’t hesitate to ruin a person’s life if they think it will score points for the Democrats and against President Trump. Case in question: a young man at the March for Life, a student from Covington Catholic High School (Kentucky) was excoriated by all the big media outlets, except for Fox, for something he didn’t do, namely, castigate and racially demean Nathan Phillips, a native American activist.

The young man whose life has been permanently changed is Nick Sandmann, a high school junior, whose statement explains what actually happened. While waiting for their bus to return, the Covington students were taunted by four African-American protestors who called them “racists,” “bigots,” “white crackers,” “faggots,” and “incest kids.”

They asked one of their chaperons if they could sing a school chant to drown out the harassment. “At no time did I hear any student chant anything other than the school spirit chants. I did not witness or hear any students chant “build that wall” or anything hateful or racist at any time. Assertions to the contrary are simply false.”

That’s when Nathan Phillips and other Native Americans protestors stepped forward. Phillips puts his face in front of Nick’s face, invasively so, while he and his group beat native drums and sing tribal chants. “He locked eyes with me and approached me, coming within inches of my face. He played his drum the entire time he was in my face.” Nick did not speak to him and did not make any rude gestures. Things were said by the Native Americans, such as “you stole our land” and you should “go back to Europe.” But Nick remained never reacted to any of this aggression.

“I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation. I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand.” Subsequent videos of the episode corroborate Nick’s statement. But that was after a video went viral making it look like Phillips was being mocked. Conservatives are always quick to betray their own. Some prominent Catholic bloggers swallowed the hook and had to apologize later on. Even National Reviewpiled on: NR’s writer Nicholas Frankovich wrote, “it appears” that the students “mock a serious frail-looking older man and gloat in their momentary role as Roman soldiers to his Christ.” The headline read, “The Covington Students Might as Well Have Just Spit on the Cross,” The article was later pulled.

Naturally, both the Catholic Diocese of Covington and the high school both issued apologies before knowing the facts: much better to sacrifice the reputation, and ruin the future, of a Catholic teenager than being associated with the charge of racism. Institutional Catholicism lacks all backbone except when it comes to global warming and open borders.

Writing for Fox News, Todd Starns declares that none of the major media outlets who ganged up on the student from Covington Catholic High School will apologize. Even though, “now, thanks to irrefutable video evidence, we know that the entire story was a hoax – a flat-out lie.”

How many teenagers going to the March for Life expect to become a national object of hate while riding back on the bus to their home town? Nonetheless, Nick had the largeness of heart to congratulate the man who maligned him for his service to the nation: “I have read that Mr. Phillips is a veteran of the United States Marines. I thank him for his service and am grateful to anyone who puts on the uniform to defend our nation. If anyone has earned the right to speak freely, it is a U.S. Marine veteran.”

Faux Catholic conservatives like the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pontificated, “Don’t let your Catholic school’s students wear MAGA hats on a field trip for the March for Life.” Seriously? Blaming the victim is bad enough but singling out for blame a “Make America Great Again” hat only confirms the media’s all-out effort to make support for our President toxic. Would Douthat blame Obama hat wear if white extremists taunted marchers in a Martin Luther King parade? No.

From the Book of James, Chapter 3, verses 5-6. ” Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” The lies were deliberately told and encircled Nick Sandmann so quickly they could not be called back. I hope the Catholics of Covington, KY, and perhaps elsewhere, will take this young man under their care. He will need support and prayers, and in the future, he will need friends who will defend his reputation and secure his place in the community.

The lesson to be learned here is not the supposed bad judgment in wearing a MAGA hat. The lesson is this: If you are a Christian and pro-life, the media hates you. And that’s a reality not just for those in the public eye, but any of us.

Senator Feinstein, Is There Anything You Won’t Say or Do?

Deal W. Hudson

September 24, 2018

Dear Sen. Dianne Feinstein, I am writing to you to ask a simple question, Is there anything, morally speaking, you just would not do?  I ask because what you are doing to Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee is something I could never do, no matter how much I detested a liberal court nominee.

‘What did I do? you ask.

You introduced an allegation about Kavanaugh in the last days of a long Senate integration. This allegation of Prof. Ford was known to you since July! Why did you wait so long to “bring it in as evidence?” Basic fairness to both parties required you to bring to light right away. No, you waited until neither parties would be able to speak to the issue. I can only conclude you deliberately inserted the allegation to derail Kavanaugh’s nomination and, in the process, ruin his reputation, traumatize his wife and children, and dishonor your sworn oath as a U.S. Senator:

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

Your withholding of so-called evidence against Brett Kavanaugh for several months is a clear violation of your promise to “well and faithfully discharge” your duties as a Senator.

So I ask you again, Senator Feinstein, how were you able to act in a way that most people would consider morally repugnant, even at first glance?

That you were able to do this tells me that you have no real moral conscience — your actions are guided purely by political outcomes. Facts do not matter; procedural fairness does not matter; slander and calumny do not matter; all that matters to you is your advancement — a tough reelection is coming up — and the advancement of the Democratic Party’s agenda.

For you, Senator Feinstein, getting the results you want is your only ‘moral compass.’ Do you realize what kind of person that makes you? Do it even matter to you that you have sold your soul as clearly as if you had met Beelzebub in Daniel Webster’s farmhouse. You’ve made yourself into the stereotype of the corrupt politician directors like Frank Capra made movies about. Remember, Jimmy Stewart in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). You were six years old when that film was released.

You remember that film, don’t you, Senator Feinstein? You might remember the famous scene of Jefferson Smith’s (Stewart) filibuster when he said:

Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. . . . And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!

This country is bigger than you, Senator Feinstein, in spite of your attempt, along with your collaborators, to drag it through your mud of lies and deceptions.  Whether this good man, Brett Kavanaugh, is confirmed or not this country will not belong to you or the likes of you. Why? Because Frank Capra knew something about America you don’t — we have plenty of people who deal in corruption and self-aggrandizement but they are gradually mown down by the deeply-rooted decency of the American people, decency that does not depend on political affiliation.

I will understand if you don’t answer this letter, Senator.  We all know why you are fighting without honesty or honor — It’s all about abortion, isn’t it, Senator? It’s all about protecting your supposed right to kill innocent children in the womb.

From this perspective, Senator, knowing your bottom line, I suppose I should not be surprised at all. In being a long-time, a militant supporter of abortion you destroyed your conscience long ago — so, why not try to ruin the life of a good man his family while spreading toxic scurvy tall through our public discourse. For you and your collaborators, nothing is more important than continuing to kill babies. There’s no place in your world for the likes of Jefferson Smith or any other honest man or woman. 

Ten Books That Have Taught Me About America

Deal W. Hudson

July 4, 2018

Though I have not read as widely in American history as I should have, some books have remained with me since I read them.  They have shaped for me a deeper understanding and appreciation of my native country. I’m not going to list some of the obvious suspects such as The Federalist Papers, although that should be at the top of anyone’s list. Instead, I offer a personal list chosen out of my unsystematic reading on the subject.

  1. 1777 by David McCullough (2005). I have no idea how close we came to losing the American Revolution until I read McCullough’s dramatic account. Neither was I aware of George Washington’s true stature behind all the stories so often repeated.
  2. Truman by David McCullough (1992). Need I apologize for two by McCullough in a row? Absolutely not! At a personal level, Truman is a story about a mid-westerner with little formal learning but remarkable commonsense and a more remarkable work ethic who rises to the occasion when suddenly faced with the necessity of negotiation with Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Douglas MacArthur. As a work of history, Truman illuminates how the American character overcame powerful temptations to divide into a factionalism which would have weakened our resolve to end the war in Europe and the Pacific.
  3. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016). I grew up in a relatively safe middle-class household shield for the most part from afflictions described by Vance about his youth in a Rust Belt Ohio town. His world of drugs; child and spouse abuse; debilitating poverty; constant job insecurity, poor education; and pervasive lack of hope was one I knew next to nothing about. To be confronted so vividly with that world and the twists of fate, or grace, that save only a few greatly enlarged what I understood about the limitations of the American Dream.
  4. Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer (2009). This book came as a sort of revelation — I had never read anything in depth about the founding of America from the North, a story of how two nations, Canada and the United States, grew out of the encounter between French and British explorers with the native inhabitants along the lakes, rivers, and bays of 17th century exploration. The hero of Fischer’s book — Samuel de Champlain — can stand aside any of our nation’s heroes in determination to secure human rights and religious toleration.  
  5. Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment by Patrick K. O’Donnell  (2016). The best way I can describe this delicious book is a more thorough treatment of account by McCullough in 1776 of how Washington’s army overmatched in every way eventually prevailed. O’Donnell’s account of the early clashes around Manhattan, notably the Battle of Brooklyn, formed no part of my education in American history, and what a story! Washington’s army could have been destroyed had it not been for the sacrificial effort of 256 ‘Maryland Heroes’ who gave the Commander time to evacuate his remaining men. Also quite astounding was the sheer arrogance of the British leadership in failing to recognize the opportunity to end the rebellion right then and there.
  6. American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their LovesTheir Work by Susan Cheever (2007). In the middle of the nineteenth century, a remarkable gathering of intellectual talent lived in the same city of Concord, MA, a group whose writing would leave as deep a stamp on the American character as the Founders themselves a century earlier. Emerson served as the godfather to the group which inevitably created barely concealed rivalries with writers of equal talent, particularly Hawthorne and Thoreau. And, yes, there were other barely concealed dynamics as well, none evidently consummated — they were all heirs to New England Puritanism thought they sought refuge in prodigious learning, transcendentalism, and a form of Christianity resembling classical humanism. 
  7. Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience by Kevin Starr (2016). I had the privilege of interviewing the author about this book twice before he was suddenly taken away from us. To those who believe all the roots of America are Protestant, this book is a definitive refutation. In fact, one country in the Americas, the United States had Catholic roots growing from all geographical directions. Yes, the Founding elite were almost all Protestant, but as Starr shows parts of the vast territory eventually unified as the United States had a Catholic character long before the rise of the WASPs! 
  8. Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation by Steve Vogel (2013). As I said about McCullough’s 1776, I did not know how close we came to be reconquered by Great Britain following the August 24, 1814 raid on Washington, DC which caught our leaders and military entirely unawares, leaving the White House and the Capitol destroyed by fire. As the heavily manned British fleet sailed up the Chesapeake towards Baltimore, if it had not been for command of Major General Samuel Smith Baltimore would have very likely been taken, with nothing standing in the way of the British all the way up the Eastern coast of the US.
  9. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz (2011). I had always thought John Brown was just a maniac, and then I read this book. Yes, he was a maniac of a kind but with deep intelligence, flamboyant personality, and irresistible leadership. Horwitz hour by hour account of the showdown in Harper’s Ferry is riveting, especially given Brown was under attack by U. S. soldiers under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Lee, we are told, did everything he could to keep deaths to a minimum, which he did in spite of Brown’s unwillingness to surrender. Most memorable, however, is Horwitz’s account of John Brown’s capture, trial, and execution — how those around him, even Lee, began to admire him.
  10. A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ’20s by Roger Kahn (1999). What an eye-opener this book was! Boxing in the sport in our nation long before football, baseball, and basketball began competing to be the nation’s favorite pastime. Boxing events and personalities, such as Dempsey, became the foundation of mass entertainment, beginning with July 21, 1921, the first-ever live radio broadcast of a world title fight between Dempsey and Georges Carpenter in Jersey City. Kahn connects Dempsey to the Roaring 20s, the Flappers, Babe Ruth, Lindbergh, Coolidge, segregation, and organized crime.

Bishop Gracida Calls Excommunication Over Immigration Policy “Scandalous”

Deal W. Hudson

June 20, 2018

In a radio interview taped today with me, Bishop Rene Henry Gracida, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, sharply criticized comments made by Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Tuscon regarding canonical penalties for civil servants implementing present immigration policy.

“It’s scandalous for the bishop to say that! They did not write the law but are enforcing it….it’s absurd and it’s idiotic.”

In the early 1970s, Bishop Gracida was appointed Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Migration and Tourism with the responsibility for overseeing the work of the large Migration and Refugee Services Department of the N.C.C.B.  During his spent 14 years in that position, he worked with both the United States and Mexican governments, and their border patrols, on immigration reform — “to relieve the suffering of people crossing the deserts led by ‘coyotes.’”

He knows what he is talking about.

Bishop Gracida went on to say that Catholics must recognize, first of all, that the “current administration is charged with enforcing laws passed by President Obama.” Neither the Trump Administration nor the GOP has passed any immigration laws, he added.

This above is only a portion of what Bishop Gracida had to say about the present controversy over immigration. The conversation naturally turned to the issue of abortion which he said had become “toxic” among his fellow bishops.

My interview with Bishop Gracida on ‘Church and Culture‘ will be broadcast on the Ave Maria Radio Network this Saturday at 3 pm and Sunday at 7 am.

Prepare for some straight talk!

Aretha Franklin, witness to the Gospel

Deal W. Hudson

May 16, 2019

Amazing Grace is one of the greatest concert movies of all time

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin travelled to Los Angeles to join her good friend Pastor James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir to record a gospel album. That album, entitled Amazing Grace, went on to become the bestselling gospel recording of all time.

Warner Brothers sent director Sydney Pollack to film the recording sessions in the New Bethel Baptist Church with a live audience. At the time, Pollack was a veteran television director but had only a few films to credit. Pollack forgot to use clappers between the songs, creating such difficulty in synchronising the video with the sound that he gave up on finishing it.

In 2007, as Pollack was dying, he gave all the material to producer/composer Alan Elliot. More than a decade later, Amazing Grace, the documentary, has finally been finished and released. The result is a sensation – Amazing Grace deserves to stand beside the greatest concert films of all time, such as Monterrey Pop (1968) and The Last Waltz (1978). What distinguishes Amazing Grace from the rest is the music and the performer: This is not the pop star Aretha of the late 60s; this is the Aretha who grew up singing gospel songs.

When she sings old black gospel songs like Precious Lord, which she sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral, there’s an emotional connection between herself, the choir and the audience that’s both soulful and joyful, the joy of overcoming the pain and sadness of the historic black community in America. For many fans of gospel singing, Aretha’s voice contained a purity that has few precursors and no successors.

By 1972, Aretha had become a revered figure in the black community. Her pop music captured the generation: civil rights, sexual revolution, the decline of the black male and the ascendancy of the black woman. For black women, she has been a rock of stability and a source of inspiration to face the crumbling of black culture. It’s no accident that 1972 was the year the movie Super Fly, an exaltation of black pimps, was released.

But Amazing Grace is a return to her roots, and her performance is breathtaking. Aretha combines perfect musicianship with a modest, almost placid, presence punctuated by flights into the gospel ether. Her eyes are often closed, and when her improvisation starts a layered ascent, her face turns upward reaching the fullness of jubilation. At these moments, you are made to realise this is not another performance for her but an act of her witnessing about Jesus Christ.

Pastor James Cleveland accompanies on the piano with grand bravado, choral director Alexander Hamilton was Dudamel long before Dudamel, and the Southern California Cathedral Choir make a funky entrance that made me want to cheer.

Deal Hudson is the Catholic Herald’s arts editor

When Elgar turned to the Druids

Deal W. Hudson

April 11, 2019

The conductor Martyn Brabbins and Hyperion have given us the second complete recording of Elgar’s 1898 cantata Caractacus. It’s been more than 25 years since the first recording by Richard Hickox on Chandos (1994). Caractacus is an uneven work but possesses enough moments of raw power and pastoral beauty to make it indispensable to lovers of Elgar.

Brabbins, now sporting a beard (pictured), has long been attentive to English music: his recent recording of A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams made an excellent showing in an already strong field. Crucial to that success was the excellence of his soloists, Elizabeth Llewellyn and Marcus Farnsworth. In Brabbins’s Caractacus, however, the performance of the soloists is less uniform.

Roland Wood’s singing of the title role is marred by an excessive wobble, especially in his opening aria in Scene I, “Watchmen, alert! the King is here”. Further into the recording, Wood’s singing improved so much I almost forgot his jarring entrance, but not entirely. In the great Scene V lament, “O my warriors, tell me truly,” Woods delivers some spectacular singing especially in his higher register. The other soloists are quite good. Elizabeth Llewellyn is back with Brabbins as the king’s daughter Eigen and sings with a sensitivity matched to the setting – the Malvern Hills where the Druids celebrate their faith. The tenor voice of Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Eigen’s fiancé Orbin is particularly convincing as the bard caught between the Druids and his respect for Caractacus.

Christopher Purves handles the dual roles of the Arch-Druid and A Bard with a steady and expressive voice. Alastair Miles, who was Caractacus on the Hickox recording, sings the Roman emperor Claudius with complete authority.

Among the vocalists, the Huddersfield Choral Society is the outstanding factor in making this performance worth owning. Not only can every word be discerned but also the shades of meaning urged by conductor Brabbins. The Orchestra of Opera North, too, does all Brabbins asks of them, reminding the listener that at this stage in his career Elgar was more a master of the orchestra than the voice. Enigma Variations was two years away and The Dream of Gerontius three. The musical gap between Caractacus and Gerontius is very large.

The most memorable music in Caractacus lies in the two often-performed orchestral pieces – the Woodland Interlude of Scene III and the Triumphal March of Scene V. Compared with Elgar’s own 1934 recording, Brabbins strangely underplays the Woodland Interlude but more than matches the composer’s recording, from the same year, of the Triumphal March.

Caractacus is out now on Hyperion (CDA68254)

You need to watch this German masterpiece

Deal W. Hudson

February 28, 2019

Never Look Away tells kind of the story that invites superlatives and deserves them. Based upon the life of painter Gerhard Richter, it tells the story of an artist who lives through the Nazi horror and the communist stranglehold, then escapes to West Berlin where, after much trial and error, he earns success and recognition.

This narrative could have descended into kitsch, but Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes it entirely convincing. Max Richter’s score is so beautiful in places it nearly overwhelms the visuals, but that is offset by deft touches of Morricone-like dissonance and playfulness.

Never Look Away was released last year in Germany and has just opened in US theatres. At 3 hours and 9 mins, it should feel epic, but it doesn’t: World War II and the Cold War serve as background to a story which becomes more and more personal as it unfolds.

It begins with a teenager, Elizabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl), being taken away by the Nazis because the family doctor reported an episode when Elizabeth sat at the piano at home, completely naked, playing Bach. When asked why, she answered: “Playing a concert for the Führer.” Her younger brother, Curt (Tom Schilling, pictured with Paula Beer), is a young child when he witnesses his beautiful and charismatic sister taken away. Her last words to him are “Never look away”, a dictum which takes him 20 years to understand.

Curt marries Ellie Scheeben (played by Beer), the daughter of a respected doctor who is played by Sebastian Koch. Koch, who starred in Donnersmarck’s 2006 The Lives of Others, convinces as Dr Carl Scheeben, a gynecologist tapped by the Nazis to head the Court of Hereditary Health, making him responsible for choosing who is to be incarcerated, sterilised or killed. Very subtly, Koch allows a crack in his soul to be seen in his reaction to the order – he’s shocked but takes a deep breath and carries it out.

Tom Schilling makes the character of Curt intriguing: this is not just another confused artist, but one who seeks the “truth” in an era of lies. Donnersmarck includes a send-up of performance art that had the audience laughing out loud.

Curt endures much (spoiler alert), including the sight of his father, reduced to serving as a janitor, hanging from a rope. Curt’s talent is supported as long as he sticks to the “Timeless values of the people”, whether Nazi or communist. After escaping to West Germany, he meets an eccentric art professor, skilfully underplayed by Oliver Masucci, who recognises a bottled-up talent in need of some rough handling. Looking at Curt’s initial efforts, he says with near-bluntness: “This is not you.” Stung by the comment, Curt remembers what his sister Elizabeth said – “Never look away” – and then his true talent begins to emerge.

Films that take you into the wilderness with Jesus

Deal W. Hudson

March 14, 2019

It’s hard to understand why any director making a film about Jesus would ignore the face-off with Lucifer. Cecil B DeMille has his mind elsewhere in his 1927 King of Kings. Himself succumbing to carnal temptation, DeMille opens his film with a barely clad Mary Magdalene, now a prostitute in love with Judas. In his Jesus of Nazareth (1997), Franco Zeffirelli, I’m guessing, could not conceive of a suitably Botticelli-like way of depicting the wilderness encounter within his five-and-a-half hour mini-series.

By far the worst wilderness scene is in the King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray. Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) climbs with bloody feet over rocky terrain when Miklós Rózsa’s powerful film score is interrupted by Lucifer’s arrival in the form of a plummy voice-over (Orson Wells). The subsequent dialogue is so clumsy, so literal, so cardboard stiff, I was reminded of teenage actors at my local Catholic school.

As he walks out of the wilderness, Jesus meets John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) sitting with John and Andrew. At the Baptist’s recommendation they stand up and start following Jesus like zombies, no questions asked.

In the much-admired 1964 film, The Gospel According to St Matthew, director Pier Paolo Pasolini is anti-Hollywood. Shooting in black-and-white, Pasolini uses non-actors in a 1st-century setting, using language from the Gospel account. There was no screenplay.

We meet a Jesus (pictured) who is ordinary, even frail; he lacks all charisma. As he prays on his knees in the wilderness, a dark figure approaches from a distance. Jesus stands to meet him, and Satan arrives dressed as a priest. Except for a 20-second trip to the top of the temple and back, there’s no drama in the three temptations; neither face changes expression. Satan walks away, but Pasolini’s panoramic shot of Jesus walking out of the desert is worthy of David Lean.

The best of the wilderness scenes are found in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) directed by George Stevens. The screenwriting and direction move in a surprising direction. Jesus (Max von Sydow) hears some laughter and a voice from a cave. It’s Satan (Donald Pleasance), whose voice is gentle and coaxing: “Long hard climb?”

Satan tempts Jesus with the voice of a friend trying to offer a favour. Their faces are barely seen against a night sky filled with a large, cratered moon. Satan explains: I can give you this and that, because “life should be easy”. Jesus struggles for a moment but pulls himself away from the edge of the cliff, and Satan goes back to eating his snack.

Satan, after all, should be depicted as having some touch of St Paul’s “angel of light”.

A painter of pure, radiant happiness

Deal W. Hudson

February 14, 2019

Ali Cavanaugh’s figurative art has deep spiritual roots, discovers Deal Hudson

Ali Cavanaugh is a painter in pursuit of the miracle of human existence. A Catholic convert who was received in 2002, she says this of her faith: “The Blessed Mother is my constant and helps me with every step of my journey as a wife, mother and artist.” With that in mind, we should not be surprised that young people, mostly female, inhabit her work, perhaps reflecting the life she leads with her husband and four children in a small town, Ste Genevieve, outside St Louis.

Her orientation towards the visual world began early: Cavanaugh was only two when she contracted spinal meningitis and lost most of her hearing. She calls the loss “a blessing in disguise as I learned to depend on body language and reading lips to communicate”.

Cavanaugh’s reputation has grown rapidly over the last decade. In 2018 she was listed by BuzzFeed at 26 in the “The Top 100 Figurative Painters Working Right Now”. The first collection of her paintings, Ali Cavanaugh: Modern Fresco Paintings, will be released on March 15, following a showing at the Strand Book Store in New York City on the 13th.

Cavanaugh’s medium is a modern version of fresco. Prompted by her delight in the “mirror finish” after laying plaster on walls, she discovered kaolin clay, a soft, absorbent surface that lasts a long time. After some experimentation, she exhibited her first group of paintings at a NYC gallery in January 2007. They sold out immediately and her career took off after that. By 2014, Cavanaugh was being exhibited by 10 galleries in the US and abroad, and she had been commissioned by Time magazine to paint Taylor Swift.

Modern Fresco Paintings is arranged chronologically from 2007 to 2018. At the front of the book, Cavanaugh relates her life as a person and an artist. A marvellous essay by Daniel Maidman follows. He describes Cavanaugh’s paintings in terms of happiness: “The elements in her work support her depiction of pure, uncorrupted happiness: sunlight – wind – female youths – contour lines – luminous colour – translucency – symmetry – language – and focus.” I agree. The pictures start with wonder, what she calls “the unique presence of the human person”, and portray those moments when “presence” is made manifest. Cavanaugh’s happiness, frankly, took me by surprise: her depictions of playfulness, innocence and joy are moving and contain no feigned naiveté or self-conscious effort to market herself to an audience weary of a topsy-turvy world.

The first image you see, Listening without hearing (2011), across from the title page, is of a teenage girl with shimmering red hair in profile looking to the right. Her arms, bent at the elbow, have raised her hands palms-outward in front of the left side of the head as if to look away from the viewer. She wears white sock arms: socks starting from above the elbow over her hands, the stripes matching the red of her hair. She wears a modest sleeveless shirt with a slight hint of budding adulthood. She’s a classic beauty, lovely red lips, upturned nose and lashed eyes that look even further away from the viewer. The hair as it falls over her chest has a deeper, sensual, luxuriant red of the woman-to-be. The entire effect is one of innocent modesty, of a young woman comfortable in herself but wanting the freedom of being left alone.

Maidmain again is on target: “She summons happiness not from her figures but from us.” This not the happiness of teenage self-indulgence. Cavanaugh found happiness the hard way: dealing with the burden of childhood deafness and a father who abandoned her and her mother.

Unlike many who are hurt early in life, she does not turn from suffering. After moving to Ste Genevieve, Cavanaugh met Milly, a teenage girl who had “a compelling presence”, in spite of the hair loss and scarring from treatments for severe cancer. After photographing Milly, she waited a year before painting her. These are my favourite paintings in the book regardless of the backstory. This sequence maps the life of a teenage girl. As a father of a 30-year daughter, I recognise the teenager wrestling with the onset of the adult world – the shyness and insecurity, the perk and charm, the creativity and fantasy, the determination to make it through.

Not until the final chapter, “chroma”, do boys enter Cavanaugh’s visual world. This makes me wonder what lies ahead for this brilliant painter, only in her late 40s: what other lives will she explore, what ages and genders? I’m confident that whatever subjects she turns to will be revealed in a way that recognises the good that lies deeply within all of us.

Ali Cavanaugh’s paintings will be shown at the Strand Book Store in New York City on March 13 at 7.30 pm. For more information, visit alicavanaugh.com.

Deal Hudson is the Catholic Herald’s US Arts Editor

Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’ is badly misunderstood

Deal W. Hudson

February 7, 2019

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, recently condemned the New York Times for using a picture of “a nun in habit standing behind a jail-like façade” to accompany a review of Jacques Rivette’s 1966 film La Religieuse (“The Nun”). Based on a novel by Diderot, it depicts the life of a nun who is constantly beaten, tortured and, finally, pressed by a lesbian Mother Superior for sex. Donohue asks, “Now who would concoct such trash?”

Well, Diderot had his reasons, but another writer and film-maker told an equally disturbing story about nuns. Aldous Huxley’s 1952 novel, The Devils of Loudun, was based closely on historical events of 1652 that took place in that city, and in 1971 a Catholic director, Ken Russell, released The Devils, based on that novel. The Devils starred Oliver Reed, in the best performance of his career, as Father Grandier, and Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne, who convinces us of an almost unimaginable character – an Ursuline Mother Superior with a badly humped back and an erotically obsessive crush on the handsome Grandier.

One aspect of the film now jumps out at me: Loudun was a city with high, impregnable walls that allowed the persecuted Huguenots to live in safety alongside Catholics. In one of the opening scenes, Father Grandier celebrates the walls, created by special dispensation from Louis XIII, as providing both protection from religious persecution and individual freedom.

It’s understandable why Mark Kermode, in his introduction to my Criterion Collection DVD of the movie, calls this Russell’s greatest film, because for the first time he combined his extraordinary visual and musical sensibility “with a solid political underpinning”. Wait? Isn’t this a film about the Catholic Church? Yes and no, because Cardinal Richelieu is merging the power of Church and state while Louis XIII entertains at his decadent court, brilliantly portrayed in the film’s opening scene where a practically naked king arises on stage as Botticelli’s Venus.

I watched The Devils one more time after having just seen Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), another film based on historical fact – the script is taken directly from the court record of
her trials. St Joan and Father Grandier are each put to death for political, not religious reasons, though churchmen used accusations of heresy to burn them, in spite of knowing these were not true. So it follows, at the moment of Grandier’s burning, the city walls of Loudun explode and come tumbling down. And Grandier’s last words are: “Don’t look at me, look at your city, your city is destroyed, your freedom is destroyed also.”

The orgiastic scenes with lots of female nudity have aroused intense controversy since its appearance, but they are secondary to the plot. Compare those scenes, and the characters central to them, to the figure of Father Grandier. The former are cartoonish and recognised as such by the townspeople who look on. The latter, Grandier, has enjoyed carnal love with women and become secretly married to a woman he loves, but undergoing severe torture will not confess to a heresy he did not commit. He dies a true martyr with a nobility similar to St Joan of Arc.

Those who, in the name of God and decency, have condemned The Devils, have been ill-served by their preoccupation with nakedness and sex. They missed the meaning of Russell’s masterpiece.