Learning to live with Madison’s newest piece of devotional public art.
If you’ve lived very long in the State Street area, there aren’t many reasons left to stand frozen and gape, eyes locked upwards, in contemplation of the coming apocalypse. On a block that’s been eaten up by bland developments and lame chains, I found the new mosaic on St. Paul’s Cathedral on Library Mall to be eerily beautiful, but not because it’s good. God no. It’s terrible. What is beautiful about the mosaic is what it communicates by accident. Without meaning to be, the mosaic is a symbol for an absurd universe, proving that we’re all flawed, especially when we’re making bold-ass decisions. The cathedral wants us to think about the coronation of Mary, but all I can think about when beholding the newly renovated building is how the human condition is one of muddling about, consciously making horrible mistakes that we can only make the best of.
There might be some redemption for Madison’s newest and gaudiest piece of devotional public art in the “so-bad-it’s-good” rationalization for consuming cultural refuse from an intellectual standpoint—the one people often apply to movies like The Room, professional wrestling, most reality television and soap-operas. This concept turns the expensive and depressing irrelevancy of various crap into something that’s “at least, interesting,” as St. Paul Rev. Mark Miller described the mosaic in a recent Wisconsin State Journal story. Perhaps the so-bad-it’s good concept is the best way of learning to live with the strikingly brazen mosaic that now visually dominates one of downtown Madison’s most well-trafficked public space. I offer this interpretation in a sort of self-defense—any other way, the monstrosity will bear down on us with our sins and inevitable mortality from on high.
So, let’s have some fun and lean into it.
UW-Madison art professor TL Solien, an accomplished painter in his own right, posted a picture of the mosaic on his Instagram last week, writing, “It’s just garishly horrific, and I have to avert my eyes, because if I don’t, my heart sinks into my basement. Sadly, it adds to all the rest of the events in the world that you just can’t believe are happening.” He also lamented the demolition of the old St. Paul’s, which he called “a beautiful Brutalist chapel”; no doubt Madison will be debating the value of Brutalist architecture even more in the new future, as UW considers doing away with the Humanities Building.
Solien is right that it’s difficult to believe that the St. Paul’s mosaic was allowed to exist at all. But that’s why I don’t avert my eyes. This is how “so-bad-it’s-good” functions. The viewer is left to wonder, not at a work of art’s aesthetic, political, emotional, or in this case religious value, but at a stunning failure of taste and a failure of the bureaucratic machinery that is supposed to stop bad things from happening. In other words, movies like Spider-Man 3 are fascinating in part because they’re allowed to exist at all. The so-bad-it’s-good experience happens when resources, time and work-power are all gathered and executed long after it would have been appropriate to say something like, “No, I don’t think Spider-Man should emo ballroom dance.” When it’s too late to say no, people get hurt, and academy award winner Kevin Costner stars in post-apocalyptic ocean-mutant thriller Waterworld. The flip-side is that the public is left with an artistic object so half-baked that when we take it at face value it becomes hilarious, even revealing.
Therefore, after we finish laughing at the absurd universe and local political machinations that would allow for something as terrible as this mosaic, it forces us to ask larger questions about the society of which this mosaic is now an inseparable part. One of the reasons the mosaic stands out so much is the blandness of the new building it sits on and those surrounding. If we ignore the mosaic (which is difficult to do), the cathedral looks about 90 percent gentrification-y highrises and about 10 percent church. One friend said it looks like a church some coders rendered in a videogame, pulled into real life. The blandness of the mosaic’s architectural frame highlights the sheer audacity of the colorful display it houses. It’s like your great-great-grandmother’s brooch that you have to pretend to be grateful about perched on an Under Armour shirt. The way the mosaic is highlighted by the otherwise boring, cheap, hastily constructed building behind it serves as an accidental critique of nearly all of the extremely boring developments popping up everywhere in Madison. It’s almost refreshing to see a building feature so bold and eager to be seen in a city in the process of high-rise domination.
The mosaic also brings to mind some of the reasons why the Catholic Church hasn’t been on top since the reformation in the first place. Back in the good old days before all this society-destroying technology (the printing press, English language Bibles, etc.) the Catholic Church had a monopoly on a religious reality, at least in a large swatch of the Western world, and so accrued a ton of wealth. Even before Martin Luther and Gutenberg helped kicked off the dawn of social media (circa 17th century), the Church was associated with ostentatious displays of wealth, a rather on-point medieval hot-take of world order that eventually contributed to the downfall of Catholic hegemony in Europe. So, this is what we’re left to ruminate on as we pass St. Paul’s. It’s just the Catholic Church being the Catholic Church. And you can never be more extra than the Catholic Church.
Finally, let us ruminate on the passage Jesus’ Bible is open to in his image over State Street. It’s Revelations 3:12: “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.”
So, we should overcome trash culture by imposing critical thinking on it anyway, because we can. (Or go no more out, if you leave near this garish thing.) Maybe we’ll get our own pillars in the temple of God someday. Maybe not.
Editor’s note: Not all religious art is so-bad-it’s-good. Kristian Knutsen reported on an exhibition of art from the new St. John’s Bible in 2015.