Thursday, December 12, 2002

Here in Catalonia creches--you know, representations of the stable where Jesus was born with the figures of the shepherds and Joseph and Mary and the like--are very popular. Down at the Plaza de la Catedral they're holding the Fira de Santa Llucía, St. Lucy's Fair, where stands that sell figurines and such are set up, and in the Plaza Sant Jaume they put up a large-scale Belén (Bethlehem, as they call it). Some places even have Belenes vivientes in which people represent the creche figures. By the way, this column in Spanish by Quim Monzó from the Vangua a couple of days ago is well worth reading. I'll translate the first paragraph. (I recommend Monzó for people who read Spanish or Catalan pretty well. The guy's written some good stuff, especially in the short story, essay, and newspaper column departments. And he's no idiotarian, though he's not especially conservative. Just Google his name and you should get plenty of links.)

Last week Barcelona Parks and Gardens posted on their website that the creche they set up every year in the Plaza Sant Jaume will this time serve as a political protest against "the serious situation that thousands of people are suffering in the Near East and the need for dialogue for peace". The creche will be "inspired by the Palestinian countryside" and there will be dunes, palms, olive trees, bushes...I reread the text without managing to understand what the political protest content was. Will they put figures of Israeli soldiers and tanks between the chestnut tree and the aluminum foil river? Will there be Palestinians holed up in a miniature reproduction of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem? Will the caganer have the head and body of Ariel Sharon? Maybe even, infiltrated among the little shepherds, they'll put a figure of a Hamas militant about to blow himself up with a belt of explosives.

Says Robert Hughes in his must-read-for-anyone-who-wants-to-come-here, Barcelona :

If you find yourself in Barcelona just before Christmas, go to the Cathedral and browse the stalls that have been set up in front of its façade, where figures for the creche are sold. They are what you expect; the shepherds, the Magi, Mary, Baby Jesus, the sheep, the oxen. But there is one who is a complete anomaly, met with nowhere else in the iconography of Christendom. A red Catalan cap, or barretina, flopping over his head, the fellow squats, breeches down, with a small brown cone of excrement connecting his bare buttocks to the earth. He is the immemorial fecundator, whom nature calls even as the Messiah arrives. Nothing can distract him from the archetypical task of giving back to the soil the nourishment that it supplied to him. He is known as the caganer, the "shitter", and he exists in scores of versions: some pop-eyed with effort, others rapt in calm meditation, but most with no expression at all; big papier-mache ones three feet tall, minuscule terra-cotta ones with caca pyramids no bigger than mouse turds, and all sizes in between. During Christmas 1989, the Museum of Figueres held an exhibition of some five hundred caganers, borrowed from private collections all over Catalonia. (There are, of course, collectors who specialize in them.) It was solemnly and equably reviewed in the Barcelona papers, with close-up photos of one or two of the figures, just as one might wish to reproduce a David Smith totem or a nude by Josep Llimona. The origins of the caganer are veiled in antiquity and await the attention of scholarship. Sixteenth-century sculptures of him exist, but he seems to be curiously absent from medieval painting. He is, essentially, a folk-art personage rather than a high-art one. His place is outside the manger, not inside the altarpiece. Yet he makes an unkistakable entrance into twentieth-century art in the work of that great and shit-obsessed son of Catalonia, Joan Miró. If you look closely at The Farm, Montroig, you will see a pale infant squatting in front of the cistern where his mother is doing the washing. This boy is none other than the caganer of Miró's childhood Christmases; it may also be Miró himself, the future painter of Man and Women in Front of a Pile of Excrement. Nor can it be an accident that the other scatologist of modern painting, Salvador Dalí, was a Catalan.

Hughes goes on to have a little fun with the Catalans. Everything he says is, of all things, true.

The Catalan preoccupation with shit would make Sigmund Freud proud; no society offers more frequent and shining confirmations of his theories of anal retention. In this respect, the Catalans resemble other highly mercantile people such as the Japanese and the Germans.

The pleasures of a good crap are considered in Catalonia on a level with those of a good meal. Menjar bé i cagar fort / I no tingués por de la mort, goes the folk saying: "Eat well, shit strongly, and you will have no fear of death."

The image of shit has a festive quality unknown in the rest of Europe. On the Feast of the Kings, January 6, children who have been good the previous year are given pretty sweetmeats; the bad ones get caca i carbó, "shit and coal", emblems of the hell that awaits them if they do not mend their childish ways. These days the coal is left out (not true: you see sugar-candy colored black in the shape of lumps of coal) and the gift consists of brown-marzipan turds made by confectioners, some elaborately embellished with spun-sugar flies. Then there is the tío, or "uncle", a cross between the French bûche de Noël and the Mexican piñata. This artificial log, filled with candy and trinkets, is produced amid great excitement at Christmas; the children whack it with sticks, exclaiming "Caga, tiet, caga!" ("Shit, Uncle, shit!") until it breaks and disgorges its treasures.

Hughes then goes on to explain that Remei's village's hero, Vicens García, the famous Rector of Vallfogona, Catalonia's greatest (and only) Baroque poet in the early 17th century, wrote On a Delicate Matter, "which roundly asserts that no person, however low, not even a Portuguese, could have anything bad to say about shit."

Here's a Vanguardia article from last Christmas season; seems that somebody made the mistake of letting members of the Great Unwashed, the Teeming Millions, the Booboisie, or whatever you prefer to call them, know that caganers existed.

The caganer war has broken out. A controversial display by the Catalan artist Antoni Miralda in the Copia Museum in the town of Napa, California, has awakened the protest of the inflential Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, which has 350,000 members, and which is demanding the removal of some of the figurines on display. Contacted by telephone by this newspaper in his studio in Miami, Miralda said he was "very worried" and "enormously surprised" by the situation, since "we're dealing with a work that does not have the slightest intention of causing offense." He added, "The problem is that these people haven't understood anything at all."

Although, in Catalonia, the appearance of a celebrity as a caganer means nothing more than his consagration in the world of fame, on the other side of the Atlantic, Miralda wakes up every day these days with aggressive cover stories from local newspapers where, next to photos of his figurines, the question "Is this culture?" is asked, and the letters to the editor even talk about "pornography". William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said yesterday, "I don't understand what motive he has to show the Pope and some nuns defecating to show his appreciation for Mother Nature."

"I've already spoken with the management of the museum," says Miralda, "and they're very worried. They're going to talk to the Catholic League and explain to them what a caganer is and I hope they'll retract. I've already told them that, in my country, these objects are bought in front of the Cathedral as part of the holidays." Though he doesn't know how everything is going to turn out, he says, respectfully, that whether or not to remove his figurines or not "is the director of the museum's decision." But the director, Peggy Loar, will not give in, she said yesterday.

...Miralda isn't sure why this has happened to him when "there are so many publications and exhibitions with caganers--even the Metropolitan has them in its collection of creches!" Nevertheless, to the Catholic League, the exhibition is "insulting, gratuitous, and unnecessary," and Donohue states that he will fight against it because "it is financed with taxpayers' money". The Copia Museum is one of Robert Mondavi's projects--he is one of Napa's most important winemakers; he contributed $20 million. The museum, which has received very good reviews, ended up costing $74 million. the difference was paid for by the state of California. Its annual budget is covered by private donations.

Just a couple of comments: 1) I don't buy that "no desire to offend." This guy must know that there are conservative religious groups in the US, since it's part of the stereotype that Americans are religious nuts. He's an artist, so he must have heard of the Andrés Serrano Piss Christ hoo-haw and that other one, I think at the Brooklyn Museum, where they had the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung or something. If he'd just exhibited plain old regular caganers, probably no one would have said anything, but the Catholic League (didn't they use to be the Catholic League of Decency or something like that, or was that another organization?) disapproves of depicting the pope and nuns taking a dump. If Muslims objected to depictions of Mohammed taking a dump, I think their disapproval would be taken into account. Remember, the Catholic League wasn't angry about the caganers in themselves, it was angry that the leader of their religion was depicted in such a disrespectful way. 2) This is why I am against spending ANY GOVERNMENT MONEY AT ALL on arts and culture and the like. If people want museums, ballet, drama, and the like, let them pay for it themselves. I am willing to make an exception for the Smithsonian and for other such national museums, the British Museum and National Gallery, for instance, or the Louvre or Prado. Don't tell me that museum couldn't have been done for half the price with generous contributions from Robert Mondavi's wine-growing pals. It's not like Ernie and Julie Gallo are running short of cash.

By the way, here's today's editiorial cartoon from the Vanguardia. Check it out.

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