it cannot be trivial

1992, Intaglio print on paper.

It resulted from an argument I had with a Jesuit Priest. “Michael, art cannot be trivial. You cannot make art from trivia. Art cannot be a trash can.”

This was how Father William O’Halloran let me know that my proposed sculpture installation for Swords Hall would not be allowed. Fr. O’Halloran was Vice President of Holy Cross in the spring of 1992 and he had, earlier in the semester, allowed me to install a sculpture temporarily in front of Hogan Campus Center. That success inspired me to try again.

In retrospect, I understand that every proposal made by an undergraduate seeking attention for his art cannot be indulged. But it was how he said “no” that was disturbing to me. The dialogue drifted into a polemic on the definition of art and its value.

I documented Fr. O’Halloran’s statements about art in my journal at the time. “It must be lasting. It must be exquisite. It must be magnificent.” I admit I did provoke him by asking if he believed Jesus was an artist. To which he answered, “Jesus Christ was not an artist.” Why not? “He didn’t paint anything, he didn’t draw or sculpt. Art may be directed performance, written word, music.” But he spoke freely about his beliefs and affected millions. “Jesus Christ was not an artist.”

This was an argument that I wasn’t going to win. The piece would not be displayed.

Though I couldn’t install the work, I didn’t let the conversation end there. I made 18-20 intaglio prints of a trash can on paper and stenciled each with one of Fr. O’Halloran’s statements in red ink. I posted them throughout Fenwick Hall, the main academic building on campus and home to the deans (mostly Jesuits) and Fr. O’Halloran.

After about a week, only a few remained, which I decided to take down and save. Fr. O’Halloran and I didn’t discuss art ever again, but it got back to me that a few faculty had taken the prints and put them up in their offices.

The words and definitions of  “it” as “art” stuck with me. They became the seeds of inspiration for many future works about art, religion, and safety.

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