The Polo Shirt of Religious Art

Today consisted of a an attempt to visit some older sites and monuments in Jakarta. We managed to visit what is claimed to be the biggest masjid in Southeast Asia, the Mesjid Istiqlal, as well as the “Catholic Cathedral” across the street from it, and a chunk of old Batavia, where the Dutch ran Indonesia for a long time. Batavia was polluted, loud, and full of people; if the air had been closer to breatheable, we might have enjoyed the microcircus we saw performing a little more.

The Masjid is what one expects of a masjid: big open spaces, not heavily ornamented but with a lovely, enormous dome above the main prayer hall. The most surprising thing was the number of people just hanging around, sleeping on the huge prayer rug, and goofing off with cell phones and little point-and-shoot cameras.

The shock of the afternoon came when, earlier and across the street from the masjid, we wandered into the local cathedral. It looks like a lot of cathedrals around the world from 1901, ie, somewhat ornate but not insanely so, and rather pretty with what looked like some local touches. There was a wedding ongoing, so I didn’t shoot too many pictures. (What I did shoot will land on Facebook, but not for a while, because the internet access I’m getting these days is, well… yeah, I’ll wait to upload till I get to Korea… and hopefully upload pics from my trip to Laos a couple of years ago while I’m at it.)

Anyway, the Church: yeah, it was when the singing started that my heart sank. I’ve been to masjids, to Buddhist temples, to Hindu temples, and at each place some degree of modernity had crept in. But the music in Catholic Churches — recognizable worldwide, by the way, from its earnest, inoffensively tonal strains, its simple (and incessantly repeating) sub-Broadway-melodies accompanied by mediocre piano music. It is inoffensive, but also unflattering, uninspiring, and completely interchangeable piece-to-piece.

It reminds me of the polo shirt, a style that itself is styleless: it bespeaks, in both women and men who don it, a milquetoast conservativism, that thoughtless preppiness, that mediocre concession to fashion. It makes men look all alike, and flatters not at all the female form; rather, it is — at least in Korea, where it remains immensely popular — the shirt of refuge for women who hate their bodies. It is less a fashion than an inoffensive option from a set of options set out before one of a certain mindset or social class and background — social class and background so often translating to mindset anyway.

Yes, indeed, Catholic Church music is the polo shirt of religious music. Which, when you have actually heard the works of Ockeghem, and Bach (Lutheran though he was), and other amazing European composers who produced sacred repertory, is especially depressing. Europe’s finest music was written on church coin, and now the best they can offer is folksong sing-along verse-chorus-verse. So predictable and unartistic it hurts. Hurts, I tell you…

It’s like having the Bible translated by Hallmark Card writers, just to achieve mass appeal. Sigh. Anyway…

9 thoughts on “The Polo Shirt of Religious Art

  1. Ha, well, I can’t speak for the newer translations — little point in reading them, for me anyway — but I think there are some important bits of poetry in among the crazy genocidal injunctions and fairy tales of the King James Bible, at least. It may not be a creditable translation — *that* would be far too alienating for a modern Western reader, given the nature of the original text — but it is at least literary.

  2. Joe,

    Hmmm. I bet you love the business suit, too? Another piece of clothing I mostly dislike. (And which, despite the impression one in Korea might find to the contrary, I am assured is essentially disappearing from professional life in American. A lawyer friend put it this way: it’s just peons and salesmen who are expected to wear them with any regularity: people who actually matter are wearing them less and less…)

    But I am curious — do you really love the fact that polo shirts are singularly unflattering to the female form?

    1. Not that I’m a regular, but the music at Masses I’ve happened to be at in Korea was just as bad as the music I mentioned in the post.

      Note, I don’t glorify the older church music just because it’s old; it’s superior music. If the Church were to hire people like Steve Reich and Taverner and Arvo Part and Michael Torke to write church music, I might even attend occasionally, just to hear the live performances of new, quality music. Sadly, it all sounds much more like repertory from The Carpenters or something.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *