The Privilege of Being Banal
Art, Secularism, and Catholicism in Paris
- ISBN: 9780226731261
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: April 2021
The French state is known for its laïcité, the separation of religion from the public and political sphere. At the same time, populist nationalists and mainstream politicians increasingly invoke Christianity as central to French national identity. Against this background, Elayne Oliphant’s The Privilege of Being Banal: Art, Secularism, and Catholicism in Paris makes an insightful intervention that furthers our understanding of the relationship between religion and secularity, both in France and beyond.
The book is an ethnography of the Collège des Bernardins in Paris. Built by Cistercian monks in the 13th century, the Collège was purchased from the City of Paris by the Catholic Archdiocese of Paris and opened to the public in 2008 as a “space of encounters, culture, and research,” where the focus is on lectures, classes, music, and art exhibitions, rather than Catholic ritual practices (1). The Collège is categorized as a cultural rather than a religious space (9), but Oliphant shows that Catholic objects, images, and spaces (Catholic “materiality” ) can often oscillate between these categories. She studies the Collège and its activities, strategies, visitors, and employees as an example of what she calls “Catholicism’s privileged banality in Paris – and indeed in France – today” (3).
Oliphant describes this banality as twofold. On the one hand, Catholicism is “invisible” in the Parisian public sphere. The presence of Catholicism—“from crucifixes to paintings of Christian narratives to neogothic churches” (4)—seems normal and inconspicuous to many and is seemingly compatible with the widespread assumption that Catholicism has vanished in France (5, 111). On the other hand, Catholic materiality can be publicly appreciated without appearing at odds with laïcité (6). The privileged position of Catholicism becomes especially clear when compared to Islamic symbols and practices, which are highly contested in the French public sphere. Referencing Mayanthi Fernando’s The Republic Unsettled (Duke University Press, 2014), Oliphant shows that “the appearance of Catholic materiality in the public sphere does not ‘unsettle’ the republic in the way signs of Islam do” (17). Quite the opposite.
Oliphant’s central question is why a space like the Collège appears necessary in France today (7). The answer, she argues, is that “France still needs Catholicism today because it never actually dismantled distinctions and inequalities in the way that its national myths presume” and “a project like the Collège is necessary because it offers an aesthetic ground for that tenacious inequality” (7). This quotation shows that Oliphant’s inquiry into why France needs Catholicism does not take a moral, sociological or psychoanalytic perspective. Rather, she focuses on how the privileged banality of Catholicism in France (re)produces inequalities.
Throughout the book, Oliphant explores how the project of the Collège allows for condoning and often entrenching inequalities between Muslims and Catholics, black and white, rich and poor (7). What is especially original about this approach is that it does not side with either camp in the current debate on secularism and Christianity. Rather than argue that secularism is a continuation of Catholicism (“Catholaïcité”), or that Catholicism has been transformed by the disciplinary power of the secular (“secular Catholicism”), Oliphant explores how these two narratives are used—implicitly and explicitly—to perpetuate structures of inequality (14-15).
In addition to its introduction, the book consists of three parts. Each part focuses on different sets of tensions in the Collège’s project and how navigating them contributes to patterns of privilege. In the first part, “Curating Catholic Privilege,” Oliphant describes how the Collège oscillates between “evangelization,” resisting secularized Catholicism, and—more often—“normalization,” which highlights France’s “Catholaïcité” (chapter 1). She also explores the choices and repercussions of framing contemporary Catholicism in France as either a “renaissance” or as a “crystallization” of what was already there (chapter 2). Each time, Oliphant asks which perspectives and differences are (conditionally) included (certain forms of feminism and Judaism [39, 87]) and which are excluded (primarily Islam [39, 67, 81]).
Whereas the first part discusses the Collège’s events and strategies more broadly, the second and third part focus on its first four contemporary art exhibits. Part 2, “Mediating Catholic Privilege,” describes how the Collège’s art programs secure Catholic privilege, either by “enlivening the [Catholic] materiality of the space of the Collège” (29), thereby facilitating visitors’ exclusionary interpretations of the artwork on display (chapter 3), or by “aesthetizing” religious motifs, thereby reinforcing Catholicism’s place in the European art canon (chapter 4). In these chapters, Oliphant elegantly bridges discussions about social and political inequality and “the regime of art” (23).
In part 3, “Reproducing Catholic Privilege,” Oliphant discusses art exhibitions that had the potential of providing a critical perspective on Catholic privilege but were met with resistance by visitors. Chapter 5 discusses the fetishization of Catholic materiality and chapter 6 interrogates how visitors’ approach to art was shaped by capitalist perceptions of value and its relation to class. In this final chapter, Oliphant includes a discussion of the banality of privilege broadly construed, drawing connections with Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the “banality of evil” by arguing that both can be understood as “thought-defying nothingness” (209). Those who expect an elaborate study of Arendt might be left wanting more, and there could have been more engagement with contemporary privilege studies, but the link between Arendtian “thoughtlessness” and the banality of Catholic privilege is convincing.
The book closes with a brief epilogue on Catholicism’s privilege in the broader French public sphere, focused around the symbolic importance of the Notre Dame Cathedral in the aftermath of the fire in 2019. The epilogue leaves the reader with many more questions, including about the relation between Catholicism’s privilege and Islamophobia, the role of social and political laïcité, and intersections between religion, class, and race. However, this only shows the importance of this work.
Oliphant’s book shifts the gaze away from minority religions, and the question of their “integration,” to ask instead how Catholic materiality often provides the background of who is (not) seen as “belonging” to the French nation. In doing so, she makes an important contribution to the timely debate about religion in the public sphere, both in contemporary France and beyond. The book is accessible for non-specialist audiences, and highly relevant for scholars working in various disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, political theory, and religious studies.
A. Sophie Lauwers is a PhD candidate at the Department of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen.
A. Sophie LauwersDate Of Review:May 5, 2022