A lot of Christians might feel shocked when they first encounter the work of David LaChapelle. A renowned photographer and film-maker, LaChapelle is equally ranked among The Top Ten Most Important People in Photography in the World by American Photo as he is sometimes scornfully called the king of ‘kitsch’ or, bluntly, of ‘bad taste’ by his adversaries. The artist isn’t too proud to answer his critics:
“I use pop imagery – that’s my vocabulary; glamour and beauty is my vocabulary. They get angry when you use pop imagery (the things that are accessible) to talk about anything other than the completely superficial. And you know what? Let ‘em be angry … I’m into narrative and clarity. I’m not into obscurity. I’m not into people having to read and research – I’m just into the title, and the image, and the image being the language. If people don’t want to take ten seconds to look at a picture and put it together, I can’t help that, but I stand by it and I love it. And I will keep doing it. And I ain’t going away.” (Taken from an interview for Dazed and Confused, March 2010, by Anna Carnick).
LaChapelle’s work displays a tremendous knowledge and admiration of western art’s history, and is peppered with Christian symbolism and imagery, as is shown especially by the ‘Jesus is My Homeboy’ and ‘American Jesus’ series.
The American Jesus series revolves around images of Michael Jackson (a lookalike that is), depicted in various Biblical and even typically Catholic scenes. If some Christians already find these questionable or offensive, they will really get irritated by the image entitled ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, which features a papal figure sitting on a throne before a pile of dead, naked men. The photographer seems to easily condemn the Catholic Church. However, when asked about his intentions behind his particular treatment of forms of corruption within the Church, LaChapelle answers with wit and nuance:
“I’m not condemning the Catholic Church — it’s too big, it’s like condemning a nation and that would be prejudiced. But what I’m doing here is pointing out an irony: Here you have an institution that has systematically protected pedophile priests and then you have an innocent Michael Jackson, who California spent millions of dollars trying to prosecute and could not do it because it was complete bulls–t.” (Taken from an interview for WWD, issue 07/13/2010, by Amanda Fitzsimons).
Moreover, LaChapelle has no problems whatsoever referring to his Catholic upbringing (the quote is taken from the same interview for WWD):
“I still go to church occasionally. I went the other day and found peace. I had this duality growing up with my dad being a strict Catholic and his brother being a priest and my mother finding God in nature, so I’ve taken a little from both [traditions].”
From the point of view of his Christian background, it’s no coincidence that LaChapelle has developed a special interest for two groups of people in particular: rich and famous celebrities on the one hand, and economically deprived young people on the other. His preoccupation with the Christ figure has led him to some enthralling insights. Those familiar with mimetic theory will find them fascinating as well.
I’m glad to share David LaChapelle’s views in the following two sections.
1. The sacrificial celebrity cults as producers of modern day ‘scapegoat-gods’
The biblical writings unanimously reject phenomena like gossip and the spread of false rumors about other people. Already one of the ten commandments forbids ‘to give false testimony against a neighbor’ (Exodus 20:16).
Those who gossip – and we are all tempted to do so from time to time – create alliances based on the exclusion of the one who is gossiped about. The Book of Proverbs warns for the seductive nature of voyeurism, and its destructive, dehumanizing consequences. People shouldn’t deliver themselves too easily to the delights of gossip:
Remove perverse speech from your mouth; keep devious talk far from your lips. (Proverbs 4:24).
The north wind brings forth rain, and a gossiping tongue brings forth an angry look. (Proverbs 25:23).
Where there is no wood, a fire goes out, and where there is no gossip, contention ceases. Like charcoal is to burning coals, and wood to fire, so is a contentious person to kindle strife. The words of a gossip are like delicious morsels; they go down into a person’s innermost being. Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart. The one who hates others disguises it with his lips, but he stores up deceit within him. When he speaks graciously, do not believe him, for there are seven abominations within him. Though his hatred may be concealed by deceit, his evil will be uncovered in the assembly. The one who digs a pit will fall into it; the one who rolls a stone – it will come back on him. A lying tongue hates those crushed by it, and a flattering mouth works ruin. (Proverbs 26:20-28).
A gossiped-about person is either spoken of in unrealistically praiseful terms, or, on the contrary, in a non-proportional degrading way. In other words, gossiped-about persons become the ‘sacred’ glue that hold certain communities together. The gossiped-about persons become divinized idols or equally deceitfully presented demonized ‘monsters’. David LaChapelle, inspired by his Christian background, clearly understands these mechanisms, as is demonstrated in an interview with digital magazine Nowness:
It is definitely true that celebrities are our modern day gods and goddesses, and we build them up and tear them down.
Madonna has been torn down. Michael Jordan has been torn down. Michael Jackson was destroyed. Like no other person in our times. You have to remember that Michael Jackson was innocent. He was proved innocent in our courts. If you read the transcripts of the trial it is insanity, it should never have gone to court. We spent tens of millions of dollars to prosecute him when we don’t have money for schools in California.
Why is that?
Not because he was a celebrity but because he looked different. He was obsessive about privacy and it made him “other,” it made him different, and he went from being the most famous, most beloved singer to the most reviled, joked about—he couldn’t open a newspaper without reading horror stories about himself.
Judeo Christian Scripture unveils and denounces the mechanisms by which a human being’s true, imperfect ‘black-and-white’ nature is sacrificed for the sake of an unreal ‘image’. David LaChapelle saw this happening to Michael Jackson (in the aforementioned interview with WWD):
WWD: Why did you choose to photograph Michael in a variety of religious scenes?
David LaChapelle: Michael had paintings of himself at Neverland depicting himself as a knight and surrounded by cherubs and angels. People might think he’s an egomaniac, but he’s not. It’s because the world turned against him. I mean, Michael couldn’t even get B-listers to show up for the second trial. [With these pictures he’s saying] “I’m not the joke and the horror the media is making me out to be.”
WWD: Michael stars in the show’s title piece “American Jesus.” Do you believe him to be a modern-day Jesus?
D.L.: I believe Michael in a sense is an American martyr. Martyrs are persecuted and Michael was persecuted. Michael was innocent and martyrs are innocent. If you go on YouTube and watch interviews with Michael, you don’t see a crack in the facade. There’s this purity and this innocence that continued [throughout his life]. If it had been an act, he couldn’t have kept it up. If you watch his  concerts from Budapest and compare it to a Madonna concert of today, you’ll see such uplifting beauty and a message that you won’t see in any other artist of our time.
In the interview with the aforementioned Nowness LaChapelle goes even further and states:
We persecuted Michael Jackson. Every person who ever bought a tabloid or watched the news, we all contributed to his death by taking in that form of gossip.
The Bible is concerned with ‘truth’ and takes sides with the wrongfully presented and the wrongfully accused persons – the scapegoats! The prophet Isaiah calls out to the people of Israel:
“You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.” (Isaiah 58:9b).
Jesus, the one who is called the Christ, even goes so far as to bless the victims of gossip and false rumors:
“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me.” (Matthew 5:11).
It is no coincidence then that the easily gossiped-about persons in the Jewish community at the time of the New Testament, like prostitutes or the infamous tax collectors, are among Christ’s favorites. He shares meals with these ‘sinners’, like with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Even one of his apostles – Levi or ‘Matthew’ – is known to be a former tax collector (Luke 5:27-39).
The apostle Paul asks us to transform our imitative, mimetic abilities in order to become ‘children of God’. Instead of reinforcing processes of victimization by imitating the ones who gossip and ‘point fingers’, he asks us to become ‘imitators of Christ’. Christ is the One who was eventually sacrificed, because he completely delivered himself to Compassion:
Be imitators of God as dearly loved children and live in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God. […] There should be no vulgar speech, foolish talk, or coarse jesting – all of which are out of character – but rather thanksgiving. For you can be confident of this one thing: that no person who is immoral, impure, or greedy (such a person is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. (Ephesians 5:1-5).
Christ completely imitated and ‘incarnated’ his ‘Father’ – a Love which ‘refuses sacrifice and desires mercy’ – see for instance Matthew 9:13. Therefore Christ could not defend himself by starting some sort of ‘civil war’, because that would imply sacrifices of others. In any case, Christ doesn’t want us to be suicidal, but he is very much aware of the risks in taking sides with the excluded and the outcasts. It might mean that these become members of the community again, but it might also have as a consequence that the outcast’s defender is excluded oneself and that he ‘has to take up his cross’ to be ‘crucified’. Christ’s preference for the victims of gossip and rumors indeed often meant he himself became gossiped-about. Nevertheless, he kept approaching people like tax collectors in liberating ways. Many a victim of gossip, like these tax collectors at the time of Jesus, imitates the reasoning of his attackers and thinks it’s ‘part of the deal’ of being a ‘celebrity’. Jesus points out that people shouldn’t accept being gossiped about by the self-declared ‘righteous’ and ‘elected’:
Jesus told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14).
2. The ‘richness’ of ‘poor’ people and the ‘poverty’ of the ‘rich’
Jesus distinguishes two kinds of motivations to give (of) oneself: there are those who give and sacrifice in order to receive some kind of ‘reward’, and there are those who give in order to let others come to life. The first are the real ‘poor people’ in the eyes of Jesus because they worryingly adhere and enslave themselves to ‘material’, ‘worldly’ things like ‘wealth’ or ‘social status’. They also have the ‘mimetic’ (i.e. imitative) tendency to enviously compare themselves to others and to compete with their thus conceived ‘enemies’ in order to ‘rise above’ them. In the above mentioned parable, Jesus denounces this mechanism wherein people not only sacrifice themselves to a deceitful self-image, but also sacrifice others in presenting them in an equally deceitful and degrading way. Real richness, according to Jesus, comes with those who develop a realistic, ‘truthful’ view about themselves and who are able to give whatever they received:
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box. He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4).
David LaChapelle pays particular attention to this kind of unconditional life bringing and therefore community enhancing way of ‘giving’ in his film Rize. Therein socially and economically deprived youngsters aren’t reduced to their situation, but are shown as talented people who are able to rebuild their communities in new, joyful and colorful ways. They really are ‘Church builders’, able to ‘give back’ inspired by the love they experience from each other. From the point of view of mimetic theory, their dancing not only ritualizes mimetic rivalry and restrains violence, but it also celebrates the grateful experience of life itself. Here’s what the synopsis of the film has to say:
“Rize” reveals a groundbreaking dance phenomenon that’s exploding on the streets of South Central, Los Angeles. Taking advantage of unprecedented access, this documentary film brings to first light a revolutionary form of artistic expression borne from oppression. The aggressive and visually stunning dance modernizes moves indigenous to African tribal rituals and features mind-blowing, athletic movement sped up to impossible speeds. “Rize” tracks the fascinating evolution of the dance: we meet Tommy Johnson (Tommy the Clown), who first created the style as a response to the 1992 Rodney King riots and named it “Clowning”, as well as the kids who developed the movement into what they now call Krumping. The kids use dance as an alternative to gangs and hustling: they form their own troupes and paint their faces like warriors, meeting to outperform rival gangs of dancers or just to hone their skills. For the dancers, Krumping becomes a way of life – and, because it’s authentic expression (in complete opposition to the bling-bling hip-hop culture), the dance becomes a vital part of who they are.
Like “Paris is Burning” or “Style Wars” before it, “Rize” illuminates an entire community by focusing on an artform as a movement that the disenfranchised have created. But the true stars of the film are the dancers themselves: surrounded by drug addiction, gang activity, and impoverishment, they have managed to somehow rise above. The film offers an intimate, completely fresh portrayal of kids in South Central as they reveal their spirit and creativity. These kids have created art – and often family – where before there was none.
It is evident that the young dancers are able to found communities in non-exclusive ways. In this way, they really are building the Church – the Community – Jesus dreamt of:
Realizing THOMAS ”TOMMY THE CLOWN” JOHNSON had become a positive role model for the kids in South Central, he created the Battle Zone to provide an alternative outlet for the kids in the community to battle it out on the dance floor instead of on the streets. In 2003, Tommy the Clown’s Battle Zone hosted a sold-out performance at the Los Angeles Forum. Tommy continues the battles every third Saturday of every month at Debbie Allen Dance Academy – a non-profit dance studio where kids from the community can learn all forms of dance training. Tommy the Clown emerged as a community icon and was asked to be a spokesperson for Governor Gray Davis’ Census Campaign which involved outreach to schools, neighborhood questionnaire assistance centers and statewide agencies which succeeded with the highest mail-in response rates in four decades. He formed strategic partnerships with counties and cities, all while delivering smiles and laughter. […] Truly an entertainer for all ages, Tommy the Clown’s mission is to reach out to communities across the world that are in need of a positive alternative lifestyle.
DRAGON was born Jason Green in Frankfurt on November 2, 1981. A military baby, he spent his initial years living throughout Germany, his very first in a hospital, the result of being born prematurely. His family eventually moved to California and settled in Compton. Dragon first crossed paths with Tommy the Clown while dancing for Platinum Clowns, a rival clown group, in competition. Dancing since the age of 19, Dragon has appeared in such music videos as Blink 182′s “I’m Feelin’ It,” and in various awards shows including the Choreographer Awards and the 2005 NAACP Awards. Outside of the Clowning world, Dragon is also an accomplished artist whose experience spans across fashion design, the graphic arts, multi-media, airbrushing, and comic book art. Now residing in Carson, CA, Dragon is currently studying to be a minister. He rediscovered the church after years of distancing himself from it, only to realize how truly unhappy he was with his life. Dragon now believes that the principles our nation was established upon – religion, principle, respect – have been compromised by our drive for material things which have no true value. Through the church, he hopes to someday help others find their own spiritual foundation for a happy life.
TIGHT EYEZ, real name Ceasare Willis, is one of the founders of Krumping. He created the Krump movement in 2000 with his brothers and Lil C and Mijo. While living in New York, Tight Eyez dreamed of launching a dance that would get everyone “hyped up.” He soon moved to Los Angeles and founded Clown dancing, which thereafter evolved into Krumping. He went on to perform with many clown groups before finally meeting and joining creative forces with Tommy the Clown. Tight Eyez has turned his life over to God and changed his life through Jesus. He uses the Krump movement to help young people in faith to change their lives. His goal is to establish his own Krump Organization, of which he would be the CEO, and hopes to open schools for youth to dance, exercise their talent and utilize their inner gifts. Hopefully, by the age of 23…
Christian Jones, a/k/a BABY TIGHT EYEZ, was born and raised in the Church. His grandfather was the founder of the Christian Tabernacle of Love, Faith and Deliverance, and his Aunt is now Pastor of Christian Tabernacle Ministries. After his grandfather passed on in 1998, he took up the organ, which he plays at services. Baby Tight Eyez learned how to Krump dance at the heels of Tight Eyez, Lil C, Mijo, and Dragon, and considers them among his closest friends in the Krump movement. When he is not dancing, he loves to hang with his homies. His goal is to launch a big dance studio where everyone could Krump for free. He would also like to buy his pastors a new church. He hopes to give back to those who do not have, to give back to his neighborhood, to give those who are as he once was.
I compiled a film with some of the documentary’s testimonies, and combined them with fragments of pop diva Madonna‘s 2006 Confessions Tour. I know that her allusion to the crucifixion of Christ – as shown at the ending of this compilation – stirred a lot of controversy, but I hope people are ableto see it as an artistic commentary on what happens when deprived people are given voice and rediscover their dignity: it means that the love of Christ, Christ himself, is in our midst. Although some of the youngsters explain their life story in a sacrificial way (in the sense of ‘I had to endure what happened to me to receive a rewarding insight or gift’ – the Nietzschean ‘What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger’ type of explanation), above all they try to ‘enlighten’ the world with their dance talents. These are really ‘tales of resurrection’ wherein the gift of life is passed on to others.
On a personal note, I’d like to end this post by thanking Mr. LaChapelle for allowing me the use of his Intervention picture for the cover of my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-’n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur. I truly consider it an honor.
By Erik Buys