Our Daily Bread and Roses – An Interview with Ben Wildflower
About three or four years ago, I began to see a strange, arresting, and beautiful image circulate among some of my Twitter and Facebook friends—a stark white and black agit-prop expressivist engraving of the Virgin Mary with a defiant fist raised in the air while she stomps on a twisted Satanic serpent, encircled by a cartouche inscribed with a variation from the Magnificat, “Cast down the mighty, feed the hungry, lift the lowly, send the rich away.” Other pictures in similar style followed. One print depicted Mary punching a beastly many-headed dragon composed of the various demons of our contemporary age (including one wearing an ICE hat and another in a MAGA cap); another is a monochromatic icon of a disheveled looking Dorothy Day smoking a cigarette over a cup of coffee; and yet another revealed a medal of Mary depicting her as surrounded by flaming drones while she uses a homemade aerosol flamethrower to immolate Confederate and Nazi flags. Encircling the Mother of God are the words “O Mary Conceived Without White Supremacy Pray For Us Trying To Dismantle This Shit” (the original is in all caps).
Pennsylvania artist Ben Wildflower’s prophetic prints arrived at an appropriately apocalyptic time in American culture and politics. Extreme nationalism and incipient fascism became increasingly mainstream while the ever-widening gulf between the hyper-rich and the rest of us (continues) unabated, encouraged by two generations of immoral neoliberal policy underlined by the twin specters of imperialism and ecological collapse. There were also reasons for hope as well, as socialist and anarchist politics long seen as non-starters became increasingly embraced by those left behind by predatory and exploitative economics. Central to this moment was the resurgence of the Religious Left, a diverse assortment of individuals and groups encompassing ideologies from mainstream #Resistance liberalism to socialists, with self-declared members among both Catholics and Protestants, mainline and evangelicals, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. For some on the Religious Left, arguably the most justifiable position that one can take on Christian politics based in a reading of the New Testament would be embracing anarchism, whereby “neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.”
Betsy Shirley explained in a profile of Wildflower for Sojourners that “as Christian anarchists see it, the problems that exist in our nation – poverty, white supremacy, militarism, economic inequality, and on down the list – are not aberrations… but rather inescapable outcomes” of a sinful system. A Philadelphia transplant, Wildflower fuses both the low church prophetic urgency of the former Quaker colony with the gothic visual idiom of his adopted city. Working within a deep and venerable tradition of transgressive Christian protest art, Wildflower is an Anglican convert who described himself to Shirley as a “high-church low life.” Among a segment of engaged Christian leftists his pictures have become increasingly popular, profiled in both Sojourners and The Washington Post. Their readers are drawn to his art, which valorizes a Christianity dedicated to destroying the “myths and idols of systems oppression so that we are freed to love and serve one another,” as he explained in a blog post. In Wildflower’s radical, ecstatic, revolutionary, transcendent, sacred, and profane art there are intimations of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages and the Reformation engravings of Lucas Cranach, seventeenth-century mezzotint prints and evangelical religious pamphlets of the Second Great Awakening, Lynn Ward’s 1929 wordless graphic novel Gods’ Man and the political cartoons of the Catholic Worker, and an irreverent, DIY punk aesthetic that’s pure Philly.
Wildflower was generous enough to spend some time talking to me about radical art, politics, and faith.
Did Christianity lead you to anarchism or did anarchism lead you to Christianity?
I’ve grown in and out both of those labels since I was a kid. I’ve never responded well to authority and I’ve often been in need of mercy. I’m not terribly attached to the word “anarchist.” It just fits. In history I see the people who had faith enough to demand a better world and they didn’t serve the power structures that existed; they sought to break them. Occasionally somebody says, “You can’t support X if you’re an anarchist,” and I just say I can do whatever I want. No bad way to be an anarchist so that’s nice.
Is there something unique to the theology of Christianity that you think lends itself to an anarchist political program?
Yes. What is grace but anarchy? The message of Christianity is that all debts are paid, all the captives are set free, there is no score board in the sky measuring your rights and wrongs. The cross is the end of punishment and reward. There are no deserving and undeserving. The Gospel is handouts for the least deserving, commuted sentences for the most guilty, equal wages for the unproductive. Mercy is abolition. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like a bunch of people working various hours in the vineyard but all getting full pay. Christ’s description of the rearrangement of the cosmos represented by his advent is the abolition of the wage system.
Preachers love to preach about forgiveness but almost nobody believes it. We’ve invented this whole backstory to not have to believe it. We say he wasn’t talking about real life, that it’s all about these netherworlds when you die, and faith is just willing yourself to assent to these propositions of this cosmic calculus that would have had you tortured if Jesus hadn’t showed up and done a few things. That’s stupid as hell and it’s the only way to weasel out of the real demand of Christianity: that the whole punishment system is dead.
Within scripture, what passages, narratives, characters do you personally find to be the most haunting?
The consistent condemnation of wealth as such throughout the New Testament. I don’t know how to deal with it on a personal level and don’t know to what extent my own relative wealth blinds me to what I really need to do.
One of the things that I find the most moving about your art is how it identifies certain structural iniquities as not just economic transgressions, but moral and ethical ones as well. In what sense can we think of things as structural racism and privilege as operating through the nature of fallenness, through sin?
I think that’s what sin is. Sin is the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. There’s this other conception of sin that it’s a bunch of discrete acts that are sins, that they function just like laws. We’ll call that the God-is-a-Cop theology of sin. I don’t think it makes sense or even helps point anyone’s moral compass in the right direction. God-Is-A-Cop theology I think correctly understands that the whole of society stands condemned for all this suffering, but it gets there in a really messed up way by saying God’s mandatory minimum sentence for any act of sin is eternal conscious torment and you have to do this weird legal move where you give your mental assent to certain propositions about how Jesus takes responsibility for your crimes and that makes God not send you to hell. That sounds fucked up, but it’s basically what any tract some street preacher shoves into your hand says.
The God-is-a-Cop construction of sin perverts people’s sense of right and wrong. It makes all “sins” equally sinful and I think this framework is why you so often see evangelicals talk about “sexual sin” as this big category where sexual assault by men in positions of power is treated as no different from happy and healthy gay marriages. But if we understand that sin exists as the oppressive power structures we have built and that society runs on, then we can see patriarchy and homophobia as the problems, rather than primarily thinking of discrete acts as countable sins (“You had sex with your girlfriend. One sin. You smoked a cigarette afterwards. Two sins.”) Seeing sin as oppression rather than law-breaking allows us to heal from the actual powers of Sin and Death.
I don’t see political philosophy and theology as separate disciplines. When I say that “laws” are arbitrary, bureaucratic, and selectively enforced to maintain one group’s power at the cost of keeping others oppressed, then “sins” are also arbitrary, bureaucratic, and selectively enforced to maintain oppression. The world will not be made a better place by policing “sins” or “laws.” Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.
In your prints, there is an evocation of Medieval art, Byzantine iconography, Catholic folk art, even evangelical outsider art. Where do you primarily draw your aesthetic sensibility from? What draws you to the aesthetics which you find most useful, or beautiful, or important?
I try to cultivate a democratic sensibility when it comes to art. I like looking at Medieval art at the museum, but more often than that I go for walks at a nearby abandoned pier where graffiti artists practice. There’s both overhyped hack work and beauty at both. My favorite church in terms of actual physical beauty is the Church of the Advocate here in North Philly. It’s a beautiful gothic building with grey stone statues and tall stained-glass windows. Huge wooden panels hang from the walls and are painted in vivid colors interpreting Biblical texts through the Black experience in America. In one panel a pink-and-white-faced necktie-wearing businessman points a gun at a black man and squeals in agony as he is stabbed through the face with a sword held by the black figure lunging forward, holding a torch in the other hand. When the artist was pressed about the violence in the images he replied, “We are talking about the crucifixion.”
The art in Church of the Advocate is a touchstone for me. The church is a lot of things at once. It’s a preserved conservative tradition, but it’s also the legacy of the people who rebelled against that tradition. That same holy ground between all those bright violent murals and beneath an austere slate grey crucifix is where the first eleven women ordained in the Episcopal Church were ordained in defiance of the sexist policy saying they couldn’t be. Christianity is a lot of things. Part of what I have tried to do with my art is what I see done in the nave of Church of the Advocate. The only way I know how to do the necessary work of repenting of my religion requires being rooted in it. It’s easy as a Christian believer to just say, “Oh, I’m Christian, but without the misogyny/colonialism/whatever.” That’s actually just a cop out of dealing with how those things are baked into the structure. The whole Church and all its art and liturgy belongs to the people. It’s a living thing that I engage with.
Another obvious artistic influence for me is The Catholic Worker. Fritz Eichenberg’s Christ of the Breadlines is something I’d seen volunteering at soup kitchens before I even knew anything about The Catholic Worker. The whole Catholic Worker project of forming a community to honor, serve, and advocate for the impoverished and oppressed, to find your place loosely in an institutional church that would just as often prefer you not be a part of it, is something I think any faithful believer will have to do in some way or another. That anarchistic sensibility informs my faith and art.
Is there an artistic lineage you see yourself as working within?
As mentioned above, the Catholic Worker’s woodcut artists like Fritz Eichenberg and Ade Bethune. More broadly, the world of protest art, zines, and DIY basement screen printing. And, repeating my point with regard to the ancient and modern art at Church of the Advocate, all art belongs to the people. Religious devotional art and protest art are huge traditions to grow from. I don’t feel a need to narrow down which part of it I belong to as one little artist. Anybody who chooses to be a part of a grand artistic tradition can be. Gatekeeping is for Satan and his minions. I’m glad to be a part of a tradition of artists with wide open doors.
Your art, drawing on a venerable tradition of Christian protest and agitation for social justice, obviously envisions a very different picture of the faith than sometimes appears in mainstream contemporary Christian art. What do you think of conservative Christian kitsch of the Thomas Kincaid or the Jon McNaughton variety? Are they worth thinking about at all?
Yes, they are definitely worth thinking about. Thomas Kinkade’s “art” represents everything I hope to destroy. His “art” asks nothing of the viewer. The viewer confronts nothing, nor are they drawn closer to nature, others, their Creator, themselves, or any noble idea whatsoever. He’s called “the painter of light,” which is funny, because he is exceptionally bad at painting light. Reflections on idyllic waterways correspond to no light source in the painting. The sunset pictures somehow have brightly illuminated pastel flora in the foreground, even though the light source is clearly painted behind. He simply doesn’t paint shadows. The windows of the cottages and lighthouses glow so bright that the only possible explanation is that the insides are on fire. These images soothe, but make no sense. It’s fantastical, but not like a good sci-fi or fantasy novel that gazes at an alternate universe to better understand this one. He paints a picture of a world with nothing wrong with it. Nothing’s more dangerous than people who think the world is basically good and that all you need is positivity. Want to see art better than Thomas Kinkade? Walk into any construction site port-a-pot. See where somebody has drawn a penis or written such-and-such contractor is a scab. That is art.
If all that is said of my artistic legacy is, “He was no Thomas Kinkade,” I count that a success.
Jon McNaughton is a whole other thing. He makes devotional art to the gods of death. If you want to worship the lethal status quo he will be the medium. He’s good at art like America is good at war. He is the “you” in the sentence, “Woe to you who call evil good and good evil.” He paints a strong and wholesome Donald Trump, a harmonious American heartland, a pasty White Christ, hordes of invading migrants, white picket fences, unjustly maligned muscular white cops, the red-white-and-blue bunting altar cloths of the front porch altars of nondescript Midwest white towns. Here’s an art prompt for you: a photorealistic oil painting of a millstone around Jon McNaughton’s neck as he is cast into the sea. He literally painted Trump crushing the head of a serpent. White Evangelicalism tried to find Antichrist art in death metal album covers and didn’t bother to look at this “Live, Love, Laugh” fascist kitsch hanging in suburban living rooms.
So much of the secular press often reacts to anything with a hint of Christianity as being retrograde or reactionary, while your own work is obviously far more politically radical than mainstream secular media. What sorts of reactions have you gotten from people who aren’t necessarily Christian? How do conservative Christians and evangelicals react to your art?
People are usually nice to me. It’s easy to forget that, but most people, religious or otherwise, just smile, and say, “Interesting,” or something like that, even if they don’t really like it. The Evangelical Religious Right (the beast whose belly I was reared in) have spread a narrative that Christians are persecuted, belittled, intentionally misconstrued, and mocked for their beliefs. As it turns out, we rarely are and looking back I see that I was groomed to do those very things to people of other faiths. For many people, hearing that you go to church is like hearing that you collect and catalog vintage hats and caps or know a lot of facts about salamanders: eccentric, maybe, but harmless. The only visceral anger I’ve encountered is from conservative/fundamentalist evangelicals and some groups of reactionary Roman Catholics I only know about from Twitter called “tradcaths.”
What piece of yours have you found that people most respond towards? What piece has been found to be the most controversial?
The Magnificat is by far the most well-known. It’s also the piece that has elicited the most controversy, but it’s usually evangelicals who have no idea the words are from the Bible that are worked up about it. The controversy never bothers me. Nobody angry about it is a tangible part of my life and social media platforms have mute and block features. Sometimes conservative Catholics get upset about one that has the word “shit” on it.
How did your understanding of the purpose and meaning of art shift when you converted to the Episcopalian Church?
In the American brand of evangelical Christianity I was raised in but never home in, the only way to be an artist was to just make the crappy version of something already out there: Christian movies, Christian music, even Christian painters. As a kid I was somehow subscribed to a Focus on the Family publication called Breakaway (there was a girl version called Brio) and both had this section in the back where kids would write in and say, “Hey Bob, what do you think of the new Britney Spears/Rage Against The Machine/Blink 182 album?” and he’d write, “It’s bad. Too much cleavage. Anti-family. Not a good model for the youth. They say the F word 18 times. Try listening to a God-honoring musician like ____ instead.” Then he would suggest a band that absolutely sucked.
My experience hasn’t been that traditional liturgical traditions have a robust appreciation for art; they just don’t have a built-in aversion to it the way that the subculture that brought you The Left Behind series or the God’s Not Dead movies do. The words of the liturgy, the musical settings, the smell of incense, icons, stained glass, and sculptures are just allowed to be beautiful and aren’t threatened by beauty outside their walls. American evangelicalism is a stifling place to be either honest or creative. I’m grateful to not be stifled now, but I don’t particularly credit the Anglican tradition with being a place for the arts to flourish.
In Sojourners, you’re quoted as saying that the Episcopal Church is a “bourgeois institution.” What would it look like for a church, any church, to be actively not bourgeois?
“Take all your wealth and give it to the poor.”
Marian themes are so prevalent in your work; how did your understanding of Mary change after your conversion? What’s radical about Mary?
My Marian devotion, if it can be called that, was/is a gradual thing. In my early days of flirting with Anglicanism I started praying the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer, so saying the Magnificat on the days I got around to evening prayer made an impression on me. The casting down the mighty from their thrones bit was burned into my brain pretty quickly. I’d find myself mouthing the words to those few stanzas while walking to class or laying in bed. I eventually made an effort to commit the passage to memory and it became an evening ritual to whisper the Magnificat to myself as I crawled into bed, having failed to do any other of the Daily Office prayers or readings.
There’s something approachable about Mary. I can’t relate to Jesus. There’s a simplistic feel-good sort of Christianity in which the participants pretend to be enamored with the personality they project on the historical figure of Jesus. People say how much they love Jesus. There’s a certain subgenre of contemporary evangelical church music that’s an over-affected ode to Jesus the great big boyfriend in the sky. One iteration of this kind of Christianity brought us WWJD bracelets (What Would Jesus Do? What a stupid question.) We have very little to work with in Scripture if we want Jesus as a moral guide. The WWJD sort of question can misfire in a couple ways the What Would Mary Do question doesn’t. WWJD creates self-righteous white saviors.
I don’t relate to Jesus. Jesus loves me. This is not a particularly nice feeling in my experience. I don’t experience the love of God through Christ as any kind of soothing comforting feeling. I never have. As an aside, part of the toxicity of evangelical Christianity, especially its more charismatic and Pentecostal expressions, is the way it demands that children pretend to be experiencing ecstatic or otherwise positive feelings in the context of worship services. This stuff fucked me up as a little kid. I always preferred telling the truth. Sunday School taught me to lie. So anyway, I’d long since given up on trying to have some kind of “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but was still somehow drawn to the blood, and drawn to the angry Jesus who would ransack the temple courts.
I can follow Mary.
What do you mean by that exactly?
A few days after my son was born I found my wife holding him and sobbing. I asked what was wrong and she said, “It’s terrifying to love someone this much.” She went on to recount a time a man tried to kill me, and how after that she no longer knew how to pray for my safety. No matter how much she wants to protect him, she knows there are no guarantees in this life. We’ve seen too many parents outlive their children. Mary gave birth in a world hellbent on killing her child, a world that eventually did kill her child. There’s Hallmark channel bullshit about what a parent’s love is like and it’s part true, I guess—I breathe in my son’s presence while he sleeps on my chest, I smile for no reason other than seeing his face—but it’s also terror and loss of control. Mary teaches me a Christianity that’s not fixated on some otherworldly or abstract spirituality. She teaches us to cradle the fragile mortal flesh and blood, betting our whole life on the weak and defenseless, siding with the doomed, weeping at the atrocities we saw coming. Mary attends to her child even after he’s dead. I don’t know if Mary at the foot of the cross had any hope, but I can’t help but think that after hearing her son scream that God had abandoned him she may have had no hope too, but she stuck around and bore witness anyway. It’s a harsh world and I don’t see hope or belief as some kind of obligation. I just want to join the Marian practice of staying put in the places God has abandoned.
Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, saying, “I want them to see what they’ve done to my baby.” I see that as a Marian sensibility in action. In this world where the powers of sin and death have manifested themselves in acts of white supremacist terror, she, like Mary, had the courage to continue to publicly keep loving her son even after he’d been killed and his body desecrated, his name tarnished by lies. If more of us had that courage we could dismantle the structures that create and allow that kind of violence.
Powerlessness isn’t the whole of it obviously. Mary is powerful, just not in a way I was brought up to understand power. Like any organized hierarchical structure, the various manifestations of “Christianity” or “the church” sometimes devolve to little more than a celebration of their own power structures, clubs to celebrate the patriarchy. Many church structures have all-male leadership, and whether a denomination’s leadership is all white/western or not, those voices have outsized influence in big scale operation. All this makes it easy to forget that the average Christian is an African woman. As Sojourner Truth pointed out in her “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, man had nothing to do with conceiving the “son of man” at all. Christ was born of God and a woman. The story of Mary choosing to bear Christ is the story of a patriarchy-free incarnation.
I see Marian devotion as a corrective to a faith that, while ultimately is a message of liberation for all, is so often caged and managed by the powers that be to uphold the kind of world that crucifies the innocent.
Things like the Magnificat, the Beatitudes, and so on, so clearly seem to announce a radical political program. That being the case, why do you think Christianity is so often a handmaiden to the status quo?
Name anything beautiful that didn’t to some extent get co-opted, sanitized, deodorized, stripped of its revolutionary potential?
Ed Simon is the associate editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, where he specialized in seventeenth-century religion and literature. Regularly published at a number of different sites, he can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.