There was a brilliant response to David Bowie's latest music video, The Next Day, from the Catholic league. Bill Donohue, president of said organization declared it the work of a "switch-hitting, bisexual senior citizen from London" that "is strewn with characteristic excess." A little dose of the pot calling the kettle black in terms of excess I think, but whenever religious or catholic images and ideas are addressed in these ways we shouldn't be surprised. On one level this video is predictable and trite--transfer sacred imagery into profane space and you have enough controversy to generate comments like those from the Catholic League.
Mieke Bal, the Dutch cultural theorist makes some key insights about Western society. She declares that there are three important considerations that must be taken into account when examining what is happening within western society. Christianity is there, meaning that it is impossible to begin to think about cultural analysis without acknowledging the theological underpinning of the western world. Secondly, Christianity is a cultural structure that informs the cultural imaginary whether one believes it or not, and finally, that Christianity is just one of the structures, it is not the only cultural structure, nor the only religious structure that underpins who we are or have come to be.
I think her theory helps to explain the ongoing appropriation of Christian imagery in contemporary culture, be it via the work of Damien Hirst or Bowie, Christianity was one of the interlocking structures that formed our world and it remains, even as a ghost in the machine if you will.
So Bowie creates a critique of religion and presents himself as a sort of 'prophet,' which is echoed by Gary Oldman in the video, and eventually 'ascends'--technically disappearing from their midst, but if we take the imagery to logical extensions that's what we are seeing realized. There are the usual madonnas, stigmatas, bishops and clergy, all of them inhabiting, perhaps running a brothel of sorts. On the one hand it is a classic and almost tired stereotypical critique of religion's hypocrisy, unfortunately it remains a prescient critique because of on-going scandals and revelations about sexual activities amongst relgious communities that claim the moral high ground with regard to sexuality and other issues in life. The video enacts a sort of battle between the sacred and the profane and perhaps raising questions as to whether or not the truly sacred is the profane.
The treatment for the video apparently came from Bowie himself but was realized with the help of photogrpaher and director Floria Sigismondi, who has worked with a lot of edgy musicians--Marilyn Manson, Bjork, The Cure, as well as more mainstream artists like Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry. She has a signature style, developed out of her art and sculptural interests which she defines as "entropic underworlds inhabited by tortured souls and omnipotent beings," much of which could be seen in this video. The collapse of sacred and prfoane boundaries can be provocative stuff by itself, when it gets charged erotically, as in the case of this video, you can see why people might get incensed.