In this paper, I describe the particular anxieties expressed in response to an exhibit of contemporary art in a medieval space owned and operated by the French Catholic church in Paris in the winter of 2009. Expecting to have their desires for France’s medieval past both met and confirmed as markers of true taste, the three-part installation by the Italian arte povera artist Claudio Parmiggiani unsettled many visitors. Many expressed their discomfort by arguing that before them was not a work of art, but the work of vandals, specifically, the work of those living in Paris’s banlieues. In so doing, they linked the exhibit to the work of particular kinds of outsiders—the first, second, and third generation Muslim immigrants with connections to former French colonies. While the leap from a contemporary art installation in a medieval space to complaints about young Muslims in Paris’s suburbs may appear rather abrupt, the fact that numerous visitors made such a comparison in ways that appeared legible to others around them points to the powerful role that Catholic spaces, objects, and images play in reproducing a particular idea of France. When the Parmiggiani exhibit appeared to disrupt their fantasy of France—a place in which a particular kind of medieval past could be reborn in the present—many visitors associated it with the practices of those they have learned to consider irredeemably other.
Elayne Oliphant is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Religion Studies at NYU.