What is it about contemporary art—every international art fair’s signature product—that qualifies it as an engine of evangelization? If the Church’s magnificent patrimony of high religious art has not stayed the attrition of Christianity in its homelands, can we expect today’s fashionable brands to speak more eloquently to the heathen art crowd who turn up at these spectaculars?
The Vatican has abandoned its earlier attitude toward contemporary art as “the breakdown of art in modern times.” Previously misunderstood as a “debacle,” it is now recognized as a “language.” It follows, then, that the Vatican should learn to speak it, yes? Mischief, however, resides in that word language.
Contemporary art, properly understood, is simply the art of our contemporaries. There is a wealth of gracious and impressive work to be found among them; yet what they create is, in the main, excluded from the term. Contemporary art denotes a marketing category. Its products are recognized by the degree to which they conform to a look, much of it—not all—rooted in Dada and drenched in the ritual theorizing of the academy. What the Vatican refers to is not a language at all. It is a style, a visual disposition that has expanded to include installation art and its flickering cousin, video.
Art collector and advertising mogul Charles Saatchi entrenched the sensibility—its bearing and reigning posture—by trademarking it as “The Art of Our Time” in the mid-1980s. He pioneered the positioning of contemporary art as a brand, or a cluster of brands. Like cosmetics or designer labels, it could be built on promotion. Contemporary art, stripped of rhetorical packaging, is as much a consumer confection as a vacuum-sealed packet of Starbucks Reserve Sun-Dried Sumatra Rasuna coffee.
In a consumer culture, it is image, not substance, that separates the sheep from the goats. By seeking “a dialogue” with contemporary art, the Vatican will be conversing with an image crafted for the global marketplace by admen fabricating the yardstick of what contemporaneity requires.
In comments to the New Statesman this past November, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, revealed his receptivity to the lure of the brand:
We are trying to get a dialogue up and running between the church and contemporary art—particularly artists at the highest level. We are looking for world famous people. Venice is a showcase for all the big countries in the world and the Holy See would like to be there too. We’re trying to get the best of international artists on our side who can create new works with a religious or spiritual subject./
Artists take commissions as they come. That is hardly the same thing as being “on our side,” in sympathy with Christian commitments, or in any way aligned with the ethos of the gospels. It is off kilter, this Vatican ardor to set up shop at the Venice Biennale. The Arsenale is not the Court of the Gentiles. It is the glossy core of an international circuit of vulpine dealers, speculative collectors, tight-lipped inside traders, money launderers, and courtiers (gallerists, artwriters, consultants, and entrepreneurial curators) who constitute the global art world—a phenomenon not identical to the world of art.
Saatchi himself has soured on the merchants in Venice. He stayed home last year from the “comprehensively and indisputably vulgar,” yacht-infested Biennale. He should know. Writing in The Guardian on “The Hideousness of the Art World,” he complained:
It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard. . . . Artistic credentials are au courant in the important business of being seen as cultured, elegant and, of course, stupendously rich. . . . even a self-serving narcissistic showoff like me finds this new art world too toe-curling for comfort. In the fervour of peacock excess, it’s not even considered necessary to waste one’s time looking at the works on display.
A rant from the best pitchmen in the business! Discounting for professional jealousy, it is all the more delicious since it comes from the very one who did so much to cultivate the ground under the cardinal’s crush on international brands.
If art carried the power of conversion granted to it, tourists would exit the Scrovegni Chapel on their knees. Bernard Berenson, the old serpent and opportunist, would have been as great a soul as he was a connoisseur. Joseph Duveen and his client Henry Ford II would have knelt for the Angelus together.