Museum Theology

Glancing quickly, I misinterpreted the opening lines of a recent bulletin from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa . My eye fell on a reference to the Venice Biennale and, at the same time, on a thumbnail image of a contemporary chapel. At once devotional and festive, it looked to be a lovely ensemble. My immediate impression was that the Vatican pavilion would contain a model chapel, a beautifully designed invitation to prayer—a challenge—addressed to the international art crowd.

 

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I was ready to recant all my misgivings about Cardinal Ravasi’s foray into the belly of the casino: I take it all back! Ravasi pulled it off! He is reminding high-flyers that the Christian West still holds. Hats off, Your Eminence!

Then I read more carefully.

What I was looking at had nothing to do with the Biennale. It illustrated a liturgical model already in use by the Neocatechumenal Way, designed by its founder Kiko Argüello. Some Catholics dismiss these images as pseudo-Byzantine—a charge made, I suspect, out of disfavor with the liturgical practices of the Way. (No such dismissal is aimed at Ken Jan Woo’s icons of modern saints, commissioned by Fr. George Rutler, that surround the sanctuary at Our Savior’s Church in Manhattan.)

Yet there is nothing counterfeit about Argüello’s paintings. They do not pretend to be anything but modern. No antiquing glazes mellow surfaces with a patina of age; nothing softens the modernity of hard-edged forms. Unmistakably contemporary in execution, his work simply follows the pattern of ancient iconographic guides. Doing so, it witnesses to the enduring power of the icon tradition, one worthy of restoration.

But the Pontifical Council for Culture has its eye on decorations for the Church of What’s Happening Right Now. That is where pseudo comes in.

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Chiesa ‘s broadcast included a link to Magister’s blog in L’Espresso . His May 17th entry offered a tiny photo of the cardinal posing in front of one of his selections with the artist, Lawrence Carroll. Born in Australia in 1954, Carroll is an American painter who lives and works in New York and LA (also Malibu and Venice, depending on which bio you read). His exhibition history is impressive. It includes prestigious venues from New York and Beverly Hills to Rome, Barcelona, Bergamo, Munich, Helsinki and points in-between.

Cardinal Ravasi has been carefully advised. Judging from this first peek into his choices for the Biennale, the Vatican pavilion will be obedient to that amalgam of interests held by dealers, collectors, museum directors and trustees (collectors themselves), and curators that comprise the speculative contemporary art market.

 

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It may yet happen that the Vatican pavilion will knock the ball out of the park. But Cardinal Ravasi’s opening move does not suggest a man of distinguished taste or independent judgment. On the contrary, it declares him one of those many aspirants to connoisseur status who have little sensitivity to what is front of their eyes. Dependent on consultants, they respond to market value, fashion, and fetishizing rhetoric. Behind the high sounding references to “dialogue between art and faith” lurks—on the face of it—a profane drive to become a celebrity player on the international scene.

Start with Carroll’s submission. What photographs as a delicate tracery of drawn lines is really a nest of electrical cords from a hardware store, plus a few light bulbs, draped against sackcloth-covered canvas. (I trust the surface is sack cloth—or a mix of sackcloth and pigment—because Magister calls it that. Also, sackcloth is in sync with the artist’s taste for debris, the stock materials of Arte Povera.)

The light bulbs are a prosaic hand-me-down from the 1960s. The exquisitely complex constructivist-inspired forms of Lásló Moholy-Nagy (d.1946) were the first to marry light to art works. All modern Light Art owes its beginnings to Moholy-Nagy. Dan Flavin and James Turrell are among the best known contemporary names, but a host of others have followed Moholy-Nagy’s seventy year lead. Many have created stunning works, such as the one below by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Carroll’s styleless bulb caper is a bewilderment by comparison.

 

400px-OlafurEliasson_TheWeatherProject Olafur Eliasson. Installation of The Weather Project. Tate Modern, London, from 10/16/03 to 3/21/04.


Incandescent light bulbs hanging from wires? No one with a modicum of memory can look at Carroll’s offhand improvisation without immediately thinking of Larry Rivers’ notorious electrified assemblage Lampman Loves It (1966). A monumental standing male figure penetrates another from behind. Rivers’ bulbs were strategically hung; Carroll’s are inconsequential.

Has the Vatican’s Grand Acquisitor been had?

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All contemporary work arrives with an accompanying users’ guide. Vatican copy writers produced this for Carroll:

The hope inherent in the Re-Creation [the third segment of the pavilion] is reflected in the specificity of the art of Lawrence Carroll. Its ability to restore life to recycled materials, transforming them through processes of reflection and regeneration, against all odds opens new possibilities for coexistence of seemingly unrelated dimensions as monumentality and fragility

Artspeak is artspeak, whether it comes from a secular flack or one in red piping. Call it museum theology. Either way, its hallmark property is horseradish.

Seemingly unrelated dimensions? The Pontifical Council for Culture has forgotten Ozymandias. Every school kid in the Western world learns Shelley’s testament to the fateful intimacy between these two dimensions. The fragility of man’s monumentalizing impulse has had an iconic, quotable prophet since 1818. Carroll’s multi-media constructions hover willy-nilly where Ozymandias’ cenotaph ends. Nothing beside remains; boundless and bare. Specificity is precisely what Carroll studiously avoids, together with any suggestion of life.


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1991-2012 Lawrence Carroll. Layered Painting (1991-2012).


To be honest, it is just that aspect of his recent work that appeals to me. At their best, Carroll’s pieces can generate a certain melancholy. These are mood pieces, bleak and disconsolate. Redolent of decay, they augur the cessation of life, not its restoration. Colossal wrecks.

Carroll’s work is that kind of minimal abstraction that photographs to good effect. A professional photo minimizes crudities of construction and blends disparate materials into a congenial whole. If you tour photo essays of his work, you will find pieces readily adaptable to architectural spaces—but corporate spaces, not sacred ones. Each piece is a conceptual blank onto which any meaning whatever can be projected. The same work would suit equally the headquarters of Absolut Vodka, Bank of China, or Greenpeace. Its inherent neutrality accommodates any sponsor from Mercedes-Benz to Catholic Charities.

And that is not a strike against the works themselves. It is just that corporate culture and sacrality are not compatible. The cardinal’s choice corporatizes Christian visual culture while it grants benefit of clergy to corporate culture. This is no small matter, given the symbiosis between corporate cultural politics and the arts.


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440px-Table_Painting_VENICE Lawrence Carroll. Table Painting (2008). Museu Correr, Venice.


If the light bulbs recall the 1960s, so does Carroll’s entire repertory of materials. It was 1967 when Italian painter Michelangelo Pistoletto piled up his used studio rags around a plaster statue of Venus. Arte Povera was born. Pistoletto’s disgruntled stunt was inflated into a manifesto against high art and parlayed into a guerrilla movement by theorist Germano Celant. Venus of the Rags was lionized as a finger in the eye of privileged consumers of beautiful objects. Here, at last, was art made from “authentic” material more accessible to ordinary folk.

Fashion loves a movement. By the mid-seventies, the guerrillas had been invited in from the cold. Arte Povera has been sitting at high table since. Carroll’s calculated aura of dissolution is the common property of Arte Povera gone upscale—polished, pretentious, and pricey.


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Correr-026 Lawrence Carroll. Installation (2008). Museo Correr, Venice


Déjà vu keeps coming. It was also in the 1960s that Henry Geldzahler was installed as the first curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum. An ambitious careerist, he introduced Pop Art and its progeny into the sanctum of the Met. Andy Warhol arrived at the museum’s party for Geldzahler’s celebrated 1969 exhibition New York Paintings and Sculpture 1940-1970 (known around as “Henry’s show”) and introduced himself as “the first Mrs. Geldzahler.”

With Cardinal Ravasi now channeling Geldzahler for the Vatican, maybe we can call Lawrence Carroll the first Mrs. Ravasi.

 

The Church Suffering

This past November, Cardinal Ravasi posed in New Statesman as the Vatican’s impresario of contemporary art. At the same time, a continent away, Bishop Johnson Mutek Akio of South Sudan stood with his people under genocidal assault by the al-Bashir regime. The cardinal’s ambition to get the Church back into the contemporary art business was hailed as “a bold move.” Silence greeted the bishop’s valor in risking his life to sustain a persecuted diocese. Heroic endurance in the face of Islamic terror does not conform to the sensibility—or insensibility—that understands culture as a kind of sauce poured like hollandaise over daily living, over thought and action. And it does not make bouncy copy.

 

the-massacre-of-the-innocents-1587.jpg!Large Tintoretto. Massacre of the Innocents (1582-87)

 

There is a two-year wait to book “the cardinal of culture” for speaking engagements. He blogs, tweets, tells jokes, quotes Nietzche, and endorses Darwinian theory. The operative word is theory , but New Statesman failed to notice. It was too charmed by what it took for maverick behavior. “An undeniably intriguing clergyman,” it chirped.

No conference planners have been waiting to book Bishop Akio, survivor of nine assassination attempts. When he died last week of kidney failure at fifty-five, the press took no notice. Googling for an obituary, I found only a line in WikiDeaths 2013 with a link back to a hastily inserted two-line identifying note. That, and the same scant comment on the website of the Diocese of Torit, South Sudan. Hardly more than what appears on the toe tag of a body in the morgue.

 

15th C. fresco Anonymous. Slaughter of the Innocents (15th century fresco)

 

Posted on Torit’s website is a brief article about the bishop’s mission, written nine years ago by David Alton of Jubilee Campaign. Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Torit, the bishop and his people are intimate with aerial bombardment, famine, massacre, and mutilation. In one two-week period in 2004, seventy two bombs reduced the bishop’s residence to ash. His compound housed a primary and secondary school that served more than two hundred children. It was obliterated. Alton wrote:

Early years’ education for South Sudan ‘s children involves learning the difference between the engines of UN relief planes and the bombers—and then running for your life. One of Bishop Akio’s priests told me: “People are living like foxes in holes, just to survive.”

Torit has been forcibly Islamised; the Koran imposed; the road signs changed to Arabic and water and medicine only given to people who have changed their identities to Islamic names. One group of 180 children had been taken to Khartoum and radically indoctrinated, encouraging a hatred of their parents, and turning them into child soldiers.


At heart, the New Evangelization is no different from the old. Sanctity and courage are the dual engine of it. Art counts for far less than is thought. While it remains the lifeblood of those who make it, art is less important to the true meaning of culture—something distinct from the culture trade—than Cardinal Ravasi and the Pontifical Council for Culture believe. W.H. Auden had it about right:

The artist, the man who makes, is less important to mankind, for good and evil, than the apostle . . . . However much the arts may mean to us, it is possible to imagine our lives without them.


Bishop Akio was such an apostle. May God welcome him home and comfort his afflicted people.

 

the-massacre-of-the-innocents-1629 Nicolas Poussin. The Massacre of the Innocents (1629)

 

Note : My thanks to Mike Walsh of Maryknoll for bringing Bishop Akio to our attention in his comment on the previous post. And we can hope, with Archbishop Chaput, that Pope Francis will keep the Church’s eyes directed toward suffering Christians in the Middle East.

Venice, Redux

My term “engine of evangelization” might have created some confusion. Let me clarify.

God knows, the art world is mission territory. To be sure. But that is not the purpose of Vatican City’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. No one proposes to proselytize the money changers with a lagoon view at the Hotel Danieli. The Vatican seeks to become a player on the contemporary art scene ostensibly to counter the wider, prevailing drift toward secularization. As Newsweek phrased it, the Vatican “hopes to revive its cultural side” with new interpretations of “tired spiritual art.” Put more candidly, the Vatican is making itself a supplicant, soliciting secular affirmation of the Christian vision from the proxy gods of our time.
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Sky Piece to Jesus Christ (1965), Yoko Ono. Performed at Carnegie Hall, the piece
consisted of members of the orchestra being wrapped in gauze as they played. As the wrapping thickened, the musicians could no longer play. Bound together, they rose and left the stage.

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Going by Cardinal Ravasi’s words to journalist Kamila Kocialkowska in the New Statesman this past October, you too are the object of this aesthetic evangelization. The cardinal is quite clear about it :

Today our problem is to get ordinary people to welcome this type of art. We need to help them to understand that art is part of the spirit.

It would be nice to think that this is a misquote, a cobbling together of the cardinal’s comments in a shallow approximation of his meaning. Unhappily, we are left with what appeared in print. As is, it bespeaks wondrous condescension toward his intended audience, those still in the pew no less than those long gone. In the light of the gospels, and under the sign of original sin, cardinals are ordinary people,too. Just like the rest of us. More to the point, there are more pressing problems in our post-Christian era (e.g. the implacable slouch toward barbarisms large and small) than conversion in taste to contemporary art.

Yes, we can say art is part of the spirit. But which one? The spirit of the age? Of Screwtape, Pangloss, Moloch? An ear for cant remains a more critical—and creative—aid to the kingdom than an eye for products of the international art trade. Art is thoroughly of this world. It is not revelation, as litanies of appreciation pretend. It can oblige any purpose, soothe any heart, demonic or blessed. And the spectrum of man’s creativity is hardly exhausted in the arts.

Romano Guardini’s prescience in The End of the Modern World, written a full six decades ago , has application here:

The cultural deposit preserved by the Church thus far will not be able to endure against the general decay of tradition.

It is worth considering to what extent the Vatican’s Venice caper, simultaneously pious and market driven, reveals the smiling face of materialism in our time. There is high risk that it will spread belief in nothing more compelling than contemporary art.

#askpontifex

Saints . . . reformed the Church in depth, not by working up plans for new structures, but by reforming themselves. What the Church needs in order to respond to the needs of man in every age is holiness, not management.

Joseph Ratzinger


 

Our president has a hashtag; now our pope has one, too. Benedict acquired it just in time to bequeath it to his successor. The next pope will inherit #askpontifex together with an audience already bundled and delivered. Is that not cool?

Very cool. And the very reason it gives pause.

According to The Guardian , Twitter’s own sales department courted the Vatican diligently. Eager to boost sales in Europe, its consultants were “extremely keen to pull in yet another hugely influential microblogger, following the popularity of the Dalai Lama and Barack Obama.” Twitter wanted another celebrity account. The Vatican gave it one.

The impetus behind the Holy See’s enthusiasm for a social networking presence is Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council on Culture since 2007. A Twitter apologist, the cardinal is the engine behind Vatican City’s pavilion in the upcoming Venice Biennale and a front-runner among papabili at the next conclave. I want to add a bit more about the cardinal and his embrace of contemporary art. But that can hold. First, let me clarify the case for unease with this digital initiative.

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Cardinal Ravasi posing with the cell phone he uses for tweeting, at his office in Rome

Without a doubt, Twitter has multifarious managerial and tactical applications. It is a logistical tool, useful for organizing, strategizing, distributing information and instructions. While it can serve barbaric purposes as readily as benevolent ones, my concern is not with the technology itself. The technological structure of the modern world is a given, one that grants us much to be grateful for. My skepticism is directed solely toward the incongruity of this particular technique as a tool of evangelism. Especially as it was inaugurated in the name of a man as deliberate and discerning as Benedict.

The popular press was not slow to grasp that there was something discordant, inapropos, in the news. Andy Davy’s cartoon in Britain’s The Sun hinges on the disconnect between street argot—a lingua franca across the Twitterverse—and modes of papal expression.
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Twitterspeak is fundamentally alien to Benedict’s style. His sophistication and attention to nuance—the subtleties of theological reflection—is nullified by the very structure of the service. One hundred forty characters constitute only a sound bite, one more ephemeral utterance that, of necessity, omits more than it conveys. There is a certain pathos in the Vatican’s utopian expectations for a dumbed down, de-incarnated form of speech that, in this instance, masquerades as a conversation. No conversation was ever intended. Set in gear prior to Benedict’s resignation, the digital chase was all one way. You could friend the pope; but he would not be friending you.

Like many busy, high-profile users of Twitter, the pope can absent himself from the process. Surrogates are on hand for the tweeting. As the Vatican concedes, papal tweets will be produced by aides entrusted with broadcasting a virtual simulacra of Benedict’s —and the next pope’s—pastoral voice. (Social media become more a-social the higher you go up the scale of prominence.)

So far, a least one million dotcomrades have added @pontifex to their repertory. Perhaps it warms you to think that the pope really does have divisions after all. Still, they are many degrees of separation from the real thing. It is discomforting to ponder the credulity of a public susceptible to the fantasy that, somehow, it is in communication with the Holy Father.

This is one particular exercise in virtuality that risks further malformation of what it means to be social, let alone Christian. It runs substantial risk of reducing faith to truncated verbal gestures and substituting the vapidity of one hundred forty characters for living witness. Our faith is lived and expressed person to person. In Hopkins’ luminous phrasing: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his. /To the Father, through the features of men’s faces.”

It remains to be seen if the Vatican’s use of Twitter can foster a fully human faith in a culture increasingly dependent on contrivance and illusion—which Benedict warned against just weeks before adopting Twitter. We pray that it can. If it cannot, it will bring the Church into greater conformity with the lust for banality that drives popular culture.