An Aesthetical Conundrum

Decadence was brought about by the easy way of producing works and laziness in doing it, by the surfeit of fine art and the love of the bizarre.

—Voltaire, The Princess of Babylon (1748)


Voltaire’s linkage of decadence to an overabundance of fine art earns consideration, perhaps now more than ever. Art stuffs pile up around us; and we live, increasingly, with an overemphasis on—even reverence for—aesthetics that is less a sign of refinement than a malaise. It is an unhealthy condition, all the more precarious for exalting aesthetics, a strutting Enlightenment product, up, up into the embrace of theology.

Designated carrier of the True and the Beautiful, art has a baneful way of veiling history. It works to displace it or render it inconsequential beside the sweeter fruits of historical inquiry. Traditional history might as well be bunk. Only art history is redemptive. It is salvation history brought up to date for an over-ripe culture with no taste for the character and complexities of its own past .

This occurs to me whenever I am at the Frick. The complex gives no hint of Henry Clay Frick’s provocative, iron-fisted role in the bloody strike at the Carnegie Steel plant
in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. A consequential setback to workers in dangerous heavy industries in the early days of the labor movement, it cries for acknowledgment. Yet nothing disturbs the patrician calm of the Gilded Age mansion that houses the Frick Collection. If anyone had occasion to benefit from the presumed moral powers of art, it was Frick himself. But that is another matter. What counts here is that he left us the glittering yield of his purchasing power. He had intended his collection to be his monument. And so it is.

 

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Illustration of the armed combat at the Carnegie Steel plant. Published by National Police Gazette in July, 1982.

 

Duveen , S.N. Behrman’s 1955 biography of Frick’s dealer, includes comments on the entrepreneurial prodigy who had vowed to become a millionaire by the age of thirty. The paragraph extends to nearly all standard commentary on Robber Baron collectors and their wares:

The article on Frick in the Encyclopedia Britannica runs to twenty three lines. Ten are devoted to his career as an industrialist, and thirteen to his collecting of art. In these thirteen lines, he mingles freely with Titian and Vermeer, with El Greco and Goya, with Gainsborough and Velásquez. Steel strikes and armed Pinkerton guards [300 of them] vanish, and he basks in another, more felicitous aura.


That leads us to the Garden Court, a grand Roman atrium added to the Frick mansion a tad more than a decade after the owner’s death. In a seamless act of aesthetic genius, architect John Russell Pope linked the original mansion to the posthumous extension by means of an atrium that filled what had been an alley for cars and carriages between 70th and 71st Street. [You can take a virtual tour of the dazzling Garden Court here .]

 

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  I love the Garden Court. I love to sit on the stone benches and listen to the measured gurgle of water spilling from the mouths of two bronze frogs at either end of the pool. It is a sound out of time, a lovely, liquid undersong that calms, consoles, and in some untellable way, transports. It is a place to brood on the voice Tennyson gave to a bubbling brook: “For men may come and men may go,/But I go on forever.” Within listening distance of those steadfast frogs, I can cruise to altitudes unattainable at home.

Days after my last visit to the Frick, I heard the identical sound again. There was no mistaking it. Trust me. There was the same aqueous fluency, flowing at the same pace and babbling at the same modulated decibel level. This time, though, I was home.

The toilet was running. A mundane, repellant little noise, it stirred ugly visions of dollar bills swirling down the drain to Bell Plumbing. I hated it.

But wait. The connoisseurship of the listening ear has standing, yes? Then why not just close my eyes and take pleasure in the sound until it is fixed? Why not extract something agreeable out this of damned nuisance? While I waited for a new flapper, rubber gasket, or spud washer for a tank manufactured in the same decade as the Garden Court, I should relax and let the sound conjure up another spot of poetry.

I tried to. I failed. But that is beside the point. What matters is the identical character of the sound, the chatter of the Frick’s fountain interchangeable with—indistinguishable from—that of my treacherous toilet. Surely the equivalence and my disparate responses to it signify something about that cagey pretender, the aesthetic sense.

John of Damascus defined s ense as “a faculty of the soul by which material things are perceived, or distinguished.” My hearing is fine. Could my soul, then, be at fault for cherishing the sound in one place and loathing it in another? Or does the aesthetic sense share something with real estate—a critical dependence on location, location, location?

 

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.

 

Infrequently Asked Questions

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 .
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Slug (2009); Anish Kapoor, on the short list of artists under consideration for Vatican City’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale

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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.
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“The moment I saw this my heart cried out that it could triple in value.” William Hamilton for The New Yorker

 

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.
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Detail of The Nativity by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel

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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.

Capturing the Absolute

Painting does not replace religion, but almost.

Anonymous Collector C46

Art is an intermediate state between heaven and earth. Absolute Beauty is God. Through art we glimpse a portion of that beauty. There is something ecstatic in it.

Anonymous Collector C29

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“Pius VII Forming the Collection of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana,” Domenico De Angelis (1852-1904)

Both quotations occur in the doctoral dissertation of French sociologist Raymonde Moulin, published in 1967 as Le marché de la peinture en France. An abridged translation appeared in English in 1987 under the title The French Art Market: A Sociological View. The mechanics of the market have changed dramatically since then. At the time Moulin was writing, the market’s center of gravity had already shifted from Paris to New York. Today it is shifting again, eastward to such places as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dubai, and, along with the HSBC Golf Championship, Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, the core of Moulin’s landmark study remains remarkably current.

She turned a sharp eye on the typology of collectors. Each specimen group, from the packrat, the social-climbing prestige buyer, to the scholar-collector and the speculative one is subject to a witty and pithy inquest. Excepting, perhaps, the purely speculative, all types can find blameless justification for the mania to amass in metaphysics. That presumed glimmer of transcendence runs a sacral patina over an elite recreation. Moulin wrote: “Art is a form of, or substitute for, sacred things, and collectors use it to slake their thirst for the absolute.”

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“Pius VII Collects Etruscan Vases,” Domenico De Angelis. From the collection of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

From that alone we might expect our shepherds, those consecrated few who know a little something about the Absolute, to be immune to infection by ostentatious collecting and/or commissioning bugs. Uncreated, C29?s Absolute Beauty can be neither commissioned, purchased, nor possessed. Yet “the lasting pleasure of absolute possession” remains the drive behind every collector, whether a cardinal or a retail baron.

Before more absolutes pile up, let us leave the word to Collector C60:

Having a painting in your home is quite different from looking at it elsewhere. It’s the same way with women. Marriage is one thing, having a woman on Saturday night is another. The problem is always one of sole possession.