Gargoyles and Gaffes

You do not have to be a communicant to adopt one of Milan Cathedral’s one hundred thirty five gargoyles. Any cosmopolitan aesthete with a spare $123,000 can help restore the Duomo’s medieval downspouts. Splendid in its ecumenicity, the archdiocese’s fundraising scheme invites “citizens of the world” to earn an engraved plaque under their very own adoptee.

Citizens of the world —a utopian term that has taken on a certain ugliness over time. It runs counter to the principle of subsidiarity that is a core precept of Catholic social thought. But let that pass. For simplicity’s sake, let us stick with the gargoyles. If Fendi, Prada or Dolce & Grabbana decline to pony up, there is always a Saudi prince or World Passport type with an eye for historic monuments. Good-will adoptions from entrepreneurs in the hospitality and tourist industry are sure to come.

Six hundred years of labor by countless anonymous craftsmen contributed to a cathedral built ad majorem Dei gloriam . Today, in the seconds needed to write a check, any deep pockets can have their names bolted to the work of centuries. It takes brass.

 

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 Meantime, down in the Duomo’s crypt, ruin of a different order is on display. Since September 22, 2005, the citizens of Milan have had their own chapel to contemporary art alongside the relics of St. Charles Borromeo. On that day, a video installation by English artist Mark Wallinger was dedicated in a small room in the cathedral treasury. Formalities began with a fusion liturgy: a ceremonial press conference yoked to a Benediction.

 

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 Mt. Hera did not come to Mohammed but the Blessed Sacrament came to Wallinger’s projection screen. And what was the image that carried such power of compulsion? Hardly anything, really. Shrewdly entitled “Via Dolorosa,” the piece is a tour de force playing in a room dim as a crack den. Gloom signals the contemplative mode, don’t you know. Besides, they always turn lights out at the movies. Here, though, the movie— Jesus of Nazareth , Franco Zeffirelli’s Christ for the Family Channel—is blocked by a large black rectangle. Only a scant fringe around the border of the screen gives any hint of a film playing behind the black-out. There is no sound track. As far as you can tell, you are watching the periphery of Charlie Chan’s Secret or a spaghetti Western. The project is a jarring incongruity in a building begun in fidelity to the belief that life was ordered by Revelation, not technology. Not technique.

According to Monsignor Luigi Manganini, archpriest of the cathedral, the Church has to court the Third Millennium with its latest upscale accessory: video art. The perfect embodiment of postmodernism, video entered the cathedral, he chirruped, “with the same force as the entire history of great painting and sculpture.” His second in command, Fr. Luigi Garbini, upped the promo: “The blocking of ninety percent of the view brings the visitor into a cloud of unknowing, in which he finally faces the free decision: to believe or not to believe.”

Park benches and bar stools exist for that sort of brief, bantam-weight brooding. Ditherers can muse gainfully over a few Rogue Dead Guy ales. It is a serious mistake to suggest equivalence between the dark night of the pilgrim soul and a night spent staring at a test pattern on widescreen HDTV. The long and daunting via negativa of Christian mysticism is cheapened by comparison to eighteen minutes (if anyone stays that long) in front of flickering incoherence. Like so much conceptual art, Via Dolorosa is a parasite upon its title.

 

mark372 Mark Wallinger in front of his installation, State Britain (2007), at Tate Britain, London.

 

It is easy to proclaim the absence of God. It is harder to proclaim His presence. A cathedral, though, is just that: a proclamation in stone. The Duomo’s shrine to digital technology reminds us that the open and candid skepticism of a secular culture is less worrisome than the unconscious skepticism of our own ecclesiasts toward the Church’s traditional patrimony. The latter risks disfiguring the Church into a superficial appendix to contemporary culture.

Raising a monstrance over video paraphernalia is a confession that the object of veneration has shifted. Installations like this fail to distinguish the Church from the secular ethos it seeks to engage. The words of Henri de Lubac apply here: “The great minds that have spoken about God are all our contemporaries.” So, too, our heritage of sublime religious art, a cultural deposit which anxiety must not displace.

CAPC Musée (cont’d)

Guide books recommend the cafe at Bordeaux’s CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art. That is as it should be. Every asparagus soup radical expects a good lunch. Gathered for Think . . . And See
,
they will want more to eat than attitude .

 

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Monika Droste and Guy Rombouts. Language as Border (1992). Permanent collection of CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain

 

Of the nine participants in this series of speakers, eight out of nine are listed as philosophers. When an art museum sponsors a program that looks like a plenary session of the International Society for Philosophers, you know that ideology, not art making, is the purpose at hand. Turn and run.

The symposium’s roster is dedicated to a hypnotic vision of the artist as a subversive force to blunt the spiritual weapons of a dying class. Taken in toto, the topics invite a reprise of Leonid Ilychev’s aim to displace “the depraved formalist art of the bourgeois West.” In Kruschev’s considered estimate, formalist art was all “dog shit,” not worth a kopek. An online browse through CAPC’s permanent collection suggests a line—straggly, but a line nonetheless—of descent from the aims of the Central Committee of the 1960s to the contemporary mindset. There are differences in phraseology and taste, to be sure. But these are historically conditioned, and more superficial than they appear at first glance. The significant and enduring link is creedal.

 

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Tonet Amoros (b. 1961, Spain), Filius Lucis #1 (1991). Permanent collection of CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain.

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The catechetical nature of CAPC’s program announces itself in the c.v. of each participant, beginning with its organizer, Francois Cusset. Teaching Philosophy of American Civilization at the University of Nanterre, Cusset is committed to undermining distinctions between gay and straight. To queer a field of study is to blur differences, to promote gender confusion, and to analyze the political and moral stakes at play in that confusion. Employed in queering American civilization, the petri dish in which queer theory was conceived, Cusset looks to the eventual queering of the French Republic. [ An eight minute video of Cusset
discussing, in English, the nature of queer theory and its migration from America to France is worth watching.]

 

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Christian Boltanski. Inventory of Objects That Belonged to a Young Woman in Bordeaux (1973-90). Permanent collection of CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain.

 

Beatriz Preciado, born in Barcelona and credentialed by Princeton and the New School for Social Research, comes billed as a leading thinker in gender studies. A professor at the Université de Paris VIII, St. Denis, she is also the author of Manifiesto contrasexual , a queer theory classic, and Pornotopía: Architecture and Sexuality in Playboy During the Cold War. She sports a trim mustache that recalls another Catalan and AC-DC tease, Salvador Dali.
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Beatriz Preciado

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Enter Judith Butler, lesbian, philosopher, and decorated gender ideologue at the University of California, Berkeley. Her métier is the “performativity of gender” and the social construction of sexual difference. Nothing is innate; it is all just theatre. Add her animus toward the “state violence” of Israel, and we have an exemplary sample of the kind of American academic congenial to European audiences.

The nerve center of Catherine Malabous’ pensées is the flexibility of the brain, the organ that she sees as the basis of many of our political metaphors. Nothing is as hard-wired as we think (hint, hint). She finds it ominous that words used to describe the brain, such as “flexibility”, are used in economic life. This leads her to wonder whether the very description of our brain today is not in fact the image of the capitalist world in which we live. [You follow the logic?] Malabou has also co-authored with Butler an inquiry into domination and servitude entitled Be My Body. The text explores the fantasy we surely all have of delegating our bodies to someone else to inhabit.

During his student years in Paris, “independent researcher” Maurizio Lazzarato was too radical for even the Italians. He went into exile in Paris in the 1970s and stayed. Since then, he has become a political entrepreneur engaged in probing immaterial labor (“cognitive capitalism”) and “post-socialist” social movements. His scheduled talk is a riff on his book The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay in the Neoliberal Condition .

Keep in mind Lazzarato will be addressing an audience weighted toward artists and art students. It is unlikely there will be many in attendance capable of addressing his contention that debt is the necessary means of social control at the heart of the global capitalist shell game. Whether the audience grasps the mechanisms of free enterprise matters not. Lazzarato cuts a romantic figure. He strides across the barricades as both participant in and theorizer of such European activist movements over the past decade as the Tute Bianche
. Let’s hear it for a universal citizen’s income.

On it goes. It is tempting to poke fun at the penny-arcade Marxism and missionary gender-bending implicit in the program. In reality, though, there is nothing humorous about it. All the nebulous opacity sounds intellectual, engagé . The stance is seductive to young aspirants to the mantle of a redemptive dissident. In just this way, we commit cultural suicide one symposium at a time. And one museum of contemporary art after another.

 

 

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.

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.