To The Point With Aesop

Those old sayings stay with us for good reason. Our bones absorb them in childhood; we can never outgrow them. Later, as adults, we find ourselves forever surprised by the truth of them. No small part of our initial moral education is owed to Aesop. His bestiary brought warnings against all kinds of vanity, thick-headed mischief, and unkindness. His dictums came to us together with our first prayers.

Let us not fret here over his status as an historical figure or, as some surmise, a legendary one. What matters is that, writing three centuries before the author of Ecclesiastes, the creator of these tales remains our first catechist. Much on my mind recently have been two aphorisms we owe to the body of work identified as his: You are known by the company you keep and, alternately, Birds of a feather flock together.


Walter Crane. Title Page. The Baby's Own Aesop (1877). The Pierpont Morgan Library, NYC.

Antiquity did not shy from the reality—the necessity—of bringing judgment to bear on character. No dithering non-judgmentalism addled Graeco-Roman wits. A swift, irrevocable act of judgment is central to two familiar Aesop’s fables. In The Donkey and the Purchaser, a shrewd farmer knows immediately the character of the animal he has bought by its beeline to the laziest, least productive of his barnyard companions. 

Moral: Man is known by the company he keeps.

In The Farmer and the Stork, a net spread over newly seeded ground traps a stork amid pilfering cranes and geese. The stork pleads for his life. He is, he insists, a worthy stork, a bird of excellent character and not to be confused with that riff-raff caught in the net. Besides, he had no idea those fellows were stealing seeds. But the farmer will have none of it. Sorry, stork.

Moral: Birds of a feather flock together.

Anonymous. Agricola et Ciconia, Translation by Hieronymous Osius (1574).

Appropriate to contemporary power struggles in the Vatican, with its factions and shifting alliances, the fables are a useful guide to the complexion of Francis’s tenure. The sanity of the ancient fabulist cuts through obfuscating decorums that grow by accretion, like a coral reef, around the papacy. In Aesop's day as in our own, men can be known by the company they keep. And Francis keeps close to two curious birds: Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríquez Maradiaga and Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of Argentina.


Walter Crane. The Farmer & The Stork. Illustration in The Baby's Own Aesop (1877).

Vatican-watcher John Allen, writing on Crux, recently dubbed the cardinal a “vice-pope,” plausibly the second most powerful man in the Church:

He’s the leading symbol of an entire cohort of center-left churchmen who seemed marginalized not so long ago, but who today are clearly back in the game.

Among factors in that earlier marginalization were a tendency to malapropos statements plus an unwelcome whiff of anti-semitism. Allen reports that he likened criticism of the Church over the child abuse scandal to persecution under Nero, Diacletian, Hitler and Stalin. Moreover:

He went as far as to suggest that the American media’s obsession with the scandals was a way to distract attention from the Israel/Palestinian conflict, hinting that it reflected the influence of a Jewish lobby. . . .

In the years to come, there was whispering that Rodríguez’s rhetoric wasn’t matched by a command of policy details, including affairs in his own country.

Head of Caritas Internationalis, Maradiaga is on record insisting that the freedom to immigrate is a human right. He does not trouble to note that one nation’s moral obligation to permit emigration does not obligate any other nation to suspend its requirements for legal arrival by accommodating illegal entrants. With the absence of rule of law driving havoc in the cardinal’s own Honduras, it is unclear how the poor can be served for any length of time by suspending the bedrock of civil society elsewhere.

At a recent press conference in Rome, the cardinal was back in the news with Manichean denunciations of critics of Francis’s climate ambitions:

The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that does not want to stop ruining the environment because they [sic] don’t want to give up their profits.

The pathetic fallacy inherent in ascribing a malevolent want to complex market systems is demagogic. Personification is a poeticism, not a means of critique. Applied here, it is as misleading as it is sentimental; it reveals the demonizing temper of old Soviet tracts. An ideological position that echoes leaflets from the October Revolution, the cardinal's dime store bolshevism reduces Christianity to a political movement that conforms to the dominant trend among left-leaning elites.

Capitalism’s imperfections are real. No one denies that; nor does anyone deny the validity of reasonable regulation. At the same time, the never-fully-free market has produced sustained growth in living standards for more people than any other system ever devised. It has taught nations that prosperity is not a zero-sum game. Even Thomas Piketty, the best-selling French economist touted by Maradiaga last year, has since walked back his now-famous prediction that capitalism will generate “unsustainable inequalities” in this century.

How else does the cardinal propose that nations organize mechanisms for the creation and distribution of those goods, services and opportunities for initiative that make possible the alleviation of poverty? Central planning? Five year plans? The Venezuelan model or the Cuban one? Maradiaga suggests no alternative to the capitalism he vilifies. But we can gauge the nature of that unspecified vision by looking at the aims of the Global Catholic Environmental Movement, of which Caritas Internationalis is a critical part. The movement seeks to insure that the climate does not warm more than 1.5° Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels.

Think through the implications of that to gain purchase on the quality of mind counseling the man elected to guide a Church consecrated to Truth. We are left to pray that more heedful and substantive advisers assert themselves.


Milo Winter. The Ass & His Driver. Illustration for The Aesop for Children (1919).



Then there is that other trusted adviser, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of Argentina. A native of Buenos Aires and member of the pope’s inner circle, he worked closely with Jorge Bergolio drafting the then-archbishop’s major speeches and letters. Fernández was crucial to the composition of Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium and ghost-wrote the (now postponed) encyclical on climate change.

Postponement is the consequence of disapproval—on theological grounds—by Cardinal Gerhard Müller of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Vatican scuttlebutt has it that the eco-encyclical will be downgraded, emerging simply as a statement. We will see. What matters at the moment are the archbishop’s dispositions and cast of mind. 

Who is the theologian behind two papal encyclicals? One hint might be the book he wrote twenty years ago: Sáname Con Tu Boca: el Arte de Besar (Heal Me With Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing). The choice of nouns is telling. A kiss can have ritual significance. But the word mouth, a body part, conjures up other behaviors. It certainly did for the producers of an Argentinian television drama Esperanza Mia, the saga of a priest and nun secretly engaged in a love affair. The script called for display of Fernández's book and the reading of passages from it. Clearly, the archbishop is a versatile writer.




I do not know what year this photograph of Fernández was taken. All that is obvious is that it is a staged shot. It is impossible not to wonder what prompts a priest to pose for the camera in this attitude. Possibly it is an Argentine commonplace that loses—or gains—too much in translation. But the instant I saw it I thought of Mann's Death in Venice. Here is Gustave Aschenbach pining wistfully for Tadzio. 

It is hard to know what to say. Let me leave the last word on this pair of papal intimates—Maradiaga and Fernández—to Aesop. In The Fox & The Toad, also called The Quack Frog, a well-tailored toad comes to town passing himself off as a learned physician and promising cures for ailments. A skeptical fox pipes up to ask, “How can we believe you if you cannot heal yourself of that ugly wrinkled skin?”

Arthur Rackham. The Quack Frog (1900).


Moral: Those who would mend others, should first mend themselves. Or, as we are more used to phrasing it: Physician, heal thyself.

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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.

• • • • •


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.

 

carroll.jpg

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?

• • • • •


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.


//

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.


//

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.

 

“I Don’t Do Nice”

In 2008, the Pontifical Council for Culture invited to the Vatican five hundred of its favorite international brands in the arts. Cardinal Ravasi drew up the guest list and emceed the program. Pope Benedict was enlisted, like the speaker at a communion breakfast, to address the gathering.

Among the trademarked “custodians of beauty” flattered by the summons was Zaha Hadid, London-based, Iraqi-born starchitect. She is as much a phenomenon as an architect, winning conspicuous commissions all over the globe. Her stated intention is to “rewrite the script for architecture.” That means removing it from its classic concerns for the needs of man—for shelter and comfort, for useful spaces that individuals want to be in—and toward an embodiment of what Jonathan Glancey terms the “consequences of modernity.” Among these consequences are spatial structures devised as signature spectacles for their own sake, superseding if not supplanting, the social function they house.

 

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Dubai Opera House by Zaha Hadid

 

Her futuristic, intergalactic tours de force are aggressive. They are engineered to impress, to overwhelm. It is not a stretch to call them intimidating. Notwithstanding the cardinal’s programme, creation of beauty is not among her ambitions. In a 2006 interview for The Guardian , Hadid confessed to Glancey: “I don’t design nice buildings. I don’t like them.” That is obvious in the Drunkard’s Path design of buildings that signal the abolition of architecture for living human beings. Hadid creates for the anonymous replicants of a dystopian future, heirs of Ridley Young and Philip K. Dick. D0 androids dream of architecture? If they do, there is a place for them at 33-35 Hoxton Square, London:

 

33-35 Hoxton Square_hoxto_rend_05
A mock-up of Naha Hadid’s gallery and apartment complex approved for 33-35 Hoxton Square, London.

 

What kind of furniture suits a structure like this? Residents are in luck. Hadid puts out a line of furniture as well. The Aqua table, below, sold not long ago at auction for $296,000, a record price for a contemporary design:

 

zaha_hadid_aqua_table_furniture_contemporary
Zaha Hadid. Aqua table.

 

Tables need chairs. The one below is typical of a collection that professes to be furniture but negates the human body. Hadid’s furniture extends, as a prerequisite, her firm’s flair for dehumanized design. Call it post-human.

 

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Zaha Hadid. Chair in the “Seamless” series exhibited in New York in 2006

 

Hadid’s enterprise is the consummate embodiment of the ethos of Otto Silenus, the humorless, modernist fanatic of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall :

The problem of architecture as I see it . . . is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form.

Keep looking:

 

capital-hill-residence-naomi-campbell-spaceship-house-1
Zaha Hadid. Trophy home of Russian billionaire Vladislav Doronin and supermodel Naomi Campbell. All 28,000 square feet of it sets like a space ship on a Moscow hillside.

 

completed-in-may-2012-the-heydar-aliyev-cultural-center-in-baku-azerbaijan-serves-as-a-library-museum-and-a-conference-center
Zaha Hadid. Heydar Allyev Cultural Center, Baku, Azerbarijan

 

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Zaha Hadid. Guangzhou Opera House.

 

Arch2o-Guangzhou-Opera-House-Zaha-Hadid-Architects-20
Interior view of the Guangzhou Opera House.

 

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Zaha Hadid. Proposal for a Chinese cultural complex in Changsha. Interior view of a portion of the complex.

 

None of these are intended to please the eye. They are expressions of welcome to a future in which humane instincts linger as the antiquarian residue of a collective spiritual life in the process of dissolution. This is architecture for a totalitarian’s utopia. It is merciless.

Vatican favor toward celebrity architects like Hadid calls to mind a reflection by Bernanos’ anonymous country priest:

I confess that I have always been repelled by the “lettered”priest. After all, to cultivate clever people is merely a way of dining out . . .

 

Note: An extended photo tour of the Changska project is here.


 

 

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.

A Good Priest

The press is filled with more eloquent and informed voices than my own. It would be presumptuous of me to add to them. At the same time, this stunning and gracious election requires acknowledgment. I can do it best by observing it in silence while I reread George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest . Francis stood on the balcony and asked us to pray for him. If ever a work of fiction can be called an act of prayer, it is this one.

 

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From Robert Bresson’s 1951 film version of Diary of a Country Priest

 

That profound, heart-scalding window into the agony of a true priest—and of the making of a saint—carries us close to Benedict’s resignation and Francis’ election. Closer than any press commentary can ever approach. Bernanos’s nameless priest writes in his diary:

Faith is not a thing which one “loses,” we merely cease to shape our lives by it.

We have been blessed with a pope whose life as a cardinal was shaped by humility and faith. Yes, it is true: “Grace is everywhere.”