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?

• • • • •


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.

 

“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:

 

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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:

 

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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:

 

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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.

 

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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.”

Papal Tweets, AWOL

A lively and curious-minded reader of First Things just forwarded a link to an article on CNET News broadcasting the fact that Benedict XVI’s postings to Twitter ended today, the last day of his tenure as pope. The article is here .

The writer, Chris Matyszczyk, displays a bit of disappointment: “It’s hard not to think that the decision to remove Pope Benedict’s tweets was taken by a vacant seat, an apparatchik of absolutism.”

It is equally feasible to think that the removal of the tweets was done at Benedict’s own request. One early press dispatch, back in December, reported that the pope seemed “hesitant” at first. Well, yes. He would be if he had been pressured cajoled into the undertaking. The Pontifical Council for Culture, the bureaucratic inspiration—if that is the word—for @pontifex, has shown little reluctance about genuflecting to secular idols under the pretext of promoting the gospel. Benedict himself has the wit and grace of mind to recognize that every such bow ends as Vigo Demant foresaw: a proclamation of secularism “in a Christian idiom.”

The Twitter account remains open. Perhaps we should pray it stays silent.