Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.

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#askpontifex

From Maureen Mullarkey
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.

Benedict and Vatican Culture

From Maureen Mullarkey

Pope Benedict’s abrupt resignation casts a disquieting light on an earlier bulletin. On December 3, 2012, the Vatican announced that the pope would begin posting on Twitter. Beginning December 13, he could be followed with the handle @pontifex.

The New York Times accompanied announcement of Twitter’s new convert with a photo that caught a fleeting, impromptu moment in an otherwise staged event. Credited to L’ Osservatore Romano and taken some time during the previous year, it shows Benedict at his desk leaning over an iPad, a device he is clearly unfamiliar with. His right hand is being carefully guided by one unidentified cardinal as two others watch. It is a telling gesture.

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At first sight, it made me uncomfortable. The optics were wrong. Now, after reading Canadian journalist David Warren’s trenchant and cautionary comment on the resignation, the photo vexes me even more. Those hands. They do not denote a pope anxious to embrace the Twitterverse, as Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi insists. Is a hand in such need of guidance likely to be one that reached for an iPad on its own initiative? The pope appears almost as a prop in a production not of his own making.

On whose behalf was this pseudo-event orchestrated? For the benefit of . . . what? Warren’s essay must be read in full. It places Benedict’s decision to surrender office within—and against—the intellectual climate of the Vatican, specifically its internal cultural politics.

The Vatican bureaucracy has been, in recent times, & perhaps inevitably, infiltrated by the very “progressive” forces it exists to fight. The Pope must be entirely on his toes in such an environment. A man of extraordinary humility but also astute, Benedict would be aware of the danger that members of this bureaucracy would exploit his mental & physical decline.

Bureaucracies acquire a life of their own. Self-serving, internally impelled, they grow and spread through the sheer force of inertia. Secular or ecclesiastical, it is in their nature to resist shifts in direction It takes an agile pope with deep reserves of stamina to alter a bureaucratic course or stay its momentum.

Reading between the lines, we are left to wonder if Benedict resigned in order to circumvent being used as a pawn of ambitious berrettas with agendas he had not the energy to deflect.

(To be continued)

Humilitas est Veritas

From Maureen Mullarkey

The reign of Pope Benedict VI comes to a close at the end of this month. It is not sufficient to say that this morning’s news of the pope’s resignation came as shock. For an instant, the world seemed to have spun off its axis. Perhaps the most stunning thing about it is the humility implicit in Benedict’s renunciation of his Petrine ministry. He resigns in recognition of his decreasing ability to fulfill the demands of office. So doing, he upholds the truth of his own condition. He sees himself as he is, not as he might wish to be. An extraordinary and difficult thing to do, especially in the rarefied precincts of the Vatican.
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Michelangelo St. Peter
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1546-50); Michelangelo

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Everyone is familiar with the famous comment of Lord Acton (d. 1902): “All power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are accustomed to applying it to politics, to the dealings of statesmen, possessors of worldly power. It is easy, then, to forget that the words were initially aimed at the nineteenth century Church, at its all-too-human bureaucracy and ecclesiastical power brokers.

The Acton Institute, founded to further Acton’s life-long study of the right relation between faith and power, says this on the stealthy erosion of moral insight in persons insulated by high office:

If the benevolent ruler stays in power long enough, he eventually concludes that power and wisdom are the same thing. And as he possesses power, he must also possess wisdom. He becomes converted to the seductive thesis that election to public office endows the official with both power and wisdom. At this point, he begins to lose his ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient.
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St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow (1425); Masaccio

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Humility is a rare virtue in holders of high office, whether public or sacral. Benedict’s resignation is a lesson in the moral splendor of a neglected virtue and in the wisdom that sustains it. Joseph Ratzinger will end life as he began it—not as Bishop of Rome but simply as a man. True holiness attends his choice.

God bless Joseph Ratzinger. We pray for him and with him.

Axiom for Gallery-Goers

From Maureen Mullarkey

Before we get too far along together, it would be wise to clarify terms. The two that matter most are contemporary art and what can only be called, for lack of a better one, critical approach . More specifically, this weblog’s approach, its guiding axiom.

The former is an objective category; the second, highly personal. So let us begin with the second, if only to set the stage—clear the decks, come clean—or whichever other cliché works best to bring the Big Picture into focus.

Start with a day dream. Imagine that the art cops pull you over and demand to see your credentials as a bona fide art appreciator. How would you prove yourself a lawful citizen of the art precincts? Doubtless, you would hurry to produce a quotation from the fathers, something incontestably persuasive. Something on the sublime and the beautiful will get you off. A passage from Hegel, one or two from Kant, are always useful. Reference to Schiller is good, too. Do not forget Goethe. Diderot comes in handy; so do Ruskin, Baudelaire and that wonderfully indiscreet pair, the Goncourt brothers. Or, if you need to present yourself as au fait with more recent intellection, mention your subscription to Artforum, your favorite issue of Parkett, or the latest piece in Frieze .
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The Art Connoisseurs (1823-28); Louis-Léopold Boilly

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Details do not matter quite so much as tone. And delivery. What counts is that you establish your identity as a Serious Art Person, adept at granting the written word primacy over the evidence of eyes. SAPs are skilled in refraining from judgment while disguising the abstention with knitted brows. If art criticism is “massively produced and massively ignored” except as marketing copy—as James Elkins argues in What Happened to Art Criticism?— SAPs have something to answer for.

I try not to get pulled over. Me, I keep Ogden Nash at hand. His “Plea for Less Malice Toward None” has wide application for consumers of art appreciation. It trims fustian, and firms the treacle that oozes from formulaic pieties:

 


Love is a word that is constantly heard,
Hate is a word that’s not.
Love, I am told, is more precious than gold,
Love, I have read, is hot.
But hate is the verb that to me is superb
And love is a drug on the mart.
Any kiddie in school can love like a fool
But hating, my boy, is an art.


 

Those final two lines, rightly applied, are invaluable.

 

The Artist’s Progress

From Maureen Mullarkey

Then:

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The Painter in His Studio (1647); Gerard Dou

More then:

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The Artist’s Studio; the Le Nain brothers (French, 17th C.)

Still more then:

Louis Melendez
Self-Portrait (1746); Luis Meléndez

Then, yet again:

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John Francis Murphy in his studio at The Chelsea on W. 23 Street (Photo: Museum of the City of New York)

Nowadays:

Art Student
MFA Student; School of the Art Institute of Chicago

The Hazard of Beauty

From Maureen Mullarkey

Talk of beauty is in the air these days. It has been absent as a reigning value in contemporary art long enough to be provoking interest once again. It is a bit of a jumble though. Everyone wants in on the beauty of the philosophers while reserving for themselves the ascendency of their own taste and perceptions. The knot knocks even the best of us off course with little guide beyond the packaged insights of art appreciation. No less formidable a cultural critic than Roger Scruton is unsafe from the tools of the appreciator’s trade.

Consider Scruton’s response to Manet’s Olympia in his 2009 essay collection , Beauty. Manet’s boulevardienne , modeled after Titian’s Venus , was a scandal in its time. And for good reason having nothing to do with bourgeois prudery—always the designated villain in popular telling.

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“Olympia” (1863), Edouard Manet


In 1863, the year Olympia was painted, syphilis was a serial killer in France. Infected husbands brought the disease home to their wives who passed it, in turn, to children in utero. Whole families were devastated by it. From public health records, it is estimated that one out of five people were infected at the time. (Manet, a syphilitic like his father, died horribly of complications. In the chaos of an amputation performed on the dining room table, his leg ended up in the fireplace.) Without that retrospective understanding, today’s audience grasps nothing of what the painting meant in Manet’s Paris.

Scruton avoids any reference to the art of the work, such as paint handling, or other barometers of workmanship. Anxious to declare the painting beautiful on higher grounds than craft, Scruton celebrates Olympia as an example of “self-identity and self-awareness.” He skips along the belletristic path in tones that echo the ambient rhetoric of his own era. The figure, in his telling, is an icon of assurance. An independent woman of mettle. He does not ask just how self-possessed any prostitute could have been in nineteenth century France, rife with cholera and tuberculosis as well as syphilis. Contagion was a pervasive danger; and antibiotics not yet invented.

Scruton’s gloss illustrates a crucial hazard of received appreciation: the substitution of art history for history itself. It amuses us moderns to think that Manet’s contemporaries greeted with dismay a work we consider a thing of beauty. We congratulate ourselves for having gotten past such moralistic responses. But Manet’s audience grasped Olympia better than a modern philosopher gazing back through the narrow lens of today’s arts discourse. Where Scruton sees an admirable, hard-bitten poise, Manet’s public recognized a carrier of lethal infection.

Homo Rogans

From Maureen Mullarkey

David Bentley Hart’s recent essay “ Seeing the God
” touched me more deeply than anything I have read in a very long time. For one piercing instant I felt myself sister to a fictional character in a second century picaresque novel. For the little time it took to read the column, Apuleius’ creation came alive. Lucius stood beside me, quite real.

He took shape more clearly than secular friends who exchange copies of the latest neo-atheist tract at get-togethers. They make something of a show of it. Unmistakable, that whiff of superior rationality. It hangs in the air between us, a veil over mutual fondness. Thin as it is, the barrier is impenetrable. Religious imagination endures on the lonely side of it.

In its way, Hart’s reflection served as a comfort. It cites this electrifying passage from Lucius’ communion with the goddess Isis:

O You truly holy and eternal redemptrix of humankind, be ever generous to the mortals whom you cherish, bestowing a mother’s sweet love upon the miserable in times of trial. Neither day nor night nor the smallest single moment is devoid of your blessings, for you protect men at sea and on land, and you chase away life’s storms by stretching forth your saving right hand, with which also you unwind the inextricably tangled weave of fate and calm Fortune’s tempests and restrain the baneful courses of the stars. The gods above worship you, the gods below venerate you, you turn the earth, you give the sun its light, you rule the world, you trample down hell . . . .


Mary, a woman clothed with the sun in the Book of Revelation. Mary with her foot on the serpent. This ancient forebearer of Marian imagery is stunning. And, truth to tell, humbling. Personal pieties seem less a credit to our own fidelity—our own initiative—than a call built into our very marrow. If art history tells us anything of ultimate importance, it is that we are a praying species. Homo rogans, constituted to beseech divinity.

Isis nursing Horus Isis Nursing Horus. Late Period Egyptian (664-525 BCE) // //


Does it follow, then, that a culture scornful of religious belief, or cordial to the extermination of it, is no culture at all? We inhabit an ahistorical moment, an aberration poised to swallow the civilization that gave it birth.

Isis:greek Isis. Hellenistic Greek; Farnese Collection

Postscript :

The roots of Lucius’ devotion to Isis were already ancient even while Apuleius was writing. She was not a newly encountered deity but an Egyptian goddess familiar to the Greeks and introduced by them to the Romans. Worshipped under many different titles, she was an international goddess of abiding renown. The only divinity in the Egyptian pantheon capable of raising the dead, Isis was honored as both queen and mother. (Lucius addressed her as “Regina Coeli,” Queen of Heaven.) But neither adoration nor fame are deathless. Her intercession, sought and cherished for millennia, gave way slowly but ineluctably to the cunning of history.

Temple to Isis:Pompeii Temple to Isis, Pompeii. Photo: Werner Forman

Capturing the Absolute

From Maureen Mullarkey

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.

Prestige Spending

From Maureen Mullarkey

Somewhere on my shelves—but where?—is a quotation by Abraham Heschel that I have enjoyed for years. Certain I could never forget it, I did not mark the page in whichever of his books it hides. I have rifled through five texts this morning without finding it. So you will have to trust me when I tell you how Rabbi Heschel characterized the reigning response to visual art: Most people do not see art at all; they see signatures. And—let me add—price tags.

Foraging through pages, I remembered a delicious tidbit about John Canaday, leading art critic for The New York Times from 1959 to 1976. Canaday liked to tell the story (repeated to me by an editor who had known him) of a woman who once asked for his advice. She belonged to a lunch group who invited the critic, now and again, to talk about cultural stuffs over flamiche aux poireaux and sips of Beaujolais cru . One day, the woman confided that she and husband were redecorating their apartment. This was Manhattan’s high-rent district where art on the walls went without saying. But books! That was the distinguishing thing. Nothing lends tone to a room better than good titles, especially ones that look well read. But where to buy the right ones? //
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Canaday gave her the name of a friend, a second-hand bookseller in London. Talks ensued, an order placed. In due time, a shipment arrived. The buyer opened the crate, looked at the invoice and called the seller to complain. After extended conversation, the bookman said: “I think I understand now just what you want. Send them back and I will replace them for you.” Back they went. Many weeks later (Things really were shipped then.) another carton arrived. This time, all was satisfactory.

Canaday relished the punchline: His friend had simply sent the woman back the same shipment but with a new invoice and a significantly higher price.

The moral of Canaday’s exemplum applies . . . well, you finish the sentence.