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.

RSS Feed

The Serpent Spent

From Maureen Mullarkey

Earlier ages were better at pictorial depictions of evil because they believed in its existence. Our own therapeutic society prefers to think of evil as an outmoded concept that gives way to material and psychological explanations. A strain of received wisdom has it that the concept of sin is as outmoded as phrenology. Wickedness, properly understood, is an antique construction, a bit of by-gone make-believe. Or so our psychologized, adjustment-crazed culture would have us think.

Were he alive today, Albrecht Durer would be hard put to imagine the 7-headed Beast of the Apocalypse. To imagine evil, one has to imagine the good, or Good. In other words, God. In the 15th century, wrong-doing was not reduced to mental illness, social conditioning, or a figment of narrow, punitive minds. Durer’s Beast, emerging from the seas to make man worship it, could never have been discounted, never psychologized or politicized away. //
//
Durer-1

Walter Russell Mead, commenting on a lethal shooting spree in Norway two years ago, wrote something that I copied and kept. In The American Interest
, he meditated on the illusion that democracy, scientific progress and affluence bring security and moral progress. He ends his column on the mass murders with this:

The only conclusion that makes sense to me is that human beings are stuck in a condition of radical uncertainty. Something big and earth shaking is going on around us, but the information we have does not allow us to predict where it all goes.

In my view, this is one of the reasons that belief in a transcendent power beyond the human mind is intellectually necessary to grapple successfully with the realities of our time. When the determinist progressives threw God under the bus, they threw away the possibility of an integrated world view that has room both for scientific and rational analysis on the one hand and a honest, unsparing appraisal of the radical uncertainty around us on the other.

We still live in the Age of Apocalypse that opened in World War Two when Hiroshima and the Holocaust delineated the essential problems of the new and possibly last era of human civilization. Mankind has long had the potential for radical, desolating evil; today we still have that potential among us, and we have united it to the power to end all life on earth. We live with one foot in the shadows and another on the high and sunny uplands of democratic and affluent society. We have one foot in Norway and the other in Hell and nobody knows where we step next.


Mead’s post is essentially an essay on our ideas of history. He attempts to make the case moral philosopher Mary Midgley made in Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay : that moral evil, too, has its natural history. It is rooted in our freedom and, consequently, calls out for judgment—the very thing contemporary art tries so hard to evade.

 

LUCAS-VAN-LEYDEN-THE-FALL-OF-MAN Lucas Van Leyden. The Fall of Man (c. 1529)

 

The gravity of older depictions, products of a shared moral tradition and patterns of expectation, gives way in our own day to the merely gothic. Cartoony horror shows take the place of pictorial signs of evil that arose within a coherent culture and a comprehensible context. We are left with pastiches like Mariano Villalba’s, part parody of the old memento mori, part burlesque in the spirit of the Rocky Horror Picture Show:

 

evil-circus-mariano-villalba-02 Mariano Villalba. Evil Circus (2010)

 Villalba’s rendition has more in common with Alice Cooper than Durer. It offers chills, the frisson of entertainment. It has neither the capacity nor intention to call viewers to reflect on the condition of man. It is indifferent to issues of our spiritual survival. It just wants to thrill. And sell.

As the religious imagination wanes, so does the pictorial one. The great mythic structures dwindle into anecdote. A culture that has lost its Judeo-Christian soul and biblical frame of reference is crippled in portraits of evil. Without the Lamb there is no serpent. No Beast.

“Performativity of Gender” on Show

From Maureen Mullarkey

We tend to think that the drive to abolish distinctions between the sexes is a relatively recent phenomenon. Asked to date its beginnngs, most of us would likely pick the 1970s, coinciding with the first undergraduate gay and lesbian studies classes at UC Berkeley. But no. The impulse goes back further. It was championed by the British Marxist Christopher St. John Sprigg, writing under the pseudonym Christopher Caudwell. In the 1930s, he defended a vision of advanced society’s ultimate freedom from biological necessity.

 

Morimura02
Yasumasa Morimura, Daughter of Art History (1990).

 

Caudwell was only thirty when he was killed in action in the Spanish Civil War. He had already produced five books, each one flush with jumping off points for subsequent Marxist thinkers. His influential Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture remains a must-read for students of Marxist aesthetics.

Caudwell’s vision of the ultimate necessity of the collapse of sexual differences is aggressively on show in the work of Yasumasa Morimura, an international crowd-pleaser living in Osaka. His well-known appropriations of iconic paintings—here Manet’s The Bar at the Folies Bergère— illustrate perfectly Judith Butler’s term “performativity of gender.” By transforming himself into Manet’s barmaid, he declines the gender assigned to him, so the thinking goes, by society because of his sex.

Camp theatre has never been as blithe as it appeared. Insidious from the get-go, its surface entertainment value is ingratiating. Loosen up, folks. Only a total dork would spoil good fun. That is charm enough to disable the faculties of a well-meaning and complacent audience. Morimura, in beautifully crafted burlesques, puts himself on exhibit as the fruit of the old guard’s cultural decline. Behind its apparent whimsy, the work is deadly serious.
//

yasumasa-morimura
Yasumasa Morimura. Self Portrait After Jodie Foster (1996).

//
In the word-game world of gender studies, male sexuality— phallic power , in the literature—is benign if it is directed toward other men. A straight man is a class enemy; a gay man is . . . well, probably a size 14 or larger.

Guise and Dolls en femme at the millennium.

CAPC Musée (cont’d)

From Maureen Mullarkey

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 .

 

4S08741
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.

 

amoros 2
Tonet Amoros (b. 1961, Spain), Filius Lucis #1 (1991). Permanent collection of CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain.

//
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.]

 

Boltanski
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.
//

preciado
Beatriz Preciado

//
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.

 

 

Papal Tweets, AWOL

From Maureen Mullarkey

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.

 

 

The Sixties, Still Breathing

From Maureen Mullarkey

Once more for emphasis: Contemporary art, properly defined, is simply the art of our contemporaries. The rest is marketing. The trademark product sold under the term contemporary art promotes an ethos—a posture and set of mental habits— fueled by academia. Contemporary art is the academic art of our time.

Its reach is as global as the market that distributes it. And political to the core. Here in my inbox is a press release from CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain, Bordeaux. A tabernacle for contemporary art, the museum houses six-to-seven hundred works from the 1960s onward. Philip Larkin had it half right: Sex was not the only thing that began in 1963. Art did, too.

CAPC’s broadcast is a jargon-soaked reminder that contemporary art mimics the ideological contests begun decades before the Sixties counter-culture thought it had invented them. They point past the Thirties back to the 1910s and ’20s. Now, as in the heady years that spawned avant-garde pronunciamentos on the reconstruction of everything, the art that merits official attention and subsidy is polemical.

Though it originates from a French institution, the release arrived in English and the tendered sample of critical discourse is by a New York artist. As mentioned, the stuff and the stance are global:
//

THINK AND SEE . . . WHAT CRITICISM TELLS US TODAY


 

feb27_capc_img
Jonathan Horowitz, Official Portrait of George W. Bush Available for Free From the White House Hung Upside Down (2001); Courtesy Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York

//
You might think that in the fifth year of Barack Obama’s reign, the French could shill for right thinking with something more timely than recycled Bush-bashing. But the progressive conscience is nothing if not nostalgic. It echoes Leonid Ilychev, Krushev’s principal spokesman on the arts and head of the Central Committee’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda. Ilychev summed up the Soviet discourse on beaux arts: “Art belongs to the sphere of ideology.” That was also in 1963 when art, like heavy industry and the Red Army, existed to serve the struggle for the people’s happiness. Art still does:

The CAPC is hosting a one-year symposium titled Think . . . And See . Conceived by French philosopher, writer and scholar Francois Cusset, this time-capsule symposium will deal with the themes of intensity, 21st-century memory, brain and plasticity, gender and sex, the infinity of debt, and vulnerability, notably in the post-internet era.

This seminar is the first step in the CAPC’s endeavor to establish a study site where a radical acceptance of the terms and conditions of the production of critique does not undermine them, but feeds their articulation. The second step will be a publication featuring every contribution.


What follows is a list of cub bolsheviks addressing the symposium. They are tenured in all the best places. Herewith:
February 28
Tristan Garcia (writer and philosopher)
Intensity

March 21
Enzo Traverso (philosopher and historian)
Memory and utopia at the turn of the 21st century

April 17
Francois Noudelmann (philosopher and radio producer)
Family likenesses: a philosophical and aesthetic secession

May 22
Catherine Malabou (philosopher)
Emotional brain and plasticity

June 5
Beatriz Preciado (philosopher and activist)
Seeing gender/seeing sex

October 16
Maurizio Lazzarato (independent researcher, philosopher and sociologist)
The economy of infinite debt

November 20
Judith Butler (leading figure in political philosophy and pioneer in gender studies)
Vulnerability and resistance: towards a new political corpus

December 4
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (specialist in feminism, post-colonial issues and North-South relations)
Our world, our time?


Francois Cusset, scholar and philosopher, is best known for—among other delicacies— Queer Critic , translated for anglophone readers as The Inverted Gaze: Queering the French Literary Classics in America ($14 from Amazon Prime).

• • • •

Let me come back to this later. There is a chicken in the oven that needs attention. The further one digs into the ambitions of contemporary art—the category valorized by Cardinal Ravasi—the more one’s own dinner beckons. So much depends on a roast chicken.

Dancing Horses in Grand Central

From Maureen Mullarkey

Public art is rarely this much fun. Mark your calendars, please!
//
//
nick-cave-grand-central


 

Nick Cave is a lively, unpredictable performance artist and fabric sculptor who trained as a dancer with Alvin Ailey. Widely recognized for his wearable artworks—equal parts folk art and sophisticated funk—he performed at the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies fiftieth anniversary soiree this past November. Now he is bringing a herd of thirty rainbowed horses to graze in Vanderbilt Hall from March 25 through the 31st. If you are one of the 250,000 daily trekkers hurrying through the grandeur of the central hall, give yourself time to stay awhile with Cave’s whimsical troupe. It promises all the theatrical charm of the old Bread and Puppet Theater minus the Sixties-style hectoring. Equine therapy for commuters and tourists alike.
//
//
nick-cave-grand-central-2
//
Do not forget to look up. Horses wander.

Cave’s performance is part of the schedule of events celebrating Grand Central’s centennial. The pageant becomes all the more endearing when you remember how close the city’s Beaux Arts treasure came to suffering the same demolition fervor that undid Penn Station—the original McKim, Mead and White building—and so much else in the 1960s.

//
Penn-4


 

Note : If you want to see more of those costumes Nick Cave calls Soundsuits , check in with Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. This one, from an exhibition in 2009, is a needlework favorite:

8556_1252020265.original

Venice, Redux

From Maureen Mullarkey

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.
//

fluxus460x
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.

//
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

From Maureen Mullarkey

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 .
//

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

//
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.
//

william-hamilton-the-moment-i-saw-this-my-soul-cried-out-that-it-could-triple-in-value-new-yorker-cartoon
“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.
//

ORZ022209
Detail of The Nativity by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel

//
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.

Art of Refusal

From Maureen Mullarkey

Donald Knuth needs no introduction to computer geeks. He is a world-renowned computer scientist, Stanford’s legendary laureate of algorithm analysis, and author of the seminal, multi-volume The Art of Computer Programming . His books are dedicated not to the usual suspects—the wife, the soul mate, the amanuensis beyond price—but to a computer: the Type 650 “in remembrance of many pleasant evenings.”
//

proportional_620_FUN-1 From Jean Jullien’s series “Modern Life”

//
On January 1, 1990, Knuth became a happy man. He gave up email. Having used it already for about 15 years, he decided that was enough for one lifetime. He broadcast the snail mail address of his office at Stanford together with a sly hint that most incoming stuffs were likely to end in the wastebasket. Never mind sending him questions. The only mail that interested him was the chastening kind from other adepts who might point out—politely, no doubt— the errors he had made in his many books. Mistakes were very likely present but . . . precisely where? He told the world:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.

//

valentines From Jean Jullien’s series “Modern Life”

Why am I posting this? Hard to explain. Don Knuth, artist of algorithms, had turned his back on digital messaging before email became the next new thing to the general public. Perhaps his renunciation is a signal that the cutting edge is not always where we think it is.

It was Paul Valéry, I believe, who claimed that the character of an artist is revealed “by the nature of his refusals.” The same could be said of the saints. For the rest of us, we look to those entrusted to guide us toward sanctity to make the right refusals themselves. A pupil is not better than his master.

#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.

ravasi
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.
//

6a00d8341d417153ef017c349041b0970b-800wi


 

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.