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.
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 .
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.
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,”
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.
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.
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 suspectsthe wife, the soul mate, the amanuensis beyond pricebut to a computer: the Type 650 “in remembrance of many pleasant evenings.”
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 outpolitely, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 argota lingua franca across the Twitterverseand modes of papal expression.
Twitterspeak is fundamentally alien to Benedict’s style. His sophistication and attention to nuancethe subtleties of theological reflectionis 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’spastoral 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 illusionwhich 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.
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.
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 withinand againstthe 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)
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
Still more then:
Then, yet again:
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 pruderyalways the designated villain in popular telling.
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.
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 fidelityour own initiativethan 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.
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.
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.