59. Not By Improvisation Alone. The Vatican at the Venice Biennale

June 1st, 2013

Today “the arts” is a term that captures the imagination of many Evangelical circles. Nowadays if you want to be hip and relevant as you envision your ministry you must talk about the arts. The problem, however, with all this talk about the arts is that it’s difficult to contribute intelligently if there’s no thorough understanding and expertise of the subject. It is not so much a matter of personal acquaintance or preparation, but is rather a matter of cultural insensitivity that at times verges towards naiveté. Broadly speaking, the Evangelical culture has been largely shaped by a suspicious attitude towards the arts, investing more on efficacy than aesthetics, trying to reach results rather than beauty, and aiming at the mind rather than inspiring the imagination. Our senses are poorly acclimated to the artistic life, and therefore cannot be nurtured by its signs and symbols. The outcome is that what we produce in terms of art work is often embarrassing, and what we say about the arts is superficial. But this is only part of the story.

Re-Opening the Dialogue Between the Church and the Arts

The Roman Catholic tradition, however, has followed another direction, going perhaps to the opposite extreme. There we find a saturation with the arts to the point in which there is a risk of idolizing it. Having said that, all Christian traditions have a problem with the arts. Since the end of the XIX century, contemporary arts has largely abandoned its general Christian inspiration. The Church has ceased to be considered the home of the arts and artists have in general felt alienated by Christianity and the church. As a result we have witnessed a significant breach between the two. Contemporary art continues to be deeply religious but seems to be hardly challenged and provoked by the Christian story. How is the Vatican dealing with the issue? The Vatican thinks and acts institutionally thorough its Pontifical Council for Culture. Its president, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, has repeatedly said that the Church needs to reopen a channel of dialogue with artists. In 2009, during Benedict XVI’s pontificate, he arranged a meeting between hundreds of international artists with the Pope in the Sistine Chapel. There, in the “temple” that celebrated the marriage between the Church and the arts (think of Michelangelo painting there for various Popes), the Pope reasserted the fact that the Church used to be and still is the “home” and the “mother” of the arts. He added that there is no reason the two should divorce, but all the reason to reaffirm their mutual friendship.

A Vatican Exhibition in Venice

After a lot of talk and discussion, the Vatican will soon participate in a world-famous art exhibition. The Venice Biennale has for over a century been one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world. Ever since its foundation in 1895, it has been in the avant-garde, promoting new artistic trends and organizing international events in the contemporary arts: the International Film Festival, the International Art Exhibition and the International Architecture Exhibition, as well as the Festival of Contemporary Music, the Theatre Festival, now accompanied by accompanied by the Festival of Contemporary Dance. The 55th International Art Exhibition will be open to the public from June 1 to November 24, 2013 at the Giardini, the Arsenale, and in various venues around the city of Venice. The Vatican exhibition is entitled “In Principio” (In the Beginning) and contains the works of artists such as Studio Azzurro, Josef Koudelka, and Lawrence Carroll. Here is how the Pontifical Council describes it: “For this first participation of the Holy See with its own Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, we have chosen a theme that is fundamental for culture and Church tradition and a source of inspiration for many artists: the stories told in the Book of Genesis. Specifically the focus is on the first eleven chapters, as they are dedicated to the mystery of man’s origins, the introduction of evil into history, and our hope and future projects after the devastation that is symbolically represented by the Flood. Wide-ranging discussions on the multiplicity of the themes offered led to three thematic areas being chosen with which the artists have engaged: Creazione (Creation), De-Creazione (Uncreation), and the New Man or Ri-Creazione (Recreation)”. Fascinating.

Two Approaches

Will this exhibition reopen the dialogue? It is difficult to say. What is perhaps worth noticing, however, is the difference between Evangelical and Roman Catholic approaches to the issue. While Evangelicals tend to work bottom-up from a grassroots level, the Catholic Church chooses to work top-down, i.e. from the already accredited art exhibitions down to the worlds of media, scholarship, and the public opinion. While Evangelicals work at random and unconnected, the Catholic Church seems to have a long-term strategy that seeks to gradually implement. While Evangelicals naively think that if they talk about the arts they are “impacting” them and “making a difference”, the Catholic Church is more aware of the need to work in the institutions of the arts in order to hope for a significant result. The road may be longer, but the effects will perhaps be less ephemeral.

Leonardo De Chirico

 

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