Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Above: Renee Cox, Yo Mama's Last Supper, 1996

Yesterday C-monster linked to a Jan. 8 story in the Times online about the creation of a national pavilion for the Vatican in a future Venice Biennale. In 2007, the Vatican initiated a program to start collecting contemporary religious art, and there had been noises about a Vatican pavilion in this year’s show…but it’s apparently too late for that, and we’ll just have to wait until 2011 for Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, to realize his dream: “…that the Holy City will find a place in Venice where it can begin a dialogue with contemporary art in front of an international public.”

And, really, why wouldn’t the Vatican want to sign on for an event that in the past they’ve called “the breakdown of art in modern times”? I have to confess (ha!) that the list of artworks that previously have sent the Holy See into a tizzy makes me chuckle:

Modern artworks which have offended the Vatican include several by the Paduan artist Maurizio Cattelan, such as "Nona Ora", which portrays Pope John Paul II crushed by a meteorite…Gran Fury, an artists' collective formed in New York in 1988 as the propaganda arm of the gay activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) exhibited a billboard depicting a two foot high erect penis next to an image of the Pope at the Venice Biennale in 1990…Last year Catholic churchmen objected to an art exhibit entitled "The Madonna Cries Sperm" at a local summer arts festival in Bologna and a work by the Austrian artist Alfred Hrdlicka in Vienna depicting Jesus and the Apostles fondling each other in what the artist called a "homosexual orgy".

Of course art used to serve religion and the state—until it gave up on all of that and became a funny sort of religion until itself, seeking to remake the world around it for its own ends. Modernism has a legacy of provocation—of the need to jar and dislocate the viewer from assumptions, conventions, or even intelligible language—in order to bring about some change in the social order, maybe a future utopia. With postwar abstraction, this simply boiled down to letting the audience know that the artist wasn’t speaking to them, but to some future generation who might actually be capable of receiving heavy aesthetics. As Barnett Newman famously put it, if people were only capable of making the leap necessary to understand his paintings, “…it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.” Indeed!

And generally speaking, while contemporary art may employ less ponderous means, unafraid to embrace vernacular culture, the spectacle, and just plain everyday junk, it’s still about opening spaces in the fabric of daily life for a different kind of interaction, one in which the usual rules of discourse are suspended, and the world as it actually is gradually becomes visible, maybe for the first time. Contemporary art often tries to do this with a wink and a nod (or maybe a few masturbating apostles) but it’s still the same idea.

So my question, and maybe it’s kind of an obvious one, is this: Is the Vatican really interested in suspending typical relations, hierarchies, and commonly held beliefs? What kind of “contemporary art” exactly are they collecting? Do those words mean the same thing to Monsignor Ravasi as they do to the rest of the artworld? I guess two years from now we’ll find out.

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