Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Beauty and the Pope

So the Pope invited 260 artists to a lecture on what he feels they should be focused on in their studios recently. From Artinfo.com:
Pope Benedict XVI did not address any previous tension that the church has had with contemporary art or artists such as Andres Serrano, Martin Kippenberger, Chris Ofili, but instead chose to focus on encouraging artists to strive toward artistic production centered around beauty with statements including:

"What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation - if not beauty?"

"The experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful."

He told artists, "You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement."
I truly wish I could separate out my resentment toward this Pope for his dangerous homophobia from these statements. But, alas, I can't. He has again and again proven himself to be extraordinarily hostile toward my people and a love that I personally find the most beautiful thing in the universe. So we're not going to ever agree on what constitutes "beauty" anyway. (Indeed, the Pope warned the artists assembled to guard against "seductive but hypocritical'' beauty that creates "indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation.'' ) Sigh.

So I'm not sure how valuable my visceral response to this would be to anyone else. (For example, knowing the Pope had been indoctrinated as a conscripted Nazi Youth, and knowing that even should he think he had fully examined and thoroughly rejected that education, it's difficult to imagine some more abstract thinking learned then doesn't still inform his worldview, and so my tendency here would be to keep in mind how "Hitler believed that modern art was in conflict with the eternal values of beauty and therefore could only lead to a decline of civilization" and that, as Tobin Siebers wrote, "Hitler used 'beauty' to refer almost exclusively to the healthy, Aryan body.")

Which, of course, would be an ungracious tangent. (But would still be my gut reaction all the same.)

Therefore, knowing that I'm not an objective observer of this Pope's teachings, I thought I'd tour the Internets for a few responses from other quarters. Most reports didn't do much more than quote the Pope, but a few commentators have weighed in with responses that range from the snarky to the profound.

The L Magazine's Benjamin Sutton quipped, in an article titled "Pope Benedict XVI to Artists: 'Why can't you just make nice, pretty things?'"
So, I guess what he's saying is that we're still in the Renaissance. Artists: if you want to get into heaven, start painting landscapes with beautiful horizons and pretty clouds (angels and hands-of-god optional)
Raymond Learsy had the sort of response I only wish I could summon (read the whole thing):

It is both ironic and sad that the Pope should speak almost at the moment of the passing of a great artist and visionary, Jeanne-Claude who together with her husband Christo collaborated on what was perhaps the greatest, most wonderful, and most healing art project since the end of World War II, an example of what art can do for a nation and its people.[...] The work, "The Wrapping of The Reichstag" (1995) probably more than anything else brought East and West Germans together.

In general, I see the Catholic Church reaching out to artists in a way that's not condescending as a wonderful advance. In fact, as artdaily.org reports:
In a sign of efforts at reconciliation, the Vatican has said it will participate in the 2011 Venice Biennale, one of the world's major art festivals held every two years.
I'll keep my eyes and ears open for dangerous definitions of "beauty" but aside from that must commend the Vatican on what seems a mature and sincere outreach.

Labels: beauty, sex and religion in art


Anonymous Johnny Vo said...

Irony of Sistine Chapel painter Gay.

Leonardo too.

No women artists invited to Vatican then or now.

11/24/2009 09:05:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Women artists were invited to the Vatican for this address including Zaha Hadid, Florence Delay, and Angela Hewitt. The inclusion of artists who are not Christian was particularly impressive, in my opinion.

11/24/2009 09:10:00 AM  
Blogger Mab MacMoragh said...

this is a hopeful sign, it will be interesting to watch how things progress on this front

11/24/2009 10:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edward: Be careful with generalizations about those German children indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth...not all of them went along with the program, although their service was mandatory at the time. My mother grew up in Berlin and was required to be in the Hitler Youth...she ended up in the U.S., a liberal and tolerant public servant who actively worked against bigotry and racism. I don't know how much Hitlerism the Pope retained internally...but it is possible to be a product of the Nazi era and end up being able to think for yourself. Beyond that, I would also keep my mind open to the possibility of the Catholic Church reaching out to artists in a positive way...you never know....

11/24/2009 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I did try to be careful, Anonymous. I'm not suggesting the Pope still feels that "'beauty' refer[s] almost exclusively to the healthy, Aryan body" but that he was taught that.

I will note that the Pope himself opened the door to questioning his definition of beauty by warning against "'seductive but hypocritical' beauty that creates 'indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation.'"

What does that mean exactly?

11/24/2009 11:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know exactly what the Pope means...one wishes to give him credit for simply inviting "provocative" and "indecent" artists to the Vatican...and one also worries about vaguely ominous wordings and the history of intolerance in the Catholic Church. Time will tell. I do know that is possible (though often difficult) to reject what one is taught as a child...

11/24/2009 11:56:00 AM  
Anonymous C.J. said...

"'seductive but hypocritical' beauty that creates 'indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation.'"

I can't say for sure what this means, but I do remember my father telling me that you can't expect the coach to root for the other team. That be said, the Pope's stipulations probably reflect the church's traditional, and oftentimes limiting, views on sexual relations and other human/bodily pleasures that exist outside the realm of conservative Christian doctrine.

It's unfortunate that some propagate shallow views of beauty and social acceptability, but the truth is that we expect that of some. So in a sense, it is fulfilling and creates a degree of conflict that can be worked against to create with a positive intention.

Just a couple thoughts. Great blog. Thanks.

11/24/2009 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

When I think of hitler and art I think of him in front of the statue of a discus thrower - which just must have looked a bit swish even back then.

Why is it the ruling class gets the worst kitch and thinks it is in good taste?

11/24/2009 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Duveenian quality salesmanship!

11/24/2009 12:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pretty is giving people what they already know and like. Beauty is stretching the pleasure center of the brain, surprising it. But beauty has, since the French Academy, been associated with aristocratic deceit. Maybe Edward is correct in renaming it visually arresting.

11/24/2009 12:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Question: didn't the Catholic church commission tons of paintings, frescoes and sculptures for hundreds of years?

Do they still do this today? If so, who do they commission, have they given a boost to any particular artist's careers and what kind of subject matter?

--ondine nyc

11/24/2009 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger Tatiana said...

"....from that must commend the Vatican on what seems a mature and sincere outreach..."


11/24/2009 04:00:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

No piss, no sharks: How about a taxidermied pope afloat in a giant tank of holy water?

11/24/2009 04:21:00 PM  
Anonymous nemastoma said...

I view the greatest, and perhaps only, positive aspect of the Catholic Church to have been a major patron of the Arts throughout the centuries. They still do it today, think of Gerhard Richter’s stained-glass windows in the Cathedral in Köln.

I have to laugh when I hear about them warning against “seductive but hypocritical' beauty. Just one example: Isn’t this what the pageantry of the glorious Roman Catholic Mass exactly entails? Pomp and Circumstance. A seductively beautiful feast for the eye and the senses.

….that creates 'indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation.'" Just one example: Isn’t it indecent that more churches keep being built in places like Haiti instead of helping the poor in more practical ways, like encouraging and providing contraception? Isn’t this transgression and gratuitous provocation?

11/24/2009 04:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

"Your" people, Edward: that brought a smile. Homosexualty should be more than a people. It's sexuality and is a question that concerns every humans. I do believe in the potential hetero and homo in each and every one of us (potentials that of course, should be explored, not repressed).

As far as "Beauty", I'm going to stand on the side of the skeptics of aesthetics (from Plato to Joseph Beuys). The word makes sense to me only if it implies all forms and sensibilities of "Beauty". If the Pope means "physical Beauty"
as able to "encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path", I find this to be an anti-christian idea.



PS: Between the lines I'm saying that I don't think fine art is the optimal way to elevate the human spirit, but I can see how it can help. It's just not always the "physical Beauty" aspect of a work that will move you the most.

PS2: Yes, PIP Jeanne-Claude big time! (Party In Peace) The central park event did a lot for the human spirit. It wasn't just the physical. It was the impact it had on socio-behavorial. The people gathering there. People seemed more happy than usual. Talk about "rediscovering your path".

11/24/2009 06:19:00 PM  
Blogger mondotrasho said...

A good thing you didn't go on that ungracious tangent about Hitler :P

11/24/2009 06:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice to know that art is still a threat; it means we're doing our jobs. Maybe 260 artists should invite the pope to a lecture on how religion has been misused as a political cudgel to oppress and murder millions of people for hundreds of years. Bet he'd appreciate that about as much as I appreciate having the purpose of art defined by him.

11/24/2009 06:37:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

I'm a protestant.

11/24/2009 07:54:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

This pope is continuing the work of his predecessor, John Paul II:


11/24/2009 08:07:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

A good thing you didn't go on that ungracious tangent about Hitler

I know! Narrowly escaped that pitfall, eh? :-p

11/24/2009 08:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Jeannine Cook said...

I think it is interesting that the Pope used the concept of beauty as the bridgebuilder to the artistic world and beyond. We could also use a little beauty, even according to the Vatican's definitiions.


11/24/2009 10:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Jeannine Cook said...

I find it interesting that the Pope chose beauty as the bridgebuilder to the artisti community and beyond. We could all use more beauty in our lives, even the Vatican's versions!

11/24/2009 10:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

This is a bit of a tangent, but if you are interested in theology check out James Allison. He's a former priest and incredibly intelligent theologian whose working to evolve church doctrine from the inside. http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/index.html

11/25/2009 01:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I the only one that feels nausea at the thought of discussions of beauty, especially as defined or discussed between the church and the artistic community? Wow.

11/26/2009 01:12:00 PM  
Blogger tony said...

I go along with you there, anonymous, especially when the discussion is launched by the CEO of an hierarchical, administrative corporation with admittedly spiritual overtones.

11/27/2009 04:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To paraphrase one of the above comments - it's nice to know that the Pope is still a threat; it means he's doing his job.

11/27/2009 06:17:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

Still, a Pope that does impressions of Peter Lorre can't be all bad.

11/30/2009 09:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Pamela Pike said...

I am so glad that I saw this post. As an atheist, artist and lesbian I am shocked that he is once again meddling in secular societies. His recent statements regarding homosexuals and condom usage in Africa, wooing of the anglican priests (none of which can be gay or a women) and now this) The Pope seems to think he has so much power in world affairs. I beg all of you to make art about the pope the ignorant, the bigot and the homophobic...

12/01/2009 12:50:00 AM  
Anonymous claude lambert said...

I am sure your pen slipped: the Popes did not like the Renaissance at all (same as today:fear of the body, too much freedom, most of all independent thinking). Many Renaissance artists got in trouble. They found work thanks to outstanding talent and the secrets of oil painting.
It is not only homosexuality that is a problem for the pope: procreation, stem research...it is a conservative church with no social conscience. And of course women are still the cause of all sins. Best for the new gallery: it is great news!

12/02/2009 09:54:00 AM  

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