Beauty and the Pope
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: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.
"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."
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):
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:
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 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.