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Theological Notebook: A Few Pieces on Faith and the Arts

One of the clear and sensible assessments reported in the book review of Theodore Ziolkowski's Modes of Belief: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief that I read in the latest issue of Commonweal (as I reported doing on my journey to Montreal) was from a comparison the reviewer made to Charles Taylor's recent masterpiece A Secular Age. (The reviewer was Richard A. Rosengarten, Dean and Associate Professor of Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.) There he noted that:
... Taylor argues that, in modernity, how we think about art shifts from imitation or inheritance to creation, from a shared set of common reference points to the expression of an individual sensibility. Poetics, therefore, reflects not public meaning but private expression. Art in turn becomes a separate form of expression rather than an integral function of religion or politics. While Ziolkowski would recognize the shift Taylor describes from art as imitation to art as creation, Modes of Faith underscores in impressive detail the role of individual sensibility in contemporary art. Ziolkowski shows how that sensibility remains not separate from religion but deeply engaged with it. For Ziolkowski, the modern negotiation of various claims to meaning has complicated religiosity – but it also seems to have deepened it.
These observations have been bouncing around in my head. I had long noticed, and been frustrated by, art's turn to the individual that Taylor mentioned, which more and more seems to me to have bogged art down with biography or individual perspective in ways that leave art less communal, and more in danger of slipping into self-absorption. Ziolkowski's observation makes for a useful balance lest I get pessimistic on the point, although a number of his case studies seem to suffer from all the flaws of modernity's tendency of "do-it-yourself" spirituality where people waste an awful lot of time "re-inventing the wheel" because of loss of any real understanding of the Jewish and Christian spiritual legacy. It is in the context of thinking about all this that I notice a few articles regarding the Vatican and the arts. The articles are newspaper-y, and therefore really basic, but they do point in a limited way to the intentional engagement between faith and art that's going on even at the top of the Church's hierarchy.

Reconcilable differences: The church reaches out to modern arts
Vatican says 262 artists accept invitation for meeting with pope

Reconcilable differences: The church reaches out to modern arts
By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Once made in heaven, the marriage between art and the church has long been on the skids.

"We are a bit like estranged relatives; there has been a divorce," said Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Much of contemporary art walked away from art's traditional vocation of representing the intangible and the mysterious, as well as pointing the way toward the greater meaning of life and what is good and beautiful, he said during a Vatican press conference Nov. 5.

And the church has spent the past century "very often contenting itself with imitating models from the past," rarely asking itself whether there were religious "styles that could be an expression of modern times," he added.

In an effort to "renew friendship and dialogue between the church and artists and to spark new opportunities for collaboration," he said, Pope Benedict XVI will be meeting more than 250 artists from around the world Nov. 21 inside one of the world's most stunning artistic treasures: the Sistine Chapel.

The church's attempts to heal this rift with the world of modern arts span back to Pope Paul VI, who said the troubled relationship between the church and artists was based on misunderstandings and past restrictions on expression that had been removed.

Pope Paul loved art and saw an urgent need to encourage contemporary artists to reclaim their spiritual mission.

He held a landmark meeting with artists in the Sistine Chapel in 1964 and told them they were precious to the church for their "preaching and rendering accessible and comprehensible -- or better still, moving -- the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of the ineffable, of God."

The pope set up a collection of paintings, sculptures and graphic art to show how modern culture could still convey religious concepts. He inaugurated the Vatican's Collection of Modern Religious Art in 1973, which contains works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Edvard Munch.

Pope John Paul II, an accomplished actor, poet and playwright long before becoming a priest, eagerly continued Pope Paul's rapprochement.

He issued a papal letter to artists in 1999 in an effort to "consolidate a more constructive partnership between art and the church."

He sought to exalt artistic endeavors and urged artists and entertainers to steer clear of "empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity" or easy profit.

Artistic gatherings and events have been a common occurrence at the Vatican.

In the decades of Pope John Paul's pontificate, it was not unusual to see all sorts of popular art forms employed. In 2004, for example, Polish break dancers spun on their heads on the marble floors of the Vatican's sumptuous Clementine Hall to the pope's apparent delight while music blared from a boombox.

Pope John Paul met with countless stars from the entertainment industry, and reminded them of their responsibility to be positive role models, "capable of inspiring trust, optimism and hope."

While Pope Benedict XVI is an avid pianist and has spoken numerous times about the importance of beauty and art, he tends to shy away from raucous encounters.

In fact, the pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote in 1998 that he had been skeptical of the idea of Pope John Paul sharing the stage in 1997 with a group of rock and pop stars that included Bob Dylan.

"They had a message that was completely different from the one the pope was committed to," then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote. He said he wondered whether "it was really right to let these types of 'prophets' intervene."

While it is not clear who made the decision, the Vatican discontinued its annual Christmas concert under Pope Benedict's watch after a 13-year run.

The concert series, which featured well-known international stars each year, had been marred by a controversy in 2003 when the U.S. pop singer Lauryn Hill stunned the audience in 2003 by asking church leaders to "repent" and speaking of the pain of those abused by priests. It was feared other artists might use their opportunity on a Vatican stage to promote their own personal agendas.

Instead Pope Benedict eagerly attends many of the classical concerts held in his honor.

He will even be featured on a new CD singing and reciting Marian hymns and prayers. The CD, called "Alma Mater," will be released worldwide Nov. 30 by Geffen Records. A similar CD of Pope John Paul reciting the rosary in Latin became an instant hit in 1994.

Pope Benedict has said the church's ancient treasure of liturgical music should not be frozen in time, but should evolve with appropriate modern-day adaptations.

What is important is that it represents "holiness, true art and universality" and stirs the hearts of its listeners, letting them experience "the same intimacy of the life of God," he told staff and students of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in 2007.

Pope Benedict has said art needs to help people see that authentic truth, beauty and goodness are always intertwined and needs to allow "the beauty of the love of God" to shine through.

The human spirit longs for authentic -- not superficial and fleeting -- beauty that is "in full harmony with the truth and goodness," he has said.

Archbishop Ravasi expanded on that notion at the Nov. 5 press conference when he said art has always had an ethical and transformative role.

He said the world needs artistic expression that lifts people above and beyond "the dust of our own existence and helps us live better."

Vatican says 262 artists accept invitation for meeting with pope
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- More than 260 painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, playwrights, musicians, architects and other artists have accepted a Vatican invitation to meet Nov. 21 with Pope Benedict XVI.

The gathering under Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel will bring the artists together to mark the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's letter to artists and the 45th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's meeting with artists.

With the help of an international committee, the Vatican chose 500 artists from around the world to invite to the gathering. The invitations were based on leadership in their fields and not on their religious backgrounds, said Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Because of scheduling conflicts, travel and the fact that the Vatican is not offering any type of compensation for their time, the vast majority of those who accepted the invitation are Italian, the archbishop said.

At a press conference Nov. 5, the council said it had received confirmation of participation by 262 artists. They included: Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor; U.S. installation artist John David Mooney; Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid; French writer and actress Florence Delay; Irish poet Ciaran O'Coigligh; U.S. video artist Bill Viola; Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt; Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli; U.S. actor F. Murray Abraham; and Algerian film director Rachid Benhadj.

Archbishop Ravasi said that while some of the invitees had not replied as of Nov. 5, all of those who sent regrets explained they did so because of previous engagements and not for ideological reasons.

The archbishop said he had high hopes that Bono, the lead singer of U2, would be able to make the audience, but the Irish musician said previous commitments would prevent his attendance.

The artists will be given a tour of the Vatican Museums' gallery of modern religious art Nov. 20. Afterward, they will be able to socialize with each other at a reception in the museums sponsored by the Italian beverage company Martini & Rossi, said Msgr. Pasquale Iacobone, a staff member of the council.

The meeting with the pope Nov. 21 will take place in the Sistine Chapel and will begin with a "musical interlude": the performance by the Sistine Chapel choir of a motet by the 16th-century composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Msgr. Iacobone said.

Pope Benedict will address the artists and will listen with them to another Palestrina motet, he said.

After the pope leaves, he said, the artists will return to the Vatican Museums for another reception and Archbishop Ravasi will personally give each artist a gift from the pope: a medal coined especially for the occasion.
Tags: art, beauty, benedict xvi, hierarchy, historical, john paul ii, secularism/modernity, theological notebook, vatican

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