Besides the importance of the unprecedented exhibit itself, it is important because it sets the foundation of the Vatican's future cultural policy. The exhibit may be used as a kind of laboratory to experiment with how to communicate the Vatican's message through modern art. This experimentation may center around questions about just how abstract or representational effective modern religious art should be. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, expressed the problems facing such modern religious art exhibits back in 2009 by saying "some will accuse us of giving credit to 'depraved' art and others will criticize our selection as being too 'religious.'"(2) The Holy See will need to navigate a middle path, and this sixty artist exhibit will help them to figure out how to do this.
Why is this particularly important now?.....................Venice Biennale 2013, the first in which the Vatican will participate.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi has been working to get the Vatican to exhibit at the Biennale since 2009, at that time he was preparing for this year's Biennale.(3) Apparently the plans for the 2011 Biennale fell through due to difficulty in determining which art works would put forward the appropriate message.(4) As the director of the Vatican Museums expressed it at that time, "The Holy See wants to choose the best contemporary art and not expose itself to criticism.”(4) Cardinal Ravasi is also the driving force behind this sixty artist exhibit titled "The Splendor of Truth, Beauty of Charity." In addition to experimenting with what communicates to the audience, Cardinal Ravasi will likely use it to demonstrate to the Pontiff that there are works of modern art suitable for endorsement by the Holy See.(5)
As Cardinal Ravasi pointed out in 2009, the church has commissioned architecture that "kept pace with the modern," but the same was not true for religious figurative art.(3) At that time he also said there was a need for a "dialogue between the Church and artists," presumably to foster religious art that communicates in the same way as contemporary art.(3) Illustrating Card. Ravasi's point about modern church architecture, the exhibit will include the model of a cathedral being planned by the architect Oscar Niemeyer. One of Niemeyer's most famous buildings is the unmistakably modern Cathedral of Brasilia, commissioned just over forty years ago in 1970. Niemeyer, now over one hundred years old, could be considered a member of the orthodoxy of modern religious art; his oeuvre is well established and accepted. Similarly Ennio Moricone, the eighty-two year old Italian composer well known for his work included in the famous "spaghetti-westerns" including the soundtrack of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, has contributed a new song.(6)
While Niemeyer and Morricone are firmly established, the Holy See will be paving new ground by solidifying its links to younger artists. One of these younger artists is Oliviero Rainaldi, the Italian sculptor who recently completed the important commission for a statue of the late Saint Pope John Paul II outside of Rome's main train station.
The exhibit opens tomorrow, July 4th 2011, after an audience with the artists, and will continue until September 4th. It is located in the Vatican's Paul VI audience hall, which is partially in the Vatican and partially in Rome, Italy. I'm excited to visit it soon and will be monitoring its reception.
(5) The occasion of the exhibit, a celebration of the Pope's ordination, will likely shift the internal criticism from negative critiques toward positive consensus building reviews.
(6) The score is arranged in a cross with the horizontal containing the orchestral music and the vertical containing the vocal text.