The cardinal of culture

A senior Vatican official's decidedly unconservative approach to art.

Catholicism, like all religions, inspires certain stereotypes. In this case, it’s fair to say that “progressively modern” isn’t one of them. But could this be about to change?

Consider the unlikely Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. A senior Vatican official who is so popular there is currently a two-year waiting list to get him confirmed at a conference. He, amongst other things, criticises priests for their "boring" and "irrelevant" sermons. He encourages them to use Twitter.  He quotes Nietzsche. He advocates Darwinian theory. He likes cutting-edge contemporary art. He blogs, jokes and – incidentally – is one of the most likely contenders to become the next Pope. Could this perhaps be the most interesting man in the Catholic church?

Cardinal Ravasi, a former professor and archaeological scholar, has been ordained for 46 years and was, in 2007, appointed as President of the Pontifical Council for Culture. In this role, he is effectively the director of the church’s policy on art. One of the most interesting aspects of this the undeniably intriguing clergyman is his genuine eagerness for the church to re-engage with contemporary art in a meaningful way.

The director of the Venice Bienale, Paolo Barrata, announced recently that the Vatican will be participating at the next event, in 2013, with its own pavilion. In terms of signalling a new direction in Catholic cultural policy, this is a bold move; after all, when the Biennale was inaugurated, the church dismissed it as a "debacle". The pavilion will put a papal presence at the centre of the most controversial and prestigious art event in the world, an art event which makes aesthetic contemplation of, amongst other things; prostitution, violence, bodily fluids and painted pigeons.

"We are trying to get a dialogue up and running between the church and contemporary art – particularly artists at the highest level,” explained Ravasi. “We are looking for world-famous people. Venice is a showcase for all the big countries in the world and the Holy See would like to be there too. We're trying to get the best of international artists on our side who can create new works with a religious or spiritual subject."

Some may dismiss these statements as the buzzwords of a PR man, but the decision to exhibit at Venice should prove them wrong. The work on show here is far from populist, and Ravasi’s approach to it proves that he understands his task and is taking it seriously. His choice of words is significant – he wants to initiate a "dialogue". Not didactics and disapproval, not preaching and polemics – but a reciprocal conversation based on mutual respect.

The only surprising thing about the above statement should be the surprise with which it has been received. The history of western art is after all, intractably intertwined with the history of Christianity. For 1,500 years, the church was the axis around which all art production revolved. No institution has ever come close to having such influence or producing such iconic works, and there is therefore a certain logic in the desire that some lost ground should be regained.

Ravasi, it seems, is taking earnest steps in this direction. It was his idea, back in 2009 to invite five hundred of the world’s most prominent artists, writers and architects, irrespective of religious background, for a meeting with the Pope. Anish Kapoor and Zaha Hadid were amongst the hundreds that attended.

So far, so admirable – but the world, of course, has changed. Is it really feasible to believe the church can have its voice heard – let alone be taken seriously – in the hyper-sceptical and resoundingly unorthodox world of contemporary art?

Religious themes are still strongly present in the work of the art world’s major-players, albeit with a notable lack of spiritual sincerity. Crucifixes have appeared mixed with human excrement in the works of Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili, sexed-up in the semi-erotic drawings of Tracey Emin and adorned with graffiti and plastic shopping bags in Banksy’s work.

The dialogue, as it currently exists, between the church and contemporary art is fraught. Accusations of blasphemy (the Vatican requested the removal of statue of a crucified frog from an Italian museum in 2008), violent protests (the notorious case of Serrano’s Piss Christ destroyed by Chrisitan fundamentalists) and the constant disputing of dogma are what currently characterise the presence of Christianity in major world art fairs and galleries.

Yet the truth is that, historically, many of the greatest works of art would not have been created without artists grappling with questions of faith. As a sixth of the world is currently Catholic, there is a huge audience that could benefit from Cardinal Ravasi’s cultural ambitions. Of course, whether any of these progressive aims and ambitions can be achieved will depend on the quality of what the Vatican ends up showing at the Biennale.

After decades of media speculation on the church losing cultural relevance, can one cardinal make a difference? His task amounts to reinstating icons into an iconoclastic world. Is it possible? Perhaps, with a leap of faith.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi poses with the mobile phone he uses for tweeting, at his office in Rome in 2011. (Photo credit:ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.

@ms_kamila_k

 

Another Man
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Harry Styles’ starring role in Another Man magazine proves he is the perfect teen idol

Nostalgic, androgynous and fresh – One Direction’s most famous face is as traditional a heartthrob as it gets. Music critics should know better than to write him off.

In As You Like It’s famous “seven ages of man” speech, Shakespeare splits the everyman’s life into seven parts. Three central, youthful ages stand out. The schoolboy, “with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like a snail / Unwillingly to school.” The lover, “sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow”. And the soldier, “full of strange oaths,” with a patchy beard, brimming with ambition.

Today, an equally significant work made its way into the world – the most recent issue of Another Man magazine, which stars Harry Styles in three separate editorial shoots, as well as interviews between him and Paul McCartney and Chelsea Handler, and an essay on his youth written by his sister, Gemma Styles. In each shoot, Styles bears a resemblance with each of these three Shakespearean stages – in one, he sports a boyish bowl cut outside his old school, another casts him as a wistful, long-haired lover decked out in red, the third sees Styles with a new, short crop (done for the upcoming film Dunkirk, in which he plays a soldier), more masculine tailoring and barely-there facial hair.

The photoshoot marks something of a milestone in Styles’ career – something he seemed to confirm himself when he preceded sharing the magazine’s three covers on his Instagram feed with three blank posts (now, when you click on Styles’ Instagram page, there is a clear white line between his pre and post- Another Man pictures). This is his first interview and photoshoot since he left One Direction, and cut off all his hair for an acting role, and aside from the odd grainy fan picture or long-lens pap shot, fans have hardly had a glimpse of him since.

So, if this is a statement about a decisive moment in Styles’ trajectory, what does it actually say? Do the three different styles of shoot represent the ghosts of Harry’s past, present and future? Is his sheer versatility a way of presenting the former boyband star as a full-blown actor? In terms of the magazine’s written content, we don’t really discover anything about Styles we didn’t know before.

In his short phone interview with McCartney, Styles’ questions (“When you first went from being in a band to being on your own, what was the creative side of that like?” and “How did you find going from touring with so many people around you, to going out doing songs you’d written every word of?”) suggest he plans to write and perform solo music, and he briefly discusses his acting work with Chelsea Handler (“It’s a challenge, but it feels good to be out of my comfort zone”).

But the rest of the issue feels firmly nostalgic. Styles reiterates how much he loves returning home to Holmes Chapel (“that’s one of the places for me where I feel like I disappear the most […] I go back to Cheshire a lot and walk around the same fields”), the rush he had performing with his former bandmates (“there’s no drug you can take that gives you that same high”), while his sister reflects on his moments spent boiling pasta, playing with the family dog, and running baths for their mum. “It’s cool to have such specific moments in your mind to look back on,” Styles tells Handler.

The three shoots are nostalgic, too. This latest issue of Another Man follows one themed around Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones and the “heirs to his throne”. As Styles is his most obvious successor (often compared to Mick Jagger in both looks and charisma), two of these shoots feel almost as though they were intended for that previous issue. Both the boyish, Sixties Beatles and Stones-inspired shoot – “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, shot by Alasdair McLellan – and the ragged rockstar story, “Anything That’s Part Of You”, shot by Willy Vanderperre – reference specific Jagger photographs and his general vibe.

On seeing the new covers, the Guardian proclaimed: “Harry Styles proves the heartthrob is dead: long live the artthrob”. It saw the shoots, with their high fashion aesthetic, and placement in a niche fashion magazine, as well as Styles’ ability to move from boyband star to actor to potentially authentic singer/songwriter as proof that the old concept of a heartthrob has died. The article says he is “not just a teen dream any more”, “revelling in a context that couldn’t be further from his One Direction past”, and adds: “To win hearts in 2016, you now have to offer artistic value. And you have to hustle.”

But what these visual callbacks to Jagger emphasise is that Styles is, in fact, a very traditional heartthrob – his very appeal may be due to the fact that he is the most traditional heartthrob we’ve had in years. Like McCartney, John Lennon, David Bowie, Jagger, Marc Bolan, or Kurt Cobain, Styles is creative, interested in fashion, androgynous, boyish and followed around the world by a stream of enthusiastic fans, who are mostly young women. And, perhaps in no small part due to that last detail, like all of them, he has been dismissed as a cheap fad by music writers who should probably know better.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, TS Eliot said that a truly “traditional” writer is that which has “a sense of the timeless, as well as of the temporal, and of the timeless and of the temporal together”. This is also what makes that writer contemporary, and aware of his own specific moment in time. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”

If we apply that logic to the long list of teen idols, Harry Styles ticks all the boxes. Nostalgic, androgynous and fresh – Styles is as traditional as it gets. May he retain his place in the canon for centuries to come.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.