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

 

Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon