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.

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge