Your friends are not religious; they are only pew-renters. They are not moral; they are only conventional.
Don Juan to the Devil in Shaw’s Man and Superman
A sense of the holy brings with it a sense of taboo. We tread cautiously in the tenting place of the ineffable. A Presence abides. We dare not profane.
The Vatican’s recently announced Art for Charity initiative directed toward high profile corporations raises a question: Is the Sistine Chapel still the sacred space it was built to be? Or has it slackened into a world class exhibition hall, a Renaissance monument FOR RENT?
The elasticity of the line between sacred and profane can last only so long. At some point pliancy gives out, things stiffen, and choice falls at one end or the other. The initiative’s inaugural event, this past October, suggests that the elastic has dried and begun to crack.
Organized by the Vatican Museums, Art for Charity is a fund raising scheme that invites proposals for swank events sponsored by corporate donors. October saw the first of these commercial transactions. Porsche Travel Club arranged a four-day, €5,000-per-head [ArtNet’s figure] tour of Rome, featuring a private concert in the Sistine Chapel. The concert was performed by the venerable Accademia di Santa Cecilia, founded by Sixtus V in 1585. This was followed by a gala dinner “in the midst of the Vatican Museums,” leaving it unclear whether dinner took place in the chapel or elsewhere in the complex. Proceedings included a visit to Castel Gandolfo and a drive to Lake Garda in the latest Porsche models.
Msgr. Paolo Nicolini, managing director of the Vatican Museums, rejected the word rent: “The Sistine Chapel can never be rented because it is not a commercial space.” Making the chapel “visible” is the preferred term. He told the press:
It is an initiative which will support the Pope’s charity projects. It is aimed at big companies which, through the payment of a fee, can contribute to charity activities.
In other words, the Vatican is poised to solicit cash in exchange for permitting private access to the Sistine Chapel for exclusive corporate patrons. The vulgar word rent need never apply. Good manners demand phrasing appropriate to a premier cultural institution. The Vatican could have no better tutor in this than New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its downloadable pdf. on the delicate matter of “unique entertaining opportunities and special access” is an exquisite sample of elevated locution:
Entertaining at the Metropolitan Museum is a privilege reserved for its Corporate Patrons and eligible non-profit organizations. For its Corporate Patrons, membership benefits and entertaining opportunities reflect the level of a company’s gift to the Museum.
Privilege. Eligible. Gift. It is in word dances like this that distinguished brands—cultural and commercial—curtsy to each other.
The Vatican is simply adopting fund-raising techniques used by museums around the world for several decades. Its arrangement with Porsche indicates public embrace of the entrepreneurial culture already at play in museums around the world. Museums are desirable, high-status venues for corporate entertaining. Large or small, they compete to attract corporate sponsors, offering sponsorship opportunities contracted for a fee. And that is fine. Less congenial, however, is the inclusion of the Sistine Chapel in such transactions. Did the Sistine, intimately bound to the life of the Church, debase its sacral status while enhancing the identity of Porsche in the marketplace of brands?
Reading between the lines of official comments, it is not difficult to discern anxiety to deflect the question. According to CNNMoney, the Vatican hopes other companies will follow suit with similar events. The single proviso is they be art related.
Vatican Museums director Antonio Paolucci dips into the warm bath of contemporary art pieties. Vatican Radio quotes his explanation of the impetus behind the initiative: “Art, too, is charity and love.”
No, it is not. Art bears no relation to caritas; it is incapable of agape. The only aspect of love—if that is the word—that might feasibly be associated with art is eros. If we must, there is no shame in admitting that something erotic lives in the drive to make it, the pleasure of looking at it, the ache to linger in its company. But that is hardly the spiritually redemptive love that Vatican Radio intends.
Rendering a pragmatic decision in terms of a mystical or virtue-producing superstructure falsifies the enterprise and art as well. It is also dangerous. Ours is an age in which museums make claims for themselves that mimic religion and art is seen as a signal of transcendence. In contemporary culture art is the preferred Real Presence, free of all obligation and no cross in sight. By clothing art in the mantle of religion—a gathering current that predates the present papacy—the Vatican sanctifies its own secular replacement.
Leave the last word to Louis Bouyer:
We see many Christians attempting to make an alliance between Christianity’s ways and those of the world; and we see Christians who are even tempted to believe that the salvation offered by this world is the true one, and that Christianity needs only to encourage it, to bless it with a cheerful acknowledgment of its worth.
Note: The image above is some wag’s Photoshop comment. Worth 1,000 words.