The Vatican at the Venice Biennale

Fearful lest it become relegated to the position of an isolated sect, Christianity seems to be making frenzied efforts at mimicry [of secular society] in order to escape being devoured by its enemies—a reaction that seems defensive, but in fact is self-destructive.
~ Leszek Kolakowski

This summer Vatican City will have its own pavilion in the Venice Biennale. The idea was first floated five years ago and seemed, mercifully, to have been abandoned. But now it is back. The Holy See will debut in the futures market that is the Biennale Arte 2013 alongside eight other first-time players: Paraguay, Nigeria, Bahrain, the Ivory Coast, Kuwait, the Maldives, the Bahamas and the Republic of Kosovo.

This is welcome news only to those who do not recognize the smell of sulphur.

Opening on June 7 and continuing through late November, the Biennale Arte 2013 is the granddaddy of the boom in transnational art fairs. Pavilions compete for star curators and celebrity artists. Participating countries commission extravagant works and installations, often on a monumental scale. Lavish displays, they tend toward the spectacular, and are rarely memorable. What matters is that these fairs—unregulated commodities exchanges—are investor-driven opportunities to hedge against flat interest rates and wavering currencies. An accepted asset class, art is a very much a currency itself. Under cover of the new evangelization, the Vatican has hopped on the carousel.

Art is a singular commodity in that its value is determined, in great measure, by who owns it. Aesthetic value is inseparable from economic value which, in turn, is affected by the prestige of the owner. Anyone who has visited the Vatican Museums’ dispiriting collection of contemporary art—much of it acquired by donation under Pope Paul VI—knows the hazards in that. The contemporary wing exists as a mitzvah tank for deep pocket collectors and other institutions. Their holdings by an individual artist increase in value as soon as the museum grants its imprimatur by accepting a donation of work by that artist. (Aesthetic judgment has little to do—sometimes nothing—with successful entrepreneurship.)

The Vatican, seeking to reassert itself as a patron of the arts, will try to boost its brand with work by both established and emerging artists from various countries around the globe. Their assigned subject matter will be the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis. Two years ago, Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, said: “The Holy See wants the best in contemporary art and not expose itself to criticism.”

Whether it can avoid embarrassing the Church’s own obligation to evangelical poverty is another matter. We wait to see what the pavilion holds. And what it costs. Meantime, we ought to stay mindful of Kolakowski’s suspicion, voiced in Modernity on Trial :

In the hope of saving itself, it [the Church] seems to be assuming the colors of its environment, but the result is that it loses its identity, which depends on just that distinction between the sacred and the profane, and on the conflict that can and often must exist between them.