Sunday, 1 December 2013

Beauty wounds

Give or take

The latest in a series of “Courtyard of the Gentiles” events took place in Berlin this week and I have to say that I have been very impressed with the little of it that I have managed to follow via its livestreaming. The discussion between Profs. Joas and Schnädelbach (masterfully moderated by Prof. Markschies) was a particular gem, to which I definitely hope to return at a later date (with a highlight being Joas’s call for a confederacy of the “ethically universalist”1 - very much along a previous post here). If you understand German, I very much recommend the recordings of the event, as they represent a, to my mind, exemplary instance of dialogue between Christians and non-believers.

In this post, however, I’d like to share some of my favorite parts of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s opening address of the “Religion on stage” session that took place at the Deutsches Theater Berlin and where he spoke about beauty, a topic that is very close to my own heart. The text of his talk is available both in German and Italian on-line and the following excerpts will be my own, crude translations from both versions combined.

Ravasi opens by pointing to Judeo-Christian religions representing God Himself by analogy to the aesthetic and to drama,2 which can be seen in the Old Testament in the book of Wisdom: “For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.” (13:5) and already in Genesis, where “God saw that it was good.” (1:10) when looking at what he has created. Here Ravasi makes an important observation about the Genesis text, where the Hebrew adjective tôb, which is rendered as “good,” has not only ethical and utilitarian, but also aesthetic meaning. This would allow for the phrase to be put also as “God saw that it was beautiful.” His final Old Testament reference with regard to this idea is my favorite and points to the book of Proverbs, where God’s creative Wisdom is represented as a girl who “was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while, Playing over the whole of his earth, having my delight with human beings.” (8:30-31). I like this image very much since it ties together creativity, wisdom, play and joy and since already as an image - beyond its metaphorical content - it is beautiful.

The above leads Ravasi to the realization that faith and art are sisters by nature, since - in the words of Paul Klee about art - “they don’t represent the visible, but the invisible that is in the visible.”3 Another dichotomy that is at play both in life and in art (specifically the theater) is that of suffering and joy - of drama and comedy, which Fyodor Dostoyevsky explains by saying: “tragedy and satire [comedy] are sisters, who walk hand in hand and who together are called truth.” To this, Ravasi adds that “authentic art seeks to express also the dark side of this truth,” which he then expands on by first quoting Rainer Maria Rilke: “The beautiful is nothing but the beginning of the terrifying” and then Virginia Woolf: “The beauty of the world has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” Finally, this line of reasoning is pushed even further through the words of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger from 1992: “beauty wounds, but precisely by doing so, it awakens man to his highest calling.”

This emphasis on the integrity and comprehensiveness of art with respect to the full spectrum of human emotion is an important move away from the backward-looking, formulaic, stylized or solely artisanal nature of sacral “art” that Ravasi bemoans (and he is equally critical of contemporary attempts that result in “sacral garages where God is parked and the faithful are lined up”). Such failures lead to the divorce between art and faith that has been the case since the last century and that Ravasi has clearly spoken about already during the announcement of the Vatican pavilion a this year’s Venice Biennale. In contrast to its pathologies, Ravasi points to the importance of the cuts that authentic art can inflict and emphasizes that they can be “slits that open onto the infinite and eternal, the absolute, the mystery and the divine,” regardless of the faith of the artist, e.g., as with Lucio Fontana’s - a contemporary of Marcel Duchamp - “Tagli” or “Concetto spaziale” pieces, and - in my opinion - in a less literal way in the work of Louise Bourgeois (e.g., see her “Give or Take”).

Ravasi notes that the separation between art and faith has also, naturally, lead to a shelving of the themes, symbols and narratives of the Bible, which, e.g., Chagall held in very high regard: “For centuries painters dipped their brushes into this colorful alphabet, that of the Holy Scriptures.” Next, Ravasi makes the - to me - most interesting move by a virtuoso application of the principle of charity: “Even certain desecrating and blasphemous expressions4 that have recently elicited strong responses ultimately show not only the strong impact that religious symbols and themes maintain even in a secularized society, but perhaps they also manifest a nostalgia for the signs and images that have been such an extraordinary source of art and culture for two millennia.”

To sum up, I’d like to take advantage of Prof. Dr. Hans Joas’ words from his remarks of the opening session of the Berlin Courtyard of the Gentiles, where he called for “curiosity with regard to the other and humility with regard to oneself,” as a basis for authentic dialogue. I believe Cardinal Ravasi has taken great steps towards a new relationship between the Catholic Church and contemporary art, both in the practical move of participating in the Venice Biennale earlier this year, and in his clear attempts to recognize value and goodness even in art that at first sight is opposed to faith and in being explicit about the breadth of expression that authentic art requires.

1 As opposed to an “ethical particularism” that distinguishes between religious and secular ethics.
2 E.g., for a recent example, see also Hans Urs von Balthasar’s five-volume work “Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory.”
3 This seems to be related to the following, more extensive quote: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.... My aim is always to get hold of the magic of reality and to transfer this reality into painting - to make the invisible visible through reality. It may sound paradoxical, but it is, in fact, reality which forms the mystery of our existence.”
4 Characterized as “desecrating and blasphemous,” the most obvious example that springs to mind is Andres Serrano’s photograph [view at your own discretion].