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Ars gratia artis

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 23, 2009

 Why did Pope Benedict meet with artists last Saturday? A Reuters account offers a partial explanation:

After a number of spats between the Vatican and artists in recent years, including a controversy surrounding writer Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, the latest overture to the artistic world is being driven by the Vatican's new culture commissar, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi.

Yes, there have been "spats between the Vatican and artists." These "spats" occurred when avant-garde artists went out of their way to insult the Church and/or the Catholic faith, and the Vatican, recognizing the insults, denounced them. If apologies are necessary, the gatekeepers of the art world should be apologizing to the Church for having sponsored so many puerile anti-Catholic tirades. But the Vatican-- ready as usual to make the first conciliatory move, and to go more than halfway-- issued an invitation at which the Pope did not speak at all about past conflicts, but gave his unqualified approval to true artistic expression.

But I almost forgot Dan Brown. The author of The Da Vinci Code wasn't in attendance at the papal audience, and he is, Reuters tells us, one of the artists with whom the Vatican has recently been at loggerheads. To be honest, I don't ordinarily think of the authors of spy novels, murder mysteries, and thrillers as "artists." Even leaving aside Brown's tendency to rewrite Catholic history and undermine Catholic dogma, he doesn't belong in the company of the serious artists who were seen in the Sistine Chapel on Saturday. 

And when I refer to those serious artists, I don't mean only the living. The New York Times described the Saturday meeting:

Sitting before Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, after a choir sang music by Palestrina,..

Not a subtle reminder, but an effective one. The Vatican sponsored Michelangelo and Palestrina-- to name just a few great artists among thousands. The notion that artists could be inspired and supported by the Church is not just an interesting hypothesis; it's an established fact that has been demonstrated again and again. The novelty of our era, in fact, is that so few artists have taken up the challenge to explore the religious themes that provided such an abundant lode of rich material for their forebears. 

Why did the Pope meet with artists? To remind them.  

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