Vatican v. Art - Good v. Bad

Photo by Anaxila — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

A life with complete clarity is nice, but is it good for art? The Vatican thinks so.

As posted in two stories this week in KadmusArts Culture News, the Vatican picked up a player from another team and provided an easy guide for the arts to get a good review.

In the first story, L’Osservatore Romano, the printed voice of the Vatican, praised the life and work — well, really the death — of Oscar Wilde. Yes, that Oscar Wilde, who converted to catholicism on his deathbed. Leaving aside his interpersonal relationships, the Vatican praised Wilde’s witticisms for understanding what was true and what was false. Wilde might have lived the life of a sinner, but apparently he’s okay now in the Vatican’s book, since he intuited the life of saints. As Joseph Heller wrote, “Go Figure.”

Isn’t that a bit like the joke of the old communist who refuses to acknowledge religion as he lay dying. He dies; opens his eyes; and sees a man with a long white beard waiting for him at the end of a long hallway. “Do you know who I am?”, asks the old man. “God?!?”, the frightened communist answers. “No, you idiot! Karl Marx!”

Still, anyone or any institution that lays claim to a great artist is fine by us. After all, if a new person gets turned on to Wilde’s writings because the Vatican says it’s okay, then by all means that’s good news. We have just picked up another audience member for great art.

The problem lies, though, in how the Vatican decides what is great art. In the second story posted from L’Osservatore Romano, the paper gave a thumbs-up review to the new Harry Potter film. Why? Because Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince shows a clear line between good and evil. Apparently this has not always been clear to L’Osservatore Romano in the other films, or in the original books. The bad guys might have been a bit too attractive for the audience. The critic’s lesson: if the art is about only doing good, then the review is going to be good as well. (I guess they didn’t pay much attention to where the teenage snogging is headed, with or without any magic wands.)

What turns some on to religion is that all the answers are there for the asking. What turns others off of religion is the same approach to clarity. Why do those guys have a monopoly on deciding what is good and what is bad?

We are not here for the religionists or their debaters. We are here for art and its instigators of artists and audiences. For the arts, there is nothing worse than the Vatican approach to evaluation, critique, and understanding.

Art loses an essential ingredient and opportunity when it provides the answers. Art needs to ask the questions. Take a moment and think of the dance, literature, music, poetry, theatre, and/or visual art that you consider to be in the category of “great art.” I am going to bet that the attraction to these works is not because they show an easy answer; rather, they reveal the complexity of life.

I am glad the Vatican has embraced Oscar Wilde and Harry Potter. That’s the good news. The bad news is on what terms. The twentieth century is full of examples of institutions and political parties that tried to negate art of complexity in favor of art of answers.

Or, as Oscar said, “A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.”

- Bill Reichblum

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