Some years back I had the opportunity to visit the Vatican Museum in Rome. In fact there is not one museum, it is rather a whole series of museums. It was a visit of a few hours, so just a snap-shot, still I was literally shocked by the immensity of this art collection, its richness, and its incalculable value. A collection of art, said to be among the largest in the world, that has been constituted over the centuries, to a large extent financed with the contributions of its followers. For what purpose? A way to demonstrate or underline the pope’s wealth and power? (as many sovereigns used to do during centuries). Was it a show of force or faith? Many centuries the catholic faithful contributed for the pope to amass art for his eyes, and those of his court members only. But why use that capital in that manner? Why not use it for improving the spirituality and/or living conditions of those millions?
Another point of criticism is the way this collection is kept, at times under unfit conditions. In my view, the infrastructure is in general not at all suitable for exhibitions. The corridors were overcrowded with art work. The Sistine Chapel appear to be suffering from too much humidity, brought in by 5 million visitors annually. One may also criticize the way this collection is exploited through mass tourism. Clearly, all this has little to do with spirituality.
These Easter Days, especially in the Southern European countries, and the Latin American countries like Bolivia, where the old fashioned roman catholic tradition still prevails, we are witnessing again an abundant show of religious art and artefacts, in religious services, in processions and so forth. All right, we'd like to respect the freedom of religion and allow its expression in the public space. However, the same uneasiness reappears, about the gap between the poverty of many Catholics and the pomp and splendour of the clergy. Uneasiness that is of course reinforced by the sexual scandals, and by the new conservative surge that tries to restore tradition and vertical patriarchal authority (at least here in Holland).
It is just one more example of the strong and doubtful ties between art/artists and the powerful and the rich, that has continued through all ages. The Vatican is an example, but there are of course many more, whereby art works are being monopolised by an elite to serve their purposes and interests. The necessity of an adequate form of social democratic art policy cannot be underestimated.
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