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Rome catches up

29 May 2015

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A PAVILION at the Venice Biennale curated by the Vatican doesn't sound immediately alluring: shaky watercolours by elderly cardinals and, if you're lucky, a few wobbly pots. But the Holy See can pick its artists from around the globe: Macedonia, Columbia, and Mozambique, no less, and including works - such as a piece of serrated pig's flesh, representing "the Word made Flesh" - which would provoke not a batted eyelid from contemporary-art aficionados.

The Roman Catholic Church has, according to Radio 3's Sunday Feature: Contemporary Art and the Church, re-established its relationship with the modern. Under its new President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Mgr Gianfranco Ravasi, the Papacy is trying to cast off for ever the cloying conservatism of 20th-century RC artistic sensibilities.

The story, according to Sunday Feature and its presenter Fiona Shaw, begins in 1910 with Pius X's oath against Modernism, which had to be sworn by all involved in religious ministry and education. There followed decades when the only new paintings and sculptures to appear in sacred spaces were based on the clichéd themes and forms approved by Rome.

To underline this narrative, we heard some lines not from the oath, but from the 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, which talks of "the enemies of the cross of Christ striving, by arts entirely new and full of subtlety, to destroy the vital energy of the Church".

You would have been forgiven, as a listener, for not noticing the lack of the all-important definite article. Pius X was not talking about "the arts"; nor did he in either document express much interest in Modernism as an artistic movement. He was railing not against Joyce and Eliot, Picasso and Braque, but against theological modernists. His most notable declaration on any particular art form was the Motu Proprio of 1903 on music in church; but in his sights here were not Schoenberg or Stravinsky, but those using kinds of music more associated with opera and the theatre: a papal gripe that dates back at least 600 years.

Still, whatever worries we may have about the part played by art in the Church, they are as nothing to the debates within Islam. In Young, British and Imam-in-Training (R4, Sunday), Samira Ahmed picked through the now familiar debates about modernity, liberalism, and religion in which young Muslims in Britain are engaged. Part of the problem, it seems, is the lack of young imams able to speak directly to the concerns of the Muslim population - half of which is under 25 - in their own language (literally and metaphorically).

Since the 7/7 attacks, the Government's "Prevent" strategy has made it a priority to nurture young British imams who will be more in tune with contemporary British society. But, judging by Samira Ahmed's report, the policy is not exactly going to plan. Take the imams heard criticising the Bethnal Green girls for travelling to Syria and joining IS - not for backing an inhumane, unIslamic, anti-Western movement, but because they were disobeying their fathers, and wearing unIslamic clothes. I don't think it is culturally inappropriate to suggest that this might be missing the point.

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