“Mais il n’y rien a voir!” A woman, probably in her late seventies, moving with the aid of a walker and support of her granddaughter, uttered these words not with Peggy Lee’s delightfully dismissive air, but with a sad sort of embarrassment. She was not embarrassed for herself, but for the artist whose work she was straining to even see. In his haste, had he simply forgotten to hang it on the wall?
I had been listening to the video describing the artist’s work, sitting on a sleek modern sofa with a pair of fat headphones around my head. I pulled them down as I heard the pair approaching in order to engage in that key ethnographic research method: eavesdropping. I had to smile at her words because, if I could have guessed at the response she would bring to the sight before her, it would have been those exactly: “But there’s nothing to see!”
Nearly ten years earlier, in another summer in Paris, I had worked as a mediator for contemporary art installations in a space very similar to the one in which I sat. Both former Cistercian monasteries, they both now house revolving sets of ephemeral contemporary art installations. The key difference between the two is the landlord. The revolutionary state expropriated both in 1793, but in 2001 the French Church decided to buy “back” the site in which I worked—the Collège des Bernardins—while the state continues to own the Abbaye de Maubisson, which I visited in early June 2017. In my work between 2009 and 2010, I heard a version of this phrase—“But there’s nothing to see”—almost daily. Visitors tended to whisper it to one another, cluck their tongues, and quickly move on, unable to stay in the emptiness of a space that seemed to resonate with the question “Is that all there is?”
The artist whose work the woman could not find that day was Stéphane Thidet. (Interestingly, he had also exhibited at the Collège in 2016.) His installation, entitled “Desert: A Personal Exhibition,” occupied the entirety of Abbaye. The first room was windowless and unlit and I could only barely make out the shapes of two immense metal discs producing a loud, slightly modulating sound. The discs, I had read in the accompanying brochure before entering, translated “frequencies and variations of the magnetic field of the sun” into sounds. The second room, entitled “Insomnia,” included about a dozen single beds, each with a small tree growing out of the mattress. I encountered the woman and her granddaughter just outside of the third installation. In a work entitled “A little bit further,” the artist had poured raw clay into a room marked powerfully by gothic vaults. Six large rocks disrupted the slickness of the surface of the clay, shown halted in seemingly self-propelled paths across the room (the artist was inspired by a similar geological phenomenon found in Nevada). With the cracked surface of the clay, the artist intended to convey a desert. Given that he was exhibiting in a former Cistercian monastery, he saw the desert as a “mirror” for the mental isolation that comes with a space in which people went to “retire from the world.”
According to the art historian Terry Smith, “provocative testers, doubt-filled gestures, equivocal objects, tentative projections, diffident propositions, or hopeful anticipations: these are the most common forms of art today.” Such a list is not nearly as satisfying as the -isms that have defined the typical teleological tale of “Art”: Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, et cetera. And, such a list might prove even more frustrating for those I had met, many of whom would have preferred it if art had never been modern and instead remained firmly anchored by form: painting, sculpture, and drawings. One can, perhaps, empathize with their difficulty in seeing art that has no reliable form or style. Contemporary art might come in the form of painting, sculpture, sound, performance, or video. It might be representative or abstract, ephemeral or permanent, gaudy or, it seems, barely visible.
This anything goes style of mixing and matching is familiar to those interested in religion. The flourishing of the category “spiritual but not religious” and the decline of traditional Christian denominations in favor of a loosely defined and diversely practiced Pentecostal/evangelical Christianity in the United States and around the globe has complicated our work in describing what contemporary religiosity looks like. And, like contemporary art, contemporary religiosity’s at times close relationship to the market, to celebrity, and to visual spectacle (terms I also borrow from Smith) can leave it open to critiques of fraud. Indeed, my interlocutors’ concerns leaned in this direction. In their whisperings to one another, they often demurred my advances to engage them in conversation. They seemed to be embarrassed not only for the artist, but also for all those forced to support this emperor who, in their eyes, was clearly without any clothes.
The link between contemporary art and contemporary religiosity I am sketching here is that of permanent crisis. If both religion and art are reduced to visual spectacle and marketplace successes, then where in the immanent frame can we seek out that “fullness” described by Charles Taylor? One response to this experience of permanent crisis has been the rise in what many have described as an intellectualist turn in European Christianity. The Collège is not just a contemporary art space; it is also a public theology school and a space for intellectual debate by a variety of French intellectuals. Employees insist that it is nothing more and nothing less than a “rebirth” of its thirteenth-century instantiation. Initially created as a site for Cistercian monks to come and learn in Paris (when, typically, Cistercians were known for their desire to “retire from the world,” and build their monasteries in spaces located at some distance from centers of power), the site was mostly underused when it was expropriated and subsequently transformed into a salt warehouse and a fire station. With its “Renaissance,” the French Church has created a space for this intellectual Catholicism.
According to brochures found throughout the Collège while I worked there, the “ambitious path” chosen by the Collège is to “give man the ability to be, at once, free, and anchored in his time, responsible and thoughtful in assuming business as well as heritage.” In its fundraising literature, the Collège encourages its potential donors to “support the search for meaning.” This support can come in numerous forms: a regular donation (which, the brochure reminds potential readers, could reduce their solidarity tax on wealth by up to 75 percent, up to a maximum of fifty thousand euros), a one-time legacy donation, a temporary usufruct donation (in which one can offer the rent gained from an extra property, which would then make that money inaccessible to the solidarity tax on wealth), or even by making the Collège the beneficiary on one’s life insurance. The solidarity tax on wealth—or impôt de solidarité sur la fortune (ISF)—is an annual wealth tax ranging from 0.5–1.5 percent on those with assets greater than 1.3 million euros.
The second connection between contemporary art and contemporary religiosity I want to draw attention to is far more concrete than but also intimately tied up with the first: both play important roles in the movement of funds from public to private coffers, potentially exacerbating the state of permanent crisis that justifies Europe’s ever-increasing austerity. Many of the volunteers I worked with at the Collège would discuss strategies for how to lower the declared value of their assets in order to reduce the rate of taxation to which they would be subject. A few of the women who volunteered their time rather than their assets to this space had, prior to their arrival at the Collège, never even heard of the ISF. The assumption that those who circulated in this space were wealthy was so prevalent, however, that it sometimes resulted in some very confused (and hurtful) conversations. One of the women whose income came nowhere close to having to concern herself with the ISF worried to me about the effects of focusing the Collège fundraising in such a way as to essentially exclude the “little old ladies” like her who had always set aside a portion of their rather meager incomes for the Church.
I, too, was surprised to see the fundraising brochure describing the various forms of support one could provide to the Collège at the front desk, mixed among advertisements for its programming. But, perhaps I should not have been. Nearly all of my quick scans of those attending any of its events confirmed the fact that a white, wealthy, and elite public has become the base of the Collège. Another fundraising brochure I found at a wealthy church in Paris implicitly acknowledged this problem. “Contrary to what you might have heard, the Collège des Bernardins is open to all. Its programming—extremely varied and dynamic—requires the assembling of donations each year in order to be in a position to assure its production. The circle of donors is very loyal, but it needs to be enlarged.” The powerful need to reproduce itself during an era of austerity has, as my interlocutor worried, induced the Collège to focus its efforts on a rather elite public. And such a focus inevitably limits and shapes the substance of the intellectual Catholicism pursued in this space, an intellectual Catholicism, moreover, which is aimed at resolving the problem of constant crisis that it may, in fact, exacerbate.
That this elite public typically despised the contemporary art displayed at the Collège begs the question of why it continued. There is some evidence that, over the past decade, it has scaled back—there are now fewer exhibitions per year, and they are typically sealed off in the sacristy, a room that one does not have to enter in order to access any other parts of the space. When I had worked there, many installations were housed in the nave, forcing interactions between the works and an often enraged public. But contemporary art exhibits continue nonetheless. They have not been replaced by statues of the virgin, as many of those I met suggested would be preferable.
That which visitors tended to hold up in contrast with the “nothing to see” presented by the contemporary art installations was the medieval space itself. The medieval vaults under which we stood, for many I met, offered the only real example of art in the room, and they resented the intrusions of the installations, however empty they might be. Given that Thidet had created works expressly for two medieval Cistercian spaces in the span of a year suggests that contemporary artists also find something appealing about displaying their work among gothic vaults. Does this mean that the answer to the question of what time we are currently in is one of nostalgia? If that’s all there is to the contemporary, then let’s go medieval? There is something about the way in which the medieval and the contemporary buttressed one another in these spaces that makes me hesitate to arrive at this conclusion.
In many respects, the debates around the secular (touching on disenchantment, fullness, and “closed” and “open” systems of knowledge) initiated by Taylor a decade ago revolve in different ways around the question of whether the rebirth of the medieval is possible in the contemporary. What is the invisible line that divides “Christendom” before 1500 from “Europe” afterwards? Can capitalist and medieval austerity coexist? Are modern and contemporary art secular replacements for or expansions of earlier Catholic practices of patronage and art viewing? In response to these questions, and resonating in surprising ways with the spirit of Peggy Lee, the French Church it seems would prefer to put them aside, and instead have its medieval and contemporary, too.