From Article 9 traitors to Isis: it's an attack on art. Simona Maggiorelli's latest book

A review of 'Attack on Art. Beauty Denied,' the latest book by Simona Maggiorelli, art journalist and editor-in-chief of Left.

In the fall of 2015, Antonio Natali, who was preparing to hand over the directorship of the Uffizi to Eike Schmidt, gave one of his last interviews as director to a program on the La 7 network: Questioned as to why art is destroyed (the reference was to theMafia bombing of the Georgofili, which took the lives of five people, including two little girls, one nine years old and the other fifty days old, and sowed destruction among the works of the Uffizi), Natali responded by stating that when one tries to strike at artistic heritage, one aims to annihilate what it represents in terms of culture, feelings, and affections. One seeks, in essence, to deny the social value of art, of cultural heritage, and to erase thehistorical identity of a community: objectives that have always characterized the action of every fundamentalism, where “fundamentalism” does not mean only the more crudely barbaric one of those who, like the fundamentalists of Isis, demolish temples and reduce sculptures to shreds with TNT and pickaxes, but also the more subtle and refined one of those who weaken protection by means of decree-laws, savage deregulations, and senseless cuts in funds and resources.

Palmira (Siria), il tempio di Baal-Shamin prima che venisse completamente distrutto dall'Isis
Palmyra (Syria), the temple of Baal-Shamin before it was completely destroyed by Isis. Credit

It almost seems that there is a common thread running karstly through the centuries, starting with the destruction of pagan temples by Christians in the fourth century and narrated by the sophist Lebanon of Antioch, and arriving to the present day, with terrorists in turbans razing the monuments of Palmyra, and the traitors in suits of Article 9 of the Constitution who consider the cultural heritage as an oil field to be exploited without rest. On the one hand there is the targeted and precise ferocity that makes a spectacle of tearing down great monuments and yet underhandedly reselling on the black market the smaller artifacts, which go unnoticed, and on the other hand there is the systematic ignorance of those who would like cultural heritage to be totally subservient to the logic of commerce. These are distant, extreme, very different situations, which should not be confused, but which are nevertheless united by an effect that, in the first case, takes the form of a deliberate will and, in the second, constitutes a logical consequence: it is that persecution against art that is the main object of Simona Maggiorelli ’s reflection in her latest book, Attack on Art. Beauty Denied(Golden Donkey Editions, 2017).

South African art historian David Freedberg has written several pages on iconoclasm, censorship and the destruction of images. In one of his most recent essays, released last year, he argued that the history of images is, arguably, also the history of their ability to arouse mixed feelings such aslove and fear. Attacks on art arise, in essence, from fear towards the power that images carry: this is what we also learn from what happens around us. “Through the demolition of cultural heritage,” writes Simona Maggiorelli, “fundamentalists aim to achieve the perverse goal of destroying the minds of the youngest. Turning on works of art is a means of terrorizing and procuring psychic injuries. In order to strike at the young, more secular and open Arab society and at the same time at Western society, they reduce to rubble works and monuments that evoke the memory of pre-Islamic civilizations in which people were free from the oppression of a single god that claims to be the truth and compels the extermination of infidels.” The writer, a knowledgeable and passionate arts and culture journalist who recently became editor-in-chief of Left magazine, does not limit herself to describing what is happening in the world today: the book’s merit is to try to probe the triggers of the attacks on art, to understand why a certain fury against images is so widespread, how today’s destruction is historically situated. A destruction that often has roots that go back centuries in history: much of the volume tries to reconstruct the origins of the violence, also with the help of experts, such as Byzantinist Silvia Ronchey and philosopher Maria Bettetini.

Simona Maggiorelli, Attacco all'arte. La bellezza negata
Simona Maggiorelli, Attack on Art. Beauty denied (L’Asino d’oro edizioni, 2017)

The journey starts from afar, at least from the fateful 313 A.D., when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and Christians began their rise to power, transforming themselves from persecuted to persecutors and lashing out with unprecedented brutality against the symbols of other religions, destroying valuable works, demolishing sacred buildings, and trying to erase all evidence of pagan religiosity. The aversion to images, mindful of Jewish condemnation and Platonic mistrust, came to affect Christian art itself, and iconoclasm, in the 8th century, came to take on gigantic proportions: the entireEastern empire was at the mercy of the iconoclastic fury, which not only raged against images, but also affected those suspected of worshipping or possessing depictions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The devastation subsided only in 843, when, after decades of debate over images, the Orthodox line was established, which provided for “fixed icons, disembodied and abstract hieratic images” and formed the basis for the birth ofByzantine art. There was no shortage, however, of those who, in the following centuries, continued to rail against the worship of images (Simona Maggiorelli lists the examples of Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and the church fathers who, in the Middle Ages, when the idea of art as a"poor man’s Bible" had become widespread, continued to suggest some sort of control over the dissemination of images). Similar attitudes affected (and continue to affect) the Islamic world, which, although it has always shown tolerance toward figurative art (“a large part of the Islamic tradition is littered with representations of nature, especially trees and flowers, as a symbol of the beauty of creation,” and there is no shortage of representations of the human figure, including nudes, either), has often had to deal with intransigent and extremist interpretations of sacred texts. But this is a problem common to all monotheistic religions.

From iconoclasm in the name of God to the degradation of cultural heritage in the name of austerity or in the name of belief in the doctrine of cultural deposits, the step is short. And for Simona Maggiorelli, in Italy of the last two decades at least there has been a surgical attack on art: “A silent aggression, not carried out with drills and dynamite in the manner of Isis, but lucid and targeted. And what is most incredible is that the principals are within the forces of government. Thus we are witnessing a state committing suicide, erasing its own history, destroying the culture of protection that was invented in Italy, long before the unified state was born. And then it was taken as a model in many parts of the world.” Tracing the glorious history of tutelage in Italy and its great protagonists(Raffaello Sanzio, Antonio Canova, Rodolfo Siviero and others), the book touches on all the most pressing issues, to which ample space has been given and continues to be given in this magazine as well (as well as in a book entirely dedicated to the subject). From Matteo Renzi’s crusade against the superintendencies, from the silence-consent introduced by the Madia law, through the cuts inflicted on the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, to the odious Sblocca-Italia decree (defined at the time as “the most serious attack on the system of landscape and cultural heritage protection ever perpetrated by a government of the Republic”) and arriving all the way to the sacking of the Girolamini, what Simona Maggiorelli traces is a history of the attack on protection, a compendium of the most nefarious actions against cultural heritage carried out by governments of all colors, a bitter evocation of many lost battles.

Nor in the author’s meticulous examination of the most recent events is the intent to trace the"roots of the havoc," as per the title of one of the most significant sections of the book. The involution, according to Simona Maggiorelli, began at the moment when the locution"cultural heritage,“ forged in the 1970s to give as neutral a name as possible to the department that was supposed to be in charge of protection, ”began to indicate only the economic value of heritage." A date is also identified that would mark the beginning of the decline: 1991, the year in which the Andreotti government, based on the idea of Treasury Minister Guido Carli, tried to set up an Immobiliare Italia s.p.a. that was supposed to dispose of much of the public real estate assets. Carli had no luck, but Giulio Tremonti succeeded a decade later with his Patrimonio s.p.a. (which then turned out to be a failed idea, since the state failed to collect the expected proceeds): from then on it was a succession of cuts (we are still suffering the effects of the axe that descended violently on the Ministry’s budget under Sandro Bondi, who did not offer the slightest resistance), outsourcing, privatization, mismanagement, without the appeals of the leading figures of Italian intellectual life being worth anything.

Finally, Simona Maggiorelli’s analysis does not even spare contemporary art. I happened to read, a few days ago, a pungent and preening article by Tiziano Scarpa in Artribune about the Venice Biennale: the writer discussed how the content of the artist’s reflection has shifted from thework to its process of realization or conception. Scarpa then went on to question whether we should not, at some point, recognize that the real value lies in what follows the preparatory phase of the work, in the result of this process of transformation. The point is that, according to the writer, art would have reached a level of distrust in affirmation (affirmation that is often reduced to a mere means used, when not exploited, to achieve a certain effect, be it a success, a sale, the imposition of a policy or a product) to such an extent that artists would be forced to include in the work itself the conditional phase, as a guarantee of goodness or sincerity, in order to regain credit in the eyes of the public. The fact is that many artists, especially the most successful ones, have been encompassed by an “economic-financial system that devours and metabolizes them,” and that would undermine the authority of their enunciative position. Here it is: Simona Maggiorelli’s examination focuses precisely on the origins of this loss of credibility, on the economic-financial system that would be one of the major culprits in theattack on contemporary art. “For the artifices of the financialization of contemporary art, spectacularism, gigantism, disproportion, in defiance of the crisis, counts.” And this is also at the expense of the final effect: the elevation of the work of art to a status symbol would result in the destruction of all meaning, coupled with widespread cultural impoverishment. Of course: one could perhaps reproach the author with a transmuted pessimism (the excess of credit accorded to the now famous article by Vargas Llosa that came out last summer in El PaĆ­s is probably also an indication of this: one of the most qualunquistic pieces one has read on contemporary art in recent times), but the analysis hits the mark well. And, as a result, it may generate discouragement in the reader.

There are ways out, however: but where can salvation come from? Considering an eminently “practical” side, and thinking especially about what protection, preservation (and even enhancement) are undergoing in our country, the first hints for a restart could come from civil society, the journalist argues: “some episodes that have happened even within institutions show that, if there were really the political will, concrete change could be produced.” And the episodes that can comfort are several: emblematic, in particular, the acquisition of the Reggia di Carditello and the courage of the librarians of the Girolamini. It is with similar examples in mind that we need to start again. On a more “theoretical” level, to get out of the meshes of a contemporary art that suffocates meaning while losing credibility, the concluding chapter, an interview with the late psychiatrist Massimo Fagioli, comes to the rescue. The invitation, condensing as much as possible, is to go back to the beginnings of the history of art, when a “genius” (the term is Fagioli’s), “male or female,” had the idea of tracing signs on the wall of a cave, sanctioning the birth of the first known form of art: it will then be necessary to retrace the centuries that separate us from that moment, in order to search for the “drive,” the “vitality,” the “movement” that should characterize artistic making, too often (especially in recent times) subjugated, returning to quote the author of Attack on Art, to the “dimension of the calculable.” Critical discourse, in essence, will have to be able to returnexpression to a central role. However, whichever way, one will undoubtedly agree that it is beyond pressing to reflect on a new art criticism that, aware of its civic role, succeeds in mending the rift between (contemporary) art and a sense of citizenship.

Simona Maggiorelli
Attack on art. Beauty denied
L’Asino d’oro Editions, 2017
175 pages
15.30 euros

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.