New perspectives for the study of the relationship between art and politics in the 20th century. Interview with Michele Dantini

Michele Dantini's new book, 'Art and Politics in Italy between Fascism and the Republic,' introduces new perspectives to the study of political liturgies in Italy in the twentieth century. We talked about it with the author.
New perspectives for the study of the relationship between art and politics in the 20th century. Interview with Michele Dantini

Art and Politics in Italy between Fascism and the Republic (Donzelli, 2018) is the latest book by Michele Dantini, contemporary art historian, professor at the University for Foreigners in Perugia and visiting professor at the Imt Alti Studi School in Lucca. The volume, reads the back cover, aims to investigate the social and cultural continuities, in Italy, in the transition between Fascism and the Republic, at a time therefore of profound political-institutional discontinuities, and again the way in which the two halves of the twentieth century separated by World War II are connected or disjointed, as well as the removals of postwar and later historiography. All this is done through three essays (dedicated to Edoardo Persico, Giuseppe Bottai and Renzo De Felice) from which emerge important considerations on the political liturgies of the time analyzed as they unfold through the history of art of the time.This is a volume that introduces new perspectives for the study of the relations between art and politics in the twentieth century, offering an analysis that is novel and of certain interest, especially for those studying or approaching twentieth-century art. We delved into the book’s themes by talking with Michele Dantini. The interview is edited by Federico Giannini.

Michele Dantini
Michele Dantini. © Livia Cavallari, Florence

FG. Art and Politics in Italy between Fascism and the Republic is a book that intends to address the themes of political liturgy, under eminently art-historical profiles, considered in their developments between the two halves of the twentieth century separated by the Second World War, offering tools for an analysis that can lead us to reconsider the developments of art itself in the postwar period and that also manages to tie in with themes that are as relevant as ever. However, I would like to begin this interview by trying to frame this contribution, since it is situated in the sphere of research that has been little addressed so far: so what is the basis on which Art and Politics in Italy is grafted?
MD. The book stems from a historiographical observation. We have excellent narratives on the way in which certain artistic, architectural, musical, and literary repertories or laboratories between the two wars were concerned with maturing that nationalization of the masses of which Mosse speaks, that is, with spreading and rooting a feeling of belonging, if possible (but not always) in a heroic key. Here: we are missing the narrative concerning the contribution that the figurative arts are defining. And this is for a simple reason: post-World War II art historiography, even when it has tried to recover important moments of the Ventennio or even earlier, such as futurism linked inseparably with fascism, has done so in an apologetic key. That is, one was concerned with proving that this or that was not so much fascist, one was concerned with defending Marinetti, Prampolini, Fontana, and ruling out any compromise. I was little interested in anything apologetic, in the sense that by now we should have gained enough distance to consider the thing itself without the need to take sides in defense of this or that. Above all, a few things seemed clear to me: first, that the politicalness of the Italian image between the two wars is much more widespread than we think; second, that this politicalness does not necessarily mean fascism; third, that we must always ask what fascism and in case what it means; fourth, and most important: fascism in images is not simply to be looked for in paintings with Mussolini on horseback. This is too simple: it is not that a painting is fascist or takes a position, laps, flanks, or sympathizes because it depicts Mussolini on horseback. No: one must look for identity narratives (which can mean fascist as well as non-fascist or even anti-fascist) and political implications in the folds of the image, both when the theme appears ideologically explicit and when it is not. Let me give an example: still life would seem at first glance to be one of the genres in which nationalist or patriotic political discourse or fascist flanking or even militancy should never be given. This is profoundly wrong, because still life stages an image of Italy that has political implications from time to time to be reconstructed but often very precise (Italy as the home of beauty, Italy as a third way between the two productivist systems of the United States or England on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other, Italy as a supratemporal place where the gods continue to dwell). Still life also has geopolitical-cultural implications that one will then have to understand where they lead: thus, often a still life contributes to the political liturgy without the need for there to be a Mussolini on horseback.

The theme of political liturgy also emerges substantially from the first figure that the book addresses, which is that of Edoardo Persico: Art and Politics in Italy between Fascism and the Republic is in fact a tripartite book, so to speak, since it is divided into three essays, dedicated to Persico, Giuseppe Bottai, and Renzo De Felice, aimed at noting what continuities there might be between the first and second halves of the twentieth century. A first continuity could be traced by probing Persico’s intentions of renewal on the theme of sacred art: thus starting from his installations (the book mentions Persico and Nizzoli’s Gold Medals Hall at the 1934 Aeronautics Exhibition, or the Salone d’onore at the 1936 Milan Triennale, thus salons that are defined in the book as liturgical), one could go as far as Lucio Fontana’s environments...
This in fact is what I propose to do: a more complex and more mature perception of the way in which images, in whatever capacity and under whatever banner, participate in a process that today we would say of nation building, that is, of building a sense of belonging, allows us to trace and reconstruct certain continuities that are otherwise lost. In this case, those between Persico and Fontana and especially those between the former and the latter Fontana, which to this day remain otherwise entirely forgotten or passed over in silence. Even if we were to ignore Fontana’s political stance between the two wars and recent studies on his party-political affiliation during the years when he was in Argentina, his relationship with Persico, so formative for him, so important for his first affirmation as an artist on the Milanese scene, goes all in the direction of a collaboration of environments and the recovery of a Baroque tradition of images opening up to light: Persico is an enormously important figure; he is an antifascist Catholic, even if his antifascism does not allow itself to be well described by the categories of republican antifascism to come, as we have done for long years following in the interpretive wake of Giulia Veronesi. Persico’s antifascism is the antifascism of a fundamentalist Catholic who believes in the primacy of the Vatican, who believes in the existence of an Italian nation primarily understood as a Catholic nation, thus at once highly localized and cosmopolitan. It is clear that Persico renews displays by defascistizing eminent examples of Fascist political liturgy, and I am referring to the Martyrs’ Shrine at the Exhibition of the Tenth Anniversary of the Fascist Revolution, by which Persico is strongly affected, for better and for worse, for better because it is undoubtedly a powerful display, for worse because it bothers him what he himself calls publicity violence, and because this conferring of religious dimensions to a political movement disturbs his conscience as a Catholic of non expedit. Here, the Sala della Vittoria in the Triennale is a kind of completely defascistized Martyrs’ Shrine: the religious power, the reference to the early Christian basilica and its various components, primarily luminosity and altar, speak to us of Persico’s own dialogue with the kind of sacred environment Italians know and experience (namely, the church). There is a rationalism there recruited by those who are not rationalists at all but who want to use rationalism to build environments in which the experience of the sacred is renewed and by renewing itself is preserved. It seems to me that we are very close, though not exactly at the same point, to what Fontana, with other sensibility, will propose to do with environments. I remember that still in the 1967Self-Portrait of Carla Lonzi, Fontana does nothing more than formulate instances of renewal of sacred art: it is not a matter of derubricating, but of renewing. And he does so from a clearly identity-based point of view: that is, the identity of the Italian (or rather Latin) artist is all in being a sacred artist, a metaphysical artist, an artist rooted not in political news, not in denunciation, not in protest, but in the adoration of numinous images. And that still seems to me Persico.

Marcello Nizzoli e Edoardo Persico, la Sala delle Medaglie d'Oro alla Mostra dell'Aeronautica del 1934 fotografata da News Blitz (1934; Milano, Fondo Archivio Fotografico della Triennale di Milano)
Marcello Nizzoli and Edoardo Persico, the Hall of Gold Medals at the 1934 Air Force Exhibition photographed by News Blitz (1934; Milan, Milan Triennale Photographic Archive Fund)

In the essay on Persico, ample space is also given to his idea of modernity. In his Letter to Sir J. Bickerstaff, Persico wrote that the crisis of modern art consists in its abstention from life: the artist who does not feel his audience around him is induced to create works without destination. Appealing, therefore, to an art that could speak the language of all to understand certain problems and concern itself with their solutions, Persico emphasized that the circulation of knowledge, we read in the book, could only lead to a European conversation and also a European style, because, quoting Persico again, nothing prevents words, colors, volumes and sounds from crossing borders. Here, it would be interesting to explore what are the terms of Persico’s Europeanism?
This is a good question, in the sense that it is a crucial issue that has lent itself to the most comfortable misunderstandings, always in that somewhat superficial and somewhat instrumental apologetic and absolutist key of Italian art historiography after World War II, in the sense that it has been easy to take terms and wield them somewhat like clubs, without thinking that words are always fundamentally ambiguous, and without thinking that Persico is well acquainted with the techniques of cultural appropriation in the ecclesiastical tradition, and thus is perfectly capable of recruiting an opposing dictionary and then filling it with his own, sometimes even divergent, content. It is clear that when Persico speaks of Europeanism he is addressing the readers of Il Baretti, because he is speaking about it for the first time in Il Baretti (the third magazine founded by Piero Gobetti), and therefore he is speaking about it to a very ideologically distant, secular, liberal, Northern Italian audience. He, on the other hand, is a Catholic fundamentalist, clerical as he calls himself, a southerner, a Bourbonist, and an anti-unitarian: so we could not imagine a greater distance, in the Italy of the time, between the audience of Il Baretti and Persico, who again on this occasion is a multiple outsider, the right person in the wrong place, as he will be practically always. And that is part of his charm and part of the difficulty of deciphering his mimicry and dissimulation: when he talks about Europeanism in Il Baretti, he means something completely different from what Sapegno or Gobetti himself would talk about, because his Europeanism actually coincides with a regionalism understood in the correct sense (there is the anthropology of place, there are the popular subcultures that for him mean above all the devotional cultures of places, to constitute the deep heritage, and to be restored from time to time with the dictionaries of the most up-to-date international current affairs, but for preservation purposes). This Persico is close to the anti-Gentilian Montale who writes in Il Baretti in the name of the splendor of traditional faiths. And he is closer to Malaparte than to the Barettians: this is a time when a strange coincidence is being drawn in Italian culture, not between nation and World, but between region (or province) and World, and we must keep this in mind.

The second essay is devoted, as mentioned, to the figure of Giuseppe Bottai. The relationship between art and politics, in the book, subtends an original interpretation of Fascist corporatism, since, I quote from the book’s introduction, the whole conception of the corporative state, or rather its pre-technical assumptions, are not fully comprehensible without reference to national art and literature understood as mythical nourishment. Bottai’s project takes shape very early, for as early as 1919 he wrote that only art is the chance to save Italy, and that artists are its most passionate children, and consequently for him the state itself should have been considered a work of art, so much so that artists should have taken over its government. What are the historiographical implications of this reading of fascist corporatism?
We have today received an interpretation of Bottai of De Felice’s origin (also shared by many of De Felice’s students), which breaks Bottai’s political or cultural-political career into three trunks that do not communicate: the futurist Bottai, artist, writer and interventionist, the undersecretary Bottai and then minister of Corporations, and then the late Bottai of the Ministry ofEducation and of the laws on landscape and heritage. These three strands do not communicate in the received interpretation, in the current discourse: it is said that Bottai was born as a vocalist-supporter, and as such participates in the war, returning laden with patriotic fury, is very close to the Futurists and is part of the Futurist movement, co-directs Futurist Rome, after which he conceives the idea (Marinettian in origin) that artists should go to the government. The national revolution (let’s not call it a fascist revolution yet, because it means many things, although in Bottai’s eyes it will become increasingly clear that the national revolution will be a fascist revolution), the one that will allow for a change of theelite, bring rulers and ruled closer together, and finally dismiss the pre-war liberal ruling classes, classist, conservative, incompetent, deeply corrupt, and so on (this is clearly Bottai’s opinion), will be futur-fascist and install artists in government: this is not because of a simple coup d’état of artists, but because, in his eyes, artists have those requirements of selflessness, self-sacrifice, strong motivation and faith that must connote the ruling classes, regardless of the origins of the individuals (in the Marinettian sense, geniuses may be proletarians, but they must be characterized by imagination, probity, vehemence, determination, project, vision, and so on). When this project fails (and it fails through the initiative of Mussolini, who shifts fascism to the right and condemns the futurists to irrelevance by shifting to pro-monarchist positions), here Bottai (and here would begin the purely tactical Bottai, the Bottai who somehow seeks power) follows Mussolini, exits futurism, dismisses these ambitions that have now become futile, and begins a career in the Ministry of Corporations: end of the relationship with art, end of the relationship with artists. At the end of the regime, when Bottai will be cut off again by Mussolini, in the context of the corporative reform of the Fascist state, he will return in an almost resigned, twilight and marginal way to his former humanistic interests. This reconstruction actually does an excessive disservice to Bottai’s motives and to the importance that the debate on the fine arts had within the Fascist project and even within the corporatist discourse. The point of my argument is this: art history and artists offered Bottai from the very beginning the materials to compose his own political anthropology. That disinterestedness of the Italian artist of tradition, that almost religious inclination and desire for perfection, that ability to live in poverty paid for by his art and his faith: these are certain national traits that Bottai ascribes to the Old Masters and that in fact compose a political anthropology of the new Italian, regenerated by the corporative revolution (a kind of Reformation, in Bottai’s eyes). The whole nation, for Bottai, will be able to make its own customs of frugality and oppose the wealth of nations ruled by money. By feeding on ideals of faith and a deeply religious sense of existence. We are not interested now in determining how vague this view of Bottai’s was (and it certainly was very vague). We are interested first in grasping certain origins of a consensus that developed particularly among artists, writers, intellectuals: the geniuses are always in some way at the forefront of Bottaian discourse. It is not that Bottai then eventually returns to the artists because Mussolini made him out of any real power: he returns to them because he believes in them, and he then returns to fight his battle that he had fought in futurism and in which artists had the role of an ethical-political vanguard, not simply a cultural one.

La copertina del libro Arte e politica in Italia tra fascismo e Repubblica di Michele Dantini
The cover of the book Art and Politics in Italy between Fascism and the Republic by Michele Dantini

In the article entitled Front of Art and published in 1941, Bottai, referring to the revolutionary origins of Fascism, appealed to artists to take sides, urging young people in particular, taking care to point out that, quoting from the text, the mirage of an art unrelated to history will not be able to seduce anyone with a sense of time. So the motif of the inseparability of art and politics returns, which, Michela Morelli wrote in her article in the latest issue of the magazine piano B, dedicated precisely to continuities and discontinuities in Italian art and culture between the two halves of the twentieth century, would have found in Guttuso the figure who would seem to collect this assumption with more awareness... but specifically these Bottaian intentions of recruitment what consequences would they have had in the postwar period?
They had very broad consequences in my opinion: this political leaderism attributed to artists, especially young artists, in my opinion fosters, encourages, nurtures an overestimation of the civil and social role that artists can have. And this is something that happens only in Italy. I don’t see in other European nations this same misunderstanding, this same overestimation, which is an overestimation of the medium and long term, because starting from Bottai (or maybe starting from Marinetti to be even more fair), then starting from the first call or the first recruitment of avant-garde artists, of young artists, as a new ruling class, we arrive up to Germano Celant’s Appunti per una guerriglia (Notes for a guerrilla war ). Frankly, I am not interested in self-positioning and self-awareness: doing history, and going beyond what people say about themselves and individual testimonies, it is clear that there is a mythographic and self-promotional infrastructure, which lasts at least four or five decades. From the myth of Rosai, created in the 1930s and to which Persico also contributed with Berto Ricci (a myth that is at the origins of the image of leading artist, gufino first and antifascist later, that Guttuso deposits in the pages of Primato), we arrive quietly, passing through the artists of Corrente, to Arte Povera, or at least to the curatorial packaging of Arte Povera, but also to the posture of some artists who are part of the group. It is an overestimation alloriginally of questionable self-investments; and reputations to be reviewed.

Just on the subject of Arte Povera, the text mentions a passage by Luciano Fabro that somehow asserts that critics and historians move in ignorance of the innermost motivations of the creative process. It will therefore be necessary to return to the study of much of postwar art in the light of these considerations, not least because much of the criticism has focused on the study of cross-references between Italian art and other experiences, above all probably American art, without, however, dwelling on the internal drives that are there and that are strong because, I quote from your book, instances of internal animation, numinosity, or transcendence of the image persist in postwar art. You give the example of the ecstatic propensity and the almost cultic availability to the image of certain movements, from Spatialism to Arte Povera. All of this stems from a memory that, again I quote, is waiting to be restored in words...what then to do to restore this memory?
Doing historiography, that is, writing history, does not mean paraphrasing, genuflected for the most part, what historians call the ego-documents, that is, the self-testimonies, current memoirs, and statements made by the protagonists or their contemporaries. This is a preliminary caveat of method. Doing history means critically sifting not only primary documents but also secondary documents, i.e., memoir and self-testimony. We often tend, as contemporary art historians, to wield the microphone with which the artist speaks: this is not doing history, but is contributing more or less consciously to a mythography. It is not on a scientific level, it is not on a level of finally accepted and shared memory. The important passage for me on certain survivals that link the first and second twentieth centuries is related to a somewhat religious aesthetic, if not to a Catholic, Christian, consciously such anthropology of the Italian or Latin artist (as Penone still called himself a few years ago). The Italian image (and the Italian monochromes are there to testify to this, as are certain works by Paolini), arouses veneration, adoration, one expects an attitude that Longhi would call affectionate or adoring. The Old Masters here are Giotto, Piero della Francesca, the Raphael of the Sistine Madonna. The incunabula of such a tradition are cultic, not close to journalism. If at your origins you have Hogarth, it is clear that it is different. And much thought was given to this, until the 1970s, beyond entirely extemporaneous antitheses such as that between fascism and antifascism, which certainly helps to understand very little of the history of 20th-century Italian art, which, in the second half, especially up to a certain date (that is, until Cattelan’s horse hanging from the ceiling, which dismisses everything, and dismisses any tragic inscribed in artistic practices), is a history of resistance and attempted survival, a very skillful one, in the sense that it is always a matter of inoculating divergent attitudes within an international style that is from time to time to be updated. It is a far from trivial and obvious operation, the extent of which we seem not to suspect in the least, nor the difficulty.

The essay on De Felice is also useful in providing a framing of what has been the relationship between artists and intellectuals and the idea of nation, a relationship suffered since postwar Italy was measured by the difficulty in finding elements or traits that could give rise to a sense of belonging. The consequences of these difficulties are still felt today, so much so that this process of unification, or at least of finding common motivations, has not always gone smoothly. Here I am reminded of the exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi last spring, where Luca Massimo Barbero argued the case for the early 1960s as a moment of rebirth for Italy and a time when the nation recognized itself in the arts and their contemporaneity. A thesis that seemed to me a bit simplistic, since the divergences then were many: here I would like to quote Emilio Gentile who, in his recent Interview on the Risorgimento, pointed out on the contrary that already in the early 1960s what he called the oblivion of the sense of national unity was evident, a deficiency that, according to Gentile, would become more pronounced over the years. Can we identify in these difficulties and deficiencies a set of tensions that have led, among other consequences, to a substantial marginality, not to say irrelevance, of art in the current political debate?
There is no doubt that Gentile captures a real problem. On the other hand, how could it be otherwise for a nation that, considered under artistic and cultural profiles, has had such an illustrious history for two thousand years, but considered geographically, and having torn the bubble (because it was a bubble: in a geopolitical, economic, military sense) of the Fascist Empire, finds itself becoming marginal? By necessity a tension is created between two nations, the artistic-cultural on the one hand and the political-institutional on the other: a very strong tension that does not exist in any other Western nation, not even in Germany. So the idea that at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s a nation would be reborn through art and thus stand on a solid foundation is really unlikely. I find here a rather exhausted coda of the above apologetic (or militant) attitude: that it takes away from art history (or curatorship) any restlessness and critical brilliance. It is true, however, that between the 1960s and 1970s, as I hope to demonstrate in forthcoming essays, there emerges and becomes explicit, if not a rejection of the Republic as such, certainly a contestation of republican anti-fascism. On the track perhaps of an extreme anti-PCI left and in light of a pedagogical commitment that center-left governments had taken after the events of 1960 and the danger of authoritarian turn to the right of the Tambroni government. Only in the early 1960s was there an awareness of the limits of a certain anti-fascism, of the moderatism of a certain republican anti-fascism that, in the name of a claimed Resistance legacy, had actually been careful not to come to terms with the Ventennio.

Sala della mostra Nascita di una nazione
Hall of the exhibition Birth of a Nation in Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, March 16-July 22, 2018

A deeper reading, moreover, would also allow us to deal with current events in a more refined and thoughtful manner.
It would allow us not to be surprised if we see that even today the danger of a collapse of the unitary state is emerging, with a government in which southern and northern components stand together in a rather funambulistic manner against the background of an Italy that certainly has two speeds, two times, two anthropologies, two systems of distribution of wealth and uses or cultures of power. On the other hand, the 1920s and 1930s are decades in which, unlike today, the problem of unification, what at the time was called the royal conquest, was freely discussed, showing its limits as a substantial dynastic-military annexation that had by no means prepared, either before, immediately before, or in the following decades, a cultural cohesion. Gian Enrico Rusconi, who is certainly not a fascist but is a moderate historian and sociologist of great competence and preparation, a few decades ago spoke of the motivations of being together, that is, being faithful, mutually correct, honest, paying taxes, carrying mutual trust: all this is missing in Italy, and we cannot really think that the problem does not exist or should not be or named or that much less the art of the 1960s-1970s solved it. These are laugh-out-loud fantasies, comics for teenagers.

Finally, to conclude, in the essay on De Felice the problem of the survival of political or patriotic or civil religion in the postwar period is advanced, a problem that is far-reaching and which therefore, the book points out, in the space of a short essay can only be addressed preliminarily. Is this therefore a prelude to new work and new studies on this topic, which we should expect in the future?
Yes, it is a prelude, and in fact in the introduction I present this book as the first days of a broad fresco to come. Or also: the essays in the book are three inlays, three pieces of a mosaic that is being built over time. There are now two new essays coming out in two journals of an academic stripe but which will shortly be collected into a book on the myth of the young artist, a transideological myth at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s (I mainly analyze the consensus forming around Rosai on the one hand and the narrative encapsulated in Persico’s text Via Solferino: the ideologies involved are different, but in fact converging). Others will follow shortly, including a re-reading in a historical-political key by Carla Lonzi.

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