Blue erases his Bolognese works: is the gesture part of the artwork?

Noted street artist Blu erased his Bologna works in controversy with the street art exhibition: a gesture that is like a work of art? We reflect on it.

At the beginning of the year, Christian Omodeo, the curator of the highly contested Bologna exhibition on street art that will open on March 18 at Palazzo Pepoli, was interviewed by Artribune about the controversy that arose around an exhibition that, as those who followed its events are aware, was also fueled by the contribution of some works detached from the walls on which they were located. Omodeo, defending his work (and thus attempting to justify the tears), thus expressed himself on the fact that the “people” of street art are against the musealization of the works: “without realizing it, we are validating micro-musealizations of public space, without really discussing whether or not it makes sense to crystallize entire portions of the city in order to save an art that now thinks of the ephemeral more as a marketing tool than as a bearer of meaning.”

In the last few hours, one of the world’s best-known street artists, Blu, in open controversy with the organization of the exhibition, has erased his works from the walls of Bologna. The reason for the gesture was amply explained in an article on Giap, the blog of the Wu Ming collective to which, as Michele Smargiassi recalled in Repubblica, Blu entrusted the task of divulging his intentions: "Faced with the landlord-like, or colonial governor-like, arrogance of those who feel free to take even the drawings from the walls, there is nothing left to do but make them disappear. To act by subtraction, to make it impossible to take them. [...] This act is performed by those who do not accept the umpteenth subtraction of a collective good from public space, the umpteenth fence and a ticket to pay. It is accomplished by those who are not willing to surrender their work to the all-time powerful in exchange for a place in the city’s good living room. It is accomplished by those who are clear about the difference between those who hold money, office and power, and those who bring creativity and ingenuity to the table. It is accomplished by those who still know how to distinguish the right path from the easy one."

Against Blu’s gesture, many have tried to object. There are those who have held it against him for having thereby contributed to rendering a service to the exhibition and its organizers (the Genus Bononiae society, chaired by Fabio Roversi Monaco) by giving it publicity. There are those who oppose the fact that this is by no means the first attempt to musealize an art that is by its very nature ephemeral. Christian Omodeo objected to Blu’s failure to talk about the tears in his works. And some have blamed the artist for depriving the community of a work of art that the public could have continued to enjoy.

Attivisti cancellano opera di Blu
Activists erase Blu’s work. The photograph is from ArtsLife, where one can read an excellent article by the editor, Paolo Manazza, on the subject.

Without wishing to enter into the merits of the various arguments that have been raised against Blu’s action, on which one could discuss for hours without arriving at a common ground that could bring everyone together, I would like to limit myself to providing a few keys for evaluating his gesture, starting precisely from the last of the objections listed above: because it is perhaps the most controversial and the most difficult, and because it is especially from this point of view that Blu’s gesture may appear to be difficult to digest by those who have appreciated or loved his Bolognese works. A few weeks ago, two of Italy’s leading street art experts, Fabiola Naldi and Claudio Musso, were interviewed, again by Artribune, on the issue of “street art and rip-offs.” From the words of the two critics, we learned that "there are artistic practices that are born with the precise intention of not being durable or that expose themselves to perishability, and this does not only concern urban art and can also be understood as the very intention of the work: the solution cannot only be a priori preservation. The purpose of street art is not to leave works so that they can be admired by those who will come after us (but also by those who are here now), nor is it to lift suburban neighborhoods out of decay. Of course: a neighborhood that prides itself on having a wall on which a work by an internationally acclaimed artist has been created can only benefit from such a presence. And the cultural attitudes of the vast majority of art lovers and insiders, which are strongly devoted to preservation, can only put us in a bad mood at the loss of a work that we would have liked to have continued to grace the wall of a building. But the aesthetic value the work of street art has for observers, or the function it plays for the fortunes of a neighborhood, are but collateral consequences.

Street art is an art of social critique and denunciation, it is an art of contestation, it is an art that clashes with theestablishment (and the fact that it often comes to terms with the latter cannot and should not erase the origins of a practice that was born to break the mold and that was born, as its very name implies, in the street, and not within the comfortable walls of high society buildings), and it is an art form in which the artist’s work is connoted byextreme freedom. We could argue that street art has lost some of its bite and has been partly subjugated to the logic of the system against which it intends to rise. But the artist’s freedom also consists in wanting to preserve the genuineness of an artistic practice, against privatization and against the stubbornness (which, according to many, results in arrogance) of those who want to subject the work of street artists even more to the logic of commercialization and intensive exploitation of art. So, the erasure of the art work can be read as a part of the artwork itself, as a continuation of its meaning, as an extension of the message it wants to address to the public. I believe that the thought of those who believe that, from now on, we will see only gray walls in place of the walls once graced by Blu’s works cannot be exempt from criticism: because from now on we will see walls that have an even longer story to tell, and perhaps equally significant to the one that the artwork might have told before it was removed. We will see walls that tell us of a gesture that was suffered and desperate (Blu surely reflected long and painfully before arriving at such a decision), but nonetheless noble, as art historian Fabrizio Federici called it on his Mo(n)stre page, if you will, even romantic, and shared by most of the citizens of the neighborhoods where Blu’s works were located. Citizens who armed themselves with scrapers to erase the works, and rollers and paint to cover the empty walls with melancholy grays.

Some speak of harm, some of provocation, some of a marketing move. What is certain is that we are faced with a gesture that poses several questions: about whether or not to institutionalize an art form that was born against institutions, about the contradictions of a system that on the one hand punishes artists and on the other would like to involve them, about the voracious hunger of a capitalism that would like to engulf even forms of expression that strongly oppose its logics, about the continued subjugation of art to the exclusive reasons of profit, about the role that culture must assume in our society. These are central issues in the cultural debate of our times, and Blu with his gesture has forcefully reminded us of this. Is Bologna from today uglier, as many have said? I don’t know, just as I don’t know if any figures will emerge victorious from this affair: I can say, however, that Bologna, and the whole of Italy, are from today perhaps more aware of the importance that art must play for all of us.

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