On Bill Viola's nude protests and our idea of art.

Visitors to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo protest Bill Viola's nude in the work Acceptance. We need to reflect on our idea of art.

While in the past few days the attention of part of the world of cultural heritage was being catalyzed by an insubstantial and vacuous editorial by the president of a well-known association, in Florence, amid the indifference of most, something more worrisome was happening: an unspecified handful of visitors to the Great Cathedral Museum, disturbed by the nudity of the protagonist of Acceptance, a work by Bill Viola on temporary display in the Chapel of the Relics, induced director Timothy Verdon to decide to move the installation to another room. Now, we might decide to bask in the idea that we are dealing with noisy Taliban “de noantri” in order to feel an easy sense of superiority and limit our action to an equally easy indignation. Or we might pour out on social media our outrage against others’ bigotry elevated to inflexible judge in matters of art. And again, we could laugh at the ignorance of those who are scandalized by a tragic work such as Bill Viola’s, unaware that our churches abound with female nudes far more procubescent than that of the American artist: the anonymous reporters could die of heartbreak if they went to Rome, to Sant’Isidoro a Capo le Case, and took a look at the seventeenth-century Cappella de Sylva. All legitimate and sensible: however, I think some brief additional reflections should also be conducted.

Acceptance di Bill Viola e Maddalena di Donatello
Left: Bill Viola, Acceptance, detail (2008; High-definition black-and-white video on plasma screen installed vertically on wall; stereophonic sound and subwoofer. Performer: Weba Garretson; duration: 814"; 155.5 x 92.5 x 12.7 cm; Courtesy Bill Viola Studio). Right: Donatello, Penitent Magdalene (1455-1456; wood, height 188 cm; Florence, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo)

In the Corriere Fiorentino, the newspaper that reported the news of Acceptance’s move, deputy editor Eugenio Tassini recalled in an editorial that Florence has been accustomed to the nude for centuries, that even the Church, during the twentieth century, began to get used to the thought that “breeches, leaves and shirts” were an extra that had little to do with the message that the covered works intended to convey, and that probably even in our parts “that wind of integralism that blows strongly not so far from us” is beginning to manifest itself. Avoiding difficult, thorny and perhaps ill-fitting comparisons between fundamentalism at home and that which triggered the destructions, cited by Tassini, of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the vestiges of Palmyra, there is one consideration that deserves to be explored: that about the medium of the work. According to Tassini, “videos are associated today in widespread culture with what happens on social media or the web,” and some may struggle “to think that a video can be art.” If there is a good part of the public that “has a hard time thinking that a video can be art,” it is also because we are now transmitting to many a reassuring idea of art, circumscribed to a few names well familiar to the public, good for sewing the usual blockbuster exhibitions that do not stimulate visitors to ask themselves questions or to reflect on the meaning that becomes material and that should identify (at least according to Danto) the work of art itself. None of this: art, to be constrained strictly within its most classical expressions (painting and sculpture: woe to depart from them), becomes solely a source of emotion, an embodiment of gracefulness, a noble pastime to be preferred to strolls in shopping malls.

We are, in other words, pandering to that removal of the subversive charge of works of art enacted by the indefatigable rhetoricians of beauty and intangible emotion who remind us at every turn how surrounded we are by beauty, and who in fact advocate a conception of art as stale as it is ill-suited to read the evolutions it has undergone in the last hundred years or so: symptomatic is the fact that many of those who flock to exhibitions advertised on the sides of buses or on the pretentious third pages of gossip magazines often proudly flaunt their aversion tocontemporary art. We have even managed to bestow an improbable aura of cuteness on figures who, had they been our contemporaries, we would have carefully avoided associating with: thus, the visionary nature of a delinquent like Caravaggio or the immense suffering of a mentally unstable individual like van Gogh become good patterns for decorating bulky mugs with which to sip lattes at breakfast. The natural consequence of our moving within the reserve fence drawn by the marketing of ineffable emotions can only be a rejection of what comes out of that seedbed that someone has prepared on our behalf.

The drama of Acceptance’s protagonist, played by actress Weba Garretson, is the same as that experienced by Donatello’s Magdalene, with whom the American’s work stood in ideal dialogue. Both are faced with an obstacle: the jet of water in Acceptance, the privations of meditation for Magdalene. Both know that overcoming that obstacle is a necessary step toward the fulfillment of their journey. Both are aware that overcoming the obstacle is no easy matter, and that they are fragile and vulnerable in the face of their ordeal: so much so that they are both naked, and as is well known, nudity is often a symbol of vulnerability. Even visually the two works seem similar, and the water flowing over the body of the woman in Acceptance closely resembles the hair that wraps around the limbs of the Magdalene. There seems to be, in essence, a sense of mysticism emerging from Bill Viola’s video. It is as if we see the penitential journey of Donatello’s Magdalene in its entirety: a fuzzy beginning from sin, meditation, and ascent to heaven in a renewed spiritual condition. Perhaps even bigots, ignoramuses and hardened blockbusters would be convinced of this if much of our world had not long ago given up on instilling doubt, preferring instead far easier supplies of prepackaged answers.