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Art and State

Text written on the occasion of the public meeting Art and State
Saturday, September 20, 2014 from 10.30 to 18.30
Sala della Guerra, Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna
Viale delle Belle Arti, 131 – 00196 Roma

This text in three variations, entitled “Prologue”, “Text” and “Chant” respectively, was composed by reassembling fragments of some of my previous texts and adding other pieces written especially for the occasion.

Prologue

As I reflected on the relationship between art and state in order to prepare for writing this piece, I re-read some of my previous texts and reconsidered some of my previous work in the light of the argument at hand. I realise, looking back, that my work contains something like a figure moving in the dark, an argument nestled deep within the work, which out of sheer simplicity I will qualify as political. I say out of simplicity because this term doesn’t fully express the sense of what I would like to say: it doesn’t allow me to make present those conscious, central aspects which would make it a full and autonomous subject. I only manage to speak of it as of a residual or even secondary result of a larger imaginative and artistic practice within which it is formed.

This dark shadow nestled in amongst my practice expresses a conviction: that each and every political form (in particular that of the state, political form par excellence), is the result of a variety and quantity of images and artistic actions accumulated over time, which – over time – have slowly defined its contours and motivated its content. This rather colourful, and hardly demonstrable idea – in fact almost only an image itself – nevertheless gives me a cue to think the state not merely as the technical, logistical and administrative organ we tend to imagine, but rather as essentially the synthetic symbolisation and the most refined form of action of a people. A public form composed of a plethora of individual ideas, fabricated not out of simple addition but by way of a permanent state of exchange in which every time one of these ideas enters into contact with another, it remains entrapped, interwoven within the molecular structure of the whole.

Moving from these thoughts, it seems we can only talk about state if we understand the notion as the most representative form of a series of identities which, once they are at play together, assume the character of a multitude and of a people. And we all know that artistic acts – with their capacity to conjugate different entities – have been the acts which have most thoroughly, to this day, characterised the identity of this multitude; and that it is thanks to art that we can view this multitude as democratic, dynamic opening rather than as the neurotic defence of a fixed form.

I realised as I began reflecting on these issues that I (like many, I suspect) have often had the feeling that the relationship between art and state should be necessarily antagonistic, or one based on a merely instrumental alliance. But in fact something subterranean and strong unites them, a similar desire for osmotic symbolisation which always relates them to the same destiny. And, in a sense, every work of art of every artist renews that link, gives it new form: because with each new work of art a new way is invented of being with, around or in front of the work of art, and this aesthetic gesture necessarily produces an ethical one which regards how we are together in relation to the work of art. The ensemble (we could even call it the ‘assembly’) of these different ethical modes of seeing is in my view at the very heart of what we call the democratic state. And I speak of different modes rather than of personal ones because whenever we deal with a merely individual form we witness an art which is at the service of the state. And in these cases, the state is only apparently an aesthetic state: in fact it is often an an-aesthetic state, obsessed and taken up by the defence of one single pre-eminent aesthetic mode; in these cases, we are in the presence of a self-sufficient, self-generating state.

Sometimes it is a single artist who creates works which become central to, and sometimes even acquire cult status for, the political apparatus and the state — sometimes the very state invests a single artist’s works with the task of representing a state’s identity and essence. When this happens (let us think of the relationship between avantgardes and totalitarianisms, for example), it happens for reasons entirely internal to the work of art itself: an ethics so deeply embedded in the aesthetics of the work that it appears as an image which is itself the living metaphor of a perfect and therefore (only apparently) repeatable and utilisable political reality at the service of the purposes of propaganda. All of this is clearly much more evident in dictatorships, but while it does not happen in democratic states something else substitutes it – what does take place is the institutional sustenance and the legitimisation, even poetic, of a particular kind of form: within its economical system, one specific kind of form might, for example, be financially rewarded in terms of cultural investment (with a relative focalisation of profits).

We would have to invent a new conservative, and at the same time vital, apparatus — one able to supply the economy and the state, as well as art, with a perspective founded on complicity. By this I do not refer to a shady system: merely to a system able to incorporate divergences and differences of intents within a reciprocal and renewable contract of trust. If this were not the case, we would find ourselves forced to powerlessly observe the liquefaction both of art and of the state. The two would assume an evermore amorphous dimension marked by, on the one hand, the aestheticisation of politics and on the other, by the politicisation of art. Two strategies, these, which were once counterposed and alternative to each other but which in my opinion can be viewed today as perfectly united in a common intent.

Text

John the Baptist said of himself: I am a Voice crying out in the desert.
His solitary cry was distinguishable even to the most distant auditors, and the desert preserved and tuned his voice, amplified its sound in the hot, vibrating air. It transported the meaning of his words further than their natural borders: it took his words to the people, into the tents, face to face with the powerful.

The artist also cries out to affirm his principles, through works of art and through words. But the artist also cries out of fear when those principles become hegemonic with regard to artistic form. When the artist’s very own ideas, the ones he himself has crafted, become separated from the work of art and assume the traits of general principles, which disappear into the borders of the state. The artist’s cry is one of fear when the state is unable to look after the artist’s images, and transforms them into propaganda.

And in fact, our current cry contains both principle and fear.

First of all, we shout our conviction that the practice of art and that of democracy should run parallel to each other. And we shout the idea that art itself is what introduced the need for democracy into the world. But this doesn’t mean that democracy is its necessary, natural environment or even its destiny – what it means is that if we modify the character of the former (as history, as the actions of men do), the character of the latter profoundly changes also. The issue of formal debt which democracy holds with respect to art cannot be simply summarised in sentences such as “without democracy there cannot be art” or “no poetry is possible after Auschwitz” (which after all mean the same thing). On the contrary, we should say this: without art, democracy is unimaginable. And we should highlight precisely the urgent need for poetry after Auschwitz, that is when we need to truly prepare ourselves for a democracy able to pay back its debt with art.

Like this, we begin to see the contours of a discourse able to comprehend how democracy (and its principal form, the state) are the manifest consequence of artistic practices and modes of reflection, even though the two remain substantially independent from each other. For example, I am convinced that the fact that the term “representation” is used in both political and artistic discourse points us towards something deeper than mere coincidence. It points to the fact that when art anchors itself to a total and ultimate lack of representational forms, it gives way to an abstractness (more than “abstraction”) and to a distance from the world of things which radically puts into a state of crisis the very notion and necessity of political representation. Abstract or immaterial democracies generate states unable to produce narration but — beware! When the state takes control over the narrative cry of art and attempts to uniform itself to it, or when it attempts to expropriate its modes of practice or to awkwardly reproduce them, it becomes a state which kills art by swallowing its forms. What the state needs to be capable of is the safeguarding of the cry of art: it needs to avoid making that cry its own, but at the same time it needs to hear it so that it may take its narrative form as a model.

The art and the state of a people are the incarnation, and the sum, of its artistic and historical products, of the spaces which represent its political-aesthetic identity and of the perspectives these open up for the civic growth and transformation of a population. We are perfectly able to take on these perspectives: it depends on us, and on our sentiment. We need an aperture which does away with nothing that concerns the present landscape and which manages to extrapolate the beauty of all things, the human and the narrative cipher of the landscape itself, both natural and cultural. In fact only by insisting on how the natural and the cultural are indissolubly linked can a comprehension, a protection and a dynamic evaluation of their identities be thinkable.

The notion of how distant the natural, and hence also the cultural landscape is from our feeling was expressed exemplarily in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Worpswede” in 1902:

… the landscape is a complete stranger to us, and we feel frighteningly alone amongst trees in bloom and gushing streams. When we are alone with a dead man we are not as unprotected as when we are alone with a tree. For as mysterious as death may be, even more mysterious is the life that is not our own, the life for which our life has no interest, which without seeing us celebrates its feasts, which we observe with a hint of awkwardness as if we were unexpected guests, speaking in a different language…

Chant

Rilke tells us how even when we’re alone with a dead person we don’t feel as alone as when we’re alone with a tree but, I would add, also in front of a painting or in a square. In order to express this solitude and to react to it, in his words and in his practice, the artist cries out in the desert of the senses. It is a cry that tells us that around that very cry – which is solitary yet harmonic – we need to return to build and organise a complex system: one in which that ring-fencing system, known these days as democracy, can creatively cohabit with that form which protrudes at the centre like a medieval castle… the form of the state and its works of art (which today are ancillary to it).

But on the contrary, that voice, that cry, is often prevented from travelling, muted before it may be heard everywhere. Our voice – including the voice talking to you right now – is not a single nor a collective voice, rather it comes from an out of tune, in-between place, one unmarked by a being in common yet also unmarked by solitude. My voice, right now, is singing a non-harmonic chant which is nevertheless in tune with all of those who have sung in the urban desert and whose voice has gone un-responded to. It is a cry devoid of that response we expected, that reverberating echo we expected, that something which would have confirmed the existence of a solid entity to push or bang against and which, as such, would have given shape to our cry, given it its reason for singing, the crystal which should have amplified its sound. Instead, my voice right now is yet another voice in the procession of voices which have cried out and never received the gift of an echo, the tempered and attuned echo of the forms of collective being.

An I which is an us and which would want to be here with you to keep singing Allen Ginsberg’s chant:

… I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…

Our generation went out into the streets and cried “we want everything!”. But that everything was not everything which was possible, but everything that was desirable. But what has happened in all of these years is that desire has ceased to be the model for the possible; and at the same time, the possible hasn’t given form to the real either. In these years we haven’t asked for much, because we wanted to travel light and travel fast: and what we were given was an irresponsible creativity. We wanted space and we were given a mock-version of the best of all possible worlds. We wanted our new, delicate, complex words to be listened to and what we got was a multimediality which booms in our brains like a cannon. Now that we get what the trick is, we no longer want everything: but we do at least want to be intact, across images which assemble into stories. We want trust in composition and in formal identity.

In order to do this, our art and our public institutions need to be convinced that their role is not simply to consume themselves in the pursuit of collective knowledge; this movement of pursuit should exist within a horizon which generates other perspectives of knowledge. It is something we need to put in motion not through reflection (that is through regarding the world and becoming its mirror), nor through abstraction (that is through a regarding the world that turns to scorn), but through the experience of an image which is in the constant process of asking language to give it its materials. Materials, these, which may be uncommon but not necessarily solitary; materials which may be inadequate but not necessarily untranslatable; materials which may be out of tune and precisely for this reason they will be harmonic.

What we need to be certain of as we embark on this experience is this: the images that art produces don’t exhaust themselves in the mise en scène of a political phraseology, nor in the world of pure ideas. If anything, in the comedy of men the images of art represent the dark side, the missed answer, the posing again of issues – and in this, art is similar to the constant question which animates philosophical thought. Which is why I would like to conclusively quote, and slightly alter, some famous lines of Martin Heidegger’s, pronounced in his last interview given to Der Spiegel in 1976: philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavour. Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetising we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in our decline (insofar as, in view of the absent god, we are in a state of decline…).

If we rewrite this sentence to suit our pursuit here – pre-emptively apologising for those who may be offended by this rewriting – the sentence could sound like this:

It is clear that art doesn’t produce any kind of positive or concrete action in the world as it is. This is a consequence of the equally clear fact that the world, its very presence, and the political forms which have until now guaranteed its being, are now extinct. This is true not only of art, but of all purely human reflection and endeavour. Only a state can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetising we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a state, or for the absence of a state in our decline (insofar as, in view of the absent state, we are in a state of decline…).

Alfredo Pirri
Rome, 2014.

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