BY Mike Watson in Critic's Guides | 23 AUG 11

Postcard from Rome

We are currently witnessing a profound cultural implode which mirrors in its intensity the recent economic collapse. As the markets round on nations unable to sustain the debt brought upon them through bank bail-outs, and as the proverbial house of cards looks set to spectacularly fall once again, the arts assumes a familiar historical position.

BY Mike Watson in Critic's Guides | 23 AUG 11

If, as Nietzsche wrote in On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), the first ever public pardon from a king to a subject was given as a show of strength, the patronage of the arts in times of prosperity is given as a tolerance of the useless, the frivolous, as a display of the confidence of an administration in its resistance to such whimsy. Yet, when that wealth has passed, when the administration is weak, the arts becomes a liability, the pardon is lifted and a reckoning begins, for it is in its uselessness, its detachment from reality that art’s political content resides.

In Italy – as in the UK – this situation is reflected in systemic arts cuts, which exacerbate an already toxic cultural atmosphere, characterized by nepotism, corruption and political influence. Here, the anti-cuts movement seeks to take on this rot, with implications that go far beyond the cultural sector, for Italy very much defines itself by its cultural heritage. Article Nine of the Italian constitution, written in 1947, states that: ‘The Republic promotes the development of culture and of scientific and technical research. It safeguards natural landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the Nation.’ An artistic heritage which includes, amongst other things, the Renaissance, Baroque and Mannerist periods, the Roman Empire and the Etruscan epoch. Eras which, of course, are not strictly ‘Italian’, for Italy was unified in 1861, long after they had passed. Indeed, at the time of the formation of the Italian nation there cannot, logically speaking, have been a ‘heritage of the Nation’ to speak of. Whilst surely not being unique, this last point gives context to the tendency to cut cultural spending in times of economic crisis. For times of economic crisis soon become crises of cultural identity. And here a fundamental dilemma is experienced by the political class when facing down insurrection, for State museums are full of works pointing precisely to the virtues of rebellion, out of which States were invariably born (even as the ostensible virtues to which their formation aimed were arguably a mask for less noble ends). In this light it seems that the marginalization of the arts in times of economic crisis has a political motivation. That is, the control of the interpretation of cultural history, and the stemming of new questioning attitudes as fostered by contemporary artistic activity.

This much is perhaps clear, but what needs to be seized upon is what underlies the political class’s aversion to culture, or, rather, to its free dissemination. For where the arts are often presented as an abstraction that distracts from progress in hard times, what they mirror in the political apparatus is the latter’s abstraction. The government, the state and the economic system are all dependent upon a credibility founded in the minds of ‘the people’. In times of economic and political security the pact made with art – the king’s pardon, if you will – is a symbol of the self-confidence of the political class. For in these times its power cannot be shaken by the truth that art tells – the truth as to all power being a fundamental ruse – for the public are willing to engage in the ruse so long as gains are made. In hard times, however, this truth threatens to expose the Emperor’s new clothes: the fallacies that underpin power.

Although this point is not usually lost on those in government, the artistic community has a responsibility to extrapolate a course of action from these implications at a time when politics fails the public in general. For in art’s abstraction a space may be leveraged for the development of novel social forms that in their mirroring of politics propose genuine alternatives. In Rome this Summer, for the unique congruence of a culture of ‘occupation’, a growing unease with the political ownership of cultural institutions and a genuine concern for the protection of cultural heritage, just such a tendency is emerging.

In recent months the ongoing (since 14 June 2011) occupation of Teatro Valle in central Rome by Lavoratrici e Lavoratori dello Spettacolo (LLDS, Workers in Entertainment, a group who campaign against the precarious situation of people employed in the entertainment and theatrical fields) and the spontaneous organization of protests and talks at the MACRO gallery (since 25 June) by the political/arts campaign group, Occupiamoci di Contemporaneo (OdC, which translates as ‘we occupy ourselves with the contemporary arts’, the ‘we occupy’ also implying occupation in a physical and political sense) have signalled a political engagement which has the potential to reach out beyond the cultural field and question the political bases upon which social – not just cultural – policy is made. Arguably, the novel factor employed by both groups owes in large part to an engagement with legislation and policy making, as necessitated by the highly partisan nature of arts management in Italy.

The closure of Teatro Valle – which opened in 1726 and which is Rome’s oldest theatre – on the grounds of lack of funding in May this year prompted LLDS to take over the programming of nightly events for free at the historical site, leading to interest from the previously apathetic Rome Council and its Delegate for Culture, Dino Gasperini. Responding to demands that the theatre remain public, Gasperini’s assurances that control of the theatre would pass into the hands of the Rome Council have been rejected by the theatre’s occupiers. Rather, calls have been made to maintain the theatre as ‘common land’, an option bought to the fore following Italy’s recent referendum on the ownership of water. Indeed, Ugo Mattei, Professor of Civil Law at the University of Turin, who drafted the Water Privatization referendum question so that the common ownership of water in Italy became a viable option (and was overwhelmingly backed by the public), has been central to the ongoing formulation of a legal manifesto aimed at maintaining Teatro Valle as a genuinely public – or ‘common’ – entity, in line with Article 43 of the Italian constitution. This distinction between ‘State’ or ‘Council’ maintained on the one hand and ‘common’ ownership on the other has recently emerged in Italy as State or Council control all too often entails nepotism, and the tendering out of services to inappropriate organizations (witness, for example, the build up of rubbish on the streets of Naples). The appointment of Rome’s first right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, in May 2008, was a genuine cause for alarm given the tendency of conservative administrations to slash arts funding. With two years left in power and little hope of re-election, the artistic community fears that Alemanno’s administration will effect a fire-sale of cultural institutions. In this sense, the ‘public’ ownership of Teatro Valle (ie control by the council) could well lead to outright private ownership within a short time.

Cultural policy-making by the Alemanno administration has inflamed the artistic community, with tensions reaching a tipping point following the resignation of the MACRO’s (Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma) director Luca Massimo Barbero, who, despite overseeing an impressive programme aimed at providing an instructive public service, together with the successful renovation of one of MACRO’s two sites, left his post exasperated at a lack of funding and maneuverability, in June. With no contingency plan in place and the threatened closure of the MACRO, OdC held a series of talks from the 25–28 June at MACRO’s via Nizza space, with the intention of occupying the museum if a suitable replacement for Barbero was not found. Subsequently, Rome-born Bartolomeo Pietromarchi – formerly a curator at MAXXI (Italy’s National Museum for 21st Century Art in Rome) – was appointed to the position as caretaker Director, allowing MACRO to remain open. OdC have since nominated seven people from across the cultural sector to draw up their charter and constitution with a view to becoming a permanent trust which intermediates between those working in the arts and arts institutions

Partly as a result of the pressure applied by OdC, an open call for a new permanent director of MACRO has been promised (something unprecedented for a regional or state museum in Italy where appointments are normally made in private), whilst MACRO will become a public-private foundation, allowing greater access to funding. OdC now aim to provide a framework within which cultural institutions are encouraged to adhere to a common standard of practice. It is hoped that in this light the political hegemony of the arts in Rome and Italy in general can be broken. This autumn will see a programme of actions aimed at preventing the private takeover of Rome’s Palazzo Delle Esposizioni – a museum which has in recent years hosted, amongst other things, retrospectives of Mark Rothko and Alexander Calder.

The success of individual campaigns – those concerning Teatro Valle, the Palazzo Delle Esposizioni and the eventual implementation and outcome of proposals for the MACRO – will depend on the diplomatic presentation of proposed legal alternatives (such as common law, but also of a cultural share system, as a means of funding Teatro Valle) and the will and attitude of the political class. For the moment, the creative and political innovation pursued by LLDS and OdC resides in their pursuit of radical ends in a way that is neither overtly leftist or rightist and which, further, mimics the framework of legality that underpins government itself. Both groups appeal to Article Nine of the Italian constitution in a way that – wittingly or not – both affirms and undermines the sovereignty of the state. The affirmation accords with the appeal to the legality of the national constitution in the first place, yet the undermining takes place in that the state is evoked in defence of art, which in its illusory, transient and perpetually questioning nature, gives the lie to sovereign power itself. Politics as art has ruefully failed to be either good politics or good art at various historical points (for when it becomes politics it ceases to be art, whilst if it remains art it fails to be politics, and still with no assurance of its efficacy). Yet what has often been lacking from Joseph Beuys’s declaration that ‘we are all artists’, to the actions and sloganeering of the Situationist international in 1968 – ‘under the paving stones, the beach’ – is the pragmatism and careful diplomacy operated by the State and government. The progress of LLDS and OdC will be no doubt be instructive for those who see something socially important, but infuriating elusive, residing in the boundary between art and politics.

Mike Watson (PhD Goldsmiths College) is a media theorist, art critic and curator. Watson has curated at the 55th and 56th Venice Biennale, as well as at Manifesta12 in Palermo. His next book, The Memeing of Mark Fisher, comes out with Zero Books in September 2021.