Edited by Massimo Mattioli
Translated by Isabel Croxatto Galería
Original publication in Italian available at ArtsLife.com
Nicola Verlato and his reflections as an “imprisoned” artist in the time of Coronavirus.
It had never happened before. Even the curfew in World Wars were not so rigid: everyone at home, morning, evening, night. And it never happened that the relationship, the contact with the “other”, essential rule of contemporary living, became our worst enemy. An invisible danger was needed, even more threatening precisely because it’s impalpable, to force us to do something that we no longer do: look inside. Live only with ourselves. A realignment of consciences, which allows us – or perhaps forces us – to review certain things with a different, purer perspective. Some Italian artists do it with the readers of ArtsLife: intimate and reflective literary diaries between confessions and hopes, a rethinking of art as a choice of social life. Here is Nicola Verlato’s (1965) contribution.
One of the things that are among the most annoying of these unfortunate times, is the jumble of predictions and similar prophecies that can be read everywhere. I quote some phrases and key words that I happened to read: “The pandemic confronts us with the opening of a new world,” “After COVID, nothing will be as before,” “The end of Capitalism.” And then teleworking, the studying from home, “museums must reorganize themselves in a virtual sense,” virtual exhibitions, the end of the art system… “It took a pandemic for things to change.” And yet “nationalisms will return,” “we must go towards a global government,” “recover world leadership,” “Art will no longer be the same.” Articles, posts, surely books before long, and more television shows I can’t watch, fall into the explicitly apocalyptic delusions of those who want to connect directly to the source.
All this, in my opinion, is the result of a mentality that has its roots in ancient times and that continues to perpetuate itself by renewing itself in new ideologies and beliefs that focus on a linear and teleological conception of time. And that always underlies the idea that its development is functional to the achievement of some universal goal, an eschaton.
Judeo-Christian religiosities, which are amongst the fundamental components of Western culture, have always interpreted the great misfortunes as signs of the divine (the seven plagues of Egypt, the Universal Flood…). And as something extraneous to the normal flow of things, exceptional events that the one God of monotheistic traditions used to speak first to his people, and then to all humanity. Events that, when they occur, are bearers of meanings to be read as signs of the coming of decisive upheavals to the so far known reality.
The Apocalypse in the sacred texts of monotheism is announced by signs that only a few are able to interpret. That makes them able to prepare in time for the advent of Armageddon, thus positioning themselves on the right side of the story.
A universal plan therefore always hatches beneath the events of every day, and only waits to be fulfilled. The cosmic misfortunes are all signs of the start of the completion of the project, always aimed at improving the living conditions of those who have positioned themselves on the right side in time.
Translated into secular terms, this attitude gives rise to all the sociological and anthropological predictions that abound these days from traditional to social media. And, as there are no longer prophets with purely Biblical characteristics, these have turned into Futurologists, such as Harari (who dispenses trivia aimed at everything), Kurtzweill, and Gates, just to name a few.
It’s obvious that these predictions/prophecies of advent appear to us powerfully effective in a West that has grown entirely within this kind of Biblical-finalistic narrative. These, in turn, are fully translated into many genres of science fiction, and more often into many utopian ideologies. It’s obvious therefore that everyone feels entitled to make their predictive contribution in this sense.
On the other hand, however, it seems to me that exactly this world view is the reason why COVID-19 is unleashing in Western countries in the devastating way we are seeing. Our country has been particularly affected but, as we all see, it’s expanding dramatically in all western countries.
Strangely, however, some countries that have never been affected by the spread of Messianic ideologies of any kind have approached it in a different way. And they have evidently also resolved it: Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Japan, for example. It seems that all of Southeast Asia has managed to keep the situation under control, even the entire Indian subcontinent stands at ridiculous numbers.
The explanation of this unexpected phenomenon, of the fact that the countries closest to the Chinese epicentre of the epidemic were the ones that controlled its expansion best, could lie in the fact that, for the cultures that inhabit these countries, catastrophes of this magnitude are not signs sent by divinities who place themselves outside of the world warning us of their imminent arrival. They are rather events that happen with certain cycles and that are part of life, manifestations of a divine world where some forces periodically manifest themselves without jeopardizing the sense of the cosmos and without preluding to any substantial change of things.
Taiwan is the most successful example (strangely nobody talks about it). The Taiwanese government, immediately hearing of the first outbreak cases in China, implemented a protocol of actions that sealed the island. This has meant that they have stood at today on a figure of 195 infected and 2 dead, even if they are exactly in front of the epicentre of the epidemic. It then appears that all the procedures have been carried out in an atmosphere of total transparency and collaboration with the population.
There hasn’t been any new world arising after an earthquake or a tsunami, or a pandemic. We do not read any sign of an imminent advent; instead, we prepare ourselves in time knowing that sooner or later such events can only occur.
We all know that in Japan, to give just one example, exercises on the actions to be followed during an earthquake have been part of school teaching since elementary school. Ours is also a highly seismic country, but it seems that the survival of individuals is to be attributed to the divine will as much as the arrival of the earthquake itself.
I seem to see in this attitude of Asian cultures a connection with the tragic knowledge of the Greco-Roman classicism, with its acceptance of the inevitability of things and their conflicting character.
There is precisely at the roots of Western culture a knowledge that seems to have been deliberately forgotten these days. We make room for the vertigo of seeing a lost paradise again on earth, this time in the form of absolute domination of technology.
Puritanical and Protestant countries, where the biblical cultural root is more present in the West, were in fact the most reluctant to admit the need to face the virus. In fact, the mechanism of the invisible hand of the economic God who rules all creation could not be interrupted, too many chain consequences. And now that this happens, interpretations abound on what will come next, the next step humanity will take on its path, obviously towards the illusion of technical and total control of events.
Viruses and pandemics are completely inconceivable because they conflict with the idea of total world domination promised to us since the Garden of Eden; a promise that, one way or another, seems that the West wants to be fulfilled at all costs.
The Chinese case, on the other hand, is particularly interesting because the Communist regime’s behaviour is a clear example of what the messianic tradition – in its Marxist translation – manages to do even in a country that for millennia has not been minimising affection: at first, they ignore and cover up the onset of the disease (since November, it seems), probably considering it an obstacle to the country’s development plans and to the image of efficiency that the regime must show of itself on the markets, and then, once the problem is solved with heavily coercive methods, use the opportunity in a propagandistic way to try to open a new perspective of domination, an epochal change.
Personally, I have no interest in changing anything by taking advantage of opportunities like these. In fact, I find that those who now propose recipes for big changes coming up next, play a dirty game. The change must take place through transparent and gradual and participatory processes, otherwise, in seeing all this avalanche of forecasts and anxiety to be on the right side of the story, the suspicion that these misfortunes are desired may arise as they – perhaps unconsciously – help in their fulfilment.
What is, or what could be, the role of art in a scenario like this, in which two opposing conceptions of time, one cyclical and the other teleological, contrast?
First of all, we must ask ourselves which role has art played in monotheistic-prophetic cultures, and which space has been reserved for it over the centuries. On closer inspection, it’s clear that, from the foundations of these cultures, there is no space for the work of art. The second biblical commandment, in fact, in its original version (but not in the Catholic one), speaks clearly: “Do not make yourself a sculpture, nor any image of the things that are up there in the sky or down here on earth or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them and do not serve them.”
To confirm this, numerous passages abound in the Bible which ridicule all image production activities. Without forgetting the fundamental episode of the Golden Calf and the fact that the first major action of Abraham, father to all monotheisms (of the Abrahamic religions), was to destroy the sculptures that his father sculpted in his workshop.
Protestant Christianity in all its variants is iconoclastic, and does not admit images in worship as well as Islam, where it’s the word that makes itself an image. The same applies to Judaism.
The position of Orthodox Christianity is instead centred on the idea that the continuous reproduction of the same images corresponds to a “writing” of images from unpainted sources, a sort of photography.
Only Catholicism, thanks to a complex process of recovery lasting several centuries, was able to go in different direction in terms of the cult of the images, something that costed in part the Protestant schism and the definitive division of Europe in two (which itself came from an even older division).
Art, painting and sculpture are banned from Adventist movements for various reasons, but, from my point of view, it’s their relationship with time that makes them particularly invisible to visions that make the temporal teleological linear course its fundamental conceptual matrix.
Art continually forces us to look back, it distracts us from progressing steadily towards the completion of the times, towards the Eschaton. Showing us its opposite, the Arch, it distracts us from our endeavours to be accomplished, chaining us to the substantial unity of our being and to the idea that the becoming of events is actually cyclical in nature and is not directed towards an end.
If, however, modern and contemporary art, as is evident, does not perform this anti-teleological function because it embodies to the spasm all the tendencies towards the continuous overcoming of oneself, one must ask oneself what it is and, above all, what was its role in the modern West.
From the Enlightenment onwards, as James Simpson tells us in Under the Hammer (text in which the iconoclasm of the Anglo-Saxon countries is analysed), the iconoclastic movements – given that the continuous destruction of statues and paintings carried out by authorities in buildings of worship led to cyclical reappearances of cult images after a short time – opted for a different solution: a change in the sense of the work of art itself, a re-signification of painting and sculpture that demolished its final meaning from within.
The moment in which the idea of humanity’s teleological progress, translated from the religions of the advent into the idea of infinite progress in the secularized field, also affirmed the iconoclasm of the renewed monotheistic narrative had to change in order to minimise the obstacle that art could represent to the definitive affirmation of the ideology of becoming.
In fact, from the end of the 18th century onwards, there has been a progressive change in the conditions in which the work of art is legitimised, ranging from it being part of the structure of social living space to being in turn subject to temporality through the introduction of Salons and Exhibitions (practically non-existent until then), the affirmation of Art History as the “place” of consecration of the artist and their work (place as in the time in linear history rather than the space of the city) – until the conception of critical expertise as the only legitimate approach to the work -, which thus is broken and dissolved in the disintegrating work of the logos with the consequence that the gaze of the observer is completely weakened in favour of the “discourse”.
It’s evident that all these characteristics that have redefined art from the dawn of modernity until today are still all present and easily identifiable in contemporary art, aggravated by the fact that it’s the continuous commercial exchange what defines the value of the work, depriving the critic and the historian from their roles. It is only today they realise that they have been only transitory actors during the phase of the affirmation of this model that now lives in a phase of relative stability and which, with its rituals (fairs, openings, temporary exhibitions, etc.), maintains everything in the name of subjecting the work of art to its temporal development. Therefore, it makes it completely ineffective to rebalance the imbalance in a teleological sense.
Obviously, all of this has had a strong impact on the internal organization of artworks, and the reasons by which they are selected – in the long process that leads an artist from darkness to success – are legitimate because of their characteristics of deconstruction of the original unity of the painted or sculpted image from which the piece is intended to distance itself. This goes to the point in which the real protagonist of what is seen in museums is not so much the artwork itself, but rather a kind of unspoken, central void to which all the works allude and circumscribe in being all of them a different articulation of a strategy of subtraction of elements from time to time capable of eliminating the possibility of the constitution of the work in its full sense.
Primitivism, bad painting rather than abstraction, video art, installations, hyperrealism, photography, minimalism, conceptual art rather than visual writing, and whoever has more than enough, are all stylistic data used to surprise and embody time at a time only a disconnected aspect of the complexity of the set of elements present in the piece in its original sense, their main characteristic. Categorical stylistic imperatives of the last decades, such as the idea of ”subtraction” or de-skilling, should say a lot about it.
Much of contemporary painting reaches paradoxical aspects, meaning that the operation of eliminating the significance of the artwork through the subtraction of elements aimed at rendering it ineffective just as a result of “discourse” rather than vision. Many retroactively project the condition of painting in the present day to the painting produced in the periods in which it was in full swing, making it almost impossible to draw new sources for those who wish to attempt a radical opposition to this conception.
The work of art in the era of the new secularized prophet is therefore such only if it makes room, if it leaves the field free, if it leaves the centre it occupied free, and voluntarily makes itself ineffective with every positive use.
Much of the figurative painting (and therefore, capable of becoming the bearer of social issues and of being able to perform a real function) now produced especially in America, and which would seem to have recovered many of the functions of the work in the full sense of the term, is considered to be the exclusive preserve of cultural and ethnic minorities. All the figurative painters recognised by the American art system are largely Afro-Americans, feminists or variously belonging to the gay community.
On the contrary, the implicit message, which apparently seems to give voice to these communities, is a message that shows how much the “norm” (white, male and straight) in reality always keeps the white canvas at the centre of the discourse on art or the prohibition of the painted or sculpted figure, because the dominion over the becoming can be exercised only if one never turns towards the Arch, towards the origin, and it must always be completely available for any possible manipulation. Therefore, it’s in no way admissible that a profound and authentic image of oneself other than what the continuously painted figure would force us to contemplate instead.
The need for art to be the bearer of an attitude of substantial opposition to the cult of becoming is not a new thing, on the contrary, it’s a theme evoked since the dawn of modernity, but it’s precisely the ways in which this has manifested itself that have made impossible the effectiveness of the artworks developed according to those intentions.
However, seeking refuge in the world of ideas or in a mythical past by distancing oneself from the present has frustrated any attempt in this regard.
It’s the becoming that must be bent to being, it’s the present that must be made eternal, it’s seeing in becoming itself the substratum of being that can take shape in the work of the painter or sculptor. The imperishable charm that can be explained by the works of classicism derives precisely from this, from having forced the flow of events, formalising them, in the bed of being.
The indistinguishable mixture of realism and abstraction that substantiates the process of idealization is made of extremely complex procedures that have nothing to do with the illusion of spontaneity that animates many of those who pursue the idea of an art that is connected with the eternal.
Very often, these are entirely subjectivist suggestions that then fail in any way to produce a social effect, and contribute to delineate the figure of the artist as the madman of the village, falling back into the figure of the prophet.
The function of the painted and sculpted work is exactly this instead, that of constantly showing us that our gaze is substantially identical to that of an Athenian from 500 BC, rather than a Florentine from 500 or an Egyptian from 3000 years ago. In doing this, the work of art forces us to reconsider the substantial unity of all humanity and the illusory nature of an infinite and directed progress of change, showing us in fact that what is farthest away in time and which derives directly from the origin of civilizations is infinitely better than what we are able to achieve today: who would be able to sculpt today such as Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne or Praxiteles’ Hermes, or the sculptor who portrayed Nefertiti?
No one, and we must be sure of it, even if the chance of a reopening of this possibility must never be ruled out as the Renaissance was with respect to antiquity in a cyclical reconsideration of the nature of time.
The fact that the artwork in its being contradicts the infinite progress of time towards its fulfilment by bending it and reversing the direction in its deepest substance at that time, made it necessary that it be relegated to the halls of museums in a position essentially chronological, in order to counteract its structural function.
Here’s that, seen from this perspective, the accomplished work of art – it being a figure that is permanently placed in the public space in its pictorial and sculptural material – becomes an extremely important element to correct the apocalyptic tendency that crosses the West and that makes it perpetually unprepared for any tragic event precisely because it voluntarily and instrumentally ignores its own nature.
Therefore, it’s not about hypothesising a regression towards a mythical time and completely erasing the monotheistic West’s teleological vision of time, but rather recovering the dialectical function that the work of art exercised for centuries in order to offset the teleological thrust with its enormous power, which I believe is possible as well as absolutely necessary.