The near-universal consensus from the VIP opening was that the Italian Pavilion exhibition curated by art critic/Berlusconi apparatchik Vittorio Sgarbi was an unalloyed, over-politicized disaster. Yet so far, I have seen very little substantive criticism or engagement with it. Rome-based art theorist Mike Watson’s column in Frieze is a so-far-rare exception:
…the show appears to have resulted unwittingly from the congruence of a cultural elite who lack political power and a political elite who lack culture, highlighting the negative aspects of both – although ultimately it is the clumsy Berlusconian presence which comes off worse here.
In Italy, a country with a deep cultural heritage, the fine arts are the final refuge from a philistine tendency that affects everyday life with an alarming pervasiveness. Yet it appears that the systemic contradictions which plague the Italian political and cultural sphere – and which serve to keep the powerful grinning their stricken grins – have now invaded the fine arts.
Oddly, when I first started liking this quote last week, it was partly because I’d read it as “the fine arts are the final refuge for a philistine tendency,” an Italian play on patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels. I imagined a demagoguing, pseudo-populist media mogul’s flailing administration wrapping itself in a fresco at Venice. But apparently not.
Instead, Watson maintains the notion of art as a “refuge from,” a world apart from the [real] world. Watson says this philistine affront occupying “the centre of the most prominent cultural event in the art world’s calendar,” demands “an appropriate response.” But what? A sternly worded petition? Some scathingly derisive remarks over dinner in Basel? Art world folks can tweet their outrage all they want, but when the smoke from Sgarbi’s stinkbomb of a show clears, they’ll still be inside their gilded
The Physiognomy of a Nation [frieze]