PRINT September 2011


View of “L’arte non è Cosa Nostra (Art Is Not the Cosa Nostra), 2011, Italian pavilion, Venice. Foreground: Bertozzi & Casoni, Sedia elettrica con farfalle (Electric Chair with Butterflies), 2010. Background: Gaetano Pesce, L’Italia in croce (Italy on the Cross), 2011. Photo: Kate Lacey.

THE VENICE BIENNALE may be the mother of all biennials, but it is also their Jekyll and Hyde. The Jekyll Biennale is the one the contemporary art world knows and praises. The Hyde Biennale is the one continually raped by the schemes of the Italian political underworld. To figure out the causes of the Biennale’s compulsion to jeopardize its own reputation, it is important to bear in mind a few details of its institutional structure that may be surprising to non-Italians.

Forgive the tediousness of the necessary explanation. The Fondazione la Biennale di Venezia is an autonomous institution that nevertheless depends on the national government’s culture minister. In a typical Italian paradox, the culture minister, although he or she is considered a kind of demigod in the country’s political hierarchy, is usually someone with a vague and flexible idea of what constitutes culture (and even on the luckiest of occasions, contemporary art is never at the top of the list). In the comedy of errors that is Italian politics, the minister of culture appoints the president of the Biennale. In recent years he (a woman has yet to be at the Biennale’s helm) has typically been a former, fallen CEO seeking institutional redemption, rather than an expert in any of the fields of contemporary culture that the Biennale is supposed to be about: visual arts, cinema, theater, dance, architecture. Among the duties of the Biennale’s president is to chair its board, which is itself a peculiar kind of beast. The four other board members are political appointees as well. Most of the time, they know nothing of the disciplines showcased in the Biennale. One member is the mayor of Venice. One is a representative of the province. One is a representative of the region. And the last is a representative of the central government. Each reflects the views and the (often very personal) interests of the political party that happens to be in power. The president, with varying degrees of diligence, then has a series of informal conversations with experts from the Biennale’s various artistic fields in order to narrow in on a candidate to direct each of them. Meanwhile the politicians and the board members play their cards, advocating for their protégés. A skillful president will listen to their suggestions but make up his own mind, whereupon he invites the artistic directors to present themselves, first informally to each member and then, if that goes well, at an official board meeting, where they are subject to a formal vote of approval. Considering the intricacy of the system, and the possibility of leaks to the press to jeopardize potential candidates, etc., it is almost a matter of pure luck that the artistic directors have more often than not been serious professionals.

There is, moreover, always the risk of a culture minister taking matters more firmly in hand and pushing through candidates of his or her own choosing. This is what has happened for the past two editions with the appointment of the curator of the Italian pavilion—an institution that did not exist until 2007, when Ida Gianelli, then director of the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, invited Giuseppe Penone and Francesco Vezzoli to represent Italy. In 2009, Culture Minister Sandro Bondi, a poet and one of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s most faithful henchmen, directly appointed the curators of the Italian pavilion: Luca Beatrice, a cantankerous art critic passionate about bad painters and soccer, and Beatrice Buscaroli, a curator openly sympathetic to right-wing politics, with a soft spot for Mussolini. The result was disastrous: a celebration of pseudo-Futurism that turned into an embarrassing exposure of the worst examples of Italian painting. Luckily, the two curators were not bombastic enough to draw too much attention to the pavilion. Yet we all thought that Italy had reached the bottom of the pit. It turns out we were naive. For this year’s Biennale, Bondi appointed Vittorio Sgarbi, an art historian who came to the attention of the media through his abusive manners on TV talk shows and his preposterous declarations. “Outrageous but smart,” people used to say. But when outrage is not a means to an end, such as saying or doing something intelligent, but is its own justification, to be smart as well is useless if not dangerous. This was evident upon the opening of the Italian pavilion in June. Even the most balanced of critics could not believe what they saw: a tsunami of bad art, comprising, among other works, an allegedly heretofore undiscovered Piero della Francesca that Sgarbi and some other critics attributed to the artist a few days before the exhibition’s opening.

Regardless, the real issue was not the quality of the work on view but the number of artists and the criteria of their selection. Claiming that his method was an act of war against the “art mafia” who always invite the usual suspects (and even titling his show “L’arte non è Cosa Nostra”), Sgarbi asked hundreds of people whom he considers respected intellectuals to nominate an artist each thought was worth presenting in Venice. This methodology was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the abysmal ignorance of those intellectuals about contemporary art was brutally exposed. If these figures were considered the best in their own fields (mathematics, literature, philosophy, etc.), once empowered to express their personal tastes in contemporary art they revealed the same corrupted nepotism that infects most Italian politicians. Yet it was not even the preposterous selections but the lack of dignity in the careless presentation of the artworks that made the Italian pavilion a disgrace, a black hole in the Biennale’s reputation and credibility. Viewers entering the space found themselves inside a sort of storage unit, with art hung all over the place, in two, three, or four overlapping layers, or on designer racks, as at a street fair or in a sixth-class auction house.

Who could have stopped such a disaster? Technically, no one. No one can dispute the choice made by a sovereign national pavilion. Italy was, after all, just one of the eighty-nine nations participating at this year’s Biennale. And the culture minister’s word is law. Morally, however, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the current Biennale president, Paolo Baratta. He deserves huge credit for having radically transformed the identity of the Biennale over its past few editions, but nevertheless, facing a possible confrontation with the culture minister that would have meant running the risk of being dismissed, he did nothing to stop the scandal, allowing an otherwise spotless Biennale to be permanently stained by the nightmare Sgarbi created.

A political animal, Baratta is so used to compromise that he failed to see the danger of being compromised himself. If not kept under control, the Machiavellian political machine can backfire ruthlessly, and Baratta was unable to rise to the occasion, even to save his institution from embarrassment in front of the international art world. In fact, Baratta did not shy from praising Sgarbi’s appointment and his curatorial approach. Confronted with the Iran-Contra fiasco, Ronald Reagan at least had the guts to declare that whatever happened on his watch was his own responsibility. Baratta didn’t. The darkness experienced at the Italian pavilion at this year’s Biennale will remain indelible in the history of this institution. It sets a dangerous precedent that could lead to the dissolution of the institution itself if the forces of ignorance make their way through the presidency to the artistic direction of the whole Biennale. This is unlikely but nevertheless possible, given where the elected leader of the entire nation has been able to go with his own personal habits, entertainment tastes, and abuses of power. This year the Italian Hyde was stronger than ever. We hope for Jekyll to return, in 2013, wiser and more conscientious than before.

Francesco Bonami was the Artistic Director of the 50th Venice Biennale, in 2003.