The Villa dei Cedri Civic Museum and the MACT/CACT Contemporary Art Ticino in Bellinzona are together hosting the thematic exhibition entitled ‘Verleihung der Narrenkappe (Conferment of the Jester’s Cap). Being and Expressing: Reflecting on Degeneration in Contemporary Art. Lyricism and Brutality for an Uncelebrated Anniversary’. Originally inspired by the work of a Swiss artist who passed away in 1996, whose work – in the contents and methods used to approach the medium – pointed the way towards reflecting about the creative process in general and how it is represented, the exhibition does not miss a chance to expand on the theme, highlighting analytical approaches, and to consider how the world of culture relates with politics and power. This comparison is not always easy, especially in the framework of a dialogue/clash with what is known as the institutions.
Devised by the curators as a heterotopical mental locus of the artist’s freedom and individuality, the approach to the theme takes shape and develops as a platform of reflection about the comparison or the equation between art and folly, setting out to draw the line of demarcation that separates the consensual shared social locus from the space of the artist’s own subjective and unique inner expressions and expressiveness. The theme focuses on what it means to be an artist, but also on what it means to work in practice as an artist from a socio-political and ethical standpoint, not in any specific period in the past, but in general terms, aiming to grasp the root of creativity, of creation and of the mechanisms that bring about a metamorphic transformation in the mental universe balanced on the knife-edge between reality and truth, between money and value. It is in fact around the concept of thinking that the genesis and excrescence of making gradually coagulates. Thinking is a virtual magma of creativity, since the act of thinking in itself is off limits, universal, infinite and unlimited, somehow free of moralisms: it is subjective and rationally irrational.
If we focus our appraisals in a prism of historical parallels and cross-references, it is interesting to observe the recurrence of such mythical and mythological figures as Dionysus and Bacchus who, intent on losing their reason as they let themselves go in the fumes of alcohol, constitute a rather apt representation of the paradigms of ontological man in the course of his existential/existentialist path from birth to death, restoring the unconscious and the process of moral degeneration in (dis)equilibrium between Sacred and Sacrilegious. While morality for Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was an important aspect of the bourgeois social convention as a direct consequence of healthy, honourable relations of commercial exchange (cf. On the Genealogy of Morality, 1887), we find that Zarathustra somehow incarnates the breach of these historical and cultural precepts, overcoming them, for better or worse, in the move towards a new identity of the Superman.
This opens the door to another world, yet it is an unknown door – the door of art and of free will – that distracts us from the usual way of interpreting the phenomena around us that we call ‘bourgeois’, but which in actual fact refer to the wretched social class that still today feeds off and thrives on money and commercial exchange.
From the pleasant yet perverse relationship between power and art comes a figure of the artist who is sarcastic and mad, satirical and a hybrid, a sort of court jester who nevertheless manages to grow apart from reality and disregard it. The artist and his thoughts are too free, too virtual, in fact, and the relationship between art and the market has undergone substantial change over time.
In the early years of the twentieth century, one consequence of the fall of the absolutist aristocracies was that power became a political matrix and calls for republicanism adapted to attribute a different and in some ways pernicious form also to the concept of culture and of mass homogenisation, which in due course led to serious reactions that were also dangerous for freedoms both individual and collective.
In 1937, Adolf Hitler took a heavy-handed interest in this issue, when he commissioned Goebbels to inaugurate the exhibition of ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art), focusing attention back on the economic difficulties faced by Germany at that time and attributing the responsibility for the world’s problems to certain social and racial categories, in particular the Jews, people who were different and thinkers, all guilty of having adulterated the Aryan identity. When the museums were purged of all the art that was considered to be contrary to Germanic culture, the result was that it helped amplify the theories of racial inequality, just as the concept of ‘degeneration’ applied to art gradually changed with time and depending on historical and geopolitical situations, adapting its forms and winning over other cultural contexts, such as the dark moments of Soviet culture under the Stalinist dictatorship or Maoism in China. Hitler’s National Socialism totally outlawed every form of what is generally lumped together as ‘expressionism of the soul’, a much-reviled term that was used astutely by the political regime in those days to determine or at least to generate a specious sense of degeneration of artistic creativity, of free thinking and of society’s moral decay. The title of the exhibition ‘Verleihung der Narrenkappe’ encapsulates this postulate, the degeneration not so much of art as of the relationship between power, art and expressive freedom. The moment in history that we are currently experiencing brings back memories we believed we had put away for good, confirming how much history repeats itself and that our conscience is unequivocally subordinate to being exercised in culture.
This, then, is when the artist became Mr Josef K. in Kafka’s The Trial (1925), or better still Gregor, the main character in The Metamorphosis (1915), where an apparent inability to relate to reality and to express his own artistic and creative freedom creates otherness in Gregor, as it does when he found himself transformed into an enormous insect.
It was actually in the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries that the parameters of fragmentation and, paradoxically, the pronouncement of the marginalisation of certain social issues were defined, not least as a consequence of the discovery of psychoanalysis and of the studies of Lombroso. We have never – not even now –managed to conceive of individuality as an added value: instead, we tend to see it as a sort of continuous incarnation of discrimination, an element of dangerous disturbance. ‘Verleihung der Narrenkappe’ constructs a platform where plausible pawns are moved to launch into a discussion about the issue of the relationship between creativity and folly, or between culture and power in a society of consensus.
You might almost think that the demarcation line between this side and the hereafter is very transient, tender and always too fragile in a society focused on homogenisation and based on a tidy alphabetic model, where the relationship between majority and minority, between what is considered to be right and what on the other hand is said to be beyond the pale, is defined with violence.
Something new and impetuous was created throughout the entire last century: the concept of the mass and a regime of subjection of culture to the diktats of democratic politics and to what is known as the ‘common weal’, where Bentham’s Panopticon is not just a model to imitate, but becomes the very sap of a system of social communication, whose ultimate aim could well be to strengthen consensus and annihilate individual opinions.
Within this new socio-political set-up, art is an island that is not there, a never-never-land of frustrated delights and contrasted subjectivity. The jester is the artist, but he is also the ‘other’, often the one who is either above or below a social mean, just as the concept of the ‘conferment of the jester’s cap’ aptly represents the metaphor of the human condition of those who exist beyond the pale of a regime.
The relationship between art and power, with its mysteries and its obsessions – maybe actually brought about by desires that remain unfulfilled or unheard – certainly constitutes this enigmatic combination that binds body and soul together, yet at the same time sets them inexorably in opposition, almost as though we were all condemned to decide for one or for the other, in the hope and the vain illusion of change towards the ideal and the universal.
Mario Casanova, 2017 (translation Pete Kercher)
VERLEIHUNG DER NARRENKAPPE. ESSERE ED ESPRESSIONE. RIFLESSIONI SULLA DEGENERAZIONE NELL’ARTE CONTEMPORANEA. LIRICA E BRUTALITÀ PER UN ANNIVERSARIO NON COMMEMORATO.
Eva Aeppli, Antonin Artaud, Katia Bassanini, Giona Bernardi, Jérémie Blanes, Louise Bourgeois, Vannetta Cavallotti, Jean Corty, Carmelo Cutuli, Martin Disler, Nathalie Djurberg, Piotr Dluzniewski, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Ignaz Epper, Andrea Gabutti, László Győrffy, Lior Herchkovitz, Asger Jorn, Csaba Kis Róka, Mehryl Levisse, Paolo Mazzuchelli, Hermann Nitsch, Meret Oppenheim, Simone Pellegrini, Valter Luca Signorile, Nicholas Sinclair, Chaïm Soutine, Louis Soutter, Wolfgang Stiller, TOMAK, Varlin, Sandra Vásquez de la Horra