You will no doubt have noticed Urs Fischer’s contemporary sculpture, Big Clay#4, in piazza della Signoria. Placed not far from the Perseus that Benvenuto Cellini created in the sixteenth century, you might be wondering how—or possibly even—why Mr. Fischer’s contemporary piece is exhibited in such a historical location.
When Cellini, a jeweler, was in his forties he wanted to be a sculptor, yet nobody took him seriously. As he finished his new masterpiece, the Duke of Florence asked the public to decide its destiny. Citizens were requested to write anonymous messages and stick them on the pedestal of the statue, a “Post-it note” vote. When the piece was unveiled the crowd rushed towards the pedestal, eager to have their opinion heard. When the Duke revealed the results it was found that the jeweler-turned-sculptor had won over the crowd: his bronze was judged a masterpiece.
Five centuries later, Perseus continues to dazzle crowds. Surviving the ultimate test of public judgment, Cellini’s piece squarely earned its place in history. The endless artistic dialogue remains relevant because of the vast number of people who love walking by, pausing to breathe it in as they go about their daily duties.
There is something profoundly optimistic about the idea that a civilization is capable of judging the quality of the art that it produces. In his book The Artwork of the Future Richard Wagner explains that great art comes from life and not from concepts, and therefore the crowd is the most qualified body of individuals to recognize greatness in art, a body of individuals he calls the “Volk.” Which essentially means that you, me and our peers are the only meaningful art critics of our civilization. Summarizing the buzz among current citizens of Florence, if such a vote was given today, in true Florentine manner, Big Clay #4 would have not stayed more than three hours in piazza della Signoria.
This is the moment where the contemporary artist pipes up: “My work is not meant to be understood. It is avant-garde.” An underlying problem exists with this reasoning. In my opinion, the statue is not a provocation; it’s the biggest and loudest act of conformism. If you take just three of the popular contemporary artists whose enormous sculptures regularly pop up in city centers: Jeff Koons, Paul McCarthy and Urs Fischer, you are faced with a representation of the biggest conformists of today. These artists have mastered the “formula” of contemporary art. To be contemporary you have to pretend that the past did not exist. You have to create something that has no meaning, little technique (most are not actually fabricated by the artist), and preferably be disconnected with the history of ideas. You must create something large, for the sheer size mimics power, and it must desecrate something that has meaning, value and hope, like the beloved piazza della Signoria. The goal of the contemporary conformists, if they have one, is to desacralize anything that has meaning, history, beauty and knowledge. The pure size and prominent placement suggests if you don’t like the work, it is because you don’t understand the genius. You might even think that your opinion doesn’t matter, but it is your opinion that matters above all else. Get out your theoretical Post-it notes and bring meaning back to art.
In 1917, exactly 100 years ago, this contemporary attitude towards art was revolutionary when Marcel Duchamp sent a urinal to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. What the French-American artist wanted was non-retinal art, which does not address itself to the eyes but instead would have other dimensions. It was a relevant act in 1917 because painting started to have no substance. One hundred years later and contemporary artists are still hanging onto Duchamp’s coat tails. Repeating the same act for too long deflates the contemporary revolution and makes it redundantly conservative. Sadly, many artists are stuck in this conservative act, now devoid of meaning. Instead of being provoked, we are fatigued with the repetition of the past. French academician and philosopher of art Jean Clair wrote a book called Considerations on the States of the Fine Arts in which he writes about the despiritualization of art in the late twentieth century. He posits that the result of contemporary art is “an art where the human drama is banished, an art where the real is chased away (…) an art that completely lacks of existential drama.’’ In other words, everything that makes art great is not present in contemporary art.
The art world today faces two conformisms: contemporary art and realist art. The former abolishes the past and the latter repeats it. The first is a repetition of Duchamp and the last is a poor imitation of Léon Bonnat, the nineteenth-century French realist painter. Where Duchamp ran away from realism because of its lack of substance, Bonnat fled from substance so that he might represent the real. These two extremes are prominent, yet art is nowhere to be found in today’s civilization. Why? The answer is in the question. We cannot find art because great art is the reconciliation of these two extremes. Form and substance are coeternal. Since Pythagoras and Hegel we have known that we arrive at the height of culture when two extremes fuse as a new unity that defines the real. We are now in this historical moment in art where we have two opposites poised to be combined. This void creates space for a new definition of genius: the marriage of substance with form, the hierogamy between philosophy and art, a new alliance of life and meaning. It is time to drop the wigs of Warhol and Bonnat on the floor. It is time to stop posing like one or the other and have the courage to paint a new definition of reality.
What is art? For 2,500 years, every great philosopher has had a similar definition: great art is what reveals the essence of reality. Some philosophers, like the brothers Schlegel and Arthur Schopenhauer, even put art higher than philosophy, saying that one day art will replace philosophy to educate humanity. Great art is the revealer of who we are. A civilization without art is a lost civilization. The sculptures of some contemporary artists encourage a civilization where we are lost both individually and collectively. To mask the weakness of contemporary art, these artworks are placed in a historic square or within a nouveau museum built with a brutalist temple-like architecture. To compensate, the museology has become more important than the art held inside, hoping to convince you of the extraordinary.
Despite the conformist and predictable manifestation of reality art that has landed in piazza della Signoria, great art is still possible. If Marcel Duchamp were a young man today, he would be Florentine “Marcello del Campo”, easily spotted in piazza Santo Spirito with Dante’s Divine Comedy in his pocket and a large canvas under his arm. Upon inquiring about what his canvas held, del Campo would reply, “I am holding the canvas of the future, a new definition of man heralded with a scientific investigation worthy of Leonardo da Vinci.” His searching gaze would have already alerted me to the fact that his canvas was empty, ready to be filled with life. Marcello del Campo is the real avant-garde of today, someone who knows that substance creates form. He is as much an artist as he is a theologian, philosopher, poet and historian of religion; he is the Nietzschean dream of the Artist-Philosopher as well as the Artist-Messiah of Jean Clair. Through his art we see the structure of the real, not the desecration or the imitation of the real.
Great art is still possible. For great art to rise again we must not repeat or negate the past. On the contrary we must articulate the past with the future to be able to create the present. In the ocean of contemporary conformism, a true avant-garde would create meaning in art that would be a real provocation in this reality civilization. This is not a time to desecrate but to “resecrate”, both in art and life. May the ancient Florentine tradition be resurrected, may the citizens of Florence be the ultimate jurors of what belongs in their piazze, heralding the spirit of Cellini’s masterpiece judged in permanence by Post-it. It is in your hands to spur a new revolution of meaning and end the neo-conformist drudgery. There is nothing more avant-garde than to participate in the evolution of humanity.