Popular: the Boundaries of a Controversial Adjective

A Cultural Alternative to Populism

Nicolas Martino

Alberto Sordi’s 1978 film Le vacanze intelligenti (an episode of the collective film Dove vai in vacanza?directed by Sordi along with Bolognini and Salce), provides a fine example of the relationship between mass audiences and contemporary art: that is, a relationship of mutual incomprehension. Remo and Augusta, true-born Romans who have dedicated their whole lives to work, find themselves forced by their intellectual children into an educational holiday, catapulting them into the 1978 Venice Biennale, entitled From Nature to Art, From Art to Nature. They wander bewildered through pavilions and rooms where conceptual art and arte povera are all the rage; they look with indifference at Mauro Staccioli’s Muro and Gianni-Emilio Simonetti’s still life made of dried leaves and red drapes, they mistake an Israeli work made of living sheep for a stable, Richard Long’s space-work becomes an opportunity to test their accounting skills, John De Andrea’s cast of a naked girl is cause for scandal, and installations are taken for rest areas and chairs to sit on. Eventually the wife, a kindly matron, is mistaken for a living work — a probable reference to Gino De Dominicis’s Seconda soluzione d’immortalità, exhibited with great scandal at the 1972 Bienniale — with a corresponding offer of purchase from a collector. The “populist” vein of the film’s comedic effect all lies in its reconfirmation of the common sense that would wish for art to be “recognisable” because it is linked to the mimetic principle; what kind of art is it, that doesn’t consist of portraiture or the kitsch seascapes that decorate the homes of the petty-bourgeois and the middle classes? Beyond the retro flavour and the reassuring rhetoric, the film points to the rupture between art and the masses, definitively consummated at the end of the nineteenth century with the waning of art’s representative function. Painting, for centuries the popular language par excellence — we need only think of its inextricable ties to Christian and especially Catholic catechistics — became an increasingly self-referential and cryptic language, which did not “represent” the world but “reinvented” it according to the poetics of the latest avant-garde. And things didn’t get any better with the neo-avant-gardes: they further complicated things by taking the incomprehensibility of the work up to the limits of its material disappearance. Didn’t Theodor Adorno insist that if the artwork were to resist the total colonisation process effected by world capitalism, it would have to increasingly escape from any process of comprehension, so that it could remain disturbing and succeed in expressing the negative? For sure, Walter Benjamin had already in 1936 pointed out an alternative path, which reconciled the relationship between art and the masses, betting everything on the artistic expression of the future, popular, “shocking” and, finally — without any special auras — the cinema. Benjamin, unlike Adorno — and like Siegfried Kracauer — called for an overcoming of the division between high and low culture, and for inquiries delving into the folds of the popular, since that is precisely where glimmers of revolt may be hiding. Later, in Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin would also retrieve the revolutionary value of carnival and festivity, of laughter and everything that happens from the waist down; we might think also of Theophilus Folengo’s macaronic poetry. So, too, would, Ernesto de Martino and his school; they saw in magic and popular culture an archaeological remnant indispensable for avoiding the “crises of presence” that continued, and would continue, to embroil the human beings caught in the psychic and spatial disorientation of a globalisation that proceeds according to capital’s logic of anthropomorphosis (or biopolitics). Who knows what kind of hives Sordi would have broken out in, had he tried to read a few pages of Edoardo Sanguineti’s Laborintus or Alberto Asor Rosa’s Writer and the People. But to contradict his populist common sense, and reconcile the apparent alternative between the aesthetics of Adorno and Benjamin, it would suffice to recall the mass avant-garde which Maurizio Calvesi and Umberto Eco identified in the youth movements of the 1970s. On radio stations and in newspapers, in slogans and forms of political struggle, in marches and demonstrations transformed into great performances, they enacted a collective and popular re-appropriation of the more daring and elitist languages of the early-twentieth-century avant-gardes. If Renato Nicolini’s Estate romana (“Roman Summer”) tried to keep this energy alive over time (and perhaps too little thought has been given to the strategic function of the event he conceived), with the turn of the 1980s the ephemeral soon turned into the rampant social climbing of “Milano da bere” that saw art abandon the streets and squares and take refuge once again in the galleries, which offered more or less exclusive parties for new collectors. So, has the popular been irretrievably transformed into the populist, losing all subversive value? Has linguistic research again becoming a puzzle that concerns a smattering of students trying to make their way in the various fields of the obscure sciences, and an exclusive pleasure for a few tycoons in search of cultural legitimacy? Ennio, Giuseppe Tornatore’s recent documentary on Ennio Morricone, offers us the painful biography of an artist who throughout his life fought to reconcile learned and popular music. In this, he faced criticism from his teachers and colleagues at the conservatoire, who considered him a traitor to the purity to which research had to remain anchored, or worse, a “sellout” to the market, while the general public did not immediately understand him, for he often turned out to be too erudite and escape the banalisation of the mainstream and populist dimensions of sound. In reality, Morricone — an extraordinary acrobat walking the difficult tightrope between avant-garde and popular — was one of the best examples of what it means to be popular without renouncing research and without ever lapsing into populism. He demonstrated that the short-circuit between what is considered “high” and “low” culture produces surprising results, and that outside the ghettos there is only art that becomes classical and another that remains a craft, at either low or high levels. In the visual arts, is there an art that could be called popular, but not populist? Is there such a thing, beyond participation in the artistic event, at the openings of those great international carnivals where you have to be there even to exist? Are there experiences that break the cages of the ghettos, those often safe and ever-comforting refuges? What comes to mind in rapid succession, when we think of the contemporary Italian art scene, are Francesco Vezzoli’s works on the myths of popular culture; the readymade artist-collective Claire Fontaine, with militant practices that put the issues of work and identity, migration and commodities centre-stage; Giuseppe Tubi’s operations, transposing popular imagery into a digital dimension; the experience of the Scuola di Santa Rosa, founded by Francesco Lauretta and Luigi Presicce, where painting becomes a moment of sociality; the artists who have operated within the area of research known as visual neo-realism, seeking to bring their work back to the streets and squares; and Giuseppe Stampone with the Global Education project and the search for an experimental didactics. These are just some examples, indeed among the most important ones, of those who choose the particularly difficult road that avoids the most sterile elitism and makes it possible to be popular again, without being populist.