Table of Contents
Capitolo 3
Human responses
A real panorama, not a gathering of solitudes
Capitolo 3: Human responses

A real panorama, not a gathering of solitudes

A general narrative on artistic urgencies has been missing for a long time, and ecology (with more or less green names) is used to lump everyone into one family: either you're ecologist or you're nothing

Leonardo Caffo

Starting from this latest Italy Pavilion, and beyond any more or less parochial assessment unrelated to its scientific configurations, it may help to begin reflecting on the contribution Italian contemporary art can give to what I would here like to define as the necessary anti-naturalistic challenge to the creative disciplines. Questions on environmental sustainability, and the landscape, architectural, economic and industrial models that underpin this specific historic moment, tend to be considered, somewhat inanely regarding the most recent debate, as a “back to nature”, a kind of new transcendentalist love of Nature. Unfortunately, transcendentalism was a nineteenth-century luxury. That which seems to me urgent though, at precisely this moment when Gian Maria Tosatti and Eugenio Viola ask us to produce a “statement on the post-pandemic future”, is to consider that the problem is not that Homo sapiens has moved away from nature, but that he has moved away clumsily. Nature is not an extraordinary, mystical green space, to be uncritically looked at for solving our ecologies, but a complex and linked reality of which our term “nature” is solely the map for observing a much larger and unknown space. Nature is often monstrous, frightening, shocking or, perhaps better, it is none of these things because it is extra-territorially moral, as Friedrich Nietzsche argued more than a hundred years ago: crab mothers devour many of their young, there are monkeys that with a smile kill their offspring, as do lions, rats and meerkats, and then there are deadly diseases, devastating earthquakes and atrocious epidemics.

The discourse on “sustainability”, which is already a sadly humanist term, risks being cloaked in an almost puerile naturalism (“what a wonder is nature and/or poor nature”), making us though forget the interesting conceptual problem, in philosophy as much as in art, science and design, which is not to embrace a philosophy of nature that seems halted at Kant, but to produce a dialectic reconditioning of anthropocentrism. It is on this, considerably more mature, way of understanding the ecologies of the arts that we must all try to reflect together in the albeit paradoxical invitation of the first ever Italian mono-pavilion: “A real panorama, not a gathering of solitudes”.

All moral or artistic, not to mention scientific, progress has always been linked to an approach that “does away with the idea of Nature”, in the words of the French philosopher Yves Bonnardel. Is a germinal patriarchy for a presumed superior power of male over female natural? It is not important and nature is destroyed. Is a germinal approach of mankind’s superiority over other animals for ends of nourishment or exploitation natural? It is not important and nature is destroyed. Is a germinal lateralisation of the genders into male and female that does not go well with queer thinking natural? It is not important and nature is destroyed. We could continue with a very long list that would end up in the now well-known art theories of the philosopher Paul B. Preciado. But it is worth understanding how a lot of contemporary art linked to ecological practices has clumsily interpreted a semi-Spinozan idea of nature, whereby all that is natural is also beautiful. The human values, those that we slightly ingenuously enclose in the category of “moral progress”, are in constant tension with and critical of the things of nature. The question, moreover, is ancient and contemporary at the same time: the banishing of the artists from Plato’s ideal city was based on an idea of art as reproductive and/or celebrative of a nature that, if simply observed or protected, has no need for the mirror of art.

Contemporary art, and it is so at least from the conceptual and thus post-Hegelian turning point, is a fanciful reasoning on the alternative possibilities to those provided by reality, and this reality is also and especially that to which we try to refer with the term “nature”. Being in equilibrium with nature does not mean “supporting it”: this is why the term sustainability is part of a boorish anthropocentrism if it means trying to coexist in the necessary antagonism, which we must obviously have in being cultural individuals. A general narrative on artistic exigencies has for some time been missing and is almost taken for granted after the post-modernist earthquake, whence ecology (with various more or less “green” names) is virtually used as a categorial umbrella for assembling all under one big single family: you are either ecological or you are nothing. It is not clear that what we must try to do rather is to write a kind of contra-nature manifesto, something allowing us to plan and construct worlds that do not upset the biospheric equilibrium, which obviously provides the conditions that allow us to live, but which nevertheless are in constant critical tension with this same equilibrium.

We shall avoid going abroad, given the aim of this reflection on the Italian situation, and indeed many of the more or less emerging or renowned artists in Italy could be “worth speaking of” in the light of any attempt to say ecology without going contra-nature. It may be true of “mid-career” generations like Elena Mazzi, Renato Leotta, Nicola Martini, Patrizio Di Massimo or Sara Enrico, as furthermore is also the case of Gian Maria Tosatti, but also the completely adult generations of artists (forgive me the purely work-related distinction) like Diego Perrone, Marinella Senatore, Adrian Paci (who is almost an Italian artist), Lara Favaretto, Tiziana Pers, Marzia Migliora or Marcello Maloberti. And then it would also be even more true of the very latest; I am thinking of some who were actually my pupils, such as Camilla Alberti, who recently worked on these subjects at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. We could make a similar list of curators and young curators, and obviously my lists are partial and have the sole function of asking: are we sure that ecology as we are describing it really does serve any purpose?

I imagine putting these and other artists all together to write a world-book consisting of works and essays that would be a new war on nature, but with the (awareness) that the war we have waged on it so far has been wrong and that the strategy must radically change, starting from a questioning of some last anchorings to the previous war. We really must question identities, and not only with false statements, imagining the definitive overlapping of points of view or authorship (an anonymous Italy Pavilion would be really revolutionary); we can try to fight the last hypernaturalistic trends like the non-vegetable foods that have massacred this planet; we must try to eliminate every legacy by which doing art or philosophy is to be anchored to reality, while that in which we constantly find ourselves navigating is always a radical exercise of imagination. This oxymoronic but necessary war of peace, begun perhaps, but never continued, only with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA (13), is an invitation to first of all break up our old ideas about the natural world, which is not something to be protected or contemplated. Fortunately nature doesn’t care about the fate of mankind at all: it will easily survive us, it was here before us and will be here after us. The general narrative of the arts and natural philosophies must be entirely remade, starting from the idea of an anti-naturalist based dialectic of anthropocentrism. We must deconstruct a powerful and radical anthropocentrism, which is certainly what has brought us to this point, but we must also invest conceptually in its new form; I have called it “contemporary post-human”, for example, in a book (Fragile umanità, Einaudi Torino 2017) in which I try to explain the real importance of understanding that mankind is fragile, not only because endangered by the climate crisis, but especially as a concept: what does it really mean to be human? Where does the semantic extension of the word “mankind” really start and finish? How do we distinguish ourselves from animals if what we normally refer to (mind, language, cognition) is also found in them? I do not think nature will provide us with any clear answers, and I also say this partly contradicting many of the ideas I had when younger and trusted in the luxury of an American transcendentalism albeit beyond its time limit. The answers will come from a complex conceptual negotiation in which the actors are artists, technicians, philosophers, curators, designers, videogame designers, politicians and stylists. Perhaps sooner or later, as I explain in this same book, wider mankind will succumb to make way for a new species of hominids who will experience their relationship with nature differently, but until then the question of Homo sapiens’ art and reflection on art must in any case change form: it is not so much what contemporary art can do for sustainability, but what it could possibly do to redesign a new and more revolutionary form of anti-nature that will not lead to ecosystemic imbalances.

Joseph Beuys’ historical gesture of the “7000 oaks” at documenta 7 in 1982 conveyed a completely erroneous idea of ecological action, if reread in the light of a curatorial-philosophical rather than celebrative-historical critique. Artists should have nothing to do with operations of pseudo-gardening or false coexistence with other species (thinking again of Beuys and his “I like America and America likes me”, in which the coyote was actually tranquilized and behind bars), but with the creation of scenarios in which nature itself is questioned because the assumptions on which it is based are diametrically opposed to those of second nature, or human consciousness. How could we live without trees? How could we exist without using and therefore neither torturing animals? In what way is it possible to create worlds opposed to the most primordial laws of nature, finally getting around the problem of David Hume’s naturalist fallacy by which it is impossible to go from is to ought (from nature to society)? Beuys and the many artists and curators who have been inspired by him represent the beginning of the misinterpretation of the idea that nature is beautiful, ornamental, celebrative or even an architectural element: coexisting in equilibrium, however, does not mean embracing the very bases of that equilibrium, but fighting without ever killing.

I think that this Biennale in general, and specifically the Italy Pavilion, is on one hand an extraordinary example of an umpteenth surviving the laws of nature (post-pandemic this is obvious, but was not so during the pandemic), and on the other a not completely centred opportunity for making contact with the real problems that as mankind we must urgently face; not, alas, either by feminist rereadings of Surrealism or even less by democratic mappings of Italian art, but rather by the production of an imaginative view (and here rather the magical reference to “The milk of dreams” seems to me right on) of how it is possible to design spaces for tomorrow’s mankind with the definitive acknowledgement that we have nothing to share with nature and that, rather, our very existence is always an explicit placing in default of its most basic laws: use and not consumption of resources, linkage between life form and ecological niche, general non-modification of the laws related to illnesses or mechanisms for sacrificing living individualities to the benefit of ecosystems.

Almost ten years ago Valentina Sonzogni, art historian and now director of the Piero Dorazio Archive in Milan, and I wrote a special issue of the art and philosophy magazine “Animot” titled Un’arte per l’altro. Our idea, which I here try to update and relaunch, was that contemporary art should find the courage to communicate in a radically new way with other forms of life, animal and vegetable, not mawkishly mythicising them but trying to understand how our artistic desires are always and, in any case, a grand flight towards the elsewhere from nature. And we must stop thinking of slaughtering and at the same time saving that which is not human: let us fly elsewhere, flee towards a new second nature that is in equilibrium with the planet but in constant dialectic with our most primordial anthropocentrism. Humanism must be replaced by animalism, and no animal worries about saving nature, only of living despite it. Let us use everything in our power, from technology to imagination, to create queer worlds without identities, vegan and without exploitation of innocent lives, despite most of these not being sustainable, indeed precisely anti-naturalistic (but the rabbit hutch or the beehive is not natural in a strict sense). These things are natural precisely because they are against nature. Indeed, nature is not the solution to the saving of nature but precisely the problem we must most urgently face: is it not possible to urgently hope for a Biennale that concerns itself with these issues without more mawkish appeals to fragile nature or to a frontier morality smacking of historical revisionism? Writing this manifesto is urgent and the “natural” category must be strictly associated with a value judgement. This latter is what art can challenge better than any other humanist discipline, provided it recognises that the ideology of respect for “nature” gains more and more ground over that of victory over nature, even if one is the mirror of the other.

The above-mentioned Yves Bonnardel has claimed, I think rightly, that a criterion of naturalness rather than one of justice helps consolidate every injustice. Ethics and aesthetics are as one and the search for the good is often the construction of new aesthetic territories that nature had not remotely envisaged. The only ethics worthy of the name is that which is applied to the fanciful project of a world a very long way from the so-called laws of nature, and thus also of the most superficial ecologies unfortunately still in vogue: equality, by definition, rejects any arbitrary passion for the things of the world and creates a new one.

Leonardo Caffo

Leonardo Caffo is a researcher whose practices, while starting from philosophical thought, interweave art and design, writing and curatorship, creative direction and activism. He teaches Aesthetics at the NABA in Milan; he previously taught Theoretical Philosophy at the Politecnico di Torino. He has been curator of the Milan Triennale, philosopher in residence at the Castello di Rivoli and is a member of the Steering Committee at the Museo MaXXI in Rome. Noteworthy among his many books is Fragile umanità (Einaudi, Torino 2017).