Classical junk

Posted on November 20, 2010


(with apologies to the popular revolt against the TSA…)

348 articles, and counting. And that’s just the English language press… Google News reports at least 74 articles in Italian and another 50 in French.

That’s how much news coverage Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has received for his decision to have a statue of Mars “restored”. As I expect all readers of this blog already know, the central missing piece– now attached with a magnet for easy removal– was the penis.

Even the staid New York Times covered this story, in a post by Dave Itzkoff in the Artsbeat blog.

Not unlike certain statements in the press coverage of whether Tutankhamon’s mummy was missing its masculine denominator, press coverage of Berlusconi’s outrage has tended to be, shall we say, a little phallocentric. Harry Mount, blogging for the British Telegraph, imagines Berlusconi as a “giggling schoolboy” obsessed with sex so badly that he couldn’t live with a statue lacking its sexual equipment.

So it is almost impossible to get enough critical perspective to refocus on what is really at issue here: how do we understand the fragmented remains that archaeologists recover? what is the real object of our study– the original representation that we imagine we know, or the object-with-history that is a trace of the time it was shaped, but is equally important as evidence of the continuing circulation of things that led even broken statues from Classical societies to be prized as signs of cultivation?

In this vein, a comment by Mario Catalano, described as “Berlusconi’s personal architect”, as reported in the AP newswire story (the first I read), is especially thought-provoking (and provides the rationale for my use of the term “junk” in the title of this post):

The sculptured pair “would have never seen the light of day” had Berlusconi not decided to have them taken from the storerooms and put in the palace courtyard.

The implication is that unrestored, this pair of figures were just junk. Restored, they could “see the light of day”.

The wrangling is depicted in most news coverage as a matter of taste and tastelessness: as the BBC notes,

Art experts say it is tasteless and aesthetically wrong to replace the missing body parts.

The BBC, along with other news outlets, also contrasts the $100,000 cost of this “enhancement” (their words, not mine!) with the 40% budget cut that Berlusconi has ordered for the Italian arts budget.

But too much of the coverage presents the issue as one of violating art restoration codes, pure and simple. The BBC says “this kind of restoration…has now gone out of fashion” and that “Berlusconi has failed to respect the rules of art restoration as practised by Italian restorers”.

But that’s not the real issue here. If you want a modern statue, pay a modern sculptor. Part of what Walter Benjamin described as the aura of a work of art is

a “strange web of space and time” or “a distance as close as it can be.”

That sense of tension in time and space is part of what we experience when we accept objects with histories as they are, and understand them to be in transit, not simply ideal objects “recovered”, that is, restored to what they were intended to be.

Because whose intentions do we want to realize? the coverage of Berlusconi’s awful blunder pose this as a choice between the intentions of a politician of vulgar taste, or a sex-obsessed schoolboy, versus the intentions of art restorers. But what most appalls me about restoring the masculinity of Mars is the insistence that the real aura of this work is what the ancient patron intended it to look like.

Leaving aside the self-evident fact that it is not in its original architectural setting, it is a deeply reactionary project to try to recapture the ideal artwork in the way Berlusconi by simply reproducing that which is no longer there, no matter how many high-tech scans of other statues were used in the process.

We don’t have to psychoanalyze the man; we should recognize what Benjamin again would warn us about:

Two modes of observation are regarded as modes of action, the fascist or reactionary and the progressive or revolutionary. To the fascist mode belongs the attempt to render politics aesthetic….

The final stage involves the transition from all residual cult associations to exhibition value (this of course is capitalism’s gradual and then sudden contribution to the development of world history).  One exhibits (puts on display or into performance)….

Aura implies authenticity but there is no authenticity without its destruction in mechanical reproducibility (i.e., the idea of authentic art only emerges when authenticity is a threatened species of artwork)…

The elimination of aura implies the loss of any the sense of unreachable (divine, mysterious, transcendental) distance.