In recent years, several international novelists have sought to include contemporary art in their novels — among them Michel Houellebecq, Jonathan Franzen and Enrique Vila-Matas. However, such depictions rarely transcend cliché; art is used as a ploy to convey a character’s obsessive self-absorption (Anabel in Franzen’s Purity) or as a stock metaphor to chastise the modern world (as in Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory). Rarely has a work of fiction engaged contemporary art with an actual eye to the specifics of the lives of the people involved in the art world and the ways that art, as a discipline, tries to make sense of the world.
In his latest novel, Tiziano Scarpa — widely considered one of Italy’s leading novelists today — does just that. Il brevetto del geco [The gecko’s patent] (Einaudi 2016) follows the convergent paths of Federico Morpio, a visual artist who, upon reaching middle age, starts to question his choices and career, and Adele Cassetti, a woman who experiences a religious conversion in her late twenties and ultimately ends up founding a fictional insurrectionist Catholic movement. While the two have almost no direct interactions, they are both driven by a quest for meaning in tiny, apparently insignificant details. Their yearning — overly earnest, moderately hopeless, sporadically absurd — appears to be slightly out-of-sync with modern life, and this is part of its strength. Their stories — that of a contemporary artist and a mildly whacko self-appointed missionary — are both stories of faith.
I talked with Scarpa about his new novel and the ways that contemporary art is represented in literature.
Vincenzo Latronico: When I received your book, I read it avidly until I got halfway through. Then I gave up in anger and frustration. I thought it was filled with a sort of discouragement in respect to the meaning and the possibilities of a certain kind of literature in Italy today. I am thinking of the character Morpio here, in which, as a writer, of course I saw myself.
Tiziano Scarpa: Hey, wait. What does Morpio have to do with you? Federico Morpio is a visual artist. You are a writer. I invent characters not as my spokesmen, they do not represent my personal situation, let alone that of a writer. I try to move through others, to empathize with someone else who is not me. Then, I grant you, to get inside them I find access points; I take advantage of the affinities that I might have with them. To understand Morpio and his insecurities, I have taken my own into account. For example, how can I guarantee that what I write is valuable? Does having some readers and being translated abroad change anything? Does it add or remove a milligram of quality from my pages? And, I too have frustrations and jealousies and resentments similar to those of Morpio. This is with respect to the mood. But then there is the professional aspect, the concrete situation. I am an author; I publish books, so my environment is different from that of Morpio — publishing is another world compared to contemporary art.
VL: Among the things that struck me most in the novel was your ability to represent the “art world,” poking fun at it and taking it seriously simultaneously — that is, by seeing all the tics, baseness, the obsession with money, but also recognizing a yearning and motives that overlap with those of literature.
TS: Contemporary art is my second passion. But its world doesn’t really compare to that of literature. Yes, okay, artists and writers are similar. To a certain extent writers are artists; they are artists of words. But the “art world” and the “literature world” are two very different things. Literature has publishing at its disposal, which gives artists of the word a public; while the art world only offers visual artists mediators. Allow me to be clear: publishing is not paradise, and its market rarely promotes the best. But the public has a voice in literature — each reader personally invests money and time in a book, many readers write reviews on the net and share judgments and ratings; in doing all this, they feel that they are contributing to the fate of that book. The art public, on the other hand, even when it is very numerous, has no relevance: it does not matter. It is only subjected to the mediators’ choices. Even if the art audience were to write reviews and lavish praise by word of mouth, no one would listen. It would not change the fate of a work one iota. A powerful collector, an influential curator and a gallerist are enough to decide that an artist is significant.
VL: Writing about contemporary art (as a novelist and as a critic) I have always been quite confused at the deafness and contempt that comes from the “educated public” in general, and especially writers, above all in Italy. Vila-Matas seems to consider it a sort of cheerful quackery; Houellebecq seems to see it as a trove of metaphors. Only mathematics has been expelled in the same definite way from the sphere of official culture. In your opinion what determines this rejection?
TS: Actually the refusal was first made by the art world: nobody there cares about what the public thinks, even when it happens to include the best writers in the world, be they Vila-Matas or Houellebecq. Artists also have their share of responsibility; they have no relationship with the public, they do not take it into consideration. This would be a good thing if it meant that they have an exclusive and absolute relationship with their works — that is, free of any kind of conditioning. The problem is that artists have replaced the public with curators and gallery owners and collectors. This is their real audience. They are mostly focused on their careers, in the worst sense of the term, and in some ways they are forced to do it; they must obtain approval and support from a few dozen people that control crucial nodes. One of the most significant things I’ve read in recent years was the autobiography of Enzo Mari. “Why do I have to get some rich fellow to shell out millions for a painting of mine?” a young Mari asked himself, before deciding to be a designer. Or there are graffiti artists, who have left the “art world” and gone into the street — with aesthetic results, in my opinion, that are not always that good. However, dealing with the public is not easy, you have to be willing to face unprotected situations. Look at what happened in Cosenza last summer. Flavio Favelli, an artist who I really admire, painted a mural in memory of a local football star who had recently died. Favelli created a great conceptual work that for fans in the area seemed to be a mockery. He was almost lynched.
VL: And yet in your novel one detects an effort to explain the mental processes of reading a contemporary work of art, in order to establish continuity with the legitimacy of prior art forms.
TS: This is also why my novel tells the story of an artist in despair: because despite having to offer the things that you say — informed mental processes and continuity with prior art — he does not find legitimation. Anyway, contemporary art is like that: there seems to be no, I repeat no, reason to justify the success of one artist over another. There are names and works that have had miraculous success because of fortuitous circumstances. Overall, artists have been deprived of the opportunity to take the initiative to legitimize themselves: in a few decades, from being active subjects of culture, they have become mere passive objects of the market. In this sense they are very close to actors, who can only hope that their auditions go well. Mi voleva Strehler (Strehler wanted me) was a theatrical monologue that was performed a thousand times in Italy, and I think that it captured the sense of an actor’s passivity — shared, I would add, by artists in many other fields, and in a way by our entire epoch, showing the universal measure with which works, people, goods and the value of gestures are evaluated. It is not the will, or the proposal, that have value, but being wanted, being chosen, sold, loved, desired, sought after: Germano Celant wanted me. Bice Curiger wanted me. François Pinault wanted me. Instead of: It was I who wanted to do this show, or: I set up the Pavillon du Réalisme independently, or: We called ourselves Die Brücke and we exhibited in a lighting appliances factory; or: We founded the Movement for Concrete Art, etc. The affirmation of artists today depends upon being chosen by those who have the power to bring them into their cultural cast. So I look with interest to the artist-run spaces that have begun to proliferate in Italy in recent years.
VL: In some ways it is similar to what Morpio does.
TS: Yes, this is a node of the second part of my novel. When Morpio agrees to participate in an independent exhibition in the opening days of the Venice Biennale, he does something that is similar to the avant-garde, though in a somewhat caricatured manner. The avant-garde multiplied individual forces, often bypassing the mediators — critics, curators — until it became, in the fifties and sixties, a somewhat mechanical procedure. Of course, it continued to be a proven method that guaranteed results: you came together with a few colleagues, with whom you sought to begin a new era of art and humanity, bursting onto the scene with a self-promotional launch that almost always worked — manifestos and collectives and new proclamations of poetics followed each other at an ever-increasing pace, ultimately making the avant-garde an almost parodic device. Therefore, rather than the death of art, in the postmodern you can really talk about the end of the avant-garde. This has been said many times, of course; but the point I’m interested in making here is that the death of the avant-garde produced artists that are alone and stripped of all proactive autonomous power, and who are now in the hands of collectors, curators and gallerists. The sublime culmination of this paradox is that in art schools you study the twentieth century, the century of the utmost resourcefulness, pride and autonomy of artists: you learn their biographies and are inspired by their example. Then you end up waiting hopefully for a curator to call.
VL: But how do you explain this difference in terms of how writers and visual artists relate to their audiences? I suspect it has something to do with the idea of modernism that produced the avant-gardes you spoke of. If you think about it, the experimentations of the early twentieth century have been, if not a sterile experience, at least nothing seminal for writers today: not something strong enough to wipe out everything that came before. Personally, I feel I owe more to Balzac and Boccaccio than, say, to Marinetti; and I think that this would apply to almost every novelist today.
TS: Well, perhaps not as novelists, but as citizens we are all debtors and victims of Marinetti: that immense strengthening of the word, unfortunately, has been deployed outside of literature in commercial, ideological and media propaganda. What Futurism did is comparable to the discovery of atomic energy. Then, applying Futurist formulas, thermonuclear bombs were manufactured — and thrown — by advertising.
VL: True, but perhaps this kind of influence is quite different from literary affiliation. Certain outcomes (Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, Horcynus Orca by Stefano D’Arrigo) are recognized worldwide as milestones, but their paths are not really followed.
TS: Poetry did embrace the requests of modernism. But then, using a pictorial metaphor, we could say that yes, it is true, novelists have remained primarily figurative. There are still characters, stories. Maybe even for practical reasons. Language is figurative, it is steeped in anthropology, human metaphors; many languages even have gendered grammar rules. It is not like a sculpture that can be a pure object, a non-human archetype. But even after you have proven the alienation of the language, and the deconstruction of the subject, well, this doesn’t mean you have to stop living or falling in love or paying taxes! And in short, the old figurative device of a character immersed in a story continues to reflect our condition. However, Joyce and D’Arrigo and Arno Schmidt and Robbe-Grillet and all of the others are essential. Before them, novelists thought they were living in a valley; after them it was clear that it was, as always, a slight slope overhanging an abyss.
VL: But it was still a return to traditional forms, albeit enriched by an awareness of the abyss of which you speak. On the other hand the visual arts went on to invent new forms, with Duchamp, Dada, Fluxus — their sharp break with tradition is perceived as a foundational gesture for today’s practices. I think very few artists active in Italy would feel they owe more to Medardo Rosso than to Gino De Dominicis.
TS: Following the path of Duchamp and De Dominicis has become a form of mannerism; the public is trained by now, perhaps even a little saturated and numb. And then, this path leads to laziness in artists. The audience does not understand anything about the work, and then, in any case, it is the curator who explains it — inevitably taking all the power that comes from this mediating role. A little like what happened to poetry.
VL: Is this not, after all, what determined the results that you now find so deplorable? Wasn’t the break with the general public the programmatic characteristic of the avant-garde that you regret?
TS: The avant-gardes wanted to build a new, different public — destruction itself was not conclusive. They were utopian. It can be very comforting to shock, to alienate, to be content breaking ties with an existing audience. Creating a public that does not yet exist — that is really hard.
VL: Yes, but in the meantime, to accomplish this, modernism had to demolish the existing public. If they had had the right economic conditions, maybe novelists would have done this. Perhaps they still follow Flaubert and not Robbe-Grillet because production conditions are what they are, and even those who would like to experiment need a wider audience in order to make a living.
TS: It is not simply because they have to “make a living,” as you say, that novelists write figurative books, but because the relationship with the reader, or rather the presence of the reader, I would say, is an essential part of the linguistic work of art called the “novel.” Novels offer the reader a special benefit of words, namely their ability to elicit mental images, to allow for the fantasizing that follows a purely verbal sequence — this is the fundamental aesthetic experience a novel has to offer. And this is not always fully understood in theory, even by literary critics, who may tend to appreciate other benefits of words such as style, lexical choices, etc. Modernism, in fiction, showed that even words are things. It was a kind of return to rhetoric, which saw speech as text data, an autonomous capacity of language that produces meaning. It was an anti-romantic move, if you like. But novels incorporate readers because they are required to fantasize the figures that emerge through words.
VL: And works of art do not?
TS: Even when there are many people, works of (visual) art have nobody around them. You understand this if you consider our squares, which are involuntary contemporary art installations. A bronze Giuseppe Garibaldi statue has nothing to do with cars and billboards, it is an alien presence. Perhaps the vertigo that contemporary art gives us involves realizing that the work of art is radically alien and ignores us. It does not want to have any relationship with us. It cannot and must not have it. This is the only relationship that we can hope to have with the work of art, and fostering it requires considerable inner strength.