From "La Repubblica on lin"e (the digital edition of the national daily paper, as well as the most visited Italian website), 3 February 1999


A provocative letter: Must "mainstream" art be inviolable? And who decides what is genius?


by Luther Blissett

[begin staff preface]
ROME - Of course it is a provocation, but it is also more than that. The letter which Luther Blissett - the collective identity that has accustomed us to many coups (verbal and not) in the recent years - sent to struck us and roused our curiosity. It expresses a feeling that many people certainly got a week ago, when the vandalistic smearing of a Jackson Pollock work hit the news. It was not a rational thing; rather, a joke people uttered, or just thought, by instinct: "Which one is the smear?". A superficial question that was restrained by cultural awareness and indignation for this assault on contemporary art and its dignity. In his/her letter, Luther Blissett turns the joke into a lucid provocation.
One may agree or not, but it would not be just to throw this text away. Our correspondent and art expert Paolo Vagheggi replies to Luther Blissett at the linked page.

On 26 January 1999, Piero Cannata operated on Pollock's painting "Undulated Paths", exhibited at Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art. I challenge anyone of the journalists that covered Cannata's action to tell the smear from any of the other scribblings. Cannata's intervention is the best tribute ever to the artist. The only difference between the American Abstract Expressionist and the Italian performance artist is that the former used to express his madness within an "artistic context", and consequently found the theoretical and financial support of critics and art-gallery managers. Most likely, without such a support, Pollock would have entered a lunatic asylum, nurses sneering at his "works" on the walls.
Jackson Pollock didn't paint: he dripped, smeared and soiled. On his canvases one can find saliva, cigarette stumps, matches, anything. One day Pollock urinated into Peggy Guggenheim's hearth. Yeah, he pissed in it, before the eyes of several onlookers. He was probably drunk. This immediately became one of the best known "performances" of the great genius, whose life was punctuated by such acts. That fireplace is still in one of the rooms with a view on the Canal. If Piero Cannata or any other anonymous visitor of the present "Peggy Guggenheim Collection" pissed into the same hearth, what would the keepers do?
Of course they wouldn't deem the guy as a genius, at best he'd be denounced. However, are you sure that Pollock's performances are more important than Cannata's? Are you really sure that Pollock wouldn't like such a "betterment"?
Why should an art work hang on a wall with people only allowed to look at it, since it is obvious that eyesight is just one of the senses roused by whatever work? One should be allowed to touch and smell. This would quickly wear out the paintings? So what? What do you need a sacred and infinitely inviolable object for? Don't you know that museums keep Calder's sculptures in narrow rooms, though they were created for being exhibited in the open air and shaken by the wind? Don't you know that museums bar the way to Beuys' and Tinguely's works, though they were projected for interaction with the public? *This* is violation.
If the most important thing is the artist's intention, than Pollock's painting was not destined to a reliquiary, and Cannata's intervention is licit and particularly well-aimed. But museums and galleries are driven by other factors, such as money. This is commonplace, then why keep schmoozing about art being sacral and untouchable? Talk about commercial value. If the word "artist" has ever had any meaning, then Piero Cannata is the real artist. Unlike Pollock, Cannata never compromised himself with the art establishment, never strived for the critics' and gallery managers' appreciation. He couldn't care less, he's got better things to do. Mind you, this is not the first case: people like Van Gogh were never understood at their time, only to be re-estimated after several years. It's funny to recall the blindness of Van Gogh's coeval critics. Oh, they were so obtuse! Oh, those were such obscurantist times! Nowadays it's different, art is free of prejudices... Isn't it?
Tomorrow Piero Cannata will go back to the madhouse that hosted him during the past two years, and it's gonna take decades before he's acknowledged as a well-deserving performer. Not only Piero Cannata will get entries in art history books: he'll get them as one of the most radical and innovative artists of the Nineties. This is one of the tasks we leave to our posterity.


(2 February 1999)



A Reply to the "pseudo-Futurist" provocation: Pollock was a self-conscious artist, values cannot be annihilated


by Paolo Vagheggi

Maybe that of the pseudo-Luther Blissett is nothing other than a nice pseudo-Futurist provocation. None of us has forgotten Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's 'incendiary violence': 'We want to destroy museums, libraries and whatever kind of academies', we want to set Italy free from 'its fetid gangrene of professors, archaelogists, cicerones and antiquarians'. Therefore, long live Piero Cannata, let's promote him to the rank of artist. Long live the David hammer-freak and Pollock smearer.
But what if this, instead of being a pseudo-Futurist provocation, were just the opinion and belief of an ignorant (ignorant being for 'he who ignores')? In this case, we should tell them the difference between a rash gesture caused by madness and a conscious, advised, pondered and researched artistic deed. We should tell them that Jackson Pollock, no matter what the nazis would have thought of him, was not a dauber, nor was his art 'degenerate'. His strokes were not felt-tip scribblings. His technique, "Dripping", was sharp and pondered. As Dora Vallier explained, the canvas was placed on a level surface, even on the floor; and a few holes drilled through the bottom of a color box allowed the painter to work moving about and letting the color drip on the canvas.
There was no fortuitous act, as explained by Pollock himself, who died in 1956 at the age of 44: [...what follows is a Pollock's quote which I won't re-translate from Italian back into English. It's about the control of the drops' trajectory, T.N....]
I could go on for so long telling stories about Pollock, who studied philosophy and psychoanalisis (as well as native-American painting), who was Picasso-wise and always lived between anxiety and the rapture of his work. This rapture was provoked by his quest for a personal existential style: he identified himself with his artworks, which gradually expanded and absorbed all his energies.
As Palma Bucarelli noticed back in 1958, during the NGMA Pollock Exhibition, 'thus, independently from any analogical reference, painting itself can express the most profound movements of the soul; the more the canvas reflects the "quantity" and the "length" of painting action, the clearer is the expression of emotional intensity.'
Jackson Pollock is not Pietro Cannata [sic]. Pietro Cannata is non Jackson Pollock.
Maybe someone dreams of an annihilation of values in order to say: 'I can do that as well!'. Things are not like that. There will not be any Night of Crystals, no matter what Luther Blissett believes.

(2 February 1999)


[Luther Blissett replied, but Repubblica didn't run the piece. Luther put it into circulation as the issue #39 of their anti-art newsletter called "EntarteteKunst". Here it is:]


Luther Blissett replies to Paolo Vagheggi about the Cannata affair


by Luther Blissett

At best, your response proved that you didn't even read my press release.
At worst, you read it but didn't understand. I didn't say 'I can do that as well!' nor did I call Jackson Pollock a worthless dauber. Maybe that's really what I think, but I am not so naive as to give you the opportunity to splutter the usual reply: 'You are ignorant, you don't understand contemporary art', which means, as you said yourself, that I ignore it.
I promoted (or degraded, which depends on the point of view) Piero Cannata to the rank of artist. At this point, customary language would require a large amount of terms like 'Post-Modern tension', 'Empathy', 'Genius', 'Intemperance', 'Existential Drama', plus a few quotes (preferably taken from some mate's book). Mix up, ferment for one month, and the artist is ready. Is the vernissage scheduled?
It goes without saying that I won't do that, because I'm no respectable critic. My tool box does not contain catalogues and invitations to exhibitions, but a hammer, a knife and a few permanent markers.
If I'm no respectable critic, that's precisely because I'm not able to ignore.
Unfortunately, those who 'ignore' are people like you, journalists, critics, gallery managers, collectors... You and the majority that you represent are ignorant. You're ignorant because you think it's possible to separate the "beautiful" from the "ugly", "art" from "madness", you have the power to put a man into an asylum, that is the power of ignorance. I belong to a minority that rely on their own "lack of culture" and (luckily or unfortunately) couldn't even hurt a bug. Maybe I'd be able to hurt a hack...
You're so keen on defending Pollock's art from the charge of being "degenerate", a charge that nobody pressed. Don't you find it bizarre? You are supporting the improsonment of a 'mad vandal', a 'fanatic', while you try to convince me that Pollock, who was praised in life and died a millionaire, expressed a profound existential tragedy!
'He identified himself with his artworks, which gradually expanded and absorbed all his energies'. Aren't these words perfectly suitable to the life of Piero Cannata?
'There was no fortuitous act'... Yeah, you think that Cannata's is 'a rash gesture caused by madness'... And yet, for more than 9 years, Cannata has gone ahead with such a lucid project that even Fontana would envy him! Cannata plans his actions months in advance, and is determined to carry on for the things he believes in. No, Piero Cannata is not mad (nor does madness exist, but this is another story). He's just mad enough to go a few inches beyond the sacred and unpassable boundaries of Art, enough not to long for the support of critics and galleries.
Paolo Vagheggi, Maurizio Calvesi, Achille Bonito Oliva and all the others: you're precisely that kind of persons that in 1909 were shocked at Futurism, and in 1917 were indignant because an urinal was exhibited in a gallery, and in don't-remember-what-year because an artist was selling his own shit. It's too easy, after more than half a century, to organize Dada and Surrealist retrospectives, dish up monographs on the likes of Marinetti, Breton and Tzara, people who died and were enterred long ago.
You just recuperate; when will you *propose* anything?
Here's my answer: your descendants will do it for you in a few decades, as time pours oil on today's troubled waters, as Piero Cannata is gagged and stuffed with thorazine, Alexander Brener grows old and suitable for museums, Luther Blissett become a spectre (s/he already is). I look forward to those banquets, revaluations, essays, exhibitions, catalogues, T-shirts and CD-roms.
No, it's not you that make history. Maybe it's not me either. Piero Cannata is trying to do it.
Things are like that. "There will be a Night of Crystals, no matter what Luther Blissett believes".

(5 February 1999)