I have just been reading a book by Robert Hughes on the history of Rome – well, it beats Flog It – and it reads like the decline and fall of a once great civilisation from antiquity to satellite TV. Hughes believes Italy has declined for two reasons: first, Italian modern art is shit, sometimes literally; second, perhaps more importantly, Italy no longer cares about art.
Modern art has always had a bad reputation. That mad dog Khrushchev once denounced his own country’s modern art exhibition as “worse than a donkey could smear with his tail”. Hughes is slightly more scathing – we see this in his commentary on futurism. While Baroque sculptors pontificate and enlighten, Italian futurists “prate” and “bloviate”, and when they do, he mocks them for it. Having quoted a long passage from futurist writer Marinetti, Hughes comments, “There is more, much more, in this vein. No-one could accuse Marinetti of terseness.”
Hughes likens futurists, with their obsession with cars and all things speed, to ranting Mr Toads. “Off they go,” he says, “Vroom vroom, in a sort of mechano-sexual delirium.” He could hardly get more sardonic. Hughes concludes:
One can have a certain sympathy with the annoyed Italian writer who, when asked if he didn’t agree that Marinetti was a genius, retorted, ‘No. He’s a phosphorescent cretin’, but in fact he was less than the first but a good deal more than the second.
One is more tempted to agree with Hughes when he describes the art of Piero Manzoni, a more modern artist. Manzoni crafted an exquisite exhibit called Merda d’Artista: the artist’s shit (no kidding, you can hear Hughes say). This objet d’art consists of Manzoni’s freshly-produced excrement, sealed lovingly in a tin can. One wonders which – the shit or the tin – took more artistic merit to produce. No matter: the final can sold for $80,000.
This must be the finest embodiment of a decline of a civilisation. Having read Hughes’ rising odes to Bernini and Caravaggio, Michelangelo and Raphael, this is the perfect finale, proof that art is not relative, evidence of Rome’s fall from grace. Once-democratic Rome, ruled by the people, is now a coprocracy: ruled by shit. Hughes’ message is familiar: like all books that chart the decline of a civilisation, the point is that civilisations wither from the inside, not from without. It was not the Goths that destroyed Rome, but the destructive forces of vapidity and inertia.
This explanation carries some weight. Where Hughes goes wrong is in saying Italians no longer care. The epilogue to the book is over-brimming with rage towards Italian modern culture. Here is an extract which decries the constant chattering and inane photo-taking in galleries. Art, he says, is
not meant to be a social experience. Shut up and use your eyes. Groups with guides etc., admitted Wednesdays only, 11a.m.- 4p.m. Otherwise, just shut the fuck up, please pretty please, if you can, if you don’t mind, if you won’t burst. We have come a long way to look at these objects too. We have not done so to listen to your golden words. Capisce?
He then proceeds to moan about how crowded with tourists the streets of Rome now are. I must admit that when I last went to Rome, my feelings were with him. Those Roman roads acted like canals of Chinese and English skins, crowds rushed along by brollies, more brollies than Britain, orange, yellow, pink, bobbing like buoys in the waves. Around every corner, a merchant would sell you some tacky memento, a plastic Colosseum, a mini Michelangelo’s David – €2,00 only! – priceless really – valueless too.
Yet one sees an irony in his argument; if Italians don’t care of art, why are there more than ever before in the streets? One can’t at one breath complain of a lack of interest, then in the next grumble that the museums are fuller than ever. The truth is that what has changed since the 18th century, when the rich would pile into Rome to see works of ancient wonder, is that travel is no longer an elitist venture. Now the poor can come too.
That is surely a good thing. Perhaps Hughes is right that art has declined since the Renaissance; perhaps he is right that Berlusconi, with his jiggling blondes on his trashy game shows, has destroyed Italian cultural life. It may be true that Italians may love their soccer and celebrities, just as we do, just as the Romans loved their gladiators and chariot races, just as Caravaggio enjoyed his drink, sword fights and gambling. But the interest in art – past rather than present – hasn’t changed.