Twelve Ten is a first step
It’s a space to look at
write and talk about
the world we live in
in all its myriad forms.
Twelve Ten ist ein Experiment
in Wort und Schrift
in der für Beobachtungen
wie es denn um uns bestellt ist
in dieser Welt in der wir leben
ein Platz gegeben wird.
It’s sad, but since it’s mid-January, the truth is stark and unavoidable: the Holidays are over, the New Year has begun, and it’s back to work again. We hope to give you a little respite from the sudden influx of work and email with Twelve Ten‘s second edition.
We’ve been talking a lot about art and artistry in our neck of the woods, which, happily, led to the two articles presented. The first is Georg‘s musings on a visit to a museum in Vienna, and how art lies in the eyes of the beholder. Elena, a new writer in our ranks, takes a closer look at award-winning La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), and its rather unfortunate gendering regarding art and artistry. The photographs are from Julia once more, snapshots of perspective (all in Regensburg), which is what it’s all about really – perspective, that is.
And don’t give up.
Keep on writing.
Man kann es leider nicht mehr leugnen, es ist ja schon Mitte Januar: die Feiertage sind vorbei und das neue Jahr hat nun wirklich begonnen. Wir hoffen euch mit der zweiten Ausgabe von Twelve Ten eine kurze Ruhepause vom ständig Zustrom an Arbeit und Emails ermöglichen zu können.
Wir @ von reuth haben uns in letzter Zeit viel über Kunst und Kunstfertigkeit unterhalten. Zu unserer Freude hat das zu zwei Artikel über dieses Thema geführt: zuerst Georgs Fragen (und Frustrationen) nach einem Museumsbesuch in Wien, und was die Wertung von Kunst mit der eigenen Perspektive zu tun hat. Elena, ein Neuzugang hier @ von reuth, sieht sich den preisgekrönten film La Grande Bellezza (Die Große Schönheit) im Bezug auf die recht unvorteilhafte Genderdynamik etwas genauer an, und überlegt wie das wiederum Perspektiven über Kunst und Kunstfertigkeit beeinflusst. Die Photographien zwischen den Artikel sind auch dieses Mal von Julia, Schnappschüsse sämtlicher Blickwinkel (in Regensburg), um was es ja eigentlich immer geht – die Perspektive, subjektiv, objektiv, überhaupt.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Lying on a thin mattress spread out underneath a piano in Vienna’s Museum of Art History, listening to what the piano man called “Italian shmaltz”, and which was only minimally different from the Chopin he’d played previously, I wondered. Was this really ‘art’? Or glorified lounge music in an unusual setting? And did it matter, at all? I enjoyed myself, I knew that. I loved the fact that I was lying in the museum of art history, staring up at the ceiling and the underbelly of the grand piano. I was visiting Ganymed Dreaming,  the latest iteration of the Ganymed events in the museum. Though there is some background story to the format, the idea is actually rather simple: Artists invited by the curator choose paintings on the museum’s walls that they then riff on. They dance, they write texts for actors to work with, they play music. And though there is a certain ‘event’ character to the whole thing, this is not going to be a debate about the purity of art in an age of commerce, or marketing, or theming. What made me wonder whether poor Ganymed was maybe tripping rather than dreaming was the insistence of some of the participating artists on their work’s importance and artistry. Sometimes, it seems, too much art doesn’t lead to the sublime, but to the annoying.
It could have been so enjoyable. There were performances, such as the one with piano that left me smiling. There was a collaboration between a dancer and a singer, Lampedusa, that, in its rawness and unflinching portrayal of suffering left me unable to stay in the room—and I consider that a success. There was a blind actor describing Breughel’s Spring, a painting that may have existed. And there was a piece that made me want to write about the entire evening, a well-known Viennese soprano beating a gong, reciting a monologue which, as the listener is told halfway through, is that of Vladimir Putin speaking. I found the gong recital horrible. It struck me as an unnecessary attempt to be political, experimental, maybe even funny—though in what philosophy of humor I would not know—and it was a major annoyance. Even worse, when I read reviews of Ganymed Dreaming, it was this particular performance that was singled out for praise by the critics.
So there I was, ready to vent my mildly angry confusion, ready to explain to the critics why they were wrong, ready to write a fiery piece about the overratedness of some kinds of art, about the silly game of talking about culture and praising the mediocre, the moronic, the pretend-smart. I would find eloquent phrases about the horrible things that happen when something simply doesn’t work yet screams at its audience “Look at me, for I am art!”, not to mention when those whose job it is to explain art to the public then make a big deal about it. I would critique what I felt to be cheap politicizing even though I fully agreed with the sentiment behind the piece.
That’s when the doubt crept in. Maybe underneath my veneer of self-righteousness there was a philistine after all? Maybe I was finally being presented with the bill for being so arrogant towards people who didn’t “get it” when I considered something artistically valuable? Also, how could I strike a pose as a writer that would get the readers on my side, one that would allow them to identify with me and not the artists I critiqued? How would I be able to express my enjoyment of the performances that made the evening so positively memorable while maintaining a cool detachment in writing about the gongful Putin monologue? Would I strike a tone of honesty, cynicism, or confusion—which would best represent my feelings, but would make for a confusing reading experience? Was it simply arrogant to presume that I could write about art performance?
And from there, a cascade of increasing doubt started. I tried to introduce other pieces to show that I was ready to accept “difficult” art and then harp on about the difference between Lampedusa‘s raw effect on me and the Putin gongery’s lack of emotional connection or cathartic potential. I didn’t even manage to properly describe Lampedusa. I wanted to describe the simple beauty of Marino Formenti’s piano playing, and how he had engaged in an honest and touching dialogue with the audience, explaining to us what the Lorenzo Lotto portrait of a young man had done with him, and how he would try to play music for us to bypass our brains and give us the gift of a mild touch of a similar experience. And I found that I couldn’t even do such a simple thing justice. My plan had then be to finish my glorious rant on the last performance I saw, in which a naked actress directed our gaze across her body by commanding us to look at her, by playing with our shame, guilt, and pleasure (paging Dr. Freud). A thrilling experience, playful and direct, and wouldn’t it be the perfect way to end what would otherwise have been an exercise in whining? Too bad I didn’t even manage to write about a piano player’s performance of Chopin and Italian shmaltz.
I guess this is what differentiates the finished piece of art from an amateur’s feeble attempt at critique. The finished piece of art has the assertiveness of going ahead and doing it. It knows when to stop questioning and just do, as much as that may be a tortuous process in and of itself. It offers itself up for the critic, even if said critic may be a friend or part of the same circle and inclined to write something nice for the evening paper or some less anachronistic medium.
The Vladimir Putin gonging massacre was still horrible, overrated in the media, and in dire need of a child pointing out that the emperor is butt-naked, not to mention overpaid. I still wish there had been something else to fill these ten or something minutes of my life. But the soprano went out there twelve nights in a row, recited the libretto and beat the gong for one group of visitors after another. All I’m offering you, dear reader, is the confusion this has left me with, and the ramblings of my disenchanted mind—the difference, possibly, between the artist and the critic.
 In Greek mythology, beautiful young Ganymed was "taken" by Zeus to serve the Gods as a cup-bearer. In Baroque painting, his beauty and scantily-clad body were what painters seemed most interested in. In 2010, the producers "wenn es so weit ist" launched their first series of evening performances that centered around Correggio's Ganymed painting in Vienna's Museum of Art History, as well as other paintings chosen by participating artists.
No Country for Women Artists
[Spoiler Alert: The following entails spoilers for La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)]
The Oscar for The Great Beauty in 2013 and the triumph of Youth at the 2015 EFA inevitably set Paolo Sorrentino as the beacon of Italian cinema in its most visible, exportable expression. The international renown of an Italian cinematographer in this day and age should be note- if not praiseworthy, but there’s a catch: The complicity of international institutions in nourishing and praising a cinema that is so demeaning to women remains, to me, highly perplexing. The Great Beauty’s terrible gender politics have been repeatedly addressed, such as Gloria Origgi who exposes the film’s “deep misogyny”, a movie that imagines women as either “sluts or asexual Madonnas and, when intelligent, then frigid and psycho-rigid, all poses and no substance.” A harsh verdict for a movie so celebrated, which is why I would like to look into it a little more:
The protagonist and narrator Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is the self-proclaimed “king of the mundane”, and the author of a sole bestseller followed by a life of lethargy spent between penthouse parties and the beds of moneyed Roman ladies. He ambles through Rome with a detached, disillusioned attitude, embodying the films critique (perhaps a eulogy) of the vacuity and debauchery of Italian upper-class circles, for which erudition and the fruition of art serve a mostly decorative function.
Unable or unwilling to provide solutions to overcome the banality it critiques, the film, however, remains a part of the problem, especially as far as gender politics are concerned. When a few minutes into the movie a wannabe actress states that “they never write any good female characters in this shitty country,” the film exhibits a potential for self-awareness that sadly remains unexplored. Instead, The Great Beauty denies women complexity, reducing them to stock characters of the Italian patriarchal imagination that suspiciously reverberate with stereotypes of Italian femininity abroad. We find the mother, the whore, the nun (an incredible amount of nuns flutter around in courtyards and porticos), the saint, and the angelic woman of the Dolce Stilnovo tradition. Rather than show the limitations of these stock characters, The Great Beauty does the opposite: As soon as one of the women attempts to step across the boundaries of these prescribed roles, she is promptly wiped out from the plot, ridiculed, or silenced.
This is what happens, for example, when the protagonist’s friend Stefania (Galatea Ranzi), a Marxist intellectual who penned eleven political novels, complains about the lack of civil commitment in contemporary society. Bored by what he—perhaps rightfully—considers tedious arguments, Jep hastens to remind Stefania that her career as writer and intellectual has depended entirely on her accurate choices in terms of sleeping companions, as well as the sexual favors she bestowed on members of the communist party. When Stefania reminisces about her reputation as a student devoted to politics, Jep claims to remember her university reputation as one of a different, less noble kind. What is worse, Stefania seems convinced by Jep’s rereading of her life, career, and motives: unable to respond, she walks away in anger or shame.
Jep’s belittling of Stefania’s intellectual status and Stefania’s docile acceptance of his verdict are painful-to-watch examples of The Great Beauty’s patriarchal posture and rudimentary sexist narratives (i.e. ‘she got where she is because she slept with the right people’). Jep and Stefania’s next encounter is even more puzzling: the two are dancing in a park when Jep realizes he and Stefania have never had sex. He suggests they should do that soon, rejoicing at the thought that “there is still something beautiful we can do together.” The prospect of a sexual encounter returns Stefania to Jep’s good graces, but she is not worthy of an apology, let alone a belated acknowledgment of her intellectual achievements. The dynamic here is noteworthy: By having her literary merits recognized on the national scene, Stefania lay claim to a sphere that, in the film’s conceptual framework, is the exclusive dominion of men. The film, however, quickly mends the rupture created by Stefania’s exploit by reconnecting “the woman intellectual”—apparently a paradox, an impossibility—to one of the above-mentioned stock feminine tropes: the whore. Her intellectual achievements and literary output (the dubious quality of which Jep does not fail to emphasize) are the product of the extensive use Stefania made of her body, not of her mind.
The Great Beauty is not only disturbingly misogynist because its female characters lack depth, but because it posits an incompatibility between womanhood and culture, intellect, literature, even language. More specifically, there is an unbridgeable gap between art and (normatively) beautiful women. In addition to Stefania’s case, the film presents three scenarios in which the question of female art is posed and dismissed. The first scenario depicts a female artist who, despite enjoying a fair amount of popular success, cannot fully understand, let alone articulate, her own poetics:
Jep interviews performance artist Talia Concept (Anita Kravos) for the magazine he writes for. He is visibly skeptical about Talia’s show, in which she runs against a wall and then parades her bleeding forehead on stage, stark-naked, with hammer and sickle painted on her pubic hair. During the interview, Talia declares to live off of “vibrations” but struggles to define the concept when Jep asks her to. She faintly protests and tries to shift Jep’s attention to “how [her] mother’s partner abused [her]” but Jep does not let her off the hook. Talia at one point breaks down in tears and admits that she does not know what a vibration is, and Jep delivers his final judgement: “Talia Concept speaks of things without knowing what they mean.” The interview resembles an oral exam and Talia a clueless schoolchild; its aim is not to present the artist’s work but to expose its silliness and show Jep’s unmistakable intellectual superiority.
Talia Concept is a caricature, her only function in the plot is to amuse the audience, and her performance really is of dubious artistic quality. Jep’s derisive deconstruction of her posing would be fair if this were the only situation in which a woman artist is there to be laughed at. However, the totality of women artists in The Great Beauty undergo the same treatment, as if there were no variation let alone gradation in women’s artistic expression, which allows one to speak of systemic misogyny.
In the second scenario, women’s art is dismissed from the start. After sleeping with Jep, Orietta (Isabella Ferrari) opens up and tells him she “takes pictures of [her]self, with [her] phone, every hour every day, to get to know [her]self better.” When she leaves the bed to fetch her computer and show her pictures to Jep, he concludes that, past the age of 65, he “cannot afford to waste time doing things [he] does not feel like doing.” When Orietta comes back, Jep is gone. This clumsily articulated and yet reasonable critique of selfies and digital vanity takes an unexpected turn when, towards the end of the movie, Jep visits an art installation by a male artist who took one picture of himself every day of his life. Dramatic music plays as the camera follows Jep along walls covered with pictures and pictures of the artist’s face, and he eventually breaks down in tears. The viewer will never know what Orietta’s pictures looked like, and if they were livelier than the male artist’s series of passport photos or not. That’s too bad—this viewer would want to know. A man and a woman take pictures of themselves every day for a long period of time: in the man’s case it is art, in the woman’s it is vanity. If this is a coincidence—and if you still believe in coincidences when it comes to gender politics in Italy—you will agree that it is a very unfortunate one.
The third and last scenario involves a female artist—a child prodigy—who produces art in spite of herself and is therefore deprived both of merit and agency. The parents push their daughter to perform until she explodes in a bout of rage, throws buckets of paint onto a canvas and hits it with a shower of blows. When Jep’s friend Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) appears shaken by the image of a crying little girl raging against a canvas, Jep assures her that “that girl makes millions” and seems unconcerned by what comes across to others as the ruthless exploitation of a minor. Taking into consideration Jep’s dismissal of Orietta’s pictures in comparison to his reaction to the male artist’s photographs, one is left to wonder if, had the child been a boy, Jep would have given the same response.
Michael Sicinski writes that The Great Beauty “has little use for women, unless you are an aging stripper, Mother Theresa, or a dwarf.” While Sicinski sees three exceptions to the systematic belittling of women, I see one: Dadina, Jep’s boss, chief editor of a culture magazine, and a dwarf. She is awarded prestige and power, Jep worships her, asks for her advice on personal and professional matters, and appreciatively remarks that, in contrast with Stefania, “[Dadina] deserves the career [she] made.” Dadina is not de-sexualized, as Origgi writes: she has a companion she sleeps with (but does not love) and speaks openly about her sexuality. Yet she is de-feminized since Stefania refers to her as “una donna cazzuta” and “una donna con le palle” (“a woman with balls”), implying that Dadina is endowed with male attributes and determination that make her success legitimate and so differentiate her from the other female characters. Her beauty and sex appeal as well are decidedly different from those of the normatively beautiful female characters that populate the film. More disturbingly, the beauty of Sorrentino’s normative women is set as one with the beauty of the city: quite obvious but lethargic, hollow, crumbling.
For Sicinski, Sorrentino’s porticos, vaults, and palaces echo with “highly artificial emptiness,” his profusion of statues “dominate […] the wide screen like a postage stamp, to ironically offset some debauched going-ons.” Even the aging Roman aristocrats—embodied by melancholy, aging princesses—retire to the recesses of their palaces to make room for the flamboyant high society of the bunga-bunga. In all this, women are posited as a continuation of the city’s walls, columns, courtyards; they are made of the same deceiving matter. Finally, while women are manifestations of or vehicles for that indefinite grande bellezza laid out for the movie’s men to admire with fondness and condescension, they are hardly ever acknowledged as the conscious makers or users of that beauty.
Is The Great Beauty representative of gender politics in Italian cinema? Not necessarily. To give one recent example, Stefano Sollima’s excellent Suburra (2015), a film that explores the interconnections between mafia and politics in Rome and the corruption of the elites, presents memorable and complex female characters. Yet, The Great Beauty is representative of Hollywood’s lamentable approval of stereotyped and objectified representations of Italian femininity that seem to dominate narratives of Italy and Italians abroad. Meanwhile in Italy, politicians who suggest that companies and media should do away with objectifications of the female body are met with vehement mockery and turned into a laughing stock by a much larger number of public voices. Feminism is still endemically associated with man-hating and obnoxious extremisms, while the country is plagued by femicide. The European and American indignation against Berlusconi’s bacchanals and Italy’s reluctance to implement laws that combat sexism sadly contrasts with the fascination with films such as The Great Beauty and Youth—movies that triumphed at the Oscars and the European Film Awards. If the international film scene continues to encourage an Italian cinematography that does not award its women the status of actual people, why would anyone “write good female characters in this shitty country”?
We hope you enjoyed our second edition. Twelve Ten, No. 3 will be published in 12 April 2016. If you are interested in contributing to No. 3, don’t hesitate to send us your suggestions (English or German, we really are interested in both!) by 12 March 2016 at:
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We look forward to hearing from you!
Your von reuth Team
Wir hoffen Twelve Ten No. 2 hat euch gefallen. Twelve Ten, No. 3 wird am 12. April 2016 herausgegeben. Falls ihr gerne zu No. 3 beitragen möchtet schickt uns eure Vorschläge bis zum 12. März 2016, (Englisch oder Deutsch, wir sind wirklich an beide Sprachen interessiert!) an folgende Emailadresse:
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Euer von reuth Team.
Typewriter & Trevi frontal : public domain