Theoretical Writing

How to Keep a Villa in Arcadia

800px-Nicolas_Poussin_052The curious meeting of death and rustic revelry in Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego has been branded as utopian at least since Panovsky’s seminal critique.[1] If we follow its theme back to its classical roots, we are led to re-read Virgil’s Eclogues, which provide what the eighteenth-century scholar, John Conington, called ‘a golden land where imagination found a refuge’.[2] Pastoral herdsman philosophize on the relationship between art and the social status for those who practise it. And yet, at the same time, the Eclogues are far from dream-like when they address the sorrows and injustices in the lives and loves of the Ancient Romans.

Panovsky’s reading, along with Conington’s notion of a ‘refuge’ and Arthur Danto’s suggestion that a biennale offers ‘a glimpse of a transnational utopia’, provides a useful tool for analysing the role of the Giardini as the primary site of the Venice Biennale. It is possible to read the Giardini as an internationalized, politically charged landscape for contemporary art. Like Virgil’s volume of poems, this parkland provides a field for ideological expression through art. And much like the pastoral herdsman, who seek recognition and lament their sufferings in the Eclogues, the artists of the Biennale whose work is housed within its pavillions reflect on matters of individual and collective concern in a context of ostensible nationalism.

The landmass of the Gardini was claimed by draining a marsh.[3] Built under Napoleon’s instruction, it is in part an effort to assert scientific commitment to botany in the context of Enlightenment thought. So it seems an interesting place to test Joseph Meeker’s study of the relationship between art and nature, between anthropocentrist notions of human supremacy and the lay of the environment.[4] The Giardini functions as a parkland for art, a place for reflection on ideas mediated through modes of art-making by selected artists from participating nations. Indeed, Meeker writes about Virgil’s own reflections ‘on the weariness of sensitive Romans to the excesses and injustices of their society and their quest for solace and sense in a rural setting.'[5] It is interesting to speculate how land reclaimed from the sea casts meaning on human art-making as it circumscribes an ecosystemic stage for nationalized aesthetics. Venetian ecology is an issue of pressing concern, perhaps intensifying imagination already beguiled by the city’s elegant deterioration. The result is that the Venice Biennale brands its host as a cultural homeland deeply engaged in the reification of idea through creative enterprise. But is its central parkland ‘nature-endorsing’ or ‘nature-sceptical’, to use Kate Soper’s terms?[6]

In her history of the Giardini, Vittoria Martini notes that two axes mark lines of entrance to the Park: one from the city, one from the sea.[7] The latter points to a man-made hill. Thirty pavillions cohabit like the gods of Mount Olympus in a diverse assemblage of architectural styles. Indeed, the buildings themselves were constructed as early twentieth-century responses to a tension or ‘impatience’ felt by native artists towards ‘sanctioned internationality’ in early versions of the Biennale.[8] This pluralist solution to an inclusive remit is interesting when considered against the ‘failure’ of the first Johannesburg Biennale that Julian Stallabrass accounts for in terms of an ‘“alien incursion” of other artists into a troubled society’.[9] But culture thrives on conflict, as the political theorist John Gray notes in a recent article.[10] It is worth speculating whether the rural cohabitation of nationally identified artworks with or without any confirmed commitment to any clear, national agenda provides a fertile field for an enquiry into global art-making.

Another area for theoretical comment is the curatorial inter-relations between the central, ‘Biennale’ pavillion and neighbouring structures inhabited by nomadic guardians of art from other countries. We might re-read the Gardini idyll according to a tension between a pastoral utopia and nationalized idiosyncrasy. For Stallabrass, a Biennale ‘performs the same function for a city…as a Picasso above the fireplace does for a tobacco executive.'[11] Indeed, Venice shares a sea-faring identity with Liverpool, another city that hosts a biennale, whose wealth and reputation is built on international trade. Even if it is no longer commercial, the Venetian edition remains competitive in the sense that it sells identity in a global context. Selling identity, testing the feasibility of a national art, surely engenders rivalry, happy or otherwise. But what kind of art succeeds? And how does local art fare today in the context of an international symposium?

As Gregson Davis notes in his introduction to Virgil, ‘an acute awareness of the disruption of the sociopolitical order is refracted through the artistic prism of the Eclogues’.[12] Competition plays a key role as Virgil constructs a theme of innocence vs. experience in a context of artistic aspiration. For Stallabrass, the idea of a Biennale ‘not only embodies but actively propagandizes the virtues of globalization’.[13] Participation is matter of national escalation in a context of reflection and reification. So competition remains today, if non-commercial and somewhat neutered. Perhaps it has something of the Greek agon of the ancient Olympics. The judges are itinerant members of ‘the art world’, but fittingly of course, it is in Venice that those wandering cognoscenti fulfil the original, Greek definition of nomas (i.e. those who roam for new pasture). For in the Giardini, the idea of a ‘nation’ is not merely transitory. It is site-specific: defined by terrain and irrigated by national confidence.

© N.G. Brown 2013

1 See E. Panovsky, ‘“Et in Arcadia Ego”: On the Conception of Transcendence in Poussin and
Watteau’, repr. in Meaning in the Visual Arts. New York: Anchor, 1955, pp. 295-320
2 See H. Nettleship and J. Conington’s introduction to the first volume of The Works of Vergil, rev. by
F. Haverfield, 5th ed., London, 1898; repr. Hildesheim, 1963, pp.2-3.
3 See V. Martini, A Brief History of I Giardini: Or a brief history of the Venice Biennale seen from the Giardini (2005). history-of-the-venice-biennale-seen-from-the-giardini/ Accessed
4 See J. Meeker, The Comedy of Survival. New York: Scribner, 1974 5 See Meeker (1974), p. 81
6 see K. Soper, What is nature? Oxford: Blackwell, 1995
7 See Martini (2005)
8 See Martini (2005)
9 See J. Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art. Oxford: OUP, 2004, p. 38
10 See J. Gray, A Point of View: Are Tyrants Good for Art? magazine-19202527. Accessed
11 See Stallabrass (2004), p. 37
12 See the introduction by G. Davis to Virgil’s Eclogues, trans. L. Krisak. Philadelphia: UPenn Press, 2010
13 See Stallabrass (2004), p. 37