The Great Allusion

Text by Masoud Golsorkhi

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013), a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, is an homage to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945), among others. The subject of all these films is Rome itself, and each in turn offers up a series of narratives that circle around the same location and themes in different historical settings, like so many pearls around a single string. They are a timely reminder, if one is needed, of the usefulness and power of allusion in art.

Some critics saw The Great Beauty’s references to its illustrious predecessors as a weakness. To others (me included), the repetitionis a richly deliberate rhetorical device. The story of the age of Berlusconi will be handed down by Italians for generations to come, retold each time as if by someone waking, soaked in sweat, from a nightmare. And my guess is that all subsequent retellings will refer to Sorrentino’s film, whether they mean to or not. Like a black hole bending space-time around it, a great story frames our experience and conditions our memory.

The fact is that the most influential films and stories are often those in conscious and fruitful dialogue with their own influences – great works always allude, and are honest in acknowledging those loans. The association between creativity and radical individualism has a chequered history and is, it must be said, not easy to disentangle from the development and growth of the art market in its modern form. In pre-modern times, and outside Europe and the US, the cult of the artist-as-messiah has tended to take second place to a focus on the artwork itself. The idea of authorship is today primarily useful for marketing. To the Marketeers, value and price are one and the same, and the label “great artist” – like a scrawled “Picasso” transforming a paper napkin – adds value to a work just as a Chanel logo increases the price of a handbag. Confusing art with the art market is a bad habit, yet a surprisingly common one. We should know by now that much great art is not made by individuals, let alone geniuses – inspired works can of course be produced by obscure one-hit wonders, and they can also emerge by accident or through the co-operation of several people.

Sometimes, great art can be primarily a question of context – of a time and a place. Take Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form, a sparsely attended show in Bern, Switzerland, in 1969, which was exquisitely reproduced at the Prada Foundation during last year’s Venice Biennale. I can’t say that any particular work in When Attitudes Become Form was a mind-blowing masterpiece, but as a total experience, that’s exactly what it was. The original show had brought together a group of like-minded, then little-known artists, working within a sensibility that would only subsequently acquire its theoretical labels. Who was the genius here? Was it the original curator Harald Szeemann, or Germano Celant, Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas, who chose the particular method and manner of the restaging? Did Bern 1969 have the same significance in the wider art world as Venice 2013? The point is that the answers to those questions are far less important than the ingenious experience of the show itself.

This idea gives us the theme for our spring issue. The quest for originality, though it will no doubt continue to be prized and celebrated above all else, is ultimately futile. Creativity is fed by many a stream across generations and time, whether it is then embodied in a single instant or individual, or emerges from some form of collaboration. It’s so refreshing to hear a solid, rigorous defence of the collective as a source of business creativity, such as the one offered on p.66 by the brilliant economist Mariana Mazzucato. She turns on its head the notion of the “dead hand of the state”, made common sense by Thatcherites and now thankfully on the wane after being discredited by the very markets they worshipped. In her book The Entrepreneurial State (2013), Mazzucato demonstrates that many recent business miracles previously touted as the work of lone, disruptive, even mildly sociopathic innovator-geniuses are actually the result of social, national or communal imagination, investment and support. Could this be the birth of a new economic doctrine, if enough politicians take notice?

The unravelling of the neoliberal consensus that began in the sphere of economics and politics seems at last to be finding its echo in culture. The demise of the alpha (almost always) male, the fast-talking, egomaniac salesman/artist of the past three decades, will not be mourned here. (Though some of the mega-rich who invested all those ill-gotten gains in what we like to think of as stadium art – cf. stadium rock – may have a few nasty surprises to look forward to. A great collector and dealer once told me that art crashes always follow financial ones by about five years.) Our friend and colleague Laure Prouvost’s recent success in winning the Turner Prize is yet another welcome sign of the shift towards a new kind of artist – perhaps even a new kind of art world. §

  • Editors Letter
  • Editors Letter