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We need to restore our vision

Tomaso Montanari

«Art history is a historical subject and the so-called ruling class, which the school is supposed to train, has more need of historical awareness than of creative talent. The fact that the current ruling class has no such awareness is evident from the way in which it has shamefully squandered the artistic heritage, the study of which it is now planning to suppress so that it can continue to be scrupulously and remorselessly destroyed. Logical: according to its thinking, private property is sacred and inviolable, any limitation on the availability of possessions offends the principle: the law protecting cultural property limits its availability, thus contradicting the primary canons of law. The bourgeoisie wants its sons to continue, like their fathers, to happily pollute the seas and rivers, to speculate rapaciously on the soil of cities and the countryside, to export masterpieces with impunity in the trunk of the custom-built car. This is what the reduction of art history in secondary school will do”. This extremely lucid analysis, put to paper by Giulio Carlo Argan in 1977, is still perfectly valid: there is a very strong link between the devastation of the Italian landscape and heritage and the historical and artistic illiteracy of that same nation. And this is no innocent neglect: giving sight back to Italians would mean implementing Article 9 of the Constitution, which has always been avoided. The ultimate goal of teaching art history in school should be to enable Italian citizens to walk around their city for a quarter of an hour and become aware (even if only in a very general way) of their surroundings. If, at the end of the school cycle, children had the desire and the tools to do this, so to speak, automatically, on a daily basis, it would be a resounding success: even if they knew nothing about Leonardo, Caravaggio or Van Gogh. Such an ability is equivalent to opening our eyes: to turn on the light in the house where we have lived in darkness for years because we have never had the desire to see it. To enter a civic building, to walk down the nave of an ancient church, even to stroll through a historic square or across a man-made countryside is to enter materially into the flow of History. We literally walk over the bodies of our ancestors buried under the floors, we share their hopes and fears by looking at the works of art they commissioned and created, we take their place as current members of a civil life that takes place in the spaces they wanted and created, for themselves and for us. The spiritual biography of a nation is condensed and tangible in Italy’s artistic heritage: it is as if the lives, aspirations and collective and individual stories of those who preceded us on this land were at least partly contained in the objects we jealously preserve. Not to annul the differences, in a superficial topicality, but to question them, count them, make them eloquent and vital. The direct relationship with the palimpsest of the Italian artistic context can free young people from the totalitarian dictatorship of the present, counteracting the relentless process that turns the past into anti-rationalist fantasy entertainment. The experience of any piece of historical and artistic heritage goes in a diametrically opposite direction. Because it does not offer us a thesis, an established vision, an easy formula for entertainment (invariably full of gross errors), but confronts us with a discontinuous palimpsest, full of gaps and fragments: heritage is in fact also a place of absence, and art history confronts us with a past that is irretrievably lost, different, other than us. The past that we can learn about through direct experience of Italy’s monumental landscape, on the other hand, induces us to look further, not to be satisfied with ourselves, to become less ignorant. And only direct knowledge of the heritage allows us to discover its civil function. The artistic heritage has become a place of personal rights, a lever for the construction of equality, a means to include those who had always been subjugated and dispossessed. By entering museums, works of the past have lost their original function (political, religious, dynastic…) and acquired a purely cultural one (perhaps higher, perhaps freer, but certainly different). They have also left the flow of economic exchange, and the arbitrary availability of the powerful: (at least for now) they are no longer for sale, and thanks to the Constitution they belong to all Italian citizens, and, more broadly, to all humanity. The blindness that the teaching of art history is called upon to heal is therefore not only that which prevents today’s Italians from reading what surrounds and shapes their daily lives, but also the blindness that prevents us from seeing the urgency and relevance of a constitutional project based also on the democratic use of that palimpsest of heritage and landscape. And today, more than ever, we need to restore our vision.