Protest jokes, doodles and scratches

Detail of a drawing by Agostino Carracci -.

Walls have been the best support for man’s “externalization” since antiquity, even prehistoric times, as the rock graffiti show, long before the social figure of the artist came into play. Perhaps it is surprising today to believe that in the first two centuries of the Christian era, as Pliny the Younger recalled in a letter, the phenomenon of scrawling and writing by common people on the walls of Rome spread. Between house and tavern, brothel or holy place, on the market or in schools, the Roman plebs left their marks in the knowledge that the message would reach the people and those in power. Those who regulate public affairs have always been very attentive to these “rebellious” or goliardic manifestations, the content of which was already burlesque, erotic, mocking, poetic, but also devotional. Knowing that Pompeii topped the urban graffiti chart (apparently well over ten thousand, at least three times Rome’s number) may come as a surprise. A passer-by wrote ironically at the time: “I’m amazed, oh wall, that you haven’t collapsed under the weight of so many writings.” The Pompeian phenomenon perhaps means greater freedom of expression in the periphery than in the capital of the empire.

In the mid-19th century, the magazine “Civiltà Cattolica” published the discovery of a “blasphemous graffiti” inside the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill: it represented a figure pointing to a crucified man, but whose head is that of a donkey. It was inserted by some Greek words that said “Alexameno worships God”. The appearance is that of a newspaper cartoon with some essential but succinct features and the message merged with the image. In 1856, the Jesuit Raffaele Garrucci had no doubt that the author of the mockery was a student of the Pedagogium who turned against a fellow Christian: he did not limit himself to mocking the believer, but went to meet the image of the crucified God depicted with a donkey’s head (short like an idol). The world doesn’t seem to have changed much since then. Even today, the walls of our cities are often smeared with writings or drawings that almost always have a rebellious, sometimes more than offensive tone.

Aggressive drawings and writings in the name of freedom proliferated in the years of protest and then in those of the lead on the walls of the cities, those of the universities and their latrines. But even prisons and schools, stadiums and subways in big cities are still overflowing with “drafts” with derogatory accusations, mostly against a power. They are symptoms of an uneasiness, a revolt, a boredom dictated by an existential emptiness that many experience. The reasons could lie in the conflict between individual drives and social control already formulated by Freud in the essay of the 1930s the discomfort of civilization, then taken up by the theses of Marcuse and Foucault and reinforced in an anti-repressive sense.

A drawing by Pierre Alechinsky from 'Écritures trouvées' (1974)

A drawing by Pierre Alechinsky from “Écritures trouvées” (1974) -.

see exhibition Gribouillage/ Scarabocchio that Villa Medici proposes for a few more weeks, one has the feeling that the rebellious content is devitalized in an aesthetic and artistic discourse where at most an individual rather than collective schizophrenia emerges. One wonders if art today is not the channel through which social impulses are channeled so that they explode in a controlled space (isn’t that the main function of television?), that of images. Aesthetics dominate, for example, in Brassaï’s beautiful photo cycle dedicated to urban graffiti. So what is a doodle? In response, we could paraphrase a famous verse by Gertrude Stein: Scribble is a scribble is a scribble is a scribble. When Stein enrolled in 1913 Saint Emily “Rosa is a rose is a rose is a rose” he tells us that he is talking about a real rose, would say this rose Wittgenstein, and the first rose that generates the verse seems to have been the name of a real person. Perhaps Duchamp had Stein’s Rose in mind when he wore the clothes in Rrose Sélavy in 1921, a name that can be interpreted in a number of ways, where Rose can be the anagram of Eros and Sélavy the nominal translation of c’est la vie.

Giacometti tries to frame a doodle in his studio (1958), photo by Inge Morath

Giacometti tries to frame a doodle in his studio (1958), photo by Inge Morath -.

In any case, by applying Stein’s identity model to the scribble, one avoids at least not falling into the trap it shows doodles it leans towards the viewer frame by frame and then with the reflections of various scholars in the French catalog edited by Francesca Alberti and Diane H. Bodart. Mauro Mussolin, for example, examines the presence of doodling in Michelangelo’s drawings. Sketching awkwardly, effortlessly, obscure or indecipherable mark, deletion, tangle of corrections… “what unites the different meanings of the term is the constant lack of order or rule, which does not prevent the scrawl from being traced by an expert hand to become … There are, therefore, masterful doodles that emerge when the artist’s mind freely enters the territory of marginality and formal anarchy, expressing itself in a language without code ».And Michelangelo is this artist. Even when doodling, he never gets distracted, he always takes himself seriously, his hand is alert and leaves “signs of enormous conceptual tension”.

It’s hard to imagine Michelangelo doodling pleasantly the way many of us do when office meetings strain our yawning. Our flourishes are just mundane remnants of a much higher practice that corresponded marginalia which often appear in the margins of ancient codices. This is also where the therapeutic path opens up: how many psychiatrists have used drawing to capture the causes of the malaise that disturbs the psyche of their patients? The problem was examined in a 1959 paper by psychiatrist Jean Vinchon The magic of drawing. From automatic doodling to therapeutic drawing. But before that, what about the doodles and surreal images in the posthumous book? Rosso by young? This is a trend too exploited by critics to bridge the gap between art and madness (think Jaspers’ astute reflections on Van Gogh), but today it risks being the absolute viaticum of which all art is symptomatic or sociologically.

Joan Miro, 'Painting (Head)' from 1930

Joan Miro, “Painting (Head)” from 1930 -.

The Art Brut that Dubuffet documented and exhibited in 1945 is still interesting as long as we don’t assume that none of us are normal because we all have a germ of schizophrenia. It can become an excuse to say that there is an artist in every strange man and that art and madness are involved. When man is creative by nature but has the initial talent, with patience and method he becomes an artist. How much rationality, intention, will and meaning is there in a sign that can never be equated with the trail left by the snail with its crystalline slime and a completely random tangle? Madness is not this headless and stochastic condition, but it is also not the ideal prerequisite for thinking about art. Hugo Daniel remembers i crazy drawings published by Robert Desnos in 1924 in the magazine “Les Feuilles libres”, signing himself with the name given to him by the poet Paul Eluard and accompanying the essay The genius without a mirror. A “game” that confirms the surrealist thought about the magic of art. “We will never have the proper sight to fully understand the thoughts hidden in these signs,” writes Mussolin. It might also be the most accurate answer to the graffiti of Twombly or Michaux, to that of Wols and Fautrier, or to that of Fontana and Per Kirkeby (why not Beuys?), each with their own “case”, certainly not generic to nonsense an automatic art that in cadaver sketch finds his conceptual fiction, up to the erotic Spasm graphic by Dalí.

But in the face of any recognition that establishes the identity “A is A”, the principle of the meaninglessness of art, which Jacques Rivière once wrote, cannot be meaningless, falls away. That is why the doodle could only do without it by renouncing any claim to art and, as was often the case until yesterday, remained “on the fringes of art history” (Hugo Daniel). But that’s exactly what prompted the avant-garde to deal with it. And it wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that the jumble of characters tries to subdue the sense of the ending. Which is revealed in the incredible study for the Boy kidnapped by death by Stefano Della Bella (1648).

However, Picasso, Miró, Pollock, Steiberg, Brancusi, Appel, Klee, when they delve into the mystery of this “diversity” where infantilism, madness, primitivism interchange, take this as an expressive theme. You are not innocent. From “incult” art, in the words of Leonardo – which still appears on the walls but also on the back of works by Bellini, Raphael, Annibale Carracci, Rembrandt, Signorelli, Pontormo – to programmed art, a discourse seldom escaped from which modernity emerges, in search of an origin that may never have existed, at least in our imagination.

“Boy with a Doll Drawing” by Giovanni Francesco Caroto (around 1523, Verona, Museo Castelvecchio) -.

Indeed, yes: the only historical constant of scribbling down the centuries is the childlike drawing, which is always similar, like an engram of the born human mind. Finally, this universe is condensed in Inge Morath’s photographic image that sees Alberto Giacometti on a ladder while trying to frame a scribble on the wall of his studio. After all, art consists of nothing.

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