Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Nov 2017

W
hen Street Art Speaks, Is Anyone Really Listening?      


Larry, a good friend and contributor to these pages, passed me an article he found in The Conversation (motto: “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”) one of the increasingly frequent news and commentary websites that publish a wide range of general interest articles under a Creative Commons license that permits, even encourages, others to republish free of charge. The article came out a few days ago and has already been republished elsewhere. It is entitled

WHEN STREET ART SPEAKS

with the subhead

In Naples, street art is giving a new voice to a city silenced by crime

The authors are Felia Allum and Luca Palermo, the former, a Senior Lecturer in Italian and Politics, University of Bath; the latter, a Research Fellow in History of Contemporary Art, Department of Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Università della Campania "L. Vanvitelli" (that is the most recent name for what used to be called the Second University of Naples).

The article is well written and photographed and is full of optimism like this:
...recently, a silent transformation has been taking place on the streets of Naples and its surrounding region, Campania. Slowly, civil society has started taking back control of the public collective space. Culture and education once again are providing a remedy to the ill-effects of organized crime groups, and their activities in Naples...
and
Street art is developing a personal and collective sense of belonging, fostering a unique cultural identity, and sparking social awareness in Naples.
and this
...street art speaks to all people. It activates not only cultural, but also social, economic and political processes, developing a personal and collective sense of belonging, fostering a unique cultural identity and sparking social awareness.
There is something not quite right about the article, but it's hard to nail down. The claim is that the inhabitants of some of the worst slums, the most crime-ridden in the city, are said to be taking back their “public collective space” from evil (the camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia) by decorating buildings, parks and places where people like to gather and chat; they are reclaiming their city with street art in the form of wall murals, an art form that has become more and more frequent in various parts of the world.

The works are very well done and may be by spontaneous artists, but many, especially the large ones, are by up and coming artists or well-known ones such as Ernest Pignon-Ernest
(responsible for the mural at the top of this page). He is French and lives and works in Paris. Street art was meant to be avant-garde, political, and socially provocative when it started (in the 1950s). It still is. The murals usually reference current life; thus you find a large billboard-sized color mural of a young Roma [gypsy] girl with scars on her face, also found on the visage of a large mural of the patron saint of Naples, San Gennaro, adjacent to the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. In both cases the scars symbolize the wounds inflicted by crime and corruption on the city at large and minority groups such as the Rom.

The
Pignon-Ernest mural, though, is not current. It was put up here and in Rome in June 2015 and
references an event that shocked the entire nation, but in this article is unidentified and captioned only as “evocative” without explaining what it evokes. The other murals are identified. I don't know why the authors didn't explain the one by Pignon-Ernest. It shows, in fact, Italian director, poet, author and one of the most respected and influential intellectual lights of post-war Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini (murdered in Ostia, near Rome in 1975) stepping out toward the viewer, carrying his own corpse. The event still stirs memories in some, but is hardly relevant to those who might come across it today in Naples. It is no longer on the emotional order of that young Rom girl with scars on her face, wounds that are current, both physically and emotionally. But the Pignon-Ernest mural is effective, well known and certainly not subtle: Pasolini, foully and brutally murdered, is shown resurrected just as this city, foully done by crime and corruption, will be resurrected. That same theme of the resurrected victim carrying his own corpse has been used before by Pignon-Ernest. (It bears mentioning that the murder of Pasolini is still a mystery.) But that's fine; Pasolini is iconic of the problem.  

What is essentially wrong with the article is that it is naively optimistic. If you are interested in "fostering collective social awareness," consider that a few years ago
a poll conducted by the Neapolitan Association of Students Against the camorra  produced startling results. 6,227 students in 29 high schools in the province of Naples responded to questions; 70% signed the questionnaire with name and surname. More than one-third said that there were at least some positive elements in organized crime, and a small number (249 students) regarded some members of the camorra as "heroic". 871 respondents recognized the "merit" of organized crime in providing jobs for those who need them, and more than 1,000 claimed to be satisfied with the level of power that the camorra enjoys. Those were young students, many of them bound for university.

Will the cosmetic changes of street art then really affect what goes on beneath the surface? This city is a laundry list of social ills, from organized crime to chronic unemployment to illegal construction to overcrowding to (insert your further choices of social ills). The article strikes me as another Pollyanna example of the top-down view of urban renewal that Naples is infamous for. Sprinkle the magic pixie-dust over Hell Hollow and it becomes Happy Valley; the murals will sparkle down and turn darkness to light, the grime will disappear and the bad guys will slither away. Crime will vanish and everyone will have a job. There is a similar example in architecture in Naples: such as "Sails of Scampia". (See "Build it and they will blow it up".)

The tenor of the article is that there are two cities, the poor crime-ridden city and the assumed but never mentioned more affluent middle-class city. Now there is to be a third city as citizens are "coaxed back... once again... to take back" what is rightfully theirs. The entire vocabulary is one of restoring what once was, all based on the misleading assumption that middle-class areas are unaffected by crime, corruption, disorganization, and a total lack of empathy for one another. Yet, affluent neighborhoods are very much affected by such things. I have seen one small shop after another close along a middle-class street because the owners can't afford to stay open. The former employees become itinerant street merchants, handing out their home-printed cards offering to come to your home and fix your table, do your hair, whatever.  That's what I was fumbling to nail down: the idea of returning things to what "used to be" is an illusion. Naples was never like that and to say that it was is simple delusional wishful thinking. You cannot take back what was never yours.
It reminds me of a passage from the journal Galaxy, written in 1868. It closes with this paragraph:
To Victor Emanuel [1820-78, the first king of united Italy] is due the overthrow of this monstrous iniquity…[the camorra]...the most notorious of the leaders were apprehended and thrown into prison…and, in a short period, five or six thousand were lodged in prison or banished [from] the kingdom… and now, from Pozzuoli to Portici not one of these miserable creatures is to be seen, and Naples, purified, redeemed, free from…the terrors of the Camorra, has, for once in its history, a legitimate claim upon the good opinion and respect of the world.
You may read the entire passage here.

That was written 150 years ago. Something is always getting in the way.

So I thanked Larry for the article and said I thought it was a bit too Peace, Love & Kumbaya for me. “But I'm cynical” I added. Larry answered,
I passed that along mainly for the attention, however skewed, that Napoli is getting with this lovely tale and the very good photography. However, the quick in and back out of Napoli to do a photo journal piece is only that same fairy tale about hope and change that, as we both know, is told over and over again while the mean, ugly and entrenched under belly of Napoli continues on ... unchanged. Both the day and the night belong to the camorra... You and I have a cynicism that is actually just the ability to question and analyze that which most people easily accept with no real thought at all. This ability does not, however, prevent an emotional response and the occasional tear when we see the genuine good, and the purely benevolent moments out there.
I agree. I have shed more than an occasional tear over the “genuine good, and the purely benevolent moments out there.” I stipulate that they exist: the children's orchestras and choirs, the foundations for the arts, the athletic activities, all that (some of which are properly mentioned in The Conversation article.) They highlight and are driven less by street art than by the determination and goodness that well-meaning people in Naples have in their hearts for their city.



added 30 Nov 2017:

S. reminds me that there is another level to all this. She says, 

“Street art has been totally absorbed by institutions and has become a megaphone for their own optimistic proclamations.”

…one of which seems to be articles such as the one in question and the optimistic proclamation that street art is “taking back the night” from crime. No, it isn't. It's putting up a lot of pretty pictures—which is fine.


The immediate “proclaiming” institution in this case seems to an organization called Inward, a collective of Italian art critics promoting “urban creativity” through an amalgam of—let's call it—“good will” and self-aggrandizing tooting of their own trumpets, plus strange English neologisms such as “streetness.” See for yourself at their website here.

Look around it a bit. It's in Italian, but look for the section called Attività (top of the page) for a series of photos of wall murals such as the one shown (above, right). I'm all for it! We need more "streetness" and pretty pictures. We need less crime. If you can figure out the cause and effect relationship, let me know. So far, I got nothin'.

The original article from The Conversation is here.
Related items on graffiti here and here.


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