Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ina Blom reviews Marshall Plan Modernism

Jaleh Mansoor. Marshall Plan Modernism: Italian Postwar Abstraction and the Beginnings of Autonomia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016. 288 pp.

Review by Ina Blom

“It is high time that autonomy come to be differentiated and dissociated from its monopolization by the stale, dead-end, endgame discourse of modernist aesthetics”. With this statement, and the study that underpins it, Jaleh Mansoor introduces a breath of fresh air into musty art-historical debates on the relative merits of aesthetic formalism versus social art history. Situating itself beyond Theodor Adorno’s account of modernist form as the dialectical capture of the horrific totality of a capitalist social order as well as Pierre Bourdieu’s account of autonomy as one among a finite set of choices within a specific artistic microcosm, Mansoor’s object is a moment of radical struggle when concepts of political and aesthetic autonomy confront each other so as to produce new and restless interfaces. That moment is Italy during the postwar years of economic reconstruction fueled by the Marshall Plan system of international financial aid—a system set up to motivate European capitalism, provide new markets for US products, and prevent the spread of communism. The dilemma it presented to Italy’s communist party and labor unions is well known:  the productivist model underpinning the economic miracle aligned labor itself with the interests of capital and the state, leaving little room for imagining an alternative political order.

The so-called autonomist worker’s movement, fueled by the 1962 riots against the Italian Union of Labor as they negotiated with Fiat over wages and benefits, came to identify both the communist party and labor itself as problems, examples of fatally compromised forms of organization.  The movement opened for forms of revolt that would present a new model of autonomy, perhaps best understood as a set of volatile, unrepresentable energies that would trace new pathways through the intertwined fields of politics and aesthetics, among other things, by disrupting distinctions between labor and leisure, public and private, waged and unwaged forms of work. The importance of this idea is signaled by the fact that Mansoor’s book ends with a chapter on the aftereffects of such autonomy in arte povera as well as in the contemporary political/aesthetic field. If this is a study of a specific historical–cultural moment of unrest, its wider ethico-political focus is its reverberations in the present.

            As a historical study, however, Mansoor’s account is nothing if not contextually precise.  Contrary to the widespread idea that the works of artists such as Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, and Piero Manzoni were local avatars of American postwar abstraction and pop art, her analyses pinpoint them as mediations of the trajectories of capital in Italy between 1949 and 1973 and also as antagonistic responses to the American art of the period.  Rejecting the nationalist legacy of Italian futurism, these artists reworked the once-radical, collectivist promise of the constuctivist monochrome and its commodity sidekick, the readymade—both now signaling the constraints of received form. In this new context, the monochrome and the readymade tend to appear as a single hybrid entity, resonating with the received forms and frameworks of organized labor and the limits of such organization.  Fontana’s slashed monochrome canvases break open the materialist framework of abstract painting, undoing its ground as well as the weight and significance of the artistic gesture, while their hyper-saturated colors seem to internalize the seductive force of the luxury commodity. Burri’s work directly engages with the emergence of plastic as the new miracle material of Italy’s economic miracle. His burnt and exploded Saran Wrap sheets, the polyvinylidene chloride material that was marketed for domestic use after the war, exploit the malleability and transparency of plastic in ways that associate abstraction with violence and destruction, in tune with the violent restructuring of daily life brought on by world-market-oriented productivism.

But it is Manzoni’s work that most directly evoke the critical question of the wage form, pushing the concept of labor up against forms of production not directly subsumed under capital. His canned “artist’s shit,” his “achromes,” his mechanical tracing of lines on rolls of paper forever encapsulated in canisters, explicitly align art making with the increasingly automated and invisible labor of postwar industrialism, foreclosing any comfortable margin of aesthetic difference.

Yet works like these were also a form of sabotage, suggesting by their very invisibility other equally invisible forms of labor that might yet come to claim their autonomy. The reproductive work of women’s bodies, for instance, unaccounted for in traditional Marxist theory. Enclosed within the private sphere, such bodies were, in Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati’s view, made to function in terms of a continued primitive accumulation indispensable to twentieth-century capitalism. This reification of female labor is suggested in Manzoni’s Living Sculpture (1961), a crude unframing of the classical artists/model relation which resonates with the later “wages for housework” claim launched within the context of the autonomia movement. The crisis of modernist form oulined in Manzoni’s 1957 call to “organicize disintergration” so as to “discover and reveal to ourselves the inner structures . . . to highlight each in its most authentic seed,” is in other words consistently aligned with the crisis of the then-current forms of organized labor and the autonomous potential of work.

Brilliantly highlighting the difference between Italian autonomy/autonomia and the far more general and metaphorical evocations of factory work in American-style pop art and minimalism, Mansoor is one among a small group of authors whose work consistently undercut the historicizing and pacifying ism in the concept of modernism. What we gain is an art historical account on par with the multiple upheavals of modernity and their various contingencies. I cannot help thinking what it would do to the discipline if our period survey courses were taught from the point of view of such local vortexes of aesthetic-political unrest rather than the evolution and global dissemination of artistic innovation.