The Art of Objects: The Birth of Italian Industrial Culture, 1878–1928
(University of Toronto Press, 2018).
To what extent is an artifact an image of the one who makes it? How much does it reflect the culture of its maker? Complicating matters further is when an artifact becomes part of a transactional relationship, transformed into a thing that must not simply be used, but sold to a user. Advertisements for this product exist in a tricky nexus of relationships between the artifact’s seller (who is related to, but not necessarily the same as, the artifact’s maker), the thing’s buyer, the thing itself, and the culture in which all are embedded. Advertisers use this shared culture as a means to exert pressure on the customer to buy the product, to stimulate the desire to possess. Despite the cultural valences in which this relationship is wrapped up, the process is often one of distance, not intimacy. As Wendell Berry describes it in his essay “The Work of Local Culture,” “most modern populations…depend on distant purchases for almost everything and are thus shaped from the outside by the purposes and the influence of salesmen,” with the message of advertising being “that the watchers should spend whatever is necessary to be like everybody else.”
Luca Cottini’s monograph The Art of Objects explores the interrelated themes of artifacts, advertising, culture, and modernity, specifically situated within their historical development in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Italy via a series of meticulously argued case studies of Italian industrial material culture. Cottini “locates the ultimate foundation of Italian design in Italy” in this “early industrial age…generated around the irregular encounter of modern production systems with the philosophical and aesthetic legacies of the humanistic tradition.”
An aesthetic tension between “early industrialism and the Italian crafts patrimony” led to the development of “a new, accomplished model of decorative or industrial art” which grew alongside the “new industrial forms of culture” and “new culture of industry” which were taking shape as Italy entered the twentieth century. As Italy’s industry grew in the late 1800s, the idea of objects as products in “a new cosmopolitan ‘universe of commodities’ in advertisements and expositions” and “contemporary literature” paralleled their beginning to “invade the space of art.” “Along with their gradual acceptance in the market and society,” says Cottini, “some industrial products started to break into the artistic space in a distinct, recognizable form, slowly acquiring new intellectual value.” Cottini’s study characterizes the development of modern Italian design as emerging from this period’s “hybrid culture, on the edge of tradition and modernization, constantly dealing with opposing tensions” that took root, in early Italian industrialism, in the depictions and treatments of objects: “eternity versus ephemerality (watches), movement versus immobility (photographs), art versus mechanics (bicycles), and materiality versus immateriality (cigarettes).” As these “common products…increasingly became the subjects of artistic representations, they gradually attained aesthetic relevance and new symbolic meanings” which stood at the crossroads between “a commercial strategy (aimed at differentiating the Italian product through art)” and “an independent and original culture that was able to set critical debates in motion, affect social and political spheres on various levels, and intermingle different worlds (art and industry) in a state of constant self-assessment.” Thus, Cottini concludes, “the ‘aestheticization’ of these selected objects…documents the slow metamorphosis of the arts from a humanistic endeavor into a large-scale business” just as “their ‘culturalization’ makes manifest the reconfiguration of industrial production into an authentic culture. Along this experimental process of mediation, the objects provide a traceable platform on which to reconstruct Italy’s industrialism and to illuminate its a-systematic elaboration of an original way to industrial modernity.”
Modernity transforms history and culture into an advertisement.
Cottini sees the construction of an industrial aesthetics of objects as critical to the development of Italy as a modern country, as these “objects mirrored the tension of Italian industrialism’s efforts to create an aestheticized modernity,” revealing “not just the anxiety,” shared by artists, advertisers, and the practitioners of the country’s industrial project broadly, “of overcoming Italy’s backwardness or immobility but also the enduring sense of restlessness within Italian industrialism, expressed as a perpetual state of creative incompleteness.” This cultural insecurity about whether or not Italy was a truly modern country stemmed partially from a dialectic between tradition and innovation, resulting in an “‘irregular’ expansion of the Italian industry and the ‘unfinished’ elaboration of modern Italian culture—Italy’s so-called incompleteness,” which Cottini claims is a feature of a distinctively Italian modernity, “the core feature of [Italian culture’s] experimental modernity, characterized by a constant state of self-adjustment, eclectic synthesis, and aesthetic invention of new forms.” Cottini frames this characteristically and perpetually unresolved instantiation of modernity in Italy as the “realization of the Italian ‘graceful ease’—or sprezzatura, as defined in Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier” (written in 1528). Cottini attributes “the success of Italian fashion and design” and “the ongoing appeal of Italian glamor” to Italy’s “so-called incomplete modernity.”
But Castiglione, like his fellow Italian Renaissance humanists, saw the aim of politics and culture as the instantiation of moral perfection and virtue into the character of the citizenry, to such an extent that he encouraged courtiers to cultivate sprezzatura for the sake of becoming, “men of virtue whose charisma would influence [the prince] to do what was right,” as James Hankins put it. In contrast, the hybrid industrial aesthetic laid out in Cottini’s narrative assumes that politics is oriented towards homogenization and production, a life on the cutting edge that requires a perpetual restlessness to ensure that culture is up to date. The distinction between artifact and product shrinks into nothingness, with the result that culture becomes simply another object to be marketed and “sold” not only to the rest of the world but even to those to whom it has been given by birth or adoption.
In this model the culture’s tradition is not jettisoned but taken up and commodified, literally objectified in the industrial artifact, which gives it added significance and layers of meaning, in turn increasing its value. Modernity is therefore a synthesis of cultural wisdom and technological progress into a brand, with both reduced to the creation and selling of products. Modernity transforms history and culture into an advertisement.
If Berry is correct about the connection between modernization and homogenization, what then is distinctly Italian about this phenomenon? Beyond Cottini’s suggestion of a certain inferiority complex in early industrial Italy the spirit of unrest that Cottini identifies seems to point to a cultural cor inquietum, felt with particular acuteness due to Italy’s intellectual tradition being so closely linked to the Catholic Church’s conception of man and society, which formed the bedrock for the virtue political tradition in which Renaissance humanists like Castiglione participated. If Cottini’s historical narrative is accurate, the history of this period (in which history itself becomes an artifact) reflects an anthropology of alienation of citizen from culture, with the salesman as their new mediator. Something insidious has occurred here: it is now no longer the case that modern products simply reflect their makers, but that their makers have become intelligible only within an ontology of production, only meaningful if they are treated as something to be marketed and sold themselves.
John-Paul Heil is a Core Fellow at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, MD. He received his PhD in history from the University of Chicago and his writing has appeared in Time, Smithsonian, and The Week.