Strike a Pose
In one of these afternoons, as I am reading about Carla Lonzi and the Beato Angelico Cooperative, I paused to look at the catalogue I am working with. It is the catalogue of the exhibition The Unexpected Subject 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy, curated by Marco Scotini and Raffaella Perna at FM Centre for Contemporary Art in Milan in 2019. The exhibition aimed at mapping the relationship between art and the feminism mouvement in Italy in the Seventies to define a new genealogy of specific socio-cultural phenomena. Presenting works by a range of Italian and international artists – such as Carla Accardi, Renate Bertlmann, Tomaso Binga, and Nicole Gravier – the exhibition finds a major reference point in the work of the Italian art critic and feminist Carla Lonzi, from which it also derives the idea of the ‘unexpected subject’.
Graduated in Art History at Università La Sapienza in Rome, in 1969 Lonzi decided to diverge from the established path of art critique and withdraw from the art system to devote herself exclusively to political engagement, assuming these two areas as ethically and fundamentally incompatible. In 1970, together with the artist Carla Accardi and the journalist Elvira Banotti, she founded the separatist feminist group Rivolta Femminile and published the essay Sputiamo su Hegel (Let’s Spit on Hegel), in which she deepened her approach to radical feminism, outlining some of the key concepts underlying her political practice. Drawing from the practice of self-awareness, Lonzi called for collective deculturizzazione (deculturalization), meaning a process through which women would unlearn and undo the language of domination, the cultural and social norms and obligations. The unexpected subject would thus be the result of this practice, a break into patriarchal historical continuity that would produce an empty space from which to imagine anti-hegemonic forms of autonomous organisation. Lonzi rejected the principles of equality that guided a certain type of feminism, given that its acceptance and integration into the patriarchal-capitalist system presupposes a necessary neutralisation, a weakening and a subordination of feminist instances and values that would only strengthen the system itself. Therefore, she felt the decision to abandon art as a radical but necessary choice, which led to a further consolidation of Lonzi’s positions and a fracture within Rivolta Femminile. Without delving into the theoretical and personal history of Lonzi, I believe it was important to briefly highlight this specific aspect of her professional and personal life for the major revival of her work, which has made her one of the prominent figures in Italian contemporary art today, and the ways in which her concepts and ideas are used to conceptually sustain specific artistic and cultural operations that fundamentally clash with the principles that guided her political practice.
Going back to the catalogue I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, what caught my attention was the logo of Dior, main sponsor of the project, along with the introductory text by Maria Grazia Chiuri, artistic director of the maison. This seemingly odd pairing is a step of a broader enterprise initiated in 2017 by the French brand with the launch of the infamous ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ t-shirt, which was followed by other shirts with slogans derived by the American writer and activist Robin Morgan, such as ‘Sisterhood is Global’, ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’ and ‘Sisterhood is Forever’. In the three-year period 2019-2021, this combination was further pursued through the collaboration with famous feminist artists such as Tomaso Binga, Judy Chicago, and Claire Fontaine, who were commissioned to create the sets for Dior fashion shows. The exploration of feminism also continued in the podcast Dior Talks, with the three thematic series Feminism, The Female Gaze – a name inspired by the writings of film critic and feminist Laura Mulvey – and Feminist Art. Finally, besides the support for the exhibition The Unexpected Subject, the commitment of the maison was renewed for the exhibition Io dico Io – I say I, inaugurated in 2021 at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome, the conclusion of a long process of research on Carla Lonzi and her work.
The bond between haute couture and politics is not an unusual combination. In 2018, Gucci published the campaign Dans Les Rues for the pre-fall 2018 collection, recalling the protests of May 1968. In 2020, as it launched its first gender-fluid non-binary collection, the brand realised the campaign Ouverture of Something That Never Ended, involving the queer performer Silvia Calderoni and the philosopher Paul B. Preciado, and became the sponsor of La Quadriennale di Roma 2020 titled FUORI, an explicitly queer exhibition project. These encounters between politics and high fashion emphasise how art is a privileged space for divergent movements and instances to be subsumed by capitalism, supporting its reproduction by portraying a seemingly radical, innovative and progressive imaginary. Discussing Dior’s work, Elvira Vannini promptly highlights the political problem at the core of these projects: “For those of us who will never be CEO (nor do they wish to be) the problem with mainstream feminism is that it obscures the class and race antagonisms that are central to the how the genre organizes itself under capitalism.” The transposition of such slogans and symbols on clothing and accessories allows these words to be emptied of their political significance and radicalism, making them harmless and perfectly incorporated into the neoliberal rhetoric. In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher observed how the consumption of certain cultural products “performs our anti-capitalism for us” by staging fictitious conflicts that allows us to continue consuming without having to face any moral conflict and satisfying our need to feel critically engaged. While Fisher focused his analysis on Pixar movies, I believe it can be easily applied to other artistic or cultural projects as the one described so far. The performative activism conducted by corporate feminism is perfectly functional to the system for it allows us to relieve our feelings of guilt, pursue our individual gratification and empowerment, without having to question the underlying mechanism of exploitation and power.
Furthermore, the selection of the artists that decided to collaborate with Dior also stands out. Specifically, the scenography of the autumn-winter 2020-2021 fashion show created by the collective Claire Fontaine, a ‘feminist conceptual artist’ whose research has often focused on reproductive and biopolitical work, also promoting the idea of the human strike: “a type of strike that involves the whole of life and not only its professional side, that acknowledges exploitation in all the domains and not only at work.” In a productive regime in which human life is wholly put to work, the human strike aims to re-politicise the sphere of the everyday, enhancing the frictions inherent in affects and in care work, and the need to subvert the system in which we act. Having conducted a heavy critique of advertising and the marketisation of feelings, the collaboration with Dior appears to be a significant paradox.
Contradictions are a constant in my research and over this first year I have often questioned myself about my position as an activist and researcher, the choices I have made and will continue to make, the fairness of specific compromises. Thinking through feminist lens multiplies these questions. Some of the texts I have encountered so far have helped me to take steps forward in this reflection, to bring out some politically crucial and generating contradictions and to differentiate them from more ambiguous and opportunistic positions. Staying open to contradiction and its possible radical value, I will continue to carry these questions with me and question myself at every step, observing and addressing them as they come. Like the time I found myself studying an anticapitalist essay published in the catalogue of an exhibition on art and feminism sponsored by Dior.
 M. Scotini and R. Perna, The unexpected subject: 1978 art and feminism in Italy, Milan, Flash Art, 2019
 C. Lonzi, Sputiamo su Hegel: La donna clitoridea e la donna vaginale e altri scritti, Milan, Scritti di Rivolta Femminile, 1974
 E. Vannini, ‘L’arte femminista non è un brand Dior’, Hotpotatoes, 2 March 2020, <http://www.hotpotatoes.it/2020/03/02/larte-femminista-non-e-un-brand-dior/> (26/01/2022)
 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Ropley, Zero Books, 2009, pp. 12-13
 Claire Fontaine, Human Strike Has Already Begun & Other Writings, Berlin, Mute Books, 2013, p. 39