Carla Lonzi and The Gift of Resonance
by Agnese Oliveri | 6 May 2021
I would say that ever since I started studying art history at university, I have experienced a series of crises. I had a crisis, albeit a positive one, when I started studying at SOAS, as I had to relearn aesthetics, history and philosophy outside of the European bubble. Then, I had a crisis pretty much every time I was faced with a difficult piece of theory. However, this year my crisis has become more personal. The question ‘where do I fit in?’ had been daunting me ever since I realised that I was going to need a job very soon. A task which, I am sure you all know, is already pretty tough without the added pressure of an existential crisis. I started to attribute my uneasiness to immaturity. Everyone just goes on, why can’t I get a grip? Or maybe, I thought, I was immature when I went into this field without knowing what that really entails. But after all, who does? Who was going to warn me against the brutality of art institutions, the arbitrariness of art trends, the nepotism and elitism of this industry? Anyway, the point is, I started blaming myself for my stubbornness. Until, this month, I ‘met’ Carla Lonzi.
Lonzi said that ‘to write is a public service. We write to express and to give resonance, so that another (woman) can express herself and give resonance.’ So, I guess that is what I am doing now. I am admitting she gave me this resonance and I am ‘returning the favour’, so that maybe this will unlock something in someone else’s crisis. Lonzi worked as a proficient art critic for a decade before abandoning the field completely. In her lucid analysis, she recognised her role in the construction of a culture that, not only did not belong to her, but oppressed her. So, she started Rivolta Femminile with journalist Elvira Banotti and artist Carla Accardi, where they practiced ‘autocoscienza’ (self-awareness raising) with other women. They would seek the root of their existence, unlearning the labels and expectations of their womanhood. What is that womanhood at its very core when it isn’t polluted by society? Not an easy quest indeed. Lonzi, alongside other women, used her subjectivity as a starting point, and the more her self-examination progressed, the more she realised that the world outside of that subjectivity had nothing to do with her very essence. And could it? When the standard is the man, when the pinnacles of society and culture were set by men, where could she fit in?
This realisation made her relentless and eventually led to the end of Rivolta Femminile, where many women artists could not reconcile their opinion with Lonzi, unable to remove themselves from the art scene like she did. Her convictions here presented some shortcomings, on a universal level a new culture had to be shaped, however, individual women still needed the institution to make a living. In a way, her stubbornness also makes me admire her, as it allows me to feel better about my own ‘testa dura’, as Italians would say. Giovanna Zapperi contends that Lonzi’s break with the art world should not be seen as an end in itself, as Lonzi’s position denounced and made apparent a much larger problem in the field than she could have expressed in standard critical texts. If art is meant to be a reflection of humanity, she declared that it wasn’t, and for this reason it would have to be erased. The culture system replicated and accentuated the hierarchical power-grabbing characteristic of capitalism, a patriarchal structure of thought that certainly did not belong to women or other subjugated groups. For Lonzi, there was no going back, no room for compromise or for changing the institution from the inside. Culture and art had to be remade from scratch, to be something else altogether. Another crucial point to consider within this, is that Italian feminism was very different from the Anglo and French trends which sought equality. The women’s movement in Italy saw equality as yet another pretext to make women try and make themselves the same as men, in a way that negates their characteristics and maintains the male as the model.
Carla Accardi, Carla Lonzi and Elvira Banotti in Rome in 1970, photo taken by Pietro Consagra © Archivio Pietro Consagra, Milano
Instead, they focused on sexual difference, and for this reason, a new society and culture would have to be shaped, one where women are subjects of their own right, and not one where they have to squeeze into a frame that did not fit them and never would. The aforementioned quote expresses this point more eloquently than I ever could: ‘ If we don’t recognise one another (amongst women), the one who is recognised is the man: it is in this way that culture is validated’.1 Lonzi’s point of view is to be expanded to encompass all those who were oppressed by patriarchal and colonialist structures of power. Here, I need to specify that Lonzi mantained a distance from any formal political party and admitting that even the Marxist struggle for power still replicated the thirst for power that characterised the patriarchy and never belonged to their exercise in self-awareness. Again, in her words, as reported in the Rivolta Femminile manifesto: ‘Behind every ideology we see a hierarchy of the sexes’ and obviously as expressed in more depth in her publications such as ‘We Spit on Hegel’ where she dismantles said ideologies with surgical precision.
Finally, where did all of these ramblings lead me? Not to abandon the art world, at least for now, but to continue unapologetically to demand for more and to analyse inwardly what I experience outwardly, respecting my subjectivity. When I feel wrong and weird for not getting on with it like anyone else does, I will now smile ironically thinking of Carla Lonzi, who carried on undeterred searching for what was essential to herself.