When Shocking Is Not Enough: Giuseppe Veneziano’s Profane Art

When contemporary art meets religion, the scandal is around the corner

Everyone knows that, when contemporary art meets religion, the scandal is around the corner. It is easy to imagine that this is all the more true in Italy, where the clergy leaves little room for self-mockery and blasphemy. Then, the scandal unfolded by Giuseppe Veneziano’s art show and his irreverent paintings depicting Jesus Christ eating at Mc Donald’s or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in the form of a selfie-party, comes as no surprise. However, the piece that caused most debate during his last exhibition in Massa, a little town in Tuscany, was a Christ wearing Dolce & Gabbana underwear on a crucifix bearing the inscription ‘LGBT’ instead of the classic ‘INRI’. Therefore, some citizens organized a petition to suspend the show, albeit the center-right mayor rejected their protest.

Giuseppe Veneziano's Christ
Giuseppe Veneziano’s Christ.

Giuseppe Veneziano’s style

Like it or not, this artist has made a lot of talk about himself and his art shows, even at the national level. Already known in the Italian art scene for other scandalous paintings such as Novecento and La Madonna del Terzo Reich (pictures below), Veneziano has a very simple and immediate style. His intent to shock — and the means he chooses — are clearly a legacy of the twentieth century avant-gardes, especially Dadaism. Indeed, the recovery and modification of some well-known artworks can be easily associated with Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa. However, as the curator of his exhibition wrote, Veneziano recovers the original narrative vocation of art that avant-gardes tried to eliminate in the name of a clean break with the past.

Giuseppe Veneziano Novecento 2009
Giuseppe Veneziano, Novecento, 2009.

Why his art doesn’t work

The vivid legacy Veneziano took from the avant-gardes and – in my opinion – his failure to communicate a clear message, is the same limit detectable in the early twentieth century movements, namely their aim to destroy without being able to rebuild something else just as validly. In his art, the scandal, the debate, the criticism, are all flattened and resolved into easy artistic quotes that perfectly match the laziness of the public. A language that reaches everyone because it draws on a set of symbols, brands and universally known icons, is an easy and feeble choice. In addition, the narrative soul of the paintings is trivial and too immediate, so that no effort is required to users, except recognizing the archetype. Basically, it acts as a shortcut without problematizing the concept.

Giuseppe Veneziano, La MAdonna del Terzo Reich, 2009.
Giuseppe Veneziano, La Madonna del Terzo Reich, 2009.

Not a matter of Puritanism

Just to be clear: I’m not questioning the brave choice of representing sensitive subjects. Rather, I do believe that art has the sacred right to scandalize and that it should play a very important social role. In this sense, there is no doubt that Veneziano’s paintings (nothing new, by the way) reach the goal of shocking. What is missing here, is the ability to build a real, useful debate. The social role of art should not be only to give thought on a theme, but rather re-educating reflection in general. In other words, it would be really useful not to offer a provocation for its own sake, but artists should always problematize it and provide a chance of redemption from the liquidity of the present.

If not useful, at least nice

Probably, the mission of doing that with figurative art is more difficult, if not supported by a well-organized and coherent exhibition or by complementary texts. Then, if contemporary art cannot re-educate to problematization, then perhaps it better focuses on mere beauty, thus obtaining its dignity on the basis of aesthetic criteria. I don’t even think that this is the case of Veneziano’s paintings, which do not stand out for their particular technique or quality. His art is not purely conceptual nor purely figurative and, for this reason, I believe it doesn’t work, ending up being an amplifier of those empty debates it would like to counteract.

What is certain, is that the artist took advantage from this situation in terms of notoriety and shared lots of news about his exhibition on social media. After all, any press is good press, right?