Italian Culture Ministry Attempts Legal "Coup" to Halt a Museum's Anti-Austerity Art Burning

Italian Culture Ministry Attempts Legal "Coup" to Halt a Museum's Anti-Austerity Art Burning
A still from Antonio Manfredi's "Ashes," 2012
(© Antonio Manfredi)

CASORIA, Italy — Apparently attempting to put an end to a form of anti-austerity protest that has gained international attention, officials from the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities have ordered a halt to the destruction of works of art administered by flamboyant artist and curator Antonio Manfredi of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) outside of Naples. Beginning in February, Manfredi had attracted worldwide media attention for a series of actions, titled "CAM Art War," in which he began incinerating the museum's art collection piece-by-piece in protest of budget cuts affecting his small regional art institution. In his view, the sensational action was a desparate measure for desparate times, an apt metaphor for the chronically precarious state of art funding in Italy, and a potentially effective form of protest. The state's seemingly heavy-handed intervention may prove that he was right.

Signed by Dr. Franco di Spirito and Stevano Gizzi, both high-ranking officials from the Neapolitan Ministry of Heritage and Culture, the letter attempting to halt Manfredi's art burning could possibly be read as a concession. Describing CAM's collection as "a broad international panorama," it seems to validate the museum and its founding mission by invoking a 2004 legislative decree on the protection and preservation of Italy's cultural heritage, and calls for a meeting between Manfredi, the regional office of the Ministry of Cultural Activities, and the Naples regional council about "possible collaborations" on the museum's future exhibitions. Naming the long list of countries represented in the 878-work collection, the letter characterizes the museum as "a unique, unrepeatable, important, and prestigious collection of art."

Two days ago, it was announced that videos from Manfredi's "CAM Art War" would be included in the dOCUMENTA(13) exhibition in Kassel, Germany. The screening was planned as part of the performance entitled "Ashes" by artist Miriam Wuttke at the invitation of the Critical Art Ensemble. "Then just this morning, I got this letter," Manfredi told ARTINFO. "The coincidence seems very strange to me." Over the phone, Manfredi described the legal basis of the letter as more or less laughable; he pointed out to a paragraph in the referenced decree that exempted works of art made by a living artist and executed in the last 50 years — an exception that would apply to virtually every work of art in his museum, which focuses on supporting emerging art. As CAM has been wholly supported by private donations, he added, the state furthermore had no right to impose a law that was meant for publicly-owned institutions.

"This is a coup," he told ARTINFO. "It's something out of Stalin's Russia." 

Manfredi was all the more perplexed by the offer of a meeting with the regional office of the Ministry of Cultural Activities and the Naples municipal government. When he called Elena Coccia, the vice president of the Naples regional council, he says she knew nothing about it. The culture ministry and the regional council "are completely different bodies," he told ARTINFO. "For this I have no words."

During the 120-day time period during which Manfredi may appeal, no site has been specified for him to deposit the works of art which are now, purportedly, in the state's care. With no plans outlined for CAM's financial future, Manfredi's tone remains sardonic and defiant. "There are only obligations and no real advantages for the museum," he says. "They only say it's under their protection."

To see footage of the "CAM Art War" actions, click on the video below:

UPDATE: In an email to ARTINFO, Manfredi has announced that he has received a second letter, again on the Ministry of Culture's letterhead, dismissing the first letter and overruling the state's right to repossess the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum collection.  Read the full story here.