Treasures From the Pinault Collection

French billionaire François Pinault unveiled his contemporary-art museum Punta della Dogana at the Venice Biennale—including works by Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami, and Cy Twombly. Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy on the meaning of it all.

A place profane and sacred. The very ancient warehouses where, in the time of Venice’s splendor, merchandise was unloaded and where taxes on goods entering the city were levied—and, praise be given to the talent of the architect Tadao Ando, a scent of crypt and cathedral. A museum.

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What is a museum? A place that, as we have known since Malraux, is not a place of death but of life. A place where it is not so much about stockpiling finished works, but putting them into contact with each other and, with this contact, making them live forever. The eye listens. The walls talk. Or Felix González-Torres’ curtain that the visitor encounters in the first room that, like Balzac’s “unknown masterpiece,” almost literally bleeds before our eyes.

What is a museum? A place where, as we have known since Vivant Denon, time is made with space. A place where, when you go from one room to the next, when you take, in order or in disorder, the imaginary paths intended by the collector, you don’t go from one point to another, but from an age to an older age. A haunted place. A carousel of specters. François Pinault, at the opening of the Palazzo Grassi two years ago, exhibited his own skull X-rayed by Piotr Uklanski. Here, at the Customs Port in Venice, he is showing the ghosts that caused a storm here. Carpaccio’s 10,000 Martyrs of Mount Ararat, resurrected by the Chapman brothers in their evocation of Auschwitz and Nazism. The Mesopotamian bas-reliefs echoed in the shadow of Light From the Left by Charles Ray. Or Stingel’s Self-Portrait that recalls a certain Veronese.

Would I hang these works in my living room, the visitor naïvely asks himself? That is not the problem, of course. Because they are there, these works. They are there, they sit there, these canvases by Cy Twombly that seem to be encrusted in the bricks of the walls. They belong to this place, body and soul, the three monumental paintings of Rudolf Stingel that surround, in the central gallery, the no-less-monumental self-portrait. An Italian of the Quattrocento wasn’t thinking about appropriating Ucello’s mosaics from St. Mark’s Basilica in Florence. Nor, later, the Massacios from the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Why would it be any different for these modern frescos installed, some permanently, by François Pinault? Why would the question be asked about a destination other than that of this cast concrete?

Are they at least beautiful? Isn’t art’s mission to embellish the world—and these frescos, these panels, or even these giant teeth sculpted by Richard Hughes and placed directly on the floor facing the Twomblys, do they participate in this embellishment? Again, no. Not that either. Because it is a poor idea of art to reduce it to an aesthetic. It is a late, decadent idea of a recent era. It is the idea of those who do not like art, or who are wary of it, or who are afraid of it, or who dream of banishing it to the city’s periphery. And the other virtue of these hangings is to remind us that art, when it is great, is never only, or even necessarily beautiful—that its vocation is not decorative, but metaphysical.

For what is left for art when it escapes the dictates of the Beautiful? Intelligence is left for art. Knowledge. Wisdom remains, a wisdom particular to the great alchemies, that gives meaning to that which has none, or shows why this meaning is impossible, or takes as a given the chaos that is the hidden framework of the world.

That humanity is headed for disaster: we know it from Maurizio Cattelan’s stuffed horse whose head is rammed through the wall of the first room.

That we live in a world where the living, the truly living, are fewer than the living dead: This is articulated in the cadavers of Marlène Dumas, then in Maurizio Cattelan’s recumbent effigies in Carrera marble, then in the frightening skull-faced Efficiency Men of Thomas Schütte.

That ruins are not what threaten the world but what constitute its intrigue—that the present is only lived, like in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, interpreted by Walter Benjamin, as a production of rubble that unceasingly accumulates at our feet: That is the lesson of the indecipherable homage to François Pinault imagined by Takashi Murakami—and it is the lesson of waiting for the shock of Tuymans’ Still Life and Twin Towers with its Cézannian fruit bowl floating between sky and land.

And the apocalypse? The promise, or even the certainty, of the worst? No. Not that either. Because there is the luminous ensemble of Sigmar Polke entitled Axial Ages. And it is, Axial Ages, the title of a famous book in which Karl Jaspers tells how it is at the very moment where war, terror, horror reigned like never before, that appeared these saviors of humanity that were Buddha, Socrates, the prophets of Israel, and Confucius.

So not a nihilistic art. But an art that surpasses nihilism. Or better, and to speak like Nietzsche, art with a hammer that practices, and then reverses and reevaluates, nihilism. Isn’t that what we call active nihilism? Or hope?

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Translated from French by Sara Phenix.

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Bernard-Henri Levy is one of France's most famed philosophers, a journalist, and a bestselling writer. He is considered a founder of the New Philosophy movement and is leading thinker on religious issues, genocide, and international affairs. His most recent book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, discusses political and cultural affairs as an ongoing battle against the inhumane.