Emanuela Pezzetta*

Caravaggio / Dalla Venezia

Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, completed during the early 16th century, is one of the most intense and dramatic interpretations ever done in depiction of this well-known biblical episode. From a leaden, atemporal background, a grazing light brings out David’s youthful physique as he holds Goliath’s decapitated head in his left hand while gripping his victorious sword in his right. David, with a stance expressing a kind of slight forlornness, reveals an intense and grave look, desolate in the pity he feels for the bloody head that has been ravaged by his savage blows. It is widely agreed that the depiction of Goliath is actually Caravaggio’s self-portrait, in which he portrays himself in the role of a victim. On the sword, the tool that brings about the triumph of good over evil, there is the inscription «H.AS O S», which recalls the Augustinian motto humilitas occidit superbiam (humility kills pride) and it is precisely in light of Saint Augustine’s maxim that David with the Head of Goliath must be interpreted. Caravaggio, who was guilty of murdering Ranuccio Tomassoni, depicts himself in the guise of the decapitated head of Goliath the sinner, as if Caravaggio had already been executed. The pitying gaze of his executioner is a Christ-like expression of compassion and forgiveness: the tack that Caravaggio hoped that the Roman Catholic Church would take with him.
This premise is indispensable in understanding the meaning of the painting WHO KILLED CATTELAN?(1), which David Dalla Venezia has created for the 52nd edition of the Venice Biennale. He has portrayed himself in the act of holding Maurizio Cattelan’s decapitated head, which partially echoes David with the Head of Goliath,yet, unlike Caravaggio, he has not depicted himself as the beheaded sinner but as the executioner instead.

Contrasting Systems

WKC? constructs around the painting, conceived as a stand-alone element within the work, a ramification of meanings which make the pictorial object the expedient, the temporal circumstance upon which David Dalla Venezia puts into effect his reflections on the production of contemporary art. The structure employed here (the Biennale event linked to the WKC? event, which, in turn, is linked to the picture) causes the convergence, in a pictorial setting, of the dialectic contraposition between two divergent systems of artistic production: the system that one recognizes in and which is represented by the Biennale (Goliath/Cattelan) and the system that exists by virtue of its opposition to the latter (David/David Dalla Venezia). WKC? sets in motion a form of opposition to the Biennale’s institutional system. It challenges the Biennale’s preconceived notions as to authenticity, absolute originality, the singleness of an idea and shock value. These areas, as far as David Della Venezia is concerned, seem more like ethical assumptions which a creative mind must conform to in order to be institutionally recognized as being an artist rather than qualities that are in and of themselves intrinsic to a work of art. He sets these against, for instance, the practice of emulating a model, through which the authoriality of an old master is not debased. Instead, an artistic discourse is continued insofar as it is conceived of as being part of a shared heritage of expression and research which has still not been completely brought to an end but which can be carried on. Here then is the explanation of the foundation of the painting WKC? in Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath. Moreover, Caravaggio was also an individual who produced art through the medium of painting as traditionally understood, as set against contemporary practices in which the artist often delegates the accomplishment of his ideas to others, as Cattelan does. This clarifies why David Dalla Venezia depicts himself in the guise of a painter-faber with a brush in hand while looking with compassion upon the beheaded Cattelan, an artist who cannot execute his own works.

Two examples: Kitsch and Lowbrow

In WKC?, Dalla Venezia’s reflection on the institutional system of contemporary art is central to the piece. On this very subject, Rosalind Krauss remarks upon: “the growing importance in the art world of huge exhibitions: today there are biennial and triennial ones in Venice, Sao Paolo, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Gwangju, Seoul and Yokohama. Entire expositions are often given over to a confused juxtaposition of projects—photographs and texts, images and objects, videos and screens—and sometimes such effects are more chaotic than communicative: in these cases, comprehensibility as art is sacrificed”(2). Rejecting, as David Dalla Venezia does, the assumptions of institutional context means disqualifying the context in question and with it the enunciative act from which it stems. Denying to the large art exhibitions the validity to represent art also invalidates the institutionalization of the works on display as models of contemporary artistic production. Otherwise, art is not only what is offered in the big events, but it is also what is found outside of them. It is no coincidence that David Dalla Venezia often cites two movements that found their raison d’être in the contrasting of institutional systems: Kitsch and Lowbrow.
David Dalla Venezia finds some correspondence between his reflections and those of Odd Nerdrum, the theoretician of Kitsch. Among the dogmatic imperatives of Kitsch, as clearly laid out in Kitsch Dogmas(3), are: rejecting irony; always hearkening back to the old masters, “not because they are old, but because they are masters”; constantly turning to the past and always keeping in mind Greek art of the Hellenistic period and the baroque revival; shunning originality and setting against it the intensity of the subject, to be rendered by way of aesthetic beauty; not concerning oneself with keeping up with the times and satisfying requests. Hermann Broch, during the period between the two world wars, expounded upon the concept of Kitsch. In his opinion, Kitsch, as exclusively concentrated on an aesthetic plane, creates a system of imitation of past models that extrapolates solely upon their aesthetic quality, with a consequent loss of the ethical values that are central to the models in question. Broch’s firm conviction was that there must be a Manichean setting apart of art as something good from Kitsch as something evil within art, since, in his judgment, Kitsch, having been founded upon an aesthetic imperative of beauty (with the resulting loss of an ethical imperative), does not represent the world according to its actual appearance, but ignobly masks it with beauty. Kitsch is “the evil within the value system of art”(4). Despite his aversion towards it, Broch highlights how Kitsch stands in opposition to trendy art, an opposition that today has been made even more manifest in Odd Nerdrum’s theory; Kitsch is in a conflictual position with academies, universities, the state and with bureaucracy. It considers art to be that which is not accepted as art.
Another movement often cited by David Dalla Venezia is Lowbrow. Born in the late 1960s in the underground atmosphere of southern California’s surf culture, Lowbrow, right from the start, has adopted the tactic of desecrating, for entertainment value, conventional norms. It puts forth icons from popular culture of the lowest kind. Lowbrow’s concern is not about being recognized as an artistic movement by the institutional art world, but about being recognized by everyday people. The term Lowbrow stands in contrast to highbrow (used to indicate “high” culture), in reference to the low origins of a movement rooted in comic books, punk, street culture, tattoos and other California subcultures.
Kitsch and Lowbrow are two effective examples of genres that are capable of surviving outside of the institutional systems of contemporary art. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, according to whom the situation after the Second World War “can be described as being a negative theology: a continual dismantling of autonomous cultural practices, spaces and spheres and a perpetual intensification of assimilation and homogenization”(5), in his examination of where art is heading today and in his questioning whether the will survives in artists to create spaces outside of the standardized system of contemporary art, finds, in part, an answer in these examples.

Beauty and painting

In differentiating between the institutional context of the leading art events and the defying of their assumptions, David Dalla Venezia suggests the return of a certain model of beauty in the face of the contemporary tendency to celebrate the ephemeral through the anti-aesthetic and the ugly. In his view, beauty is understood as that which is capable of involving the senses in a pleasurable way. It is what acts on corporeal perceptions so as to cause a sensual and physical reaction. Artistic beauty confers upon the work an element of transition into the atemporal, a permanence of being. The painted image creates an illusion, it overcomes the limitation of the duration of the subject matter and crystallizes into a suspension of temporality. The emotional benefit deriving from a sensory involvement in artistic beauty provides the spectator with a permanence of being, a transition into the atemporal that, from David Dalla Venezia’s point of view, is possible only through the continuation of tradition—in his case, painting. 
The painting in WKC? is invested by David Dalla Venezia with a further meaning. The picture is the path by which mediation takes place between the phenomenonological world and the transcendent world. It is a sort of mounted window in a black niche through which a close dialogue is established with Being. Such a conception of artwork recalls Pavel Florensky’s notions on the tradition of the Russian icon: in its creation the artist brings neither his personality nor his interpretation (a typical aesthetic conception of the Western world), instead it is done by way of the transcendent world that, through contemplation, invests it and elevates it to the Absolute. The icon is rendered in such a way that a manifestation of the Absolute is produced in the icon. Thus, icons mediate between the tangible world of that which is given and the world of the divine. Tangentially, David Dalla Venezia’s work is also the bearer of such mediation. Being an artist is not an autonomous choice in life for him, but an inextricable condition of his being, a deterministic investiture which he cannot shirk. In contrast, as Cattelan sees it, art is a conscious decision. He has repeatedly stated, with an ironic countenance that makes him stand out, that he has chosen art because it requires little effort.

Dalla Venezia / Cattelan

As much as WKC? may seem, at first glance, to be a criticism of Cattelan, it must be underlined, however, that this in no way the intention of the artist, David Dalla Venezia. On the contrary, he considers Cattelan to be an intelligent and ironic contemporary artist who seeks out the sensational to the detriment of beauty and the sublime. Cattelan, therefore, incarnates what a contemporary artist is—a figure to whom Dalla Venezia is diametrically opposed. In WKC? he states: “it is also a kind of homage to a prime example of what I am not, what I do not want to be and what I cannot be—that is to say, a contemporary artist”.
At this point, we must also consider the aspects of Cattelan’s work that have made him, in the eyes of David Dalla Venezia, the epitome of the contemporary artist. Clearly, given the attention placed on large contemporary-art events in WKC?, the regular participation of Cattelan in the Venice Biennale (Lavorare è un brutto mestiere, 1993 (Working’s a Crap Job); Turisti, 1997 (Tourists); Mother, 1999; La Nona OraHollywood, 2001 (The Ninth Hour – Hollywood); Charlie, 2003) is the first reason and the one most taken for granted. To this must be added the repeated use of irony about both his identity as a human being and about his role as an artist, often achieved through the desecration of masters at the level of Joseph Beyus, Michael Ascher, Jannis Kounellis or Lucio Fontana. For Super-Noi (1992) (Super-Us), for example, Cattelan had his relatives and friends furnish physical descriptions of him to a police sketch artist in order to make portraits without knowing who the subject being described was. A schizophrenic exposition of different interpretations of Cattelan’s identity was the result. It was a sort of demystification of the superego of psychoanalysis. In La rivoluzione siamo noi (2000) (The Revolution is Us),an undersized wax doll with Cattelan’s features is hung up on a Marcel Breuer clothes hanger and is wearing a felt outfit. This was an installation meant to profane Joseph Beuys’ homonymous 1970 work. In Untitled (2001), Cattelan once again uses a wax doll with his physiognomy who has been thrown out as a thief from the holed floor of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum of Rotterdam. It is a declaration of his perpetual inclination to shatter every accepted standard.
Not to be forgotten is the documentary E’ morto Cattelan! Evviva Cattelan! (2006) (Cattelan’s Dead! Long Live Cattelan!). The film is a manipulation of reality in which Cattelan’s death is staged. From this event wrapped in mystery springs an investigation that is a celebration of the controversial artist’s life. WCK? really seems to want to provide this documentary with evidence of a virtual crime. The irreverent Cattelan, after desecrating the sacred cows of contemporary art, in WKC? is, in turn, the victim of the same mechanism with which he had so hedonistically mocked himself and art: defiled by another artist, he is virtually slain by the power of the tradition of the painter’s brush, a brush where there appears the eloquent inscription «H.ASOS».


1. Henceforth referred  to as ‘WKC?’.
2. Rosalind Krauss, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Arte dal 1900 – Modernismo, Antimodernismo, Postmodernismo (Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodemism), Zanichelli, 2006, p.667.
3. The Kitsch Dogmas published in Odd Nerdrum’s official website (www.nerdrum.com).
4. Title of the seventh essay in Hermann Brock, Il Kitsch, Einaudi, 1990.
5. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Arte dal 1900 – Modernismo, Antimodernismo, Postmodernismo, (Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodemism) Zanichelli, 2006, p. 673.


*Emanuela Pezzetta is currently completing her final year of study at the Scuola di Specializzazione dell’Arte dell’Università degli Studi di Udine (History of Art Specialization School at the University of Udine), where, on the strength of her thesis on “The Spread of British Sculpture in Italy through the Venice Biennale from 1948 to 1958”, she will receive an advanced degree. She was awarded her first degree in 2004 at the Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia di Udine (The School of Arts and Philosophy at the University of Udine). Her degree thesis was on “Beauty and Sensory Perception in Plotinus’ Enneads”. She is also the author of various publications (Testimonianza/Testimony, in the biannual TempoFermo no.001/2003, 2003; Percorsi sulla filosofia dell’arte/Paths in the Philosophy of Art, in the monthly L’architettura, cronache e storia/Architecture, Events and History, anno L no. 580 February 2004, Rome; Il Viatico per cinque secoli di pittura veneziana di R.Longhi: un’analisi linguistica, 2004 (A Viaticum for Five Centuries of Venetian Painting by R. Longhi: a Linguistic Analysis) in the periodical www.almanaccoindipendente.it; Intra/Extra moenia, in Palinsesti, catalogue of the exhibition, organized by Alessandro Del Puppo, Skira, 2006; Sefer Memisoglu, in the modern art magazine Juliet, January-February 2007) (Sefer Memisoglu, in Juliet: The Journal of Contemporary Art).