Bruce L. Edelstein teaches, serves as Coordinator for Graduate Programs and Advanced Research and, since 2010, is also the member of the academic advisory committee responsible for the arts and humanities curriculum at New York University Florence. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1995 after completing a dissertation on the patronage of Duchess of Florence Eleonora di Toledo, a reflection of his broader interest in mechanisms of court patronage and the exercise of female authority in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy. He has held teaching positions at the Florida State University Florence Study Center, Syracuse University in Italy and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and curatorial positions at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass. During the academic year 2001-2002, he was a fellow at the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti. Recent publications include articles on Eleonora di Toledo’s investment policy, the typology of the Albertian hortus, the hydraulic system of the lost Neapolitan villa of Poggioreale as a model for sixteenth-century Medici gardens, the iconography of Abundance in the courtly persona of Eleonora di Toledo and the mid- sixteenth-century appearance and function of the Camera Verde in the Palazzo Vecchio. At present, he is completing a book on the early history of the Boboli Gardens.
What does Dialogue mean to you?
To me, a dialogue is essentially about exchange. That exchange may be verbal and, when it is, should be predicated on mutual respect and the willingness to listen to the person with whom we are engaged in that dialogue. As an historian of art, however, I also think of dialogues taking place non-verbally, for example, between two works of art. Of course, in these cases, it is really the artist who is in dialogue with a contemporary or predecessor; each of their works then constitutes the form of expression that engages with the other. In order to qualify as an exchange, however, I think such cases should not be limited to simple questions of influence, but should entail some kind of give and take, in which there is some form of response on both sides. By opening up the concept of dialogue to embrace non-verbal forms of communication, we open ourselves to possibilities of dialogue where language or culture might appear to be insurmountable barriers.
What does culture mean today and how has it changed over time?
This is a deep question about identity in the contemporary world. What culture meant years ago was something very different: fine arts and performing arts, rarefied social and cultural environments shared by an elite. Culture today still encompasses those things, but is also about social identity, the culture of social groups and ethnic groups, and how these groups manifest their identity through different forms of expression, which might not reflect what we have traditionally thought of as culture. This has deeply affected how we think about cultural patrimony, how it should be preserved, what should be preserved, how it should be protected, and who owns it. These are questions that are in a constant state of evolution and flux. And they are at the forefront of understanding who we are as a society as we confront our ideas about our own culture with changing ideas about the culture of other peoples. It’s a deeply philosophical question. I don’t think there is an answer right now. Historical notions of culture were more fixed and defined. We have been in a new phase of defining what constitutes culture and we may never again have a fixed idea of what constitutes culture. That is not something that is negative; it may be something positive. It might reflect an expanding, more democratic and inclusive notion of what constitutes culture. This is in flux too because what constitutes a recognized form of expression has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Not in small part due to radical changes in technology. Even in the very limited field of the visual arts, when we think about the traditional canon we think about painting and sculpture, but we have evolved into people working in media that were never even imagined before: video art, installations, land art. These forms of expression are quite clearly cultural products and manifest various artists’ desires to communicate through those forms. Although there is no question they conform to historic ideas of culture, they use techniques that wouldn’t have been recognized in the past as valid forms of expression.
Do you see some similarities between what culture meant during the Renaissance and today?
I do see some similarities, because our notion of what constituted Renaissance culture narrowed over the centuries as a canon was formed in Western European culture that recognized only certain forms of art as fine art: we’ve excluded what often were the more valued forms of artistic expression during that period. For example, when we think about the Renaissance we tend to think about great works of painting and sculpture. But during the Renaissance works executed in the medium of mosaic or tapestry were far more valuable, although those came to be seen more as craft than as art over time and have only been recouped relatively recently.
Do Americans and Europeans think about culture differently?
I think that our perception of the difference between how Europeans and Americans think about culture is much greater than it actually is. One significant difference is that Europeans tend to think that states and political systems should support culture in ways that most Americans do not. As a result, there is a broad perception that culture is valued more highly in European societies than in American society. I think that any real differences have diminished as we have seen the world become a more networked place, a more global place in which there are ever fewer distinctions between what defines national identity around the world. The distinction now is not so much between Americans and Europeans but between different sectors within the same societies. What role culture plays in contemporary society changes dramatically based on socio-economic background and education and I think those distinctions are probably more dramatic within individual European nations and within America than they are between America and Europe.
Are Europeans more attached to a traditional canon than Americans are?
The answer to this question changes depending on where you are in Europe and where you are within the individual countries that make up Europe. I think you find bastions of a kind of conservative notion of what culture is in less cosmopolitan locations. But where you have metropolises I think that what constitutes the culture of the elite is very similar to what it constitutes for the elite in America. And I think this is all part of the process of the internationalization of what makes an artistic superstar. The great stars of artistic production of theater, film, architectural production are names that are known around the world and that superstar status is recognized only when those names are recognized globally. That means that their artistic production is recognized whether you are in New York, Mumbai or London. Over and over, the same names come up and are recognized as representing the contemporary understanding of what constitutes culture.
The question about whether America is a more experimental place for culture is an interesting one. I think it certainly was a more experimental place for culture and American patrons of the arts and collectors were more receptive in the second half of the 20th century to the use of technologically innovative art forms as valid means of expression. I think some of those innovations happened more dramatically and more quickly in American society but I think again that that has changed. The art market and what moves developments in artistic production in all forms are so internationalized it would be hard to identify a particular national environment that produces innovation more than local environments where there are greater opportunities for exchange, experimentation, and greater support for those kinds of activities. Again I think you will find them in cosmopolitan environments regardless of where those metropolises are located nationally.
Does the cultured person still exist?
This goes back to how we define culture today and do we still have a definition of the cultured person. When we used the phrase historically it referred to that kind of elite form of high culture that had a monopoly on how culture was defined. And when we ask ourselves today if the cultured person exists it begs the question what culture are we defining. When we think about what defines a cultured person we move away from the elitist notion. We wouldn’t want to define a cultured person that way any longer. Our definition is much more based on a cosmopolitan world view, a deeply informed and critical world view; those are the ideal hopes and aspirations for the educated individual. I don’t think we can make a distinction between the cultured person and who the educated person will be in contemporary society. That is somebody who has a strong capacity for critical thinking, is receptive to influences around the globe and is interested in understanding the world around him or herself.
What is the relationship between culture and politics?
This is a question we have asked ourselves many times in the context of La Pietra Dialogues. We asked it officially in the Dialogue Ethics, Law and Culture but it is a question that has been asked unofficially among myself and several participants in LPD, related to a wide variety of subjects over time. Behind the scenes, I’ve had the privilege of visiting different parts of Florence with LPD participants to discuss the nexus between culture and politics and it has been a great privilege to discuss this issue with people who come at it from very different points of view, not necessarily the historical or art historical mode of looking at works of art, architecture, public spaces, but thinking about those things in terms of analogies to contemporary issues and policy questions.
Culture and politics have always been deeply intertwined in Western culture. There is no question about that. In ancient culture, medieval culture, and renaissance culture, art always existed with some function in mind. There was no such thing as art for art’s sake. That doesn’t mean that art wasn’t appreciated for its inherent aesthetic values, it certainly was, but that art always served some function, transmitted some message, communicated some meaning. And those messages were almost inevitably if not directly political, always intertwined with the politics of the moment in which it was created. All art forms are cultural artifacts that are repositories for the history of the culture in which they were made and that history is determined by the politics of those moments. Here in Florence we have fantastic places to see this. One of the great monuments of Medieval and Renaissance Florence is the town hall; it is the seat of the city government but it has always been a place for the highest artistic output. Every great artist in Florence either worked there or desired to work there. The works that were created there were direct reflections of the specific political systems that were in place and changed over time. Although following the Romantic period the concept of art for art’s sake emerged and artistic production became more about expression, and in the post Freudian era about personal revelation, I think culture and politics are never separate today. Even the most personal art forms have been potential mine fields of political controversy in contemporary society.
We could take Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, which were shown here some years ago next to works by Michelangelo – a real dialogue between the past and the present – those photographs were the subject of heated controversy in the US in the 1980s. They were photographs that did not purport to have an intended political content. They purported to have an aesthetic content, a direct expression of personal identity, but they became embroiled in political debates at the time. Of course, culture is always dependent on the economy and the economy is so deeply intertwined with governments and their behavior, I don’t think that we will ever separate out culture from politics. They are inevitably and inextricably intertwined. This is potentially to the great benefit of politics. That is, the most provocative forms of cultural production cause us to question who we are and what our role in society is and those are questions one hopes that thinking politicians will ask themselves all over the world.
Tell me about your experience visiting some places around Florence with participants in our Politics Dialogue
The very interesting thing is that when you are deeply engaged with the American political system – the current state of American politics – it’s easy to forget that the roots of that political system and the ideals that informed it were formed here, they derive from notions of democracy that developed in this civic humanist culture of Florence at the beginning of the 15th century . And to be able to stand inside of the buildings and public spaces that are most closely associated with the enactment of that political system, its creation, its functioning or malfunctioning, is an opportunity to reflect on the origins of the functioning and malfunctioning of the current American political system. These extraordinary policy makers and political analysts were making analogies thinking about these connections and suggesting others. It’s extremely interesting as you start to look at public art in Florence, how late medieval and early Renaissance art is informed by the notion of Florence as a new Athens or a new Rome and the changing concept reflects changing ideas about its government and how it should be organized. These fundamental notions of what constitutes a democracy, what constitutes a republic, or what constitutes an oligarchy or an autocratic state, were experimented with here in Florence over the centuries in a way that is constantly provocative to us as foils for understanding political systems today. I think there was a certain amount of that for all of the participants. And the opportunity to look at famous works of art, which we, art historians, tend to look at and not necessarily think about the fact that they were created to express very strong political arguments. Works of art like Donatello’s or Michelangelo’s Davids cannot be separated from their political context and their time. And yet we tend to see them as works of art, “museified,” and divorced from their meaning.
Do we have an equivalent today? Is there something in our recent memory that served the same function?
When we think of art and what makes for valid culture today we expect it not to communicate an explicit, political meaning. This is not true of the past. And where it does communicate an explicit meaning of that sort we tend to think of it as ersatz or kitsch. I’m thinking for example of the kind of bombastic portrait sculptures – like the sculptures of Sadam Huusein that came down in Iraq – those were works of art that were made according to the finest standards of Italian Renaissance technique and the bronzes were actually cast here in Tuscany in Pietrasanta. So they have a long and prestigious heritage in terms of craftsmanship. But I think very few people would have thought of those as expressions of high culture and I don’t think anyone was scandalized by their destruction. Whereas I think the entire world was scandalized by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or the damage to the archeological museum in Iraq.
So what is the difference? What does a work like that capture in the public imagination?
I think it suggests that our notions of what constitutes culture are in deep flux and something that we discard, or disrespect entirely today may be considered a perfectly valid form of culture tomorrow. It’s so hard to know today. This is one of the great challenges of the moment: understanding the extraordinary variety of what constitutes culture for different societies around the world.