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Venice vs. Huck Finn's Frog: A Contemporary Quest For True Civilization

The Italian city's decision to take away a modern sculpture of "wonder" says more about the present than the past.

"Boy With Frog" by Charles Ray
"Boy With Frog" by Charles Ray
Francesco Bonami


VENICE - We already knew that financial support for culture in Italy is drying up. But this is different.

The news has arrived at the Punta della Dogana, which used to house Venice’s customs house, and has been transformed into a contemporary art museum by French luxury goods mogul and art collector François Pinault.

At this singular location, where the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal merge, stands a sculpture by American artist Charles Ray called Ragazzo con la rana ("Boy With Frog"). The sculpted child and amphibian have been gazing out at Venice since 2009. But in a few days, the sculpture will have to pack its bags and leave because the city council didn’t renew its permesso di soggiorno residence permit.

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Charles Ray's "Boy With Frog" - Photo: Fondation François Pinault

What led Venice Mayor Giorgio Orsoni to hand the statue its eviction notice? Some Venetians prefer what had been standing there before: a 19th-century streetlamp. Once again, a administrative cowardice trumps culture. An old street lamp instead of a work of art?

Leading the anti-frog crusade is Franco Miracco, a former director of the Venice Biennale who has also been an advisor to various Italian culture ministers. According to Miracco, the work of the American artist is just a sign of the imperialism of François Pinault – the Napoleon of contemporary art, who has taken over the Venetian Republic.

Miracco seems to believe that enriching the city with modern culture is the same as plundering it. Venice is Venice thanks to the Venetians who, centuries ago, commissioned the work of great artists, for the enjoyment of generations to come. Miracco and his posse want to deport Boy With Frog because they are convinced, wrongly, that having a sculpture in that particular place is outrageous – the streetlamp that preceded it was put there by the Doges ruling the city long before there even was electricity.

Ray designed the statue for that specific location. He was inspired by Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn. In the book, Huck hears the noise of the Mississippi waters and the frogs underneath a starry sky, and feels an incredible sense of wonder. A wonder that the millions of tourists who come from all over the world feel when they see the magic that Venice offers them.

Cultural blindness

Maybe the anti-frog crusaders don’t know this, or maybe they just won't listen. All they see is modern art and that’s reason enough to cast it off. The boy in the sculpture is on the cusp of maturity and seems like he is about to cross over from the ancient to the contemporary – a step that Venice is stubbornly refusing to take. Ray brings the past and present together in this piece – his work shares an aesthetic with the ancient Greek statues, but with a more modern subject.

If they had said that the sculpture had been found in the Ionian Sea, on a shipwreck from the 4th century B.C., it no doubt would have been welcomed with open arms. What’s more, if the street lamp had been presented as a work of modern art at the time -- which in theory it was -- all hell would have broken loose!

Photo: albertoniolo via Instagram

The most disturbing thing about the situation is the blindness – cultural, civil, and social – by those who are opposing something that is enlightening and educational, when it should be lauded and praised. It’s incredible that these kind of irrational reactions are being taken seriously by the public, especially just a few weeks before Venice returns as the epicenter of contemporary art with its Biennale annual contemporary art exhibition.

Anyone who has seen Ray’s sculpture in all its glory at the Punta della Dogana can’t help but be fascinated by it. We shouldn’t have to decide between the importance of the past and the present, but between the values of civilization – which are always modern – and those that are barbaric -- which are always retrograde.

A lamppost being a symbol of cultural darkness seems truly paradoxical.

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