Over the past week I have been reading a lot about Gaetano Pesce's Maestà Sofferente (which translates as Suffering Majesty) and how it sparked outrage amongst feminists in Milan. Commissioned for Milan Design Week ( 9 – 14 April 2019), the sculpture in question is probably being taken down as I write this. The debate surrounding this controversial piece will surely outlast the time that it spent exhibited in Milan's city centre.
Let’s take a step back. Resembling the torso of a woman covered in arrows and surrounded by several heads of wild animals, Pesce’s monumental sculpture was unveiled in Piazza del Duomo exactly a week ago to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his iconic Up armchair, originally inspired by silhouettes of fertility goddesses and paired with an ottoman resembling a ball and chain. As the designer explained, the chair was conceived as the image of a prisoner; “women suffer because of the prejudice of men. The chair was supposed to talk about this problem.”
The Italian feminist group Non Una Di Meno protested against the artwork, holding placards with the slogan “Ceci n’est pas une femme” (this is not a woman), texts by the US art activists Guerrilla Girls, and the disturbing statistic of femicide in Italy. In a statement on its Facebook page, the group wrote: “A woman is for the umpteenth time represented as an inert body and victim, without ever calling into question the actor of the violence.” According to the group, this is made worse by the fact that the woman isn't represented as a human being, but rather (and once again) as an object.
I understand that women don't need to be further objectified: we get plenty of that on a daily basis. But let’s keep in mind that, whether we like the sculpture or not, we are talking about art: it is impossible to give it a straightforward, unambiguous interpretation of a given piece. I personally didn’t feel in any way offended by it. I didn’t really like it, nor did I find it particularly effective in protesting sexism. Even though I feel very strongly about gender based violence, looking at this piece didn’t stir any emotions in me. However, I fail to see how, as Non Una Di Meno put it, the sculpture perpetuates violence against women.
I am a feminist, and most people who know me would expect me to agree with the movement, which I follow closely online, and whose work and activism I deeply respect; however, even though I understand their argument, I don't feel this outrage myself. The artist has already explained the intent behind his piece, and there is objectively no reason to doubt his words. Of course, this doesn’t automatically mean that he has successfully achieved his goal. But what I would like to emphasise is that what can be seen as offensive, can also be interpreted as provocative.
This isn’t in any way a criticism of whoever felt the need to protest against Pesce’s work: I am honestly pleased to see women expressing their disagreement and outrage, and it doesn’t in any way surprise me that an artwork is causing such controversy -- this isn’t the first time it happens and it definitely won’t be the last. I don’t know what is the correct reaction to Pesce’s work (I don’t think there is one), I can only express my own view on the subject. The only thing I can say with certainty is that, given the topic, it would have been more interesting and relevant to see the perspective of a woman artist. Maybe next year?