Text by Fiammetta Cesana

The most difficult practice in life is probably to find a reason for facts that escape our control and that end up changing everything we used to take for certain. Faced with uncontested and overwhelming power of what goes beyond our choices, we can only rely on the one thing that doesn’t allow for discussion, the beauty of wisdom. Finding connections and possible solutions to present issues through the reading of a wiseman who dealt with those of the past, is definitely essential to overcome the fear of uncertainties. But when the words and doubts of such wiseman find a perfect continuum with the questions emerging from the just as wise images of artists, then the anxiety of being unprepared to cope with contemporary chaos gets a further enemy. And if, moreover, the wiseman at stake is a woman, and so are many of the artists in which her thought extends, we can only remain even more fascinated and strengthened.

Hannah Arendt was one of the most influential post-war political theorists. Born in Germany in 1906, and naturalized in the United States after fleeing anti-Semitic persecutions, her writings in the 1960s and 1970s aroused much clamor and dissent – especially from the Jewish community which she belonged to – as well as admiration and wide following among the independent movements and counterculture youth. Arendt offers an unusual view of what public opinion limits to condemn without really asking why human beings come to commit such dreadful actions. Her reflections push us to look beyond the undeniable tragedy of historical events in order to understand their possible unexpressed causes. She investigates the man behind the politician, the fragile nature behind the evil idea, the unsettling conviction of extraneousness behind the evidence of responsibility.

Exercise of Thinking_Dujourie, Lili. Hommage à...IV, 1972. Courtesy of ARGOS
Lili Dujourie, Hommage à...IV, 1972. Courtesy of ARGOS

Learning to scrutinize the today’s facts, 60 years later, through the lenses that Arendt provided us means delving into the superficial guise of the news we constantly receive. It means being able to formulate a critical thought towards what one risks taking for granted. In a 2020 culture where public space is reduced to sterile cyber skirmishes – whose fighters often hide behind unidentified profiles – the scholar’s observations are still deeply valid and perhaps among the best modern tools to prevent the consequences of the flattening of information. Arendt doesn’t give answers on how justice should have been done in the aftermath, nor does he anticipate the confusing management of the ongoing global health and terrorist crisis, instead, she makes us participate, today as then, in a more open and interesting reasoning than merely categorizing events in white or black.

Exercise of Thinking_Ettinger, Bracha. Eros—Pieta, n.1, 2015-2020. Courtesy of the artist
Bracha Ettinger, Eros-Pieta, n.1, 2015-2020. Courtesy of the artist

Her 1968 work ‘Between Past and Future: eight exercises in political thought’ will be the protagonist of an exhibition at the Richard Saltoun Gallery in London, in which the works of 20 artists, mostly women, are exhibited as representative of the thought of the American historian. 

Exercise of Thinking_Armajani, Siah. City Center no 1, 1997
Siah Armajani, City Center no 1, 1997. Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery

From the Iranian Siah Armajani to the South African Vivienne Koorland, from the Britain Peter Kennard to the Belgian Lili Dujourie, till the Isreali Bracha L. Ettinger and the Italian Marinella Senatore… the international artists on show, although their operas date back to the last century, deal with current hot topics such as social alienation, displacement, prejudice, the idea of community, of memory, and femininity, and like Arendt, they don’t provide answers but, contrary, raise questions to make us practice in the understanding of the issues. The Concept of History, What is Authority?, What is Freedom?… the various chapters of ‘On Hannah Arendt: Eight Proposals for Exhibition’, comprising a variety of art and media forms, are curated in such a way as to visually extend the teachings of the professor’s work whose philosophical objective ‘is to gain experience in how to think’.

Exercise of Thinking_Kennard, Peter. Stop 32, 1968-76. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery
Exercise of Thinking_Kennard, Peter. Stop 32, 1968-76. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery