Defying the Straight Line

He couldn't stand straight lines and right angles, which aren't much found in nature. Things not made by us mostly curve. Nothing worthwhile is plum, level or square.

So observed Gaetano Pesce, the great Italian designer, who died at age 84.

From this man's brow burst organic, protoplasmic designs for things like bookcases and sofas, blazing with intense, saturated color.

One of them went supernova: the zaftig UP5 armchair, dubbed La Mama, was a shout-out to feminism. Women, he felt, are "victims of male prejudices and fears and stupidity." (As a young macho guy, he too was guilty of that same pig-headedness, he admitted, before he got knocked off that horse by a woman he adored.)

He kicked against a world the rest of us live in without giving it a second thought.

The design of modern cities appalled him. He chided the architects: what you've built is "the very image of non-freedom." In an exhibit for the Louvre, he made office towers out of meat, which gradually rotted until the stench became overpowering.

He started out nonlinear and just got gooier, until by the time he was in his eighties he was pretty much just liquid. "As liquid as time," he said.

Even his copies weren't copies.

Pesce once made a series of chairs called Nobody's Perfect. He poured the resin himself. No two are alike. Nothing worthwhile is repeatable.

What Pesce was up to, mostly, was "counterdesign," as one gallery owner put it. Unpredictability drives the bus. He aspired to achieve a state of Complete Incoherence – which happens to be the name of his biography.

There's really no categorizing Pesce's work. The only thing that binds it all is a feeling, akin maybe to Werner Herzog's "ecstatic truth."

"Come to him wanting a flower vase, and he will give you suffering and pain and the joy of broken bondage," the art critic Glenn Adamson, his Boswell, wrote. "He will give you agony and ecstasy .... These are big ideas, too big for history as the ancients knew..."

Adamson dubbed Pesce "The Prince of Disorder."

In the '60s, young in his career, Pesce staged a piece of performance art. He advertised that everyone who attended would get a "free portrait." Tons of people showed up. Pesce was as good as his word – kind of. Organizers passed around a mirror.

"His work can best be understood in terms of flow, without origin nor destination: just raw energy, newly configured in each moment," Adamson said.

Rationalism didn't really compute for him. Pesce's work, Adamson said, "shows you the violence that logic can do to an instinctive human being."

Pesce said it many times: "I bore easily." Yes: he bores easily right into the skulls of folks who are captive to the straight line.

"He posits wholly new ways of living just to see what that might look like," Adamson said.

Pesce's death leaves a troubling void. Solving the world's problems is going to take his kind of divergent thinking.

Rene Girard said humans are constantly looking for people they can copy. But a truly original mind doesn't work like that. It's not looking to tribe up among "people like me" ... instead, it seeks out difference. It craves it, the way sailors long at sea crave limes – like it's a missing, life-saving nutrient in your diet.

"If we are the same, we cannot talk, because there is nothing to say," Pesce told a journalist in 2022. "But if you and I are different, there's a lot to exchange."

That is how the Third Force is going to work, out there in the world. People from different backgrounds, different politics, different strata, are going to come together in the common cause of keeping power in check, keeping the world honest ... It's that idea – call it intellectual humility – that says, 'You don't agree with me? Well now ... we're talking.'

That means the Third Force is going to be cutting against the current of the way life is organized now, in the digisphere. Social media pushes together people who think alike. The Third Force works exactly the opposite way. It's the ingredient we've been waiting for to confound the algorithms.

People whose opinion about something cannot be predicted by their opinions about other things – that is the sign of a truly independent mind.

And true artists will hold greater and greater sway. Because they are the ones still standings as the bots cut down the poppy fields.

– Harry Flood

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