Being Made Otiosus: Cicero’s Caesar at the Venice Biennale

In the recent issue of Artforum, I just read an interview with Christine Macel, the curator of the 57th Venice Biennale, in which she described a key concept of the exhibition (called Viva Arte Viva):

I’m very interested in the tension in the artist’s life between production and self-reflection, moments of otium, to use the Latin term. Otium is often improperly translated as “leisure,” but it really designates a kind of free time, a moment of idleness, a nonactivity that is also somehow generative, in which you are basically nourishing yourself. In the classical tradition, otium was seen as a necessity in everyday life, in balance with negotium, which is improperly translated today as “business” but which really means the world of the polis. Politics in the noble sense: being responsible for public life, for the interest of the commons.

This description of the Latin noun otium as a productive or generative use of spare time (contrasted with negotium) is an intriguing appropriation for contemporary art, grounded in how it is employed by ancient Roman authors. For example, when poets like Catullus or Virgil describe the conditions for writing and song, whether for the urbane lover (e.g. Catullus 50) or the pastoral shepherd (e.g. Virgil’s Eclogues), they are self-reflexively describing their own otium as aristocratic literary artists. Nonetheless, there are others sides to this otium, one of which exemplifies its potential for excess and indulgence, that leaves the writer open to attack, as expressed at the end of (and as response to) Catullus’ Sappho ‘translation’ (Catullus 51):

Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
Otio exsultas nimiumque gestis.
Otium et reges prius et beatas
Perdidit urbes.

Leisure Catullus, is trouble for you:
you exult in leisure and run riot excessively:
Leisure has destroyed kings before
And blessed cities.

To take one example from the list of artists for the Biennale, I could imagine this critical version of otium being productive for framing the work of Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović (who died last year). For example, his 1978 photographic series Artist at Work:

But there is a more timely aspect to otium that I very much hope that the Venice Biennale addresses, one in which the free time of production is mobilized to directly critique the very conditions for its existence in restrictive and authoritarian politics. The most obvious case of this type of otium is found in Seneca, writing under Nero and idealizes the role of otium as a space for philosophizing, as a direct result of the restrictions and dangers of the whims of the emperor. More appropriate to the present, however (in spite of all the legitimate analogies between our Nero and the real Nero), is the role of otium in a letter by Cicero at the end of the Roman Republic in reaction to the rise of Julius Caesar.

In July 46 BCE, after his defeat of the remaining Pompeians in Africa, Caesar returned to Rome and assumed the dictatorship for the third time. Unlike the previous two occasions, this dictatorship (which was a legitimate position within the Roman republic during times of military crisis) this position was renewed for the unprecedented period of ten years and would, in 44 BCE, lead to his being granted the role for life (and beyond as a god!) which ultimately provoked his assassination. It is during this time, Cicero had been writing back and forth to his friend Papirius Paetus, an Epicurean who was worried about Cicero’s outspokenness against Caesar and his supporters. Cicero responds by telling Paetus not to worry about him:

As for the man, in whose power is all power, I see nothing to fear, except that everything is insecure, once the rule of law has been abandoned, nor can the future nature of anything be guaranteed, which depends on another’s will, not to say, whim.

Cicero proceeds to tell Paetus of a strategy that he has adopted in which he made the decision to invite some young Romans who were supporters of Caesar to attend informal oratory classes at his villa in Tusculum. It is withing this context that Cicero writes to Paetus on hearing the news that Caesar was returning from Africa:

While I was unoccupied (otiosus) in my villa in Tusculum because I had sent my students to meet him [Julius Caesar] so that they might ingratiate me with their friend as much as possible, I received your most charming letter, from which I infer that you approve of my decision. Just as the tyrant Dionysius, after he was driven out of Syracuse, is said to have opened a school in Corinth, so I have begun to hold school (as it were) after the abolishment of the courts and the loss of my public kingdom. What can I say? I too enjoy this decision. For I reap the benefits.

Here Cicero describes himself as literally otiosus in his otium , since already finding himself far from public affairs and leading his oratory school from his villa, the absence of his Caesarian students mades him all the more idle. But not so idle that he cannot write this cunning little letter which perversely identifies its writer with the Dionysius the tyrant. Cicero uses the opportunity of the letter to ironically invert his and Caesar’s roles, the man of letters and the tyrant. The implication being that whereas the Syracusans drove our Dionysius to found a republic, Caesar has destroyed the forum and Republican institutions (like the law-courts) to set up a kingdom.

At Venice this summer I very much hope that we find artistic representatives of this kind of otium, and not just a space for creativity aside from the negotium of protest. Hopefully the curators have emphasized this idea of free time to allow artists’ opportunities for cunning critique of the increasingly authoritarian politics of our present moment. To make this point, consider as an analogy to Cicero’s letter the juxtaposition of these two works by Stilinović:

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