There is one image with an extraordinary symbolic power that characterises the long and dramatic 20th century, it is the Angelus Novus, painted by Paul Klee, which looks back on the rubble of history. With his restless, visionary, critical and profoundly melancholic intelligence, Walter Benjamin‘s intense writing is worth re-reading to reflect on how to link historical knowledge with the need to plan for the future, in other words, how to remember and build more balanced civil, social and economic structures at the same time. Benjamin wrote on Klee’s painting “an angel is looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling up wreckage on wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole that which has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise. It has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress”.
Today, under pressure from dramatic contemporary events (the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, the worsening problems linked to Climate Change, the Covid19 pandemic and the serious global recession it has caused), we have to insist on the urgency of a “paradigm shift” in terms of economic and social development. We must critically review the idea of “progress” (as Aldo Schiavone does very effectively in a book published a few months ago by Il Mulino) and also rethink the political, economic and cultural choices linked to prospects for development. To recover from the Covid19 crisis, the EU is urging us to design such development to be sustainable, focusing the Recovery Plan on the green economy and the digital economy, and above all, focusing on the younger generations, including schools, long-term training and knowledge.
In this respect, another piece of literature is worth re-reading to find food for thought in the “classics” of the last century. In 1926, John Maynard Keynes wrote in “The end of Laissez-faire” “I think that capitalism, wisely managed, can probably be made more efficient for attaining economic ends than any alternative system yet in sight, but that in itself is in many ways extremely objectionable. Our problem is to come up with a social organisation which will be as efficient as possible without offending our notions of a satisfactory way of life”.
The evocative imagery of Klee’s Angelus Novus interpreted by Benjamin and the strategy of Keynes-style reformism as the foundations of a better corporate culture, that focuses on sustainable development, resonated last week during the seminar on corporate heritage and digital transformation. The event was organised by Museimpresa with talks from James M. Bradburne, director general of the Pinacoteca di Brera, Eleonora Lorenzini, director of the Observatory for Digital Innovation in Heritage and Culture at the Milan Polytechnic, Samanta Isaia, operations director at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Marco Amato, director of the Lavazza Museum and Paola Dubini, professor of Management at Bocconi University.
The basic idea is to use the technologies and languages of the digital world to enrich museum and live cultural experiences (from autumn onwards, when the vaccine roll-out will hopefully enable us to attend meetings, travel and visit museums, theatres, music venues and cultural centres again) and to enhance the public and private cultural heritage of institutions and companies, as a powerful engine for quality economic and social development. Linking memory and innovation, the heritage of the “beautiful and well-made”, scientific research and technological change to achieve a profound renewal in the quality of life and work.
An original fusion of the Angelus Novus that changes the way we look to the future, and the Keynesian lesson of an “open society” liberalism with a strong social conscience.
During the Museimpresa seminar, which featured a wealth of technologically innovative experiences and suggestions for cultural strategies, it was argued that all of this can be found in the experience and plans of Italian businesses, which make culture and sustainability a pillar of their competitiveness. Museums and corporate archives are providing up-to-date evidence of this.
Italy is creativity, enterprising spirit and the sense of an open and inclusive community. It is participation. Even in these times of sickness and pain, it has revealed a social capital of extraordinary value, rooted in tradition, the genius loci of beauty and “doing well”, combined with a strong innovative spirit. To use words dear to Sergio Mattarella, President of the Italian Republic, who insisted on “seriousness, responsibility and solidarity”, our duty today is to “remember”. It’s also necessary to build a future, a better future for the Next Generation. This is a broader cultural challenge.
Doing, producing, preserving and innovating all share a lowest common denominator, that is culture. The real common thread that runs through the Italian system, a strong point in our open and dialectic identity, and of our international competitiveness. This heritage that is the envy of the world and today, more than ever before, it is a catalyst for reconstruction and development.
Polytechnic culture, science and world-class research. Medical, pharmaceutical, robotics and mechatronics companies, hi-tech universities and companies are all committed to protecting public goods such as health and knowledge, in a civil culture where public institutions, private companies and social enterprises from the voluntary sector and, more generally, the third sector work together.
Doing and telling. What’s needed is a new way of telling company stories, which must be relaunched, above all by enhancing the value of our museums and archives, which are all rich in stories that can inspire the younger generations. We have experienced this during these months of lockdown. It is thanks to digital technologies and languages that it has been possible to continue to bring corporate heritage to life, and to use digital representation to replace the things it has been impossible to do in person. Such a cultural turning point, in terms of format and content, should not be lost but should represent a new collaborative environment for cultural stakeholders and companies.
As Federculture suggests, the Recovery Plan could be an essential tool. It could leverage business culture, in the sense of discipline, the ability to “do and do well” and to address the challenges generated by the pandemic and recession. It’s a broad vision, much like the one shared by the entrepreneurs who made Italy great, starting with Adriano Olivetti, Enrico Mattei’s Eni, Pirelli and a long list of small and medium-sized companies. Fewer words and committees and more “producing”, “transforming” and “telling”.
Corporate culture is not just empty rhetoric. In practice, it is a key player in the moral and civil recovery of the country. The ideas of progress and development can draw new strength from it. The Angelus Novus can finally spread its wings more freely towards the future.