It's time to ditch the moldy, two-century-old French rallying cry "l'art pour l'art." Painting and sculpture need to do more than bask in the rarified air of museums. They need to tie into urgent issues of the day.

That's what Uffizi museum director Eike Schmidt told the press. "It's absolutely our mission to tackle social issues where we can, otherwise what is our sense?"

Picasso had an answer to Schmidt's question in a 1945 interview: "Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It's an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy." What enemy?

To Picasso, it was Germany during the Spanish Civil War. To Schmidt, at the moment, it's violence against women. Exhibitions should challenge the "toxic social structures" lingering from the past, he said.

Schmidt points to the Uffizi's 17th-century sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a bust of Costanza Bonarelli, who was his lover. When she left him for another, he had her face slashed, leaving her left cheek deeply scarred. He made the bust while they were still together.

Art education

"This is a world-famous bust," Schmidt said, "but hardly anyone beyond the world of specialists knows her story." An exhibition of this sculpture should mention Bernini's attack, he said, because the artist didn't suffer a consequence.

Unless you count the consequence that Pope Urban VIII meted out. He told Bernini to get married. End of the story, but not for Constanza, who was labeled a whore and sent to a nunnery for four months.

A similar lack of accountability for a violent act against a woman occurred when the painter Agostino Tassi raped his pupil Artemesia Gentileschi.

Despite a four-month trial that found him guilty, the sentence – banishment from Rome – was never carried out.

Schmidt, intent on enlightening museumgoers about Constanza's story, displayed Bernini's bust of her next to images by contemporary photographer Ilaria Sagaria of women disfigured by acid attacks.

"I really wanted to make this connection," Schmidt said, "between a work of art that is really naively admired and contributes to the fame of Bernini [and] the very problematic side of Bernini that was socially accepted at the time."

Fresh focus

While this museum director ties a social issue to work in Uffizi's Old Master collection, political activists also see the power of museum art.

I'm thinking of the staged "die-in" at the Louvre in 2019 when climate-change activists protested the museum's acceptance of oil company support.

To protest, they laid under Gericault's painting "Raft of the Medusa." The grim vision of dead and dying sailors became their unspoken warning of death from flooding, fires, and drought due to climate change.

When it comes to global warming, there's a slew of paintings that activists might want to consider. Franz Marc's "Fate of the Animals" at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, comes to mind. Its jagged intersecting fragments suggest the destruction of nature, if not the world.

Maybe art museum collections can even stir anti-vaxxers to take their shots.

I'm thinking of Max Beckmann's painting at the Kunstsammlung in Dusseldorf jammed packed with distorted, angular figures pushing into each other.

Activists could tie Beckmann's painting to the look of ICUs if they continue to overflow with Covid patients. Harsh lines and coarse texture intensify the ugliness of the scene.