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Building Consensus
A Brief History of Forced Corporatism

TTommaso Trini, Achille Bonito Oliva, Germano Celant, Filiberto Menna and, in the background, Marcello Rumma, at the opening of the exhibition Arte povera più Azioni povere, Antichi Arsenali, Amalfi, October 1968

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Angela Vettese

What is art criticism, what is it for, what are its methods, what potential does it have, and why is it that when a polemic arises ─ as we recently saw in Il Sole 24 Ore ─ things immediately become so inflamed?

Art criticism emerged only recently ─ a couple of centuries ago, at most. It was then that a group of specialists was delegated the right to explain what a work of art is about and how it deals with its object: whether in an innovative and coherent key, whether linked to certain legacies of the past and not others, and whether the mere observation of the work ought to be supplemented with knowledge that the public may not know and that criticism itself provides.

The theme of explanation is the most pressing, since even works of painting and sculpture ─ that is, works that could be offered up for immediate enjoyment ─ actually need mediation and explanation. Without a text to accompany them and reveal their intrinsic mechanism, they remain mutilated, when not completely mute. We would not fully understand even large spectacular installations, such as those of the Unilever and Hyundai series in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern if, for example, we had not been told that Olafur Eliasson’s sun was a lamp with UVA and UVB rays coordinated with the timing of the real Sun; that Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s post-atomic installation was inspired by a sci-fi book and ‘readable’ starting from an imaginary event capable of inflating the works in the gallery’s collection; that Rachel Whiteread’s plastic volumes had been produced by making casts of the inside of boxes in the shape of buildings; that the panels of Philippe Parreno’s work were moved by a control unit containing living micro-organisms whose stochastic motions prompted the rise and fall of the fake walls; that El Anatsui’s luminescent curtains were made of metal bottle caps collected in Ghana, bound together by hand. It may be said that this is the job of the caption writer, but the critic today also does this: she writes and checks ever-longer captions.

In addition to this, the critic also has the task of ‘sorting the wheat from the chaff’: amidst the great sea of works that are produced and amidst the crowd of self-styled artists, she is called upon to identify what and who may deserve artistic credibility. Without really knowing what art is ─ a notion constructed over time, which does not enjoy solid disciplinary boundaries[1] ─ we enter here into the question of its value: criticism is supposed to indicate a scale of merit to be attributed to works and authors. Here, the issue becomes rather thorny, since there are no objective data to cling to with any certainty, for instance the artist’s own words or the market sales figures. The former, in fact, tend to plead for the work as much as possible, the latter, on the other hand, are the result of a complex patchwork of conditions: from an artist’s nationality to the mediumof the work (painting sells better than any other type) to the artist’s adoption by international galleries and their participation in major exhibitions which are realised thanks to the action of well-connected curators. Incidentally: in a professional context that is not some petty local imbroglio, criticism as a ‘written intervention’ does have a residual role in helping an artist to succeed.

A further task for the critic is to judge the success of a solo exhibition or the above-average emergence of an artist within a collective ─ or, conversely, to pan a work or an entire exhibition operation. Some writers have remained both cutting and respected, for example the much-feared duo of Roberta Smith (New York Times) and Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine, 2018 Pulitzer Prize for criticism). It is no coincidence that these are two American names, and to them we could add others from countries where the role of an art writer for a daily, a weekly, or sometimes even a specialist magazine, precludes any foray into the world of curating. The fact that the writer cannot be the rival of those who conceive and install exhibitions affords them a freedom of speech that they would otherwise lack: clearly, if one aspires to work as a curator in a certain institution, one will not express a negative judgement on the events which it is promoting. The clarity of certain columns, for example the couple of lines with which an exhibition can be praised or spurned in The Village Voice or Time Out, could not be achieved by someone not working under the professional protection of these mastheads.

However, this division of labour has also become blurred in America, with crossovers between academic activity, the editing of encyclopaedic volumes that assign value judgements, the editorship of trade magazines that sometimes clip an artist’s wings (in 1995, this happened to Joseph Kosuth in the pages of October, via the pen of Benjamin Buchloh) and the curatorship of exhibitions, as in the case of Rosalind Krauss or Yves Alain Bois. Still, this jumping from one role to the other also has its advantages: the writer will understand an exhibition better if he occasionally puts one on himself; the organiser can aspire to a greater depth of thought, without reducing herself to the practical side of things, if she is also a university lecturer; taking part in the scholarly boards of journals, foundations, and museums helps to keep one well-informed. The Italians who have made their fortunes in New York, from Germano Celant to Francesco Bonami, Massimiliano Gioni and Cecilia Alemani, are each examples of this.

But, certainly, the overlapping of functions in the same individual prevents them taking radical stances, except in very rare cases. The critic-curator-turned-teacher tends to exchange consensus, his smiles and nods, and other kinds of complicity with his peers. But how did this custom of bowing to each other come about, especially in Italy? If we want to begin our approach to this question from way back when, we should remember that the first university chair dedicated to contemporary art was established in Salerno after World War II. Before then, the figure of a serious scholar dealing with current developments had never been conceived of. It was believed ─ and, after all, many still do believe ─ that anyone dealing with the contemporary can only be a Louis Vauxcelles, a sensation critic, a Salon correspondent who ‘saddles’ new movements with some humiliating moniker.

Moreover, methods for the study of contemporary art have forever been collapsed into the methods used by students of ancient art. This has been accompanied by an overestimation of the role of the archive and an underestimation of the direct knowledge of the artist, the studio visit, the written or recorded interview, and the first-hand viewing of many international exhibitions. More than fifty years after its appearance it is still difficult to overcome the methodological scandal embodied in texts rebelling against ornate narrative prose such as Carla Lonzi’s Autoritratto[2] and Germano Celant’s Arte povera,[3] close to the radicalism used in Six Years by Lucy Lippard.[4] Another indigestible scandal consisted in the introduction into critical language of external disciplines such as semiotics, psychoanalysis, and a philosophy of mainly continental derivation. It must be said that this did not always help make texts comprehensible, but it certainly opened the doors to a ‘creative criticism’ that plays with words and works without great rigour.[5]

All this happened within a cultural humusin which the critic, if not directly a journalist, did nonetheless come from the ranks of the Academy: Giulio Carlo Argan, Adolfo Venturi, Roberto Longhi, Lionello Venturi, Luciano Anceschi, were in fact university professors.[6]  Many of those who had press columns, from the aforementioned Argan to Renato Barilli, Luciano Caramel, Flavio Caroli, and Gillo Dorfles, had access to these opportunities thanks to their professorships. Almost all these leading figures were also curators of exhibitions and, especially in the case of Barilli and Caroli, attempted to launch movements of which they became the discoverers or coordinators. In these conditions, they could clearly never have expressed themselves aggressively in their own written contributions. We thus come from a tradition in which the overlapping of roles was wedded to a distrust of the seriousness of contemporary art and a distrust of its being considered an academic subject in need of autonomous systems of study.

Over time, all this has headed in what we might call a complacent direction: ‘I don’t attack you, you don’t attack me’. As the Corriere della Sera critic Pierluigi Panza argues, ‘In the age of lobbies and the financialisation of art, the figure of the critic is giving way to that of a consensus builder oriented according to the logic of belonging and structured on the model of the systems of marketing, advertising and media conditioning. The task of selecting and orienting taste according to aesthetic methodologies, historically entrusted to the critic, has been supplanted by artificial constructions of consensus that have their reasons outside the artistic dimension proper, namely in powerful lobbies or, at best, in the power of the large gallerists and collectors (which often coincide)’.[7]

Here, money comes into play, in the form of those who really set it moving: the gallerists. Up till the 1970s they were discoverers, amateurs, and hosts of cultural events. But as Italian, German and American neo-expressionist painting made their way into the papers’ financial pages around 1980, these figures started to become increasingly soldiers of fortune. The figure of the successful gallerist today includes opening various locations around the world, a carnet ofcollectors who often also have foundations, run museums, buy for banking institutions and other high- liquidity collections. Those who discover a talent are not always in a position to promote it: and here we are not in fact talking about the gallerist who works with under-30 artists who have just been introduced to the art market, but rather referring to the figure of the contemporary art tycoon, with examples of symptomatic entrepreneurship in Hauser&Wirth, David Zwirner, Michael Werner, Esther Schipper, Perrotin, or in the Italian case Massimo De Carlo and Galleria Continua. With a continuous interplay between the first and second market, i.e. between artists with whom they work directly and others whose works they obtain through intermediaries, thanks to a widespread web of relationships with curators inside and outside the museums, gallerists become collectors of money, of decisions on the artists who are to be secured exhibitions in important institutions, to whom important monographs are to be devoted, or who are to be sponsored to produce a work for important exhibitions such as documenta in Kassel or the Venice Biennale. In the end, even if it is not expressed in words, the most important critical judgement has become the gallerists’ ─ with all the understanding we might have for those who take not only a risk of opinion but also a business risk.

There is no need to go into discussing the critics’ professionalism: they are all very good, even with the help of textbooks that teach them how to write.[8] But it surely is worth discussing how able they really are to move out of the gallerists’ shadow and to move beyond their concern not to antagonise colleagues who could become potential rivals. For even when they don the curator’s robes, it is with these colleagues that they must then converse in order to obtain spaces, funding, and loans of works. So, the written word cannot be their sphere of freedom: it simply carries too many risks. Better to let off steam in the classroom before an audience of students ─ and beyond that, give up on any harmful and useless hostility.

[1] L. Shiner, The Invention of Art, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003.
[2] C. Lonzi, Autoritratto, Milano, et./al Edizioni, 2010 (first edition De Donato, 1969).
[3] G. Celant, Arte Povera, Milano, Mazzotta, 1969.
[4] L. Lippard, Six Years, The Dematerialisation of the Art Objects 1966-1972, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997 (first edition 1973).
[5] For an overview of the different approaches captured in the interventions of some of the protagonists, see: Teorie e pratiche della critica d’arte, Atti del Convegno di Montecatini (1978, Montecatini), edited by E. Mucci and P. Tazzi, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1980.
[6] The names are many, for a more comprehensive list of the generation of Italian critics active until 1985 see: A. Vettese, ‘La critica d’arte, i luoghi di un’autoriflessione’, in Arte in Italia 1960-1985, edited by F. Alfano Miglietti, Milano, Giancarlo Politi Editore, 1988, pp. 23-39.
[7][7] P. Panza, ‘La critica nell’età delle lobby’, in La critica oggi, Atti del Convegno presso la Triennale di Milano e l’Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, edited by F. Purini, F. Moschini, C. De Albertis, Roma, Gangemi Editore, 2014, pp. 175-177, in particular p. 175.
[8] G. Williams, How to Write about Contemporary Art, London-New York, Thames & Hudson, 2014.