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Conflicts of Disinterest
A Conversation with Andrea Bellini

Ennio Flaiano with Vittorio Gassman on the set of Un marziano a Roma, Milan, November 1960 (©lapresse)

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

Andrea Cortellessa

Andrea Cortellessa: It is striking that Artribune declared your Storie dell’arte contemporanea (jointlywith a text by Marco Mancuso) the ‘best essay’ of the year; and that also in Il Giornale dell’Arte’s ‘best and worst of 2023’ Laura Cherubini pointed to your work as ‘book of the year’. After all, it is obvious, to anyone just skimming through it, that it is not at all an essay on art criticism and in fact not really an essay (although publisher Timeo’s provocation of concocting a graphic trap for the senses, simulating an essayistic framing, may have had some effect). But beyond the game played there, the fact that the Quadriennale asked us to talk about your book within the frame of a discussion on criticism is a sign that, perhaps beyond your intentions, you ended up highlighting that the institution we continue to call ‘criticism’ is not so much ‘in crisis’ as ‘in hiding’. Just as there is a measure of provocation coming from the book’s author, there is also a provocation coming from those who use it — and this is the case, I think, with the publication hosting our discussion — as a tool to show that the king is naked: namely that the formatsofcriticism established by modernity, which to some extent survived even in postmodernity, are no longer functioning.

Andrea Bellini: … So, the book supposedly shows that criticism has gone into hiding… To tell you the truth, I don’t know, and in any case that wasn’t my intention. I did not write the book in order to take part in a debate of ideas. That is the last thing that interests me. I wanted to measure myself up to writing — so, to produce a literary work. I hope I found (it is not for me to say whether I succeeded) a rhythm, a personal tone. I wanted to do this outside of the classic categories; mine is a hybrid, unclassifiable text: it is not a pamphlet, nor an autobiography, certainly not an essay on art criticism or even on the end of criticism. My problem, in describing certain situations typical of the art world, was to avoid moralism, which I find more embarrassing than immorality. This forced me to proceed like a tightrope walker on the thread of ambiguity. But the things of which I write are mostly well-known to insiders, what matters to me is ‘how’ I told them.

AC: So, to turn a classic image upside down, what surprises you is the fact that people look at the moon rather than the finger pointing to it…

AB: Let’s put it that way, if you like!

AC: Still, if we want to play along with this Quadrenniale inquiry, this solitary posture of yours — I know you like to quote Flaiano’s title, La solitudine del satiro (The Solitude of the Satyr) — is also striking because it is not outside the institution but very much inside it. For this same reason, it ends up being seen, perhaps, as a possible way out of an undeniable impasse. Incidentally, from my point of view (and it is not the first time that I have thought this), it is precisely spitting in the dish from which you eat that helps to save you from the shoals of moralism.

AB: It seems to me that a book of this kind can only be written by someone who is familiar with this environment from the inside. Criticisms of the art system from the outside are good as screenplays for parody films, assuming you have funny actors available like Alberto Sordi.

AC: So, what is happening to criticism?

AB: I don’t know, its death has been talked about for a few decades now, hasn’t it? Maybe it dies hard? For my part, I have an ever-tougher time reading art magazines, and I don’t even read reviews of my exhibitions. Why has the desire to read about art faded? Perhaps one of the problems with criticism (actually there are many, as can be seen from the contributions published in this magazine) is that in most cases it is really gruelling, sloppy stuff: it’s bad for your health to read such things. You see, Andrea, you yourself have just edited the art writings of an outsiderlike Giorgio Manganelli. I read Emigrazioni oniriche with great pleasure: ‘Manga’ offers quantum writing, he brings in an extraordinary amount of analogies, information, and associations of ideas. When you read one of his articles, even a short one, you always learn something. Well, there, I think this ‘quantum’ writing represents a possibility for a moribund art criticism.

AC: This ‘quantum’ metaphor perhaps refers to the concept of entanglement, to the relations at a distance between elements belonging to different systems (like those that subatomic particles have with each other, according to a certain theory). Alberto Arbasino was fond of quoting EM Forster’s formula, ‘only connect’: a true modernist commandment whereby rather than ‘interpreting’ a certain work — perhaps making it say not only what it did not intend to say but what it was not really capable of saying — it’s better to connect it in a system of relations different from the code that produced it. A literary text can be read in the light of a painting or a quartet, and vice versa.

But — and here I am playing devil’s advocate — perhaps this same reasoning led certain — extraordinary — critics in the 1970s to abandon essayistic writing (or limit its scope to mere service functions) to embrace what has been defined as ‘expository writing’: which produces meaning through juxtapositions, connections betweenone work and another, rather than claiming to extract it from each of them individually. The demise of the critic as interpreter — not to mention the critic-legislator: the likes of Longhi, Argan, and Greenberg — begins, it seems to me, precisely with the practice of collection as collation (as philologists might say). Half a century has now passed since the high period of the likes of Celant and Bonito Oliva, Szeemann and Ammann, and it seems to me that we are now seeing the exhaustion of this practice, too. There remain few of its interpreters who, in conceiving and setting up an exhibition, do so today on the basis of an original conceptual paradigm — the result, like it or not, of a ‘critical’ position — as was memorably done back then. But the ‘solitude’ of the critic as a performer, who relies not so much on his writing and ideas but on the exhibition of himself as a character, of his proxemics and behaviour, was an exquisitely postmodernist way out of an idea of criticism as interpretation. Here, A.B.O. took this model to its zenith as well as to its exhaustion (and the ‘retrospective’ exhibition that Rivoli dedicated to him a few years ago only underscored how out of step with the times even his position is).

AB: I agree. The critic as a ‘character’ has had his day. It seems to me that the public today needs something else. Not to mention the critic as legislator, who would make or break an artist’s career. Who cares about that stuff? And then the critic as interpreter… Why all the effort to give ‘one’ unambiguous and definitive interpretation of the work? Better a writing that is, precisely, quantum: rich, interdisciplinary, capable of attracting the reader’s attention.

AC: Speaking of attention, it really seems that readers like your book.

AB: But, as we were saying, my book is not a work of art criticism. If anything, it is a caustic book about a certain art system. So, I’m happy that readers like it, of course, but I ask myself — and you: is it really possible that no one is stung by this? Is this not proof that the art world is completely impervious to its own critics?

AC: It makes you think that those who praise it so much have either not really understood it, or else are pretending not to have noticed. Because apart from artists, whom you describe as the only healthy part of the system, the other figures that you bring up do not make a very positive impression… It would be unfortunate if adopting a posture — more than a style — of literature gave you a special status, let’s say, that allows you to say everything because it’s imagined that no judgement can be made from that posture that needs taking notice of. As if literature, from Dante onwards, has not been capable of judging its own period, even in the harshest terms! To go back to your beloved Flaiano, the risk is that like the famous ‘Martian in Rome’, atfirst everyone looks at him with curiosity, then gets used to him, and in the end more or less politely tells him to get out of the way.

AB: They ask him to leave but the ‘Martian’cannot even leave Rome because they have seized his spaceship! If my book does not arouse resentment or discontent, it is perhaps because it is full of red herrings and also lies. Every lie is a significant tale, Freud said, and every tale is a significant lie. In short, the reader can always imagine that someone else is being talked about, and thus laugh and perhaps find a way of accepting it.

AC: If everyone is guilty, no one is guilty: this is the criticism historically made of the self-exculpatory component of satire. Here we come to another crucial theme, namely the relationship between criticism and institutions. I was struck to hear you say, on the basis of your personal experience, that relating to Swiss political institutions, in your case the Centre d’art contemporain in Geneva, is rather different than relating to Italian ones, meaning Rivoli in this case.

AB: Far be it from me to describe Switzerland as a paradise on earth. The Swiss Pavilion that I am curating for the next Venice Biennale will indeed be a pointed critique of this largely mystified ‘national’ self-narration. However, it is true that a system like the Italian spoils systemis unimaginable in Switzerland, or even — in the sector that concerns us — in the country that invented it, i.e. the United States.

AC: Continuing to play devil’s advocate: to this hypostasis of the free spirit or the maverick, I oppose the eminently — even polemically — dialogical character of criticism in its modern status, which it retained for some time even after then. The ‘October’ group, for example, constructed its identity by challenging the previous generation of critics, the high modernists à la Greenberg. But the individualistic system that rules the roost today makes everyone go their own way, taking care not to step on others’ toes, indeed disregarding the work of others (or pretending to do so). Then the system, in its anonymous anomie, will favour one over the other, make the fortunes of one over the other, and no one will question why one was chosen over the other.

This, too, has long been observed in the literary sphere. Nowadays, real writers mostly avoid writing about their colleagues. Indeed — with a good deal of approximation to the truth — it can be said that if someone writing in a newspaper incenses another writer, they will do this only out of friendship, some lobby or clan interest, or in compliance with some none-too veiled editorial conflict of interest. This malpractice marks the end of a social idea of literature as a place of conflicting poetics, which in modernity and early postmodernity were also opposed social and political models.

AB: This is the reason why negative criticism is no longer given. I don’t wish to hypostasise the institution of ‘panning’ as an end in itself — and it can have ‘performative’ values, ultimately functional to the spectacularised system in which we live. But it is surely difficult to find much interest in a judgement that we already know will be essentially positive, simply because it is being expressed!

It would seem to me that film criticism remains, perhaps, the only exception. If certain films still happen to be panned today, I think this owes to the fact that the production structures in the film industry are different from those running the venues where the commentary appears (although with digital platforms on the rise, this distinction is fading). If these are two different camps, you can shoot from one into the other without it being considered ‘friendly fire’! Here again, you see, it’s the leap from one level to another which has to be made that ensures a certain interest in critical writing. If we want to be truly ruthless, we have to start by being ourselves: that is, different from the other about whom we’re writing. The ancients called this ability, or this desire, to take a step beyond curiositas. Without the writer showing curiosity, there’s no chance of arousing the reader’s interest.

In any case, you are quite right, my dear Andrea, to say that these days the concern seems to be exclusively for one’s career: never do anything that might damage it. With this book, I wanted to allow myself the risk and the luxury of self-sabotage. But as you see, I am the victim of a conflict of disinterest.