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Diffuse Identity
Notes on the Current Relationship between Philosophy and the Visual Arts

Francesca Banchelli, Before the Name, 2016, performance, 44’, Barcelona, MACBA, curated by Carolina Ciuti. With Pier Luigi Tazzi, Anuwat Rattanaphan, Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield, Francesca Banchelli, Julie Cunningham, Harry Alexander, original music Emiliano Zelada, photo Maria Rodenas

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

Angel Moya Garcia

Relations between philosophy and the visual arts have always been a delicate matter. They officially began in the mid-eighteenth century, when Baumgarten invented aesthetics,[1] and were later complicated by the advent of linguistics, structuralism, semiology and hermeneutics. Philosophy is a rational form of inquiry, tends to be systematic, and reflects critically on its methods and assumptions. Art escapes limits, reinvents itself, formalises ambiguity, probability and indeterminacy. However, this seeming counterposition immediately dissolves: for both seek to configure and read reality, to provide foundations rather be elements for resolution, to open up ‘fields of interpretative possibilities’[2] , albeit through different approaches, methodologies and perspectives.

This bond often becomes indissoluble and works in a particularly fertile way in both directions, when certain analyses, urgent demands or specific research contexts intertwine. There is no shortage of international examples of this almost symbiotic attraction between the two fields throughout the last century. But especially striking is the interdependence that so powerfully emerges in the Italian context. Marco Senaldi argues[3] that there is no Italian philosopher who has not written about art, and no Italian artist who has not flirted with some philosophy, noting how De Chirico was influenced by Schopenhauer, Piero Manzoni studied existentialism, and Piero Simondo – the true creator of situationism – graduated with Abbagnano.

Current events have only continued this trend of reciprocity – though not always, unfortunately, with the lucidity necessary to distinguish the subtle differences at the basis of the two fields. In the critical essays of exhibitions, in press releases, in articles in specialist magazines, and even in artists’ statements, it is not uncommon to find the name of some philosopher and current of thought, often hollowed out and trivialised in order to legitimise or justify a certain formalisation, to rest it on a solid foundation, in the hope that this will make it unassailable.

On the other hand, there are those situations in which artists are overwhelmed by a text, a thought, an ideology, making it their own, taking responsibility for absorbing it, betraying it, interpreting it, in order to translate it into their own perimeter of reference – and such situations become extremely suggestive. This article attempts to introduce – albeit in a non-exhaustive manner, considering the vastness of the subject – an interpretation of contemporaneity in which it becomes clear, through multiple examples, how much in the last two decades research on identity, developed in the philosophical field, has conditioned, influenced or determined a high percentage of Italian artistic practices. It moreover makes clear how these practices, in turn, have managed to sew up the splits left open in the theoretical sphere.

With this in mind, we can observe that in most contemporary philosophy there emerges, with rare exceptions, a destabilisation of subjectivity, a lack of certainties and fixed points in the cultural context in which it finds itself existing, the first hints of which can be traced back to German hermeneutics. A complex and programmatically antinomian idea of subjectivity in which the individual intervened and developed, in his or her own experience, threatened and judged by a consensual and interpersonal ‘we’. A collectivity without a subject, a group without individual members, in which any individual stimulus and element risked being hidden, erased, labelled by means of continuous homologation proposals as well as strategies – designed by the mass media in particular – to influence the ideas and behaviour of the targets.[4] This tendency was later overturned, broadened, deepened, dilated, until it arrived at a multifaceted universe of correlations, in which philosophy had to update and revisit problematics that spanned the entire history of the human being. This came along with the intellectual obligation to go into detail, almost with a magnifying glass, regarding social and cultural questions which were manifesting themselves for the first time.

One of the intellectual triggers that had the greatest repercussions can be found especially from the mid-1990s onwards, in research that focused attention on a construction of identity that could not disregard otherness in its self-constitution or self-development, albeit without renouncing its ontological autonomy. In this context, one of the best-known writings is Jean-Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural[5] and, certainly, his reading of intersubjectivity has been absorbed and reinterpreted by a considerable number of artists. I do not believe it is any accident that it was in the same years and in the same scenario that relational art,[6] community-based art or participatory art, as we know it today, was born.

In Italy, but not only there, the echo of these theories and demands has cyclically returned in artists for whom the relationship with the other is paramount. For example, Filippo Berta’s actions involve the active engagement of groups of individuals, setting themselves in a collective dimension generating situations and tensions, which are translated into images with a strong visual impact. Marinella Senatore’s practice reconsiders the political nature of collective formations, offering the public the opportunity to produce social change. Enrico Vezzi’s attempts at relation insert themselves and operate on the boundary that separates two individuals, dissolving it to recreate a new unity, based on the interaction and uncertainty of the private subject, which must also take into account the collective one. The same happens in the relational and social research of Silvia Mantellini Faieta, in which the work is constituted through a choral dialogue.

Equally fundamental for contemporary philosophy is Being and the Event[7] by Alain Badiou, one of the greatest living thinkers, who sketches out a present that has never ceased to announce its own end. Being and event constitute the main tools with which Badiou rethinks the key concepts of the history of philosophy, and develops an ontology of the multiple capable of outlining a new theory of the subject. This is the basis of Francesca Banchelli’s work, for which the event becomes the culmination of emptiness, of passage and fall, of revolution. The artist has explored ‘the encounter’ as a revolutionary act during which, if considered as a straight line between two points, it contains at its centre the reformulation or rethinking of how we can approach one another. Badiou’s text also influences Andrea Galvani’s work, especially when he approaches performative language, creating ephemeral situations in which the great paradigms become obsolete in the face of the fragmentary, isolated, marginal and quickly forgotten micro-narratives of contemporaneity.

Other important aspects of this pairing, when speaking of identity, concern the analysis of cultural identity, relativism, integration, multiculturalism, postcolonialism, together with the various nationalisms, based on identitarian essentialism, which are gaining new consensus today. It is essential to start out from this phenomenon in order to understand the dynamic in which the term identity lays its foundations.[8]  It is an attempt to rewrite History, to construct counter-narratives, to retrace in another perspective the different legacies or traditions that define us. We can include in this ambit the research of Gian Maria Tosatti, who focuses his work on the concepts of collectivity and memory, in their historical, political and spiritual valence; Roberto Cuoghi, who probes the notions of simulacrum and symbol, memory and immanence, devotion and superstition, transformation and metamorphosis of the body, identity, language and the very forms of representation and expression; Luigi Presicce, who constructs works in which the performative element coexists in perfect balance with the ritual one and with the consistent stratification of cultural references to the history of art and to personalities and events in recent History. With a different perspective, but not without intersections, Invernomuto investigates subcultural universes, using different practices, in which the vernacular idiom is part of a path of approach and affection towards oral cultures and contemporary mythologies, observed with a gaze that wishes to be deeply pollinated and regenerated by them. Then there is Rossella Biscotti, who constantly invites visitors to an active relationship with History. A rewriting of History that, in the case of Diamante Faraldo, confirms that it is ‘the present that generates its own past from within itself, and the past cannot exist independently of a present that bears witness to it and redeems it’[9] . His work could be read as a declared stance rejecting the ‘euchronic consonance’ (History as a simple continuous and homogeneous process), as Georges Didi-Huberman puts it, an attempt to blow on the dust in order to raise up, foreground and reshuffle every layer of History that the West and human beings have accumulated upon themselves.

The frequency with which stories related to discrimination, postcolonialism and xenophobia (widespread variants of bringing otherness into the field) are present as objects of investigation in art, prompts us to reconsider the role of the artist as ethnographer.[10] This highlights the danger of the process of appropriation of otherness – of so-called ideological patronage – that often takes place in art. Few succeed in overcoming this limitation, this unsurprising risk of the colonial gaze on the part of those who approach a context other than their own with the intention of studying it from another angle. Among the exceptions is Leone Contini, who focuses primarily on intercultural conflicts, power dynamics, migrations, diasporas and how all these phenomena influence the anthropological context and the botanical landscape of the place in which he operates. Similarly, Sergio Racanati’s research develops within a multitude of relationships, ideas and experiences, addressing the question of the spaces of the sensitive, common and community processes, with the creation of multidisciplinary spaces, platforms of thought, models of antagonistic practices and spaces for new communities.

In recent years, the correspondences between the visual arts and philosophy have been expressed through themes engaging with the most contingent thought and ideologies. To start with, we cannot overlook the inexhausted interest in feminist politics and the texts of Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Donna Haraway, Carla Lonzi, Martha Nussbaum, and Karen Barad, along with all the studies on difference, adapted to the visual-arts context. From the viewpoint of the desire to overcome the neutral subject and of the hoped-for deconstruction of the models and mechanisms of patriarchal society, one cannot but think of Chiara Fumai’s work, indebted to and in continuity with the philosophers mentioned above. In it, the artist quoted and manipulated feminist writings, transposing them into a visual and performative form that captured their full potential for freedom and the transformation of the self and the world. Silvia Giambrone’s poetics operates on the same level, mainly focused on the exploration of the political dimension of language, in its relationship with the body and with power in the formation of subjectivity, abstracting to create, through a visible void, a definition of identity. The representation of women, gender issues, and queer-feminist aesthetics are some common spheres of research within the work of Mara Oscar Cassiani. As regards the urgent need to revise a hierarchical or binary conception of gender, one of the greatest recent exponents has been Paul B. Preciado, who is extremely critical of gender binarism, butalso of any category created to describe sexual identity and behaviour as something collective, not subjective and individual. Following in the footsteps of the theses of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva, queertheory questions the naturalness of each individual’s gender and sexual identity. We can see in Ruben Montini’s work an extreme formalisation of a shared starting point, an interpretation of queer culture and a legacy of the social demands of the 1960s and 1970s, but actualised and conveyed in the first person. At the same time, we can discern in Jacopo Miliani’s works an open narrative, in constant dialogue with the viewer on topics such as the construction of identity, sexuality, gender fluidity, and the relationship between personal choices and the ones imposed by society.

Clear lines of orientation can be recognised in the relationship between the visual arts and philosophy, revolving around the concept of identity. On the one hand, the themes that have run through the history of thought remain unchanged, such as that of the egoistic condition in the construction of the ego, and the relationship with otherness or the construction of a collective identity – and this, whatever the parameters or limits within which such an identity might be circumscribed. Yet in recent decades the problematisation of identity has had to investigate new aspects, needs, and urgent demands. The archaeology of knowledge has left room for investigation to the most recent layers, to a theoretical conception of the social, political and cultural aspects in the definition of identity, to which artists have themselves given shape. In so doing, they have also managed to delineate further horizons for a never static, objective, definitive research into who we are.

[1] A.G. Baumgarten, L’Estetica, edited by S. Tedesco, Aesthetica, 2000.

[2] U. Eco, La definizione dell’arte, Garzanti, 1984.

[3] M. Senaldi, L’arte in Italia è anche una questione di filosofia, “Artribune”, no. 67, 11 September 2022.

[4] The full bibliography would be too expansive, but it is necessary to highlight at least the essays by H.G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, Bloomsbury, 2014; E. Lévinas, Dall’altro all’io, Meltemi, 2002; J. Habermas, Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion, Suhrkamp, 2005; N. Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, Pluto, 1990, C. Dovolich, Singolare e molteplice. Michel Foucault e la questione del soggetto, FrancoAngeli, 1999; S. Natoli, Soggetto e fondamento. Il sapere dell’origine e la scientificità della filosofia, Feltrinelli, 2010.

[5] J.L. Nancy , Being Singular Plural, Stanford, 2000.

[6] N. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses du réel, 2002.

[7] A. Badiou, Being and the Event, Bloomsbury, 2015.

[8] A.L. Espósito, Rappresentare l’alterità decostruendo l’identità, ‘Kabul Magazine’, January 2019.

[9] A. Alfieri, L’Angelus Novus: l’angelo redentore di Walter Benjamin, 17 April 2012, <>.

[10] H. Foster, L’artista come etnografo, in Il ritorno del reale. L’avanguardia alla fine del Novecento, Postmedia Books, 2006.