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Is making art something that can be taught? Many say no. There is proof aplenty of this among Italian artists, if we consider how many autodidacts there are in the visual arts sector even in this country alone: from Alberto Burri to Giuseppe Capogrossi and Cesare Pietroiusti, all of whom trained as medical doctors, to Stefano Arienti, a botanist, and the ‘degree-less’ Maurizio Cattelan. It is, indeed, possible to do like Cattelan — who ultimately did graduate, in the temple of dissent, i.e. the same Trento sociology faculty where Renato Curcio had studied, though he did so with an honorary degree, and after a career spent without the complexes usually generated by the absence of the ‘piece of paper’. However, this is not usually the case. The system of academies, whether private or public, not only exists but is even plethoric. So much so that it gives the feeling that students go there to waste a few years, and the teachers to take their meagre salaries, and that the Higher Education (AFAM) system was created, reformed, and expanded, for the sake of devising pools of public employment and electoral or personal clienteles.

In the meantime, given Italy’s distinctive contradictions, we remain a country that could make a living from art — and which believes that it can train up thousands of artists a year, across the students at academies, conservatoires, DAMS (Art, Music and Performing Arts Disciplines) and private institutes like the IED (Istituto europeo di Design). Meanwhile, it fails to invest in a few more directors (today there are two of them) hired by an open competition and on the basis of their competence for the role, in the fourteen public museums in Venice (MUVE), or for the position of artistic director at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. The chairmanship of the MAXXI remains an eminently political choice, thus producing a change of curators every time the bandwagon of (election) winners changes driver. In essence, no Italian venue for the exhibition and promotion of contemporary art enjoys true international prestige, with the exception of the miraculous and long-enduring case of the Venice Biennale. The result: in the course of the London Frieze fair, apart from a few masters such as Fontana, Manzoni, the Poveristi or Salvo, who register commendable results at auction, no Italian artist is worthily represented, least of all those under 40, with at most a few short films included in the ICA’s exhibition. So what is the point of our plethora of educational institutions?

We all know the big names in the Italian art system, from curators like Francesco Bonami, Massimiliano Gioni, Cecilia Alemani, Vincenzo De Bellis, Lucia Pietroiusti, Andrea Lissoni, and Pietro Rigolo, to artists like Maurizio Cattelan, Rosa Barba, Monica Bonvicini, Emilio Vavarella, among others. Browsing through their CVs, however, we realise that for each of them it is possible to identify a moment of detachment from Italy, resulting in the choice to head outside its borders. So, if any talent is trained in our country, its success, if it has it, comes back only after a stage abroad. Cases of artists we consider to be landmarks, such as Ettore Spalletti and Alberto Garutti, who never decided to leave, show how those who stay often have to wait until they die before they get due recognition.

This is a complex problem, but part of the issue is surely to be found in the lack of recognition of the role of contemporary art in Italy — a nation burdened by the need to allocate funds and opportunities to ancient art. Then there is the incompetence of those who are incapable of initiating a dialogue with the world’s art museums, believing it possible to live in a closed system. May it be that they are unable to exchange an older work of art for a good ‘contemporary’ loan (to cite a case that really happened, even though it now some years old, a Venus by Titian for Manet’s Olympia)? To finish it off, there is also a historical fact that guides the themes tackled by our artists and, often, also by our curators: well-placed in the rankings of the world’s economies, Italy feels little urgency. Protected by its immense private savings, it is untouched by wars or other emergencies except that of high immigration; it basks in its own low birth-rates, which allows the youngest to get by, only to leave them without the prospect of a future pension. These factors prompt reflection especially on themes that are not cutting-edge : one’s identity, family, sometimes style. Topics such as the climate, artificial intelligence, and indeed immigration, on the other hand, are rarely considered, with little attention paid to past historical processes and the ones that are now arising.

So, the entire Italian art system does not know how to interface with other countries and the questions they are raising. The field of education is just one example, or consequence, of a suspicion generalised across the sector. What has been understood elsewhere, i.e. that contemporary art is a highly professionalised sector where a skills shortfall will be paid for at every level, has not been understood in Italy. This is a country where we see lawsuits by former museum directors against the institutions they once managed, from which they were dismissed for trivial reasons; recruitment based on the opinion of a mayor, without any competition worthy of the name; or — as happened to me in Bologna —  the ravenous desire to profit from the earnings of a fair in agony, through a policy that is greedy for funding and poor in vision. In addition, artists tend to live in a bubble of affluence within which there is not enough room for the issues that would really affect international observers. Nor do educational spheres do much to change things, anchored as they are in an eminently technical vision of artistic activity. It is clear that today it is not possible to teach specific techniques, given their constant mutations, their interchangeability, and the possibility, gained over a century of avant-gardes, of using them all and inventing new ones rather than anchoring oneself in past languages. And by this I do not mean that traditional painting or sculpture are areas to be discarded, but rather that they can be taken further through the astute use of photography, cinema, 3D printers, and technology in general. 

Having said that, it is time for me to talk about my own responsibilities. In 2000, I was a consultant for the creation of a new visual arts course at the IUAV University of Venice, which, to my amazement, not only set underway the following year, but is now in its 22nd year. The course was viewed with great suspicion by most of the lecturers who teach Architecture or Urban Planning. “We” had to be cost-free, because visual art did not deserve to be studied at university. The academies were enough — the same ones from which Architecture lecturers had fled in the 1920s to give their studies the dignity of a place in the university. We based the new course on the idea that art should be seen as a thought-process that spills over into a project and thus, at times, into a produced object, following Lawrence Weiner’s well-known maxim that encapsulated the conceptual attitude of the 1970s. This starting point was intended to recall a more distant one, i.e. that of the Bauhaus, based on the fruitful cross-pollination of different artistic fields: from architecture to design, from theatre to dance, from cinema to drawing, and up to ceramics or the use of IT.[1] Surely, such a perspective on visual art, understood as a field of knowledge and as research, addressed above all to a non-generalist but largely specialised public, is not yet easily accepted, even among those who frequent neighbouring disciplines. Paul Klee said that art makes the invisible visible. We can supplement his aphorism by adding that, in the best cases, it transforms points of view into objects, images, and sounds, as it invents metaphors that sublimate and summarise thought processes. All this requires skills that are partly yet to be invented and are thus inherently difficult to teach. But we can transmit this attitude, and a meticulous professionalism in pursuing it: ‘Fail again, fail better’, said Samuel Beckett. It is possible to do this without becoming slaves to distancing ourselves from popular culture and kitsch, as per the lesson imparted by Clement Greenberg, Adorno and Horkheimer, and Guy Debord in their rather snobbish way of interpreting communism. And we can do this without being obsessed by what Harold Rosenberg called the ‘tradition of the new’, i.e. the temptation to invent gimmicks for the sake of the unprecedented and the cult of originality.[2]

Let us return to the IUAV University. The suspicions against the small school that was taking shape were motivated by the difficulty in decentralising architecture. It was almost as if there was some grief to get over — not only mourning a certain kind of university, but also and above all a mourning related to the role of architecture in a society that has shown this discipline’s beauty but also, rather often, how useless or even impossible architecture is, when it offers duplexes or, on the opposite end of things, ecomonsters created by unscrupulous building constructors — something that has been much on display in recent years. At the same time, one element came to the surface more clearly than ever: the age-old iconoclastic suspicion that those who deal with images are, after all, dangerous and ought to be reined in, and that ‘shapes’ are not really serious things, at least not like engineering or transport. Crucial in this sense is Bruno Latour’s reading, which tells us that throughout history, but particularly now, images provoke an unspeakable but violent clash.[3]

In spite of the difficulties, the IUAV art school project has not only continued, but has also met with a major response, in the numbers of students who still aspire to attend both the three-year basic course and the two-year masters program. What is more, four years ago a doctoral course was created that not only allows students to study texts on historical and theoretical aspects in depth, but also to undertake a practice-based course, that remains one of its kind across Italy. There is an impressive demand for participation in the doctoral programme: the (around thirty) applications for the three places available (which are very few, if we consider that they are aimed at the macro-fields of fashion, theatre and visual arts) are more than a quarter of those received by the doctoral school across all categories of grants.[4] This means that if the field of Arts studies is not particularly beloved or favoured by the university, it is certainly so by students who desire a third level of study and who, therefore, we can suppose, believe in these studies and in the general importance that such preparation has for those dealing with these subjects. Those who no longer see this as an eminently practical field, let alone an artisanal one, are precisely the members of the younger generation, who are also the most exposed to an international artistic culture. The ‘Erasmus generation’ has understood — perhaps much more than we do — how much studying counts, how competitive the work arena has become in every field, and how the system of doctorates, artistic residencies and any other way of extending one’s studies is a necessary step to be able to join the fray.

Let it be clear: here we are not only talking about an actual insertion in the commercial world or in the art ‘star system’ — areas which can hardly be overlooked. Rather, this is about new ways for artists to gain a platform: commissions other than the ones from museums and collectors; self-productions supported by sponsorships that are not only oriented towards launching and promoting an object; autonomously conceived online productions; social-media profiles with a cut-through in these networks’ own language; and investigations on the borderline between art and science, whose funders operate within the scientific world or even in industry.  In my many years of work, I have witnessed and cultivated collaborations with farmers, with opera houses, with textile and coffee manufacturers, with associations of construction firms, furniture makers, watch companies and much more, who have not always taken on the role of sponsors but who have often embodied the role of patrons. Another way is possible, in addition to the one we are most familiar with. Perhaps the documenta 15, in summer 2022 taught us this, if nothing else: art can be made by groups, it can emerge from dialogue with patrons not identified with sellers of works nor with speculative collectors, and it can be cultivated within collectives that mix tradition and innovation. In the years of my work at the IUAV University, I have seen and involved artists of all kinds and methods, capable of dialoguing with the ecosystem in a more versatile way than those who do it professionally, for example Gediminas and Nomeda Urbonas, Marjetica Potrč, Joan Jonas, Rene Gabri, Antoni Muntadas, Kimsooja; I have seen curators immerse themselves in neighbourhood dynamics, with some failures, but also much enthusiasm and a legacy that we will only be able to calculate in years to come, in places like Singapore, Istanbul, and Sharjah, as Ute Meta Bauer told us. Marta Kuzma, who was an IUAV lecturer before becoming a dean at Yale, brought us a new idea of a pavilion consisting only of lectures, that is, of ideas on the current state of things.[5] At the Museo Orientale in Turin, I saw a rich collection, but with old museographic criteria, enjoy a renewal process also thanks to the relationship with the university in the field of visual arts, thanks to the contribution of its director Davide Quadrio. I was able to found a review, OBOE Journal, which obtained the status of a scholarly journal within just two issues. I saw a range of operational possibilities that tell us that we should not lose our nerve. I have seen a new conservation advancing, but the force of renewal remains very strong, as long as what is being done is serious. For me, this was learning to teach visual art. In the 1980s, when I started to deal with art, one could afford the luxury of doing almost enough. Now, especially in Italy, credibility requires a professional commitment that becomes a civil act, a protest and a political proposal. Not everything glisters and not everything is gold. But I believe that this kind of resistance — based on stubborn commitment and the sidelining of conceited carelessness — will help generations to come.


[1] On the structure of this course, see C. Vecchiarelli, A. Vettese, Visual Arts at Iuav: 2001-2011, Mousse Publishing, 2011; M. Ambrozic, A. Vettese (eds.), Art as a Thinking Process, Sternberg, 2013.

[2] For a literature on the so-called Educational Turn, see the long (and still ongoing) work done by the European workgroups ELIA and SHARE; see also S.H. Madoff (ed.), Art School: (Propositions for the 21st Century), MIT Press, 2009; J. Kaila, The Artist as a Producer of Knowledge, in “The Artist’s Knowledge 2, Research at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts”, Helsinki 2008; M.J. Jacob, J. Baas, Learning Mind – Experience into Art, University of California Press, 2009; P. O Neal, M. Wilson (ed), Curating the Educational Turn,Open Editions / De Appel, 2009; F. Allen (ed), Education, MIT-Whitechapel, 2011

[3] B. Latour, P. Weibl, Iconoclash — Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art, MIT Press, 2002.

[4] For reflection on the need for doctoral openings also for the visual arts, see B. Buckley, J. Conomos (eds), Rethinking the Contemporary Art School, The Artist and the Ph.D. and the Academy, the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2009.

[5] For the lectures, see M. Kuzma, P. Lafuente, P. Osborne, The State of Things, Norwegian Pavilion, Biennale 2011, OCA Oslo, Università Iuav, Mousse Publishing, 2013