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A few weeks ago, the monthly supplement of a rather widely read newspaper devoted some considerable space to me. It was a nice interview, to tell the truth, with a few misunderstandings and a couple of headlines seemingly designed to grab readers’ attention. One of them read “Cattelan is all a bluff”.
I went to look for this idea in the interview text itself — sure that, for the umpteenth time, I would find that the title-writer had exaggerated things. But I instead found the dose heightened: “Cattelan and Vezzoli are all a bluff. Surrounded by curators I do not respect”.
This was certainly a rather brute summary of my comments, done in good faith by the journalist who collected an hour’s worth of audio and then had to try and compact it all into a readable text. But, as in mathematics, squashing a circle does not produce an ellipse. So, the expression here repeated was in fact not only unnecessarily provocative, but also not in keeping with my thinking on the subject. Nevertheless, this incident — a frequent happening in the everyday life of publishing — offers me a cue to return to a subject that is perhaps worth exploring further.
It goes without saying that Cattelan is not all a bluff. I firmly believe that he was an important artist who managed to enter the international art debate with full dignity, without exoticism or any complexes, in the psychological sense. After 1990, this was not so much rare for an Italian as outright unique. Indeed, when I think of that special decade, I believe that few people were able to interpret the spirit of a generation — or at least its irreverent side — as lucidly as he did. This does not mean that I love Cattelan or that I feel close to him. Far from it. I hate those years. I hate that climate and, so, deep down, I also hate Cattelan, just as I hate certain works of mine that say the opposite of what I would like — and which I cannot silence, because the artist’s duty is to tell the truth, not what he wants.
And, perhaps, it is this hatred — this true, radical, real feeling — that reveals that I cannot consider him or his work to be “all a bluff”.
A similar argument can apply to the work of Francesco Vezzoli and, certainly, to that of another friend, Vanessa Beecroft, whom I will certainly have mentioned in the interview but whom — out of gallantry — the reporter who paid so much attention to me did not report.
These were three giants of the 1990s, it is true. But that is just the point. To build a mythology around them, to make them “out of the ordinary”, titanic and lonely figures, meant stripping them out of context and making them into unattainable “models”. This, not because they were incomparably better than those who wanted to try and reach the same level, but because those models were themselves all a bluff. They had been tailor-made, in a lopsided attempt by a rather confused art system to give birth to yet another romantic titanism that builds up the icon at the expense of substance.
I belong to a generation that was brought up to pay homage to the great solo artists. That was partly because of weariness with the avant-gardes, the neo-avant-gardes and all the rest (even today, in speeches I hear fellow critics or artists who would like to resurrect the men and women of arte povera just so they can kill them with their own bare hands, as if they had somehow personally wounded them). And partly because a system on which the market and bourgeois familism had launched a pre-emptive takeover was best controlled by the ancient law of “divide and rule”.
Two entire generations suffered, but in different ways.
The generation of Cattelan, Beecroft and Vezzoli — which certainly did not count only these three artists ─ was treated high-handedly, largely silenced, reduced to a background, in order to bring the “champions” to the fore. The second one, which reached maturity in the 2000s and 2010s, was educated in solitude, a bit like the inmates in Italy’s 41bis prisoner isolation regime.
The result — we can see more clearly today — was the premature critical dismissal of a whole generation, failing to construct an integral narrative that would rescue its artists from the fate of the periodically “rediscovered”. But above all, this meant not doing justice to a fact that diametrically contradicts the dominant narrative: namely, that the 1990s were anything but ten years of solitude.
In Rome, Milan (which takes the lion’s share in this story), Naples in a more complex and interdisciplinary way, but also in other areas of the country — albeit in a rather less intensive fashion — those years saw a widespread practice of being together, of sharing spaces and studios, of being a generation. In reality, notwithstanding their eccentricity, Cattelan, Beecroft and Vezzoli are the product of a decade that cannot be understood without Vedovamazzei, Stefano Arienti, Mario Airò, Massimo Bartolini, Liliana Moro and a very long line of others. For they constituted the terrain of artistic reflection in which the three “giants” mentioned above were able to land blows wounding the most sensitive areas of that moment — if not necessarily the deepest.
This was a decade that schizophrenically began a real battle on civil rights, after the movements of 1977, but at the same time trampled on them. It yielded to the worst tendencies of the advertising and consumerist dialectic, based on the exploitation of the image of the other and, therefore, on the downgrading of being, the better to make profits from appearance. In this moment of great civil and moral difficulty, Bartolini’s submerged rooms do not reflect the sentiment of an entire generation any less incisively than Vanessa Beecroft’s first performances.
But, above all, all these outcomes were the result of a climate of dialogue that a generation of curators who did not produce books — and thus did not produce structured reflection — somehow decided not to acknowledge, if not only hastily.
As is well known, the way we tell ourselves about the world ends up determining the world itself. So, the composite galaxy of identities and connections which were thus widely disregarded ended up becoming the grey backdrop which we were told of. Cattelan, Beecroft and Vezzoli, from symbols of the solitary artist, became truly lone figures.
In the 2000s and then in the 2010s I happened to meet them. All different, Cattelan able to build a court somewhat like Pirandello’s Henry IV; Beecroft somewhat hostage to the cruel machine of US society; Vezzoli, the youngest, resplendent in his golden isolation.
None of them are much older than me or my colleagues, born even in the early 1970s who, like me, reached artistic maturity in the 2010s. Yet never, at any time in my entire life in art, have I ever felt close to them, that they are my siblings. They have always appeared to me as ancestors, and that is how I continue to perceive them, even as they remain alive and well and continue to produce.
Making them giants through a critical narrative made them just like what these creatures are in the literary world: alone and distant. And I believe that this interpretation of their work was also a condemnation, a curse, something that nobody could have suffered like they did.
There is, in fact, no worse condemnation for an artist than to be himself and not an invisible agent of the spirit of the times. This is the great bluff, here: the construction of a narrative that is not historically true, which has then ended up causing damage to the protagonists of that story themselves; to those who have undeservedly been treated as a second-rate supporting cast; and also to those who have then been brought up to want to be lone giants in an art world in which the models of growth have, in reality, always been collective, from the ateliers to the avant-garde.
But time is a great healer and lies cannot last forever. So that somewhat clumsy narrative, which alchemically mixed — among those who believed in it — ambition and intellectual disengagement, ended up not convincing a younger generation that began to articulate its understanding in the 2020s.
For those who, like me, lived through the 2000s and 2010s, to today see the naturalness with which today’s emerging artists increasingly think of themselves as part of a collective discourse, as instrumentalists in an orchestra that allows everyone to have their solo moment, but always within the patterns of a unitary, inclusive and transidentitarian composition, is a kind of moving, posthumous restitution of what many of us were deprived of.
The fault does not belong to any individual, of course. At most, it lies with us artists, our credulity to youthful myths that we misinterpreted (and there is the bluff that needs to be called).
But now that’s water under the bridge. Today, I visit the studios of talented young people who sometimes work together out of a strong and radical sharing of ideal and aesthetic horizons, at other times quite simply because sharing the rent of a studio is an advantage.
But no matter. Art and dialogue need no planning, no titanic wills. They spread naturally — brought about by a generous openness or, perhaps even more simply, by a lack of understanding why there ought to be any closedness. And so, entering the studios of even artists with different sensibilities leads not only to the discovery of singularities, but to the immediate recognition of something even more interesting: a collective intelligence at work.
This has happened to me on many occasions lately. Two cases I would like to mention: the studio of Chiara Enzo, Marta Naturale, Laura Omacini and Marta Spagnoli in Venice and that of Ludovica Anversa, Ambra Castagnetti, Filippo Chilelli and Yoshka in Milan. They are two very different realities. In the former, the trait d’union is the fact that they come from the Accademia di Belle Arti in this lagoon city; in the latter, the group’s adherence to an aesthetic and a philosophy that makes them resemble a kind of crew, often dedicated to collaborations in which one artist performs for the other. But beyond their intentions and forms of dialogue, the result is the same: the influence of the fellow artists’ labour clearly emerges in the works of each of them, even when— as in the case of the four Venetian artists — this seems to proceed from autonomous perspectives and is unconnected to a shared aesthetic. Signs, shadows, pictorial dynamisms frequently recur. The pastel of one becomes oil, by osmosis with the work of the other. Or the vertebrae collected from Antwerp to be pressed into pictorial works of a radiographic aspect, are fused in casts by Castagnetti, who transforms them into stumps embellished on the shoulders of his sculptures.
All of this represents a horizon of vitality, which the critics who collaborate with the Quadriennale, in their constant pilgrimages up and down Italy, are discovering as the sign of a new flourishing. They are finding the buds of a long-awaited springtime of art in which, at the end of this winter, someone is really beginning to hope.