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The Eyes of Others
A Counterpart Perspective

Sentimiento Nuevo. Un’antologia, edited by D. Ferri and A. Grulli, Bologna, Edizioni MAMbo, 2013

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

Luca Bertolo

In his article ‘Come siamo silenziosi sullo stato dell’arte’ (‘How Silent We Are on the State of Art’),[1] Gian Maria Tosatti points an accusing finger at the meagre crop of critical texts dedicated to the visual arts in Italy. A few days later came the first two replies. Christian Caliandro provided a list of books of art criticism that have appeared in recent years, considering this enough to disavow any hurriedly catastrophist judgments. Meanwhile Michele Dantini observed, among other things, that the (re)writing of pieces of art history is itself a critical exercise — a practice that is often more useful and enduring than criticism that remains wholly engulfed in its own present.

These objections make sense. But I will say more: in Caliandro’s — inevitably partial — list, it is surprising that there is no reference to Sentimiento Nuevo. This volume brought together the contributions to the 2011 conference of the same name dedicated to new art criticism in Italy, a unique event curated by Davide Ferri and Antonio Grulli.[2] Nor does he mention, even as a group, the critical essays published in catalogues and monographs, such as — just to give two excellent examples ─ the ones by Elena Volpato and Riccardo Venturi. Then, of course there are the many texts that have appeared in both print and online magazines such as Mousse or Antinomie. I also like to think back to the sporadic contributions made by some artists, including Flavio Favelli, Sofia Silva, and Flavio De Marco, or writers such as Emanuele Trevi and Tiziano Scarpa. Lastly — and leaving aside for a moment any consideration of variations in quality — we could also count the many interventions on personal blogs, by academics or by free spirits such as the riotous Luca Rossi.

So, it can be agreed: in Italy, we do write about art, in many and various ways. But I still concur with Tosatti on one point: a specific field of criticism ─ for simplicity’s sake we can call it ‘reviews’ — seems to have vanished. Years ago, before I had met her in person, I wrote Alessandra Spranzi an e-mail praising her work. She replied with real surprise, concluding ‘As you know, by this point we [us artists] are used to operating in a desert’. Tosatti alludes to the vast mass of reviews we find on the activity of — I would add, even minor or third-rate — artists active in the 1920s or 1930s, numbers not even remotely comparable to today’s. It is true that the overall number of artists, of private galleries and thus of exhibitions, has grown enormously, and a proportional increase in reviews would be improbable, if not an outright torment. But no such danger exists. For some decades now, ex post discourse (the critical review) has been abundantly replaced by ex ante discourse (the press release). Artists partly complain about this and partly play along: in the new conception of the artist as a self-manager, who provides the complete package (the work, the photo, the explanation), the absence of any (real) contradictory voice seems to pay off, at least in the short term.

The isn’t just an Italian problem. In Critical Mess: Art Critics on The State of Their Practice, a collection edited by the American art critic Raphael Rubinstein in 2006, the titles of the interventions are already rather telling: ‘A Quiet Crisis’ (Rubinstein), ‘What Happened to the Art Critics?’ (James Elkins), ‘Art Criticism, Bound to Fail’ (Nancy Princenthal). Among the many reasons why art criticism has gradually lost its prominence, I will mention just one, also cited by Dantini: the role played by (the absence of) patronage. Criticism is an exercise in thinking and writing that requires more skill and time than is needed for interview questions or for editing a press release. And if this ‘extra’ is not considered an added value (and does not draw fair financial reward) or even comes up against obstacles (‘If you criticise that artist, his gallery will no longer buy our advertising space!’), the critic’s already thankless role is reduced to a venture for masochists alone.

A curator also makes judgements all the time — she does so every time she selects an artist or artworks. And yet, by virtue of her main mission— the job of conceiving and putting together exhibitions — she is not necessarily required to justify her choices. On the contrary, the (curator in the guise of a) critic has precisely the task of answering in public for her passions or aversions, making the case for exclusions, and proposing comparisons. In the Treccani dictionary, we read ‘Critica, feminine noun, [from the Greek κριτική (τέχνη)] “art of judging”, the intellectual faculty that enables one to examine and evaluate men in their work and the result or results of their activity in order to choose, select, distinguish the true from the false, the certain from the probable, the beautiful from the less beautiful or the ugly …”.[3] Critical activity involves assigning a certain value to any given object of its attention. In recent years, the Western cultural côté has become hysterically suspicious of any evaluation and even interpretation (from what pulpit? You cannot understand a certain aesthetic if you aren’t yourself an African-American woman; you cannot judge such-and-such a performance while ignoring the opinions of Sami reindeer herders). It is surprising that this is happening in a world where hundreds of millions of ‘ordinary’ people make judgements about everything and everyone on a daily basis: just scroll through the restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor, the comments on an Amy Winehouse track on YouTube, or the furious criticism of doctors in No Vax groups on Telegram. Whether we like it or not, long before we codify ourselves into specific literary genres (art criticism, literary criticism, etc.) the critical attitude — to distinguish, to make preferences — is innate to human existence and perhaps even originates in an ancestral struggle for survival. Even if we do not make our own judgements, we make distinctions all the time, no matter how stupid the conclusions that we come to or how false the premises that we start from. 

But let’s get back to art criticism, whose various expressions — selection, value judgement, interpretation — do not necessarily have to go together. The eminent American philosopher Arthur Danto, for example, declared that he would gladly leave the dirty work ─ the selection of who or what is worth talking about ─ to others (critics, museum directors) so that he could devote himself to the refinements of exegesis. But, here we get to a hardly negligible question that I would like to try to answer as an artist: what do I do with someone else’s opinion of one of my works, for which, after all, I alone am accountable? The comments made to me while I am still working on a work allow me to identify elements, qualities, (dis)proportions, and symbolisms that I had not seen before, or to discover analogies with works by other artists that I did not know. It rarely happens, but I also sometimes take on board specific suggestions. In general, a well-rounded judgement or articulate interpretation comes, if at all, once the work is already finished, and it is always exciting for me to observe what effect it has on other people, other biographies, other sensibilities. It is a bit like looking at oneself through other eyes, splitting oneself in the manner of Paul Valéry’s disturbing Monsieur Teste. Now, when someone shows their emotions in front of one of my paintings, I feel a thrill and for a while enjoy the illusion that what I do also has meaning for others, too. Things are different when it comes those who dedicate their sensitivity, intelligence and time to my work, and draw out some thought from it. When they do this, I feel grateful. This isn’t about being over-indulgent of them: in fact some comments irritate me, certain interpretations seem absurd, too simple or too complicated. The crucial point, it must always be repeated, is that the author has no monopoly on the ‘right’ interpretation of one of her works. The work is to its author as a child is to its mother: they resemble each other but each has an autonomous identity, in constant transformation. And a good mother wishes that at some point, painful though it may be, her child will go out into the world to experience it for herself. So, like analysis for Freud, interpretation never ends. ‘Reading them [Cesare Garboli’s critical texts on Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante, and Antonio Delfini] is to open up treasure chests and find ourselves looking from unexpected perspectives at authors about whom it seemed we had already understood everything: it is an invigorating experience’.[4].

Doubtless, it takes a certain dose of arrogance to pass judgment, whether negative or positive. But to publicly defend an opinion is also an act by which we assume responsibility in front of a social group, however large or small. Moreover, unlike in the case of scientific theories, the relevance of a value judgement also depends on who is making it. And this authoritativeness (in the Middle Ages, an author or a text of indisputable prestige was called an auctoritas) is earned in the field. By that, I mean that if a few months ago someone other person had made the same remarks as my friend Pierpaolo Campanini, whom I esteem as a painter and as a person of rare sensitivity, perhaps I would not have allowed myself to be convinced to change one of my paintings, or at least not so quickly.

Bologna, September 2023. The admission exams for the Academy of Fine Arts. Question: Which artists does the candidate consider to be most significant at this point in their life? Klimt, Van Gogh, or Caravaggio appear in 80 percent of the answers. No Titian, Cézanne, Picasso or Cattelan, only one occurrence of Duchamp. On the other hand, their papers are swarming with names unknown to me: Denis Sarazhin (271k), Nicolai Ganichev (69k), Chris Hong (340k), and Mariusz Lewandoski (113k). These are artists (or illustrators) that these twenty-somethings ‘follow’. I looked them up on Instagram and put the number of their followers — in thousands — in brackets. Welcome to the realm of pure horizontality! Just to remind us that that the little planet called the ‘contemporary art system’ — a planet with a terrible need to feel exclusive even as it repeats the mantraof inclusiveness — is enveloped by a dense hyperspace.

Art is foolish, and its mood changes with the moons. Criticism gives us a glimpse of how much intelligence is hidden underneath. When there is something there. And when it is good criticism.

[1] G.M. Tosatti, ‘Come siamo silenziosi sullo stato dell’arte’, Il Sole 24 Ore, Sunday, 3 September 2023.
[2] Sentimiento Nuevo. Un’antologia, edited by D. Ferri and A. Grulli, Bologna, Edizioni MAMbo, 2013. The book documents the informal meetings in some bars in Bologna and the subsequent series of round tables hosted at MAMbo, aimed at investigating the latest generation of Italian art criticism and new forms of art writing. The book gathers contributions from almost fifty artists, curators and critics.
[3] Treccani online dictionary.
[4] G. Amitrano, afterword to C. Garboli, Scritti servili, Roma, Minimum Fax, 2023.