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In discussing training in the Fine Arts Academies — an ever-thorny issue, which has now become topical again — and possibly also conjugating it with the future, I would like to start out from two facts. One is internal: the increase in the number of students, teachers and lecturers enrolled at these institutions. The other is external: the national-level proliferation of realities managed by young artists, from exhibition spaces to shared studios, publishing initiatives, research centres, territorial redevelopment projects, and so on. The work done by some Academies has also helped to build this climate, conducive to proposal-making.
We are somehow again witnessing what already happened in Milan and Bologna in the 1990s, and still before that in Rome in the late 1950s and the late 1970s. in those cases, too, most of the protagonists of fertile seasons in artistic production and critical debate came from specific classrooms, from specific teaching methodologies — or we could say, from specific teachers.
The growth in the role of many Academies today is linked to the great work they have done to transform their own faces. They have done so through the structural expansion of their areas of teaching; through the introduction of courses dedicated to new technologies; through the expansion of the languages and techniques studied (thus with an enrichment of the laboratories on both a numerical and typological level); and through the powerful strengthening of the theoretical and historical-critical disciplines. But much of the growth also owes to the steady recruitment of a large number of artists-historians-critics-curators directly involved in the art system, who have brought to the classrooms a knowledge, linked to professional experience, that has entered into dialogue with existing ones. From this dialogue has sprung a vitality without precedent. It is the result of the proliferation of design, production and exhibition activities, and of the adoption of a perspective that favours networking together with public and private institutions in individual territories. This process has led to innovative collaborations between figures with different, often complementary competences, who in the past never crossed paths because of their mutual cultural diffidence. It is as if the crisis of the art system’s once iron logics has led to the breaking down of certain behavioural taboos, allowing freer forms of exchange and interaction.
It is worth noting that the difficulties associated with the lack of equivalence with the university system have not materially interfered with this development, for it is endemically linked to the very energy of art, which bureaucracy cannot govern. Equivalence with the university is not necessary to sanction the value of what is debated and experimented in the classrooms; the lack of equalisation of degrees and teachers’ salaries does not affect the generative processes of art. If anything, this question has to do — and this is no small thing — with the place that contemporary art occupies in the cultural order of Italy. To think of contemporary art in a still subordinate position in the symbolic-value framework of knowledge, almost in a final homage to the old hierarchical logic between the liberal arts and the mechanical arts, constitutes an embarrassing cultural omission (and if we think that the sports sciences and the performing arts are attached to the university system while visual arts departments are denied such recognition, this verges on the ridiculous).
But some questions arise with respect to the art-academy-future trajectory: what would allow Academies to maintain an active role in the constitution of emerging art scenes? How can we consolidate a fruitful liaisonbetweeneducational institutions and artists, in an ever-changing world?
If we look at what has happened within the art system over the last thirty years, at the ever faster and more dogmatic alternation of trends in the modes, sites and contents of art, it is hard to imagine how Academies could ever have responded in real time to such an unstable and heteronomous scenario. By taking in and pandering to everything at a breakneck speed? By rethinking and rewriting their whole way of doing things every time a new “must” arrivedfrom some scene that temporarily came into vogue? But for our part, what positions would we like the Academies to have taken with respect to the degeneration of certain aspects of the system? How would we like to imagine them in the future, faced with possible new aberrations of behaviour and values?
I believe that the answer is to be found in the very structure of this centuries-old institution, in the basic idea that underpins it, i.e. that of the laboratory (which is wrongly exploited, moreover, to scuttle its university recognition under the pressure of ill-concealed corporatist interests). I believe that everything must still revolve around this idea, provided it is interpreted in its highest and most historically articulated meaning.
The laboratory is the physical place in which one or more bodies, in their happy and cultured fullness (I hope no more words need to be devoted to explaining what the concept of body implies, today, and definitively), experiment, elaborate, and produce through the adoption of methodologies and techniques. They do so using existing tools or modifying them, sabotaging them, inventing new ones, studying the behaviour of the materials or immaterial components of that which one wants to realise. But the laboratory is, above all, a furrow of ideation and design, it is a building-site of discussion, it is the complex, magical and problematic terrain where the teacher and the learner meet and where the student shares an irreplaceable community experience with their fellow students.
Today, we can take many things as laboratories: the engraving or sculpture classroom or an urban area, the sound design or painting classroom as well as the landscape, the animation or performance techniques classroom as well as a tailor’s shop, or a building site, or an ancient ceramic kiln, or an unexplored beach, a puppet collection, a nuclear physics centre in the belly of a mountain, or a poetry collection. The laboratory, just like an artist’s studio, is the fulcrum of a praxis; but even before it is that, it is the metaphor of the search for the meaning of things, it is the place and the mode of the formulation of an idea for the present. It is a way of being, the one most proper to art as a form of knowledge that investigates the real and the unreal, as a field of encounter between ratio and imaginatio, as a political form of investigation into the world. We could also think of it as an ethical form, based on which we can explore the frontiers of the new, strengthen ties with the territory, cultivate knowledge of traditions, in a constant exercise of thought. Evidently, here, I am talking about a laboratory that does not correspond to some lecturer’s narcissistic refuge, but rather an experiential dimension in which, with different times and methods, the academic community, in its biographical and cultural heterogeneity, compares and builds.
To pursue a dialogue with the art world without being subjected to the system’s homologating drives, it is very important — to some extent disrupting the dominant models — to assume a working model based not only on the interaction between distant competences and visions, but also on the intergenerationality of viewpoints. This means finding a resonance among teachers, the learners, and the many international guests who — in workshops, seminars, conferences, exhibitions and talks — animate everyday academic life and constantly review the issues and urgent questions on the table.
Creating a pulsating chorus that thinks, debates, accepts, rejects, plans, realises, and exposes is the key to an effective didactics that recognises when it is time to change and renew itself. If one allows oneself the freedom to rapidly engage with the new without necessarily having to file away the already consolidated knowledge; if one draws on the refinement of critical capacities rather than emulative ones; then one can succeed in working in the present in a timely manner while also preparing for the future, and evade the risk of growing old quickly after having been too zealous to codify passing fashions.
The same applies to the relationship with the past, including the recent past, which must be approached critically, synchronising it with today’s realities, treating it as a propulsive resource for thought and not as a repertoire of models. And take note: the past for the very young is not just Greco-Roman statues or the Raphael Rooms or the Impressionists. The art of the 1990s and 2000s is also the past.
The question of models thus remains one of the fulcrums of art education and, at the same time, a spectre it has to confront. One of the problematics on which work remains to be done is that of finding a proper balance between maeutic practice and models, education for discipline and the culture of freedom, autonomy and heteronomy. I believe that the answer lies, once again, in the exercise of construction, deconstruction and verification that pertains to every intellectual activity and has always belonged to art. As Luciano Fabro taught us, art returns to art.
I will finish by saying that if Academies are to remain credible in the long run, they will have no choice but to commit to cultivating the spirit of the akademia ofGreek matrix, that of the academia ofLatin imprint, and probably also that of the academy in the corporate world. That also means not forgetting to dedicate some space to reflection on failure. Last year we invited William Kentridge to the Academy in Palermo. Speaking before a packed audience of students (we were in a cinema), rather than dwell on telling us about his processes or the meaning of his works, the great South African artist wanted to share the experience of the multidisciplinary centre he had founded in Johannesburg a few years ago, dedicating it to error and all that this can bring with it: The Centre for The Less Good Idea.