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Lorenzo Madaro

In his day, Renato Guttuso was known (and recognised) even by blue-collar workers. But who among the public totally detached from active connection to the art of our time knows Francesco Vezzoli, or is familiar with the imaginary of any other successful Italian artist? What has happened to the graphic works by Bruno Cassinari, Salvatore Fiume and Aligi Sassu that so many Italians proudly hung on the walls of their (far from necessarily bourgeois) flats? Do the multiples that Treccani Arte now offers through such great efforts, via studied and purposeful planning — with the collaboration of contemporary artists through calcographic studies and ancient printing techniques — still appear in the living rooms of the average Italian keen on “furnishing” their home with art? Why is it that in wealthy provincial areas members of the so-called ruling class will spend ten thousand euros on a “flash” design table, even as they fill the walls and other spaces in the home with framed pieces of tat that would only make sense if hung in some seaside trattoria? Why is there an (irremediable?) rift in Italy between contemporary art and the reality of those who could afford to have it in their homes, regardless of its real or presumed prices? These and other questions come to mind every time I have the chance to peek into the homes not necessarily of the working class (does it still exist?), but also into the somewhat bourgeois interiors of today’s forty- and fifty-somethings, who lack any interest in establishing a relationship with the artwork, be it a multiple or a unique specimen. Why does everyone still want Castiglioni’s Arco lamp, while very few yearn to own a work of art? Have you ever seen what the vast majority of lawyers, notaries, accountants and doctors have on the walls of their offices? Often, cosmic nothingness: reproductions of junk that they bought God knows where, or pseudo-material compositions tracked down in some Sunday painter’s atelier. As I write this first part of the text, there is a friend a few inches away from me, here on the plane. He is a go-getting exec at a top firm, who at the time of our first acquaintance had a work by a very bad pseudo-expressionist painter from Calabria in his house, despite the fact that my friend has always been a curious traveller and cultural consumer, albeit mainly of music, publishing, and “cuisine.” Perhaps it is because he has had the chance to refine his tastes on these fronts, and perhaps also because he is not fully offered the opportunity to engage in a direct dialogue with today’s art. Or maybe not, I can’t give an answer on that score.

But back to bourgeois homes. The parents of today’s equally bourgeois forty- and fifty-somethings almost always owned a Paesaggio anemico by Mario Schifano or, at worst, a Pastorale by Remo Brindisi, a late painting by Ernesto Treccani (who, to tell the truth, before his commercial success, was a very good painter of history and lives) or a nude by Fiume. Some proudly displayed, until the 1990s, even Fantuzzi’s paintings, which the more far-sighted now resell for a few liras in flea markets. I also wonder what happened to the multiples by Guttuso himself that dotted so many living rooms. I remember that the father of a childhood friend of mine had his house overrun with small etchings of his that he had picked up as a boy at the Italian Communist Party’s Festa dell’Unità, where Guttuso was clearly considered — given his undying political militancy — a champion of civil rights and a powerful and loyal comrade. But apart from his active involvement in the party, Guttuso was popular — so much so that when he died in 1987, as Alessandra Mammì recalled a few years ago in l’Espresso, he was treated like a divo with funerals in grand style in Rome and in his native Palermo, perhaps also because of his intense and tormented affair with Countess Marta Marzotto, which so intrigued and scandalised Italy’s “upstanding citizens” at the time. Above all, he was an authoritative figure: he ended up on television, interviewed by names such as Indro Montanelli, and wrote columns in the newspapers of the time with a certain verve.

What do ordinary people today know about Cattelan? Certainly, some will chatter and wrinkle their noses — thanks to social media that have clearly amplified both the dissemination of news, and the superficiality of its reception — reading about the banana taped to the wall of an art fair, then ripped off by a boisterous prankster in 2019 during Art Basel Miami. But, beyond that, can the average citizen with an average lack of interest in art be said to grasp Cattelan’s thoughts and interface (and where?) with his work? How would they interpret it? More importantly, if it is true that they know about the middle finger in Piazza Affari, could it similarly be said that they know the name of the author of that huge marble wisecrack? Today, as Gian Maria Tosatti and other artists tell me, there is a strong focus on the popular dimension, and on an imaginary drawing also on folklore and immaterial culture. And yet, how many people outside the art world are familiar with the work of one of the most talented Italian artists of our time, Flavio Favelli, who has dedicated much of his research precisely to the popular, recovering the imaginary of illuminations, patronal feasts and devotion? Or what about Marinella Senatore, another name that is attempting to reflect on these themes, who has the same structures built ad hoc, creating huge scenographies within which she makes her performers interact? What capacity do we have today to convey the validity (or otherwise) of certain research, outside the narrow four walls of those who still insist on calling this world of ours the contemporary art system? And, above all, are we really willing to do so?

In recent days, in the Corriere della Sera’s “La Lettura” supplement, Vincenzo Trione has reignited the debate on the appropriateness of captions in museums and galleries, and their necessity for conveying a thought and making the visitor aware of what they are looking at. But perhaps, today, the real question is: how do we get the general public into the great museum-machine, thus enabling them to interface with a work of art and, consequently, with its caption? The subject of the “invisible” public has been racking our brains for a while, we know. Didactic workshops, grassroots projects and the attention paid by the didactic departments of Italian museums are now the order of the day. But are we sure that it is still right to be thinking about traditional ideas of putting in more work? A few departments — I am thinking in particular of the Castello di Rivoli art museum — are making a real effort. But it is not enough. When Germano Celant died, I think hardly any Italian television news programme reported it — and this, even though Celeant was the only name who systematically supported Italian contemporary art abroad from the 1960s to the 1980s, and did so with absolute authority. But why all this disinterest, why this cultural neglect? Is it the fault of the few — almost entirely absent — hours of art history in Italy’s schools? If we think that in most Italian classrooms there is hardly any such study at all, we should then ask ourselves another question. Swallowed up as we still are by the cult of the past, we cannot imagine that we could occupy ourselves with the present — with what is being born and germinating around us — with similar curiosity. Certainly, the majority of Italians outside the art world who knew the name of Mario Schifano in the 1960s and 1970s associated him more with his chemical exploits or trips to prison than with the profound meaning of his monochromes or anaemic landscapes. In each case, however, there was more awareness, there was a ferment that probably allowed for greater dissemination of art in ordinary life. Yet, there were no contemporary art museums (indeed they emerged late in Italy compared to other contexts — as we know Rivoli opened in December 1984 and MAXXI not until 2003) and, above all, there was no Internet. And we do not need publicity slogans(“All art was once contemporary”) to convince those who will turn up their noses at a young artist’s installation, nor do we need the consolation of the (enormous) numbers at many mainstreamexhibitions scattered across the Belpaese to take the edge off our concerns about these matters. Rather, we need a collective commitment that can only start from the art world itself. How much does it cost to enter MAXXI if you do not have a discount or are not an accredited journalist? How much do the books and catalogues that we churn out at the speed of light, every day, cost? Why should a student at an academy of fine arts have to pay for a ticket (which they find expensive) to visit foundations and museums in the city where they are studying, while they are already paying top dollar for rent and struggling to make a decent living? So, come to think of it, the issues that we should be asking ourselves about are primary questions, which take precedence over cultural or conceptual ones. Doubtless, many non-sectorial magazines and some newspapers do not pay enough attention to art to go beyond the promotion of a few events — but the tangles that urgently need unravelling are quite different ones. Now that there is no longer the Telemarket shopping channel to educate and miseducate Italy’s TV viewers about art, what will become of home-based learning?