Contemporary art?

“Art is what the world will become, not what the world is.” (Karl Kraus),

Art is not born in museums or at the hands of art critics and event curators.

Museums house works of art but do not participate in their genesis, which takes place in small, much less opulent spaces. Piet Mondrian made the greatest revolution by painting in small, modest apartments; his last studio in New York was partly furnished with furniture made from wood derived from fruit crates. Henri Matisse made masterpieces in a hotel room. All Julius Bissier needed to create a world of beauty was a table.

Time passes and finally insiders take note of the importance of certain works, an importance already attributed to them by a few connoisseurs who, well before official proclamations, had recognized their quality and significance. Such works become part of private collections that are often donated to museums, which preserve them and, for a fee, make them available to a wider public. Over time museums such as Paris Beauburg, London Tate Modern, Amsterdam Stedelijk, NYC Metropolitan and MoMA have acquired some of the most important works of the twentieth century.

Contemporary art museums, on the other hand, are places that present daily fresh art to the public. Artists often create their works on site, that is, in the very places that then exhibit them, promoting them. Directors, critics and curators, who in the past almost never understood the work of innovative artists, seem to have become so good today that they can even announce in advance the art to come.

When has new art ever been so readily recognized and celebrated by contemporaries?

It might perhaps be in times when artistic expression is based on established languages and shared canons but certainly not today after everything has been turned upside down and great confusion reigns over what can be called art. Are we supposed to believe that we are confronted with a work of art the very moment it is presented to us only because it is sponsored by galleries, dealers, newspapers and television stations? Can the discernment skills and intellectual honesty of these people be trusted? Or are we not dealing with value attributions programmed in advance according to precise commercial strategies? History teaches that when it is art that chases the public, it does not go very far.

Another disarming and almost pathetic example is the MAXXI (Museum for the Arts of the Twenty-First Century) in Rome. For the opening of the new museum, Prof. Oliva curated an exhibition by a certain De Dominicis that looked like a funeral. Oliva prides himself on having mounted elsewhere an exhibition of Giorgio De Chirico, a painter who represented a myopic and reactionary position in the twentieth-century art scene.

During a meeting, suggested to me in 2003 by Alain Elkann with Mr. Paolo Colombo – then director of the nascent MAXXI – the same told me that they favored “representational art,” that is, figurative. Evidently for Mr. Colombo, abstract art represents nothing. These would be the people who should lead us into the 21st century.

Once there were historians and art critics. Now we have curators of events.

Historians and art critics, who used to study, go in depth and then explain and educate the public, have been replaced by curators whose function is mainly to organize events to increase the number of admissions to museums and sell catalogs full of big pictures and rather poor in content. Studies, insights and adequate explanations matter little. During the above meeting, Mr. Colombo added that “it is not that important that the public understands.” And these are people paid with public money.

As art exhibitions have turned into a lucrative trade, the figure of the curator, who sets up sensational events to attract masses of consumers, turns out to be more congenial than the figure of historians and critics who write long and demanding dissertations that sell poorly. The curator need not be an educated person; it is enough to attend a course for aspiring curators offered by some contemporary art museums.

It would not be all that bad if, in addition to producing hype and profit, contemporary art museums also generated ideas, beauty and harmony. Majakowsky said it was necessary to elevate the masses to art. Today we do the opposite by lowering the level of cultural offerings in order not to lose audience. And to lend an aura of mystery to often insignificant things, the promoters of contemporary art prefer convoluted and incomprehensible things that generate bewilderment in the public. If art, real art, the art of the Cézannes, Picassos, Brancusi and Malewitch was not understood then, the fact that contemporary art is often not understood either is a guarantee of quality and authenticity.. Not so?

Lowering the level of cultural offerings to increase the amount of paying audience.

This is where another strand of the contemporary started, which consists of a recovery of the past passed off as novelty: Neorealism, Neoclassicism, Post-Modernism. Neo, trans and post which basically mean inability to give new plastic form to today’s reality.

I remember a conference at Palazzo Taverna in Rome in the mid-1970s. Among those present was the then-future Professor Oliva who, after his poor results as a conceptual artist, was preparing the redemption that according to him consisted in recovering the manual skill of painting. As I said on the previous page, this was his own problem since we painting–good painting–had not forgotten it at all.

Having established business synergies with some North American galleries, during said conference ours declared that “America imports Karl Marx and exports Charlie Marx” where “Karl Marx” stands for Oliva’s “revolutionary” proposals and “Charlie Marx” for the coveted overseas success. A rather pathetic way of marrying the lust for glory and dough with the then dutiful obedience to Marxism.

Aesthetics and ethics.

“The conscience of the artist is a pure and faithful mirror where he must be able to reflect his work, every day, as soon as he rises, without fear of blushing. The creator’s permanent responsibility to himself and to the world is not an empty word: by helping the universe build itself, the artist maintains his personal dignity” (Henri Matisse)

In the spring of 1925, Dutch art critic Paul Sanders commissioned his brother to purchase a work by Piet Mondrian. Believing the sum received to be excessive, the Dutch master will give him two works. We are light years away from today’s fixers disguised as artists who are not satisfied with exorbitant sums for insubstantial things.

Those who work only to attain fame and dough cannot wait, but a true artist does not work except to obey an inner dictate; whatever it takes and wherever that path leads him. An artist believes in his path and does not care for the judgment of others. As an unknown young artist Matisse said, “If Cézanne is right, I too will be right.”

Time has proved him right. Time will prove us right.