Many people today believe that to call oneself an artist it is enough to do strange things.
The clueless do not know that the masters of the modern movement, creators-they themselves-of a genuine revolution, had no intention of astounding and scandalizing and indeed often went to great lengths to try to explain their work.
After painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Pablo Picasso folded the canvas, put it under his bed and was on the verge of setting it on fire to keep warm during the winter. So many are unaware that the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century were not born out of a whim of those who wanted to appear original at any cost, but out of a sincere inner dictation of those who felt the need to find new forms of expression that could more effectively represent a world that was changing before their eyes. Of that selfless and fruitful innovative spirit so many grasp today only the most superficial aspects.
Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Kasimir Malewitch, Piet Mondrian, inventors of the new art, wrote essays to explain their work. However, because in the eyes of the well-meaning the fruits of their labor appeared wacky, so many today believe they can call themselves artists by doing wacky things. Galleries and contemporary art museums have filled up with wacky things. As if in this way one could measure the intelligent creativity of an artist. Contemporary art venues have become a kind of lazaret where one witnesses the pathetic convulsions of sterile minds in search of quick notoriety.
And so, according to some, contemporary art is, “Girls in barracks, painters underwater, marble mirrors. The beauty of contemporary art is to undermine the logic of conventions to their foundations. In other words, to seduce with the unexpected and the unexpected. (…) ” So wrote a certain Laura Larcan in the daily newspaper La Repubblica reviewing some current exhibitions in Rome.
The world is overflowing with wacky things and those keep doing wacky things. They are therefore conservatives and not the revolutionary innovators they would like to seem.
The real challenge today is not to come up with continual provocations that upset common sense since it is being continually subverted by facts today: in social, political, financial life. The real challenge today is no longer to scandalize and destroy as in DADA’s time but to design and build. And here one is left with very few.
Sometimes to rediscover the eternal and inexhaustible source from which new things are born, one must go back to the origins.
History teaches that in certain periods innovating means knowing how to continue on the path set by predecessors.
In the past there were artists who disrupted an established tradition and opened new horizons; I am thinking of the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca. These were succeeded by others who continued on the path traced by those by masterfully developing their premises. I am thinking especially of Raffaello, Tiziano, Tiepolo. Art does not live by constant change. To be up to the task it is not always necessary to distort the work of those who have gone before us if what has gone before us can still be a source of new and fruitful experimentation. Unless one only wants to satisfy one’s little ego and not already the progress of art and culture. If we were to apply the egocentric criterion of a permanent rejection of predecessors, Raffaello should have avoided the work of Perugino. Cézanne, who started the most incisive revolution in the arts, went to the Louvre and to learn “copied” Poussin. Only weak minds fear comparison and do not welcome the excellence of others. Perhaps also because they cannot even recognize them.
Instead, a rampant common sense driven by ignorance, inability and bad faith thinks that if you want to appear brilliant today you have to do something that no one has ever done before you but, since doing something really new is not as easy as so many empty little heads think, the great mass of would-be creators end up proposing flimsy things: “gimmicks and gimmicks dressed up as flashes of genius” as Fausto Melotti says.
The official scene, which did not understand the new during the first half of the twentieth century, does everything today to seem open to all sorts of novelties. Always changing everything so that in reality nothing changes.
When it was necessary to renew languages that had become obsolete but were so beloved by the bourgeoisie of the time, artists who looked forward were thwarted. Then when they, through art, architecture and town planning, dared to broaden their gaze by foreshadowing more just and balanced societies, the armed hand of the bourgeoisie branded them as “degenerate artists.”
After World War II, attempts were made to resume a free and fruitful development of art, but few understood all that had been created during the first half of the twentieth century. Thus, without taking into account the immense scope of the new and its many as yet unexpressed potentials, many superficial minds thought that in order to make art one had to keep coming up with all sorts of “novelties.” So-called conceptual art was the one that seemed to push the envelope but, because of this, generated further disorientation in an already confused art market since it was rather difficult to sell an idea in place of an artifact. Painting was also not of much interest because commonplaces led people to think that beyond Malewitch’s White Square on White are on White they could no longer go. They did not realize that, after that white square, Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie had rekindled painting with the most vivid colors in the world in a masterful composition that tells us about nature and life on a universal level. Somewhat challenging stuff, even for insiders.
The radical changes introduced in the field of plastic arts during the first half of the twentieth century had generated disorientation in a public that during the second half of the century gradually increased in number. Toward the end of the 1970s it began to become clear that a system needed to be built that could handle the growing demand for art by obviating the difficulties faced by the public when confronted with a new and challenging pictorial language. What was needed was a system that guaranteed the production, distribution and consumption of art by ensuring a prosperous commercial return but at the same time gave the impression that it was not subject to the rigid rules of profit, but was open and available to all sorts of unpredictable novelty and indeed made continuous novelty its banner. In short, it was necessary to channel art on commercially promising and voluminous paths while masking everything with continuous and irreverent transgression. “The avant-garde as a job” to quote Fausto Melotti again.
Thus was born the restoration, disguised as a permanent revolution, to which the name “art system” was given.
A system aimed at recovering and greening a disoriented market. A business committee ostensibly free and unconnected to any preordained scheme but in reality well designed to satisfy voracious commercial appetites. Similar disguises of a capitalism led by a decadent bourgeoisie have also been expressed in recent decades in social, political, economic and especially financial life.
In addition to looking after the interests of merchants, galleries and museums, the system had to support an economy that thrives on exhibitions, publications and events with all the ancillary industries that revolve around them (graphic designers, publishers, printers, bookstores, transporters, insurers, fitters, electricians, cafeterias, lawyers, accountants, advertisers, consultants etc. etc.) who need to make cash in the short to medium term. To keep this under control one could not wait for the fluctuating moods and unpredictable times of real artists who by their nature almost always work for tomorrow. It was therefore necessary to raise a flock of artistic personalities tamed to today’s concrete market demands.
“Tell the young artists that the craft of painting has nothing to do with amateurism and is absolutely refractory to stories of fashion, bluff or speculation.” (Matisse)
What is offered by the “art system” at contemporary art museums and galleries today is largely fashion, bluff and speculation. And as in the past, influential circles in the official scene are pointing roads while, once again, away from the spotlight art goes quietly on its way.
“Art is a religion; its purpose is to elevate thought.” (Cézanne)
Instead of elevating the public to art, directors, curators and multinational cultural corporations have reduced official art to the lowest common denominator; in order not to lose audience, sell works, catalogs and museum admission tickets. There has been a desire to turn art into a series of events within everyone’s reach, and this is certainly not wrong, but it has been done at the expense of quality and substance.
The repeated presence in exhibition and media circuits succeeds in the titanic feat of turning anything into a “work of art.”
The remarkable ability of the “art system” is not in identifying and proposing works of art as much as it is in making people believe that anything is art. These culture marketers manage to achieve such a result by serving events aimed at generating hype and interest around an object that, to expert eyes, may be completely insignificant. Hence the role of the so-called “creative critic” who must build synergies with museums, galleries and especially the media in order to generate the illusion of value where there is no value. Unfortunately, all this cannot be proven because art is not mathematical and if you do not have the powerful and convincing megaphones of the media circus at your disposal, your arguments-no matter how well-founded and substantive-do not carry any weight.
I think such strategies are largely traceable to a certain North American mentality where the value of things is often loudly proclaimed by those who propose them until they become credible to the ears of the listener.
A smile came to my face one day in New York upon hearing a speech by the then mayor, Ed Koch, who, when presenting to a group of residents the restored little Madison Square park (a modest garden at the crossroads of avenues and streets), said it was the most beautiful park in the world. I wonder if the mayor had ever seen the Paris Tuilleries, the Berlin Tiergarten or London Hyde Park.
In a land that has less than three hundred winters, where cultural coordinates are multiple but not layered by a long history, the field is clear for those who can make people believe that their goods are the best in the world. Land of opportunities once said emigrants trying their luck in the States. Well, why not do that with art as well?
It will not be that difficult considering the cultural level of today’s tycoons willing to invest their money in art.
During the last two decades of the twentieth century, the art market turned into the art of making a market.
It was said of the ability of the so-called “art system” to generate value where there is no value. If I put any object in a well-known museum and if I can get the megaphone of newspapers, radio and television stations, so many will end up believing that that object must have some value. Therein lies the creative genius of contemporary art notables. Quintessence of capitalism: it is no longer just a matter of generating plus-value from a previously ascertained value as much as, instead, attributing value to a horse’s head, a stuffed fish or a banana, i.e., to nothing and then being able to sell it at a high price. Therein lies the creative genius. And there are also those who, through lack of salt in the noggin or bad faith, go so far as to say that such operations are meant to provoke in the public reflections on art.
In this festival of the uselessly clever, the finest operation is certainly the one orchestrated under the acronym “bansky.” Other works of hot air have followed from the early 1980s onward under such acronyms as “neue wilden,” “arte povera,” “transavanguardia,” “hyperrealism” etc. etc.
The main goal of the art system was to propose seemingly lavish and easily digestible things for a potential pool of buyers who in the meantime were no longer the intelligent, educated and far-sighted collectors of the first half of the twentieth century who discovered unknown talents that would later become the Matisses and Picassos, but rather ignorant but greedy new rich people eager for recognizable objects. Like designer clothes, thanks to the easily and immediately recognizable label affixed by certain museums and media who participate in the party with their own definite gain. Merchants, fixers, directors, curators and self-styled artists play, more or less consciously, the part of nonconformists in order to disguise a devious obedience to a system aimed only at making people talk about themselves and their followers. Once upon a time, artists were judged by the works they made; today, works are judged by the media hype that the artist of the day and his protectors manage to raise. It is not important what you do but that we are talked about. After all, if the works say nothing, something has to be talked about.
The Euro-American consortiums thus initiated an industry that, no longer having to wait for the imponderables of art, would decide in advance what should be considered art. This would have made it possible to invest while guaranteeing a secure return. A free art market interested in quality and aimed at a discerning public was thus becoming an art of making market for anyone with capital to invest. For North Americans, the children of fortune-seeking immigrants, commercial success is itself one of the most valued and respected forms of creativity. Lacking refined qualitative criteria, they identify the value of a painting with the price at which it sells, and the more you can scrape together, the more it becomes an important work of art. Art of making ends meet.
Art-the real kind, as has always been the case for the past one hundred and twenty years-can wait.