"It does not matter what man's behavior will be once he is freed from work, nor what the content will be of intellectual production on the part of the masses; what is important is the use every man will make of his own untried imagination and therefore of his own life." (Andrea Branzi). The above thought is found in the Radical Architecture section of the catalog for Contemporanea, the huge exhibition in the underground parcheggio in the Borghese Gardens. That it is found in the architecture section and not in the painting and fine art section is revealing in that speculations on the future qualities of living seem to have completely vanished from the fine art areas and, instead, are increasingly discovered as major motivations for new architectural disciplines, such as urban planning, behavioural design and learning environments.
In fact it is not surprising that the most interesting contributions to new thought offered at Contemporanea come not so much from the art sections of the exhibition but rather from the newer, almost speculative sections such as "Architecture and Design", "Counterinformation" and the smaller yet urgent inclusions such as "L'immaginazione al potere" ["Power to imagination"], "Conceptual Architecture" and Gruppo Strum's "Per una città intermedia" ["For an intermediate city"]. Contemporanea is big, beautiful and amazingly inclusive. It represents impressive scholarship, intuition and labor on the part of its organizers, the artists and dealers involved, and the publishers of the fine catalog, itself a major document for everybody interested in advanced visual theory.
However Contemporanea is not a particularly contemporary exhibition. Unfortunately the tone set by Graziella Lonardi, General Secretary of Contemporanea is conventional and almost anti-contemporary. It suggests a dreary educational exercise (" …an examination of currents and modes interrelated within... these times") and it is clear that Ms. Lonardi doesn't have the foggiest idea (nor do most of her colleagues) of what the times are all about; they do, of course, have an inkling or two of what these times were about, but then the promise of authentically contemporary revelations goes begging.
Europeans frequently enjoy the completely ridiculous notion that America somehow represents the future and new American art is the most advanced cultural manifestation of our time. This, of course, is nonsense, yet European artists subscribe uncritically to American art concepts. To them the new IS American culture. In fact in many ways American popular and intellectual culture is way behind new European culture — in both the practical as well as theoretical areas. (To be sure, on a relatively low level European society tends to be sociologically very conservative, but that is not what we are discussing here). In response to European adulation, a completely chauvinistic cultural attitude has developed in America, and it will be amusing to watch this attitude crumble.
So what is new art in America should not necessarily be viewed as 1st important and 2nd really contemporary. In fact very often it is self-indulgent (like the way American's squander energy), smug and amazingly provincial. And if Ms. Lonardi's exhibition makes the mistake of equating new American culture with authentically contemporary culture, you can't blame her entirely. Her distinguished international committee consists of once-important figures, such as Alberto Moravia, John Cage, Rudolf Arnheim, Peter Brook, Man Ray, Buckminster Fuller and Renato Guttuso, to name a few. These are people who long ago influenced a generation or two of artists + intellectuals, saw themselves copied, admired and even scorned by the educational and artistic institutions. If the tone set by Ms. Lonardi and her international committee is not a very aggressive one, that does not mean that Contemporanea is without merit. It is the most ambitious exhibition of art and culture since Documenta 5 (Kassel, 1972).
The organization of the exhibition into general categories allowed the individual curators the option to freely expand concepts and to exploit limitations, and many did just that. And the generous space given the "Counterinformation" section cannot be written off as merely indifference. In America it would be unthinkable to give over a part of a public art exhibition to demonstrations of advanced political and social rhetoric, inspite of its genuinely human motivations. The "Counterinformation" section did not, obviously, receive lots of financial support and was presented without the backing of rich dealers and collectors. Yet posters and photographic displays from different countries, covering difficult, painful subjects (mental asylums, prisons, political and civil repressions, institutional indifference) were powerful and a credit to the sponsors of Contemporanea. The "Counterinformation" section, providing balance to what is, in general, an American oriented exhibition, contained almost no material from America! One reason surely must have been the inability of the organizers to make contact with the appropriate American representatives; the counter-cultural activity is certainly there.
By far the largest section of Contemporanea is devoted to "Contemporary Arts" (painting, sculpture, etc.) and was organized by Achille Bonito Oliva. It is a brilliant, thorough survey spanning the years 1955 to 1973 and contains many big major paintings by the big names like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The American Minimalists are all there, including Donald Judd, Kenneth Noland, Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman. There are the Conceptual and anti-form (process) artists of the New York and European schools. In fact the "historical" aspects of the exhibition serve to place even relatively new Conceptualists in an almost classic context; the Conceptual- Earth-Language works by such humourless American innovators as Robert Barry, Joseph Kosuth, Douglas Huebler and Lawrence Weiner are nicely balanced by the thoughtful and witty presentations by the likes of Vincenzo Agnetti and Gilbert and George, to name only two.
Mr. Bonito Oliva's job was to select, according to a sound critical scheme the important works of our lime, and it isn't his fault if many of these works (the same works that are always being selected as the Important Works of Our Time) are beginning to look pretty shabby. They derive their importance from the way they illustrate philosophic developments rather than providing qualitative visual references, and thus will not hold up for very long in visual competition. They never pretended to quality. Moving some dirt and rocks around was too serious an investigation to have to stoop to quality. Fooling around with numbers and lightbulbs and graph paper and scientific or epistomological texts was far too important a subversion of legitimate informative processes to have to stoop to quality. Throwing food around and constructing references to the superficiality of erotic imagery was much too fascinating a device for insulting established interests lo have lo worry about quality. In fact was not the very notion of quality viewed as a weapon in the arsenal of the establishment employed to extinguish real innovation and real progress?
At any rate, neither establishment nor its opposition had the slightest idea what quality was and how it could be brought about. The established institutions viewed joy and pleasure as antagonistic to economic growth and improved consumption. Quality was a nasty idea that contributed little to capitalistic progress. The artists had little choice but to "liberate… quality which was viewed as little more than another form of cultural repression. It's all there in Contemporanea and it took an underground parking lot to bring it all out. Art was made for Museums, we all now realize, and not parking lots. Contemporanea has succeeded in bringing together the most typical and scandalous monument of mainstream Western culture, the underground parking lot, with the most contemptuous artistic manifestations of that culture in the form of its contemporary art. What Mr. Bonito Oliva has done in his survey is to document the decline and fall of the culture and its counter movements, in a way that no museum could match.
The Warhols, Stellas and Reinhardts look great on the damp cement walls and the body, process and Conceptual pieces look dreadful because they belong in restricted, official culture places like museums. They were made to provoke and a parking garage is far too natural and far too horrible in itself to allow the works even a peep. A "documentation-survey" piece by Hans Haacke, banned from the Guggenheim Museum is tolerated in the Parcheggio; Wolf Vostell's rotting greens in Insalata insult everybody; Piero Sartogo's screens complement the catacombs by emphasizing their worst aspects; everything is damp, cold and shrouded in mist. There is no place to sit. There are no bars. Vast empty spaces. The cold cement floor tires the fee!. You think how nice it would be to drive around from exhibit to exhibit. The world's first drive-in museum. Well at least bicycles would be nice. (A permanent Contemporanea Museum in the Parcheggio. Why not?) Gregory Battcock