Art, Art, Art. All we talk about today is art. Constantly, daily, almost inevitably. Art, then. But what does it mean? Which art are we talking about today? And above all, for whom? This is what we must ask ourselves in order to talk about art without lapsing into a dangerous stereotype – which is being encouraged by the market and the media, so that the only art we consider today is “contemporary” art. Fairs, exhibitions, art dealers, influencers, bloggers and so on. But – who are these ladies and gentlemen telling us what art “is”? And how many, and which ones, have the necessary, nay, indispensable culture to guide us into this world?
Let’s start from the end, from the point of no return: 2010, the annus horribilis of Mariastella Gelmini’s education reform in Italy. As if the snobbism of some cultural (and political) approaches, which counterbalanced the arrogance of some others, wasn’t enough, the historical inadequacy of the textbooks studied in the Italian universities clashed with the Gelmini reform – which minimized the problem by having the teaching hours cut to the bone, both in vocational schools and high schools. From there to the infamous Economic of the Arts or other university and parauniversity master’s degrees, the step was but short and irreversible. A jump into the void, or rather, into cultural and conceptual chaos.
In order to try to understand something about it, we need to take a step back. And remember that talking about art means at least knowing the major artists who, in a given century, have dictated the style or revolutionized the past: just think of Masaccio, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Leonardo, Raffaello and all those artists/architects such as Bernini and Borromini, who have contributed to giving their country that awesome nickname that distinguishes it from the rest of the world: Italy is nothing less than the Belpaese. That was until Duchamp, who, claiming to be firmly convinced that art does not need beauty, made us also think that perhaps art does not need culture either.
As if art presented itself as the death of beauty, going hand in hand with the spectacularization of contemporaneity and its own decadence – ending up involving both users and audience, and creating new “sector technicians” that aren’t required to have a good level of culture because, precisely, culture is no longer necessary.
After all, Philip K. Dick used to say that “The trouble with being educated is that it takes a long time; it uses up the better part of your life and when you are finished what you know is that you would have benefited more by going into banking.”. So, we have unraveled the mystery: why spend time studying the art of an hypothetical past, which no one is interested in today, when working in the fantastic world of art only requires little information – which can be easily obtained by browsing through digital archives or asking the artists themselves? Why study, when all it takes is to be à la page, do public relations and be constantly informed on what happens on social media?
And remember that talking about art means at least knowing the major artists who, in a given century, have dictated the style or revolutionized the past: just think of Masaccio, Michelangelo, Caravaggio. That was until Duchamp.
And here comes the second part of the problem: what contributed to this disinterest in any cultural value of art? One answer is money, or rather the perversion of money that has become increasingly common in the last century and especially in the second half of the twentieth century. The financialization of reality (the global rise of the rich who, just like in the past, but without the cultural tools of the past, see in art the representation of their role and power) has come full circle, just like Nietzsche had foreseen: in one of his lectures on the future of schools, he had stigmatized the state of cultural unease that we know so well today. “Who will lead you to the homeland of culture when your guides are blind and yet pose as seers! Who among you will attain a true feeling for the sacred earnestness of art when you are spoiled with methods that encourage you to stutter on your own when you should be taught to speak, to pursue the beautiful on your own when you should be made to piously worship the artwork, to philosophize on your own when you should be forced to listen to the great thinkers. The consequence is to keep you forever distant from antiquity, mere slaves to the present.”
We could say that the answer to Nietzsche came a century later, with the success, thanks to social media, of new “intellectual” figures, often improvised and always good-looking, that we could even dare to define as snobbish. These new cultural, but above all economic operators invented a new way of “making culture”, to the detriment of an uneducated and unprepared public, which finds itself to be so delightfully influenced by their appeal and by their virtual success. Once upon a time, not even such a long time ago, art was the prerogative of true connaisseurs, or a matter of reflection for writers like Baudelaire, Wilde, Apollinaire, Sainte-Beuve. Nowadays, however, the social interactions that revolve around this world are the most varied and multifaceted, and are all dictated by economic and social interests, rather than cultural ones. However, art generates emotions, art creates feelings related to different times or cultures. And that’s something money can’t buy.
What happened? What cultural and economic changes have led to an exposition of the creative function and fruition as a continuous operation of aesthetic decline?
The other great question about contemporary art is that of beauty. Is there still a time for beauty? The answer seems to be no. How can a painting by Fontana arouse feelings? Should we, on the contrary, prepare ourselves to a kind of form-less beauty? It would seem so. In its multiple declinations and in the diversity of forms and nuances, contemporary art conceptualizes beauty, which is based on social rather than aesthetic criteria, where money compensates for the concept of beauty, art and culture. Art, today, lives in an enigmatic ethical dimension, and has an urgent need for beauty, especially in a political and cultural background that is constantly changing its boundaries and identities.
So, we find ourselves in a world where ambiguity reigns supreme, where styles and techniques are countless, where matter lies within a frame made of enigmas and metonymies, where artists question the audience without expressing concrete thoughts, where answers are infinite, continuous and varied, where form and matter almost completely disappear. Between “ready-made” and “assemblage”, the idea that one could create art without a direct manual commitment, without evoking reality, form and sign, seems not to interest at all the aesthetic culture of this century, leading experts in the field to an almost complete renunciation of knowledge of art history. In short: it is not necessary.
But it is art that, bursting into the second half of the last century with ambiguous and disconcerting themes, leaves critics, historians, enthusiasts and collectors speechless. Is the “fault” of all this lack to be attributed to the artists who were left speechless or to an audience who wanted to remain speechless voluntarily? Is it the sphinx questioning Oedipus or Oedipus questioning the sphinx? Marx once wrote: “Works of art, which represent the highest level of spiritual production, will find favour in the eyes of the bourgeois society only, if they are presented as being liable to directly generate material wealth.” In a temporal way, Friedrich Hölderlin argued the same theme, offering a different interpretation: “The first child of human, of divine Beauty is art. In art the divine man rejuvenates, and repeats himself, He wants to feel himself, therefore he sets his Beauty over against himself. Thus did man give himself his gods. For in the beginning man and his gods were one, when, unknown to itself, eternal Beauty was.”
What happened? What cultural and economic changes have led to an exposition of the creative function and fruition as a continuous operation of aesthetic decline? With the consciousness and awareness that the “created object” can never be a real substitute for the past and lost one. The answer is complex. One thing, however, seems certain: “If the Library of Alexandria was the emblem of our ambition of omniscience, the Web is the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence”. The culprit for these changes is consumption: an indefinite growth of objects, goods, products, social appearances that have transformed everything into an obligatory duty, into a forced and due expectation, where beauty, in a much broader sense, becomes less and less a gift and more and more a product, less and less an emotional and cultured impulse and more and more a project to be built and then spread in a society where an intense personalization of a faster and easier appearance is imposed, in an era where appearance is the proof of beauty.
Opening Image: Museum Gipsoteca Antonio Canova, Via Canova, Possagno, Italy. Photo Matteo Maretto on Unsplash.