As if there is no more criticism being done. In Italy, art criticism exists and lives, but it is diluted

Is art criticism dead? No: it also exists and is alive in Italy, but it is well diluted in the river of words that flows every day. A comparison of art criticism and film criticism.

Windows on Art ’s invitation to discuss the fate of art criticism deserves a “critical response,” and, in my opinion, it is good to start with some firm points. Art criticism is a job of substance, requiring preparation and expertise; a job, therefore, to be honed with experience, but also with intuition and, above all, curiosity. Curiosity to understand, deepen, argue and analyze an artistic process that has come to completion and to a (temporary) stasis. Critical discourse always adds something further and derivative to the artist’s work and produces texts that are the result of a creative and sense-generating practice lateral and tangential to the work of art. Criticism arises from a dialogue, and depending on whether this takes place from a close or distant position, mute and solitary, or shared and reciprocal, then it takes on different connotations, varying its pattern. The importance of the encounter between these instances, that of the artist and that of the critic, assumes vital importance for art and the artist.

In Italy, contemporary art criticism exists and lives, although well diluted in the river of words that incessantly flows on online and offline titles and platforms, so much so that it is not immediate to isolate it and take advantage of it. Yet, I must admit that, at times, it has happened to share with friends and colleagues working in the editorial offices of art magazines, the observation that a certain art criticism is increasingly rare, if we understand that critical discourse untethered from the one-way direction of positive semaphore judgment and appreciation as a due act (it must also be said that it does not even reach a judgment of taste, very often, attesting to an even more involuted stage of commentary). Among the most plausible hypotheses is the fact that in the editorial line of some newspapers, negative criticism has been replaced by a more fair and opportunistic indifference: a kind of overlooking, not mentioning, ignoring what is not considered worthy of note and comment. The result is a review (which should therefore be a selection) of positive critical pieces. Leaving aside some immediate and collateral consequences of such a “positivist” attitude - such as, for example, a certain undeniable homogenization of “service” criticism - the doubt remains that, at least statistically, not exactly everything given visibility turns out to be successful, effective and expendable in critical discourse. What Alfonso Berardinelli said about cultural journalism(Repubblica, Dec. 3, 2021) can also be partially found in contemporary art: it is part of the logic of the market, to which art and mainstream magazines respond to a good (though not total) extent, that certain artists, projects, entities or subjects also receive greater visibility because of an accrued social credit, and thus because of a discrete potential influence on the vital functions of the magazine itself.

Henri Gervex, La giuria del Salon (1885; olio su tela, 299 x 419 cm; Parigi, Musée d'Orsay)
Henri Gervex, The Jury of the Salon (1885; oil on canvas, 299 x 419 cm; Paris, Musée d’Orsay)

Separate discussion would merit the criticism published in the volumes. “Who reads the texts in catalogs anymore?”, Enrico Crispolti was fond of noting again in recent years, continuing, “if we delude ourselves that we are writing for our contemporaries we are mistaken, one writes for future memory... as long as it is well ordered.” The ethical sense of our craft should also pass through the awareness that what we write today could foster further analysis, a greening of critical discourse in the near or distant future. Criticism, in fact, always adds something to the existing, giving rise to a discourse and a series of discourses, which continue and thicken. To advance doubts, to contest, to crush (if it is deemed useful), represents a constitutive part of critical discourse, and if we remove it, if we deprive ourselves of it as a system community, we not only do harm to the community (slowing down its rhizomatic development) but we take away from theartist a not insignificant part of the discourse around his or her work, inevitably limiting not only its impact but also its permanence in memory; in fact, the more complex critical discourse is structured around a work, the more it will fortify its presence in the imagination and in the critical discourse itself.

For family reasons, I often compare myself with those who study film and I happen to envy the critical vibrancy of that systemic community; for them, negative criticism is spent much more frequently alongside the passionate discourse of defense and appreciation. Critique also becomes practice but is almost always defined within a perimeter of due and proper respect for the object of analysis. Even from critiques and negative criticisms, in fact, a discourse of meaning is generated that is thus amplified into a thought-enriching debate. For these reasons, I have often reflected on the differences between the film and contemporary art systems. First of all, critics (as well as audiences) of cinema are given almost instantaneous enjoyment of the works, major or minor, that are internationally produced, and although it seems rhetorical or superfluous to mention it, in my opinion this is the simple and non-theoretical demonstration that cinema is still, in historical perspective, the “new” medium. If we exclude works of net art or video that can also be enjoyed on the small screen, it is more onerous and complicated for us lovers of visual and plastic art to enjoy in the presence of the works we would like to analyze or on which we would like to update ourselves, and very often we rely on reproductions, re-mediations, narratives, more or less effective documentation. Here then is explained, to a small degree, the amount of chronicles of art (thus devoid of judgment or critical discourse) that can mistakenly be mistaken for criticism. The anchoring, necessary, of a work of art in space and time, as opposed to the replicability of cinema on screens, is no small difference. It follows that art criticism of the works examined in presence is oriented within an affordable range depending on the means at one’s disposal, the time one can devote to travel and commuting, and the exclusive choice one ends up making. For this reason, too, art criticism has absolutely marked national or even regional characteristics compared to film criticism that is by its nature international. In fact, one can see how, in contemporary art, a certain criticism-even negative criticism-emerges mainly with respect to works and operations by artists with an international or global profile and resonance, and this by virtue of the distance that is established between these artists and a good slice of militant criticism. When, on the other hand, one moves within a narrower network, the community collaborates, dialogues, and exchanges favors and works, and it is therefore human nature that one sometimes prefers quiet life and professional opportunity to the integrity and depth of critical discourse. In these cases, paradoxically, the most authentic criticism is done verbally, when opinions and impressions are exchanged, in some cases even ruthless but always, as far as I can testify based on experience, serious, motivated and therefore respectful. In many cases, writing sweetens the judgment, when one does not prefer (as stated at the beginning) to overlook, ignore, move on.

Words and language are the tool and the richness of critical discourse; they can be used to expand the narrative but also to offer analysis that can test, flush out what the artist has done or believed he or she has done. If this relationship of intellectually honest reciprocity, between art and criticism, were re-established, then even silence would gain its proper weight and, in a sense, critical significance.

This contribution was originally published in No. 13 of our print magazine Windows on Art Magazine. Click here to subscribe.