Don't touch Achille Bonito Oliva: he is an artist, and the work of art is his texts

Is the work of art marginal to the art system? The reality is even more extreme than Achille Bonito Oliva has portrayed it, and a demonstration can come from his texts, on which the critic often performs interesting self-recycling operations that can be considered true works of art.

Achille Bonito Oliva is right when, in his “Lecture” published in Robinson last February 18, he asserts with solid conviction that the work of art does not exist as a monad, but as a portion of a system that is completed by the surplus value guaranteed by the connections that the product of the artist’s mind and hand weaves “with critics, the market, collectors, museums, the public and the media.” He may also be right when he says that art “is the totality of all works published in art history books” (an axiom he has been going on to repeat in the same form since at least 1999), although he does not advance any new points and does no more than summarize, for the reader of Republic, the institutional theory of art that George Dickie formulated more half a century ago, in the late 1960s, when, rejecting de facto the idea that a work of art can have characteristics apart from its tangible evidence, he defined thework itself as an artifact to which a particular kind of social institution (what Bonito Oliva calls “the art system”), or a subset of it, has conferred the status of a candidate for a certain kind of appreciation. And surely those who have pointed out to him that, at the end of the day, however residual his contribution may be considered, without the work of art not even the art system would exist (evidence on which, however, we are sure we can bet that even Bonito Oliva himself agrees).

However, it is not the case to open ontological discussions that would go beyond Bonito Oliva’s piece: rather, to vividly and pungently capture the target on which it would be most useful for the debate to be directed, was Roberto Gramiccia, who in a public post written on his Facebook profile rightly pointed out that the so-called “art system” is nothing but than “a particular form of that cultural industry that follows the laws of the market and the capitalist system,” and that as such "is totally disinterested in quality and is exclusively concerned with business and accumulation to the point of theorizing that everything can be art."

Now, taking our cue from a paper by Luca Zuccala that we published in these pages, it could be argued, schematizing in the extreme (but in a useful way to give an idea), that the current culture industry essentially moves toward two types of audiences: those who buy works of art and those who visit museums, exhibitions and events. Both audiences are reached by a proposition that is subject to laws established by the market (always with the aim of selling merchandise, of placing a product, whether it is a work of art or a ticket to an exhibition), but they discount the fact that the “guarantor” (let’s call it that) of this market, namely critics, is less and less present. The causes of this gradual exit of critics from the scene have been discussed at length, continue to be discussed, and will have to continue to be discussed. The consequence coincides with the main problem: not so much the existence of an “art system,” more or less extensive, more or less historically ascertained, more or less fragmented and more or less recognizable, but rather the quality that such a system is capable of expressing, recognizing, sustaining, transmitting and enhancing.

Achille Bonito Oliva nel 1989
Achille Bonito Oliva in 1989

So many signs could be called into question that could provide useful indications of this “crisis of quality,” so to speak: looking only at the most obvious aspects, they range from the exhibitions that the public visits en masse to the books they buy, from the merchandise found at fairs to the subjects that each season set the rules by which art is communicated (this applies especially to the tangled swamp of social networks, but the discourse could also be extended to traditional media). However, since we started with Bonito Oliva, we could limit ourselves to a single example: for years Bonito Oliva has been carrying out a systematic, continuous and constant operation of self-recycling his texts, which are adapted as needed, even years later, to talk about a totally different artist than the one who had been the subject of the critical text drafted years before. The procedure is simple: one starts with a previously written critical contribution, changes the subject, and the new critical text is fine and ready to be administered to the applauding public and to the curators enraptured in front of the images that ABO foils in his production, from the “internal flare that denotes a path of augmentative elaboration in that it shifts not only the location of the real from its initial static but also enhances its capacity to relate” to the image that is “the bearer of a field of signs scattered out of any idea of a path and all ready to re-enter within themselves to dream of their own ombratile exibility.” It does not matter that there is aesthetic, human, symbolic continuity between the artist for whom the text was written and the one for whom it is reused. It is art, period.

A few examples: a text written for Gillo Dorfles repurposed (without modification, except in the change of title and subject) into an essay for Daniela Perego, or the “phenomenon of coexistence and osmosis” whereby “the everyday and existential are combined in an incessant relationship of exchange,” good even for three artists, namely Joaquim Falcò (2006), Alessandro Papetti (2009) and Paolo De Cuarto (2014). A particularly interesting example is the critical text of an exhibition devoted to the graphic production of Rome’s 2RC Printworks (2007), where Bonito Oliva writes, referring to the art of Alexander Calder, that “the dream is studded and disseminated by fragments that live at the intersection of many skies, gravitating to different heights. The fragments are always subtle and never full-bodied, their lightness allowing them to wander quickly and pause quietly without encumbrance or imbalance.” Bonito Oliva demonstrates exceptional writing skills, for the two sentences just quoted, however ethereal (some might even find them smoky: they mean everything and nothing), have the virtue of leading those who have Calder’s works present to imagine them and perhaps even find the writing fitting. Three years later, in a catalog by Matteo Basilé, the phrase referring to Calder is changed to “the dream OF BASILÈ is studded and strewn with fragments that live at the intersection of many skies.” And further below, even qualities that Bonito Oliva attributed to Burri in 2007 are referred to Basilè (just compare the two texts). Sometimes the texts in fact result from collages that put together pieces relating to even different and distant artists, often even separated by several decades from each other. It happens with Antonia Di Giulio, an artist who, Bonito Oliva wrote in 2019, “always tries to recreate a linear disorientation capable of referring to the internal and occult forces of things, of a table that holds on its polished surface the phantasmic thickness of a universe poised between unveiling and concealment” (whatever that means), exactly as Paul Klee did (so wrote Bonito Oliva in 2007 in Repubblica), but not only: Antonia Di Giulio in fact “does not fear the encounter with her own ghost that dwells within language, within its depths,” and not even Giorgio De Chirico had this fear of the occult. Not even the greatest, moreover, are spared the copy-paste: Nanni Balestrini (2019) “identifies the possibility of founding a place of art not circumscribed to traditional genres, not anchored to the simple reference of poetry, painting, sculpture, drawing and pure architecture,” exactly as Renato Mambor did ten years earlier (for Balestrini, the critic only added the word “poetry,” as was, after all, inevitable if one wanted to give make the text more credible). And we are not just talking about single phrases that transmigrate from one text to another: we are talking about pieces that often return almost in their entirety.

One could go on and on, because the examples are numerous. Is Achille Bonito Oliva doing something illegitimate? Absolutely not: he is not copying from others, and if he feels that a text he wrote for Calder can also be useful in describing Basilè’s art, this sensibility is all his own and it is his right to recycle a text entirely, limiting himself to changing the names if he feels it is suitable, however questionable this may be at least. Does he do anything wrong? Not even: as long as there exists a glittering art world that continues to attend exhibitions (and specifically exhibition openings) to pose or to entertain relationships, without paying too much attention to what it is observing (in other words, without caring too much about the content), Bonito Oliva will do very well to work as he has been working in recent times. Who will dare to raise his hand to say anything anyway? Will anyone dare to point out that a critical text by Achille Bonito Oliva is unreadable or that he struggles to express a concrete concept? One will not want to be a philistine! Or will there be anyone who will dare to say “I didn’t understand,” daring to utter a sentence that, in the glittering circus of art, on the one hand exposes one to the deadly danger of ridicule and on the other risks embarrassing those who then have to explain what they have written? It is better to play it cool and it will be better for everyone.

Can one therefore have doubts about what Achille Bonito Oliva has expressed about Robinson? Not at all; indeed, one would be inclined to add that the real artist is Achille Bonito Oliva himself. And the work of art are his texts, imitated in a more or less pedestrian manner, as happens to all true works of art, by a copious host of curators always inclined to reverence the master, even if only ideally. After all, the method of writing texts pleasing to theart world is well established, and one could sum it up, with Tommaso Labranca, in the triad “name-calling, Deleuzian references and philosophical fuffa.” Of course: often when one does not understand a critical text it is because one lacks the proper tools, which can only be obtained through study and practice. But just as often, if you read a critical text and haven’t understood a thing about it, it may not be your problem, because an art system that “totally disregards quality,” that cares more about appearance than substance, is not always capable of producing content. And to deepen the content you don’t bother: you just have to trust it.

And if one of the most influential art critics of the second half of the twentieth century can afford to recycle his texts, it is precisely because current events are perhaps even more extreme than he painted them: not only a world in which the “product of the artist’s individual imagination” takes on a value that not infrequently transcends its quality by virtue of the connections that the work and the artist manage to establish with the “art system,” but also a world in which this product of the imagination often becomes secondary, marginal, negligible compared to everything that accompanies it. As a friend suggests, Achille Bonito Oliva’s texts are a bit like Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista : everyone loves them, everyone wants them, and everyone believes that the contents indicated by the artist are in the little box, but in the impossibility of verifying it the work presupposes a kind of act of faith. Then when the Bonalumi on duty arrives and opens the little box, it is suggested to him that it is better not to say out loud that there could only be plaster inside: it would break the magic.