The commitment of those involved in art history and their duty to express their thoughts

Those who are involved in art history have a duty to always express their thoughts, by virtue of the subject they are dealing with.

The work never stands alone; it is always a relationship. To begin with: at least a relationship with another work of art. A work alone in the world would not even be understood as human production, but looked upon with reverence or horror, as magic, as taboo, as the work of God or the sorcerer; not of man. It is thus the sense of openness of relationship that gives necessity to the critical response. A response that involves not only the nexus between work and works, but between work and world, sociality, economy, religion, politics and whatever else is needed.1
Roberto Longhi

One of the most recurrent criticisms on our Facebook page is this, “you should only talk about art.” This is a criticism that we often receive when we cross over from art into current issues that are not always strictly related to the protection or preservation of historical and artistic heritage. Fortunately, not many people address this kind of criticism to us: or, at least, more people think differently.

There is, unfortunately, a very questionable trend gaining ground, the one that aims to identify art and art history as escapism, as pastime, as disengagement. That tendency that could be summed up in a phrase often uttered by those who see art as escapism:"art is beauty,“ and consequently should not be ”soiled" with current events. And, incidentally, the assumption that sees all forms of art as beauty is also quite questionable. It is enough to observe, merely as an example, any work by Gioacchino Assereto to experience sensations far removed from the ecstatic rapture aroused by beauty, a feature entirely absent in the work of so many artists.The example of Gioacchino Assereto is one of the first that leaps to mind of anyone with a keen interest in seventeenth-century Genoese art, but the list is long.

The main reason for this disengagement lies within the discipline itself. When heritage management began to shift from the public to the private sector (a topic to which there would be posts in its own right and to which we will return), the private sector realized the economic potential of high-impact exhibitions for the public, those that display the masterpieces of the artists that appeal most. Thus we have seen a proliferation of exhibitions on Michelangelo, Caravaggio, van Gogh, the Impressionists, and so on: the point is that research exhibitions, or those with a serious dissemination project behind them, cannot be mass-produced at the rate of more than one a year. Easier, therefore, to package exhibitions that consist of parades of artworks without them having particularly good reasons for being displayed in an exhibition. If, therefore, a work of art has no valid reason to speak to the viewer, if there is no exhibition context to justify the presence of the work of art, the consequence is that the work is likely to become incapable of conveying its message. Consider, by way of example, the exhibition now under way at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, the one on Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock. What do these two artists have to say to each other in comparison? Why set up an exhibition featuring the works of these two artists using as a pretext the fact that Pollock studied Michelangelo’s drawings (which the vast majority of students at Fine Arts Academies around the world do)? If, therefore, the works have nothing to say to the viewer, they will become good only for aesthetic complacency: anyone who has participated in one of these exhibitions (let us not speak, for example, of the “exhibitions on the Impressionists” that are “churned out” at an impressive rate) will know that a large part of the audience comes out the same way they went in, that is, without knowing anything more about what they saw, because the intent of these exhibitions is not to enrich, but is to entertain. Exemplifying such tendencies is the now famous phrase of Marco Goldin, who has built his career on exhibitions under the banner of disengagement: “I believe in emotions, not in knowledge for the knowledgeable few.” And opposing emotions to knowledge is as bad as curating an art exhibition can get, because they are not two antithetical concepts.

In short, you provide the public with the illusion that they have participated in a cultural event, when in fact there is not much cultural about it. The presence of the masterpieces of the great masters does not justify the cultural claim of an event. It would be like having an Oscar-winning actor participate in a cinepanettone: it is not the presence of the actor that elevates the quality of the film, which is given by a whole series of components (subject, screenplay, direction, photography, supporting actors and so on). The same thing applies to exhibitions. Only for exhibitions the distinction, as we have seen, is more insidious, due to the fact that the public often does not have the skills to distinguish a cultural operation from one of pure entertainment: but this is not the fault of the public, but rather the fault of those who do not allow the public to have the right tools to make the appropriate distinctions. Thus the public is “educated” in the rhetoric of beauty, in the rhetoric of great masterpieces (but with little or no effort made by anyone to make it clear why these “masterpieces” are so “great”), in the rhetoric of emotions instead of knowledge. A rhetoric that disengages because it tends to distance the audience from the work of art, as it distances the work of art from its context. The work is no longer seen as a container of messages, values, and ideals, but is seen as something that produces only aesthetic complacency, as something that serves to make us escape from reality, when it should be the exact opposite, that is, the work of art should prompt us to reflect on reality. Not that the work should not arouse emotions in the viewer: far from it. But emptied of its symbols and values, it is like being cut in half.

Roberto Longhi’s opening quote clearly explains how a work of art always arises in relation to a context, and analyzing a work of art means not only looking at it in relation to other works of art, but also in relation to the social, economic, historical and political context in which it was produced. Of course, throughout the history of art (and of culture in general) there have been attempts to propose art seemingly unrelated to the era that produced it, such as the famousart-for-art theory of decadentism, but even radical theories such as this one arose in reaction to other forms of thought. Thus, works always arise because there is a historical context that gives rise to a certain way of thinking, which in literature gives rise to the works of poets and writers, in art gives rise to the work of art. Therefore, to think that art lives under a kind of glass bell that is impervious to all stimuli from the “outside world” is not only an indication of poor understanding of art itself, but also a way of despising it and disrespecting it.

It means not respecting it, because those who deal with art history have a duty to be concerned about what is going on around them. And to say, politely, what he thinks. The example of politics is the most fitting: choices concerning the management of cultural heritage depend on political choices, and an art historian (or an art history lover) who is not concerned with politics (where “concerned with politics” can also, simply, mean having one’s own worldview, and perhaps having it perceived), is an art historian who demotes the management of heritage to others. And the spectrum could be expanded to every field of our living: that is why not wanting to deal with politics is tantamount to not wanting to deal with oneself. Several art historians have dealt with politics, some of them even participating in the very first person in the political events of their eras: Giulio Carlo Argan, Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, Cesare Brandi, Roberto Longhi himself. To say that art and politics should remain on two parallel tracks is also to have failed to understand anything about these important figures who made the history of Italian art criticism. And to disregard their factual commitment. “If there is a discipline that, because of its inherently critical nature, is called upon not to abstract itself from the world but, rather, to take clear positions, that is Art History,” my friend Mario Cobuzzi wrote a few days ago on his Kunst page, summing up in two lines why we will continue to deal with art history and at the same time continue to talk about what is happening around us.

In his What is Michelangelo Good For?, Tomaso Montanari, one of the few contemporary art historians who demonstrates a remarkable civic commitment, which at times may perhaps seem too radical, but credit must still be given to his work, says that "figurative art has never been a private affair, nor has it ever been an escape into the moral neutrality of aesthetics."2 Works of art, especially in the past, were born (and continue to be born) by virtue of the fact that they conveyed a value or ideal. To nullify this value by virtue of a mere reconduction to the “moral neutrality of aesthetics” is to debase works of art. And that is why those involved in art history have a duty to provide tools to try to interpret what is happening around us. Because if he did not do so, he would be doing something strongly contrary to his love of art: loving art also means taking positions. Loving art means avoiding imposed models, it means acting against prejudices, and it means, above all, thinking for oneself: this in our opinion is what loving art means. Those who, thinking with their compartmentalized heads, say that those who deal with art should not talk about anything else mean that they have understood very little about art. Perhaps it is because we who deal with art history are not good enough to make it clear that “art” also means dealing with the world. But we will try to improve and will always try our best to do our part.


1. Roberto Longhi, Proposals for an art criticism in “Paragone,” I, 1950, p. 4

2. Tomaso Montanari, A che cosa serve Michelangelo, Einaudi, 2011, p. VII

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