"The critic must help to understand, not speak in criticism." Lea Vergine on criticism

A tribute to Lea Vergine, two days after her passing, to remember one of her main concerns: that art critics succeed in being understood by the public.

“Today there are only curators, critics are very rare. And who is the curator? He is a person who spends time on airplanes looking for new things all over the world on commission. That is, he is a manager. He is the one who used to be a merchant moved by passion. These are driven by the necessity of the orders they had, which is to find the new, to find a new one that you can make a deal with. The new. However, the new is never there.” These are words that Lea Vergine (Naples, 1938 - Milan, 2020), the great art critic who passed away the day before yesterday, addressed last year in an interview with Stefania Gaudiosi, from which would later result the book Necessario è solo il superfluo. An Interview with Lea Vergine, published by Postmedia Books in 2019. In recent times, Lea Vergine had on several occasions pointed out one of the characteristics of art today: the presence of too many curators and the almost disappearance of critics. In practice, those figures who used to provide the public with judgments about artists (even negative and heavy-handed ones, if necessary) have almost completely disappeared, helping them to make order among the proposals coming in from the environment. For Lea Vergine, one of the fundamental characteristics of the critic is his ability to make himself understood by the public.

And in this sense a passage from L’arte non è faccenda di persone perbene, a kind of autobiography by Lea Vergine written with the collaboration of Chiara Gatti and published in 2016 by Rizzoli, is definitely revealing. In this piece, Lea Vergine rails against “criticalism” and emphasizes the need for criticism that is able to be understood by the public. But that’s not all: in the text, the Neapolitan-born critic also indicates what the prerequisites should be for judging a work of art. We reproduce the excerpt below as a tribute to the figure of Lea Vergine.

Lea Vergine
Lea Vergine

How important is writing in darte criticism?

One cannot want to be an art critic and not know how to write, because it ceases the function of mediating between the work and the audience.

Very often people talk about “critichese” referring to an involuted and unclear language. Criticism has always existed. The critic, on the other hand, must help to make readers understand ideas, write observations that raise others in the mind, solicit the reader, but also astonish, stimulate curiosity. You are always addressing a person of average education, who will read your words, so you will give him the right references, pave the way for him.

He will not have to make use of overstated notions or pseudo-conturbing oddities. He will also have to have humor and irony. Yes, in the art world, there should be more irony. There have been witty art critics in the past. Cesare Brandi, for example, was sparkling when he wrote. He had levity and lightness. As well as the virtue of not taking himself too seriously. Because, in the end, it is still art and certainly not transcendent. Criticism, just like fiction, is done from sentence to sentence, period to period, word to word.

Today, looking back, I realize that what always interested me most was the sound of the sentence coupled with its revelation. The things that matter are those hidden beyond the opera darte itself; the things that you cannot see, but that you as a critic have to dig out. You even have to invent them if you have to.

A reader must not be softened. And the muddling comes from the fact that the critic often does not understand how important it is to move in a dimension where you know music, literature, theater, cinema and so on; a confrontation that oxygenates the head.

How does one judge a work of art?

Larte is a matter of form. If we listen to a Gregorian or Ambrosian chant or a Chopin nocturne, we are aware that they are all beautiful music, different from each other, but equally intense. Because their form is perfect, beyond time and space. The same is true of larte.

Buster Keaton was divine. He captured you with his movements. So do certain dancers. The body as language found its best interpreters already in the early twentieth century, if we think, for example, of the dances of the Futurist artists: Giannina Censi danced in a costume she had designed by Enrico Prampolini.

Possessing a sense of composition is fundamental. From Altamira caves to body art, the story does not change. Once, I saw Gilbert & George at the Museo dArte Moderna in Turin. All painted gold, standing on top of a small table, they sang in a somewhat hoarse voice and danced with a stick in their hands, in the manner of the 1930s, intoning an ancient tune. Enchanting. There was something beyond music and beyond dance. And so did Gina Pane. Whatever she did was impressive. She would take long months to prepare her performances. She had a photographer who followed her in rehearsals. Before performing she would go on the jockey’s diet to lose weight.

Both performances had one thing in common: a formal component. They were paintings in motion. Living pictures, “living sculptures,” as Gilbert & George themselves christened them. Both displayed an impeccable sense of composition.

Very different from the performance I witnessed one evening in Inga-Pin’s gallery. I saw a performance by California-based performer Ron Athey, The Solar Anus (1998), an homage to the surrealist writer Georges Bataille. A body almost entirely tattooed, a radiating black sun in the anal area from which, in place of feces, hanks of pearls and haloes of lights emerge. Circus, street décor as in the 18th century, masochistic and narcissistic exhibition? Sure: let’s add regression to childhood. But if, between the grotesque and the pathetic, a sinister cheerfulness comes out, along with a fairy-tale atmosphere; if the officiant, as it were, in the midst of this “non mori sed pati,” applies a golden crown on his head with extreme slowness; that is to say, if in the course of an event that may be judged demented and abject, a trait of gladness and poetry is given in the smallest gestures, in the smallest episodes, in the smallest circumstances, a poetry made up of little nothings that make one aware of something from the other (as in art), it will mean that the pathology is broken to come to be culturally redeemed.

Every now and then I get a little doubt, looking at a Pollock painting and all those squeezed tubes of color. Certain outbursts of sarcasm are justified. Larte is not a religion, nor a matter for decent people. So-called decent people refrain from participating and judging; no one is forcing them. Abused clichés are formed in their eyes, such as the solipsism of artistoids considered oddball types. Larte requires to be studied in order to be situated, framed. Needless to think that the relationship with larte is determined in absolute insipience. Larte is irregular. But we need it, as we need the superfluous. The superfluous is the truly necessary.

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