Recensioni / A Conversation with Denis Viva on a Critical Re-Reading of the Transavanguardia

The Bensplainer interviews Denis Viva (September, 2021) about his book “La critica a effetto: rileggendo ‘La transavanguardia italiana’ (1979)” (Editions Quodlibet, 2020), in which the art historian analyzes Italian Postmodernism, using the Transavangardia movement defined by art critic and curator Achille Bonito Oliva, as a case study. The case study demonstrates the need today for critically examining the relationship between art and politics in recent art history.

The Bensplainer: In 2020, you published in Italian “La critica a effetto: rileggendo ‘La transavanguardia italiana’ (1979),” an ambitious and very critical study on one of the ‘untouchables’ in Italian curatorship: Achille Bonito Oliva. Your case-study is Bonito Oliva’s inaugural text on the ‘Transavanguardia,’ published in the magazine ‘Flash Art’ in the October-November 1979 issue. It considered a group of artists – Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Nicola De Maria and Mimmo Paladino, plus the later ‘purged’ Marco Bagnoli and Remo Salvadori – who received then, and in some ways still receive, critical and market attention and success. In short, the term ‘Transavanguardia’ is a relatively fixed moment in the recent history of art, for the introduction of postmodern concepts, such as cultural nomadism, artistic subjectivity, and the end of ideological grand narratives (concepts, in my opinion, that are not only postmodern). Here, you didn’t focus on the works of these artists and their historical significance, but on Bonito Oliva’s writing and marketing strategy. Since ‘Transavanguardia’ and Postmodernism are not themes limited to the Italian cultural environment, I believe that a conversation about your audacious reinterpretation of the terms, taken from the point of view of Bonito Oliva’s texts, paratexts, and marketing strategies, may be of enormous interest to an English-speaking audience, while we hopefully await the English translation of your book.

The first question is perhaps the most naive: why this book now? If you allow me, it does not seem accidental. Only a few months ago the Castello di Rivoli and its director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, former director of Documenta 13 in 2012, opened an ‘homage’ exhibition to Bonito Oliva – as a critic and a curator, but not an artist – celebrating his position in the ‘temple’ museum par excellence in Italy, which is, among other things, also the temple for ‘Arte Povera,’ a term coined by his ‘opponent’ Germano Celant.

Denis Viva: I answer you with a paradox: the book is born from the historical distance that separates us from these events and their delayed (or retarding) effect, and not from its eventual topicality. Today, ‘Transavanguardia’ appears to be an exhausted phenomenon, already widely historicized in Italy by more than enough retrospective exhibitions. Therefore, it can be examined historically – I use another paradox – since it has ceased to evolve while, at the same time, its effects are still possible to notice. In the 1980s in Italy, the enormous fortune of the ‘Transavanguardia’ was simultaneously the symptom and, in part, the cause of the peripheral position of both our cultural debate and artistic system, with respect to the Postmodern themes that were pervading global discourse. Consider post-colonial studies: reduced by Bonito Oliva to the sole question of identity, regional or national; consider gender studies: the ‘Transavanguardia,’ except for Clemente, is regarded as a triumph of the painter defined by his restless masculinity; or, consider the whole overcoming of Modernist determinism even today I witness in Italy heated debates on painting and its death,’ as if it was a real problem.

However, studying the ‘Transavanguardia’ – leaving its international reception on the sidelines for a moment – reveals derailments, stubbornness, oppositions and peculiarities: this generation of Italian artists resisted reducing the Italian situation – like other geo-culturally connoted ones – to a global Postmodern discourse. Therefore, my interest in the ‘Transavanguardia’ stems from the fact that in this sudden phase of transition, from commitment to hedonism – from the 1970s to the 1980s, wanting to simplify as much as possible – the debate and the Italian art system had taken a turn that still distinguishes it today, and that reveals how a global Postmodern discourse cannot be simply applied to any artistic context (for the better or for the worse). For the rest of your question, “La critica a effetto” is a book that was born from the developments of my Ph.D. dissertation (2008) and that was completed shortly before I got informed of the Rivoli retrospective.

The Bensplainer: There are two explosive moments in your analysis. The first concerns Bonito Oliva’s writing: you demonstrate, through the clinical analysis of some of his texts, how he made extensive use of ‘centoni’ [this is how repetitions or self-citations by the same author on several scores are defined in music, editor’s note], repackaging previous texts with new functions, sometimes literally distorting very different concepts. Apart from the evident effectiveness in generating ‘new’ texts drawing on ‘old’ ones, do you believe that this diminishes the historical value of his writing or that this academic practice is in itself a historical-cultural necessity of the time? Or rather, from a DJ perspective – highlighted in the 1990s by Nicolas Bourriaud in ‘Post-Production’ – did Bonito Oliva anticipate the times or vulgarly exercise a bad habit? Your analysis from a literary point of view – something that art historians rarely deal with – would seem to opt for the second hypothesis.

Denis Viva: I am going to give you an even more paradoxical answer than the previous one: I chose to dedicate an entire book to a four-page article, ‘La transavanguardia italiana,’ precisely because I thought that the problem raised in that text far transcended its author and its content. In short, it is an emblematic case-study for a phenomenon that is much broader, but that I could not describe using a holistic and panoramic approach, at least in this initial phase of my studies. Monographic analysis seemed to me the most effective tool.

I decided to examine Bonito Oliva’s writing style and to trace philologically its variants and recurrences, because it seemed to me that all this was a symptom for something else: at a certain point, art criticism abandoned its literary tradition in order to assimilate the logic of mass communication. Undoubtedly, Bonito Oliva is one of the last critics to come from the literary background and one of the first to make himself narcissistically visible in the mass media. Therefore, the practice of reassembly, as well as the writing style – with frequent repetitions of concepts and words – are the result of this transition: the literary rhetoric adapts cynically to the speed of mass communication.

We still know little about Bonito Oliva’s writing process, but we certainly know that this phenomenon describes something different than what we already knew: the figure of the literate art critic is not only supplanted by the advent of the curator, but also by the growing need to communicate through the mass media. Hence the redundancy of the message, the need to package many texts, and the prevalence of oral over written speech are some of the aspects borrowed from mass communication that mitigate his, indeed, very difficult style, while allowing him to achieve a certain popularity (it is very interesting, in this regard, to observe the distance between Bonito Oliva’s clarity on television and his complexity in writing).

The Bensplainer: The second explosive moment in your book is its examination of Bonito Oliva’s sociological framework within the post-1977 Italian socialist intelligentsia, attracted by Bettino Craxi and his multifaceted policy as the leader of the PSI [Italian Socialist Party]. This name will say little to the English-speaking reader, but Craxi had been a fundamental, controversial and unscrupulous political figure in Italy, together with his cultural ‘officer’ Claudio Martelli, in outlining and approving the ‘hedonistic’ but ‘leftist’ general trend in the 1980s, also opening up to subsequent identity drifts (Lega Nord and Umberto Bossi) and their plasticized crooked mirrors (Forza Italia and Silvio Berlusconi). Tell us more.

Denis Viva: On this front, research is only just beginning. I would like to point out, for example, the book by Lèa-Catherine Szacka on the 1980 Postmodern Architecture Biennale, where there is some mention of the relationship between Paolo Portoghesi and the PSI. In my opinion, this sociological approach represents the most promising field of study for various reasons. On one hand, Craxi’s Socialist Party was the precursor of the media spectacularization of political parties – later excessively improved upon by Silvio Berlusconi. On the other, it attempted to introduce some social-democratic reforms and laws in Italy, giving rise to distortions and ambiguities that still persist today. After 1978, the Socialist Party was able to attract many intellectuals, which was also thanks to Claudio Martelli’s skillful proselytism that actively involved them in ideological battles, especially with the rigid positions of the Italian Communist Party.

A galaxy of intellectuals from various backgrounds, even from the most radical left, approached the Socialist Party at that transitional moment, finding hospitality, support and even a liberal attitude. In this relationship, which actually lasted a few years, a series of problems, diatribes and confrontations emerged, which may be typical of a relationship between intellectuals and parties in a contemporary context, characterized by more fluid and negotiable ideological positions and by confidence in media communication.

In short, the Socialist Party established a novel idea for the relationship between political parties and intellectuals, at least for Italy: this is a field of study that still needs to be further investigated. Certainly, I think it is somewhat curious that no one has yet systematically considered the relationship between visual culture and the Socialist Party in those years. To name another important art critic and scholar of that season – Renato Barilli makes no secret of his socialist past. I believe that the time has come to study these events historically and methodically, without being retroactively influenced by their epilogue. I am beginning to discuss these issues with other art historians, such as Jacopo Galimberti. I am confident that this trend, concerning the relationship between art and politics, will continue to develop in future scholarship.