Italy is one of the countries richest in artistic heritage: it is an incomparable resource, something that has become part of the cultural DNA with the potential to lend tremendous vitality to the present. At the same time, there is a risk of this past becoming a burden.
The current Italian institutional situation is not the most fertile place for the development and enhancement of contemporary artistic potential, as unfortunately, most economic resources are concentrated on the protection of historical assets. This occurs at the expense of a rich fabric of fresh creativity which can only emerge with great difficulty.
The economic issues go alongside a widespread perception that contemporary art is less valuable than ancient art, the ideas and objects that people feel as their own because they have already been metabolized by society. This results from a lack of education, and a failure of training within the system to address a situation where the public is often bewildered by new trends. This is probably due to the fact that in Italian schools, the teaching of contemporary art history stops in the first half of the 20th century. Consequentially, the vast majority of the young public, to say nothing of older generations, find it hard to perceive the cultural and historical value of contemporary art. In confirmation of this is the fact that schools rarely take students to visit contemporary art, more often taking them to see ancient monuments and masterworks instead.
Critics, however, could play an important corrective role; by highlighting the continuum between the present and the past, and showing the fluid evolution from one age to another. The public might begin to understand how, from one aesthetic language to the next, there is a continuity of symbols, forms, hints, and suggestions.
At last we are getting out of the era that, if on the one hand, led to a due protection of historic heritage and stylistic unity, also excluded contemporaneity from the most beautiful places of our country. It should not be forgotten that often the charm and the extraordinary beauty of Italian cities, or even of individual palaces and buildings, results from the overlap and interaction of different periods and styles: in this sense, Rome is the perfect example where the superimposition of contemporary style fits many different contexts without disturbing its balance and both enhances and is enhanced due to this interaction. For this reason, public installations should pursue this “courageous” path of dialogue and interaction with history, whether it be the past or the future.
The contemporary suffers economically on account of the serious shortage of resources—particularly on the part of public institutions, but also on the part of the private sector—because of an inadequate legislative system, which focuses primarily on the protection of what already exists and not on the promotion of and support of current or future projects.
The creation of a number of institutions dedicated to contemporary art, albeit praiseworthy and stimulating, at least in theory, has often seen the rise of great difficulties in their management and maintenance, not to mention the fact that they are often forced to confine themselves to a minimum of artwork with respect to their larger potential. Add to this that the market has failed to take off again toward the pre-economic crisis levels, highlighting instead its weaknesses, which has resulted in a system of small galleries (with a few examples of large and well-organized structures) and the inability of the purchasers to fully understand artistic asset, undecided whether to consider art anything besides a “collectible” object, either as “safe-haven assets” or consumer goods.
Fortunately, the creative side of the system is in excellent health and reveals a vibrant and ever stirring environment. Several examples of the ability of great Italian artists to assimilate the many stimuli that come from other parts of the world—sometimes the result of excessive xenophilia on the side of curators—adapting and revising them in a peculiar and recognizable interpretation of their own context.
Probably the main question still remains precisely the one concerning identity, just as at the time of the birth of the Venice Biennial in 1895, immediately after the National Unification. Taking for granted that the expressive power of art overcomes all barriers, nevertheless it appears necessary, owing to globalization and an increasingly standardized world, to rediscover a cultural factor that identifies the local tradition.
We must search for something that distinguishes, but does not limit: a new reflection on what Italy has always represented for the whole world in terms of culture, art, history, and tradition—something unique, much as Italy has distinguished itself in the field of fashion and design. A search that leads to such a degree of equilibrium that there should be no turning back, but that leads instead to looking ahead and diving into the globalized world while remaining both open and self-aware.
All these factors make the contemporary art system rather fragmented and difficult to decode with unequivocal clarity: the traditional propensity for creativity and intellectual inquiry clashes with a lack of resources, hindering development that would otherwise be more remarkable. On the contrary, it continues in a general equilibrium resulting from a compromise between tradition and the avant-garde.
In this sense, critics and curators are mediators at different levels that go beyond the usual micro and macro—artist-viewer versus art-society—but also in temporal terms of that balancing past and present, which plays a significant role with respect to bidirectional realities. In my opinion, the commitment to make contemporary art increasingly public and shared should be the focus of critical and curatorial activity, so as to truly make it a public asset. Indeed, technological innovations in art and culture also need to be made available to all, both physically and intellectually, so as to be unquestionably considered assets intended for society as a whole.
ANSELMO VILLATA, an art critic, curator and journalist, was born in Vercelli, Italy on April 27th, 1981. In May 1999, he managed to be included in the register of the National Association of Journalists, and he is still the youngest to have achieved this result. Since 2004 he has been the president of the National Institute of Contemporary Art, through which he promotes and disseminates contemporary art at the national and international level by creating synergies between public and private institutions. He has coordinated 130 exhibitions and has personally curated more than 30 in Italy, China, the United States, the Czech Republic, Malta, Greece, and France. Since the beginning of his career he has published more than 40 books and over 300 articles on specialized media. He is a member of AICA and lives and works mainly in Italy.