Dossier | Critical Distances | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Critical Distances

  • Isaac Julien, MIDNIGHT SUN (Playtime), 2013. Photo: courtesy of the artist & Metro Pictures, New York
  • Pippo Ciorra (curator), FOOD. Dal cucchiaio al mondo, MAXXI, Rome, 2015. Photo: Musacchio Ianniello, courtesy of Fondazione MAXXI

Critical Distances
By Lina Malfona

Anyway, our going ahead is a continuous inspecting among things, also minimal — and some would say among fragments of ruins — in order to reveal, to sound out, to understand them, in order to release the words that silence — full of din and interferences — concealed.
Luciano Anceschi (1)

Recently, architecture seems to have undergone a deconsecration process, a kind of secularization. It is as if it has lost the ability to represent its institutional framework, or its sense of community; in short, architecture seems to have lost its role.

And in such a context, the architecture critic’s view is becoming less and less prominent. It seems as though the heroic figure of the critic has been recycled into the more captivating profile of the exhibition curator, the event producer, the showman, the blogger. Has the role of the architecture critic disappeared for good, or has it adapted to the pressures, urgencies, and fashions of contemporary life, thus embodying all their contradictions? A pause to reflect appears to be in order.

Everything seems to lead us to conclude that criticism is absolutely dead, a death caused by fibrillation or by asthenia, due probably to a bulimic excess of condemnations and judgments or, on the contrary, to a yielding acceptance of the present. In the first case, I refer to the kind of critical analysis that dominates the Internet digital space, (2) characterized by flows of anger, irrational speech, or a gentler, but still too emotional, discourse. In the United States, Peter Eisenman has denounced the suffocating effect of social media, the loss of competencies, the trivialization of cultural institutions, and the fact that the need for a capital “A” architecture has been questioned. (3) Although some energy or audacity can still be found in debates on the web among the younger generation, the criticism that has proudly left its ideological frame, surrendering to a sort of relativism of adaptation, seems much less interesting, as it subjects a stifling realism to the space once destined for dreams, imagination, and utopia.

The outcome of this drift is criticism that Franco Purini defines as critica merceologica (commodity criticism), which has lost the ability to anticipate — or produce — changes. What is the role of criticism today? Should it record the current situation or psychoanalyze and dissect the critiqued object, and then transfigure it? Is creative criticism possible?

From a theoretical viewpoint, several approaches to criticism can be identified — in particular from the 1960s to the 1990s — corresponding to different ways of looking at art and architecture. Some art and architecture critics adopt a “piercing gaze” that penetrates the substance of a work, probing it section by section, almost dissecting it, following in the footsteps of great personalities such as Giulio Carlo Argan, Eugenio Battisti, Cesare Brandi, Manfredo Tafuri, and Bruno Zevi.

In Italy, these masters have given way to critics divided among architectural theory, experimentation, and practice. Some of them are related to the school of Aldo Rossi, who developed expressively objective syntaxes that whisper rather than shout by using a suggestive, ambiguous, introspective language that is typical of virtuosos by preferring the linguistic perfection of poetry and mathematics to prose. The quality of their work — I am referring, among others, to Giorgio Grassi, Vittorio Savi, Antonio Monestiroli, and Alberto Ferlenga — approaches the linguistic accuracy that characterizes Paolo Portoghesi’s sober and delicate style, akin for its erudition to Rainer Maria Rilke’s research prose and infused with a culture rooted in an intimate knowledge of classics. Portoghesi is also recognizable for his rather “messianic” tone, as he advocates a return to tradition and to nature as a basis for architectural action. He traces a research path that can marshal diversity and fight globalizing tendencies “from below.” Heir to the Rogers school (though not completely faithful), Vittorio Gregotti, from his Il territorio dell’Architettura (1966) to his Il possibile necessario (2014), managed to maintain an extraordinary level of coherence and set an example of rigour and wisdom for younger generations, as did other eminent critics, such as Pierluigi Nicolin. Franco Purini’s didactic vocation resembles that of Gregotti and his guiding role, whereas his writing style — characterized by deep analysis, disenchantment, cool-headedness, and a finely honed synthesis — shows traces of Manfredo Tafuri’s scientific psychologism, Leonardo Sinisgalli’s mathematical rigour, and Maurizio Sacripanti’s experimentalism. Along the same lines as Purini’s somehow literary critical style is that of the anti-dogmatic, almost unclassifiable, pure critic Francesco Moschini, who has been able — more than others — to promote art and architecture over the years by following his own line of critical analysis.

A second line of critical analysis is typical of those who adopt a “transversal gaze” at the critiqued object, performing evaluations that take “boundary conditions” into consideration. If the first stance tends to isolate the object, thus excluding political components, market assessments, ethical and civic values, and social impacts, this stance is definitely more attracted to the “heteronomous” dimension of architecture.

Such a critical gaze brings us closer to the figure of the curator, who, as a present-day critic, adopts new instruments, ranging from interviews — so dear to Hans Ulrich Obrist — to video reports. Although these new methods attract an ever-increasing audience, curators all too often lack depth of analysis. Maurizio Bortolotti, Vincenzo Trione, Maurizio Coccia, and Hou Hanru, the current artistic director of MAXXI, present a rich panorama of their activity as curators. The more popular vision of Achille Bonito Oliva and Vittorio Sgarbi seems inclined to provoke violent verbal conflicts, which nevertheless open new possible critical scenarios. The curatorial activity of Massimiliano Gioni in the last Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte at the Venice Biennale (2013) received international critical acclaim, so it is already quite well known, whereas the activity of Philippe Daverio deserves more mention because of his promotion of culture, intellectual honesty, and transversal vision.

Among those who work as both curators and academics is Pippo Ciorra, who pursues the goal of liberating critical analysis from ideology and erasing sectarian divisions, with the intent of stamping out the very notion of “school”; the effect, however, is that similar groups and trends are established, although with wider boundaries. Among the academics who manage to escape ideologies without getting caught in the trap of the same ideological device is Antonino Saggio, an industrious author, editor, academic, blogger, and jury member. Another kind of critique is the “project critique,” involving the discussions that take place within architectural grant committees — behind closed doors — or juries for architectural competitions; these critiques decree the rise or fall of a project, and often its construction as well. It is a matter upon which the judgments of posterity rest. We cannot, then, run from ideology, and we can only hope that the role of the curator will not perpetuate the dictatorship of criticism that, over the course of history, has deliberately excluded too many voices. In any case, both types of critical analysis discussed here propose a way of thinking about an object that makes no attempt at exhaustive definition, but show its contradictions without using a dialectic of resolution.

There is an additional type of critical gaze that encompasses the above two: the gaze that “selects,” typical of critics who also make works of art. After creating a work, they frame it from a distance, in an attempt to recombine processes, perform connections, and stitch together traces and fragments of truth in the examined work. Indeed, this type of critical analysis re-creates the work of art by following the clues left by those who — like Luciano Anceschi and Luigi Russo in the footsteps of Charles Baudelaire — outlined its characteristics. Like one who attempts to remember the shape of an object, which is immediately forgotten and re-created through fantasy, critics using this third stance feed on the lifeblood that only imagination can provide. (4)

Gregotti, to this day a leading light, contrasted this “critique of action” to the “critique of passing judgments,” thus expressing a very clear and problematic position. Eventually, his thought unfolded into resistance against the logic of global capitalism, which is conditioning both critical analysis and architecture (5) — a logic that is captured and reported in some writings by art historian Angela Vettese. In her book Investire in Arte, (6) Vettese asserts that, in every case, critics have to consider the mechanisms of the art market, rather than opposing them. In fact, artworks may be seen as investments; consider the value that has accrued over time to works by Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, and the transformation of auctions into events at which the most remarkable speculative acquisitions are made. (7) Unlike Gregotti, Vettese isn’t too negative toward the curator, in whom she recognizes the ability to reveal transformations in advance. Consider Jeffrey Deitch’s exhibition Post Human (1992), which showed both new body metamorphosis practices and new frontiers of cosmetic surgery. However, Vettese considers the curator a Mephistophelean person, as a creator of speech that uses artists’ words.

In the era of the demise of ideologies, the failure of great utopias, and the advancement of global macroeconomic capitalism, in which the medium substitutes for the message, anything unprofitable is destined to succumb, for the logic of consumption has replaced the logic of production. Hence, two paths are available: adapting and resisting. Certainly, those who resist — such as the critics in the first category — risk becoming outdated; yet, as it is for an architectural composition, such outdatedness is a promise of timelessness, of eternity. On the opposite front, those who indulge capitalistic logic by cunningly becoming stage “dressers” — such as critics in the second category — might have more success, though not without making compromises, in challenging the system from within, by inserting “stem cells” of change.

Rather than looking for common ground, one probably should bravely stress the differences, separate roles, and questions in order to define the types of critical gaze more clearly. (8) That is, adopt the architectural strategy of being selective to get to the essence of things.

(1) Quoted in Valentina De Angelis, “L’estetica di Luciani Anceschi,” in Prospettive e sviluppi della nuova fenomenologia critica (Bologna: CLUEB), 9 (our translation).
(2) Lina Malfona, “La critica in rete” (Online Criticism), Rassegna di Architettura e Urbanistica, no. 133 (January – April 2011), 94 – 107.
(3) Peter Eisenman, “Notes on the Critical,” in La Critica Oggi, ed. Claudio De Albertis, Francesco Moschini, and Franco Purini (Rome: Gangemi, 2014), 115 – 16.
(4) In Vittorio Savi’s view, knowledge is nothing but a “dry branch” without the intervention of imagination to “concretize” it. Vittorio Savi, L’architettura di Aldo Rossi (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1985).
(5) In his latest lecture, “La critica oggi” (Milan, 2014), Gregotti maintains that the situation can be fought only with the instruments of our discipline, in contradiction to his previous opening to circles extraneous to architecture, an opening that had characterized all of his previous work.
(6) Angela Vettese, Investire in Arte. Produzione, promozione e mercato dell’arte contemporanea (Milan: Il Sole 24 Ore Libri, 1991).
(7) Consider the ambitious seven-screen video installation Playtime, by Isaac Julien (2014).
(8) I am referring to Joseph Rykwert’s essay in La Critica Oggi, in which he explains that the duty of critics is that of sifting. See Joseph Rykwert, “È importante la critica d’architettura?” in La Critica Oggi, ed. Claudio De Albertis, Francesco Moschini, and Franco Purini (Rome: Gangemi, 2014), 221 – 22.

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