3 – The process of dematerialization of art

Joseph Kosuth, Neon, Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue exhibition from 17 February to 20 May 2012 at la maison rouge, Paris, France


The analysis undertaken in my previous intervention, and that I am continuing here, pays more attention to the material aspect of the pictorial execution, an aspect that constitutes the fulcrum of the identity of painting and its expression, we would otherwise embark on a path of abstraction where the pictorial testimonies are not expressed and analyzed in their material objectivity, but subjected to reductions in conceptual order. The painting is a physical object that makes use of the pictorial material for expressive purposes. It is the different use of this material that gives different meanings to the individual pictorial work and that constitutes the different expressive and stylistic alphabet of the individual authors. Not considering this essential aspect of the testimonies of pictorial art is tantamount to abstracting them from their concrete existence and essence. A painter can only incarnate what he has to say in the pictorial matter of which he makes use and in the executive gestures that he assigns to it. Painting is a physical material both in its subsequent testimony, as an object preserved in museums or privately, and in the act of execution that performs it and for which the author, in fact, resorts to materials and gestures that give it appearance and meaning.

To put the question in these terms means to oppose the Duchamp abstraction that wants the idea before the execution, the thought above the matter that in the act of displacement (of the matter-object) from the place of function to that of the gallery sees the completion of the ready-made, highlighting the divine will of the artist who just need to perform the act of indicating or naming the object to absolutize it as art. He pronounces the verb and the act is fulfilled (aspects explored in The process of abstraction in the contemporary age in the blog https://www.danilosantinelli.it/danilos-blog/2-the-process-of-abstraction-in-the-contemporary-age/). But the discourse, thus posed, actually responds to another question intrinsic to it, that is, whether it makes sense still today to resort to figuration and painting, and whether it makes sense, in what this new area differs from the return in vogue of painting that already during the eighties of the last century occurred.

Malevich argued that what, still today, continues to be defined as abstract painting should instead be defined as concrete or objective painting, since it does not pretend to be anything else than itself, that is, pure painted surface, space within which forms and colors are placed. For this reason she had abandoned figuration as a language of illusive representation and therefore, she herself, abstract. Although Malevich’s reasoning is rational and punctual, it only emphasizes the fiction of a single code, the pictorial one. Forgetting, however, that this observation could be extended to the many codes of human creation, through which we communicate and interpret the world, codes that accompany us since childhood and that are the backbone of our education, as well as our evolution: having made use of external tools, physical and cognitive, that would allow him to adapt the world to his needs, rather than adapting his body to the environment as is the case for other animal species. Human existence is studded with a set of fictitious codes of understanding between individuals, which allow the development of communications and social activities: starting from the geographical languages of belonging, codes of understanding in time and space, social structures and economic exchange. Bringing this position to its faithful consequences would affect the validity of these codes of social understanding, as well as the evolutionary path of our species. We can certainly discuss the validity or not of this process, of its ethical and environmental justice, but we certainly cannot rewind the ribbon of history as if nothing had happened. Provided that such positions are not a way of reassuring consciences, ways of alleviating the sense of guilt with respect to the errors made along the evolutionary path. Those who say that, since man is a product of nature, his actions should also be considered as such; today, in the light of what we know and have seen done to man, this position seems all the more a way of soothing the conscience. A childish stance by those who do not intend to take responsibility for their actions. As we can see, this abstraction concerns man first of all. This is the difficulty of human orientation in his ancestral search for meaning: he uses fictitious instruments and codes, which are not always or necessarily suitable for a correct reading and investigation that respond to the questions that he has always asked about the universe and existence.

If, therefore, we ask ourselves the question of the effective validity of the codes of human interpretation and social understanding, Malevich’s position is justified only in the direction of an abstraction from the human historical-evolutionary context. If we consider these codes, as instruments of sharing, to be essential aspects – even if they are fallacious and like any of our expressions in movement – of the essence of human activities and identity, then the Malevich presupposition loses much of its meaning in the unmasking of a fact: human codes are not reality. In this direction, many of the critical readings that follow alleged modernity, which are based on these principles, in turn weaken, tending instead to reveal their abstraction from a broader context of the human and its fragile essence. Since the esiziale problem accomplished by the critics resides in this: to hold good some presuppositions, like that Malevichiano or Duchampiano exactly, not placing them in the wider context of the human codes like evolutionary instruments and of interpretative relationship regarding the universe that surrounds it, coming to constitute its history and essence. In essence, the critique coercively repeats and multiplies the abstraction already taking place in the process of contemporaneity, becoming itself self-referential in its impossibility or inability to place the historical-artistic phenomena in a broader picture of history and human existence.

It should also be considered how the Malevichian observation forces us to reconsider the concept of mimesis in its two opposing interpretations: the first of Platonic origin and the second of Aristotelian origin. Plato condemns mimesis as a lie that imitates things, where things themselves are in turn imitations of the idea. The Platonic idea is necessarily linked to the questions that twentieth-century art has asked itself about the role of representation: starting with the Duchampian ready-made, passing through the series of Mgrittian paintings entitled The human condition, to arrive at the series of Kosuthian works One and Three Chairs, One and Three Lamps, etc.. These few examples could be prolonged out of all proportion, but in any case they pose the work as a provocative question on the meaning of representation and artistic making, precisely as an interpretative code of reality. And according to which representation, as an imitation of reality, can only be condemned: as Rosenberg (Harold Rosenberg 1906-1978) has already pointed out, by bringing us ever closer to the supremacy of the idea, the process and the act, which disqualifies the object and its execution and technical wisdom. In Aristotle, on the other hand, we are witnessing a re-evaluation of mimesis as an instrument for the pursuit of the ideal form, where artistic creation can be assimilated to natural creation. In this case, the references – already mentioned in the previous intervention – to the Hellenic golden rule as a constructive, architectural and artistic yardstick, and to its newfound Renaissance vigour, as well as to the ideal structural research conducted by Cézanne and the Cubists, are indispensable.

For these reasons, the assumptions that certain artistic-expressive positions are more modern or innovative than others should be reviewed, with particular reference to visual art in which they have taken on greater weight and generated perplexity and confusion in social opinion. As before, I refer to some of the observations made by Corrado Maltese, who, already in the mid-seventies of the last century, had well understood the misunderstanding triggered by the so-called cold currents and therefore felt called upon to point out what specifically could be defined as art and art history, I apologize in advance for the long quotation that seems, however, at this point, indispensable.

«[…] the old grouping of arts that the Italian Renaissance from Francesco di Giorgio Martini to Vasari has indicated as arts of drawing and that the culture of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has indicated in France with the name beaux-arts, in England fine arts, in Germany bildende Künste and in Italy figurative arts (which means arts of modeling and production of plastic-pictorial and graphic objects and not of iconic representation, as many believe) has advocated a paradigmatic or exemplary character with so much imperiousness and authority that when we talk about art history we mean that group and only that and when we want to include entertainment, theater, music, cinema, etc.. we talk about the history of the arts, in the plural.

[…] but this leaves room for some misunderstanding: an engraving is appreciated through sight, as well as a film, and both are arts that imply a separation of the product from the producing activity. However, there is still a profound difference between the two: the film must be watched in a time absolutely coinciding with that in which it is projected [or viewed through new technologies], the information it contains is addressed to the viewer in an order of succession that is exactly what the viewer is forced to follow, in short, is a temporally delimited event. The engraving, on the other hand, emits – under suitable conditions – its information all together and independently of the spectator and can be viewed for a fraction of a second or for a few minutes and at a moment chosen by the spectator himself. In short, the engraving, unlike the film, is an object, whose limits are defined spatially, while the time (duration) of observation is physically independent of the time (duration) of presentation. It is precisely this objectivity, combined with the very clear separation between product and production activity, that has provided an almost unshakable basis for the typicality of the ‘figurative arts’ as arts par excellence.

In order to proceed in this direction, however, we must recognize that so far we have made extensive use of the term art and arts, but that in reality we have only taken into account the forms that can be separated from the activity that produces them and, in that context, the object forms. This does not yet imply in any way a clarification of what constitutes their artificiality (as opposed to their possible non-artificiality or naturalness), their artisticity (as opposed to their possible non-artisticity), or even their aestheticity (as opposed to their possible non-aestheticity). In other words, we have hypothesized a universe of perceptible and intelligible forms-objects, which we have, in accordance with tradition, specified as architecture, sculpture, etc., but which could also rigorously include a tree trunk, the pebble of a stream, a crystal of snow, a mountain, a honeycomb or a star. It is true that we have made it clear without explicitly saying that the forms-objects taken into account in the history of art are forms produced by a human activity and therefore their artificiality should be clear. However, this seemingly simple and almost self-evident statement poses a number of very embarrassing problems and its truth has been challenged quite vividly by contemporary art itself.

[…] the crystals of a geode are for the expert the product of a very precise geological event, while in the profane they can arouse the doubt that they were designed and produced by man; vice versa, certain erosions on the stones of Hiroshima may appear to be the result of natural events perhaps unknown, while to those who know the effects of an atomic explosion they immediately reveal themselves as the tragic work, in some way unwanted or unforeseen, of human minds.

In conclusion, the attribution of the genesis of a form to the activity of this or that physical or chemical force, of this or that animal or human force, is always possible only where the genetic process (chemical reaction, technical operation, etc.) that produced it is known or can be deduced at least schematically. This means that it is possible only in the proportions allowed by the experience of those who find themselves having to ‘read’ the form in question. Consequently, the judgement on the ‘artificiality’ (as a conscious human product) of a form does not depend on fixed conditions inherent in the form itself, but on extremely variable conditions of the experience of the judge and of the technology of the person who produced it.

[…] The reason is that it is characterized as artistic a technically exemplary process and therefore typical. So it is artistic what is ‘artificial’, but also, at the same time, exemplary. It is therefore understood how the concept of masterpiece was formed and how it cannot be done without it, provided that we live in a society based on the exchange of information as well as products. In fact, for an object to be technically exemplary, it must be exhibited more or less publicly and someone must be able to appreciate it as such, and therefore have a certain experience of the technology that is at the origin of the object in question. That is to say, the object must communicate and form a bridge between the level of information of the producer and that of the interpreter. Where the difference in level is zero or too great, there is no communication: the object does not appear exemplary (it does not ‘emerge’ on the average), it does not add anything (it does not have ‘originality’), or it appears incomprehensible and therefore foreign (‘it will be a masterpiece, it will be very original, but I do not understand it’). This actually happens both for everyday objects and for objects that have only the purpose of representing other objects or ideas that connect to them. The internal devices of a television set do not communicate anything or almost anything to those who do not have a minimum of information about electronics […]. But even Mondrian’s or Vasarely’s paintings do not communicate anything or almost nothing to those who do not have a minimum of information on the symbolic values of pictorial forms.

[…] If every artificial object that is both artistic and necessarily presents itself as ‘aesthetic’, not everything that is aesthetic is also necessarily artistic or artificial. In the common language a beautiful sunset undoubtedly has an aesthetic value but it is not a human, animal or even less artistic work, if not in the sense of biblical creation. In any case, we say aesthetic every form, static or in the process of becoming, which occurs at the same time as conditions (inherent both in the form taken by itself and in the interpreter taken by itself) such as to draw attention to its immediately perceptible qualities.

[…] However, there is also a limit in the range of forms that the same quiet and optimistic individual can find beautiful and worthy of contemplation: all forms that do not broaden his existential horizon, but leave it unaltered or, worse, restrict it, that is, all forms that present themselves as indifferent or negative, will inevitably appear annoying, ugly, to be avoided and at least devoid of perceptual interest. That is, they will be judged not aesthetic (or not beautiful) and therefore without liberating power.

[…] That is, beauty and aesthetics are, once again, as artificiality and artisticity, values not absolute but relative, and precisely related to the socio-cultural context of the moment. The liberating forms undoubtedly present themselves as models (macro and micro-models) of freedom and therefore as pilot forms of taste, but they are pilot forms because they are liberating first of all for the hegemonic social group or groups, for whose existential conditions they are appropriate and for which they have been produced. This does not mean that pilot forms cannot contain a universal liberating value, i.e. valid also for subordinate social groups and classes, but this is possible only to the extent that their subordinate condition ceases. In the absence of this, beauty and aesthetics will always find, in groups and in the subordinate social classes, different and subordinate ways to be realized and will continue, even if in limited forms, to be realized, at least until the playful dimension of men, that is, their need to free themselves, at least for a few moments, from the world of ends or instrumentality (which at its base then has the need to constantly broaden their existential horizon) has been hypothetically definitively suppressed. (Corrado Maltese, Guida allo studio della storia dell’arte, [1975], Milan, Mursia Editore, 1988)

Maltese, as you can see, conducts a detailed analysis of the definitions and values that we assign to perceptual phenomena, distinguishing the various natures and defining the concepts of art, masterpiece, art history, history of the arts, artificiality and what can be considered aesthetic and artistic. It is not an exercise in mere lucubration, but in definitions necessary to define the limits of a given discipline and indispensable for the scholar of the same, as well as elements equally indispensable to understanding and social communication in dealing with certain topics in the exchange of information. Finally, Maltese stresses that these values are intrinsically linked to the observer’s experience and to historical socio-cultural conditions.

Visual language, like that of other artistic disciplines, requires familiarity with the subject, allowing you to access more complex content as you go along. We would not advise a music layman to start by listening to Music for 18 musicians (1976) by Steve Reich (1936) for example. Nor would we advise a layman of literature to begin with reading Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce (1882-1941). The refinement of the palate of a spectator, reader or listener progresses according to the knowledge of that given language. Such refinement will lead him to the understanding of more complex or less usual structures of the language itself. If we meet an acquaintance at the exit of a cinema and ask him what he thinks of the film just watched, most of the time he will tell us about the subject of the film accompanied by personal impressions, flying over the presence of the film camera and the types of framing adopted, the atmospheric and chromatic flavor of photography, soundtrack, editing, etc.. Not knowing these aspects of the cinematic structure does not prevent the viewer from seeing the film, but they certainly do not allow him to fully understand it or analyze it for what it really is. He approaches a language of which he is not aware and from which, emotionally and unconsciously, he receives information. He can enjoy it aesthetically, but he is not in a position to choose because he cannot discern the nature and meaning of that information. The viewer also needs knowledge.

The evolution and understanding of language is an aspect present in the life of each of us since childhood. The effort we make to orient ourselves and walk in the urban space, to orient ourselves temporally according to the time and calendar, to speak and communicate with others, are all examples of how our evolutionary path is based on the knowledge of a set of codes. Learning Italian grammar at school allows us to use and understand increasingly complex textual contents. This is the aspect that makes our acquaintance narrate the subject of the film at the exit of the cinema, instead of accounting for the use of cinematic expressive elements. Our school education is based fundamentally on knowledge of linguistic-literary structures. It is difficult to learn the linguistic, musical or visual aspects at school with the same degree of depth. It follows that the friend met at the exit of the cinema interprets the language of cinema according to literary canons completely inadequate. In any school, before approaching literary history, we learn the grammatical elements of the language. It is not usual, however, to bring the student closer to the history of art, or to the expression of visual texts more generally, through the learning of visual grammar.

For these reasons (as I said in my introductory speech to the blog https://www.danilosantinelli.it/danilos-blog/two-or-three-things-about-the-blog/) visual grammars should be spread at school – an aspect that is closely linked to the problems introduced by postmodern practices – and without which there is a real risk of damaging the democratic choices of individuals.

The cultural impoverishment produced by the thought and attitude of renunciation assumed by the postmodern determines the further risk of a decline in the understanding of more complex forms of language, leading to a flattening typical of the forms of communication banal and spectacular, marked by mere appearance. Forms that operate a subtraction in the user of those skills essential to access certain linguistic-expressive codes.

The practices of non-thinking and impoverishment of the imaginary (described in more detail in Modern, postmodern, altermodern, the imaginary in the contemporary era in the blog https://www.danilosantinelli.it/danilos-blog/1-modern-postmodern-altermodern-the-imaginary-in-the-contemporary-era/) conducted by postmodernism through the interruption of the relationship between artistic research and social emancipation, to turn to the role of market value only, has determined the consequent crisis and disappearance of traditions and historical values that are revealed today in social and political life. Essentially marked by the absence of references, bonds and continuity, expressed as “momentaneity in itself”, like the phenomena typical of postmodern expression in their interruption of the chain, past present future. Social and political life forgets the cultural, civil and ideological origins, a life, also, characterized by the unconditional and uncritical crowding of materials heir to the languages of postmodernism. For these reasons, the new generations, who work in the field of artistic expression, are so strenuously opposed to it, in an attempt to reconnect those threads cut by the intervention of the wretched postmodern practice.

This, then, is the task facing us today, to resume the discourse where it was interrupted and bring it back into the context of social and civil life. As I said, the new pictorial feeling, recalls the nineteenth-century tradition that had made the use of the pictorial material its instrument of opposition, rebellion and historical thermometer of social and political life. Where artistic and social activities are completely interconnected and projected back to emancipation.

I believe that the speech conducted so far has answered and exhausted the question of the necessity of the existence of a figurative pictorial current, but it still has to give an account of its difference with respect to the transavantgarde or neo-expressionist past of the last century and how it relates to them. These two pictorial experiences of the previous millennium, in line with what has been outlined so far, have basically dealt with painting in a self-referential sense, activating a reflection on those previous experiences at the basis of the expressive-artistic mutation already described and which is already declared by the two nominal identities: Transavantgarde (the re-examination of the languages implemented by the historical avant-gardes) and Neo-expressionism (more concentrated on the expression of that single avant-garde, with particular reference to the German experience, both in the historical precedent and in the modern re-examination that sees it concentrated in Germany, an aspect that multiplies its self-referentiality). Therefore, on the basis of the historical precedents, both these currents have made a new leverage on the so-called primitivism, thus conducting, also in this case, an investigation “to the second”. Where the historical avant-gardes, in order to carry out an alphabetical renewal of language, had drawn on the primitive artistic testimonies of the various cultures – not only Western – the pictorial experiences of the 1980s have necessarily revised this primitivism through the revision conducted by the same avant-gardes that preceded and generated them. These two manifestations are thus delineated as eminently citationist, bent on reflections on the problems within the art itself. It constitutes a typical assumption of Kossuth’s thought applied to painting, where it mentions itself “to the second”, manifesting itself as a worthy conclusive act of the pathological shift in artistic practices that Harvey, in The Crisis of Modernity (David Harvey, La Crisi della Modernità, [1990], Milan, Il Saggiatore, 1997, pp. 73-74) through Jameson’s analysis, finds to be typical of schizzorfrenia (in-depth aspects in The Process of Abstraction in the Contemporary Age within the blog https://www.danilosantinelli.it/danilos-blog/2-the-process-of-abstraction-in-the-contemporary-age/). The quotationism implemented by postmodern practices takes concrete form in a multiplicity of acts of abstraction, which re-propose a stylema separating it from the historical-social context that generated it and therefore preserving the only signifier to the detriment of the meaning. It also reveals another peculiar character of postmodernity in its linguistic fragmentariness that breaks the chain of the signifier, leading expressive forms to manifest themselves through isolated and momentary signifiers, which in the absence of the natural temporal consequentiality, past and present and future, renounce their task of research and evolution of meaning. The expression is thus constituted as a superficial (surface) phenomenon, incapable of generating a solid discourse on society and its own time. It no longer carries out a task of analytical observation and critical analysis of the social context, but is instead determined as a mere product typical of the capitalist dynamic that needs and feeds on fragmentation in order to survive.




ARGAN Giulio Carlo, L’arte moderna 1770/1970, [1970], Firense, Sansoni Editore, 1982.

ARNHEIM Rudolf, Arte e percezione visiva, [1954], Milano, Feltrinelli, 2002.

BAIRATI Eleonora – FINOCCHI Anna, Arte in Italia, volume, [1984], Torino, Loescher Editore, 1991.

BARILLI Renato, Il cilclo del postmoderno. La ricerca artistica degli anni’80, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1987.

BARILLI Renato, Informale oggetto comportamento 1. La ricerca artistica negli anni’50 e’60, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1979.

BONITO OLIVA Achille, L’ideologia del traditore – Arte, maniera, manierismo, [1976], Milano, Feltrinelli, 1981.

BORDONI Carlo FOSSATI Franco, Dal feuilleton al fumetto. Generi e scrittori della letteratura popolare, Roma, Editori Riuniti, 1985.

BRANCATO Sergio, Fumetti. Guida ai comics nel sistema dei media, Roma, Datanews Editrice, 1994.

CALVESI Maurizio, Le due avanguardie. Dal Futurismo alla Pop Art, Bari, Laterza, 1991.

CAROCCI Giampiero, Elementi di storia – L’Età delle rivoluzioni borghesi, volume 2, [1985], Bologna, Zanichelli, 1990.

CAROLI Flavio, Magico primario, Milano, Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, 1982.

CASETTI Francesco DI CHIO Federico, Analisi del film, Milano, Bompiani, 1990.

COSTA Antonio, Il cinema e le arrti visive, Torino, Einaudi, 2002

DEL GUERCIO Antonio, Storia dell’arte presente, Roma Editori Riuniti, 1985.

DE MICHELI Mario, Le avanguardie artistiche del Novecento, [1986], Milano, Feltrinelli, 1988.

DE VECCHI Pierluigi CERCHIARI Elda, Arte nel tempo, [1991], Milano, Bompiani, 1996.

DE VINCENTI Giorgio, Andare al cinema, Roma, Editori Riuniti, 1985.

DORFLESS Gillo, Ultime tendenze nell’arte d’oggi, [1961], Milano, Feltrinelli, 1985.

GUGLIELMINO Salvatore, Guida al novecento, [1971], Milano, Editrice G. Principato s.p.a., 1982.

HARVEY David, La crisi della modernità, [1990], Milano, Il Saggiatore, 1997.

HONNEF Klaus, L’arte contemporanea, Köln, Taschen, 1990.

HUGHES Robert, Lo shock dell’arte moderna, Milano, Idealibri, 1982.

KUBLER George, La forma del tempo, [1972], Torino, Einaudi, 1989.

LYOTARD Jean-François, La condizione postmoderna, [1979], Milano, Feltrinelli, 1990.

LYOTARD Jean-François, Peregrinazioni. Legge, forma, evento, [1988], Bologna, Il Mulino, 1992.

MALTESE Corrado, Guida allo studio della storia dell’arte, [1975], Milano, Mursia, 1988.

MALTESE Corrado, Storia dell’arte in Italia 1785-1943, [1960], Torino, Einaudi, 1992.

MENNA Filiberto, La linea analitica dell’arte moderna, [1975], Torino, Einaudi, 1983.

MONTANER Josep Maria, Dopo il movimento moderno. L’architettura della seconda metà del Novecento, [1993], Roma, Laterza, 1996.

SCARUFFI Piero, Guida all’avanguardia e New Age, Milano, Arcana Editrice, 1991.

VALLIER Dora, L’arte astratta, Milano, Garzanti, 1984.

WORRINGER Wilhelm, Astrazione e empatia, [1908], Torino, Einaudi, 1975.


Siti web