Federico Ferrari was born in 1969 in Milan and chose to live in Lisbon. He teaches Philosophy of Art at the Brera Academy (Milan) and defines himself as a European philosopher and art critic (or rather, a supporter of the need for art criticism).
Michela Alessandrini, April 2015.
A conversation about art and art criticism
Michela Alessandrini, April 2015
Conversation transcription below
Michela Alessandrini: Federico, in your blog you define yourself as an European philosopher and art critic. What do these three last words mean to you?
Federico Ferrari: Are you referring to philosopher and art critic or also to European?
MA: The three of them!
FF: “European” obviously refers to both qualifications, philosopher and art critic… It’s not as if I feel I’m an European philosopher and an Italian art critic!
“European” comes from the fact that I don’t live in Italy, where I work, but in Lisbon. This choice comes from a lack of any kind of special national connection. To me, thought and culture are European, now more than ever — although Europe is currently in a state of agitation. I feel I’m European, my education came about among several European countries and absorbed several cultures; moreover, I believe that what I express is a combination of European cultures, therefore I can only define myself as an European rather than an Italian.
My education was mainly that of a theoretical philosopher, rather than an aesthetic one; later, diverse and at times casual events in my life led me to work more and more with art. Art became a founding moment of my work, to the point that I am teaching at a Fine Arts Academy, the one in Brera, Milan, where I teach Philosophy of Art. Art critic… I’m not sure I actually am an art critic. I might be an art critic in the sense that I believe in the need — today as in art’s modern history — of a critical approach to art, for an opinion that basically has to do with a very simple judgement that arises out of the question that comes to our mind when we are looking at a work of art, and which is probably the only question posed by the 19th and — increasingly so — the 20th century: “Is this art?”. It’s about understanding whether what’s in front of me is art or not, as art’s boundaries were expanded dramatically in the 20th century thanks to bold experiments that placed increasing importance — I believe — on the need for a… Let’s call it an aesthetic judgement based on a critical ability beyond the “I like it” or “I don’t like it” statement. I never accepted the absolute subjectivity of an aesthetic judgement. I wrote “art critic” in my website biography because I believe that only a critic can give such a judgement on art, not because I feel I’m an art critic in the conventional sense, one that writes reviews on newspapers or on specialized magazines. I believe this critical approach is much needed. Art criticism was born with modernity, with Denis Diderot, Charles Baudelaire, Honoré de Balzac. In other words, art criticism comes into being when art explodes and no longer complies with classical standards, exactly because the issue of understanding the reach of what one is beholding becomes real. This progresses during the 19th century with Joris Karl Huysmans, in the Anglo-Saxon countries with Roger Fry and Clive Bell… In short, in my life I assimilated and absorbed — but also rejected — many art criticism reference points. This is how I approach art: trying to find reference points within the artistic landscape, to trace boundaries, as arbitrary as they may be; because to me what’s left, this attempt — or rather, temptation — to approach the matter by saying “everything is all right” is akin to artistic demagogy rather than artistic democracy. As we just said, art criticism was born with Diderot and the Enlightenment thinkers, which is to say with the birth of democracy in Europe. The fact that, when democracy seems accomplished, art criticism disappears disturbs me, because it leads me to think that we are living in an accomplished demagogy; therefore, I believe strong art criticism is needed, just as strong and arbitrary as modern art criticism was in its heydays. I’m wondering if I answered…
MA: You definitely did, in a rather complex and articulate way, thanks.
Let’s move on to the second question: your manifesto text “Comrade of the artist,” originally published in Chiara Bertola’s “Curare l’arte” (Electa, 2008) expresses a cynical yet resolute opinion on the power that the curator’s figure has taken on lately. I wonder if you have anything to add in the light of your later experiences as a curator — I’m referring especially to “Arte essenziale,” to the Collezione Maramotti in 2011, but also to other exhibitions and to your experience at the Fine Arts Academy in Milan.
FF: As you said, that was a rather provocative text: in a large book specifically called “Curare l’arte” (Translator’s note: curating art), I was taking a rather brutal stance towards curators by stating my impression that they were not curating much art and that their professional qualification was so unclear that it was devoid of meaning, of a strong professional competence. It seemed to me that the the contemporary curator’s figure — a relatively recent one if we consider the meaning we give it today — was a producer more than anything, as in a theatre producer: a person that would create a show and then take it on tour, somebody engaged in selling a show, that is. As such, the curator as the one who creates an exhibition and then sells it in the best possible way, not only by taking it on tour but also by conveying it through media distribution channels, nowadays real distribution is carried out through the media rather than physically — in short, the art show curator — is not all that important to me, although I realize how important this figure can be, both economically and socially.
I contrasted this figure with a comrade, an accomplice — a rather ambiguous word that wasn’t my choice for my article’s title, it was named like this in a relational manner. I was simply giving my answer to the question:”Who is the curator?”. I’d say it’s the artist’s comrade, who enjoys a strong intellectual complicity, or rather a deep elective affinity with one or more artists, based on which it tries to — often infinitesimally — move the boundaries of the question I was referring to earlier on: “What is art?”. With this in mind, to me “Arte Essenziale” is simply an attempt to find an answer to this question: “What is art?”. Philosophically, this question matches the question on the essence of the matter, hence the chosen title “Arte essenziale” (Translator’s note: essential art). It should be said that, perhaps as an affectation, at the time I prevented the catalogue from bearing the wording “curated by” Federico Ferrari and dictated instead “from an idea by,” exactly because I didn’t believe in the curator’s figure. Later on, as my hair turned whiter, I understood that even affectations have limits and I realize that the word “curator” is an index of media comprehensibility, therefore I no longer oppose it. The problem is not in the word, but in the content and the practice — we could refer to the ethics, were it not an excessively noble and recently misused word — in any case, in the work ethics that what we refer to as the curator or commissaire in French, a word that is even more disturbing because of its police-like quality — puts into daily practice. What I attached and increasingly attach importance to is connecting with very few artists, because there are very few people I feel an elective affinity with. I am rather puzzled by curators that curate 100—200 exhibitions in a decade. I can’t understand what affinities… Either they’re extremely versatile individuals that find affinities with anybody or… Generally I find affinities with very few people, therefore I have greatly reduced the number of people I work with — not because of snobbery, it’s the way I feel — in a dialogue that some times leads to an exhibition and other times to nothing but uninterrupted conversations that go beyond both me and the artist I’m working with and focus on the issue of art in its complexity and infinite richness, brought about by the 20th century that opened its wide possibilities. The question about essence is not pettiness aimed at defining and secluding art, as many construed it, but rather an opening, which is the legacy the 20th century left to us… But, still, the need to define what art is always there, and to me this is the curator and the artist’s ethical task, to state that art is never stated. There’s nothing exclusive in this, but both the question and the answer need to be radical. What puzzles me isn’t the high number of answers but the lack of questions, the approach according to which the question makes no sense. It must be said, finding the ultimate answer is entirely a different matter!
I don’t know if I managed to answer your question, I’d have a lot to add because the text you were referring to dates back a few years, there were previous ones such as “Spazio Critico” (2004), written 11-12 years ago. Eventually, I have grown increasingly distant from controversies concerning art and focused more on aspects of essence, which are more interesting to me, and on the artist’s action, which I find more interesting than the controversies involving those that — rightly or not — surround the art world, a terrifying expression… As if multiple worlds existed together… I have become somehow more tolerant but also a lot more indifferent… I proceed on my path with greater serenity. I’m not sure I would still write such a text… I do not disown it; I just think its avant-garde spirit is a little belated.
MA: Thanks, Federico!
English translation: Fulvio Giglio