Writing Art History Today
Notes on an Open Discourse

Raffaella Perna

Last year, within the framework of the Consulta Universitaria Nazionale per la Storia dell’Arte (Cunsta), a discussion began on the perspectives and methodologies related to writing contemporary art history,[1] a complex issue that has been at the centre of important reflections on a national and international level over the last three decades. Today rigid disciplinary boundaries no longer hold, geographical ones have been blurred and the romantic myth of the “genius” artist has been discredited: the question is what remains and where should we start? If art history understood as a monolithic narrative is impracticable today, are we certain that the fragmentation of histories and narratives that we have been witnessing for at least twenty years is a viable path? A large number of researches and working groups have focused on this topic: for example, in the Italian context, the two scientific projects undertaken by Carla Subrizi at La Sapienza University, La scrittura delle storie (started in 2007) and Fare storia all’inizio del XXI secolo (started in 2010), which have highlighted crucial questions for this debate,[2] and the contributions presented on occasion of the lecture series at the Faculty of Design and Art of the Free University of Bolzano, collected by Emanuela De Cecco in the book Arte-mondo. Storia dell’arte, storie dell’arte (2010).[3] The problems in the field are many, starting with periodisation: establishing its beginning and what exactly is meant by the term contemporary is in fact a more complex matter than it seems. Is it still plausible to consider Neoclassicism as the starting point for the history of contemporary art, as is still the case in Italian university teaching today, at the risk of greatly compressing, if not sacrificing altogether, the study of more recent art? Is it really necessary to maintain an “adequate” temporal distance in order to be able to write art history? If so, how should it be quantified? The disconnection between the figure of the art historian and that of the art critic and/or curator, who is increasingly tasked with analysing exclusively the present, is accepted by many scholars as a given, or worse, as an inevitable divide. And yet, authoritative art historians in the recent past have fulfilled this role brilliantly: Giulio Carlo Argan, Maurizio Calvesi, Enrico Crispolti, Filiberto Menna, and Marisa Volpi, to name but a few academics who, by accepting the challenge of operating on a double register, did not abstain from speaking of the present, leaving a strong mark on the art of the second half of the 20th century. The difficulty in defining the perimeter of contemporary art, however, does not only concern the periodisation proposed by university courses, but also closely affects the criteria used to determine which artists or events can or cannot be considered contemporary. Often one proceeds chronologically, grouping artists by generations, as in many books and catalogues that aim to provide surveys based on a temporal progression broken down into decades. Although artists often have long careers spanning many years, their work is usually associated with a specific decade, interpreted more or less explicitly as the “golden” period of their production, which means everything else tends to be ignored. Moreover, this way of organising art history also runs the risk of failing to grasp a fundamental element of the historical perspective: it is our present gaze that modifies the perception of the past and decides what is to be revived and what is instead destined, at least momentarily, to be forgotten. This relationship of continuous renegotiation constructs our idea of art history, which is therefore highly stratified from the point of view of time. It is not only the careers of artists that struggle to fit inside linear narratives and trajectories: the works themselves eschew a linear positivist temporality, as they are rather characterised by the anachronism Georges Didi-Huberman speaks of.[4] To quote Stefano Chiodi’s reflections on Maurizio Cattelan’s sardonic anti-monument L.O.V.E. (2010), the work itself can in fact summon “iconographies, symbols, heterogeneous times, which are superimposed and compressed on each other”.[5] Despite the fact that postmodern theory has highlighted the fragility of linear and teleological visions of art history, these interpretative models are actually hard to change. At a time of uncertainty such as the present, it is difficult to find shared alternatives. The problem, in fact, is not only the definition of the “time” of contemporary art history, but also a growing difficulty in coming to terms with the expansion of its geo-cultural boundaries, with the enlargement of the perimeter of art, which occurs simultaneously on several fronts and in various directions: from the blurring of boundaries separating different media and disciplinary spheres (interpreted by some purists as the collapse of the discipline), to the extension of geographical boundaries beyond the European and North American scene (the “new artistic geographies” analysed by Roberto Pinto),[6] to the plurality of identities and subjects who write, practise and enjoy art in a globalised and strongly interconnected present. Over the last forty years, the reflections developed in the field of gender and post-colonial studies have contributed to a profound revision of the canon of art history,[7] questioned the dominant model of the male, white, heterosexual artist, and made space for the voices and bodies that go beyond the binary norm and contradict the single, one-dimensional narrative of Western art history. The perspective opened up by intersectional feminism not only insists on the need to rewrite history, or rather the histories of art, but also demonstrates the interdependence between the various forms of oppression in the Western, neo-liberal and patriarchal world,[8] helping us to understand how inequalities and discriminations linked to gender, class, ethnicity, geographical origin, physical and cognitive abilities, have historically affected, and still affect, the making and writing of art. However, it is not enough to expand the boundaries to include “other” voices and subjects for the dynamics and geographies of power to change. Indeed, we need to remain vigilant about the mechanisms that regulate the construction of art history, by continuously questioning our methods of inclusion/exclusion of artists and artistic phenomena (in books, exhibitions, essays, etc.), by critically analysing our ways of looking and judging, which are always subjective and partial, never neutral. What is needed above all is an articulated exchange, not an episodic one, between the various players in the field of the art system, multiple broad and transversal moments of discussion, in an attempt to find the “other criteria” that Leo Steinberg spoke of many years ago, and that today, perhaps too utopian, I cannot imagine as the result of the reflections of one individual, but rather as a process of verification shared by a community, also formed by scholars who deal with art history with a view to the present.


[1] The project, titled Officine del contemporaneo, was curated by E. Di Raddo, A. Mazzanti and C.Subrizi.

[2] C. Subrizi, Scrivere la storia dell’arte: metodologia e ricerca negli ultimi decenni, in Boletín de Arte-UMA, 38, 2017, Departamento de Historia del Arte, Universidad de Málaga, pp. 171-178, <http://dx.doi.org/10.24310/BoLArte.2017.v0i38.3362>.

[3] Arte-mondo. Storia dell’arte, storie dell’arte, ed. by E. De Cecco, Postmedia Books, 2010.

[4] G. Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps. Histoire de l’art et anachronisme des images, Éditions de Minuit, 2000.

[5] S. Chiodi, Genius Loci. Anatomia di un mito italiano, Quodlibet, 2021, p. 118.

[6] R. Pinto, Nuove geografie artistiche. Le mostre al tempo della globalizzazione, Postmedia Books, 2012.

[7] G. Pollock, Differencing the Canon. Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories, Routledge, 1999.

[8] The bibliography on the topic is vast; two important references are: R. Borghi, Decolonialità e privilegio. Pratiche femministe e critica al sistema-mondo, Meltemi, 2020; S. Federici, Genere e Capitale. Per una rilettura femminista di Marx, DeriveApprodi, 2020.