MASSIMILIANO GIONI with David Carrier and Joachim Pissarro
Massimiliano Gioni, Director of Exhibitions at the New Museum was curator of the 55th International Art Exhibition, “La Biennale di Venezia” in 2013. When one of us saw that exhibition and then we both read the massive catalogue Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 2013) we could scarcely believe our eyes. Here, it seemed, he—working in a parallel universe—was developing an analysis marvelously compatible with our own research. When, for example, he speaks of presenting art not “in a linear fashion” but by “revealing a web of associations through contrasts and affinities, anachronisms, and collisions”; when he hopes that “the coerced coexistence of heterogeneous objects and the friction between art and other forms of figuration might be able to strike new sparks”; and above all when he says that “the exhibition celebrates exceptions and eccentricities instead of attempting to achieve a total systematization” his analysis spoke to our concerns. And so we eagerly anticipated this chance to talk.
David Carrier (Rail): We are interested in your idea of an encyclopedia, and the idea that the encyclopedia has become impossible at this point. You are trying to gather all of this material and yet it is a failed utopia of images that you are trying to gather—more than can be gathered, more than is possible, which is an interesting concept for an exhibition.
Joachim Pissarro: To use the Plato quote that you use, “To know everything equates divinity,” which is wonderful—it relates to the wake of Enlightenment, the end of the 18th century. The very first museums of the late 18th and early 19th century dealt with exactly that issue. Map out everything, and you had everything. These museums were not just cabinets of curiosities; the idea was to map out the entire production of visual information.
Massimiliano Gioni: This show was not an encyclopedia of art—some people wrongly assumed that my goal was to compile an encyclopedia, but that was certainly not what I was interested in. On the contrary it was an exhibition about many different attempts to encapsulate the universe, or many different attempts at a form of universal knowledge—many of them failed. Even though its title contains the word encyclopedia, it is certainly a project that is very far from the idea of the encyclopedia as it was defined during the Enlightenment. If anything, the exhibition was more sympathetic to the origin of encyclopedias, from the 16th century and earlier, and it drew a parallel between our society of information and knowledge today and forms of knowledge that were more common before the Enlightenment, hence, for example, the insistence on secrets and revelations and a kind of mystical process of knowledge.
In the age of Wikipedia, paradoxically, we seem to believe more in epistemological models, which show more similarities with pre-modern beliefs than with ideas that can be traced back to the Enlightenment.
I’ve always been interested and fascinated by Umberto Eco’s writings about encyclopedias, and he has often written about contemporary models of knowledge—and their aberrations—that cast their roots in Baroque and Medieval thinking. On some occasions I have spoken about my exhibition as a pre-history of Wikipedia: an exploration of many different ways in which throughout the 20th century the myth of universal knowledge has been tackled or promoted. I thought it was particularly important to tackle this subject in Venice because the biennial is the exhibition that is most closely linked to the model of the universal exhibition, which is in itself an attempt—a problematic one, we all know—to grasp the universe in one place. Instead of formulating some kind of universalistic set of values, I wanted to stress that the personal encyclopedias and personal cosmologies displayed in my exhibition are obviously far from being universal. They strive to become universal but they all fail and reveal their partiality. I thought of this show as a collection of existential adventures, an anthology of the stories of many individuals, some of them artists and some of them dilettantes or amateurs, who tackle the problem of universal knowledge.
Pissarro: This notion of wanting to capture the universal creativity is flawed from its beginning. But you are looking at several models—beyond the encyclopedia you mention this idea of amateurs.
Gioni: The idea of the amateur is fundamental to the show because the amateur as a figure bypasses the problem of the distinction between the insider and the outsider. I was particularly interested in questioning such a distinction.
Rail: You are going to a place before there was art history. There were all of these images and at a certain point in the 18th century a group of people said, this group is art and the other things are diagrams or whatever, but they are not works of art at all.
Gioni: That was another important premise of the show, a premise which I identified with the expression “anthropology of images,” borrowed from Hans Belting, a very influential art historian who has often suggested that we move beyond art history. Belting is not alone in promoting this expanded notion of a history of images. There are many other art historians and image historians who think of art history and art criticism as a more expanded field, and urge us to interpret art as part of a larger image culture. Think of—for example—the Roland Barthes of Mythologies; or—much earlier—of Aby Warburg. One could also mention many other authors—almost in random order—such as Georges Didi-Huberman, Régis Debray, and before them other figures of cultural and mass media interpreters as Marshall McLuhan and again Umberto Eco. More recently, there has been much talk about the so-called iconic turn, and many scholars and writers have attempted to look at art in a wider context. I know it’s a very disparate group of authors I am mentioning here, but I am listing them as very different examples of interpreters who have thought of art as part of our visual culture, and who have taught us to look at images as a matter of extreme importance—almost a matter of life and death, as Debray would say—and not just as a form of visual entertainment.
My interest in this notion of an anthropological approach to art and image-making has to do with trying to find a way beyond some approaches to contemporary art that I find restrictive. Take for example the model of our contemporary art museums: I think in most cases contemporary art museums impose a very narrow definition of what contemporary art is. I often use the Metropolitan Museum as an example, because it is a museum I particularly love. If you walk around its galleries you are confronted with many different ways of defining and categorizing art: the vast majority of the Metropolitan Museum is built on an expanded notion of art, which can include high art—to use a quick category—but also arts and crafts, decoration, design, cult objects, utilitarian objects, documents, and artifacts that were not necessarily looked at as art when they were made. Most of the objects at the Metropolitan are displayed because they incarnate a view of the world or an attitude toward the world; they are there because they encapsulate a certain idea of culture or because they are traces of a certain culture or even of a certain individual way of life. The definition of what can enter the museum is quite porous: it can be a beautiful sculpture or a small ceramic cup. Then you walk to the contemporary art galleries and suddenly the understanding of contemporary art becomes immediately very restricted. The museum seems preoccupied with a very narrow definition of art and of images: it gets suddenly more preoccupied with establishing a canon, with telling us who are the greatest artists. The most you can do is to stare at these works as though they were silent masterpieces which need to be admired for their beauty. I have nothing against artists or against masterpieces, but it has always struck me as very strange that the closer we get to ourselves today, the more restrictive we become with our categories.
Today we live in a society that is obsessed with images, that is suffocating with images, so for me a crucial question is: Can we look at art as a form of image consumption and production and not just as a separated field? Looking at art in relation to other forms of creativity, other forms of figurative expression, less canonical but just as inspiring, can give us a better understanding of the function of images, and can teach us to see better. If we restrict art to a separate field, we end up playing the same game as the market—we establish the idea of the isolated masterpiece, which is more and more complicit with the market. As I started to look at image making and not just art, the idea was to go beyond art and to look at other forms of visual expression, mostly figurative. That is where the idea of the amateur became crucial. I cast aside the problem of defining who the artist is and I became more interested in people who devote their lives to being with images and producing images to find a kind of cipher of the world. I started being less and less interested in the distinction of the insider and the outsider, and, in a way, less and less interested in distinction of quality or taste. The outsider is assumed to be a marginal figure while the amateur is someone who does something for love. The amateur is both professional and nonprofessional, because he can be professional in his own field because he devotes so much time to that knowledge and at the same time he is not necessarily a professional, he does not get paid for what he does. That is why the exhibition started with Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book. Not because I am a Jungian or because I find in his writing an explanation for this problem, but because I wanted an example of an individual who spent 16 years of his life making an art work and without necessarily defining himself as an artist. He himself did not even know if it was an artwork or not—he didn’t bother with any definition, but he developed a skill through self-teaching and developed a system of images, a knowledge through images. Jung was a founding stone for my exhibition because I didn’t want to simply end up promoting the idea of the outsider artist as a crazy individual. Jung was a doctor, a professional in his field, an expert. But, when it comes to making art he was certainly a self-taught amateur, yet the way he makes and uses images can still teach us how to deal with images—and eventually with artworks out there.
Rail: Two things appear in the 18th century: The idea of the artist, this gifted figure, and on the curator’s side, the notion of the connoisseur. A special group of objects are in the museum and all of these other things are outside—they are not good enough or simple enough.
Gioni: I guess somehow the show was built on some level of connoisseurship or a level of discrimination, though I was not interested in making a show that discriminated between the good and the bad. That is not what this show is about.
Pissarro: But at the same time you are not (just) an amateur yourself—you are an amateur but also a professional.
Gioni: I am an amateur because I did love every object in the exhibition, and because I wanted to avoid the idea of the curator as a champion of the artist. I didn’t want to subscribe to the model of the curator as promoter of the works in the show: I think that is also a very restrictive idea of our profession and of what museums should be about. Museums cannot just be about imposing hierarchies: if anything, they should be about expanding and questioning hierarchies. By showing Jung or some of the spiritualists, some people assumed that I am a spiritualist or a Jungian or a follower of Steiner. There is this assumption that whatever is in a show, the curator endorses and promotes. I am not so interested in this approach: the exhibition or the institution are not there to sanctify their content. I wanted the objects in the exhibition to speak about various attitudes toward images and representations of the world. I respect every view of the world that was in this show but I don’t necessarily endorse every view of the world that I brought together. Maybe instead of connoisseurship, I would think of the curator as an interpreter. Warburg called himself a psycho-historian, an interpreter who tries to detect various visions of the world and various cultural and personal imaginaries, through images and through the dialogue and the montage between images.
Pissarro: You are talking about blurring the lines between artist and non-artist, insiders and outsiders. This is also something we have done in our book Wild Art, and we have come across a number of stumbling blocks, which are very serious. One of the dangers we came across—and I am curious to know how you negotiated your way around it—is the assumption that this guy is saying everything is creation, everything is art, so it’s back to the postmodern motto of the 1980s: everything is equal, everything is fine, which, in fact is not at all what we are saying. There is one expression that you use—you talk about a multitude, you write about the innumerable multitude of worlds, that could be a caption for our book. You also talk about the joy, the capacity of enchantment—that is a word that comes across in your text. Do you retain that notion of the art enabling us to transcend ourselves, being able to travel?
Gioni: The question touches upon problems for which I don’t have a final answer or solution. This show is about the impossibility of settling on final solutions. The problem of quality is interesting. How can we have an expanded notion of quality?
Pissarro: Without diluting it.
Gioni: How can we go beyond even good and evil? My show was beyond good and evil. It was not about setting a hierarchy, but still how do we differentiate from kitsch and non-kitsch? I think that in some of our museums and auction houses now there is a second degree of kitsch—the masterpiece is not necessarily devoid of kitsch! When you are forced to love the object as a grand artistic empty gesture, that is the kitschiest of all. I think every object in this show is somehow a vision of the world and as such I need to respect it. I try to bypass the problem of quality, by relying on the notion of intensity, but if you were to ask me exactly how I define intensity, I am afraid I wouldn’t be able to. But I do strongly believe that the images in the exhibition—and it doesn’t matter what their provenance was—had an intensity that separates them from commercial images or from the images that we look at in our everyday life, those terrible images that obfuscate our vision every day, that pollute our vision.
Rail: This is already an issue in the museums: think of the pre-Columbian art, a dagger used for the ritual of human sacrifice—we can appreciate that without validating that culture.
Pissarro: But that is also because we are sufficiently removed historically. If it were 17th-century Spain, I don’t think we would.
Gioni: How did you go about dealing with quality in your book?
Pissarro: We only took the works we were both moved or stirred by. Like with your use of the word enchantment—we wanted to be enchanted and we were in many ways. You can stop in front of a mural in Brooklyn and say “wow” if you decide to look at it. Most of us are taught not to look at murals. You bring us to look at things we were taught not to look at. I find this so courageous, but I am really curious about how you, if I may ask this personal question, felt about enchantment?
Gioni: When I speak about enchantment, I speak about it as a sort of double movement. On one hand, I think it’s important to remove the artwork from its pedestal by saying that the artwork is equal to all the different forms of image-making out there. But treating the artwork as equal to other images allows us to appreciate the power of enchantment of these objects. Be they artworks or other forms of figurative expression, it allows us to be enchanted again by these objects. So, we have to de-sublimate in order to sublimate again, in a different environment so to speak.
At the same time we should also be careful not to fall in the trap of the kitsch of the enchantment. If it becomes over-sentimental, if it becomes simply a mannerism of enchantment then we have a problem. On many levels, my biennial was a show where there was no irony: everything was on one level. So the whole issue of sincerity is crucial but I also want to be mindful and careful not to fall into the myth of sincerity, into the excess of sincerity, which becomes sentimental and equally problematic. I don’t know if I succeeded or not and I don’t know if you guys succeeded in your book. Because also your book is about a sincerity that sometimes becomes—
Pissarro: Over the top?
Rail: When we reviewed a book about Thomas Kinkade, Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall one of the academic authors said that, if only Kinkade was ironic this would be acceptable, but it’s not, so we can’t allow him in the art world. He is too sincere. He is too immediate.
Pissarro: We know the idea of sincerity is a non-notion, but you posed a problem and we posed it too. This notion of kitsch is produced by a bunch of German philosophers in the ’30s—extremely important people who were fighting against very dangerous ideas. But does that notion apply to us today? The notion of kitsch requires that there is an authority that establishes where the kitsch lies and where the high art is, and I believe this is no longer—it’s not that kitsch is a notion that has died. It’s still there but this distinction is no longer applicable.
Gioni: In my exhibition in Venice—and in many other exhibitions of mine—I wanted to get rid of the problem of quality and taste but the way I got there wasn’t easy. It was a process that evolved through other exhibitions and through looking at other people’s shows. Artist curated shows for example have always been inspiring for me—and some of the artists of the ’80s and ’90s like Bob Gober or Charles Ray have been great curators. Disinterest toward categories of taste—that’s what makes great art. Do without worrying about taste. That has taught me a lot about how you can make a show in which you present works that are beyond good and evil and have nothing to do with taste, but you present them in a way that doesn’t necessarily mean embracing them as good or bad. It means embracing them as examples of attitudes toward the world. That is one way in which I dealt with the problem of quality and the problem of kitsch.
Another way to bypass the problem is by thinking of these objects and these images as documents, and not as artworks: as traces of stories and of lives lived. As a curator, I always think my role also has to do with exposing the narratives by which value is projected onto objects. Museums are always built on some kind of narrative, but the narrative is usually kept hidden, implicit. In my shows, I try even to exasperate the narrative element—that’s why there was so much text in Venice: to reveal a multiplicity of narratives that are interwoven in the objects.
Pissarro: If you don’t endorse those objects, what is the tone of your aesthetic approach?
Gioni: It goes back to the amateur. I might love all those objects, and love is not objective, and it’s not reliable and it’s not an endorsement. Actually, you love something beyond its qualities and defects, but it’s not championing. I think that if you can build a system in which categories and hierarchies are called into question, then the viewer will understand that, and will go through the exhibition not passively accepting what is on view but interpreting and questioning what he or she sees.
One other major problem raised by other objects in the exhibition was one big skeleton in the closet of our art history, and that is the notion of the autonomy of the artwork. The reason why many of the objects in my exhibition have not been recognized as art works—and I am thinking for example of many of the spiritist paintings for example—was because they were supposedly not conceived as autonomous art works. They had a function so they cannot be considered pure abstraction or pure art which is curious, because as you probably know much better than me—
Pissarro: All the major abstract artists—Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, have all been interested in spiritism and spiritualism and in theosophy, and all the art historians totally masquerade this or keep it aside. None of them want to accept the spiritist aspect—
Gioni: Or the Steiner influence. It is another very complicated notion that autonomy gives artistic status to the objects. It’s worth saying that from my direct experience with artists, many of them don’t believe in autonomy. They believe in porosity, they believe in the artwork being part of their life.
Rail: But it seems to me that as you push in that direction it dissolves all the older notions of an art history. That is ideally a kind of genealogy where objects come out of earlier ones and everything you are saying is against that.
Gioni: My show was based on the idea of anachronism more than on the linearity of history. And I was also asking myself what kind of temporality is staged in exhibitions and in biennials in particular. I didn’t want to propose a linear idea of history, but I also wanted to refuse a simple horizontal idea of time. In fact a lot of the thinking behind this exhibition was a reaction against a model of temporality that I see incarnated in all biennials across the world, and that is a belief that everything is immediate, that everything happens at once and at the same time. Particularly in the ’90s, a new idea of time and space emerged in the way exhibitions are constructed: this idea that geography and history are flat and that biennials are like the Internet, in which everything is accessible at the same time. I wanted to make a show that was synchronic but anachronistic, in which you have the extreme contemporary living next to the archaic, or the 20th century. You have this texture that is a continuous jump between different temporalities so that you don’t have a flat landscape, but a continuous series of fractures. How to present an idea of contemporaneity that is different from the idea of immediate accessibility was an important challenge for me.
Everything in the exhibition was connected, the past and the present were next to each other, but not in an immediately accessible way, rather as a form of dissonance. That was the model of history I was trying to think about, that is what I mean by anachronism. Can we write a sort of diagonal history that is looking more at forms of thinking and forms of expressions, and is less linear and more, let’s say trans-historical—the history of forms that recur through time? And can we write it without flattening the differences, but rather by enriching their texture?
Pissarro: You talk about webs and I find this an interesting model of thinking because you use the structure of the web as a model to look at what is occurring around a particular point, but it’s also a reference, whether you implied it or not, to the world wide web and that itself I find very interesting because one of the problems we were dealing with was this total proliferation of images. We’re asking you this impossible question about how to categorize this everything, this immense mass of something.
Gioni: This biennial was a show about categories and questioning them. The first questions were quite fundamental: Who is the artist and who is not? What is the artwork and what is not? There were many examples of different ways of categorizing the world out there and then there was a reflection of the museum itself as a machine for categorization. That’s why in the layout of the show, the central pavilion was built more like a Wunderkammer, and the Arsenale structured more as a museum, so there was a reflection of displays as constructed categories. I was thinking of this biennial as a temporary museum, an occasion to think about what a museum could look like today and how it could question categories at the same time as it works within them. Going back to what I was saying about the contemporary galleries at the Met—
Pissarro: Contemporary art would be treated like the Egyptian department at the Met.
Gioni: Exactly. How can you have a canon that questions itself? The artwork should be both an artwork and a document so that you don’t know exactly how to place it. In that sense I think if I were to name names, some part of the Reina Sofía achieves that: it becomes relativistic without saying that everything is the same.
Rail: The categories have to keep being revised because once categories become familiar, they become static and they become clichés so in a sense, where the older view was that the art itself had to keep changing, what you’re talking about is not the art changing, but the categories changing. Ten years from now you would have to do a different show because these categories will have become familiar.
Gioni: Yes, that’s absolutely true, categories always tend to solidify themselves, and you have to continue questioning them. For example, within contemporary museums and the outsider art world we are also witnessing a very interesting phenomenon by which outsider artists are allowed inside the museum, and are being canonized, particularly certain authors, like Darger, Bartlett—and some of them were also in my show. For me it was important to blur the distinction between outsiders and insiders, but not by sanctifying the outsiders or by simply saying that someone like Morton Bartlett is now as important as Bruce Nauman. Instead I wanted the exhibition to question categories and keep them loose enough so that the inclusion of certain artists would not automatically become a process of beatification. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I wanted to avoid imposing a new canon. I am not interested in treating Darger as Picasso, in granting Darger the passport of great artist. I am interested in the moment in which both Darger and Picasso are disrupting the canon and are questioning categories. I don’t know if I succeeded, but some of the main questions of the show were about how the inclusion of less canonical figures helps us question categories and how we can avoid imposing a new hierarchy of masters. That’s what I meant when I was talking about dissonances that don’t produce new masters. For example, the number of artists for me was important: it was so big.
Pissarro: How many artists were there?
Gioni: One hundred fifty eight, so that you cannot reduce it to a top ten. I am interested in how the museum or the biennial can continue to set up questions about canons—and how we can do it in such a way that even the most general public doesn’t come to an exhibition like the biennial to be fed a top ten. I don’t know if that’s what the general public prefers—I don’t even know if the general public exists—but that’s what the professionals assume the general public wants.
Pissarro: It’s what the professionals assume and that’s what’s given this artistry profession such a bizarre bubble of self-created importance, which is totally irrelevant to what we call the general public. We were looking recently at a publishing example—the most successful book on art history ever published, The Story of Art, by Ernst Gombrich, which was written in 1950 and sold more than seven million copies. Carrier and I were looking at it and I said to him, “Look at this—this book explains everything about Italian art, and Dutch art, without ever entering into the realm of artistry language,” which is what you’re doing here. I’m saying this with the greatest compliment, I think you’ve managed—going back to your notion of amateurism—to be a supremely skilled and professional amateur, which is an oxymoron. But what I’d like to ask you, and maybe this comes as a critique—and maybe you want to close on this—you and I come from the Latin world. We speak very close languages. “Amatore,” “amatuere”—“amatuere” is a French word, and it has the word, “amare,” which is “to love.” To an English speaking person this is lost. I think that the notion of love is absolutely central to your work. And I’m not sounding kitsch here—it’s contained in the word “amatuere.” I’m wondering whether this is something you want to give full-blown emphasis to, or if it’s just a crazy question.
Gioni: First of all I don’t want to pretend that there is a good nationality from which to approach art and artists. [Laughs.] And we shouldn’t forget that fortunately Anglo-Saxon intellectuals have done a lot to criticize certain categories that Mediterranean culture just seemed to believe in. The stereotype of the Mediterranean, romantic understanding of art, as an idealistic, almost magical sympathy is also highly problematic. I don’t think it’s a matter of language or cultural origins. I think Gombrich had the lucidity to destroy some complicated categories.
Rail: Maybe the way to see the difference between North and South here is through Gombrich’s great idea of a science of images. Not of the connoisseurship, but of the science of explaining how everything worked. Where as this is, I hear, something that’s outside of your concerns. You don’t see this as leading to a science asking, why this is a visionary image? And, why do these images have power? That seems to be alien to you—
Gioni: I don’t think you make an exhibition or a biennial to display or construct a science, maybe because there is just not enough time to do it. Maybe it’s also because as a curator, you never want to flatten the works into a theory or an explanation. It’s a delicate balance in which you want to put forward these works as examples, as stories, as objects, but you also want them to be themselves. If you just kill them and make it into a butterfly collection in which everything is categorized, then we’re back to the initial problem. So I see what you mean—I wouldn’t be able to create a science of images, but I also think it has to do with leaving enough space for these objects to breathe in their exceptions and not just be part of my system.
I’m attracted—and this is super kitsch of me to confess—to a system a la Roland Barthes: a system that is rigorous but which allows plenty of space for exceptions to flourish—a system in which the objects of analysis can exist in all their pleasure and excess. I’m leaning toward a system that allows for all these exceptions to be themselves without being forced—a system that is open enough to allow for other people to do something else with them. So I can’t come to the end of a perfect, polished system. [Laughs.] That’s what I envy—that’s the difference, for example, between Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes. Umberto Eco then can close his system into a philosophy, and Barthes is more a—
Pissarro: Dilettante, an amateur.
Gioni: But a great one.
Pissarro: I love what you’re saying about Barthes, and the irony is that many of the people who are critics study Barthes, but they haven’t really seen exactly what you’re talking about. There’s a certain aspect of Barthes, which is kind of cleaned up, you know. Anyway, that’s just a small intellectual history.
Rail: That was wonderful.
Gioni: Thank you so much!
DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next book is The Contemporary Art Gallery.