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Structural attributes

May 1, 2019

Precisely because we are aware of the developments in the debate surrounding the “institutional theory” of art, our approach also aims at understanding what possibilities a recognition that focuses, first and foremost, on the structural properties of a given artistic proposal could have. In other words, it is also a matter of understanding, beyond any theory or practice that leads art to self-referential agreements made internally in the (institutionalized) art world, whether valid arguments could be made to recognize an artistic position as relevant, starting only with the specific structural properties that characterize it.  

The need to identify a “neutral field”, made up of factual evidence on which to elaborate a critical analysis according to “good reasons”, requires a preliminary clarification of the “ideological” assumptions that inevitably come into play in interpreting and evaluating the aspect defined as structural. This question, in our opinion, must be tackled by taking two different aspects into account. The first regards the recipient of our proposal, and consists in the principle that the critical examination will certainly not be conditioned in a negative sense by prejudicial convictions towards the ideological orientation that characterizes the considered artistic position. Likewise, and this is the second aspect, the approach we have developed will be such that it does not give priority to general or “metaphysical” reasons, although they will have to be at least partly explicated, and this will be clarified later. But these are considerations that run the risk of being too trivial. Quite different, and apparently more insidious for our approach, is the conviction of a constructivist matrix, which today considers obsolete any possibility of a clear distinction between the level of the assertions, aimed at ascertaining the facts, and that of regulatory evaluations and judgments. In this case, to speak of structural properties as information required for convergent judgments would not make much sense, precisely because identifying facts depends “fatally” on our way of describing the world. But in reality, this does not compromise the strength of our argument. When we talk about facts or structural data we can easily accept that these are to be considered as “configurations” or “constellations” that depend on our particular way of speaking and in relation to some theory or interpretive scheme. On the other hand, overcoming the dichotomy between the order of facts and that of values ​​can be conceived not in the sense of a simple mix, but in terms of a systematic relationship included in the aesthetic judgment that entails both the direct experience of the object, and an experience of purely subjective specificities.

From this perspective, the relationship between non-aesthetic attributes and aesthetic properties seems to represent a valid scheme for delimiting our factual field regarding the constitution and interpretation of particular objects such as artistic ones. Naturally, we do not intend to present this relationship in the sense of a close correspondence that follows a reductionist logic. On the contrary, our discourse becomes more valid if it is interpreted as emergentism, where, according to Levinson, non-aesthetic properties come into being at the subvenient level, but “emerge” in causal and contingent terms, as they cannot be reduced to non-aesthetic attributes. Beforehand, we will limit ourselves to stressing the need to circumscribe the scope of non-aesthetic properties identified as relevant, since if their scope is broadened, the relationship of supervenience becomes so extended that it is no longer meaningful. And, in addition, we maintain that the distinction between aesthetic properties and how pertinent they are to their evaluation is valid, an evaluation that depends on the subjective context of their interpretation. As far as non-aesthetic attributes are concerned, we abide by the distinction between structural attributes and contextual attributes; as we know, the first include any perceivable (but not aesthetic) aspects that are intrinsic to the object, while the second set of attributes refers to the relevant relationships that link the object with the artistic context of reference.  

Just as it appears to the interpreter, the same relationship of supervenience can be reconsidered symmetrically in relation to the artist and his intentionality. First and foremost, this would allow us to identify a criterion for determining the configuration of the structural attributes that we consider to be a priority in the defining the subvenient basis. Inevitably, this opens up the discourse on the attributes of context. But even here, for the reasons already stated above, there must be a restrictive clause so that greater focus will be placed on the procedures and premises regarding its values, the qualities that compelled the artist to create the structural base in that particular configuration. Therefore, the whole set of reasons that “justify” the artistic proposal that we bring to your attention will not be included in this presentation, but only those minimal indispensable references required to understand it.

 

Given these premises, it is possible to identify that relatively neutral field. And in relation to this field, it makes sense to speak of a convergence between the interpretative sphere and the artist’s intentionality: the work, with its structural specificities, is intended as a diaphragm that distinguishes between the two visual aspects and allows for a comparison.

 

When moving on to “structural attributes” in painting, their possible configurations are inevitably limited in number. This is not so much a result of an enumerative exploration of the various ways to diversely organize a particular set of data elements. It is the same restrictive clause regarding significance that imposes it. Consequently, all that remains is to identify some structural components according to a widely accepted distinction. First of all, we begin with the canonical difference between the tonal element, which regards the variations in colour deriving from the different gradations of light within it, and the timbric element, which, especially where working with two-dimensional surfaces, excludes the chiaroscuro variation and has a high degree of saturation.  In relation to the colour, and the various ways of applying it, and the various tones and timbres, we consider the mark or brush stroke, understood in its most elementary sense, as a line drawn upon a support. For all that they may be different, and perhaps countless, the ways in which the shapes can be organized in terms of the relationships between the stroke and the colour, end up being traced back to a few basic types. One of these, for example, is the role played by the brushstroke in demarcating fields with a strong timbric value. But for the purposes of our argument, there is no need to produce the list of the various formal structures, already known, and to specify their distinctive features. Of the many possibilities, we are taking two into consideration. The first, called Configuration T, differs from the others in its structure, organized on the reduction at the extremes of its constituent components, represented respectively by the tone of the painting’s background, and the timbre that is arranged according to a colour scheme that has the role of structuring the tonal base. In this case, the organization would be such that the stroke would maintain its function of demarcation, but according to a ramification that implies the identification of the stroke with the timbric colour. On the other hand, Configuration F involves, with respect to the first, an inversion process: from its primitive position in relief with respect to the surface, the brushstroke blends with the coloristic base, which in its basic style is, in this case, tendentially timbric, rather than presenting clear variations in the tonal sense. With this approach too, the stroke maintains a structuring role, remaining a stroke/colour, but in its co-planarity with the basic surface, it loses its timbric character. It is clear that the two configurations have the same dynamic, marked by the transformation of the relationship between the stroke and colour: from the first timbric evidence, the lattice of strokes acquires that variation of tone that belongs to surface, while the latter loses its original timbric flatness to acquire tonal peculiarities, but subordinately to blending with the stroke. Among the peculiarities of this relationship, for Configuration F alone, we emphasize that the convergence between stroke/colour and surface, in order to be effective in terms of an organic relationship, cannot be obtained by superimposing the mark or stroke on the surface; moreover, the specific interaction between the stroke and surface, with the reciprocal variation in tone, is local, and consequently, creates changes in the perception of the depth of the surface that remain topologically circumscribed and such that they cannot be attributed to a visual with a unitary perspective.

It is clear that due to the aesthetic supervenience we could, given the disjunction between structural attributes, aesthetic properties and interpretative judgments, always maintain that two similar and, at most, indiscernible configurations are susceptible to divergent interpretations. And, in the opposite sense, that very diversified structures are indifferent on the hermeneutical level - even if in such circumstances we should perhaps take into account a considerable relaxation of the criterion of significance. But even more useful for the critical analysis would be the observation that the two configurations in question already fall into known types, because there are formal structures there, that starting with their constituent elements, overlap with the first or second of the two methods under consideration. Conversely, we should admit that as far as Configuration T or F is concerned, we are not dealing with replicas, but rather forms structured in an original way.

 

The two aforementioned techniques fall into a period between the 1960s and 1970s when there was a conviction that painting had exhausted all its expressive resources, to the point that many did not hesitate to translate this certainty into the imperious form of a proclamation. The dominant conception is based on a historicalist outline, according to which creating art is part of a finalistic process of progressive revelation or understanding of truth. On this premise, precisely because its statute entails being open to new things, the neo-avant-garde is considered the driving force in this process. There exists an art that keeps pace with the times, legitimized by its own reference paradigm of being hegemonic. This allows us to interpret as episodic that which does not align with the progress of history.

It would be too easy to highlight the weaknesses of this vision, especially if we examine the legitimization practices of the neo-avant-gardes in relation to their subsequent developments. Instead, we are interested, in that specific context, in highlighting that which could already be seen as an intrinsic limit to the neo-avant-garde itself. First of all, the relationship with innovation. If the process of “advancement” is to be based on the production of new art and, at the same time, legitimize an art that keeps pace with the times, those innovations considered to be out of step with the times will be rejected and, at the same time, a derivative form of art accepted, as long as it is in tune with the avant-garde directions. But above all, the thing that is shared by the neo-avant-gardes is their faith in the unveiling process, in their persistent capacity to decipher reality. A reiterated faith in the Absolute substantiates them: think of the proclamations of the Spatialists about an art that tends toward that which is “United (...) through an act of the spirit set free from every material”, to the declarations of Azimuth/h for which the yearning for the unconditioned translates into the prohibition of the painting mediums to arrive at the “total space of pure and absolute light”; or, again, the neomisticism of Arte Povera in which the artist-alchemist proposes himself as the “discoverer of the magical and marvellous value of the natural elements”. Hence also the ambivalent relationship that the neo-avant-gardes have with naturalism. In general, it is considered to be the ideological premise for mimetic art. It is the limit that must be surpassed in order to draw upon the Absolute. Or, on the contrary, it represents the opportunity to rediscover Nature, which must be grasped in its immanent vitality so that we can build a new relationship between man and things. In this case too, there would be numerous citations: from Arcangeli’s proto-informal to the “sublimations” of Land Art.

And if these claims were not legitimate? What reasons would we still have to maintain that painting is obsolete, in those cases where there is no insistence to recognize a theoretical function that does not lay claim? Suppose instead that our condition is that of living beings whose existential horizon is consumed in the narrow space-time context of a nature structured according to events that assume the configuration of laws. As biological entities we would be immersed in our natural context, dominated in all aspects by a law that unites us with all living beings: one struggles for survival. The world is dominated by violence, essential for living. No particular rationale can justify great differences between man, animals and other living beings. There is no principle that can justify or redeem nature in a providential light; no liberation can reasonably be conceived because there is no path to redemption. Nature is characterized by what it is, according to its dynamics, which repeat themselves. From this point of view, most of the cultural constructs should be seen as attempts to conceal what, in reality, is constantly repeated in nature. Art and evidently also the neo-avant-gardes, when they are defined in such terms, would represent one of the ways by which the mystification that characterizes our everyday life takes place. At this point, it is clear that such a conception could be channelled towards a configuration that reflects, certainly not on the level of “naturalistic” or mimetic representation, the situation that is ascertained at the level of the natural datum. In this case Configuration T constitutes a model capable of proposing itself as a suitable medium, certainly not the others.

We could certainly reject this concept for being too rudimentary. In reality we have limited ourselves to indicating only some conditions, partly found empirically in this world of ours. We have not added any further clarification, either regarding the raison d'etre, which remains unknown, or regarding theoretical constructs that can confirm it or not. For example, we have not addressed the issue concerning the consequences of the crisis of physicalistic reductionism in the interpretation of biological facts. But, as we said, it is not that important for the moment. What matters is its macroscopic evidence, its worth in space and weight in formulating the fact of art. Returning to the aesthetic supervenience, this conception is the crucial passage that, in this case, allows us to understand what premises help us arrive at that particular organization of the artistic work.

 

When we consider the relationships between our metaphysical convictions and the sphere of art, the manoeuvring space seems rather narrow, especially if we abandon the dogma of artistic freedom capable of going beyond all limits. Any change must therefore take place according to a rigorous process, focused on the basic acquisitions of the work: the prevalence toward the biological, the shattering of any humanistic claim, the structural agnosticism. Hence the residual possibility of articulating hypotheses, prefiguring ideal types that can reposition world events in a wider perspective. But always with the knowledge of the dangers involved in this process, which forces us to remain anchored to the exploration of a subject that is organized according to differentiated and always provisional ontological levels, to reach the relativization of the biological existence. This is how the new configuration is structured, and the inversion that is produced at the level of the sign or gesture, maintaining the bond with the conceptual core from which the reflection started.

Finally, it is taken for granted that the ideological background and the procedures aimed at the practical realization of the two configurations are independent of the later strategies that inspired the so-called “return to painting” of the 1980s. The extremely concise nature of this text only allows us to point out how the specificity of innovation is poorly reconciled with the praise of repetition and the jagged conceptual repertoire that the postmodern made popular in recent years.

Configuration T has the name Tonaltimbrica, while Configuration F is named Filoplastica. They were made respectively in 1967 in Milan, and in 1971 in Genoa by Marco Almaviva. In the years to follow, Almaviva devoted himself to further researching, and making more consistent, the lines of thinking that only partially, and in an extremely synthetic form, have been expressed here.

 

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