The phenomenon of collective art practice in the continental Western Europe of the late 1950s and of the 1960s is rarely discussed. Jacopo Galimberti looks at a comparative perspective, engaging with a cultural history of art deeply concerned with political ideas and geopolitical conflicts in his book Individuals Against Individualism. He focuses on artists and activists, and their attempts to depict and embody forms of egalitarianism opposing the Eastern bloc authoritarianism as much as the Free world’s ethos.
Individuals Against Individualism examines the phenomenon of collective art practice in the continental Western Europe of the late 1950s and of the 1960s. What drew you to focus on this phenomenon and this period?
Over the past twenty years scholars and curators have concentrated on art collectives. The literature on this topic is engaging, but few publications have developed analytical tools to distinguish between collaborations that are sometimes informed by antithetical principles. The concept of “collective art practice” serves this purpose. When I pinned down this notion I began to discern the contours of a neglected cultural and artistic phenomenon. I came to realise that the worldwide protests of 1967-1969 marked only the beginning of a third phase in the temporality that I was exploring. The origin of collective art practice can be traced to 1956-1957, and is located far from the main centres of the western art world. This discovery was fascinating, because it pushed me to look at the political turmoil of 1956, which is an unusual year to begin an art-historical narrative. In hindsight, I believe my search for alternative timeframes owed a lot to the conjecture that Europe was experiencing at the time of my research. The main ideas of the book were developed between 2009 and 2012, in the midst of a political, economic and humanitarian crisis that has radically changed how we see the world and the Left.
I did my best to combine “theory” with social history.
How did you go about your research for this book? Did you come across anything that you found particularly interesting or surprising?
I wanted my research to be based on primary sources and to be truly transnational, so I had to become more transnational myself. I started learning German, for example. In terms of methodology, I did my best to combine “theory” with social history. Sarah Wilson had a profound impact on my approach, which involved dozens of interviews with artists. I was particularly surprised by what I have called “the myth of the invisible artist”, which is a counterpart to what Hans Belting has described as “the invisible masterpiece”. I discuss this in Chapter 4, but it is a leitmotif of the entire book.
In what ways did political ideas and geopolitical conflicts affect the cultural history of art in this period?
During the first two decades after World War II, art was often considered politics by other means. This was implemented through cultural diplomacy (for example, Malraux bringing Mona Lisa to John F. Kennedy in 1963), blockbuster shows and high-profile exhibitions such as Documents and biennials. But there were also less straightforward ways to exert “soft power”. In my book, I focused on the idea of the individual artist, which had unprecedented geopolitical overtones in the 1950s. The figure of the individual and individualist artist became part and parcel of the cultural confrontations of the Cold War, which is a misleading term as many proxy wars actually took place. Some leftist artists did not want to be treated as “useful idiots”, and put in place authorial policies that contradicted the mainstream views of the artist.
What was the role of ‘minor’ art centres in heightening interest in collaborative art practices?
In the 1960s, the dichotomic frameworks of the post-War years began being challenged on a geopolitical level, think of the “Third World”, a term that had no derogatory connotations, in fact, it was quite the opposite. The western art world saw a similar shift, with “minor” art centres like Düsseldorf, Milan, Nice and Turin quickly developing a thriving art scene. “Minor” centres were the cradle of collective art practice; two Spanish cities, Cordoba and Valencia, proved crucial, but so were also Munich, Padua and Zagreb. This having been said, Paris and New York still catalysed artists and money.
How do you think Individuals Against Individualism paves the way for further research in this area?
The book addresses a myriad of themes that deserve further investigation, such as the cultural diplomacy of the Francoist regime and the geopolitical agenda of the Paris Biennale. The issue of “minor centres” is another engaging topic. I hope my research will contribute to the emancipation of the discipline from its discriminations, illuminating, for instance, how the “margins” were also in the heart of Europe and cleaved Western art canons. My research could also pave the way for studies of contemporary collectives. The work and theoretical discourse on authorship of Claire Fontaine (a duo) has conspicuous precedents in the 1960s. Some governments and cultural institutions still treat artists as “useful idiots”, but the goals have changed. It is no longer covert anti-communist campaigns that enlist their “personality” and “freedom”, but rather property developers and authoritarian states opening world-class museums. There is nothing nostalgic in my book, I hope; the 1960s are a toolbox to understand, and act in, the present time.
Featured image credit: I-ypszilon (Amás Emodi-Kiss, Kata György, Csaba Horváth and Tamás Papp), National Monument of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence, 2006, Budapest. Used with permission.