Collaborative Artistic Theory and Practice: ‘Le ragioni dei gruppi’

A few weeks ago, Interdisciplinary Italy launched a call for blog posts on the topic ‘Collaborative Artistic Theory and Practice’. Please find below our opening position paper.

In a 1963 seminal article published in the journal Marcatré, ‘Le ragioni dei gruppi: Il singolo è disperatamente solo nella folla’, renowned art historian Giulio Carlo Argan opened up one of the most heated intellectual debates of the decade. By looking at the lively neo-avant-garde artistic scene which was flourishing in those years, he raised a series of fundamental questions: why are organised research and working groups, identified by just a single letter or number such as Gruppo 63 or Gruppo N, taking over currents and trends? Isn’t the methodology of collaborative working specific to scientific and technological research? And what are the implications of this kind of working for personal creativity and aesthetic value, which many consider to be rooted in the most exquisite individuality? The first aspect of the article worth stressing is that working in groups was not considered a recent development. As Argan underlined, collaborative work had become common practice in architecture and town planning. For example, Gestalt theories, which underpinned the activities of many of these groups, were developed at least thirty years earlier in the Bauhaus, as well as in Moholy-Nagy’s and Albers’ teaching. The second point to draw out from the article is that, in Argan’s view, two main things triggered collaborative work in the Italian neo-avant-garde groups: interdisciplinarity and the sense of the group versus the mass. Drawing upon these triggers or ‘reasons’ (‘le ragioni dei gruppi’), we now raise a series of questions which reflect on the debates around interdisciplinarity in the 1960s and 1970s and which draw attention to how the concept has been interpreted differently then and now.

Interdisciplinarity – At a time when artistic languages seemed to have lost their power to signify and represent the new reality of mass media society, combining multiple artistic expertise, group work and free flow between artistic communities seemed the best strategies for renewing them. The arts, Argan underlines, need to be rethought as being in a dialectical relationship with each other, and as part of a system (‘come una forza in un sistema’). This is a point which resonates with the concepts of ‘expanded cinema’ (Youngblood) and ‘intermedium’ (Higgins) developed a few years later. Questions which arise from Argan’s analysis include: why is it necessary for the arts to cross their boundaries and dialogue with each other? What does this reveal about the function of art itself?

Group vs mass – Reflecting critical debates about the relationship between the ‘individual vs mass’ (media society), group work was intended as an organised counter-response to the threat of massification and alienation. In Italy, in particular, this was associated with principles of antitotalitarism and capitalist monopolies (such as television and press).  In order to defend the freedom of individuals against mass standardization, Argan suggested that people should seek interaction and collaboration, aiming at a society which finds within the dynamism of the group the willingness to go beyond it and progress. These general ideas were then interpreted in different ways by artists. Questions that arise from this strand of Argan’s thought are: How did free movement between artistic communities and group work translate into practice? What facilitated them? What theories of group work were developed in those years? Why was group work not seen positively by many artists? What was their idea of interdisciplinarity? Does interdisciplinarity need to be necessarily associated with group work?

Argan’s ideas provide a rich seedbed for discussion. Our hope is that in the ensuing blog posts on group work, some answers to these questions will begin to emerge.

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