Arte Programmata: Freedom, Control, and the Computer in 1960s Italy | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Arte Programmata: Freedom, Control, and the Computer in 1960s Italy

Arte Programmata: Freedom, Control, and the Computer in 1960s Italy
Lindsay Caplan

Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2022
320 pp., illus. 47 b/w and 8 col. Trade, $132.00; paper, $33.00
ISBN: 978-1517909932; ISBN: 978-1517909956.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
November 2022

Despite the first word of its title (“Art”) and the emphasis on the machine in its subtitle (“Computer”), this is not just a book on art and technology. Neither is it just an example of art history in the expanded (social, political, ideological, philosophical) space. Lindsay Caplan’s inspiring study is above all a reflection on the notion of freedom, more particularly on the possible conflict between negative freedom (“freedom from”) and positive freedom (“freedom of”). It is also a direct dialogue with very contemporary thinkers on freedom, as illustrated for example in the writings by Antonio Negri and other “autonomists”.

Yet at the same time, Arte programmata is also a deeply historical study, in two senses of the word.

First, it helps rediscover a half-forgotten and understudied as well as superficially situated and largely misunderstood aspect of the Italian “laboratory” during the years of the economic miracle (late fifties, early sixties) and the political and social upheaval that followed it. The “Arte Programmata” movement was a collective, and an inevitably changing one, working at the crossroads of art and design, art and technology, art, and social engineering, but also a node in a complex network of cultural, political, and industrial institutions and structures, the Olivetti company being one of the centers of this network (this company, with a strong political-democratic agenda was only a pioneer in the implementation of computers in the office and the homes). Caplan’s book offers a detailed, well-balanced, not over-interpretated overview of the works, ideas, activities, projects, exhibitions, installations, manifestoes, etc. of “Arte Programmata” and positions of both the group and its members – like Enzo Mari, Davide Boriani, Giovanni Anceschi, or Manfredo Massironi. In her discussion of the debates on the collective or individual interventions of “Arte Programmata”, the author rightly prioritizes the importance of the debate on freedom versus control and she clearly demonstrates what was at the heart of the group’s techno-aesthetic program, namely the attempt to escape from the crude dichotomy between techno-utopianism (technology as the power that unleashes and frees human creativity;  technology as a springboard to a new society with much room for personal self-fulfillment) and the fear of technology as a dominating and crippling bureaucratic power (technology as a dictatorial tool of disciplinarization; technology as the reduction of the individual to the mere role of consumer in a capitalist society). Caplan’s analysis, based on the careful reconstruction of the group’s major public events in Italy and abroad, is a good example of what one might call an ecumenic avant-garde, which stresses the necessity of form, structure, and planning in the search of a new society and a new subject, liberated from the old forms of both individualism and domination. “Arte programmata” is simultaneously revolutionary and pragmatic. It is revolutionary since its horizon is that of social change (even radical change). It is pragmatic since it claims that no revolution is possible without previous organization.

Second, Caplan’s book is also historical for in spite of its permanent dialogue with very contemporary concerns and questions, if gives an excellent idea of the specific context of the “Arte programmata” movement during the more or less ten years of its existence, that is during a period of transition between a singular political context born in the postwar years and what the author defines as the post-May 68 decade, which lasted in Italy till the late seventies. After the war, Italy had rapidly turned into a highly capitalist country, but one with a strong leftist sensibility – hence the quite exceptional stance of the country in the Cold War era – and an important Communist Party – a very “glocalised” one, however, that is a party that did not blindly follow the Moscow orders. At the same time, the Italian PC had to make so many compromises that it was soon no longer capable to channel the countercultural and new revolutionary tendencies that emerged in the sixties and further developed in the seventies. Caplan analyzes the position as well as the transformations of “Arte Programmata” considering this political context, including the way in which the art and technology debate was framed in its relationships to other fields (industry, design, daily life, politics). The book offers for instance outstanding new readings of Eco’s work on the “open work”, the debates on information and cybernetics, or the rapid growth of computer art.

This double focus –the internal reflection of freedom versus control in the works and writings themselves, but also in the reactions of the audience and the larger debates that followed; the external comparison with the ideas on freedom versus control in the already very globalized art and science environment– fosters a good understanding of the life and afterlife of “Arte Programmata”, with for instance a very relevant interpretation of why the group shifted from art to design around 1970 and how this apparent retreat from the art world was the logic prerequisite of a stronger involvement with the political and ideological ambitions of “Arte Programmata”.

Caplan’s book is, thus, a very welcome contribution to the history of a lesser-known avant-garde and the reflection on the importance of these historical debates for our current thinking on vital notions such as for instance the “system” as a form of agency and empowerment or as a form of domination. On the one hand, it fills an important historical gap, given that “Arte Programmata” is quite different from the countercultural sixties as we tend to imagine it, while also underlining to need of a less uniformly structured history, which easily tends to become purely global, that is Americanized. On the other hand, it insists on the impossibility to separate art and society, more precisely art and politics, including politics in the very practical sense of the term, having to do with concrete interventions in the public and individual sphere.