Date of Degree

2-2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Art History

Advisor

Emily Braun

Advisor

Romy Golan

Committee Members

Romy Golan

Antonella Pelizzari

Lucia Re

Subject Categories

American Art and Architecture | Contemporary Art | Cultural History | Diplomatic History | Esthetics | European History | Intellectual History | Modern Art and Architecture | Other Italian Language and Literature | Political History | Social History | Theory and Criticism | United States History

Keywords

Fascism, Cold War, Futurism, Arte Povera, Rome, New York

Abstract

Export / Import examines the exportation of contemporary Italian art to the United States from 1935 to 1969 and how it refashioned Italian national identity in the process. I do not concentrate on the Italian art scene per se, or on the American reception of Italian shows. Through a transnational perspective, instead, I examine the role of art exhibitions, publications, and critical discourse aimed at American audiences. Inaugurated by the Fascist regime as a form of political propaganda, this form of cultural outreach to the United States continued after WWII as Italian museums, dealers, and critics aimed to vaunt the new republic’s political validity and cultural vitality in a process of national rehabilitation and economic modernization. My thesis is that, beyond the immediate aim of political propaganda and of creating a new foreign market for Italian art, these cultural manifestations had a more important function for their makers: they served as laboratories for Italians to construct their own modern identity. The United States, in fact, represented not only the world’s new dominant cultural and economic power, but also the paradigm of modernity. Bringing contemporary Italian art to the US in key moments when the relationship between the two countries was redefined, was a way to re-invent Italy’s self-image at home.

Export / Import argues three major points that complicate standard narratives of Italian Fascist propaganda on the one hand and of American Cold War imperialism on the other. First, I challenge the idea of propaganda as a one-way action that affects only the receiving end by showing the transformative power that the making of propaganda has on the identity of its makers. Secondly, I question the idea of influence, ubiquitous in art historical discourse. What has been deterministically simplified as the phenomenon of Americanization of Italian culture and identity is studied here as a pro-active and non-linear process of identity construction on the part of the supposedly passive object of cultural imperialism. Finally, I address traveling exhibitions as a form of translation: both physical and cultural. Exported to a different country, artworks changed context and took on new meaning. Some of them entered American collections, others returned to Italy with new connotations attached to them.

After an introduction, which examines futurist artist Fortunato Depero’s experience in New York (1929-1931) and his subsequent fixation with America, the discussion begins with the exhibitions of contemporary art organized by the Fascist Regime in the US (1935-1940). The second chapter investigates Twentieth-Century Italian Art held at MoMA in 1949 and other postwar shows that promoted a “New Italian Renaissance,” allegedly the fruit of both the Allied liberation of Italy and the defeat of Communism in the Italian political elections of 1948. Chapter three focuses on a third wave of shows that, during the “economic boom” of the late fifties, advertised a “New Italy,” optimistic and open to American culture. The final chapter analyzes the launch of Arte Povera on American soil as both a specifically Italian reaction against “Cocacolonization” and part of the international protests of the late sixties.

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