Art is viral

Filling the void left by government cuts

Alexandra Korey
November 7, 2013

While Italy is cutting funds for culture, the arts have taken on new digital life. Recent online movements suggest that the Italian public is primed to appreciate and share art.



Stefano Guerrera is a 25-year-old engineer who currently works full time updating his Facebook page Se i quadri potessero parlare (‘If paintings could speak’). It all started with a funny caption he wrote for Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine: ‘As soon as it croaks, I’m making a fabulous fur coat.’ A friend suggested he open a fan page to share such images, and he is eternally grateful. He did, and it grew to 385,000 fans in just a week.


The paintings that Guerrera shares are captioned in Roman dialect, which adds a grittiness to the humour that has led some to call him ‘blasphemous’ and ‘homophobic,’ others to say ‘genius.’


The style of the captions resembles high school students’ textbook graffiti, and this is no coincidence. Guerrera’s fan page was in part inspired by the Italian government’s decision to drastically cut art history in the curriculum, a decision instituted by the Gelmini educational reform (Law 133/2008) and approbated by the current government.

Do you think my feet smell?


‘I am using this page to share, but also diffuse knowledge about art, in my own way,’ affirms Guerrera. As for its viral success, he says, ‘I think all of us have tried, at least once, at our schoolroom desks, to make paintings speak.’ As the fan page grows, one of the most remarkable aspects is the high level of interaction: not just likes and shares, but imitative, collaborative posts as users create their own speaking paintings with funny captions.


Guerrera’s ‘speaking’ paintings are not the only popular art movement currently making waves online. In the spring of 2013, the hashtag #invasionidigitali appeared out of nowhere and took Italy by storm. Brainchild of Fabrizio Todisco, a 29-year-old tourism marketing manager, these digital invasions are a grassroots call to the public to take culture and its diffusion in one’s own hands, in an explicit protest against current forms of heritage management.


Todisco agrees with Guerrera and the many others who are protesting against cuts to art history in the schools, but he explains that his movement was inspired by a different budget cut. ‘We began with the cancellation of the Settimana della Cultura—an absurd loss for our country! So we replaced culture week in our own way, demonstrating that Italians care about their country. With a good idea, even without funding, it’s possible to do a lot.’


April 2013 saw 225 digital invasion events during the former culture week, involving almost 10,000 participants and generating an impressive echo on social media. More than 10,000 photos were shared and almost 23,000 tweets using the official hashtag reached an audience of 1.5 million. Todisco is optimistic for the 2014 edition, which he expects will grow and evolve, attracting more people and producing higher quality content.


Don't these leggings just make me look fabulous?


While numbers demonstrate that these projects have much popular appeal, one critical issue is a lack of depth, though one might argue that being stimulated by art in any way is a good start. Guerrera now includes in his creations the artist’s name, title and date of the work, giving his posts a bit more of an educational angle. Todisco says that he and his team will start publishing some content of their own to counter the sometimes superficial approach of many ‘invaders.’


One example that mixes humour with erudite art history is the blog Arte spiegato ai truzzi (nella loro lingua)—roughly, ‘Art explained to boors, in their own language’—in which Paola Guagliumi, a Roman tour guide with a degree in art history, approaches art through apparently stupid observations and talks to the audience in Roman dialect, both oral and written (a challenge for non-Italians!). Online since December 2012, Guagliumi takes on everything from Raphael to Keith Haring and is unquestionably clever, and viral! Her Facebook page has more than 25,000 fans.

All three projects have zero budget and are either grassroots movements or the product of one creative mind, appreciated, however, by many. They are successful because they have an impact on an educated public of Italians from generations familiar with art, even if Guerrera and Todisco both affirm that they are hardly expert in art history.


Arts education, arts marketing and cultural preservation are interconnected such that if any one element is ignored, the whole enterprise suffers. When the government cuts such initiatives as Culture Week, which increases the accessibility of art, and art history in schools, which educates minds capable of consuming culture, the system collapses: art needs consumers. If nobody knows or cares about art, nobody will pay to go into museums, nor fund restoration and preservation. But, as Todisco laments, the government sees Italy’s heritage as a weighty responsibility rather than an opportunity for growth.


In light of these recent viral art movements, it looks like there is an unbridgeable ‘digital divide’ between the public and the ruling classes, a potentially fatal one in a field that, if managed properly, might instead lead to the renewal of this country.



Did you know?

The Florentine is owned by Flod, a communications company that specializes in marketing for museums and culture. Alexandra Korey is a project manager in this field.

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