Arte Povera and its timeless cultural importance

written by art historian & curator

Mihaela Manolache

The rise of consumer culture and globalisation has played a role in fostering materialistic values. The availability of a wide range of products and the ease of access to them have contributed to a culture of constant consumption. Social media platforms have further amplified materialistic tendencies by showcasing and glamorising material possessions, experiences, and lifestyles.

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As a response to a particular societal behaviour, artists worldwide formulated a visual answer to raise awareness of it. Arte Povera is an artistic movement that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s. The official definition of “Arte Povera” is “poor art” and reflects the movement’s emphasis on using ordinary and humble materials in artistic creations. Arte Povera reacted to the materialism and consumer culture that characterised the post-war era. The movement emerged during a time of social and political upheaval in Italy, and artists needed to respond to society’s prevailing values and structures. They also wanted to challenge the idea that art had to be detached from everyday life and confined to the walls of museums and galleries.

What is Materialism

Materialism is a philosophical and sociocultural perspective that emphasises the importance of material possessions and physical comfort in human life. It is characterised by a focus on acquiring wealth and encouraging consumerism. Happiness can be achieved if one can accumulate a large number of material goods. While materialism has raised critics, there are some advantages of materialist culture.

Sans titre (Libertà o Morte, W. Marat W. Robespierre) Jannis Kounellis 1969
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Sans titre (Libertà o Morte, W. Marat W. Robespierre) by Jannis Kounellis

One of the most important features of materialism is economic growth. This type of culture can drive financial flourishment and stimulate innovation. People strive to acquire and consume goods and services. A second consequence of materialism is the high standard of living. Materialism often leads to an increased standard of living, with access to better healthcare, technology, and infrastructure. And for Generation Z materialism can be a powerful tool for personal expression. Some material possessions can be a means of self-expression and creativity, allowing individuals to communicate their identity and personal style.

On the other hand, criticism of materialism brings forward the shallow values it promotes by placing undue importance on possessions and superficial aspects of life rather than deeper, meaningful experiences. As well, materialism has a negative environmental impact by leading to excessive consumption and waste and contributing to environmental degradation and climate change. Last but not least, some research suggests that the pursuit of material possessions and wealth can have diminishing returns on personal happiness and mental well-being, as it may lead to constant comparison, dissatisfaction, and stress.

Michelangelo Pistoletto
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By Michelangelo Pistoletto via Luhring Augustine

Materialism can manifest differently across cultures, depending on social norms, historical context, and economic factors. For instance, some cultures may prioritise communal values and spiritual well-being over material possessions. Globalisation and Western influence have led to the spread of materialist culture in various parts of the world, sometimes clashing with traditional values and causing cultural tensions. It is essential to recognise that perspectives on materialism and materialist culture can vary widely, and individuals may hold different views depending on their personal values, experiences, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Values of Arte Povera 

Arte Povera artists sought to challenge the prevailing art market and its focus on consumerism and materialism. They rejected the notion that art had to be made with expensive or luxurious materials, instead turning to everyday objects, natural materials, and even garbage as their artistic medium. By using humble materials, Arte Povera artists aimed to question the commodification of art and reconnect it with everyday life. They sought to create works that were more immediate, raw, and accessible, often incorporating elements of performance, installation, and process-based art.

Che fare? by Mario Merz
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“Lavoro/Werk” by Michelangelo Pistoletto is an installation that comprises a wooden workbench covered with broken glass fragments. It represents the fusion of art and labor, contrasting the craftsmanship of the workbench with the fragility and danger represented by the shards of glass. The work alludes to the complex relationship between art, craftsmanship, and the impact of industrialization on society. 

“Kaprow’s Alphabet” by Mario Merz consists of a series of neon numbers and letters forming a random sequence on a wall. It represents the artist’s interest in mathematics, language, and the concept of randomness. The arrangement of the neon elements implies the infinite possibilities of combinations and meanings, challenging conventional linguistic and logical structures. 

“La Goccia d’Acqua” (The Water Drop) by Piero Manzoni features a small, sealed glass containing water, signed and labeled as Manzoni’s own breath. It explores the commodification of art and the value attributed to the artist’s identity and aura. By presenting his breath as a precious artwork, Manzoni raises questions about authenticity, authorship, and the marketability of artistic creation. 

“One Hundred Live and Die” by Jannis Kounellis is another example of an installation that consists of one hundred live canaries perched on metal structures with pieces of charcoal. The work addresses the fleeting nature of life, the juxtaposition of freedom and confinement, and the relationship between living beings and industrial materials. The presence of the canaries symbolizes fragility and vulnerability, while the charcoal references industrialization and pollution.

Mario Merz
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Mario Merz via Gallery Barcelona

Considering the examples above, Arte Povera can be seen as a response to materialism and consumer culture by pointing out some important issues.

  1. Critique of Materialism. The artists involved in the movement challenged the prevailing materialistic culture by using ordinary, often discarded materials such as rocks, dirt, twigs, and found objects in their artworks. By elevating these materials into the realm of art, they questioned the traditional value placed on expensive, luxurious materials in art and society. 

2. Rejection of Commercialization. Arte Povera artists sought to distance themselves from the commercial art market, which they perceived as promoting materialism and commodification. They aimed to create art that resisted easy consumption and challenged the idea that art should be primarily valued for its monetary worth. 

3. Emphasis on Process and Concept. The artistic movement prioritized the process of creation and the conceptual aspects of art over the material outcomes. By focusing on the transformative power of ideas and actions rather than material objects, the movement challenged the materialistic notion that the value of art lies solely in its physical form. 

4. Environmental Awareness. Many Arte Povera artworks incorporated natural elements and engaged with ecological concerns. This emphasis on the relationship between humanity and the environment can be seen as a reaction against the excessive consumption and disregard for nature associated with materialism. 

5. Provocation and Subversion. Arte Povera artists aimed to provoke viewers and disrupt established norms and expectations. By using unconventional materials and presenting them in unexpected ways, they challenged the viewer’s preconceptions and invited them to question the materialistic tendencies of contemporary society. 
6. Anti-institutional statement. Arte Povera artists often embraced an anti-establishment stance. They questioned the traditional art system, including commercial galleries and museums, and sought to create works that were outside the confines of these institutions. This rejection of established norms and values was a direct response to the materialistic and consumerist culture of the time.

Eva Hesse
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Eva Hesse via Fahrenheit Magazine

While Arte Povera can be seen as a critique of materialism, it is important to note that not all artists associated with the movement shared the same views or intentions. Some artists may have engaged with materiality and materialism in more nuanced ways, exploring the complexities of human interactions with material objects and societal values. The artist Jannis Kounellis adopted a more theatrical and performative approach to their works, incorporating live animals and creating immersive environments. This emphasis on the performative aspect and the inclusion of living organisms can be seen as a departure from the movement’s initial focus on humble materials.

Impact of Arte Povera on the Public 

Due to the unconventional use of materials and the departure from traditional artistic techniques, some viewers may have initially been confused about how to approach Arte Povera. The unexpected juxtapositions of unfamiliar forms could challenge their preconceived notions of art, creating uncertainty. The use of organic and tactile materials often encouraged physical interaction, such as touching, feeling textures, or even smelling the artwork. This interactive aspect created a more immersive experience and allowed viewers to connect with the artworks on a deeper level. The processes employed in the artworks invited viewers to question the nature of art, the relationship between art and life, and the societal constructs they had previously taken for granted. This contemplative aspect encouraged a more introspective response from the audience. For those willing to engage with the ideas and concepts behind the artworks, Arte Povera offered a rich and intellectually stimulating experience. The movement’s emphasis on process, transformation, and critical engagement with societal issues resonated with viewers who sought art that went beyond mere aesthetics and encouraged a deeper exploration of meaning.

Giuseppe Penone
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Tree of 12 Metres 1980-2 by Giuseppe Penone via TATE

While some viewers may have embraced and appreciated the innovative nature of Arte Povera, others may have found it challenging. Nonetheless, the movement’s ability to elicit a range of reactions and engage viewers on multiple levels contributed to its lasting impact on the art world. 


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