Masters, tricksters, bricoleurs – Virtuosity as a strategy for art and survival

Virtuosity in art has long fallen into disrepute: there is a deep distrust of an art that wants us above all to admire its skill. An art of a master who wishes to be recognised as such. But anyone who searches for truth – be it in pure reason or in pure faith – scorns virtuosity as something that distracts from the essence. An art of a trickster who does not want to be recognised as such.

Yet the virtuosity of the master and the trickster are inseparable: as a master, Paganini, the prototype of the virtuoso, was always a trickster too, playing with the audience as masterfully as he played his instrument. And the dexterous thief, the magician, the confidence trickster – they too are masters of their art. Virtuosity is a vestige that we cannot grasp, that appears inexplicable, that, while created by means of craft, assumes the aura of the extraordinary.

Today, in an age with which we come to terms as if constantly juggling disparate demands, virtuosity is no longer an exception but rather – as Paolo Virno demonstrates – a necessity for one and all. Immaterial labour demands more and more virtuosity, and the parallels with art production are unmistakable: it is about forms of production that are productive but that do not necessarily create a product.

Hence, virtuosity in this sense does not necessarily manifest itself as mastery but rather in a fundamental and persistent flexibility that unites work, private life, and politics. Virtuosity is rendered democratic and thus becomes the art of collaboration, interaction, creative combination of discourses and contexts, bricolage and improvisation, informality and temporariness.

Spurned in its original form in art, virtuosity has thus spread elsewhere. How is it now returning to art, thus purified, changed, corrupted and economically exploited?

created with