‘Culture Is a Prison’: Watch Alfredo Jaar Explain How His Experimental Art Is Inspired by Radical Italian Thought

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Alfredo Jaar at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photo by Jonty Wilde.

Last month, the curators of the 2022 Whitney Biennial revealed the 63 artists and artist collectives participating in the event, as well as the show’s title, “Quiet as It’s Kept,” and a symbol that will be incorporated into the show: )(. The inverted parentheses, a reference from a N.H. Pritchard poem from May 1968, gestures “toward openness, beyond what is contained, even toward the uncontainable,” according to curators Adrienne Edwards and David Breslin.

One of the artists included in the event is the Chile-born, New York-based Alfredo Jaar, an artist who probes issues of political corruption, natural disasters, and immigration. In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21‘s “Extended Play” series, Jaar discusses a series of installations he made dedicated to two Italian thinkers: Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. 

“In the world of culture today, I miss Gramsci and I miss Pasolini,” Jaar tells Art21. “I miss Gramsci because he was one of the first thinkers who really believed the power of culture to affect life, to affect social life, to affect political life.” 

One of the works in the installations is Infinite Cell, a nod to the prison cell in which Gramsci was incarcerated under Mussolini’s fascist regime, and where he ultimately died. The work is composed of a series of mirrors, infinitely replicating an image, reflecting it back upon the viewer.

“What brought me to Infinite Cell was Pasolini’s comment that culture is a prison and that we intellectuals have to get out of that prison: enough of me speaking to you, and you speaking to me, me applauding you, and you applauding me,” Jaar says. “Let’s get out, let’s reach a larger audience. This could have been my motto for many, many years.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, below. Alfredo Jaar will be on view at the Whitney Biennial “Quiet as It’s Kept” from April 1–August 1, 2022.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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