la grande falsification:l'art contemporain
éditions jean-cyrille godefroy (2009)
In France, the protest against what is called 'l'art contemporain' is growing steadily. Already in 1983, Jean Clair published his 'Considérations sur l'état des beaux-arts' (1983), soon followed by contributions of Jean-Philippe Domecq in Esprit in the early nineties. But it is Jean Baudrillard who belled the cat with his 'Le complot de l'art.' in Libération' (1996). The debate is fought not only in journals and magazines, but also in a meanwhile impressive series of books: 'Artistes sans art? (1994) and 'Misère de l'art' (1999) by Jean-Philippe Domecq, 'Les mirages de l'art contemporain' (2005) by Christine Sougrins, 'La querelle de l'art contemporain' (2005) van Marc Jimenez, 'Pour l'art' (2006) by Kostas Mavrakis, 'L'art caché' (2007) by Aude de Kerros , 'Ou est passé l'art?' by Christian Delacampagne, 'Malaise dans les musées' (2007) by Jean Clair, 'Paris-New York et retour' (2009) by Marc Fumaroli'. The unease with 'l'art contemporain' is found among a broad array of intellectuals, including old leftists of different feathers - just think, next to Baudrillard and Kostas Mavrakis, of figures like Jacques Rancière, who describes 'relational aesthetics' as a 'nebula that contends that art is not an object but produces social relations'. The last important intervention in this 'querelle de l'art contemporain' is 'La grande falsification; L'art contemporain' (2009) by Jean-Louis Harouel. Let us have a closer look at this contribution.
In his introduction, Harouel declares that art has become 'anti art, non art, a hoax', 'an imposture, a joke, a mystification', 'anything, but art' (p 7). He quotes Duchamp himself: 'One can make people swallow anything'.
In the first chapter, Harouel contends that the crisis of art was inaugurated by the invention of photography. The painters lost their monopoly 'on the reproduction of the real' (p.14). From 1850 onward, an economic war is waged between painters and photographs. Some painters explore new ways of painting that remain inaccessible to photographers, and degrade the painters who continue to follow the trodden paths as 'pompiers'. Artists have always been looking for improvements, but only in view of 'realising an even better reproduction of the real' (p. 33) From 1850 onward the quest is rather for a 'less good figuration' (p. 34). Malevich' 'white square on a white background' and Duchamp's urinal are the endpoint of this quest: the end of art. In an 'effort to selvage the prestige of the painter, the painters try to 'distinguish themselves at all costs by some lucky find' (p. 34). After the end of art, the cult of the 'artists without art' is inaugurated' (Domecq).
The justification of this development is provided by German Idealism (Novalis, Schlegel, Hölderlin, Schelling), as well as by underlying movements like Neo-Platonism, Gnosis, Jakob Böhme, Swedenborg, Schopenhauer, theosophy, anthroposophy and Rosicrucian's (p.48). This leads to the idea of an artist as someone who has access to a hidden reality, who stays in direct contact with the divine or the cosmos, who is able to transform the world, who exerts magical powers (p. 45). That explains the reciprocal sympathy between the millenarian expectations of art and revolutionary political movements (p. 66). Harouel reminds of the fact that belief in invisible worlds can go hand in hand with realistic rendering (p. 64) and describes in detail how 'the predilection of spiritualism for bad rendering' comes about (p.67).
In the third chapter, Harouel has a closer look at the phenomenon of the 'artist without art'' (Philippe Domecq): the replacement of the cult of art with the cult of the artist as a priest, a prophet, a shaman, a philosopher (p. 100). The question is no longer to make good art - anything will do - but to have oneself recognised as an avant-garde artist (p. 93). The artist stands above law and morality. He can best be described as a swindler, who is allowed to do as he likes under the cover of art.
In a last chapter, Harouel describes how 'l'art contemporain' could obtain such a dominant position. Until the Second World War, modern art enjoyed the necessary attention, but could not win the sympathy of the masses in the big democracies. Things change as soon as Stalin and Hitler come to reject modern art. Under Peggy Guggenheim's motto - 'When the Nazis reject it, it must be good'' (p. 152) - Nelson Rockefeller (MoMA) proclaims modern art as the symbol of the Free World in 1949, and Richard Barr (MoMA) uses it as a weapon against communism (Pollock in Life Magazine). This movement is endorsed by the CIA. Rockefeller becomes the model for other wealthy people. Harouel does not blame them for being successful entrepreneurs, but for lacking the necessary culture. The same goes for many a politician. 'An art that is none' fits them like a glove. They become the models for figures like François Pinault and Bernard Arnault in France. To stress the continuity with the past, they organise 'dialogues' where non-art is put at the same level as real art.
To begin with, let us remark that Harouel uses a rather narrow definition of art: the image must be 'recognisable as well as transfigured by the artist' (p 128). The emphasis is on the 'recognisable': already the reduction of space with Manet and the use of 'unnatural colours' by Gauguin are problematic for Harouel. He thus excludes not only many acknowledged artist - think of Greco, but also of pre-Renaissance and non-European art but also many valuable works that could only be created by abandoning 'literal rendering' - just think of Paul Klee, who is not even mentioned by Harouel.
Equally to narrow is the claim that the image has to result from the cooperation of hand and eye. Already in finger painting, the material is playing an important role. In more advanced handicraft techniques, next to materials, also the instruments play a constitutive role (pencil, brush, burin) (think of 'Eloge de la main', Focillon, 1934). In techniques such as mosaic or prints, the share of materials, instruments and support only increases. In photography, even more aspects of the production are mechanised, but countless interventions are performed manually, and there is a close cooperation between the eye that looks through the lens, and the hands that holds the camera or the body: think of the ballet performed by the photographer before his subject. Hence, one cannot exclude techniques like photography - not to mention techniques that are not mentioned, like the collage, the mimetic object (think of Picasso's bull), and 'lower' genres like comic, cartoon, graffiti and what have you. Moreover, it suffices to refer to poetry and the novel to realise that cooperation of hand and eye -, or more generally: a definition in terms of technical genre - cannot be invoked to decide whether something is art or not.
We need a more encompassing definition of mimesis, one that allows not only for the rendering of imaginary worlds (completed mimesis), but also for a broad array of techniques, as well as of ways of rendering (many kinds of mimetic media). Only then do we no longer have to exclude Japanese prints, pre-Renaissance art and many forms of modern art. On the basis of such a broader definition, we can determine precisely where the real boundaries of art are crossed: where art is transformed into design (already since Brancusi, Tatlin, Lissitzky and Mondrian), where it proceeds to display reality (already since the urinal of Duchamp, and again with Pierre Restany and Arte Povera), where it proceeds to the use of non-verbal language for a philosophical discourse or for symbolic actions (performance, Aktionen, conceptual art, 'relational art, and what have you.
His narrow definition prevents Harouel from realising that, beyond its boundaries, art does not degenerate into 'anything' - does not disappear in the black hole of 'non art'. Only a proper definition shows that art is a domain that is surrounded by design and displayed reality. From a negative point of view, crossing the borders comes down to a disqualification as art, but, from a positive point of view, it amounts to entering a new domain of human creativity. The pedestals of Brancusi, the designs of Tatlin, the Proun spaces of Lissitzky, the 'Salon de Madame B' of Mondrian, many creations of Gabo, Pevsner, Donald Judd , Carl André and Anish Kapoor, cannot be called sculptures - artworks - but they are magnificent creations nevertheless. And, although the works of Duchamp, Manzoni, Beuys, Wim Delvoye or Demand can by no means called art, we are dealing with sometimes very interesting forms of non-verbal discourses, with pertinent symbolic actions, or with interesting examples of art theories (from Duchamp to Demand). One can only object the fact that they are posing for art, rather than inscribing themselves in the traditions where they really belong, and where they can be judged on their own merits (see for instance Jan de Cock).
Rather than fulminating against the 'anything' or 'le non-art', it matters to call things by name: art, design, displayed reality, non-verbal discourse or action. We should not yield to their efforts to have their creations pass for art, like Fumaroli, who, in a reconciliatory effort, just wants to discern separate domains of art. It matters equally to recognise that realistic rendering is certainly a great achievement of Western art, but that, precisely therefore, deviation of this ideal acquires an expressive quality in its own right. We have to condemn the rejection of realistic rendering as well as of deviations from it: thanks to the achievements of academic and (early) modern art, the artist disposes of a whole array of ways of rendering according to diverse purposes. And he is allowed to conjure up existing as well as non-existing worlds, 'abstract' forms like those in Franz Marc's 'Kämpfende Formen' included.
Harouel's narrow definition undermines above all his own reasoning, as Kostas Mavrakis already remarked. If it were true that photography is not art because it is not transfiguring the real world, or because it is mechanised, how comes that Turner, Delaroche and their successors felt so threatened and had to summon up such heavy artillery?
CULPRIT (1) PHOTOGRAPHY
And that brings us to our next point: the role of photography.
Harouel brings his own version of the thesis that the invention of photography had a decisive influence on the development of painting. We can criticise the details of his version. Thus, Kostas Mavrakis reminds of the fact that portrait painters were not at all outcompeted by the photographers: 'At the beginning of the twentieth century, John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, Jacques-Emile Blanche, Sir Philip Làszlo have an immense success on an international level, and up to the fifties and sixties, Pietro Annigoni, Karel Willinck obtain commissions from the highest personalities, crowned heads included'. And that goes not only of France. .
A more important objection is that photography cannot have been the main responsible for the scorned development of painting. Similar developments in music and literature can be observed, although there are no equivalents of the invention of photography: think of the development from Wagner to Schönberg, or of the development that leads to Mallarmé. And, as again Kostas Mavrakis remarks, from way back it is possible to make moulds, whereas sculptors never resorted to them. Let us also remark that the advent of photography has its roots in the techniques developed by the old masters themselves - think of the diverse forms of automatisation of production ( the use of corrosive substances in etching, Dürer's perspective device, the camera obscura - think of the Hockney-Falco hypothesis) and of the use of the mirror (da Vinci). Why should these devices only become suspect from 1850 onward?
And - last but not least - Harouel overlooks the fact that deviations from 'true to nature rendering' were practised long before the advent op photography: it suffices to refer to painters like Greco, Velazquez, the late Goya, Turner.
It is remarkable that Harouel regards the influence of photography only from the point of view of rendering, and not from the point of view of subject matter. In the beginning, photography took over the traditional genres of painting, but it soon proceeded to introducing entirely new 'genres': think of reportage and documentary photography (war, exploitation, disasters), nature photography, microphotography, street photography, aerial photography, space photography, travel, erotic photography and what have you. And that goes also for the more advanced forms of prints, that are overlooked by Harouel: think of the cartoon and the comic. Conversely, modern painting entered new imaginary worlds: abstract art and surrealism.
We can largely follow Harouel when he denounces the millenarian body of thoughts and the concomitant obscurantism that has been invoked to justify modern art and that has been embraced by many a modern artist. Still, we have to make some remarks.
To begin with, it should be reminded that the artists of the Ancien Régime not seldom served as mouthpieces of often equally questionable ideologies - suffice it to refer to the reigning feudal ideologies or to the - equally millenarian - Christendom, or to the influence of Neo-Platonism on Renaissance art. Harouel is right when he claims that the concomitant 'afterworlds' are rendered 'true to nature' - from Bosch to the pre-Raphaelites. But he forgets that this goes also for figurative painters like Dali and Ernst.
Next, it catches the eye that Harouel does not even mention more secular descendants of German philosophy like Freud, who nevertheless exerted a profound influence on modern art. Even less do we hear of art theories that have been developed in the twentieth century to justify the development of modern art, and that have nothing to do with German idealism: suffice it to refer to authors like Roman Jakobson in Russia, Gombrich, Nelson Goodman in England, Arthur Danto in the United States - but above all to Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean-Paul Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean Genette, Jacques Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Rancière en Alain Badiou.in France. Why target only German idealism and its predecessors in German mysticism and Gnosis?
Finally, Harouel giver no reply to the question why the scorned philosophers themselves developed such theories in the first place. In Harouel's approach, which owes much to Pareto, they must equally have had their 'deeper reasons'. One of the most popular explanations is the failure of the revolution in Germany, which made dream of less profane revolutions. This kind of explanations applies also for the failure of the communist revolution in Western Europe, and of the revolt of Mai 1968.
It is remarkable that Harouel does not resort to a nearly related, very popular, but inadequate explanation: the decline of religion as the real breeding ground of art - 'la rupture avec le sacré' (Roger Scruton, Jean Clair), although it might be implicated in the idea of contemporary art as a 'secularised religion'.
CULPRIT (3): CAPITALISM AND THE FREE WEST
In his fourth chapter, Harouel introduces political regime and classes (capitalists). But he restricts this approach to the period after the second World War. And that results in a distorted picture. Let us pull out some more historical registers.
For a long time, art has been supported by clergy and aristocracy. The ascending bourgeoisie initially emulated these classes, but gradually began to develop its own progressive identity, which it found readily in modern art that equally was out at distinguishing itself from the art of the Ancien Régime and its academies. It is with such progressive bourgeoisie that modern art found its first devotees, just think of Gertrud Stein, Schtschukin, Kahnweiler, Behrens,Thyssen-Bornemisza, Barnes... But, for the same reason, also lots of adherents to the entire spectrum from anarchism and socialism, and soon also to fascism (Mussolini, Goebbels), aligned themselves with modern art.
First under Stalin, then under Hitler, the tide turned - among others because the 'people' took not so much interest in modern art. To be sure, for a long time, 'the people' remained devoted to the kitschy cast-offs of the Ancien Régime, but it became increasingly attracted to another anti-aristocratic and anti-bourgeois form of art: the scorned culture industry, especially after the Second World War. Harouel is right when he points to the fact that modern art was not precisely popular before the Second World War. But he is wrong when he suggests that the then academic art was universally acclaimed.
The turn in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany resulted in a new divide. But it was a rather contradictory one. During the World Exhibition of 1937 - the year of Hitlers 'Entartete Kunst' - the modernism of the Guernica as well as the socialistic realism of the Soviets were played off against fascism. Meanwhile, the US had welcomed many a modern artist that had been expulsed by the Nazis. It became apparent that the local production was not only mainly academic, but also socially inspired. After the victory on Hitler and the beginning of the Cold War, the higher bourgeoisie in the US begins to oppose academic art, not so much because it would be feudal, as rather because it could be scorned as fascist and communist - totalitarian and propagandistic. The repressive state replaces the Ancien Régime as the enemy of the entrepreneur. Especially abstract expressionism seemed predestined to be a flag on the new battlefield: its abstraction was the counterpart of the totalitarian propaganda, and its boundless creativity that of the straightjacket of academism. At the same time, it distinguished the higher classes from the populace that grew mad of the soaring culture industry - the popular reaction against the terror of Hitler and Stalin.
In Europe, things were different. Here, it is not so much the political and economical heroes of the Free World who set the tune, but rather the intellectuals. In their view, the defeat of Hitler was rather a step toward the impending advent of communism. But their enthusiasm was increasingly dampened by the development of the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and China. Already before the war, they had forsworn socialist realism, so that they continued to associate modern art with real socialism, and not with American capitalism, especially since the latter seemed to be epitomised in the soaring culture industry of the masses. The spokesmen of this approach are the Frankfurter Schule, but increasingly also the above mentioned French philosophers. A whole array of anti-stalinistich but anti-capitalistic philosophies unfolds. The failure of the revolt of Mai 1968 leads to a radicalisation of modernism. Meanwhile, the new generation of the baby-boomers vents its unease in the scorned culture industry, which is experienced not so much as a degradation of high art, as rather as the voice of the oppressed, first the blacks, but soon generalised to a universal protest in rock 'n roll. Let us remark that the association of modern art with socialism does not mean that the artists themselves were leftists: in reality, they were mostly adepts of the countless obscurantist philosophies scorned but Harouel, and they reveal themselves increasingly as unabashed entrepreneurs, who are no longer prepared to hide themselves behind a 'critical' imago (see Wim Delvoye).
Things become different with the advent of Thatcher and Reagan, and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Marxism and related ideologies are denounced as 'big stories'. People turn their backs on ideologies as such, and come to adhere an individualistic postmodernism, that nevertheless seems perfectly adapted to the 'big practice' of neoliberalism. Modernism, that radicalised under the auguries of Marxism, becomes the playground of ambitious ego's that feel hampered by institutions and conventions of all kinds. And that is what they have in common with the new entrepreneurs: capitalists like Charles Saatchi with his Young British Artists in England, and François Pinault and Bernard Arnault with their 'Art contemporain' in France. What in the beginning was a battle against the Ancien Régime, and was gradually transformed into a battle against totalitarianism, ends up as a struggle against regulation and 'collectivism' as such.
Let us examine against this background the version of Harouel. There is no denying that capitalist regimes through the CIA as well as communist regimes through the VOKS (the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) have tried to extend the Cold War to the cultural front. As opposed to the Soviet Union, that bestowed the Stalin Peace Prize to Picasso (or the Stasi that supported Günter Walraff), the CIA stroke the right chord. But it thereby only supported a movement that was more inspired by Marxism. The intervention of the CIA may only have contributed to the take over of the art scene by New York. And that only paved the way for the increasing influence of the new entrepreneurs. The whole story of the CIA is no more than a rather blown up conspiracy theory, which nevertheless does not explain why the success of 'l'art contemporain' only started when the CIA left the scene.
Let us remark, finally, that in Harouels analysis in terms of classes and political ideologies, the nations are missing. That catches the eye, because Harouel culprits have an outspoken national identity: the Germans with their idealism and the Americans with their ideology of the free world. It catches the eye especially since, up to the take over of New York, France happened to be the locus delicti of the avant-garde, and after the take-over, the locus delicti of the intellectual 'obscurantism' in matters of art. The title of Serge Guilbaut's book, to which Harouel repeatedly refers, sounds: 'How New York stole the notion of modernism from Paris' (1985). One cannot escape the impression that the reaction against 'l'art contemporain', which is more heavy in France than in any other country, is fuelled by the fact that the US set the tune in matters of contemporary art, and no longer Paris. Daniel Buren in the Palais-Royal was not easy to stomach for many a Frenchman, but Jeff Koons in Versailles was really a bridge too far.
Generally speaking, it must be said that sociological considerations like those above may well be interesting, but are in no ways relevant to the status of the art works. From a sociological and political view - as well as from the perspective of modern art - Richard Strauss' 'Vier letzte Lieder' are no less than the scandal of scandals. But from a musical point of view, they belong to the treasures of classical music.
CULPRIT (4): THE NEW RICH AND THEIR LACK OF CULTURE
In that same chapter, Harouel denounces the 'uncultivated', who may be good entrepreneurs, but are so busy as to find time to remedy their lack of culture - and hence are predestined to resort to 'le non-art'. Even when the argument may apply in many cases, it also applies to notorious examples from the Ancient Régime. Let us also remark that it is seldom the entrepreneurs themselves who devote themselves to modern art, but rather their heirs. And these heirs could lead a life of leisure: Gertrud Stein, Peggy Guggenheim, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, Nelson Rockefeller are sons or daughters of. Or we are dealing with entrepreneurs who could rest on their laurels, like Albert C. Barnes. It may nevertheless be true that there is an increasing number of rich people who descry in contemporary art only a logo that matches theirs - think of Nelson Rockefeller, who called abstract expressionism ''free enterprise painting'. And that applies not only to entrepreneurs, but also to politicians: one can justifiably question the cultural background of many a minister of culture, who is only out at adding the logo of famous artists to his own.
But Harouel puts the question in the wrong terms. The question is what we understand as culture. When we describe what Harouel calls 'le non art' in positive terms as design, displayed reality and non-verbal statements or actions, then the scorned 'uncultivated' might have their own culture - even when the question remains whether we are dealing here with high culture. But it is perhaps better to leave the question of 'high' and 'low' culture out of consideration here. We could as well approach the question not in terms of culture, but in terms of art. In a world where non-art can pass for art, the competence in dealing with art diminishes accordingly. Since the share of non-art increases steadily, the sensibility required to deal with art threatens to disappear. All the more since dealing with art always presupposes specialisation, not only in one of the arts, but also in specific periods. The odds that devotees of 'contemporary art' are not interested in the art of the past, are all the more real, since contemporary art is essentially a continued negation of the art of the past. When such specialists become leading buyers and policymakers, we have a real problem. Especially since the Western world will increasingly be referred to the background. China and its neighbours not only deliver outstanding performers of Western classical music, but also figures like Ai Weiwei, who may be a dissident, but is nevertheless part of the national - there are some 300.000 dollar millionaires in China - and international jet set of Harouel's 'non-art'.
We encounter a similar problem in education - an aspect of the problem which seems to escape Harouel's attention. Already form the first World War onwards, the academic curriculum has been replaced with a training where the divide between fine and applied arts is lifted, exemplary in the Bauhaus. Especially from the sixties onwards, the art schools are modernised at an increasing pace. After drawing, not only the handicrafts are dropped, but even the advanced technologies, under the motto that art is a question of ideas: after the designification, now also the conceptualisation of the art schools. Add to that that for the same reason also the initiation in the 'canon' is pushed to the background, and we have come full circle. A same reasoning applies to the education in art history and art philosophy.
The shortcomings of Harouel's analysis become apparent when he comes up with the painters who are supposed to be relegated to the catacombs by 'le non-art - Aude de Kerros' 'art c'aché: Edward Hopper, whom he esteems to be the most important painter of the twentieth century, next to Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood (p.143-144). He rejects Lucian Freud because of his emphasis on 'the ugliness of things' (p. 132) and because his lack of 'transfiguration of the real'' (p. 133). Peter Doig is recognisable as well as pleasing, but resorts to the mechanical procedures of photography (p. 133). Granted, this is a rather meagre harvest especially when we compare these painters with their predecessors - or with the better painters in the modern tradition.
The decay of education can hardly be invoked: it was mainly intact when Harouels examples were trained. Hopper was educated at the New York Institute of Art and Design, Grant Wood at the Art Institute of Chicago, Thomas Hart Benton at the same Art Institute of Chicago and at the Académie Julian in Paris - not precisely the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but still an academy where figures like Bouguereau teached, whom Harouel views favourably. Did the more talented painters succumb to the temptations of success on the scene of modern art? How comes that Harouel's cultivated classes - the old aristocrats and the clergy - were no longer prepared to take their responsibilities as authoritative buyers or sponsors? Why did they equally join the new trend? Think of the clergy that opted for Matisse and his Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, or for Corbusier and his Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamps. Why did the church after Vatican II reject the venerated Gregorian chant? And compare the stance of figures like Prince Charles with that of the Belgian queen Paola who supports figures like Jan Fabre, who was elevated to the rank of 'Commander in the order of Leopold II', not otherwise than Paul McCartney by Queen Elisabeth. In any case, the decay of education can only be invoked to explain the absence of painters trained after the sixties.
WHERE DID ART GO?
There is more at stake, then, than a derailment of artists under the auguries of German Idealism and a conspiracy of the Free World - suffice it to refer to the 'culture industry' which is responsible for the fact tot modern art as well as academic art have become marginalised. Harouel does not answer the question why the 'artists without art' could so easily take over. When the academic art of the twentieth century is so valuable, how comes that it is not widely acclaimed and that there are so few gifted artists who endorse it? It may be true that the creations of the 'artists without art' do not amount to much, but that goes equally to the paintings of the 'real' artists. Granted: the works of Hopper are not precisely the pinnacle of the development of Western painting ...
That is part of the answer to the question how the 'artists without art' could so unabashedly steal the show. Instead of recognising the problem, Harouel passes over it as if it did not exist. And that is perhaps the biggest problem. The theoretical understanding of the 'philosophy' of modern art may leave much to be desired, that applies even more to the advocates of traditional art. There is no doubt that it is important to indicate where the boundaries of art are crossed. But there is no point in trying to define art in terms of techniques, ways of rendering, stile, let alone the world view on which it is based, although one may certainly have one's predilections.
The whole 'querelle de l'art contemporain' only demonstrates how much both parties seem to be utterly confused. We need neither a return to better times nor a flight into the future. What we need is a more enlightened theory of art that avoids the dead ends of both the theories of 'academic' and 'contemporary' art, a theory that is able to found a new practice of an art that is 'contemporary' in the real and full sense of the word
Stefan Beyst, February 2010.