PRINT September 1995


Jean Clair’s “Identity and Alterity”

JEAN CLAIR’S EXHIBITION “Identity and Alterity: Figures of the Body 1895–1995” is definitely the big attraction in this year’s Venice Biennale, which, though it celebrates the institution’s centennial, is otherwise not very distinctive. Clair has chosen his works with obvious care and thought, and has installed them well. On this centenary occasion, and at this moment close to the end of the 20th century, much of the selection seems intended to suggest an overview of the Modern artistic age; this task alone would be fascinating and ambitious. The visitor quickly sees, however, that Clair has actually set his goals much higher.

Clair does not intend his exhibition as merely a summary of what has been thought about Modern art, or as a confirmation of the 20th-century canon—not at all. “Identity and Alterity” is conceived as both a result and a refutation of the tradition of the Modern. In this sense the exhibition is itself very Modern: what more fitting end to the Modernist age—an age that constantly rejected its own recent past to clear the way for its near future—than its own, final refutation, without right of appeal? And Clair seeks nothing less than a final refutation, not only of the usual storyline of the last century of art history, but also, and above all, of the inner, regulating, Kantian idea of Modern art itself. Clair correctly locates this regulative idea of the artistic avant-garde in the image’s release from its subjugation to a specific or stable meaning. This liberation of the image at the same time involved a utopian vision of the liberation of modern humanity from every preconceived meaning of human destiny. For Clair, however, that vision was transformed into the “Modernist litany of a cube is a cube is a cube,” and other “abrupt tautologies of American art.” At the end of the 20th century, he argues, the idea of the artistic utopia of an avant-garde, like other Modern utopias both political and economic, has finally failed; the time has come to bid it adieu. In his catalogue foreword, Clair writes, “But whilst all other beliefs crumble, one remains intact—as if no one dare to attack it: the belief in the ‘avant-garde’ in art. . . . This Biennale Centenary, therefore, offered me the opportunity to attempt a critique of the system of avant-gardes and of certain idées reçues. What has become of the history of modern art which saw Cézanne as the founding father? What has become of the history of modern art which saw the autonomy, the self-referentiality, of the work of art as its ultimate goal?” These are good questions, even if Clair exaggerates their novelty; they have been posed often enough in recent decades. Unexpectedly, though, Clair leaves them unanswered, to replace them with others: “And what if there were Meaning where it had always been argued there was only Form? . . . Or if the 20th century had, more than any other, been the century of the Self-Portrait, not of Abstraction? . . . Posing the problem of the representation of the human body and face seemed, at the end of a century haunted by sex, disease, and death, one way to approach such questions. It is the approach we have chosen to follow.”

Instead of exploring the history of this century’s avant-gardes, as his foreword initially implies, Clair interrogates another, alternative history, one he perceives as ignored and overshadowed in the Modern canon’s conventionally accepted plan. The result is not a discovery of new names or trends but a displacement of the trusted, familiar keystones and accents—the artists who have always been canonized in the art history of Modernism, or who are already recognized in the current art scene. It is not that the artists presented are unknown—from Rodin to Balthus to Andres Serrano, the names are not exactly new—but all the artists presented have worked with the human image, and even artists famous as abstractionists are (with a few exceptions) represented by figurative works. The show looks at art that hasn’t just remained representational against certain currents of Modernism, but that has accepted an entanglement with that tradition-privileged object of artistic representation, the human body.

Is this really, you may ask, the art that testifies above all others to the condition humaine in our century? Clair has anticipated the question, and answered it: the function of art, he believes, is still to offer the kind of testimony to the human condition that this sort of work supplies. Further, the idea that the human body, despite all attempts to liberate art from it, remains the principal object of artistic representation allows easy comparisons between Modern art and the art of earlier eras, along a common base. If Clair states in his catalogue text that our century was preoccupied with “sex, disease, and death,” then the same can be said of every century, so that the uniqueness of our century must lie elsewhere.

No doubt Modern art does often depict the body in conditions of disintegration, decay, or anatomical deformity; this was the tendency that the cultural functionaries of Nazism used to indict Modern art in the infamous “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate art) exhibition, which opened in Munich in 1937. In his temporarily influential book Kunst und Rasse (Art and race, 1935), Paul Schulze-Naumburg, a theoretician of this attack, documented parallels between medical photographs of mental patients and Modernist depictions of the human form. Visitors to “Identity and Alterity” may recall this comparison when they see Clair’s juxtapositions of Modernist art with scientific, technical, and particularly medical images documenting, measuring, and otherwise investigating the body. This time, however, the charge is reversed: it isn’t art that is accused of dehumanizing humankind, but modern technology, certainly including modern medicine.

For Clair, Modern art testifies, above all else, to technology’s intrusion into the body and its interior, making public what was previously intimate or invisible. Through X rays and newer techniques, surgery, psychiatry, and other fields employing photographic documentation have created a new world of images that present the body as fragmented, deformed, and objectified. Modern art may have co-opted these scientifically created images, but its copycat role here at least frees it of the primary blame for this dehumanization. The price, however, is high: art becomes secondary to the technical production of the image. The true artist is found on the other side of art history.

“Identity and Alterity” is divided into three separately housed sections that generally follow chronological order, although the chronological line is often interrupted and displaced to point up thematic and iconographic parallels. “The Age of Positivism 1985–1905” is particularly fascinating. Photographs and demonstrational objects that were made and used as part of the anthropometric work of Alphonse Bertillon, Cesare Lombroso, and other 19th-century scientists turn out to be visually potent in an art context; “Identity and Alterity” presents them, in fact, as models some Modern artists followed. (Degas’ Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, for example, appears as an illustration of Lombroso’s theories of the vicious human type.) This comparison of scientific images with art images (a comparison in which the art pales somewhat) constitutes the section’s principal fascination. For me, it was only in one aspect that the art achieved a certain additional esthetic value over its scientific prototypes: it sexualized them. In art, technology’s fragmentation and inner probing of the body, its explosion of the body’s integrity, and its demarcation of the body as a terrain of experiment become linked with eroticism. Art’s Dionysian fragmentation of the body is an effect of both sexualization and technologization; the contrast often supposed between erotic ecstasy and the technical control of the body no longer seems tenable.

Almost as interesting as “The Age of Positivism” is “Totalitarian Arts and Degenerate Art,” which deals with the art produced under Europe’s various totalitarian regimes of the ’30s and ’40s. Correctly, I think, Clair locates this unpopular art within Modernist esthetics; the pursuit of the perfect body is enacted here as well as in medicine and technology. Still, despite strong sections like this one, my interest diminished somewhat in the course of “Identity and Alterity,” for the farther I went, the more I noticed the iron laws of certain ideological esthetic programs. To place nonartistic images in an art context is itself, of course, an esthetic method—the method of the readymade. Clair is happy to practice this method as curator/artist, yet he largely reserves it for himself; the artists he tends to choose are less innovative, at least in medium—Francis Bacon, R. B. Kitaj, Lucian Freud, etc.

“Identity and Alterity” gets interesting again almost at its end, when it becomes a show of contemporary video art. Clair’s catalogue text opposes the “black magic of the moving images” to the “white magic” of static, painted images; for him, moving images are by definition totalitarian, and announce true culture’s decline. Not surprisingly, he confirms his judgment by his selections—works by Gary Hill, Bruce Nauman, and others. And the Bill Viola show in the Biennale’s American Pavilion, though not curated by Clair, is of a piece with his vision. There as in the video section of “Identity and Alterity” you seem to have entered an evil realm where you feel degraded and terrorized, for you have no choice but to look at what is shown to you. And in both places you tremble for your life when you cross from one room to another, taking unseen steps in the deep dark. This increasing terror, furthermore, has the very traditional effect of making you look thoughtfully at pictures without being allowed to see their context. Through this darkness, narrowness, and anxiety, you are effectively subjected to the condition of inner disintegration that in earlier sections of the exhibition you could only view. The eroticization of this experience is probably art’s task for the future.

“Identity and Alterity” is undoubtedly provocative, and contains many superb works. But beside the experience of looking at the exhibition a rises the issue of its claims: to what extent does Clair succeed in addressing the condition of the avant-garde at the end of the century, and to what extent does he manage to refute the avant-garde’s regulative idea?

The liberation of the image from its traditional content doesn’t necessarily demand abstraction. Clement Greenberg’s belief in the self-referentiality of the Modernist image always presupposed belief in the referentiality of the traditional image; to cleanse Modern art of its traditions of abstraction (with few exceptions, and those ones neutralized by specific contexts), then, as Clair has clone in this exhibition, does nor really make a convincing case for the triumph of representational art. René Magritte established long ago that an image of une pipe is not necessarily a depiction of une pipe. So, too, an image of a fragmented body is not necessarily a depiction of that body. As Malevich said, the art of this century found itself “beyond the zero point”: after the emergence of abstract or nonrepresentational art, every image, including the most traditional representational painting, is inevitably seen by the modern spectator as also (if not exclusively) an abstract combination of forms and colors. Every important representational art of the outgoing century takes this nonrepresentational, formal approach into account, and reflects it. It is naïve, then, to believe that the elimination of abstract art from the 20th-century canon can change the way we look, which is already informed by abstraction.

One could further argue that the fragmentation of the body in Modern art evinces a concern exclusively with the image of the body, rather than with the body itself. For the Modern artist, the human body is merely a specific abstract form among many other such forms. In this sense it is not too different from the cube that Clair so dislikes. In fragmenting and deforming the image of the human body, perhaps Modern artists were attempting to demonstrate that it was an image, an abstract form, rather than reacting secondarily to the treatment of the “real” body at the hands of science and technology. In this sense we can probably say that all the works Clair presents in his exhibition are already abstract, and that his rejection of abstraction remains futile.

Modernism’s symbolic mishandlings of the human body are primarily signs of the battle it waged to liberate that powerful traditional image. Like every liberation struggle, this one had its gruesome side. In its fight for purity of form, for a break with tradition, and for the artist’s domination of the public taste, the avant-garde has a dangerous, terrorist dimension. It is certainly utopian, and so is deeply related to other utopias of this century; sometimes, in fact, it has found itself directly complicit with political terror. (This was the case, for example, with the early Soviet-Russian avant-garde.) This aspect of the avant-garde, with its various political, psychological, and social consequences, would make an interesting exhibition topic. But instead of exploring that other side of the avant-garde, Clair attempts to construct a “good” art history of this century beyond and against the avant-garde. The consequence is an interesting show, but one that misses its announced goals.

Translated from the German by Franz Peter Hugdahl.