PRINT May 1996


Maggots. They subdivide. And never stop.
Marcel Broodthaers, Pense-Bête (1964)

If Joseph Kosuth was the André Breton of Conceptual art, then Marcel Broodthaers was the movement’s Georges Bataille. This is not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is telling: on the one hand, we have a figure obsessed with definition and control, with the construction of artistic genealogies, with the celebration of art as idea, and on the other, a figure dedicated to dispersion and subversion, to the laughter that baffles power, to the elaboration of a new concept of materialism. Surrealism’s self-proclaimed “enemy from within,” Bataille contrasted Breton’s idealism and his own materialism in his essay “The ‘Old Mole’ and the Prefix Sur in the Word Surhomme [Superman] and Surrealist” (ca. 1929) through the almost childlike opposition of two animals: the eagle and the mole. One is high, the other low. One is associated with virility, metaphysics, military power, imperialism; the other with dirt and darkness, with earthly matter and the subterranean processes of decay. As in the myth of Icarus, or like mites in the presence of a torch, Bataille observed that man identified with the eagle, always aspiring to rise above social conditions, but never failing to be destroyed by this same desire, blindly attempting to soar to new heights only to fall back again to the earth. Where, of course, the old mole would be waiting, hollowing out his caverns, causing the edifices of thought and reality to collapse, base in a double sense: both physically low and structurally determining, as in Marx’s concept of base and superstructure. Capitalism, Bataille noted, was like a mole, destroying older ways of life radically (that is, by the root); his materialism would simulate this corrosive, antifoundational force, attempting to work through it by using its own methods, not the idealizing disavowals of philosophers, authoritarians—and artists.

Though “The ‘Old Mole’ and the Prefix Sur” didn’t see the light of day until six years after Bataille’s death, its summer 1968 publication in the French avant-garde journal Tel Quel made the essay part of the intellectual horizon of the May uprising in France. Having participated in the occupation of the Brussels Palais des Beaux Arts during that same month, Broodthaers claimed that the fictional museum he would found just four months later was also “born of the spirit of May ’68.” Making himself director of the “Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles” (Museum of modern art, department of eagles), Broodthaers inaugurated a series of fictional museum divisions that would be installed from 1968 to 1972, ending with the exhibition of 266 different objects representing the eagle in the “Section des Figures,” and the two divisions at Documenta V (one of which, the “Section Publicité,” recapitulating the eagle exhibition through photographs and slides, was reinstalled this fall in New York at the Marian Goodman Gallery). Now, to connect Bataille’s essay with Broodthaers’ museum fiction is not necessarily to assert that one was the direct result of the other.1 It is, however, to see how deeply a Bataillean definition of materialism had penetrated the intellectual and artistic avant-garde of the generation of ’68. Broodthaers once suggested that in order to understand his method viewers should read Michel Foucault’s essay on Magritte, “This Is Not a Pipe”; those who did would have found an entire chapter devoted to what Foucault called “Le Sourd travail des mots,” or “The Subterranean Work of Words.” The most important artists of Broodthaers’ generation were in the process of a parallel redefinition of both the form and function of what could still be called an avant-garde. As Broodthaers’ friend Daniel Buren put it, the avant-garde had in no way disappeared; it had only gone “underground.” “Others,” Buren asserted, “dance in full daylight . . . without realizing that the ‘action’ is going on beneath their feet. It is to be feared . . . that they will only come face to face with reality at the precise moment when the mined terrain on which they dance collapses beneath their weight and buries them.”2

Considering the high claims of the rhetoric I have been presenting, Broodthaers’ interventions may seem comparably quite limited. Indeed, perhaps no artist was as aware of the limitations of his role as was Broodthaers. For in a direct sense, his primary targets in the museum fiction were the wide-ranging claims of Conceptual art. Along these lines, Broodthaers opened a “Section Littéraire” as part of his museum, using the alternately outmoded, acerbic, even poetic twists and turns of his own writing to travesty Conceptualism’s increasing embrace of a rarefied, quasi-scientific reduction of the art object to the medium of language. Reacting more specifically to the tautological techniques of some Conceptual artists (e.g., Joseph Kosuth’s estheticist declaration that “art is the definition of art,” or his series “Art as Idea as Idea”), Broodthaers clarified his use of the eagle in the 1972 installations: “The concept of the exhibition,” he explained, “is based on the identity of the eagle as an idea with art as an idea.”3 Broodthaers pointed to a fundamental contradiction in Conceptualist practice: while Conceptual artists increasingly employed language as their sole medium, the recourse to tautology, as Roland Barthes once noted, commits a “double murder,” killing rationality because of rationality’s resistance to individual thought, but ultimately killing language itself because of language’s inherent betrayals. In the end, tautology is a paradoxical refusal of language through recourse to language, and it would be this contradiction that would give rise both to an avowedly mystical version of Conceptual art (as in Sol LeWitt’s formulation that Conceptual artists were mystics, to which Barthes might have responded that tautology works through “a magical act”) as well as to an apparent homology with the language of rising bureaucratic power (Barthes again: tautological thought is like a parent’s admonition to a child, “That is just how it is . . .”). Allegorizing this paradox through the figure of the eagle, deploying it molelike against itself, Broodthaers’ dialectical reaction would be to play the rationalist to Conceptual art’s mysticism, but also the child to its blind authoritarianism.

It was through this assault, however, that Broodthaers would assert the impossibility of cordoning off artistic language from the language of sociality at large. Extending his critique beyond the tautological limitations of Conceptualism, he ended up analyzing the primary example of a power that was both social and artistic at once: the tautological function of the museum as an institution of social and artistic validation. “This is a work of art,” the museum states, affirming the mute status of the objects that wind up within its walls. “This is not a work of art,” Broodthaers replied, attaching this label to each representation of an eagle within his “Section des Figures.” Arriving at this formula through the “contraction of a concept by Duchamp and an antithetical concept by Magritte,” Broodthaers ultimately frustrated both the symbolic potential of the individual eagle representations (disassociating figure and discourse within the art object, as did Magritte) as well as the museum’s traditional legitimating function (exposing and thereby implicitly negating the discourse that surrounds the art object, as did Duchamp). In typically laconic prose, Broodthaers once “explained” his purpose in the museum fiction: “1. To baffle every ideology which can be formed around a symbol (it is false). 2. To study objectively these symbols (the eagles) and particularly their use in artistic representation (eagles are useful). 3. To use the discoveries of conceptual art to illuminate objects and pictures of the past. Conclusion: the eagle is a bird.”4 Mocking the “discoveries of conceptual art” that could apparently tell us nothing more about representations of the past than the semitautological claim that “the eagle is a bird,” Broodthaers undermined the artistic basis of this monomania only to arrive at the larger social formations that ultimately determined the dominant artistic structure of his day. The museum fiction, then, was double-edged: dissolving the artistic foundation through which objects speak, Broodthaers simultaneously frustrated the social, institutional one on which they stand.

The “Section Publicité” took as its target a dialectically related development. Duchamp preceded Broodthaers here: having exposed through the use of the readymade the extent to which the forms of industry had penetrated those of art, Duchamp had similarly begun just before World War II to reflect on the extent to which art itself was becoming an industry, mediated through institutions like museums. He allegorized this situation when he reproduced his work in miniature or through photographs in the salesman’s sample case that became the Boîte-en-Valise (Box in a valise, 1941). Trading in Duchamp’s guise of the traveling salesman for that of museum director, Broodthaers would elaborate on Duchamp’s later actions by demonstrating the profound manner in which the postwar consumption of art had also become an industry in its own right. Similarly collecting and reframing his own work in photographs and slides, Broodthaers, in the “Section Publicité,” spoke the following truth: To the extent that art had entered the realm of advertising and the media, determining the techniques of its images and its messages, advertising and the media had entered the work of art, circumscribing the latter’s incessant mediation through catalogues, exhibition announcements, and the rise of glossy art magazines. “Under these circumstances,” Broodthaers asked at the time, “can we still think of culture as having any importance?” Old mole, Marcel Broodthaers: just as his work undermined the signifying structures of artistic language and the validating function of its institutions, he realized the primary manner in which industrialization and commodification had eroded the function of culture as a whole. Refusing, however, to remain in a purely negative mode, Broodthaers positioned his “Section Publicité” as a countermemory to this situation. Does culture still have any importance? “In my opinion all the more so,” Broodthaers continued, “when it succeeds to incorporate within its own frame of reference a theory that enables you to defend yourself against the images and the texts that are circulated by the media and by publicity that determine our rules of conduct and our ideology.”5

This, of course, was the pedagogical side to Broodthaers’ work, a visual pedagogy whose legacy has been taken up by some of the best young artists working today. From the ironic collecting practices of Mark Dion’s Dept. of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York (Chinatown Division), 1992, to the institutional archaeology of Christian Philipp Müller’s porte bonheur, 1989, from Andrea Fraser’s displacement of Broodthaers’ role of museum director in her own subversive performance as gallery docent “Jane Castleton,” to Renée Green’s further internalization of bureaucratic and media structures in Import/Export Funk Office, 1992–93, Broodthaers’ legacy has been both redeployed and critiqued. No longer explicitly dissecting the collapse of the artistic sphere into the social realm of industry, advertising, and publicity, all these projects on a general level share a concern with preserving the critical potential of the institutional spaces of art—they seek to retain the capability of museums and galleries to transmit information and promote pedagogical projects. Beyond its original historical situation and site specificity, the reinstallation of Broodthaers’ “Section Publicité” at the present moment affirmed the necessity of such recent critical practices—while just as firmly pointing to the irrelevancy or false foundations of other neo-Conceptual developments within the artistic sphere, indicating how much of Broodthaers’ legacy has not been absorbed or dealt with by contemporary artists. The “Section Publicité” can perhaps no longer function as an effective countermemory to the erosion of art in the service of advertising and the culture industry; this erosion is too fully accomplished, the loss too totally realized, to be countered (it seems we can only mourn this loss, when it is even recognized as such; what would Broodthaers have said about the mix of practices in the pages of today’s art magazines, most of which were born of the same historical situation that gave rise to the “Section Publicité”?).

Rather, the installation functions as a corrective in terms of the massive misunderstandings that continue to plague the current return to the strategies of Conceptual art. Much work today—so nonsensically, so uncomfortably, but so perfectly grouped under the label “neo-Conceptual art”—has returned to the Conceptual assault on the traditional categories of artistic experience (painting, sculpture, photography, etc.) and the individual hieratic object. But this return has been achieved in a double sense: just as Conceptual art loosened the shackles of traditional artistic forms only to feel empowered to rise to ever higher artistic glories, proclaiming itself transcendent over the older contradictions that had plagued the esthetic project, so too has much recent practice dissolved traditional artistic forms only to openly recuperate fixed meanings, reactionary concepts of unmediated beauty, and esthetic aura in the last place one would have expected it. This has always been the curse of much Conceptual practice; Broodthaers repeatedly displayed its loosening of artistic restrictions to be like the loosening of an old tooth, both a loss and a gain at once, and painful at that. Inasmuch as Broodthaers’ work continues to be the subject of public reflection and critical commemoration (rather than institutionalization), we may continue to be reminded of the political and social issues that lay beneath the naive idealism that characterized so much Conceptual practice; playing the mole to Conceptual art’s eagle, the work continues to provide a much needed countermemory in the face of the latest Icarian adventures of neo-Conceptual art. As Marx said long ago: “Well grubbed, old molel”

George Baker is a writer in New York.



1. There is, however, evidence that Marcel Broodthaers was thinking directly of Georges Bataille when he worked on the museum fiction. Sections of an unpublished essay entitled “A Mole’s Work” have been published, and Broodthaers did in fact address one of his famous open letters from this period to none other than “Georges Bataille.” Written from the “Sections des Figures” on May 16, 1972 (although Broodthaers typically had first written a false date, 1968, and then crossed it out), the letter consists solely of two short citations from the very text under discussion here, “The Old Mole and the Prefix ‘Sur’.” The text could be translated as follows: “GEORGES BATAILLES / . . . Not only does the eagle rise in radiant zones of the solar sky, but it resides there with uncontested glamour. / Politically the eagle is identified with imperialism, that is, with the unconstrained development of individual authoritarian power, triumphant over all obstacles. And metaphysically . . . / (Excerpt from an article by G. Bataille in TEL QUEL n. 34, Summer 1968. Page 7) / Certified True Copy, M. Broodthaers.” The text of this letter came to my attention just days before this issue went to press; I would like to thank Broodthaers’ widow, Maria Gilissen, for her help in in locating it.

2. Daniel Buren, “On the ‘avant-garde,’” from a conversation with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh in Punctuations: statue/sculpture (Lyon: Edition Le Nouveau Musée, 1980).

3. Marcel Broodthaers, “Section des Figures,” in Der Adler vom Oligozan bis-heute (Düsseldorf: Stadtische Kunsthalle, 1972), vol. 2, p. 19.

4. Unpublished typescript dated 2 November 1971, cited in Michael Compton, “In Praise of the Subject,” Marcel Broodthaers (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1989), p. 49.

5. Text added to the open letter distributed at the “Section Publicité” when the letter was reprinted as “Ein Museum und seine Perspektiven,” Heute Kunst 1 (April 1973). Cited in Marcel Broodthaers, Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, Sections Art Moderne et Publicité (New York: Marian Goodman Gallery, 1995), p. 9.