PRINT September 2001




To the Editor:

If Daniel Soutif wishes to appear testily Gallic, that's his problem. But I would like to correct some errors in his remarks about my recent catalogue essay for François Morellet [Reviews, March 2001].

First: I remarked that Morellet's work has not yet gained entry into the art-historical record of Conceptual art. Soutif remarks, “One wonders what books he's been looking at.” Actually one should wonder whether M. Soutif can read, since I listed the books I was referring to—author, title, date, and publisher. And it is a lamentable but undeniable fact that in six recent book-length studies of Conceptual art (which are more or less the entire record of that movement), Morellet is not mentioned once.

Second: I remarked that, because the French usually print their catalogues only in their own language—as if they didn't care about the rest of the world—their artists are in special danger of being excluded from the international record. This is the point that really, seems to have got Soutif's back up—not only would an American write the catalogue for a French elder-statesman artist (and at the Jeu de Paume!) but, adding insult to injury, he would actually cast aspersions on the factor of Gallic pride (if only in a footnote).

Yet it is again a plain fact that English is used as a second language in the publication of art catalogues almost everywhere else in the world. As a front-page story in the April 16 edition of the New York Times put it, English has become a “world tongue”: “European universities, particularly in northern Europe, are giving courses in science, philosophy and business in English. Even some companies, like the French communications giant Alcatel . . ., now use English as their internal language.” Confirming my remarks, the article notes that “perhaps the fiercest defenders of their own language have been the French.”

The need for such a second language is illustrated by Morellet's comparative omission from the record. If the Jeu de Paume, like more or less everyone else, had published my essay in both English and the local language, Soutif might have been able to read it correctly. I wrote that English has come to function, at least for the time being, as a “global second language.” The nameless translator rendered my “global second language” with the impenetrable phrase “seconde langue universelle” (what would the first one have been?). There's a big difference. “Global” does not carry the metaphysical claims of “universal,” but points only to a geographical fact. And “second language” could hardly be more different from “universal language.” Soutif's comical misreading in fact illustrated my point about the problems of neglecting a second language at the very moment he thought he was denouncing it.

Finally, Soutif labels my call for an English version of the catalogue text “Americentric.” In this case he seems simply confused by his emotions. I wrote, as he mentioned, that Morellet's early work seems to have anticipated similar work by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and Sol LeWitt. The main claim of my essay is that the emphasis in this history should be shifted away from America toward, among other places, France. This is “Americentric”?

François Morellet has expressed happiness with my observations. But they got Soutif's dander up to the point where he perversely wishes to deny his countryman the claims I made for his international stature. Again he has demonstrated a point of mine he thought he was refuting—the one about Gallic pride.

Thomas McEvilley
New York

Daniel Soutif responds:
1. McEvilley writes, “I remarked that Morellet's work has not yet gained entry into the art-historical record of Conceptual art.” In his preface to the catalogue, he wrote: “If the work of Morellet had not assumed this French pride, it would have already entered the art history books” and “He seems to have preceded in this the decisive advances of at least three great American artists who are strongly represented in the histories of art: Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt.” As art history is not summed up by Conceptual art, my question about the books to which McEvilley was referring did not result from any misreading. The fact that Morellet was not cited in books on Conceptual art, including the French catalogue to “L'Art conceptuel,” which in his view launched the “avalanche of publications” indeed cited in a note, should have made McEvilley reflect on the actual relationship between Morellet's work and Conceptual art.

2. McEvilley is afraid that French artists suffer as a result of the resistance of French publishing to bilingualism. The future will decide that. But one cannot see how the French refusal of this rather recent practice could have affected the recognition of an artist who has been working for more than fifty years and is far from being an unknown.

3. McEvilley insinuates that my reaction had to do with the fact that the Jeu de Paume solicited an American author who took the opportunity to lay into “French pride.” I think it's useful to remind him that, as editor in chief of the Cahiers du Musée national d'art moderne and then director of the Centre Pompidou, in charge of publications, among other things, I not only organized colloquiums devoted to American thinkers (Nelson Goodman and Clement Greenberg) but also published numerous articles by American, English, German, Italian, and Spanish writers. So I have some reason not to recognize myself in the asinine way of thinking he attributes to the French in his footnote (for the record, it reads, “We mock what you say or think, as well as being understood: we are sufficient unto ourselves”).

4. If McEvilley had checked the translation of his text, he would have saved himself the trouble of having to prove that he knows the difference between “global” and “universal.” He would not, in any case, have attributed the slightest misreading on this subject to me, since I simply read what he allowed to be printed. As for inferring from the error that the standard practice of translation should be replaced by bilingual editions, this is clearly fallacious reasoning.

5. McEvilley cites a New York Times article asserting that English has become a “world tongue” and that “perhaps the fiercest defenders of their own language have been the French.” For his information, the European Community currently uses three official languages—German, English, and French—and the Spanish are battling ferociously for the acceptance of a fourth. McEvilley also invokes the example of Alcutel, which only proves he is conflating business and culture. By the same logic, he would soon reproach Gallimard for not publishing future Marcel Prousts directly in English.

6. Contrary to his denials, McEvilley's letter confirms his Americentrism since he seemingly cannot imagine an art history without American Conceptual art as its center of gravity. Morellet is in fact incomprehensible in this way, as is Yves Klein (described as a “protoconceptual” artist in McEvilley's preface). On the contrary, Morellet's work is inscribed in a European tradition that mixes, among other things, a certain French humor, that of the “incoherent arts” movement of the late nineteenth century, of Alphonse Allais and Alfred Jarry; Dutch geometric abstraction and its Dadaist flip side (both of which are reunited in van Doesburg); Russian Constructivism; Swiss concrete art; etc. To assume that the historical value of Morellet's art would be increased because main works are seen as formally preceding certain “decisive advances” of Kelly, Stella, or LeWitt indicates a conception of art history that is both anecdotal and formalist.