PRINT November 2009


Robert Filliou

TRYING TO MAKE SENSE of the ravaged economy in the New York Times Magazine a couple months ago, Paul Krugman—Nobel-winning economist and Times columnist—pointed to the lasting relevance of Adam Smith’s ideas in today’s dominant economic model. Modern economics was born with Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), which argued that the free market is an efficient and self-correcting machine and was premised on the assumption that investors pursue their self-interests, making decisions based on cool and rational assessments of risk. Free markets, in other words, work when we use reason and strategy, not when we simply follow our gut. Krugman calls believers in this purist and neoclassical viewpoint “freshwater” economists—since they hail mostly from inland American universities—and he contrasts them with their long-marginalized “saltwater” peers: those who adopt a neo-Keynesian perspective insistent on the inevitable role of unpredictability and irrationality in the marketplace (a staple, as it happens, of economic departments in coastal areas of the United States). What our downward economic spiral confirmed, Krugman suggests, is the lessons of saltwater economics: It’s time we took our intuitions seriously.

Krugman’s freshwater/saltwater binary reminded me of a lecture Dia Art Foundation director Philippe Vergne recently gave in Saint Louis: He noted that September 15, 2008, was not only the day Lehman Brothers failed, ushering in the most dramatic stock-market meltdown since the Great Depression, but also the day Damien Hirst earned $198 million by staging his own personal art auction at Sotheby’s. It’s a provocative coincidence: Just as the market dramatically proved itself to be imperfect and unpredictable—“subject to extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds,” as Krugman says—an artist’s strategic maneuver, at least partially calculated to be a critique of the euphoric follies of the art market, marked a kind of logical end point for a certain style of freshwater artmaking. Taking cynicism and excess to their extreme, Hirst’s gambit was the moment carefully self-conscious business art swallowed its tail to become, simply, art business.

If 9/15 was the day freshwater thinking collapsed in on itself, then art in a post-9/15 era calls for a saltwater sensibility—one that embraces an intuitive sense of play rather than strategic self-consciousness. Although artists such as Fischli & Weiss come to mind as pertinent examples in contemporary art, another particularly relevant figure, this one historical, is French artist and poet Robert Filliou (1926–1987), whose singular practice was rooted in his faith in the clumsy playfulness of games, misunderstandings, jokes, and time spent with friends.

Filliou’s work is still largely unfamiliar to American audiences, but his well-known maxim “Art is what makes life more interesting than art” is a useful summary of what he stood for. Before beginning to write poetry and make art, he trained as an economist at UCLA and became interested in Charles Fourier, the nineteenth-century utopian-socialist philosopher who, in opposition to Smith and well before Marx and Freud, imagined radically new socioeconomic structures in his search for universal harmony. Fourier’s guiding and operative principle was “passionate attraction” (l’attraction passionée), those primordial desires that precede self-consciousness and survive the rational binaries that reasonable minds invoke; he introduced life, intuition, joy, and conviviality into sociological analysis and economic equations. When Filliou entered the art world, in the early 1960s, he sought to insert those very same values into a community he saw as weighed down by self-conscious critical distance, careerism, money, expertise, and, worst of all, talent, which, to Filliou, was merely the ability to use an acquired skill to execute a task. He viewed most protagonists of the avant-garde as no more than talented inventors. What really counts in a work of art, he insisted, is a quality that grows out of intuition and play—génie sans talent, or genius without talent—a quality he felt all human beings possess in abundance.

From this core idea, he developed his own, wholly original philosophy. Filliou believed one could recognize and develop one’s genius (not talent) anywhere and everywhere—a kind of non-site he called the Eternal Network. The perpetual and immaterial potentiality of the Eternal Network was tied to a state he called Permanent Creation: According to this principle, art is life is play, and all are part of everything in the world, all the time. La fête, as Filliou liked to say, est permanente!

In that spirit, his Equivalency Principle, developed in 1968, posited “well-done,” “badly done,” and “not done” artworks as fundamentally equal; he often labeled his own works with any one of these three phrases, and he exhibited them all (“not done” works being indicated, for instance, by empty frames or boxes). In the context of artmaking then and now, this attempt to pull art out from under the weight of calculation and strategy opens up a new place, where “error” can be something other than a mark of inadequacy.

Moreover, unlike Fourier, who didn’t live to see the building of any of the extravagant social spaces he theorized, Filliou managed to successfully create a convivial microcommunity of his own, a short-lived space called La Cédille Qui Sourit (the Smiling Cedilla). Founded in 1965 by Filliou and the late American artist George Brecht in a former radio- and TV-repair shop in the small town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, on the French Mediterranean coast near Nice, the Cédille adopted a nonsensical mission statement: “Handles everything which does or does not have a cedilla in its name.” All its activities did share a common emphasis on humor and play—although, as Filliou noted in a letter to Brecht, “practically everything, depending how one looks at it,” could involve humor and play. In this generous spirit, the Cédille was many things at once: an artist-run storefront space, a center for artistic research, a curiosity shop, a headquarters for Permanent Creation. Filliou and Brecht, along with their respective partners, Marianne Staffeldt and Donna Jo Jones, simply spent time there, thinking, reading, making art, staging events, playing games, drinking wine, and greeting visitors. Since they were connected to a vast network of friends and collaborators—Dick Higgins, Dorothy Iannone, Alison Knowles, Nam June Paik, Dieter Roth, Daniel Spoerri, Emmett Williams, and La Monte Young, to name only a few—they solicited contributions of any artwork, toy, game, idea, or object that could exist as a gift. The idea was simply that the Cédille should be a place for things a traditional gallery would have difficulty selling and that contributors should follow one general guideline: “Whatever you do, do something else.” Filliou and Brecht urged artists to do something else: not to invent, but to disinvent. They asked their friends to submit to anthologies of jokes or misunderstandings. They offered subscriptions to “suspense-poems,” with new snippets mailed out a few times a week. Since the art objects in the Cédille were meant to operate in a gift economy, it was more of a collective public studio than a shop or gallery. The artists sometimes called it a nonboutique or a nonschool—particularly useful negations, perhaps, in the wake of such a highly commercialized and academicized era in the art world.

Anthony Huberman is chief curator of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.