New York

“Statements: Leading Contemporary Artists from France”

Various Venues

The whole exhibition was self-congratulatory and bureaucratic; it was a first-class example of administered culture. There was no way of separating its bureaucratic form from its artistic content, which was not only “distorted” by its management, but determined by it. But then what would “undistorted” art be, since every content is mediated by some social structure, organized by some legitimating institution? The point in this exhibition of French art, however, was that most of the art readily lends itself to its institutionalization as culture, its exhibition in government-appointed, “official” galleries. The art in no way resists becoming habitual, yet claims to be “avant-garde,” revolutionary in its originality—claims to be throwing off old artistic habits and codes of consciousness. Without knowing it, it is thus in bad faith—explicitly reconciled with what it implicitly claims to be independent from.

Bureaucracy, writes Max Weber, is an attempt to rationalize social organization according to impersonal “calculable rules.” For Karl Mannheim (quoting Martin Heidegger), such rationalization amounts to control of the “public interpretation of reality.” It is an attempt by a particular social group to gain power by controlling the public’s sense of significance. With this exhibition of French art in New York, we see an attempt by France to impose its artistic values on the world center of art—or at least to get a hearing for its art, a respectable reception, and thereby to legitimate it. The exhibition was a highly competitive foray into alien territory, to prove, in art-historical terms, that French art was “there” when it counted—if not first, then at least simultaneously. The New York galleries seemed to be willing to accept the political gamble of the enterprise, not because they accepted the dominance of the art, but because they wanted to confirm their own hegemony. It is the mediators who have hegemony, not what they mediate; it is their authority and prestige that are enhanced, not that of the art. One puts together Max Weber’s remark that “the sentiment of prestige is able to strengthen the ardent belief in the actual existence of one’s own might” with Nietzsche’s idea that those who are sure of their power are able to tolerate, even encourage, their enemies, and comes out with the recognition that the New York art galleries “lent” themselves to French art out of their own imperialistic purpose. And of course it was not the galleries that lent themselves to the French government, but the government-sponsored art that was all too happy to accommodate itself to the galleries. For it knows that the real test of its significance is not whether it is museum-quality or government-sponsored, but whether it looks good in the New York galleries (not any old American galleries)—whether it is a success, critical and/or commercial, in New York.

On the galleries’ side there is no real interest in drawing critical attention to the new internationalism, in which a parity of sorts is in the process of being worked out between American, German, Italian—and now French—art, with none dominant and leading the others (as the American once did, more or less totally determining the “class” sector of international art production). Rather, the galleries draw attention only to their own universality as mediating powers. Thus what Ralf Dahrendorf (and, earlier, Georg Simmel) regarded as a key issue in bureaucracy, the “reciprocity of superordination and subordination”—which, with the development of bureaucratic managerial techniques, becomes less personal and more a matter of objective societal organization—becomes radically transformed at the current imperialist stage of gallery development. It is no longer the gallery that is subordinate to the government, and both that are subordinate to the superordinate art, but the art that is subordinate to the government, and both that are subordinate to the superordinate gallery. (It should be noted that Daniel Buren submitted a project for show which he subsequently withdrew because he did not want to participate in the “dirty” system.) This exhibition was a victory (although a Pyrrhic one, because of the retardataire, essentially art-historical nature of the art) for the galleries, not for the French government and especially not for French art.

There was, then, nothing innocent about this exhibition or about the art it purveyed, as there has been, however nervously, about the presentation of recent Italian and German art. There was no risk-taking, either for the art or for the galleries, and no uncertainty, either commercially or critically. The art came here with a catalogue of critical statements “confirming” its significance, after all, and its way had been paid by a government, that ultimate caretaker of overhead. All the tabs had been picked up by friendly interests, even friendly intellectual interests. And not only was the exhibition as much packaging as product—as much bureaucratic style as artistic substance—but the packaging rubbed off on the product, giving it a cosmetic look, the look of “style” on which the French claim to have a monopoly. It is as though the art product knew in advance that it would be culturally packaged and so made itself, from the beginning, fit to be packaged—was produced to fit the predetermined cultural package from the start. It is the package, not the art, that is weighty—weightier than the personal art product (as it is than all the“personalized” products that pervade our society) because it has social weight. Empty style again shows its social superiority to the art it claims to speak for but in fact betrays, by creating the illusion of purposelessness, disinterestedness—so that the art can never discover its own interests.

The bureaucracy catches not only the art itself in its coils, but also the critical approaches to it. The critic is reduced to what Theodor Adorno calls “the esthetic expert.” (Weber observes that “The more complicated and specialized modern culture becomes, the more its external supporting apparatus demands the personally detached and strictly ‘objective’ expert, in lieu of the master of older social structures, who was moved by personal sympathy and favor, by grace and gratitude.”) In the case of myself and French exhibition, this procedure took the following form telephone calls were placed, months in advance, to me and editors of Artforum, from members of a management consultancy firm. I was supplied with press materials and invited to a press conference to be held at the André Emmerich Gallery. I made time to go reluctantly, disliking the implicit brainwashing character of such events and the way they tend to interfere, not with one’s perception of an exhibition, but with the process through which one tries to think freshly about it. The conference was held in am elegant backroom at Emmerich’s, a luxuriously furnished room full of what could only be called “objets d’art”; this was clearly an inner sanctum, where potential buyers are brought as an appeal to their sense of self-importance. Here, a public relations man, after transacting some business on the telephone (I could tell that the three critics who attended didn’t count, were seen as faceless servants, for real-life dollars-and-cents numbers were mentioned—the bottom line of the business which entrepreneurs are usually secretive about), proceeded to instruct us in the “truth” about the “Leading Contemporary Artists from France” who would be in the exhibition. I used to be flattered by invitations to such events; now I regard them as a dubious form of recognition, for I realize how coercive they are—how much they intend to destroy my critical independence such as it is. The people who make them regard me as a cog in a machine for generating cultural consciousness (translation: publicity) that can be used to their advantage. I am to be the instrument of their public relations; they obviously don’t trust their own self-recognition to carry them through.

Clearly the French exhibition was a production of what Adorno calls the culture industry. All three Leo Castelli galleries were involved, the French Minister of Culture Jack Lang came to New York for the opening, a hundred thousand dollars were spent, and the French government was doubling the funds with which it subsidizes culture. The charisma that the exhibition was supposed to generate—art is one of the last sources of “authentic” charisma for my culture-vultures, snobbish about the pseudo charisma, the adolescent hype, generated by popular culture—was to give the young Socialist government in France credit toward its accumulation of culture-capital, even though the show had originated under the decadent old bourgeois government. Socialists too, the show said, can be cultural aristocrats; it was as though the galleries, diffuse in the density of New York, were momentarily the restored rooms of a imaginary Versailles of culture, André Malraux’s museum of the mind taking concrete social shape. The exhibition was all about the new glory of the old France. Art too could flourish under socialism, it said, although all the art shown here had flourished before socialism. But prize flowers use fertilizer that is universal; socialism, of course, is universal in France.

So conscious was I of the bureaucratic mediation of the art that I wondered whether I was self-critical enough to see the art “for what it was”—unfiltered by my own consciousness of its use as ideological filler. The clarity I wanted about it did not necessarily mean that I would see it formalistically—the formalist conception implicitly assumes the autonomy of art, and I have never even flirted with that illusion. (No art that I know is truly “disinterested” in intention of effect. even though much of it claims to evoke a higher consciousness; but such consciousness has its own concerns, is the representative of certainly worldly interests, and presents a strategy of survival in the world.) Nor would I accept the obfuscation which pervaded the catalogue, that generated by accounts of artists’ techniques (from François Rouan’s weaving to Simon Hantaï’s folding of the canvas). This is of interest only to the extent that it can be subsumed in an analysis of the artist’s point—not only the point of particular works, but that of his style in general. Emphasis on technique only incidentally helps one discover the import an art, its cutting edge in relation to other art and to the world-historical. Nor would the kind of tired and stylized ideas for which the French are famous be any real clue to the value of the art, for they try to stabilize its immanent structure rather than deal with its effect. Indeed, the stabilization of the ground of the work turns out to be inseparable from its chauvinistic justification, i.e., its use as an instrument of validation of the status quo, of legitimation for and stabilization of a particular social order.

This is shown in Otto Hahn’s introduction to the the catalogue, which sets the tone for the subsequent tidbits about the individual artists and frames them with a grand context. The grand manner of intellectual “analysis”—the superimposition of a broad array of ideas, dogmatically conceived, on the art, which is all too eager to be imposed upon but ends up a petrified Atlas carrying a dead weight—goes hand in hand with the grand manner of societal self-consciousness. Thus, in the same breath in which he talks about “the structuralist trend of painting in France” involving the “short-lived Support/Surface group,” Hahn dwells at even greater length on the greatness of Paris, “which boasted an extraordinary roster of intellectuals” during the period in which the exhibited art was developing. New York is condescendingly mentioned only as an “art market,” and thus as, “at the present moment, . . . one of the most important art centers of the world,” as though it had no intellectuals; while France, of course, is a “vital center of Western civilization.” This political jargon, an essential part of the bureaucratization process, is inseparable from the bureaucratic use of ideas as seals of approval on (art) objects. It at once objectifies the ideas and “spiritualizes” the art, de-dialecticizing both—destroying an exploratory, imaginative, critical relationship with then. It is bureaucratization, indeed, that fetishizes them.

What got me on the path to clarity was the old fashioned comparative process, conceived dialectically rather than as a static structure of opposition, poles in uncritical relationship. What was unavoidable was a comparison of the French art with the Italian and German art which has recently visited New York. From that comparison came recognition of the attempt at what the psychoanalysts call primary-process—or unconscious—thinking in the latter, and the utter lack of it in the former. Instead, the French art is obsessively conscious of itself as art—strongly imbued with secondary-process thinking. It resolutely refuses unconscious fantasy, refuses to lose its level of self-consciousness. The French do not understand the point of the new international Expressionism: regression in the service of the ego of art, the recovery for it of a fresh sense of interior identity, of being informed by unconscious sources. The French see nothing wrong with art’s current sense of identity and purpose—with its sense of itself as an exterior, entirely conscious enterprise, concerned with the manipulation of materials and visual structures. This French art refuses to allow, in Anton Ehrenzweig’s words, “firm boundaries to melt in a free chaotic mingling of forms,” or to abandon a conventional sense of space and time. Even when it attempts to do these things, as in the work of Rouan, Martial Raysse, Bernar Venet, and Anne and Patrick Poirier (all in quite different ways), it does them self-consciously, in a reasoned way, and as a matter of style—packaging—rather than as a rush to a subjective content, a plunge into existential depths. “Fantasy” is objectified here in such a way that we never seem to have left the conscious level of understanding, but rather only to have manipulated it into a new effect. Thus, in Venet, the sense of the freedom—the gestural character—of the line is an illusion, the whole line being a demonstration of a mathematical formula. In Raysse, the fragments of fantasy come to us as theatrical manipulations, as in an updated Fragonard. In Rouan, the fusion of landscape and figure in a decorative matrix generates a symbolic process which knows in advance its own outcome, to which it is not only predisposed, but committed. And in the work of the Poiriers, which I adore the most in the exhibition, the archaeologized fragments, even before they are excavated, know that they will be found, even the way they will be classified and the museum in which they will be exhibited. All these artists are dreamers who have interpretations that their dreams must be made to fit—interpretations or understandings that come before the experience of the dream, and which predetermine them. In this sense, their art is profoundly illustrative, for it begins with a consciously held idea or a foreordained method. This is why the deliberate techniques that Hantaï and Rouan use to take chance by surprise lead to such unsurprising, predictable, and above all fashionable results. They are a far cry from the casual methods of the first Surrealists.

Also unavoidably, one compared this French art with the new Expressionism in America—to the disadvantage of the French. The comparison may seem unfair because the French art spans decades (the earliest work I could find was Meta-Sculpture, 1955, by Jean Tinguely, and after that some early-’60s works by Yves Klein), but most of it was in fact produced in the last five years, and a large part in the last two years. Here one sees an important fact that shows us just how much the French prefer their art to be a matter of secondary process, a production of “pure” consciousness: the rejection in all the French art of what Clement Greenberg, writing about Jackson Pollock, once described as “muddiness,” i.e., holistic, prearticulate vision. It is this that betrays the essence of style as a received, even a preconceived value. Thus one surmises that part of Julian Schnabel’s appeal is that he manneristically recapitulates the American tradition of muddiness from Pollock to Robert Rauschenberg. Also the sense of speed in his art—another American virtue—gives him credibility, or at least legitimates his enterprise; the illusion of speed is a paradoxical effect of the muddiness, which would be unsuccessful without the assurance that it will never dead-end in the creation of a (secret) gestalt. It is speed that promises this lack of crystallization.

But with the French this crystallization process, with its predestined if disguised gestalts, is always implicit, which means to say that their recent art is almost always directed towards “style.” This is what Greenberg meant in his critique of French Abstract Expressionism—tachisme—as lifeless, as offering a surface that does not breathe, a surface that is insufficiently muddy because it is always under conscious control. While the Americans may sometimes get overcontrolled, as do Robert Ryman and Philip Pearlstein, this itself is a sign of primary-process energy—of the suppression of such energy, which results in an obsessive manner. (Eventually, of course, it limits what one has to say, and makes one repetitive, tongue-tied.) But in the French one sees sign neither of primary-process thinking nor of its repression; one sees only the pseudotranscendence of style.

Here I find myself recalling Adorno’s assertion that “the inferior work [of art] has always relied on its similarity with others—on a surrogate identity.” A generalized sense of style gives most of the work in this exhibition a surrogate identity. Adorno adds: “In the culture industry this imitation finally becomes absolute. Having ceased to be anything but style, it reveals the latter’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy.” Not simply the taming or repression, but the dismissal of primary-process thinking by this French art (a little Tinguely drawing of a phallic rocket is a minor exception), or else its misrepresentation in a stable image (as in the “free figuration” animal imagery of Rémy Blanchard, the mood scenes of Vincent Bioulès, and the solitary, captive animals of Gilles Aillaud), is what makes it predominantly a function of style; all its best intentions are assimilated in its stylistic destiny, its concern to serve a preconceived idea of form, an already crystallized certitude. This is finally what makes most of the art in this show seem self-serving, i.e., in the service of a foreknown sense of artistic identity. It all becomes polish—the ultimate achievement and effect of secondary-process thinking. Polish intends not just to neutralize but to eradicate primary-process thinking—think of the Cartesian polish called the “clear and distinct” and to replace it with a facsimile of itself, namely, ornament. From the point of view of secondary-process thinking the ideal issue of primary-process thinking, if we must have it at all, is ornament, which shows primary-process energy in trivial form and, above all, as self-displacing. But ornament still provides the illusion of primary process, a bad imitation of its restless, self-contradictory power—a trivialization of that power. This is an exhibition of ornaments; more particularly, of what I would call decorative conceptual ornaments.

Obviously in the work of Venet, but also in that of Christian Boltanski and Robert Combas as well as Robert Malaval and Annette Messager, we have examples of decorative conceptualism. An idea of art or an image or a surface is ornamentalized, i.e., presented in terms of a foreordained, predetermined effect. Thus the smugness of Louis Cane’s sexist primitivism and the complacency of Jean Le Gac’s pop mentality, the bland redundancy of Claude Viallat’s color patterning with its manicured idiosyncrasies and discrepancies, the predictable variations in Gérard Titus-Carmel’s treatment of a caparason and of Jean-Pierre Pincemin’s pseudo-iconic rectangles and Bernard Pagès’ materially self-contradictory sculptures. Whether on an imagistic or a material level there is a predictable unpredictability, a regular irregularity, which is a sign of the process of ornament. Even Gérard Garouste’s creatures have a false irrationality, like Olivier Debré’s surfaces—which are hardly worth talking about, so familiar and facile are they finally. And this is what ornament gives us: a sense of familiarity with what is supposedly unfamiliar, the “mysterious” forces of nature or surface or fantasy or figure, all of which point to primary-process thinking. But such ready familiarity betrays what it pretends to disclose, makes finite what is infinite, deadens what is lively, makes easily graspable what is slippery—lets us think that primary-process thinking is facile and so can in some way be mastered, whereas in truth we are always mastered by it. Our only way of dealing with it is to ride it as the boy rode the dolphin in the sea; it is not a horse that can be broken in and taught to dance, as the French seem to think.

Donald Kuspit