“Times, Fashion, Morals, Passion”

A list of the names of 60 artists in alphabetical order can always look convincing on a piece of paper. Yet what works on paper can fall apart in practice, for art is inevitably affected by the framework of an exhibition. The common dulling effect of museological displays acts as an ideological leveler, making the art comfortably familiar and diminishing the possibility of revelation. Such leveling is hard to avoid, for it is the habit of exhibitions to digest artworks, assimilating them into their immediate context and the organizers’ larger intellectual and ideological program. Many of the qualities that we attribute to artworks—small or big, good or bad, rich or poor, regular or irregular—are not inherent in the works themselves but are relative to what surrounds them. Under these conditions, a theatrical piece that strives for a certain academic monumentality—which is sanctioned and even encouraged by a museum for the “naughty” thrill that it provides—will always cast a shadow over works whose true existence is contingent on a context that an exhibition usually cannot give it. For instance, an artwork by Mario Merz will look impassive compared to the shock tactics of Robert Longo.

L’époque, la mode, la morale, la passion: Aspects de l’art d’aujourd’hui, 1977–1987” (Times, fashion, morals, passion: aspects of the art of today, 1977–1987)—the grand survey exhibition mounted by the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, this past summer—contained an installation by Merz, Senza titolo (Untitled, 1984). In the context of this eclectic show, Merz’s piece looked like the residue of a work that has lost all freedom to be what it really is, becoming instead a flattened illustration of its potential existence elsewhere. And if the show reduced the work to an illustration, the work reduced the museum to a waiting room or storage area. In contrast, the Latin phrase that Merz set in neon and that Thomas Schütte then incorporated into his Eis Tempel (Ice cream temple, 1987) at Documenta 8 is a work that has found a way to live in that space. (Significantly, however, Merz’s piece is not officially included in Documenta, for Merz was asked to contribute not by the institution but by Schütte, another artist.)

It is rare, of course, for an institution to commit itself to an artwork that it cannot contain or digest. Instead, it sets up a Salon-like situation in which works of art are cast as easily accessible, clearly discernible signposts to artistic movements and ideological trends. But isn’t the return of our institutions to a Salon structure a problematic version of what art fairs have been doing for the last 20 years? On one hand, this phenomenon on a museum level creates a more immediate relationship between such institutions and contemporary artistic production, thus fostering greater public recognition of major contemporary artists (as seems to be the purpose of the Paris show). On the other hand, it also leads to greater conformism, as art becomes reduced to “variety.” Increasingly, the institutions choose to show only art that falls within the limits of their agendas, in turn encouraging artists to adhere to self-imposed limits so that their work will be chosen for exhibition by the institutions, in a vicious cycle that reinforces their symbiotic relationship. This equation has an inevitably homogenizing effect. We saw it in Documenta 8, for example, where aside from a few major achievements, the art is reduced to the status of a cultural service, the function of which is to bring the quickest possible integration of esthetic values into the social mainstream. The result is essentially that artworks are treated as design objects, and indeed Documenta treats art and design basically the same way. And the public, for the most part, plays the role expected of it, just as it did in Baudelaire’s time. Baudelaire, from whose essay “Le Peintre de la vie moderne” (The painter of modern life, 1863) the curators of the Beaubourg show took their title, made the following remark in a series of articles on the Salon:

Our public . . . wants to be astonished by means alien to art, and the obeying artists conform themselves to its taste; they endeavor to astonish, to surprise, to stupefy it through unworthy tricks since they know the public to be incapable of being carried away by the natural tactics of true art.1

In “L’époque, la mode, la morale, Ia passion,” the Musée national d’art moderne—celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Centre Georges Pompidou, where it is located—had the advantage over Documenta of attempting a type of exhibition that it had not undertaken before. Such a comprehensive survey of contemporary painting, sculpture, and installations had never been seen in this institution, or anywhere else in France during the past decade. (The exhibition also included an extensive survey of film and video from this period, but these are not covered in this review.) Already, then, it was unlike the Salon in its sense of institutional departure. And although its format precluded a self-critical attitude, the exhibition nevertheless illustrated the problems of a heavily bureaucratic institutional structure, which can only occasionally and on an individual level hope to connect with the current art situation in more than a superficial way. The curators tried to allow for the exceptional, the artwork that has difficulty fitting into the institutional system, through their individual commitment to particular selections, which seemed almost arbitrary but declaratively argued. But in an exhibition that tries to show “exceptional” works, it is never clear what “exceptional” means, for such an exhibition tends to include both theatrical works and difficult works and to put them on the same level. Here, the curators’ choices seemed to represent a hypothetical “alternative Musée national d’art moderne”—i.e., what they would have liked to have bought for the museum’s permanent collection over the last ten years. In this sense, the show not only documented what has happened in art during the past decade but also proposed a model for how a museum collection should relate to contemporary art. It’s true that a real commitment to “difficult” work, work that is an “exception” as a part of its nature rather than simply through its disjunction with the times, was not present here; that the appropriation of Baudelaire for the show’s title turned the acute and adventurous 19th-century critic into the head of a 20th-century Salon; and that a secondary motive of the museum seemed to be the need for a public assertion of its own professionalism. Still, the show was a promising starting point for a younger generation of curators.

With this show, ten years after its inaugural “Paris/New York” exhibition, the Centre Pompidou seemed to declare an end to the idea of a world art capital, whether Paris or New York, in favor of an internationalist perspective. But, in fact, Parisian “internationalism” here turned out to consist of nearly one third French artists—a move to advance Paris’ role that recalled the kind of chauvinism practiced for so long in America. The exhibition did, however, give Paris the chance to see the work of a number of artists seldom shown here, including Philip Guston, Neil Jenney, Malcolm Morley, Joseph Beuys, and Sigmar Polke; and, overall, the quality of the work was high. In some ways this show resembled Documenta 7, from five years ago, but one was given good reason to hope that ten years from now, to celebrate its next decennium, the Pompidou won’t simply do a version of Documenta 8.

Denys Zacharopoulos

Translated from the French by François Boué.



1. Charles Baudelaire, “Salon de 1859,” quoted in John Rewald, The History of Impressionism, 4th edition (revised). New York The Museum of Modem Art, 1973, p. 33.