This text was written especially for enlightened lovers of modern art. In reading it, specialists may feel only a slight irritation; however, it runs the risk of causing deadly boredom in nonspecialists.
I must now make my own position clear. It is one that is particularly subjective. For about the past twenty years, I have obstinately produced systematic works with the constant directive of reducing to the minimum my own arbitrary decisions. In order to set a limit on my sensitivity as an “Artist,” I have eliminated composition. I have also removed all interest attaching to the execution of the work, and I have rigorously applied simple and obvious systems, activated through chance or the participation of the viewer, that could develop productively.
These “works of art” were a reaction to the brazen unfurling of the messages of Expressionism and of Lyrical Abstraction twenty years ago. They met with no success when they were shown in the various specialized locations. They gave rise to no critical comments.
More recently, they have started to receive increasingly copious and favorable reviews, in spite of the fact that they cannot be classified in the new fashionable currents that, more than ever, cultivate the myth of the “Artist” (after gestures, it is now the artist’s attitude, body, and concepts that must be admired and analyzed). The art experts now find in my works rigor, joy, nihilism, anxiety, virtuosity, asceticism, etc. My work makes them think of planetary constellations, rain falling on puddles, Proust’s madeleine, etc.
I am, naturally, delighted with this success, and I hope that this is only a beginning. Yet, I have to say that I am quite astonished at all the meanings that critics see in pieces that were, in fact, specifically designed to have no meaning at all. I would, all the same, like to understand a little better what has just happened to me. Very naively, then, I have tried to find out a bit more about Modern Art and the Modern Art Lover.
In our Western countries, for a century, the visual arts have progressively disengaged themselves from their utilitarian qualities of representation and documentation. They were helped in this, of course, by the invention of photography. In parallel, there appeared the notion of Art for Art’s Sake. Finally the true Art was born, the pure Art that had no utility. Everything would have been much simpler if, having no utility, Art were also to have had no meaning (as certain non-lovers of modern art still believe was the case).
Before going any further with this, I want to conjure away the idea of a universal art that would be equally accessible to Indigenous Amazonians and to New York collectors. I know that many artists have this dream of connecting directly with a viewing public devoid of culture. I myself used to have this dream. But let us try to see it objectively. Where is there a modern artist who has been successful directly with an unschooled viewing public, without having to go through specialists, promoters, and interpreters? Every form of art that is truly new, when given the good fortune to be shown to such an ideal, virgin public, has incited only hostility or indifference. The “going out into the street” that we did with the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel only caused excitement (apart from our own) in two critics and a single museum director, all of whom had been specially invited.
The reality is thus quite different. Art for Art’s Sake did not eliminate comments and analysis; the opposite is true. For fifty years now, a growing number of art critics (first) and historians (today) are finding a meaning, or rather meanings, in modern art and artworks. Specialized journals and reviews are to be found everywhere in all of the Western countries. In these publications, a considerable amount of space is given over to the written text (consider, for example, the recent amount philosophico-poetic delirium occasioned by the esoteric symbols of the Conceptualists and their affiliates). This situation is understandable, you might say, since artists are not necessarily gifted when it comes to commenting and explaining their own work. Indeed, some will argue, if artists were able to formulate the exact meaning of their works, then what would be the point of these works? Artists, rather like deaf-mutes, some will say, express themselves in a parallel language. As far as it goes, all of this has a certain logic to it.
But not all artists are mute, and some of them have left us with interpretations and justifications of their work that are rarely in line with what other critics and commentators have had to say. Indeed, the meaning of a single work often changes radically from one interpreter to another, and from one historical period to another.
Should we see Ingres as the illustrator of the realist and puritanical nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, or is he the founder of the anatomical distortions of Expressionism? Was Georges de La Tour a second Caravaggio, as he himself believed, or was he another Vermeer, as is the current opinion today? Were the Impressionists scientific realists, as they saw themselves, or were they the precursors of Abstract Expressionism? Who is right? Let us try, first of all, to see if it is the artist or the interpreters.
To begin with, a question: what is a Work of Art? Obviously, for a given viewer, it is what that viewer considers to be art. The creator of a work can proclaim that a work is art, or even a Masterpiece, but it is only the public who, by accepting it or not as such, can decide whether or not it is art. Quite clearly, any sort of product—a mushroom, for example—can only be properly called good to eat by the person who has eaten it, or by someone who has confidence in another who has eaten it. Everyone has their own list of masterpieces and geniuses, and this list is quite limited in spite of the fact that millions of artists have convinced themselves that they were geniuses and that they have produced masterpieces. If the viewer is the only one fit to distinguish art from nonart, masterworks from bad paintings, then the viewer must be entitled to find the true meaning of these works.
The interpreter will find the meaning of these works without taking into account what the artist might have said or written, and often going against the interpretations of other critics. Since Freud, it has been accepted that analyses done from the outside are better able to uncover the artist’s true self than are the artist’s own conscious elucidations. This leads to the enlightened art lover digging around in the artist’s unconscious in order to unearth a “message” that is all his own (the art lover’s).
Here, then, from among thousands, is a typical comment about Yves Klein that appeared in Opus [international]:
“We must, however, set aside, beyond the Romantic naïvetés that he piled up for himself, the more or less intentional falsifications that the fundamental meaning of his work has undergone since his premature death…” So Yves Klein was not who he thought he was, nor is he what others think he is now; he is what the author of this article thinks him to be. And it is the critic who is right.
Visual arts must allow the viewer to find what the viewer wants, i.e., what the viewer brings to the artwork. Works of art are picnic areas, or housekeeping cottages, where people consume what they themselves bring along. Pure Art, Art for Art’s Sake, is designed to mean nothing (or to mean everything). When, during their own lifetime, artists have seemed to be in agreement with some of their interpreters, this is because, for the most part, they have accepted with much delight the meaning given to their work. Furthermore, they have gone on to try to actually inhabit the image created by the interpreters.
It took a lot of effort on the part of enlightened critics to convince César that his first “Compression” sculpture was not a joke, as he himself believed, but a masterpiece that was more serious than his real sculptures. In any event, even when it exists, this kind of agreement cannot last; fifty years later, the meaning of artworks is completely altered or in dispute.
You could argue that I am only speaking here about a form of modern art, and that there are many other forms of art, such as political art, that are endowed with a precise meaning. Political painting is certainly still very much alive and well. It appears to have a content that is consciously conceived and transmissible. In contemplating it, the viewer must be moved to revolt, to join a political party, to admire or disparage a person or a situation, etc. I shall not go into the quality (I do not know what it is) of Socialist Realism, which was the biggest problem for left-wing artists of my generation. I am interested only in trying to assess the effectiveness of this art, admitting, as it does, of no other justification than its power as propaganda.
I was able to witness the works, and the impact they had on the public of their time, of two great masters of political art, Arno Breker and [André] Fougeron. The former served the cause of Nazism during the war and the latter the cause of Communism after it. Unfortunately, I have not had the means at my disposal to find a single activist who might have been convinced and persuaded to join a political party by the contemplation of either of these artists’ works. I think that none exist! It seems equally doubtful that the work of [Bernard] Rancillac or the Supports/Surfaces group can provide a basis for the thoughts of Mao Zedong.
Political parties have no use for works of art that can be interpreted in a thousand different ways and that are liable to turn against them. Even if some obedient artists work in ways that are close to photography, the propagandists are right to prefer films and photographs, because, in virtue of their documentary truth (falsified or not), they are much more likely to incite revolt in the chosen public. This is on the condition, of course, that the photographers and filmmakers are not artists themselves, because, in this case, they would create artworks that will be subject to contradictory interpretations (e.g., the films of Buñuel, Pasolini, Godard, etc.).
In fact, an entire issue of the journal Robho (numbers 5–6, 1971) was devoted to an analysis of revolutionary political art. Its point, I would say, after giving it a close reading, is that the only truly revolutionary art today is political reportage, such as that on the strike in Argentina (Tucumán in Flames) or on the housing conditions experienced by a segment of the New York population (Hans Haacke).
The revolution does not need artists, as we can read on the work of a South American artist showing his work in Paris and living in the city. The point made in Robho is defensible. But if this is so, then why are the politically motivated art critics not the first to show us by example? It would be much easier for them to convert to political journalism. Goebbels and Zhdanov already had some thoughts along those lines, but perhaps they did not go as far.
Still, if I think that all modern art is art for art lovers, i.e., catchall art, art where the viewer finds in all that the viewer wants (and not, as Ben [Vautier] has it, where the artist packs everything in), it is not the case that I think that this catchall art never existed before now.
Religious art, for example, equally allowed the believer to see in the work everything that the viewer brought to it. Even today, in certain pious regions, this still goes on because some people will go as far as to see the (impassive) face of a sculpture smile or cry.
So modern art, on the one hand, liberates itself from its documentary and political function thanks to photography and, on the other, thanks to the weakening of religion, frees itself from its role as medium of the sacred. But then, what is the function of this catchall art? It must be nothing, or almost nothing.
Malevich, Duchamp, Mondrian, Yves Klein, or, today, Beuys, Carl Andre, Kosuth, John De Andrea, etc., are, among others, examples of this catchall art. They have created works that have, slowly but surely, won over the critics, and these works have given rise, and continue to give rise, to a weighty mass of commentary. These artists have earned their success because they have managed to provide enlightened art lovers with this almost-nothing that asks to be filled up.
This, for me, is where the entire issue of modern art is to be found: in those causes that make certain individuals pour out, as art lovers, all their poetic and philosophical genius, into Malevich’s black square, and in the causes that make others do the same for Klein’s blue rectangle, or for Kosuth’s dictionary page (although Kosuth does not welcome it).
Let us try to analyze the process by which a work of art achieves success.
The first condition, of course, is that an art lover must see and take note of the work. The unusual aspect of the offered object first draws the attention. But this apparent originality must necessarily be seen in an artistic context.
There has to be a certain protocol, a traditional sign that shows that this object belongs to the category “art.” This can be the place (gallery, museum), the material (canvas, stone, photography), the presentation (wall, pedestal, brochure), the designation (painting, sculpture, art, anti-art). If we stay with the example of the black square or the blue rectangle, we can see all of the conditions of the classic protocol:
these works were painted on canvas with artist’s paints; they were exhibited on a wall in a gallery; the author of the work made it clear that he considered his work to be art. The element of the unusual was obviously there because a black square and a blue rectangle had never before been offered up for artistic consumption.
If the viewer of that time happened to refuse to unpack his philosophical-poetic world, then this was because something was missing, and this thing that was missing was “seriousness.” You do not have a picnic just anywhere. An artistic masterpiece (including Duchamp’s urinal and Manzoni’s shit) must have the guarantee of “seriousness.”
Seriousness can be brought about by various causes, such as:
The profession of faith of serious, well-known people.
There is no doubt that many people found the opinions of Louis XIV or Malraux convincing.
The death of the artist. This is not sufficient, but it helps.
A very considerable repetitive production. The art lover is always more easily convinced by the sincerity of an artist’s “message” if the artist, over a number of years, repeats the same piece of quasi-nothingness. It is a plus, even, if this repetition happens without there being any artistic success:
this proves that the artist was moved by an inner necessity that the art lover believes he can recognize in the projections of his own genius as an art lover.
Very great age. Ultimately, this by itself might inspire
If this theory is correct—and it is correct, no matter what you may think! —then any piece of quasi-nothingness that has never before been exhibited, if it is shown in an artistic context and with the right protocol, will eventually become, by necessity, a catchall for art lovers, i.e., a masterpiece. I can attest that all new works of quasi-nothingness produced over the past hundred years have been judged to be masterpieces within at least twenty years of their first showing.
You will object: You are fudging the issue when you say “new work”; it is precisely in the newness of the work that the artist’s genius is to be found. It is precisely this newness that the art lover uncovers and understands.
So, what is this “newness” that distinguishes the masterpiece from bad painting?
It is newness only in terms of art. It is a form (a square or a spot), an object (a bottle rack or a dictionary page), an attitude (repaint the gallery or exhibit oneself), a gesture (cutting a canvas or a mountain), etc., and these things are taken from fields other than art (or even now in fields that are neighboring artistic fields, such as theater for body art or poetry for conceptual art) and then one adds the protocol.
It is, naturally, essential that the transplanted object lose its original meaning so that the viewer can give it a new meaning that is, of course, the viewer’s own. The claim, therefore, on the part of modern artists either to transmit messages or to take on the mantle of paternity for the delirious outpourings occasioned by their work is unjustified and irritating. What is more, it muddies the waters because it prevents us from really understanding and studying the behavior and motivations of the viewers.
Most studies on art (even scientific ones) analyze first, and almost exclusively, the creators (in an act of supreme refinement, some studies are nothing but an analysis of the creative act).
This is how I learned history in high school: from king’s portrait to emperor’s portrait, with the revolutionaries’ portraits in between.
All of this mystification is set up with the complicity of “great men” in order to make small men believe that if Pasteur, Karl Marx, de Gaulle, Cézanne had all died in the cradle, then no one would have been saved from rabies, capitalism, Nazism, or Impressionism. Of course, the cult of personality is a natural thing. It was a natural thing that people worshipped Jesus Christ, Hitler, or Elvis Presley. It is they themselves, the worshipped, who commit the crime of making themselves worshipped or of allowing themselves to be worshipped.
Mystification appears when a politician, a scientist, an artist, etc., allows people to believe that what he is or what he does is of a nature that is different from what the “vulgar” public is or does. For me, this is the greatest crime against intelligence and progress; it is always a step backward in the direction of the past (toward the worst of the past). I think that those artists who, voluntarily or otherwise, cultivate the arbitrary, who lead us to believe in secret justifications, and who play the role of hidden despots, all the while seeing themselves as artistic revolutionaries, are dangerous reactionaries.
Since Duchamp, all artists have been equally adept at destroying art (the art of their predecessors) as they have been at constructing their own character as that of a genius.
Yes, oil painting, bronzes, Plexiglas, the object, the gesture; these are all finished, demystified, outmoded. What remains is the artist as clown-priest, forever more adept at finding new places for the picnic of a small circle of specialists in the midst of general indifference. If what you have in your picnic basket is in fashion, then please come along and unpack what you have in the vacant lot of concepts and attitudes. You have nothing to fear, as long as you remain the humble vassals of great geniuses. The picnic places will change, but they will never be lacking.
All of this could be quite different:
— if artists were to change in order to become (as Filliou tried in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam) the awakeners, the facilitators, of the general public, this public that does not yet know that it is an artist;
— or if the viewers were to change in order to see that, as in the tale by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it is they themselves, the public, who, using their own genius of imagination, dress emperors and artists.
It would be a fine party. But what an awful pain if it were to happen just when the picnickers are beginning to see me as a genius.
Translated by Nicholas Huckle. © Dia Art Foundation. English translation originally published in Béatrice Gross with Stephen Hoban, eds., François Morellet (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2019), p. 197-202. Originally published as “Du spectateur au spectateur ou l’art de déballer son pique-nique,” in Morellet (Cholet, France, 1972), pp. 1–12.