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Conversation with Paul Ardenne

Art historian

by Caroline Gaudriault

«There is no art plot, but there is a neurosis!»

Interview de Paul Ardenne pour par zigzag-blog

Caroline Gaudriault - In the 1990s, Baudrillard and many other critics claimed that there was an “art plot”. You remember, there was much talk of the insignificance of art, about cynicism and irony. Twenty years later, does the “art plot” still exist ?

Paul Ardenne - Is there an art plot, in particular a contemporary art plot, of the sort described by critics in 1994-1997, with contemporary art a factor in the decline of values? Of course not! 
 What’s interesting is that the notion of the art plot points to a kind of inevitability, namely the existence of plotters – or, rather, of conspirators. There is no plot, but there is an increasing presence of the plastic arts in all their forms. Why? Because the artistic institution – museums, art centres, art critics, journals – is growing ever larger. It has an increasing number of venues and media outlets, which means that people talk about art more. And a lot of people, lacking knowledge about the art of their era – which is not surprising in that it is a complex kind of art – are discovering things that have existed for a long time but that have now been made accessible to a wider public. 
 Contemporary art, emerging in the most radical forms with the modernity of Marcel Duchamp and his ready-mades, with abstract art that, although recognised as valid, was nevertheless anti-figurative and gave the impression that it was easy to do, and with sculptural photography and video that used machines to represent the real. All this was part of a movement that lasted up until the 1940s. Then the Pop Art movement transfigured the banal. In other words, it accorded importance to things that weren’t previously considered of any value. Many people were perturbed by the art movements that emerged in the 1960s, for example, Neo-Dadism and Fluxus, and that was thirty years before people began to talk about the art plot based on the idea that art is life. That was the position taken by Fluxus (1961), which mirrored that taken by the Dadaists (1915) in Zurich. 
 This period of the 1990s, with the idea of the art plot, was a sad time for me, because you could see people who had a very conservative attitude to art, like Jean Clair and Jean Baudrillard, taking the same line, characterised by a kind of resentment. It was really disappointing because when you consider what Baudrillard meant for people of my generation, it’s hard to believe. You say to yourself, “Oh no, not him, he can’t have fallen into this trap!” Baudrillard was the author of The System of Objects (1967), he’s someone who shed light on new ways of living, on a new relationship with the real, with what he called the “hyperreality of the contemporary world”. He was what was called, slightly ridiculously at the time, a “Knower”. And it was shattering that Baudrillard the “Knower” took this very pessimistic, very depressive attitude, characterised by everything that’s worst in the relationship we can have with life, or, in other words, disillusionment, like late period Baudelaire. It was hard to hear him say, effectively, that, “the world is going to end, look, look at what today’s artists are doing: they’re disenchanting the world and, what’s more, they’re taking a great joy in it.” You hear that, without taking into account that, in the end, in any case since the advent of Modernity, since the 19th century, people have been living in a critical, democratic society, characterised by debate, with people taking positions that give rise to counter-positions, with the sentiment that certain values that, up until now, have seemed to be very well established, can be undermined. 
 There is something neurotic in the idea of the art plot. And that’s why I’m one of those people who have asked the plotters to justify themselves: why do you think that there’s an art plot? What’s the secret reason for this resentment? Why don’t you accept artistic creation for what it is, in other words something very varied, in which there are great things, average things and mediocre things? For me, that was the real question. There was never an art plot, but there was a kind of neurosis, and the press was quick to get hold of it. It was the beginning of what would become a fairly pathetic media game, which was highly revealing of the incompetence of most of the journalists who wrote about art, especially in France. Rather than spreading information, they spread disinformation. Why did they present the theory of the art plot as dogma, an attempt to destroy all respectable values by saying that “we live in a society that has lost its bearings, that has no sense of direction”? Why didn’t they bother to find out that the idea was misleading, that it was a caricature?

Caroline Gaudriault - Isn’t it the artists rather than the institution who wanted to exclude people by creating a kind of elitism from which most of the public felt excluded?

Paul Ardenne - I’m giving long answers because I’m a dedicated fan of complexity. I’m opposed to complete simplification. In terms of the artistic institution – museums, art centres, galleries, the art market, art critics, public orders, collections – what you say has some validity. A contemporary art system began to develop in the 1980s, generating institutional venues, a specific market working with this same political institution, a network of critics and writers. It was the development of the “3Ms” (market, museum, milieu). Average artist weren’t able to rely on what they did to be noticed; instead, they were recognised in a pro rata fashion for the links that they were able to forge with the market (money), the milieu (art critics), and museums (official institutions). Now, the first thing to say is that, as in politics, there’s a legal sphere and a real sphere. What I mean is that people have a way of thinking about politics, and then, separate from that, a way of voting. And it’s the same for contemporary art. On the one hand, you have the artists, who represent the real sphere. On the other, you have the legal sphere, people who benefit from exhibitions via complex circuits: Category A artists (whose work is displayed in the Pompidou Centre, leading museums, and so on), then Category B artists (official art centres), and then Category Z artists, including people whose work will never be displayed and who will never be a part of the circuit. At any event, whatever you do, you will only be able to display the work of a limited number of artists. Even if you apply a distributive policy, you won’t be able to keep everyone happy. So, we have the impression that a selection has been made, and that there’s a high degree of inequality. 
 So what you say is true, but only to the degree that art is evaluated within the framework of the institution context in which it is displayed. In effect, if you look at the artists whose work is always being exhibited, you’re right. There are networks, links between certain critics. But if you look at art as a whole, and if you analyse its production, the idea clearly does not stand up. Although, of course, France is the most caricatured country in the world, a phenomenon linked to its penchant for centralisation. France is the country of official artists and, generally speaking, there’s one per discipline. In sculpture, it’s Daniel Buren. In music, it’s Pascal Dusapin. In architecture, it’s Jean Nouvel. And, in literature, the most recent was Michel Houellebecq.

Caroline Gaudriault - Do you think that this is an example of the “French exception”?

Paul Ardenne -Yes, absolutely. It can even be seen as an exception linked to the importance of institutions and the way in which they are positioned hierarchically. A certain number of established people must like the form art is taking. It is difficult to shift the pillars of meditation. You need a generation to do it. Artists are recognised for 10-15 years, during which time everyone loves them. It’s the solidarity of the actors in the milieu. It’s true that when a generation retires, the field is often emancipated in a number of different ways. It takes time. The time of the “cursus honorum”: you have to wait for the greats to be served, before the lesser lights are served in their turn.
 Besides, it’s the same thing with globalisation, except with a greater number of possibilities.
 French art has practically no influence and French artists are often only recognised only after their death. But history ends up consigning fashionable, society artists to oblivion and finding a place for artists who attempt to do new things, who work in an original way, who enrich the vocabulary of forms and the symbolic field. So, things even out. But it’s regrettable that this doesn’t happen earlier, when the artists in question were still alive. It’s regrettable that when someone becomes one of the elect, he remains one of the elect for such a long time. In literature, for example, I don’t think that Modiano had thirty novels in him, but he did write La Place de l’Etoile. 
 So, I would say that creation is intense, creation is at its apogee today; there have never been as many fascinating things going on, but the institutional field is not opening up enough. It doesn’t highlight the things that deserve to be highlighted often enough, while it tends to highlight things that no longer deserve to be put in the spotlight.

Caroline Gaudriault - This poses the problem of the kind of traces and heritage that we are going to leave. Artists at least as important as those currently established or maybe even better than that are going to disappear.

Paul Ardenne - That’s a difficult question. It’s involves the relationship with time. This relationship is, firstly, ours, individually; but it’s also a relationship that institutions are obliged to be involved in. The institution is what lasts; the individual is what doesn’t last. Of necessity, institutions have a problem with managing the time of the present because their job is to choose what escapes time, what outlasts individuals. This is a real problem. It’s true that we, in the West, have created “the best of all possible worlds”, or the least bad, at any rate. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have any problems, but Western societies are free, with equitable political representation and the possibility to negotiate. But it’s true that democracy poses a problem for art, because democracy has opened up the field of representation and the potentials of our relationship with the world to an enormous degree: it’s now possible to organise our own lives. But art is based on an incompleteness of the world. It’s what the artist drags out of him- or herself in order to effect a readjustment. Artists don’t find what they want in this world. The more perfect societies are the fewer things there are to say. You can see in film and literature that the best things no longer come from Europe or America. They come from countries and regions where tensions are running high – the Middle East, Asia … Look at the average French novel; it’s all navel-gazing stuff. But, fortunately, there are also artists working on issues like immigration and war … The nearer a society gets to perfection, the less interesting its art is. It becomes decorative, playful, something designed to entertain. 
 There is a saying according to which, “happy people don’t have any history.” Because when completeness has been attained, there is no more rivalry with the world. And when there is no longer any rivalry with the world, there are no more stories left to tell. People lead tranquil existences. The exhaustion of Western art is linked to the fact that we live in societies that, after long combats and deep questioning – and we owe a debt of gratitude to those who fought before us – politicians, artists, scientists, explorers – have given us the possibility of creating a world in which our degree of completeness is ever greater. If we could create a perfect society of the kind the Communists dreamed of there would no longer be any used for art. 
 Art is a process of correction. We correct the world symbolically with our artistic creations when the world seems unacceptable to us. From the moment we start to live in a world of generalised acceptability, it’s clear that works of art can only be works of generalised acceptability.

Caroline Gaudriault - You’ve put your finger on something important. You posit a link between art and a certain psychological violence, a creative need. At the same time, you defend the idea that everything can be art. There’s a contradiction here.

Paul Ardenne - I don’t think so, because once again, you’re observation is based on other people’s judgments. But you have the right to do so. You’re not talking as a creator, but as a spectator, or even a consumer of culture. It’s clear that we are now living in the age of the culture industry. An industry governed by logics that have nothing to do with artistic creation itself; logics of exhibition, of a minimum enrichment of the spectator. If we assume the artist’s point of view, I’m not the one who claims that art can be all things to all men. I’m saying nothing. It’s art centres, museums and artists themselves which decree what art is. It was Marcel Duchamp who decreed a hundred years ago that his bottle rack was a work of art. In order to make such a declaration, you have to appeal to the historicity of art: “it’s a creation that looks like a sculpture, because it has an attractive shape …” And it isn’t just because an artist says so that everyone will agree with him. It was only 50 or 60 years later, that the idea that ready-mades were works of art was finally accepted. In other words, two or three generations later. Even if it isn’t really accepted even today. Why? Because, deep down, our idea of art is linked to the notion of expertise, to a practice of excellence in the name of what was, precisely, the original definition of the artist. The word “art/ars” derives from the word for “work”: “artes/corporations”. And the word “artista”, which emerged in Italy in the 15th century, means “man with a difficult trade”. It encompasses the idea of a high level of skill. Artisans are capable of a very high standard of work, but the artist adds to this skill an intellectual approach that generates a particular, rather than a general relationship with the world. That’s why the artist is considered superior to the artisan; indeed, he’s the uber-artisan. Beginning in the 20th century, many artists eschewed the need for a superlative level of expertise, superior to the norm. What they’re interested in is creation, it’s not making a fantastic object or painting the Sistine Chapel; what they’re interested in is being able to feel their presence in the world. Something that isn’t just a piece of work for another person, but that’s exclusively for themselves, in other words, creation.
 Many people should envisage art not as a work given as a gift to elicit the gratitude of those who gaze upon it, but as an original creation.

Caroline Gaudriault - The artist is, effectively, free of complexes. You find works by street artists stuck to the wall with pins, and others, like Daniel Buren and Yayoi Kusama, who create vast stage sets for major corporations or provide the backdrop for fashion shows…

Wonderful World, The Conspiracy of Art Wonderful World, The Conspiracy of Art   © Gérard Rancinan

Paul Ardenne - But where’s the problem? Why wouldn’t we have the right to? We always want artists to be poor, in their garret, living a Bohemian lifestyle. It’s Emile Zola, a caricature of Naturalism. When authors were writing those books in the 19th century, we forget that Cézanne was the son of a banker and never worked a day in his life, that people like Degas were from very wealthy families, that someone like André Gide never had to earn a crust. 
 Why wouldn’t an artist, who is successful and appreciated by a large number of people, want to make money? Why wouldn’t he decorate shop windows? In the name of what higher purpose should he always strike an adversarial pose, thus relegating himself to a marginal position in society? 
 Look at the number of artists who live in incredible opulence, people like Anselm Kiefer, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Murakami and others.
There’s an a priori about people producing street art and working in a regular structure. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that street artists will use spray cans in the street, but as soon as they are identified, they will be asked to design tee-shirts, decorate skate boards, motorbikes, and sometimes even interiors, and they will make sure that they are paid to do so. Keith Haring even opened a store. But I would grant you that what’s more worrying from a moral viewpoint is that when you walk down Park Avenue you might see a work by Banksy displayed in a gallery and say to yourself, “that’s odd, it wasn’t painted on a wall but on a piece of wood.” And it’s hard to believe that the artist hadn’t thought beforehand that the piece of wood could be hung in a gallery. This explains why so much street art is done on doors, shutters and anything removable … But, you know, should we give up on capitalism, on money?

Caroline Gaudriault - And, in fact, certain works command astronomical sums...

Paul Ardenne - But that money is used to set up foundations. It has also been used to set up schools and hospitals. Wealth is redistributed. And, lastly, the money that crystallises around the art market also ends up elsewhere. Everything is contained in everything else. What’s interesting is the extraordinary prices attained by works of art. It’s something that has fascinated researchers. What the great sociologist, Raymonde Moulin, explained very clearly is the problem of the value of symbolic goods. How is a value transformed when the object is detached from its use value and becomes an object with a symbolic value? The question of desire is posed: what are we willing to give in order to possess such a work? In the logic of competition, this is what Bourdieu has shown, namely that the object must distinguish its owner. To obtain distinction, you have to pay a great deal of money. Works of art are factors of tactical positioning in a strategy aimed at gaining power.

Caroline Gaudriault - Has everything been done in art? What are the perspectives in view?

Paul Ardenne - Oh, absolutely not; it’s not true that everything has been done! The idea of the death of art was clearly ridiculous. As long as there are human beings, there will be artistic creation because Man cannot life by material things alone. We know this now. There was the tragic experience tragic before it became fascinating – of the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1991. It was the idea that a society could present rationality as its raison d’être. People wanted to impose the idea of living in a world of integral materialism – birth, food, sex … – while ignoring the metaphysical dimension, which is an aspect of existence that Man cannot avoid. I don’t think that you’ll be able to find a rabbit with metaphysical awareness. It’s impossible to live in an entirely materialistic society, which means that art will never end.
Of course, everything will be renewed; some art will repeat things that have already been done, but there will always be some forms that have not yet been developed. More than ever today, art is based on combinations. We have invented more and more ways of making art and, therefore, of creating worlds. We are witnessing the development of an art in expansion, one that’s branching out in all directions. It’s an art of inclusion, it means that you can create on the basis of one thing, and move on to another … We’re living in the age of multiplication, of the infinite, of possibility. You have to look at current art, not in terms of what it might become, but as potential. Will we see new forms, or will old forms be repeated? The logic of expansion, combination, multiplication means that there will always be more works of art and that, in a certain sense, they will always be new.

Paris, 20013

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