Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ceci n’est pas une peinture

Le plagiat est nécessaire. Le progrès l’implique.
—Guy Debord (although Lautréamont said it first)
In an overpriced hotel in the 5th arrondissement, the concierge asks where we’re off to. The Museum of Modern Art, we tell him. “Oh, the Pompidou, you mean,” he says. No, the other one, we insist. He looks baffled.

It feels appropriate that an exhibition challenging our very definitions of art should take place in an art gallery the existence of which is a mystery even to well informed Parisians. Seconde Main (Second Hand) is an exhibition of lookalikes, pastiches and other responses in kind by artists to other artists. Rather than hive it off into a dedicated section of the gallery, the curators have integrated the exhibition into the main collection, putting the second-hand roses alongside the real thing, and making us question the identity and nature of both. In what feels like a loss of nerve, the lookalikes are identified with pink stickers – wouldn’t it have been braver to let us guess? – but the effect is still disconcerting and thought-provoking.



Part of this is due to the nature of the museum’s main collection. Although it contains plenty of big names (Matisse, Chagall, Dufy, Dubuffet, et al) few of the works themselves are instantly recognisable, the sort that you’d find on tea-towels or fridge magnets: this, presumably, is why concierges don’t know about the place. So you see something that looks primitive and jungly, and you just assume it’s a Rousseau, because if you know a bit about modern art, you know that’s that sort of thing that Rousseau did, even though you’ve never seen the painting before. And then you discover it’s not a Rousseau at all; it’s actually by some chancer called Ernest T, who takes the titles and dimensions of Rousseau’s lost works, and has a good guess at what they might have looked like, and paints his guesses.

Many of the works, though, are responses to works that are real and existent and very well known. Richard Baquié takes on Duchamp’s Étant donnés, an installation that requires the viewer to peer through a tiny peephole and immediately become a voyeur to a scene that hints at, but never explicitly announces itself as, the aftermath of sexual violence. Baquié disembowels the original, showing its workings, like Penn and Teller telling you how a magic trick is done. But it doesn’t destroy your respect for the original, because you know that without Duchamp having spent 20 years concocting Étant donnés in the first place, Baquié would have nothing to work with; just as Duchamp himself must have known when he doodled facial hair on the work of a previous artist, nearly a century before.

Indeed, many of the subjects (targets? victims?) of the artists here have already been responsible for (guilty of?) appropriating other works, so when Mike Bidlo responds to Warhol’s soap box or Manzoni’s can of shit, we can smile at the cleverness, but the same joke doesn’t bear repeating too often (as it is about Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Bridget Riley and plenty other Pop-ists and Op-ists). The Art & Language collective do something that could well be a Pollock drip painting; more effective is Gavin Turk becoming Pollock himself, emulating Hans Namuth’s images of Jack the Dripper at work. We can become tired of the art, he seems to hint, long before we tire of the artist. Well, Gavin *was* a YBA, wasn’t he?

The brochure namechecks Borges’ Quixote, and you (OK then, I) sort of expect/hope Baudrillard might get a mention as well, but this isn’t really about pure simulacra. The originals have to be present, indeed, have to be dominant, for the copies to make any sense. When Fayçal Bagriche spirits Yves Klein, Trotsky-like, out of his own Leap into the Void, it only makes sense if you know the original. Otherwise, it’s just a photo of a sidestreet.

Seconde Main demands of the viewer a basic working knowledge of the art of the past 100 years, a knowledge of who Pollock was and what Picasso did, for it to make sense. So not only can this exhibition only work in this museum, it can only work in this country, maybe only in this city, where they don’t worry so much about art being “accessible” and “inclusive”. Art’s just there; deal with it. If you can’t deal with it, here’s a book about it. But preferably not one by Dan Brown, whose baleful presence still hangs over the city.

That said, this is still a learning experience. Towards the end is the only piece that’s an actual fake, intended not just to provoke or confuse or amuse, but to deceive; an ersatz Modigliani by the forger Elmyr de Hory. And somehow, I spot it as a wrong ’un even before I see the pink sticker. I don’t think I’d have been able to do that before I came in.

14 comments:

zettel45 said...

Interesting stuff. I always fancied gluing a real pipe to a canvass and writing "Ceci n'est pas une pipe aussi" underneath.

Vicus Scurra said...

Thank you for the cultural update. I am holding my end up by churning out my usual drivel.

The militant working boy said...

Just another example of how infinitely complex the concept of art really is. If an artist is a person who creates art, is art created by the painter (sculptor, composer, chef, etc.) or by the beholder. Is art art because of what it is or who created it? And why does it matter?

Tim Footman said...

But that wouldn’t be true, zettel; whereas Magritte’s statement was.

But it’s good drivel, Vicus.

MWB:"All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act." Marcel Duchamp

zettel45 said...

Are you sure it wouldn't be true? It's a point about the link between identity and function. A pipe is a pipe: you smoke it. But stick it on a canvass and hang it in a gallery and is it still a pipe? Isn't it now a pipe-shaped artifact?

The militant working boy said...

Does that render the artist a mere subject of individual interpretation? Or does the artist hold the keys to the door that the observer wishes to unlock? What if the observer transforms his or her individual interpretation into an artwork of its own, as Duchamp did? Then aren't opinions of that merely opinions of opinions? I guess what I am trying to ask is, does how we see art change the art its self or does it only change us personally?

Tim Footman said...

Zettel: And is a painting still a painting if nobody looks at it? We know what the identity of art is, but can it also be defined by its function?

Which leads us to: MWB, have you read Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author? Essentially he argues that once a text (which can refer to any work, a painting, a piece of music, etc) is created, it undergoes a constant process of revision by successive readers - the birth of the reader causes the death of the author. Or, as Bill Kerr said of his typing in an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour: “I only hit the keys: after that, they’re on their own.”

The militant working boy said...

I will have to look that one up. It would be interesting to hear what Barthes had to say about "great art" is it society collectively selecting an artwork as being aesthetically pleasing? If our tastes change with the times, then why, for example, is the Mona Lisa still arguably one of the most sought-after paintings in the world? Is she/it great art or the victim of historical and cultural propaganda?

zettel45 said...

I haven't read DotA but I know the argument. The status of authorial intention is vexed. If we all found King Lear uproariously funny would that make it a comedy?

There's also the question of how representation functions. Magritte's painting is a representation of a pipe. That's why (you might argue) it's not a pipe. So if you use a "real" pipe as a representation of a pipe can it still be a "real" pipe? Can an object represent itself?

And that leads to the (often daft) search for meaningful self-referential propositions. My fave example is: "This sentence was in the past tense".

The militant working boy said...

Z- Perhaps that is what makes something "art", a work that requires ideas, interpretation, consideration to make it be what it is. Another example using Duchamp is in his artwork(or non artwork) "fountain" where he takes a urinal and calls it art, therefore putting it in a position of scrutiny. True,there was a lot of negative criticism, but just the fact that people were trying to make something of it, does that constitute "art"? At what point did it cease to be a urinal?

zettel45 said...

Hi M. I'm sure "idea, interpretation and consideration" would be part of it. But (by itself) that would make a council tower block art.

I suspect "art" is a family-resemblence concept. We can't define it, but we know it when we see it.

The militant working boy said...

And we know it when we see it because by knowing it, it is therefore art... or something like that.

Tim Footman said...

I think (but I’m not certain) that it was Duchamp who said “It’s art because it’s in a gallery.”

The militant working boy said...

Ah Duchamp...