Textes pour approfondir
La peinture comme représentation
Painting in the most ordinary sense
Je pratique la peinture dans son acception la plus commune, dans son sens multiséculaire, c’est-à-dire comme art de la représentation. Cela ne veut pas dire que je cherche à peindre à la manière des artistes d’autrefois, mais j’utilise un moyen d’expression aussi ancien dans son principe que la littérature ou la musique vocale. Je me retrouve ainsi en porte à faux avec la plupart des tenants de l’art contemporain qui considèrent que cette option est interdite en raison de son caractère supposément passéiste. Cependant, j’assume pleinement ce choix. C’est ce dont je voudrais m’expliquer à présent.
Depuis le début du xxe siècle, la notion d’art ne cesse de s’étendre. Des activités nouvelles, du moins en matière d’art, fleurissent. Sans doute la signification ordinaire du mot « art », celle attestée par l’usage du grand public, ne change-t-elle guère. Toutefois, pour le microcosme artistique, ce vocable désigne chaque jour davantage de choses imprévues. On a presque l’impression que la recherche de notions d’art inédites est, en soi, une forme de création. Cette polysémie extrême produit de la confusion. Dans ce capharnaüm, les nouvelles pratiques s’efforcent de discréditer les plus anciennes. La peinture comme représentation a beau connaître un renouveau dans de nombreux pays, il n’en demeure pas moins qu’elle est réduite à la portion congrue dans les institutions et que sa légitimité reste mal assurée.
Comment en est-on arrivé là ? Il y a d’abord un tropisme souvent irréfléchi vers la nouveauté. Nous vivons dans une économie où sans cesse des produits récents en remplacent de plus anciens. Ainsi, le dernier smartphone annule-t-il irrémédiablement la valeur des plus anciens. La préoccupation, parfois l’angoisse, de tout chef d’entreprise est de toujours surfer dans l’écume de la nouveauté, faute de quoi un naufrage est à craindre. Cette culture, parfois qualifiée de néomanie, déteint d’autant plus sur l’art que la plupart des collectionneurs sont issus du monde des affaires. Bizarrement, une sensibilité politique progressiste aboutit souvent au même résultat. On valorise ce qui paraît subversif, transgressif, on s’émerveille des « attaques de trains de nuit », etc. En bref, le dernier venu, surtout s’il est tapageur, semble en avance sur l’histoire. Malheureusement, nouveauté et subversion concernent le plus souvent les apparences de l’art, la mise en scène, les postures, la communication, le bling-bling. En pratique, « subversif » finit par être synonyme de « superficiel ».
Il faut d’ailleurs souligner que les nouveautés dont il est question ne sont, bien souvent, pas si inédites que cela. J’en donne deux exemples. En 1972, Vito Acconci, un des piliers de l’art-performance, se masturbe dans une galerie. Son objectif est, paraît-il, de montrer que l’art, comme la masturbation, fait partie de la vie. La critique salue un geste artistique très nouveau. Cependant, dans l’Antiquité, des philosophes cyniques copulent ou se masturbent en public en visant des buts parfaitement similaires. Second exemple : Piotr Pavlenski est un « artiste » qui a inspiré un colloque qui s’est tenu à l’école des Beaux-arts en 2017. Il s’est fait connaître récemment en France en mettant le feu à une agence de la Banque de France puis en dénonçant la vie sexuelle d’un prétendant à la Mairie de Paris. Cependant, bien avant lui, Dostoïevski décrit des individus relevant d’une psychologie très proche, notamment le fameux Raskolnikov de Crimes et Châtiments. Ce qu’il faut observer, c’est que ces personnages de roman ne sont pas présentés comme des artistes. Ils correspondent plutôt, à l’époque (qu’on en pense du bien ou du mal), à ce que l’on nomme nihilistes ou anarchistes. C’est dire que la vraie nouveauté consiste à classer dans le champ de l’art des pratiques qui existaient bien précédemment, mais qui relevaient des exercices philosophiques, du théâtre de rue, de l’action politique directe, etc.
On aurait tort de critiquer ces pratiques culturelles ayant migré vers le statut artistique, car elles peuvent se révéler tout à fait intéressantes en elles-mêmes. La question n’est pas là. Le problème, le seul problème, est que loin de s’ajouter pacifiquement aux plus anciennes, elles en viennent toujours à prétendre incarner une nouvelle étape de l’histoire de l’art. Tels de jeunes coucous ayant éclos dans des nids de passereaux, leur instinct est d’accaparer et de remplacer. Force est de remarquer que ce comportement simpliste et violent, inspiré des avant-gardes politiques, fonctionne plutôt bien. L’art contemporain, en dépit des apparences, est généralement intolérant et hostile à la diversité, tout du moins pour ce qui le concerne. C’est sur ce point, ô combien essentiel, que butent tous les débats.
L’art comme représentation, et tout spécialement la peinture, a aussi suscité un feu roulant de dénigrements qui, à la longue, nourrissent des préjugés pénalisants. L’un des moindres n’est pas que la photo rendrait l’art réaliste sans objet. Cet argument repose sur une confusion entretenue entre reproduction (simple copie du réel) et représentation (dans un sens quasi théâtral). D’importants théoriciens comme Arthur Danto ou Clement Greenberg prétendent que l’art ancien n’a eu d’autre but que la reproduction du réel, chose désormais inutile depuis l’avènement de la photo. Cependant, comment admettre que Greco, Pontormo, Rembrandt, Lovis Corinth, Hans von Marées et beaucoup d’autres aient été de vulgaires copistes ? Ce qui est étonnant, au contraire, c’est plutôt que l’art d’autrefois ait été si rarement simple reproduction, qu’il ait été si souvent artistique.
On ne cesse de faire comme si l’apparition de la photo avait, par un mouvement symétrique, fait disparaître les peintres réalistes. C’est ignorer la chronologie. La photo n’apparaît pas avec la modernité, mais en 1827. En outre, une sorte de protophotographie, avec la technique de la camera obscura, était connue dès l’Antiquité et a constitué une aide pour les artistes, notamment à partir de la fin du xvie siècle. On ne serait pas éloigné de la réalité à prétendre que la photo au sens large (c’est-à-dire incluant les aides optiques) a précédé et permis la peinture, telle qu’on la connaît. Il n’y a, en réalité, pas exclusion, mais synergie multiséculaire. Encore aujourd’hui, un bon nombre d’artistes préparent leurs compositions avec des photos traitées par ordinateur et reprises au moyen de projecteurs. Les techniques se sont perfectionnées mais le principe demeure. Voir dans la photo une objection contre la peinture réaliste est un total contresens.
Maintenant, je voudrais faire un détour par la question de la digestion chez les ruminants. C’est une affaire intéressante, mais assez compliquée. Cependant, cela en vaut la peine, car ces mammifères arrivent à tirer de la cellulose végétale (molécule isomère de l’amidon) une valeur nutritive inaccessible à la plupart des autres animaux. Lorsque j’ingère de la salade, rien n’est digéré. Quand une vache mange de l’herbe, c’est un peu comme si elle était attablée devant un plat de spaghettis : elle se délecte et cela lui permet de produire du lait ou de la viande. C’est un miracle de la nature, en somme.
L’important est de comprendre que cela se passe en deux temps. D’abord, la bête broute et avale (premier temps). Ensuite, elle s’allonge tranquillement, elle régurgite, remâche et envoie l’ensemble fermenter dans le rumen, vaste poche digestive, également appelée panse. C’est la rumination (deuxième temps). Ce mot signifie « action de remâcher les aliments » ou encore « action de se parler à soi-même, en chuchotant ». En ce qui me concerne, quand je repense à ma vie, je me livre assez volontiers à des ruminations. Quand cela m’arrive, j’ai l’œil torve et la rumination lente.
Ce qui suggère bien la nature de la rumination, c’est le son « R », un son que l’on retrouve dans « réflexion » et qui évoque un processus en deux temps. D’abord, une réalité a eu lieu, puis elle se reflète dans le miroir de notre esprit. À ce moment-là, elle est examinée une deuxième fois : c’est la réflexion. En ce qui concerne le mot récit, c’est la même chose. Citer, c’est faire sortir, faire venir, comme quand on cite quelqu’un devant un tribunal. Le récit, c’est une deuxième évocation, comme pour prendre le temps de vraiment saisir ce qui est arrivé. La représentation, c’est aussi une nouvelle présentation pour permettre de comprendre de façon plus concentrée et plus claire ce qui s’est passé.
Le problème des humains est que quand ils vivent quelque chose, ils n’ont pas le temps d’y songer : ils doivent agir et cela les empêche de prendre du recul, de penser. Leur esprit, en mode cybernétique, est comme un logiciel analysant le contexte et pilotant des actions. Ce n’est qu’en revenant sur ce qu’ils ont vécu qu’ils peuvent vraiment le digérer, le comprendre, en saisir la nature et la saveur. Réflexion, récit, représentation, rumination sont, au fond, une seule et même chose. Une tragédie, un roman, un film, une série, une BD, un opéra, un clip sont représentations et récits. Ce sont ces opérations qui permettent à l’homme de prendre conscience de lui-même ! Pourquoi donc faudrait-il que la peinture, en dépit de tant d’expériences historiques bouleversantes, s’interdise la représentation ?
Painting in the most ordinary sense
Nowadays, a strange difficulty arises with regard to painting: many people, especially those familiar with contemporary art, think that one cannot paint today as one did in the past. This does not only mean that artists must have different subjects and ways of painting than in the past. If that were so, everyone would agree. In fact, this happens naturally. What is at issue—and this is more serious—is that the very fact of painting to represent and interpret human existence now seems to them to be obsolete, inadmissible. It is incompatible, it seems, with a certain idea of progress. Of course, there are still painters, but many of them are trying to do something more conceptual with painting; they don’t want to be taken for daubers. Their work is constrained and guided by all sorts of prejudices.
To fully appreciate the ideological restrictions on painting, there is nothing better than to take a step back and see what this strange idea of progress would look like in another cultural field. Let’s take the case of literature. Writing is a possibility that has existed since history was history. Writing can be used for utilitarian purposes such as accounting, but what we are interested in here is writing that allows us to express ourselves, in other words, literature. How far have things progressed, since we are talking about progress? In the beginning, we wrote on clay or papyrus, then on parchment and paper, then we invented the printing press and, more recently, the computer. All these developments are very useful in practical terms, but they do not change much in the essential sense of being able to write. Saint Augustine wrote, Michel Houellebecq, too. Their books can be found side by side in bookshops. Of course, what they say differs, as do their styles. However, both of them have made the most of this simple, decisive and unchanging thing: being able to write. Throughout the centuries there have been self-denials and censorship. There have also been reflections and movements. However, the importance of literature has continued to grow. No one in earnest nowadays would think of imposing the idea that it belongs to the past, that it should be replaced by new things, that those who cling to it are reactionaries, that we should finally give up writing. That would be absurd and scandalous. But that’s roughly what we see with painting.
To take a brush to paint, to seize a pencil to draw has been for a long time a formidable freedom. Throughout the centuries, men have been able to express themselves thanks to this extremely simple possibility, at least simple in its principle. However, our time is full of fine minds who consider that this freedom is no longer relevant, that there have been advances that preclude a return to the past, that figurative painting is just a survival. It’s as if many viewers no longer have the mental space to receive and appreciate this painting. Obviously, this is especially true for those to whom modern and contemporary art have transmitted their values and, at the same time, their blinders. So, let’s examine the most common objections that weigh, rightly or wrongly, on painting.
The fallacious argument of the photo
Since the end of the 19th century, many commentators have felt that photography is now competing with painting. The reasoning is generally twofold: 1) the main aim of painting has always been to reproduce reality; 2) since photography now fulfils this function better, in order not to die out, painting must move as far away from reality as possible.
Thus, Arthur Danto states that in the past, the arts were “devoted to reproducing visual appearances in a variety of media.” In essence, Danto explains that over the centuries, artists strive to make their paintings more and more alike. However, after the advent of photography and film, painting in the traditional sense, no matter how skillful, became obsolete: “Artists,” he writes, “who wished to advance painting further found themselves without a goal. This moment signed the end of art as it was understood before 1895.”
This reasoning has the appearance of common sense. It is also a persistent notion. However, it is perfectly fallacious. The first thing that jumps out at you when you look at the history of art is that artists rarely try to make simple copies of reality. This is quite surprising when we know the services that photography provides nowadays and that we would find it difficult to do without. There are certainly trompe-l’oeil, family portraits, etc. However, these are marginal cases. Art is, as its name indicates, mainly artistic. In what way, for example, are Greco’s works meticulous copies of reality? How can we admit that Rembrandt, Goya, Gustave Moreau and many others were engaged in servile mimetic activities? One has to be misinformed or have a good deal of bad faith to claim this. The term Mannerism used as early as the Renaissance by someone like Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (1538-1592) shows that there was an early awareness that the most important thing in painting was precisely the manner, i.e., the pictoriality, the lyricism of the materials, the music of the forms, the composition, etc.
Alberti’s window (1404-1472) is frequently used as a reference to explain how ancient painting works. However, interpretations differ. Some modern commentators, such as Arthur Danto, see in it a conception of painting that is as illusionistic and mimetic as possible. They find in it a confirmation that painting aims from the start at reproducing reality. However, this is not at all what Alberti says. His window opens onto a representation, a word taken in an almost theatrical sense. “First,” writes Alberti, “I inscribe on the surface to be painted a right-angled quadrilateral as large as I please, which is for me, in truth, like an open window from which the story represented may be viewed.” Alberti thus conceives of the space of painting somewhat like a view of a stage when the curtain rises. It is a question of representation and narration, not of reproduction.
Obviously, for painting, as in a play, one must believe in it, and illusionism can—and even must—have a part in it. However, it is a means, rarely an end. Moreover, artists, unlike actors, are not only concerned with human life, they also have a taste for exploring and thinking about the forms of the world. Realism therefore has its share. For example, Caravaggio and many of the Caravaggioists (Giuseppe-Maria Crespi, Theodule Ribot, etc.) like to depict calloused, bony, sinewy and even dirty feet. This makes their figures of saints, philosophers and hermits more truthful. It is also a way of showing us a powerful music of forms where, a priori, we would instead see ordinary ugliness. All this is far from the cold mimicry to which some reduce painting and which would only wait to be replaced by photography.
The presumed shock of photography on painting, justifying the latter’s tipping into modernity, is generally placed without much thought at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. It could be argued that this shock actually took place three centuries earlier, in the 17th century. Let me explain. It is true that the camera did not exist at that time. But long before its invention, as David Hockney’s research shows, fairly sophisticated tools for appropriating forms were being developed: well-lit rooms, camera obscura, grids, squares, and, of course, manual drawing training, sometimes virtuosic. These technical inventions did permit artists to deliver to the ancient public the equivalent of our photographs. However, they could have given artists and craftsmen the possibility of making painted copies of reality, a kind of photo before its time. There are many cases of such things. For example, the views of some “Vedutistes” are sometimes so accurate that they help to restore bombed-out cities. However—and this is the most important thing—the techniques used to capture reality remain, with a few exceptions, means at the service of art.
In the 19th century, photography stricto sensu was not an invention that fell from the sky, but a refinement of pre-existing tools. Photography did not kill figurative painting, on the contrary, it contributed to its development. Naturalism and “art pompier” came after photography. Courbet used postcards. Artists like Dagnan-Bouveret, Fantin-Latour, Krøyer, Sert and many others used preparatory photographs. Even today, a recent colloquium at the Collège de France (La Fabrique de la peinture, 2014) showed that most of today’s figurative painters use photography and transfer or projection techniques. These contemporary techniques are very effective, but they are not very different in principle from ancient optical aids.
What emerges in the end from the relationship between painting and tools for appropriating the forms of reality is not competition, but rather a synergy and a multi-secular continuity. Painting is almost never a kind of copy of reality imagined by some and only waiting to be replaced by photography.
Let’s come to the second level of the reasoning, the one turned not towards the past but towards the future. It consists, basically, in saying that photography gives such a good account of reality that it is useless for painting, at least figurative painting, to survive. In order to appreciate this question, one must obviously not overlook the fact that photography is, in our time, something extraordinary. In many situations, the photograph allows us to capture what is happening in the world in a much more direct and emotional way than painting. Of course, photography can also be deceptive, but there is no doubt that it is a particularly powerful source of information and expression.
Let us take the example of the liberation of concentration camps. Photographers, cameramen and painters were sent there, as was the practice in some armies. Obviously, the resulting photos and films struck many people and helped them—as they did me—to appreciate what happened in those places. For painters, however, the result seems less convincing. For example, Alex Colleville (1920-2013), a war artist in the Canadian army, produced paintings and drawings on the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. These works are not uninteresting, but they still seem to fall far short of the photographs available. Even the work of an artist like Walter Spitzer (1927-2021), who lived and learned to draw in a work camp attached to Auschwitz, is certainly moving, but it is not as strong as photographs.
As an art form, photography also occupies a major place among the visual arts. This is evidenced by the fact that the ParisPhoto art fair registers more entries than the Fiac, even though these events are managed by the same company in the same place. In short, photography has continued to grow in importance and interest over the decades.
Unfortunately, in most cases, painting follows the opposite path. Exhibitions of contemporary painting are often inconsistent and very predictable. People walk past the paintings with an expression, as a rule, close to indifference. At openings, the public is quick to turn its back on the works, absorbed in cocktails and conversation. In wealthy interiors, paintings are rarely on a par with green plants. Contemporary art is mostly represented by those beautiful coffee table books, too heavy to be consulted. Painting is nowadays, let’s face it, mostly uninteresting and marginalized. The photo towers over the puny existence of current painting. What I say for photography could be taken to the power of ten for audiovisual art. A good film, a good series fascinate the men and women of our time much more than the few paintings they don’t go to see.
This observation of great inequality, however, does not change much in the potential interest of painting, nor in the importance of some exceptional paintings that our time has produced. To say that photography is, in practice, often more powerful than painting, does not mean that it is likely to always remain so. Between this “often” and “always,” there is room for contemporary figurative painting. There are, in fact, situations where painting and drawing prove more attractive than photography, where they have an exciting singularity and depth. Let’s explore some of them.
Let’s start with the example of the comic book and the photo novel. These two pictorial narratives lend themselves well to a comparison, because they function in a perfectly similar way. The only difference is that one relies on drawings and the other on photographs. What do we notice? The photo novel had a limited success and a golden age limited mainly to the 1950s to 1970s. If the photo were universally superior to the drawing, we would not have had this result. On the contrary, the public generally preferred comics and their original graphics. There’s obviously a special pleasure in drawing or painting. People like to explore the world through the eyes of the author, in a form that is somehow pre-digested, clarified and interpreted. Indeed, the artists of the Brandywine School rightly make the idea of “clarification” a key concept. When we look at a photograph or the real world, our eye is often confronted with a certain confusion. We are dealing with a visual soup. Very quickly we have to untangle it all, interpret the shapes to extract what is important to us. Our mind works a bit like those smartphone apps that put a little square around the places where they identify faces. Our mind does this very quickly, and not just for faces. However, when it’s already done with skill, we enter the image with a kind of ease that is close to the notion of pleasure.
I remember, for example, as a child, poring over the Père Castor albums (I still look at them). I used to look at the smallest details of the illustrations for hours. My favorite illustrator, Rojan, actually shows real thought for forms, always concise and moving. This added value of the figurative artist is similar to that of a novelist when he delivers a story that is more condensed than the real thing and whose interpretation is easier to grasp.
Let’s take another example, this time a contemporary figurative painting: Bataille de tartes à la crème à la chancellerie du Reich by Adrian Ghenie. This work revives a traditional genre: history painting. The materiality of this work, thick layers of paint, crushed lumps of color, the exaggeration of the veins of the floor produce a kind of timbre, a dark lyricism that reinforces the impression of decay and the fall of the Nazi leaders. Pictoriality is the equivalent of scansion in poetry. One look at the canvas is enough to understand that the music of the forms produces in this painting an effect very different from the photo. Obviously, photography also has its materiality, but that of painting is singular. It is more incarnate.
Let’s complete what has just been said by reasoning by the absurd. Let’s start from the hypothesis that yes, painting should separate itself from everything it has in common with photography. This would reduce it to abandoning representation. It would not really have much left, except to explore its medium, to enjoy its autonomy, to flatter itself with references to its own history, things of that order. Let us note that this hypothesis is not so theoretical: this is basically what is happening in the 20th century, at least in terms of modernity and of contemporary art. Is this really a good idea? We end up with an art that is cut off from the world, an art that closes itself off in its ivory tower, an art that the public deserts in favor of the cinema, the novel, series, music videos, etc. In short, it is an art in the process of extinction.
Art outside of art, apophaticism, iconoclasm, domination of clerics
Apophatic theology (from the ancient Greek ἀποφατικός, negative), also called negative theology, proceeds from the idea that God is so great, so powerful, so generous, so all-encompassing, that he completely eludes human intelligence and sensibility. He is unspeakable, incomprehensible, infinite, etc. In short, it is defined only by negative adjectives, at best by superlatives that reject it so far that it amounts to a negative definition. This theology is present in many religions. It is, however, a mindset shared by many atheists. It is the idea that all the human experiences, all the beings and all the appreciable things that we can meet, see or experience in the world as it is, remain limited, disappointing, heterogeneous, or in any case do not allow us to fulfil the absolute of our inner aspirations or our hopes for the future.
Let us consider for a moment the consequences of this disposition, however respectable it may be. In the course of our lives, we may feel, at one time or another, an attraction to either the literary and philosophical realms or to the visual arts. Obviously, we can be interested in both and in many other things, but for the sake of clarity, let’s limit ourselves to a choice between these two fields. This already covers a good part of culture. The important point is that an apophatic sensibility has decisive consequences on this choice.
Such sensitivity is conducive to the distancing that any theoretical effort, any conceptualization implies. It can fuel in-depth discussions with a director of conscience or a psychoanalyst, it allows one to write, to reflect, to philosophize, to conduct research, etc. It is an approach that is full of possibilities in the intellectual order.
Let us now examine how this state of mind affects our relationship to art, I mean art in the common sense. However, there is obviously a problem here. Figurative art proposes anything but a distancing from the world: it immerses itself in it, concentrating experiences and emotions. Moreover, it is often in osmosis with popular tastes. When one is apophatic, can one enjoy Rubens with his cascades of voluptuous women, his lions, his crocodiles, his sensuality, his silks, but also his tragedy? Can one enjoy a “pompier” painting by Rochegrosse or a comic strip by Druillet with streams of blood, naked women and barbaric warriors? Probably not, taken at face value. There are people who, as Philippe Garel once pointed out to me, need to feel intelligent when they look at a painting. Everything is expressed in this simple remark. Apophatic sensibility has its place in the world of clerics and intellectuals. When it is interested in art, it is often either to prohibit or at least limit it, or to distance it from the world, to make it abstract or conceptual.
The case of Malevich is analyzed by Alain Besançon in his essay, L’Image interdite, une histoire intellectuelle de l’iconoclasme. In the case of this artist, we are indeed dealing with paintings in the material sense of the term, but we are completely outside the paradigm of representation. Malevich simply aspires to a kind of mystical and militant nothingness. “I have transformed myself,” he says, “into a zero of forms and fished myself out of the water hole of academic art. I destroyed the ring of the horizon and came out of the circle of things, from the ring of the horizon where the painter and the forms of nature are included. […] Painters must reject subjects and objects if they want to remain pure painters.”
His famous Carré blanc sur fond blanc is typically an apophatic thrust out of the earthly world. When this Carré is first presented to the public, people wonder what is so remarkable about it and quickly turn to the inevitable explanations. What is substantial in this kind of work is obviously the discourse that goes with it. The desire of a painting of this kind is actually struck by a kind of internal contradiction: wanting to express something while refusing to evoke anything. This is what we could call negative painting, so as not to speak immediately of abstract painting.
Rodchenko’s Rouge is a red monochrome canvas whose avant-garde principle is close to that of Carré Blanc. Art historians never cease to celebrate (again at the recent Rouge exhibition at the Centre Pompidou) the break with “bourgeois” art that this represents. However, this kind of painting hardly enthuses. Lenin, in particular, hated “futurist scarecrows.” After Rouge, the artist created monochromes of various colors and paintings with various geometric variations. From this point on, Rodchenko began a whole path that I find particularly interesting. An ardent Bolshevik activist, he was driven by the desire for his works to be effective, to contribute to the building of the new society. First of all, he worked with groups of constructivist artists who designed objects that they believed would help to change the life and mentality of the workers through an induced effect: for example, polygonal coffee pots (Malevich), cotton fabrics with geometric shapes (Vera Lotonina), streamlined furnishings (Rodchenko) and, of course, a lot of very hard forms in the field of architecture and urbanism. All this could give men something like a more geometric and rationalist vision of their role. The problem is that the workers, like the Bolshevik leaders, sometimes prefer pretty coffee pots with little flowers on them. Eventually, Rodchenko turned to the propaganda poster and it was here that he found his full effectiveness and fulfilment. He made photomontages with daring low-angle shots and powerful titles. When one does not read Russian and can ignore what sinister project is being discussed, one can appreciate the vigorous aesthetics of these posters. The most important thing to note is that Rodchenko, in spite of himself and without realizing it, is taking the opposite path of the avant-garde: he is returning to an art of the image as expressive representation. Moreover, through the use of texts, he is very close to the current inscriptionist painters so typical of the new figuration.
One of the contributions of Alain Besançon’s essay is also to make it possible to understand that all this is hardly new, despite the appearance of thundering novelty. The conflicts between people of words and people of images are not new. Already, the second commandment transmitted by Moses, a man of the word if ever there was one, forbids representation: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Figuration is therefore forbidden or limited in most monotheisms, with the exception of Catholicism, which frees itself from it by relying on the Christian idea of incarnation.
The most emblematic moment in the confrontation between scholars and image makers is the crisis of the iconoclasts. In the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries, intellectuals, theologians, and high officials, often the emperor himself, despised images with all their might. They wanted to deprive the good people and the provincial monks of these lowly retinal pleasures, which were assimilated to idolatry. The religion of the word is combined with Neoplatonic idealism to affirm the superiority of ideas and words. At first, figurative works, mosaics, sculptures, icons, etc. were destroyed. This was the crisis of iconoclasm. After a century of civil war, a compromise was reached, but it seriously hampered the future: art was accepted, provided that the figures represented had no expression, movement or personality and, of course, did not participate in any action. The important point, which is basically independent of religion, is that iconoclasm (or, in its less violent version, iconophobia) is mainly a matter for the intellectual elites, while the love of images (iconodoulie) is often, on the contrary, visceral, emotional and popular.
Several crises of iconoclasm have occurred since the great Byzantine model, beginning with the Reformation and the French Revolution. Modernity is accompanied by a real iconoclasm against the heritage of the 19th century. Le Corbusier wanted to destroy Paris to build something more modern in its place. Marinetti wanted to do the same for Venice. Without reaching these extremes, throughout the 20th century, the heritage of the 19th century was destroyed without a second thought or sent to the dump. These open crises at least have the merit of being expressed openly before populations that are often attached to the beautiful things that adorn cities or enhance worship.
The rampant iconoclasm that has prevailed since the beginning of modernity is perhaps more insidious, more difficult to combat. The word iconoclast even took on a positive aspect at that time. For example, in 1922 Anatole France published a collection of autobiographical short stories, La Vie en fleurs. In one of them, he recounts how, with a group of high school students, he founded a pseudo-academy. These young people in philosophy class wanted to be “iconoclasts.” They buy a plaster bust of Blaise Pascal and break it during their first session. Similarly, in Les Copains, in 1905, Jules Romains ridiculed, in an equally playful tone, the inauguration of an equestrian statue in Auvergne. What emerges, beyond the humor of the texts, is that the young elites who were students at the time feel valued for making fun of statuary.
The Musée Delacroix, in Paris, was created long after the death of the master and the dispersal of his studio. The place is charming, but its collections are very poor. The curator therefore had to multiply the number of events if he wanted to attract the public. One of these events interested me greatly. It was a carte blanche given to the novelist and columnist Christine Angot. What characterizes this personality is the strength of her commitment, her ardor in debates, a kind of incantatory scansion in her writings. In short, whether you like it or not, literature according to Christine Angot is anything but lukewarm. It was a big surprise to see the contemporary artworks she had selected. They are extremely discreet and perfectly harmless. There are early works by Johan Creten or paintings by Etel Adnan, all of which are remarkable for their minimalism. What’s going on? Has Christine Angot abdicated her volcanic temperament? In reality, like many intellectuals, she entrusts the important things to words and reserves for art, without even realizing it, a minimal, subaltern role, close to silence.
I made the same remark to myself while reading a book by Michel Houellebecq entitled Lanzarote. This book, about an encounter in the Canary Islands with “non-exclusive dykes,” is full of raw scenes written in the direct style I love from this author. This book is paired in a boxed set with a collection of photos taken by the author, excellent photos, by the way. What is it about? Photos of pebbles and rocks treated with a beautiful classicism. Once again, we see that serious things, human things, are entrusted to the word and that the image, as well as art, are reduced to more neutral subjects. There are many such examples.
In 1917, under an assumed name, Marcel Duchamp sent a urinal to an exhibition of independent artists in New York. The object was not exhibited, but nearly half a century later, the author would theorize about it and authorize a number of copies in their original vintage design and signed like the vanished original. This “Fountain” affair will be the object of an unparalleled infatuation among the proponents of contemporary art, to the point of constituting a sort of origin story. Nowadays, you can’t talk about art without, after thirty seconds, someone referring to this mythical object or its author. Generally, the comments are enthusiastic about the notion of readymade and the invention of conceptual art. But is this really what it’s all about? In the context, it is at first an unassumed joke (the artist does not give his identity). However, and this is the most important, there is still a subliminal message for the other participants. This message is quite simply that Duchamp is making fun of the poor rascals who still believe in the notion of art. Let’s remember that there are not only losers among them since someone like George Bellows is one of them. Marcel Duchamp’s urinal is neither more nor less than a middle finger to artists and art in general.
Let’s go further. Let’s do a thought experiment. Sometimes it’s useful. After all, Einstein is said to have constructed Relativity by imagining himself riding a light beam. Let’s relativize the urinal! Let’s transpose Marcel Duchamp’s gesture into another cultural field. Let’s take once again the field of literature. Let us imagine, to remain scatological, that our man went to a library, for example to the Sainte-Geneviève library where he worked. There we see him placing rolls of toilet paper in the shelves intended for books. The message is basically: “no need to write books, poor scribblers, there is now a better use of paper and it’s readymade! Now let’s ask ourselves how people would have reacted, how would they react today if this gesture did not go unnoticed? No doubt many in the cultural world would have been loudly offended by such an anti-civilizational gesture, by an act that, on a small scale, is in the same spirit as the disastrous book burning. I could be wrong, but knowing a bit about these circles, I think that’s what would have happened, indeed.
So, the question is: how is it that the same gesture is acceptable and interesting in the field of art and inadmissible and shocking in that of literature? Simply because Marcel Duchamp, by making art something conceptual, takes art out of its inferior, embodied, popular and laborious status and makes it a discipline of the order of the word and of thought. At the same time as he kills art, he upgrades it.
Many historians consider his action to be very new. This is to have thought the matter through badly. Since the dawn of time, the makers of images or statues have been in recurrent conflict with the scholars and priests of all stripes, as we have already said. Marcel Duchamp is only the umpteenth return of one of these properly iconoclastic figures who haunt history. The affirmation of the superiority of clerics is a curse for art. Marcel Duchamp embodies the moment in the 20th century when, once again, artists are dispossessed of their domain to the benefit of the learned. In our own time, much of what stands in the way of the development of figurative painting is simply the result of this age-old opposition.
The attraction for novelty and subversive postures feeds a superficial conception of art
The economy has never been as important in people’s minds as it is today. But what is the most important phenomenon in the economy? It’s the fact that new products are constantly replacing older ones. The latest smartphones are sending their predecessors to the scrapheap even faster than electricity has replaced steam. We are moving from disruption to disruption. It’s cruel and irrevocable. The economist Joseph Schumpeter conceptualized this process as “creative destruction”: economic sectors are continuously disappearing in favor of the creation of new activities. This is the world we live in. Business leaders, managers, the military, and leaders of all kinds know this. In the long run, this results in a real mentality, a way of seeing the world that rubs off on the artistic field. A few years ago, Luc Ferry wrote a particularly interesting little book, L’Innovation destructrice. This book perfectly analyses this extension of the culture of novelty (neophilia) into the field of art. When you’re a collector or curator, you try not to miss an emerging artist, you fear those who might be millstones or make you look like out of date. Moreover, these busy business executives don’t always realize that the innovations they are served up are in fact often fake and have been produced over and over again in similar forms. In the end, this culture fosters an art form that is more concerned with the appearance of novelty than with its real substance, an art form that is inevitably superficial.
A similar case is the obligation, admittedly with a more intellectual or political connotation, placed on artists to take “subversive” or “disruptive” postures. Obviously, these qualities fit perfectly with the spirit of the capitalism of creative destruction we have just been talking about, and even with the capitalism of the industrial revolution described by Marx. The word “subversive” is also particularly unifying, since it has good resonance on the left. Thus, to cite just one example, Alain Badiou likes it when artistic action intervenes on the model of a “night train attack.” In the long run, the Ministry of Culture, art centers, galleries, everyone has these words on their lips: “subversive,” “disruptive.” They are sesames, Swiss army knives, clichés. They are repeated, ruminated, remasticated, in demand and exhibited. Artists abandon a humble relationship with the search for a certain truth in favor of extroverted and demonstrative postures. In the end, for an artist, wanting to appear subversive is perhaps the most direct way to become superficial.
The term art is constantly being re-assigned to activities from other fields
It’s no scoop to say that the art world is regularly shaken by scandals and controversies. For many visual artists attached to the good old tradition of the avant-garde, creating a scandal and then castigating the offended badgers has become a promotional routine. Debates about art, on the other hand, are rare enough, but almost always violent. I’ve thrown myself headlong into some of them and invariably come away with a sense of mutual incomprehension with no result. In most other sectors, however, debate is ordinary, interesting and enriching. In politics, for example, one cannot imagine democracy without debate. In the arts, the very principle of confronting one’s ideas is often seen as an outrage.
The proponents of contemporary art often believe that protest is the result of reactionaries, of backwardness, of people who, for lack of information, insist on remaining in a bygone stage of artistic progress. For their part, the malcontents, sometimes simple passers-by confronted with a work placed in the public domain or artists of marginalized tendencies, readily express themselves through grumbling, mumbling and heartfelt cries. One often hears interjections such as, “This is not art!” This phrase passes, obviously, for the height of redneckness. Perhaps a bit quickly, in fact. Indeed, one must be attentive to what is said in these few words, and the essential is said. Indeed, we do not reproach the artist for being insufficiently good. It is more radical. He is accused of doing something other than art, a word taken in its common sense. He is perceived roughly as an impostor.
We are therefore in the midst of a misunderstanding, with some being considered retarded and others as impostors. It is as if everyone is in a separate universe, forming what astrophysicists call a “multiverse”. This is basically what the sociologist Nathalie Heinich describes in her concept of “paradigm”. She thinks that contemporary art, modern art and what she calls (perhaps a little summarily) classical art are very different. She stresses that these are not successive stages, since these three families have been present since the beginning of the 20th century and still coexist. She discards the term “genre” which distinguishes between history, landscape and still life painting. She explains that she prefers the term “paradigm” borrowed from Thomas Kuhn when he evokes the great scientific revolutions. Indeed, she says, “the differences between these three types of art are not only in the practices and productions, but also in the representations and ways of thinking. In each case, a coherent set of conceptions is formed that produces its own conception of normality and rejects the other art forms as abnormal or anachronistic. Contemporary art, in particular, is considered by its adherents to embody progress. It seems natural to them to claim exclusivity for it, especially with art institutions.”
In fact, since the beginning of the 20th century, the use of the word “art” has been expanding. New activities, at least new in art, are flourishing. As Paul Ardenne notes, « the very term artist, by dint of its openness, is seeing its meaning less and less defined. No doubt the ordinary meaning of the word “art,” the one attested by the use of the general public, does not change much, even if the works evolve. However, for the artistic microcosm, this term designates more and more unexpected things every day. One almost gets the impression that searching for new notions of art is, in itself, a form of artistic creation. Many young artists call themselves “creators.” The underlying idea is that they hardly aim to do something successful in an existing field, but rather to surprise by shifting the boundaries. The result is an extreme polysemy of the word art, which ends up designating very diverse productions. This may have advantages in terms of openness (we look at a variety of things with interest), but it also has serious disadvantages.
Let’s take the example of Piotr Pavlenski. This Russian “artist” is the subject, in 2016, of a colloquium at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. One of the stages of his artistic career consists of broadcasting videos about the sex life of Benjamin Griveaux, the unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of Paris. This is how this “artist” became known to the French. Born in 1984, Piotr Pavlenski studied art in St. Petersburg, before launching into high-profile public actions combining nudity, self-mutilation and arson. In 2012, he sewed his lips together in protest against the conviction of a punk band, Pussy Riot. In 2013, he nailed himself naked by the testicles in Red Square. In 2015, he set fire to the FSB (ex-KGB). In 2017, he was granted political asylum in France. He has a mystical vision of our country: for him, France is “the Alma Mater of the Revolution.” That’s why he can’t digest the fact that a bank branch is set up in Place de la Bastille. He set fire to it at the end of 2017.
Paul Ardenne, an art historian, has written extensively about Pavlenski and, more generally, about intervention or contextual art. The idea of these practices is basically not to make works in the classical sense (paintings, sculptures…), but actions that sometimes interact harshly with society, or at least with the people present. He cites many examples such as Hervé Paraponaris’ installation entitled, Tout ce que je vous ai volé. It brought together in the Musée de Marseilles the fruits of various real larcenies carried out by the artist. Paul Ardenne also recounts an “extreme” intervention during a Fluxus group event: an artist played Russian roulette for real in front of his audience. For the same reasons, the art critic is interested in most of Pavlenski’s actions, which he considers to be in the “great tradition of provocative works” since Viennese actionism.
One can react positively or negatively to these interventions, depending on whether one adheres to their purpose, appreciates their subversive character, or, on the contrary, is shocked, finds them in bad taste, etc. It is difficult to deny, however, that the very principle of these demonstrations, halfway between street theatre and political commitment, can be used for interesting proposals. It would therefore be foolish to challenge them in principle. The problem that arises is to know whether it is a good thing to classify them as fine art or, as we say today, as visual art. This taxonomic question may seem secondary, but in reality, it is far from trivial.
The first thing to consider is that these actions and interventions are certainly new in the field of art, but they are not new from a general point of view. Dostoyevsky, for example, describes characters that are very reminiscent of Pavlensky. Paul Ardenne likens Pavlensky to Prince Myshkin, who plays the role of revealing the imperfections of the world in The Idiot. I would lean more towards Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. This man with a nihilistic profile assumes rights above those of the common man (he murders a pawnbroker out of sheer wantonness) before his act undermines him from within. The important point is that these characters from novels seem perfectly believable in the context of the 19th century, but no one thinks they are artists.
Let me take a second example. In 1972, Vito Acconci, one of the pillars of performance art, masturbated in a gallery. His aim, it seems, is to show that art, like masturbation, is part of everyday life. The critics hail this as a very new artistic gesture. However, in ancient times, cynic philosophers copulated or masturbated in the public space for very similar purposes. They are seen as philosophical exercises. The novelty with Acconci, the only novelty, in fact, is that this kind of action is now classified as plastic art. As a final example, some artists have recently declared themselves to participate in “invisual art.” They do not want to produce art, nor interact with society, nor be known, let alone recognized, hence the term “invisual.” Their approach concerns only themselves and their interiority. This attitude is not without interest, but is it not very similar to that of the ancient hermits?
These observations can be extended to most art forms that are perceived as new. Certainly, some proposals can benefit from technological innovations that give them a flavor and appearance specific to our time. However, in essence, I repeat, the only thing new about them is their classification in the field of visual arts.
Why do we see all these activities previously scattered in other fields arrive in the 20th century, and still today, to be grouped and developed under the umbrella of the word “art”? One answer is that the prestige of the status of artist was very strong at the end of the 19th century and therefore very attractive. Art was present everywhere. It was present in the public space with its buildings and monuments to great men. It was present in wealthy homes, filled with paintings, statues and art objects. The artist was then an actor of the civilization in construction. One only has to look at the images of the universal exhibitions to understand this. The disappearance of the aristocracy of birth contributed, as Nathalie Heinich shows, to the development of an imaginary artist as the incarnation of a new aristocracy of genius.
There are also practical reasons for the arrival of exogenous cultural activities in the field of art. Many of the new artistic activities are indeed very close to philosophy and social sciences. Very often, one has the impression of dealing with philosophical exercises or applied sociology. However, if one wants to make a living out of philosophy or the social sciences, the main possibility is to enroll in a doctoral program or to pass a senior secondary teacher training degree and to embark on a career as a teacher or researcher. These are austere and demanding paths. The situation is quite different from the many important facilities offered by artistic institutions. There remains, in fact, from the end of the 19th century, when art had the size of a true industry, an extraordinarily oversized art training apparatus. There are about forty Fine Arts schools, while the audiovisual and cinema schools, which are much more important today, remain few and very selective. It is true that the Fine Arts schools have opened up to multimedia, but their oversized dimension is like an invitation. Anything can become art, since that’s where there is room.
Added to this is the multiplication of artistic institutions created by Malraux and Jack Lang, which offer a framework, opportunities and funding that are much broader than university careers.
A relativistic conception is sometimes used to justify the fact that, with contemporary art, the word art designates activities that are very different from what Mr. Everyman expects to find there. The idea would be that at all times and in all places, art has never ceased to change its nature. Interpreting and appreciating a work would be done in the light of mental patterns reflecting the social and historical conditions of the time. It is as if there were some sort of decoder in us which, like the decoders on the encrypted channels, would change with time. When we look at a 15th-century virgin, we think we are seeing the same thing as a medieval man. Major error: we see a work of art where he sees the mother of God, which are very different things, at least apparently.
Such reasoning quickly runs into difficulties. In the end, since we don’t have the right decoder, we shouldn’t be able to pick up anything, feel anything, or in any case anything interesting. But this is not at all what happens. We are sensitive to many works from contexts that are extraordinarily foreign to our own. Works of art have their own pedagogy, which is much more likely to awaken our sensitivity than scholarly contextualizations. Moreover, we are probably moved by the works of the past for the same basic reasons as the viewers of the past. Let’s take an example: Notre-Dame de Grasse (late 15th century) is one of the most popular sculptures in the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse. This virgin and child strikes visitors with its youth and beauty, but also with a touch of melancholy that we would probably call the baby blues today. The baby Jesus is cute and he pushes away to the side, making us feel his vitality and his desire to be independent from his mother. The artist has beautifully felt and translated this situation. The feeling that emerges may or may not fuel devotion, but it doesn’t change much of what moves us in this work. My grandmother, a public-school teacher, taped a postcard of this virgin on her bookcase. I pinned one next to my computer.
Even the Lascaux cave, although very old, impresses visitors from the start. One is not sure to understand what the frescoes were used for, nor if they were used at all. We probably misunderstand them in many ways. However, it is amazing to see how these vast paintings immediately impress visitors. It is an experience that any of us can have and one that, with a touch of optimism, argues for some universality in art. Relativistic theses are probably only of secondary importance.
It should be noted that this is a debate that can be found in almost analogous terms in the political field. Thus Joseph de Maistre, anticipating the debate on nationalism, wrote in 1796: “There are no men left in the world. In my life have seen Frenchmen, Italians, and Russians; I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian; but as for a man, I declare that I have never met one in my life; if he exists, it is unbeknownst to me.” If we admit that there is nothing in common between men (Joseph de Maistre does not go quite that far), there is nothing to prevent us from putting caribou and ostriches on the same list as Italians and Russians, nothing to prevent us from dehumanizing other peoples. Similarly, if there is nothing in common between the arts until today, there is nothing to prevent us from classifying everything and anything under this term. This syllogism is obviously a dead end.
In fact, from Giotto to Hopper, there are differences in manner and subject matter, but it is always about figuration and representation. The same word “art” is used without difficulty for these two artists. This use of the word “art” is nowadays the one shared, for the most part, by the population. It is the common usage of the language. With Pavlenski and many others, the word “art” designates things that have nothing to do with this common meaning. I don’t want to say that these practices are devoid of interest, that is by no means the case. However, they are extraordinarily different in nature from art stricto sensu or, to use Nathalie Heinich’s term, they belong to distinct and even, in reality, incompatible paradigms. Would we use the same word for vegetables and car keys? This is the situation we are in for art.
The problem is, in practice, that these new activities, instead of being added to art stricto sensu, are subtracted from it. It is in this—and only in this—that they pose a problem. They have a crowding out and delegitimizing effect on art in its ordinary sense. Those who are familiar with weather maps know that an event (disturbance) arriving in France, generally from the west, progresses on two fronts. First, there is the warm front: it advances, conquering new territories. The impression is that the mildness is spreading, but behind it, the cold front is also advancing as if it wanted to catch up with the warm front, so that the width of the disturbance remains more or less constant. As new territories enter its regime, others leave it. This is exactly the same thing that happens with art: as new activities enter the field of art, others are driven out or reduced to a minimum.
How can this strange crowding-out effect be explained? First of all, as we have already said, many people persist in seeing the history of art as a kind of more or less linear progress in which each stage renders the previous one obsolete, or even inspires talk of a clean slate. Progressivism in art is a nonsense that has been denounced many times, but it must be admitted that it has a life of its own. Progressive artists, those belonging to so-called contemporary art, are accompanied by a myriad of critics and theorists who write their history at the same time as it happens, sometimes even anticipating it. These artists are carried and justified by this history. Conversely, figurative artists think that their works are self-sufficient, as in ancient times. They have no history. They are without history. This inequality has serious consequences.
Then, the new forms of contemporary art often have important assets in terms of communication. This is often their strong point. For example, when Pavlenski attacks Benjamin Griveaux, the whole of France knows about it. On the other hand, when painters do paintings, however excellent, it is more or less low key. Hector Obalk rightly says: “Contemporary art is media by nature. The work of contemporary art fascinates no one, but amuses everyone. That’s because contemporary art tells its own story and the words that describe it are enough to imagine it: it’s an all-blue painting, it’s a packed monument, it’s a machine for making excrement, etc. It’s easy to describe. Go explain in so few words why Chardin is a great painter, it’s much harder to do.”
This arrival of new entrants in the field of art leads to a situation where painters stricto sensu find themselves like fledglings having to share their nest with cuckoos. They are squeezed in. They suffocate. Sometimes they are pushed out of the nest. Cultural institutions, like parent birds, prefer to feed the big new ones. Finally, activities that could be added to art in the literal sense tend to be substituted for the wrong reasons.
Affirming the place of painting in the ordinary sense
There are a number of things that disturb the legitimacy of painting in the eyes of the public, especially in the eyes of those who are interested in modern and contemporary art: a misunderstanding of its relationship with photography, a race for novelty and subversive postures, the apophatic push towards intellectualized, abstract and conceptual forms of art, the reattribution of the name of art to activities that are certainly respectable but exogenous. It is important to realize that all these objections, however loud they may be, are in fact irrelevant. None of these bad reasons take away from painting its simple and age-old assets. Just as a simple sheet of paper and a pen are an invitation to write, so a canvas and brushes can represent the world and human existence with a music of forms, a pictoriality.