Textes pour approfondir
Réexplorer une histoire de l’art dramatiquement appauvrie
Dipping into a counter-history of art
L’histoire de l’art, telle qu’on la pratique actuellement, me semble un désastre. Convenons d’abord que, d’une façon générale, l’histoire est un exercice délicat : ce que l’on raconte est rarement neutre. Mêlant récit et réalités, l’histoire énoncée instille des façons de penser rarement sans résonances idéologiques. Ce genre de biais est malheureusement particulièrement marqué dans le domaine artistique. L’art moderne et, à sa suite, l’art contemporain ont construit un grand récit servant des finalités autojustificatrices et c’est ce récit qui nous tient principalement lieu d’histoire. Les « ismes » et autres avant-gardes se succèdent depuis l’impressionnisme, tels d’aimables wagonnets sur les rails d’une histoire de l’art bien balisée. On y encense les précurseurs, les grands génies subversifs et les martyrs. Au-delà de ce parcours appauvri, il n’y aurait qu’infélicité et calamité de l’académisme.
Cependant, pour qui veut prendre des orientations figuratives nouvelles, il ne faut absolument pas se laisser enfermer dans cette histoire partiale et partielle. Il convient d’accéder à une histoire plus large, plus éclectique, apportant à la réflexion une plus grande variété d’expériences et de perspectives. En somme, il convient de se libérer de l’histoire de l’art actuelle. Élargir la focale est un enjeu majeur. C’est ce que j’essaye de faire tous les jours en consacrant un peu de temps à découvrir d’autres artistes et à y réfléchir.
Rien que pour le xxe siècle, le paysage est beaucoup plus riche que l’impression que l’on pourrait avoir en traversant, par exemple, les deux étages du centre Beaubourg retraçant fallacieusement l’histoire du xxe siècle. Il suffit d’aller fureter un peu dans les musées secondaires ou sur Internet pour s’en rendre compte. Au moins quatre grands domaines sont systématiquement occultés ou minimisés. Tout d’abord, il y a de très nombreux artistes intéressants qu’on croirait du xixe siècle, actifs jusque dans les années 1950/60, mais jamais pris en compte. On les considère sottement comme des passéistes, c’est-à-dire tels des inexistants. Citons par exemple Edgard Maxence, Jules Adler et André Devambez. Puis, il y a la poursuite, tout au long du xxe, d’une peinture de chevalet naturaliste et antimoderne. Edward Hopper, Lucian Freud, Eric Fischl en sont sans doute les jalons les plus célèbres, mais ils sont loin d’être les seuls. Par ailleurs, les pays communistes ont connu une continuité de la figuration sous le mode du réalisme socialiste. Il serait stupide de penser que cet univers est par principe inintéressant. Par exemple, Alexandre Deïneka, pur stalinien, est, que ça plaise ou non, un excellent artiste. À présent, beaucoup de peintres figuratifs viennent de ces pays où la figuration n’a jamais cessé d’être enseignée. Le cas des Roumains de l’école de Cluj est typique. Enfin, un quatrième domaine comporte un impressionnant foisonnement de talents. Je veux parler des figurations sur papier, qu’il s’agisse de l’illustration ou de la BD. En effet, au début du xxe siècle, l’amélioration des procédés de reproduction donne aux artistes figuratifs, tout particulièrement aux peintres d’histoire, des perspectives d’audience populaire gigantesques. Pour nombre de peintres actuels qui ont trempé dedans dès l’enfance, BD et illustration ont plus d’influence que les gloires recuites de la modernité.
S’agissant d’arbres, tout le monde comprend que la croissance de nouvelles branches et feuillages nécessite un développement racinaire à dues proportions. Il en est de même en art : imaginer de nouvelles échappées artistiques implique de mobiliser des racines délaissées, et Dieu sait si elles sont nombreuses. En résumé, réexplorer l’histoire de l’art est aujourd’hui une urgence collective, mais aussi une exigence intellectuelle pour chaque artiste.
Dipping into a counter-history of art
A surfing enthusiast is ready to go to surfing spots. He meets other sportsmen like himself and watches how they operate. It’s somewhat the same for artists. Each one works by himself, feels his way, asks questions and looks for answers. His thinking often progresses in the light of the works of other artists, ancient or modern. It is they who help him to understand which direction he should, or should not, take. It is true that access to art with all its diversity is a source of pleasure and culture. It is also fertile material that should not be kept from artists.
Unfortunately, whole areas of history of art are not available, buried by thick layers of prejudice, discredited, forgotten or even physically inaccessible. Far from giving us a broader view, art historians often slap blinkers on us. They teach us how to recognise at a glance what is in conformity or not with the kind of ideology that they profess. They teach us not to see what they consider to be retrograde. Frequently, the more a person is cultivated in modern and contemporary art, the less he is able to look at the other movements and the various periods. Even the new figurative artists who should draw on all the components of the history of figurative art sometimes tend to refer endlessly to the same hackneyed artists. They too often ignore the existence of powerful and original artists who would be the most fertile ground for them.
This situation that is specific to art is very difficult to understand for people who work in other cultural sectors. Indeed, it is very easy to go to a library, take a book and go straight into the thinking of authors who are very far from us. This magnificent freedom seems natural in the field of writing and protests are made each time that it is threatened. Unfortunately, it is very limited in art. There are two reasons for this narrowing: the first involves manipulation and the second is related more to conformism. We can examine these two types of obstacle briefly.
The ordinary manipulation of the history of art
History in general, and as it is recounted, is obviously very important as it inspires feelings and guides action. For example, the awareness of nations or human groups of themselves is—rightly or wrongly—based to a great degree on the history that they give themselves. Modern art and subsequently contemporary art have built their own history. If you want something done, do it yourself. However, the important thing is to know how to concentrate your forces on what is truly useful. When an occupier invades a country, he often limits operations to the ‘useful’ part. Making due allowances, this is what art historians did in the service of modernity: they have remodelled useful history—that which starts roughly in the mid-19th century. Before then, they intervened little after complete rewriting and purification. Only artists who can be considered as precursors and, of course, those who incarnate stages are taken into account. They are set in movements and theories are emitted. Like friendly railways trucks, all these ‘–isms’ advance pleasantly along the rails of progress. The other artists are considered corny, are forgotten and their works—often not cared for—are damaged, destroyed or lost.
Skimming through the manuals and museums to measure the degree to which there is abusive confusion between the art of the last century and a half and the history of one of its descendants, the only one considered to be legitimate. This mixture was replaced by residual diversity for the second part of the 19th century but is without pity for the 20th century. For example, the visitors who look around the Musée national d’art moderne (MNAM) at Centre Beaubourg truly believe that they are shown an overall view of the 20th century. The hanging seems to enfold the whole century with the reserve being only the limit to the space available and the incompetence of those who are not included. That is what is dishonest.
The first part of the 20th century was nonetheless extremely rich in artists in continuity with the 19th century and written off. Likewise, art focusing on an ordinary public and expressed on paper, in newspapers, in illustration, in strip cartoons, on record sleeves, etc. totals an amazing number of talented creators. However, they don’t exist in the eyes of historians, or only to a very small degree. Rediscovering and thinking about it is an essential issue.
In this respect, we can note that the painters of the figurative renewal—little interested as a whole by the museal 20th century, draw much from cartoons and the cinema. Freeing oneself from the ideological constraints of modern and contemporary art, and coming out of the ergastulum, means first of all awarding little credit to history of art.
Conformism and the cult of the great geniuses
Now for the second obstacle that I think impoverishes history of art. I mean conformism, the sheep spirit. The main problem is that there is very often an artificial concentration of interest around the most famous artists. We even have the impression that the more famous they are the more their fame increases. From a certain reputation onwards, stories of lives mutate into a golden legend. We observe a kind of devotion. What the great geniuses have left gains a status close to that formerly reserved for relics. We no longer examine the quality of their works but only the fact that they are remains attesting to an exceptional life.
The example of Van Gogh studied by the sociologist Nathalie Heinich shows this enthusiasm effect well. The martyrdom associated with this artist was fictitious to a considerable degree. Furthermore, his works are far from all being unforgettable. The same could be said about Caravaggio and many others.
Why is it that people judge—themselves and without any complex—a TV series, a film, a novel, a song, etc. but when it comes to painting the general public and most professionals follow preconceived ideas and well-established celebrities with docility?
To understand this, let us be in the situation of someone who arrives in a town or a district that he does not know. It is time for supper and this person looks for a restaurant. If the first one he finds is empty he thinks that it must not be a good one. But if the next one is crowded out he enters and must absolutely have a table, even if he has to queue. How can you explain this behaviour that all of us may use one day or another? Quite simply because in certain circumstances we form an opinion by observing that of the others. In this type of situation, we award little value to our own impression. We favour what emerges from the attitude of the others, who are supposedly better informed.
This story of restaurants matches what happens in art fairly well. It is an intimidating field where there has been much explanation for people that they might not ‘understand’ and look like idiots, like those who have not understood Van Gogh. Many prefer to trust the judgement of the others. It is possible that the others in question may sometimes be right but if too many people think ‘by procuration’ there is a concentration of auto-driven adulation of the celebrities, a kind of detestable feedback.
Courage for performing one’s own exploration and not rejecting one’s own judgement
A minimum of independence in the exercise of taste is therefore extremely desirable. In fact, this requirement displays many analogies with the principle of the Lumières. Kant wrote ‘What are the Lumières ? The emergence of man from his minority for which he himself is responsible. Minority means incapability of using his understanding (the ability to think) without being directed by someone else, a minority for which he himself is responsible (fault) because the cause does not lie in a defect of understanding but in a lack of decision and courage to be used without being directed by another. Sapere aude (dare to think)! Have the courage to use your own understanding. That is the motto of the Lumières.’ A little further on, Kant wrote this, putting himself in the position of those who will not use their understanding: ‘I do not need to think as long as I can pay; others will take on this boring work.’ Reading this sentence again, how can one not help thinking of those businessmen who become collectors fairly late and who write large cheques to be photographed—in front of a Basquiat, in front of a Jeff Koons or a Soulages, etc.
Blind tasting in oenology prevents the prestige of labels from guiding a judgement. In art, you must obviously keep your eyes open, but it would be very profitable to retain something of the principle of these tastings. When you really love painting, you have to be irreverent towards the celebrities who are too firmly established and the instructions of those who know. You have to be attentive to the works themselves.
There is also—and this is an excellent thing—a universe in which this way of ‘blind seeing’ is developing on a large scale. This is the Internet. Numerous web surfers have the skill to find paintings and put them on the web, with the only reason being that they like them. It is wonderful to feel the extent to which these people have very little sensitivity to good taste and bad taste. Artists who are supposed to be academic and as looked down on as Bouguereau gain a high score on the Net. All sorts of Victorian authors, those of the Belle Époque, of Mir Iskusstva or of the golden age of American illustration are joyfully disinterred. We have the impression of being on another planet—not that of museums. The Internet is not only a powerful and liberating tool for exploration but it also enables the population to take back, by itself and with no filter, the diversity of the history of art. It is a quiet revolution.