We are not living a crisis but a change of time
“Urinal, you are” fountain “, and on this fountain, I will build my art! “(Christine Sourgins, Mirages of Contemporary Art, yet to be translated in English)
Well, I have read Christine Sourgins’ Les mirages de l’art contemporain and, OMG !, how she whines – a true complainer. A “gilet jaune” (yellow vest) of French culture! But, believe me, the book is also brilliant, especially, the fourth part “The sacralization of contemporary art”. What a beautiful intellectual workout! Excellent inferences. Neologisms. Short phrases. Lapidary sentences. Some with no subject, no verb, no predicate.
Let’s get right to the heart of the matter. The book has three main sections: a) the first three parts; b) the fourth part; and c) the epilogue, which contains a “brief history of Financial Art”. In my opinion, this book is now a classic that you need to get, proof of its re-editing in 2018. Let’s hope for an English translation very soon. The whole presentation is very good. She offers short conclusions at the end of each part. And finally, a table of contents at the beginning of the book that breaks the French tradition. Enough about the form.
As for the author, whether she admits it or not, Ms. Sourgins is a “retired” Catholic, but a believer – as we can notice in Part IV. I believe that Mme Sourgins is also Marxist since she values the artist’s “manual work” (a necessity), that of the proletarian; the capitalist being the “great Satan of capitalism” (an example among others pp. 28-29 ). Ms. Sourgins is prudish because she considers that all art with any type of “body discharges” (déjections) is only a futile and a useless provocation — so is it art? Ms. Sourgins lives in the past because she advocates the heyday of art. Also, she remains attached to the French franc when talking about prices —5 million francs seems much more expensive than a million euros for a work of art. In short, Ms. Sourgins is at the same time provocative, tough, conservative, cultured, and very smart.
Ms. Sourgins draws first her sources from French journals, mostly Art Press. Her book is, therefore, Franco-centric. As if New York City had not already “kidnapped” Paris – she loves the past. “The era of great explorations is over,” she writes, “no more America to discover, no moon to discover”. The artists she mentions are French first, European after. Likewise, she keeps referring to renowned art exhibitions, those that have become milestones in the field of contemporary art.
All along, the tone is acerbic, which makes reading a little annoying. As if she has had enough of contemporary art and the “heretic” Marcel Duchamp, whom she blames for all the artistic jumbled mess that we have known since the end of the 60s. Ms. Sourgins also discusses the most rebellious, expensive, and abject works of art done by provocateurs who knew how to make people talk about them. She bites the hook.
The book’s introduction and its first part are absolutely to read, reread, underline. She presents the book by telling a brief history of modern art. I agree with her that there was an “artistic schism” in the early 20th century, the Dada Duchamp being the bad apple. I believe that we need heretics. If it took Luther to reform the Church, it took Duchamp to split the comfort zone of easy-going art, the latter about the “retinal” and the “sensitive”. She writes: “Contemporary Art is not an art that arises after a break-up; it is the “art” of rupture. In other words, a refusal of art attached with a refusal of time.”
A little further, she asserts that contemporary art is totalitarian, in the sense that “everything is art” – again Duchamp’s fault. Contemporary art is also authoritarian (hégémonique) since it is invading the planet because of the globalization and the internationalization of markets. I say that there is nothing we can do about that reality and that is how it is. The Internet has changed the world as the press did in Luther’s day. Without the printing press, there would be no Reformation.
Let’s move on in quoting Ms. Sourgins concerning the characteristics of contemporary art to further emphasize her acrimonious tone: “subverted beauty, revulsive beauty, an end of harmony, abject art, mutant art, lawless law, pedophile art, torture art, necrophilic art, suicidal art, the avant-garde of crime ”. But it doesn’t stop! It’s exhausting to read. And worse, we are “grappling with contemporary art”. There’s nothing we can do and it’s too late! All these descriptions are well developed, enhanced, illustrated with judiciously chosen specific cases, to support her conclusions.
The second part rather establishes the relationships between the French State and contemporary art, “absolute official art”, “black hole” of culture, “State opium” (Marxism again!). The author reports impressive figures (for us North Americans), revealing the heaviness of the French administration: there are twenty thousand visual artists and twenty-two thousand cultural officials in France (p. 114). Imagine if this were the case in New York State, California, even in Canada! Finally, on page 122, an optimistic subtitle, “The social benefit of contemporary art”. Finally, an emotional break. I can relax. I read. But no, Sourgins falls back into whining by recounting a few cases where contemporary public works have failed to generate well-being in the community.
Let’s go on. She describes how contemporary art is now “attending pre-school” in France by practicing the “let the little children come to me” (p. 139) – she knows well her New Testament (Matt. 19-14). The elementary schools welcome “little ones to philosophize and to play politics”, the usual drawing lessons being put aside. I argue the contrary by saying to Mme Sourgins that it is necessary to teach drawing AND also the rules of contemporary art, AND also to make known “the heretics” to the children of primary schools. Duchamp is not the only heretic. They were many in the course of art history.
Walk the Arts’ conclusion
In short, I could go on and on to recount Madame Sourgins’ whiny whims, but it is time to conclude. She is accurate to write that the pleasures of culture are “delayed joys” which require cultural awareness and some knowledge. Visual arts, like all cultural expressions, reflect the society and the times in which we live. Walk the Arts’ artists are aware of what is being done in the field of contemporary art, good or bad. It is up to them to choose whether or not to venture into the contemporary department. But it is important to acknowledge that there is no turning back. Contemporary art is here to stay.
That said, in her book, Christine Sourgins only shows the dark side of contemporary art. She claims that contemporary art has “killed the art of the past”, an idea with which I strongly disagree. For me, contemporary art is just its mere continuation. We have to recognize the bright side of contemporary art. Contemporary artists do not aim to destroy the sacred, human sensibility, universalism, timelessness, and transcendence. Quite the opposite when I think of Bill Viola’s “sensitive and sensual” works, which originate from the Italian Renaissance or Neo-classical art. And what about the paintings by Kehinde Wiley? Cecilia Brown’s? Damien Hirst’s The Treasuries of the Wreck of the Unbelievable, which I talked in a previous post. Hirst’s treasuries were all inspired by Antiquity and… all made by “machines” (we replace you, proletarians!) Yes! the work fooled the international community amassed a fortune (a capitalist work), and we have to agree the work was clever, beautiful, transcendent and universal.
Ms. Sourgins does not appreciate the audacity of provocative artists, those who earn or who have earned lots of money, to wonder if money is to be despised, capitalism to be destroyed (Marxist idea). If Hirst, Murakami, Clemente, Kapoor are millionaires today, so much the better for them. Monet was living extremely well in Giverny at the time of his death. Cézanne too, despite his Nietzschean choices. And what about Picasso with his provocative Demoiselles d’Avignon? In America, earning money is well seen. Over the days of good old Christian resignation; “we have to know how to carry your cross” and “we were born for a little bun”! Ms. Sourgins is part of a reactionary Parisian clique facing contemporary art still living in the nostalgia of a Paris dating to the Second World War, where the pigment dominated the canvas when we were still enjoying the plonk drank on the Grands Boulevards. Damn you, New York! “Crucify her! Crucify her! – well, I’m Sourginizing! 😉
If I had to compare this work to that of Nathalie Heinich (The paradigm of contemporary art)? The two are very intelligent essays and they go hand in hand, they complement each other on your bookshelf. But I prefer Heinich, neutral, dispassionate, scientific, who relates without pleading, without judgment, not to say Catholic moral judgment.
By the way, we do not drink “plonk” during our painting workshops Italy and France.
One thought on “The bastard of Marcel Duchamp: Contemporary Art”
Well done Yves. I read your analysis and was amazed as always about your ability to see the bigger picture.
I really appreciated you giving us so much history prior to looking at the art in the Uffizi museum in Florence. Your historical knowledge was my favorite part about seeing the museum. It would have been more exhausting if you hadn’t been there to give us perspective on what we were viewing.
Thank you as always for continuing to persevere in your teachings.
Sent from my iPhone