|A BRIEF NOTE ON THE 'CONTEMPORARY BELGIAN ART' ISSUE
OF 'ART IN SOCIETY'
Today, it is still the post-modern, Derrida and Lacan
influenced discourse that colors a lot of 'serious' art criticism. The
academic approach of Gombrich, Panofsky and others seems light-years away.
Realist art can be seen only in a few, most often marginal, cultural contexts.
The 'figurative', the 'representational' in the visual arts, once subjected
to cubist or constructivist deformation, to the outrage of dadaist attempts
to shock & the surrealist enquete bent to unearth and confront the
miraculous, took on the insignia, shapes, forms, expressions of reification
- from Warhol's reproductions of advertised images of boxes destined to
transport detergents, to Jim Dine's hammers and saw blades or Angelo
Evelyn's air planes. Ian Hamilton Finlay, in playing with the ambiguous
meaning of 'concrete art', put concrete objects into the outside world
of a garden, inserting objects made of concrete into a pool mirroring a
sky while Timm Ulrich invented his own, playful counter-objects, 'poetic'
things as such, stripped of all functions that obey what Herbert Marcuse
chose to call instrumental reason. Was such art politicized or depoliticized,
and mere child's play? Did it speak out against something, against a status
quo? Did it sharpen out consciousness and prove subversive? And while abstract
art was becoming dominant and pushing aside the grotesque, the socialist-realist,
the critical and class-conscious art of the 1930s or 40s (or what we took
and perhaps mistook for it), wasn't much in concept art, in the performances
we saw, the installations, even in informal minimal art linking up again
to the subterranean gulf stream that was fed, how many years ago, by surrealist
provocations, and the surrealist attempt to bridge the gap between two
postulates, two demands: "Changer la vie! Changer le monde!"?
The concern remains, the quiet question thought inside
the mind, or the loud and roaring, dissonant voice: which both demand to
know whether much of today's art has become too private, too hermetic?
Or too harmless, too ready to indulge in a politics of appeasement, a very
marketable strategy at times, some say.
A curator like Jan Hoet, involved in a Documenta exhibition
before becoming a respected director of a new museum, the MARTa, recently
recalled, in a conversation with Ann Demeester, the link to the late
1960s that still persists in his curatorial work: "Onze generatie kwam
uit een bourgeois patriarchale cultuur" [Our generation emerged from a
bourgeois, patriarchal culture], he said, as if the struggles and conflicts
of the 1930s and 40s, both in society at large and the terrain of the arts,
had never happened. It is true, he - like so many of us - belongs to another,
younger generation and perhaps every generation is making certain discoveries
and choosing to pick (or not to pick) certain fights anew. For Jan Hoet,
to break with the self-satisfied culture he saw himself emerging from meant
that it was necessary to "search anew, again and again, for secure aesthetic
values." Aesthetic, you heard it right. The close tie that had linked (at
least verbally, and inseparably, they claimed) the social revolution and
the poetic revolution in the project of certain petit-bourgeois surrealist
provocateurs was giving way to concerns about immanent beauty and, wherever
a trace of surrealism persisted, the invocation of the mysterious secrets
of the work of art. A conservative echo, perhaps, of late Late Romanticism:
Eichendorff et al.? Not quite, it seems. While academic art criticism could
still flourish in respected journals, Jan Hoet and other rebels of the
late 1960s affirmed their newly discovered and highly cherished subjectivity.
A subjectivity at odds with many an aspect of the dominant art market,
the established world of the arts and with the social mores of, say, Belgium,
Britain, Germany, France, the U.S., in the '50s. But isn't it symptomatic
that this sympathetic lover of new, provocative, subjective art and friend
of non-conformist artists did not object when the interviewer, Ann Demeester,
highlighted "het feit dat je op pure intuitie vertrouwt" (the fact that
you trust in pure intuition)? And how long will we be satisfied with tongue-in-cheek
and faintly subversive works that speak to the sensitive among us in such
ways that leave much of the 'silent majority' (as the dominant media call
them) untouched and in the grip of the 'cultural' (and political) discourse
of a hegemonial bloc posing as the 'elite'?
- Leo Baumeister
[The quotes are from: Eva Kerremans (ed.), "The Curators" (Symposium
and panel talk, Witte de With, Rotterdam), in: h art [www.kunsthart.org],
#49, March 26, 2009, p.21. - The journal reproduced part of the panel talk:
the verbal exchange between Jan Hoet and Ann Demeester.]