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By October 31, 2018No Comments

Source : Literary Hub

One important cog of Contemporary Art—I would even call it fundamental—is the militant Enemy of Contemporary Art, who argues and rants against the fraud perpetrated by these bums who have become millionaires thanks to the snobbery of the masses, who writes books with titles that tend to be variations on It’s All Duchamp’s Fault, and who lashes out at examples of ridiculous works of art (“art” in quotes) in Contemporary Art. This last requires no effort: examples abound, and they abound so much that one might suspect that they are being dished up to him on platters, or that they are being made specifically for him. After Duchamp’s urinal, almost any work of Contemporary Art removed from its context, its history, the explanation surrounding it, lends itself to sardonic description. More than lends itself: it could be said that it was created as the object of sardonic description, and that this description is something like the zero degree of its reception. Without reaching that first rung, its reception cannot take flight.

In discussions fostered by the Enemy of Contemporary Art, the argument is usually propped up by imaginary examples created by his aggressive fantasy, such as “Nobody is going to convince me that hanging condoms full of shit from the ceiling is art.” Those listening—even if they know the example is a creation of the moment, under the influence of strong convictions—likely wonder if that work of art (with or without quotes) might have once been created. And if it wasn’t created, it could have been, or it will be, because that logic of a defamatory imaginary example—a form of “whatever”—is at the origins of creativity.

The defamatory example is more than just the favorite weapon of the Enemy of Contemporary Art. It is latent in the nucleus of proliferation. It is a promise of realization beyond the realities, foreseeable and planned, of reasonable evolution. It opens the way for true, non-derivative creation. (We must also keep in mind that defamation, when it is done well, has its own way of maturing into praise, vindication, or authentic comprehension; one example of this is Candide (1759) by Voltaire, written to mock Gottfried Leibniz’s theory of preestablished harmony, which we can read today as the most convincing illustration of that theory.)

This is where the “whatever” formula comes from, which can be taken as a formula for freedom as well as irresponsibility. I prefer the first, and I am an ardent defender, in the literature that I write and the art that I appreciate, of “whatever” as the open sesame of creativity. I suppose it is also legitimate to see this as an indicator of frivolous irresponsibility if the purpose is to give art and literature some kind of conventional social belonging.

An example of a “whatever” that went from defamatory or self-defamatory to “museum quality,” not exactly of Contemporary Art but incomparably illustrative, is René Magritte’s so-called “vache period.” It happened in 1948 and was the result of specific circumstances, which shows that the full spectrum of possibilities in “whatever” requires the contrary—a combination of very precise causes—to occur. Magritte, already a well-known and appreciated artist in Belgium in 1948, was invited to hold an exhibition in Paris for the first time. With his friend Louis Scutenaire, the Belgian surrealist poet, he decided to show works that did not fit the image that had begun to be associated with him (or any other image, for that matter). He chose a different style, whereby the popular prejudice of the French that the Belgian were brutish animals prevailed through sarcasm, to which was added the provocation of not falling into the cliché of the provincial Belgian’s reverence to the prestige of Paris.

So, within a few weeks, one or two a day, he painted the seventeen oil paintings and twenty-two gouaches that would comprise the exhibition. Based on the premise of mocking French critics and amateurs, he had permission to do “whatever,” liberated from the restrictions of quality, métier, or meaning. Paintings clumsily framed, of men with ten pipes embedded in their faces or the barrel of a rifle for a nose, a rhinoceros climbing up a column, a fugitive with a wooden leg chasing a red hen, a man-foot, a woman licking her shoulder, a sky of Scottish plaid . . . Rarely in the History of Art has there been such a combination of circumstances so favorable to the emergence of all the possibilities latent in the formulation of images.

After the exhibition, Magritte returned to Belgium and left the paintings in the garret of a house in Paris, considering them of no importance whatsoever. They had served their purpose of carrying out his joke, and once this was accomplished they no longer interested him. This gesture showed Magritte to be consistent in his intention to escape from the established parameters of value. We would have to wait forty-four years for them to be gathered together again, at an exhibition at the Musée Cantini in Marseilles in 1992. The catalogue for this exhibition, which has not been reissued, is the other irreplaceable jewel of my library. More than a catalogue of an exhibition, it is the catalogue of what can appear on the surface of the not-done when this is given total freedom, which is what the artist should look for. All other paintings in the world had come about as a result of a conditioned process, in which restrictions rose out of psychology, taste, history, or society. The machinations of a joke were needed in order for the magma of the not-done to become a truly limitless totality, and it was from there that the thirty-nine paintings emerged. Each one of them contains that totality, in the form of freedom.

Inverting the formula of the libertines, Magritte said: “If I am allowed to do everything . . .” The consequences remain a blank, or are occupied by this marvelous combination, a monument avant la lettre to the “operational” character of Contemporary Art. Everything should be allowed so that what arises out of that everything has the liberating value we should demand of art. In the visitor book of the 1948 exhibit, Paul Éluard, displeased like all his surrealist friends by the Belgian’s savage mockery, wrote: “He who laughs last, laughs best.” He made a mistake to involve time, for in Contemporary Art, which is where Magritte’s vache paintings are genuinely salvaged, nobody knows who will laugh before or after because historical perspective has vanished and values are in permanent gestation. It is as if Magritte, through that operation, had fulfilled the goal of Contemporary Art before Contemporary Art and under conditions that in Contemporary Art could not exist, for by that time, after 1970, that magma of “whatever” would have risen to the surface and what was emerging would be confounded with its unrealized possibilities.

I wonder if literature could do something equivalent. Freedom is also, or is in the first instance, the freedom to not please. But I think it would be very difficult for literature, because the entire effect Magritte achieved was based on the brutal quantum of the presence of paintings, a presence that in literature is mediated by meaning.

From On Contemporary Art by César Aira, courtesy David Zwirner Books. Copyright 2018 by César Aira.

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