Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vive La Belgique Sauvage: The Superiority of the Minor Avant-Garde

Alrighty then. So I've got about a half-dozen writing committments simmering in the critical kitchen, and several bits of administative trivia waiting to be swept under the rug. And a guest-room only half converted into a nursery. So the only rational thing to do is to continue writing about Belgian surrealism, even though I've wrapped up my official commitment in that area and sent the little essay off to the editors of the relevant journal. Anyway, it's all I've thought about this morning, as I cleaned up my notes and files from the writing of the essay.

So here's what I'm thinking: Belgian surrealism was the real deal, and those Belgians who stayed at home in Belgium were in a crucial sense better positioned to carry out one of the central projects of the avant-garde than were their Parisian and New York-based colleagues. That is: their eccentricity vis-a-vis the centers of artistic and literary reputation-making actually helped them to develop a critical attitude toward the institutions of culture. And wasn't the development of such an attitude one of the main goals of the avant-garde from Dada on?

Just about anything one reads about the Belgian surrealist scene (which started up in the 20s and continued to thrive well into the 60s) mentions the unpretentiousness and affability of it all. In contradistinction to the status-monkeys vying for Breton's blessing in Paris, or trying to pick up some of Dali's commercial luster in New York, we always hear of a Belgian scene dominated by people who actually liked one another, and pursued their work as a form of pleasure and intellectual engagement free from reputation-grubbing and political maneuvering. An example ready to hand from my files is Klaus Herding's 1982 review of a Magritte exhibition that placed M.'s work in the context of the Belgian scene from which the famous artist emerged. "Belgian surrealism," writes Herding, has up to now

...been overshadowed by the French artistic canon, yet here it reveals itself as highly distinctive and at the same time more firmly rooted in the native soil than its Parisian counterpart. In the André Breton circle, for example, there was a clash between exclusivity (for which a conventional term was le château) and a revolutionary demand for validity for all (the expression for this was l'océan)... the Belgian branch purported to be more 'reasonable,' jollier and more relaxed: good food and drink rather than male sado-masochistic fantasies were the rule when its practitioners met, and from 1949 until 1951 Magritte, Mariën, Louis Scutenaire, Paul Nougé, Paul Colinet and Robert Willems contributed as cartoonists to the weekly magazine Vendredi.

It sounds like a good-natured, congenial scene, which didn't take itself too seriously (a particular crime for surrealists, I should think). Of course there's a price one pays for shunning ambition (I mean ambition in the very bourgoise sense of material self-advancement, and the artsy variant where we simply substitute a lust for personal fame and the piling up of cultural capital around one's name for the regulation bourgeois' accumulation of economic capital), and Michel Delville, the guy who hipped me to Belgian surrealism in Liège a decade ago, understands this well. Here's a bit from his essay "The Secret History of Belgian Surrealism," which we ran in Samizdat back in 2001:

Correspondance, the first Belgian Surrealist magazine, was founded by Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans and Marcel Lecomte in 1924, the same year as Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto. Since that time, Belgian poetry has remained one the European avant-garde’s best-kept secrets. The names of Nougé, Chavée and Dumont are conspicuously absent from most anthologies and literary histories, and Belgian surrealism is generally considered as a non-literary phenomenon and almost systematically confined to the paintings of René Magritte and Paul Delvaux. Unlike many other Belgian writers who moved to Paris to make a career (the examples of Georges Simenon, Henri Michaux, Pierre Alechinsky and many others come to mind) most Belgian surrealists published their work in their home country, and this may explain their lack of recognition outside a small circle of connoisseurs and specialists. Perhaps it is the sense of being relegated to the margins of francophone culture that accounts, at least in part, for the radical, convulsive spirit that runs through the history of the Belgian counterculture, from proto-Dada poet Clément Pansaers to Noël Godin, the now world-famous entarteur who recently hit Bill Gates with a cream pie...

The interesting bit here, for me, is the way the deliberate self-marginalization of the group actually allows them to develop a special perspective, a more subversive "radical, convulsive spirit" than is found elsewhere in surrealism. One way to think about this special perspecitve is with the concept of "minor literature" articulated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. For them, minor literature is not (or not necessarily) a literature written by an ethnic or cultural minority — though it can happen that way, and may even help. I mean, Kafka — whose relationship to language and ethnicity was all kinds of crazy — offers Deleuze and Guattari their test case for minor literature in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. But it's important to note that D. and G. aren't talking about a literature written, identity-politics style, to represent a particular identity group and its interests (though they weren't against that sort of thing). A minor literature represents, rather, something more like a deep, even intuitive, critical attitude toward the dominant ways of representing the world. Both the values of the dominant culture and the language expressing those values (that is, the dominant culture's major literature) are held up to question by the writer of a minor literature, who therefore becomes “a sort of stranger within his own language.”

Reidar Due, in his book Deleuze, gets the gist of this down rather economically, saying: “To be a classical writer one has to have access to a central viewpoint from which to represent the moral, cultural, and political structure of a society. Minor literature, by contrast, views society from an oblique, marginal angle.” He then goes on to contrast Goethe, as a classic or major author, with Joseph Conrad, whom Due sees as a writer of minor literature in the Deleuzian sense:

With his drama Faust Goethe created a representation of middle-class values and dilemmas (morality and sex, thought and action) in which subsequent generations of middle-class citizens could recognize themselves. That made Goethe a classical author. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, by contrast, depicts English colonialism as a hell of barbarism and cruelty — and he can do so [sic] because he produces specific intensive states within the English language, liberating it from its conventional rhetorical virtues of wit, elegance, and satire.

Minority, then, is stylistic and moral dissent, and it's important too: as Deleuze and Guattari oxymoronically put it, “there is nothing that is major or revolutionary except the minor.”

I think the deliberately self-marginalizing Belgian surrealists, off doing their own thing in the provinces, are well positioned to take an eccentric and critical stance toward the institutions of the dominant literature and culture in Paris. I suppose Breton and co. could be said to represent a minor-lit stance toward the big culture of, say, La Nouvelle Revue Française, but the Belgians hold minor status even with relation to the Paris-New York avant-garde scene. Their refusal to beat feet over to the city of lights to make it on the scene there is already a kind of statement to this effect.

Anyway. The Belgians' position outside the main institutions of Francophone culture (even avant-garde Francophone culture) is, ironically, a great strength for them in pursuing one of the main projects of the avant-garde: the undermining of cultural institutions. My great touchstone for the hows and whys of the avant-garde questioning of the institutions of art is Jochen Schulte-Sasse's introduction to Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde, where he tells us about how the avant-garde evolved out of a sense of the limits of late-nineteenth-century aestheticism (you know: Oscar Wilde and company). It's probably not necessary to quote from it here, but in the great scheme of things this whole post is unnecessary, so in the spirit of general egregiousness I'll quote my favorite chunk of Schulte-Sasse's intro to Bürger:

Aestheticism’s intensification of artistic autonomy and its effect on the foundation of a special realm of aesthetic experience permitted the avant-garde to clearly recognize the social inconsequentiality of autonomous art and, as the logical consequence of this recognition, to attempt to lead art back into social praxis....the turning point from Aestheticism to the avant-garde is determined by the extent to which art comprehended the mode in which it functioned in bourgeois society, its comprehension of its own social status. The historical avant-garde of the twenties was the first movement in art history that turned against the institution “art” and the mode in which autonomy functions.

So that's a general avant-garde project — and I think we can see how in a sense it's also a particular kind of minor literature project: in questioning the institution of art it also questions the forms and values of classical art. But the Belgian surrealist move — coming from a group on the fringes of the avant-garde, which is to say from the fringes of the fringe — involves questioning both the classic literature and the central core of the avant-garde itself.

The work of Marcel Broodthaers offers a good case in point (but he's just one among many — he comes to mind largely, I think, because there was an exhibit of his down at the Arts Club in Chicago last time I had lunch there with my appropriately avant colleague Davis Schneiderman). Some of Broodthaers' thumbings-of-the-nose at the institutions of art were done with a light touch. I particularly like how he simply declared the existence of the "Musée d'Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles" one day. It was located in his apartment (and, later, became a kind of umbrella organization, or faux-organization, for many of his activities, and for the writings and performances of his friends. Eventually he expanded it to include a "Section Littéraire" and a "Section Cinéma." It was a great way of poking fun at the pretentions of Official Culture.

Official culture, though, is a pretty easy target. Broodthaers went further, often questioning or undermining the conventions of the avant-garde itself. I keep coming back in my thinking to his "Pense-Bête," a piece where he took some of the unsold copies of a book of poems he wrote and clumsily cast them (along with a child's ball) into a hunk of plaster. It's important to the piece that the books sit loosely in the plaster, and could be pulled loose and read. Think about it: when the only people likely to view the piece (afficionados of the avant-garde) come to see it, they are faced with the contradictions of the avant-garde art lover. On the one hand, they're all committed to the idea that art isn't sacred and shouldn't be cut off from us by any sacred aura. On the other hand, to actually pick up one of the books and read it would be to violate the decorum of the gallery: they'd be damaging an exhibit. Of course they shouldn't be bothered about damaging an exhibit: hadn't the great Dada heroes placed small axes next to their work, along with invitations for spectators to destroy anything they disliked (hence ceasing to be mere spectators)? But the contradiction of being avant-garde and being an art-lover was too much. As Broodthaers observed in "Ten Thousand Francs Reward," no one actually ever violated the sacred aura of the exhibit to read a book: they all looked at them politely, like the most bourgeois of exhibition-consumers:

Here you cannot read the book without destroying its sculptural aspect. It is a concrete gesture that passes the prohibition on to the viewer — at least that's what I thought would happen. But I was surprised to find out that viewers reacted quite differently from what I had imagined. Everyone so far, no matter who, has perceived the object as an artistic expression or a curiosity. "Look! Books in plaster!" No one had any curiosity about the text; nobody had any idea whether this was the final burial of prose or poetry, of sadness or pleasure"

I'm not sure whether he showed them, or they showed him, but I am sure about what's on display: the contradictions of avant-garde art itself.

Another way Broodthaers' "Pense-Bête" challenges the norms of the avant-garde is by causing us to question the nature of one of the major avant-garde forms: the readymade. Dieter Schwarz (to whose thinking I'm indebted in everything I say about Broodthaers) has a lot to say about this in an old issue of October. "In contradistinction to the readymade, which is selected by its 'author, being thereby instated as an aesthetic object'" says Schwarz, "the poems of Pense-Bête [the book, not the sculpture of the same name] remain part of a literary discourse, for the author's statement is obviously .... inscribed within a cultural tradition." That is: the readymade is usually a testament to the aesthetic gaze and aesthetic intention of the artist: he sees something and, by selecting it, declares that it has aesthetic value. Here, though, the found object has already been designated as an aesthetic object (in a literary sense, not a sculptural one), and has been so designated by the same guy who is now presenting it as a found object. And can an object really be called a readymade when it is the artist in question who actually made the object (albiet for a different purpose)? If the readymade asks "what makes art art?", then "Pense-Bête" asks "what makes a readymade a readymade?" So the avant-garde questioner of art finds himself interrogated. The minor avant-garde takes a good, hard, critical look at the classic avant-garde. And does it while having a good time, too.

Michel Delville got it right, I think, when he said (in "A Secret History of Belgian Surrealism") that many works of Belgian surrealism were enabled by the distance from the fame-hunting, revolution-dreaming world of Parisian surrealism. The Belgians, says Delville, "were inspired by the chink of beer bottles, the smell of fried sausages and the sight of people pissing in the streets on their way back from the local café. As Louis Scutenaire once put it, in Belgium 'on boit de la bière et on mange de la viande / Et tout le monde est une bande d’abrutis' ('we drink beer and we eat meat / And we’re all just a bunch of morons')." Now that's what I call a liberating vision of art!