Scandal(s) at the museum: an old affair

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On Friday October 14, two activists from Just Stop Oil (a movement that campaigns for a halt to British oil and gas projects) entered the National Gallery in London and threw Heinz tomato soup on the sunflowers (1888) by Van Gogh, before sticking their hands to the wall in the exhibition hall. Instant and stratospheric scandal.

Whether it's soup or mash potatoes, the media coverage of these incidents perfectly fulfills their mission of publicizing the environmental cause. They also include, by their scandalous effect, their own self-justification, by demonstrating that the attack on art would henceforth scandalize us more than that on the living... sunflowers being protected by glass, itself a metaphor for this protection of art, the simulated aggressiveness of this action first gives it a symbolic significance. To discuss its relevance and its limits, it is useful to go back to the history of artistic activism and interventions in museums.

Art or activism?

Let us first clear up any misunderstanding: the activists of JSO, even if their action uses an artistic repertoire, only claim the political dimension of their staging, and the video of the sequence indeed denotes a deliberate circumvention of any attempt to aestheticism, and even a certain awkwardness. But we can have fun looking at things through the other end of the telescope: if they had claimed the "artistic" character of their "event", it is a safe bet that the scandal would have been much less, even bad. The transgression is better supported when it is signed by an artist than by an activist. Which moreover somewhat confirms the scope of their message: art has become a reassuring signifier, domesticated and partly harmless, a mirror of our neuroses which only leads to reproduction.

Small comparison: their action was much less violent (and sordid) than that of the artist-performer Piotr Pavlenski, author of a directed happening ad hominem (And ad penem) against Benjamin Griveaux, which for its part exceeded the boundary of the simulation. But Pavlenski's exaction did not arouse, far from it, the same moralizing outcry. Because its author was an artist. Doubtless also because public opinion likes Van Gogh more than his current leaders, but that is another story... The comparison shows in any case, if it were still necessary, the tiny tenuity of what he remains of the boundary between art and non-art: definitions are no longer a matter of context, reception and parameters external to the work itself, which Nelson Goodman called the "allographization" of art.

Echoes to the history of performance art

Nevertheless, the action of the JSO activists is also part of this artistic history of performance and artists' interventions. Horrified critics who only saw the pink hair and the inscriptions on the T-shirts have missed many hypertexts (voluntary or not, that's not the question: a network of signs appears) that it would be tedious to list exhaustively: the Large glass by Duchamp, action painting, Warhol's Campbell's Soup, "takeoffs" by the artist Fluxus Volf Vostell, and even the stuck banana on a wall by Maurizio Cattelan… The list à la Prévert would be without interest, but the interplay of echoes is deafening, precisely because the recent history of contemporary art consists of this progressive and disturbing confusion between the aesthetic and the political.

As for thecraftsmanship gesture of vandalism is also an old story that goes back to the historical avant-gardes: imbued with nihilistic irony, the Dadaist tracts and manifestos are stuffed with (metaphorical) calls for scrapping, while Tristan Tzara compared the art to "a poet with broken ribs like Picabia who breaks all the bones and the glass roses". This same Francis Picabia who proclaimed in his Cannibal manifesto (1920) :

“You are the masters of whatever you break. We made laws, morals, aesthetics, to give you respect for fragile things. What is fragile is to be broken. Test your strength once; after that I defy you not to continue. »

And Picabia concludes with an eloquent reversal: “What you cannot break will break you, will be your master. »

And long before Pinoncelli, who made himself famous by urinating and damaging the urinal (Fontaine) by Duchamp, long before Banksy's Self-Destructing Artwork, there was Austrian Gustav Metzger, inventor of "self-destructive art", the art which self-destructed: the paintings, installations were offered to nature, to its forces of corrosion which, by acting on the works, deformed them and took the place of the artist and brush. In a completely different register, the withdrawal of the artist in favor of the work of nature or the cosmos is found in "Arte povera", in "Land art", in telluric performances by Ana Mendieta… It's endless.

In short. The struggle between art and life, the dramatization of the tension between object and gesture are recurring topos of contemporary art, part of which has long been used to denounce the reification of bourgeois art. , the devitalization of works in museums, their commodification, their institutionalization and their financialization. This vitalist part of contemporary art, which occupies a good part of performance art, has long been (at least Beuys and Abramovitz) admission to museums, a paradox often highlighted by various and varied commentators.

Museums and activism

The history of activism in museums is just as extensive: one can think of bed room (1972) of Chris Burden, but especially to the protest actions of the group Fluxus, undertaken in the 1962s to denounce the devitalization of art in favor of a bourgeois art, commercial and harmless, disconnected from the world and predigested for an amorphous and apathetic public. The first Fluxus festivals are series of sketches where you screw up a few pianos, where you transform your head into a brush or your body into a violin. Unlike the case of sunflowers which obeys an ideology, the public of these happenings was taken aback, crossed at the same time by the laughter and the scandal in front of these post-Dadaist buffoons. Among the most famous Fluxus demonstrations and pickets, there was the demonstration with Henry Flint in front of MoMA in 1963, And pickets against Stockhausen concerts, a composer whom they had made the symbol of official European and reactionary art.

Finally, there was Joseph Beuys who paved the way for performance that was truly activist, in other words driven by a cause, which was not the case with Dada or Fluxus agitation, much less directed and intentional. Beuys is the inventor of the artistic and ecological agit-prop as evidenced by several actions: bog-action (1971), one of the first performances of environmental activism to protest against the drying up of an inland sea in the Netherlands; I like America and America like me (the performance with the coyote); 7000 Chenes presented at Documenta in Kassel in 1982 – to cite just a few examples.

"Blur between art and life"

The action of the National Gallery deserves to be put into perspective with this tradition of "blurring between art and life" ("blurring of art and life", according to the expression ofAllan kaprow), which partially put art at the service of politics. The Femen, the Guerilla Girls or Pussy Riot have accustomed us to this mixture of art and activism, and have done so for a very long time.

The sprinkling of tomato soup constitutes a gesture of disartification and desacralization of a work of art with planetary fame, and fetishized by its price – one of the first reactions of the scandalized was in fact to recall the market value of the sunflowers, even though this work belongs to a public collection. Such a perspective therefore in no way amounts to "artifying" (transforming into a work of art) the action of JSO activists, and therefore even less to legitimizing them "because it would be art": art is just as indebted to criticism as militancy. The resonances with the history of art are neither in its favor nor against it, but they offer us other critical tools to escape a little from the polemic and change the angle. The filiation with Beuys, for example, is valid in all its ambivalence: the German artist still disturbs by his proximity to anthroposophy, his megalomaniac “healer” persona, his recycling of Nazi symbolism for the purpose of “reparation”…

The sheer, but media-beneficial, irritation aroused by this (ultimately benign) intervention at the National Gallery serves to reveal the context of reception – and revealing the context is often the ultimate aim of performance art, often referred to as "environmental" by the artists themselves : our time is saturated with transgression, buzz, disruption, but also very real attacks against art and freedom of expression. It is not surprising that this kind of irruption is badly received. Furthermore, the ideological dualism which serves as a framework for the intervention is detrimental to it: besides the fact that opposing nature and culture is a potentially dangerous anti-humanism, claiming that culture would be more protected than nature is, at best, of disconcerting naivety and ignorance. It takes nothing away from the interest of remembering that, despite the extreme artificialization of our environment, art continues to need life to exist. That lifeless art is just zombie art. It was (perhaps) this meditation to which Pascal Rambert invited us staging the epic of Gilgamesh in the field of sunflowers on the island of Barthelasse, in Avignon….

In any case, let us be careful not to oppose nature and culture, keeping in mind the aphorism of Oscar Wilde ("Nature imitates what the work of art offers it") and that of Robert Filliou ("The art is what makes life more interesting than art”).


Thank you to the director Yaël Bacry who, through her reflections and our exchanges, contributed to nourishing this article.

Note: Isabelle Barbéris will be live on the show Sign of the Times, on France Culture, Sunday October 30 between 12:45 p.m. and 13:30 p.m.

Isabelle Barberis, HDR Lecturer in Letters and Arts, Paris City University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.


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