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André Malraux the founder of the Biennale de Paris by Gisèle Freund in 1935. © Agence Nina Beskow

As an inherently subjective field despite (or perhaps because of) its many changing standards, art has been surrounded by controversy (at least) ever since the Impressionists changed the aesthetic standards of the Academy in the nineteenth century. What was at stake then in the heated debates surrounding the official Salon is similar to what is at stake now in the controversy surrounding the Biennale de Paris: an understanding of art, its forums, its distribution and its cultural value. The Biennale de Paris was launched by Raymond Cogniat in 1959 and set up by the writer André Malraux, who was at the time the Minister of Culture. Its role was to showcase creative talent worldwide and to provide a place where artists, critics, gallery owners, and others involved in the fields of art could share their work and exchange ideas. But ever since Alexandre Gurita took over the BDP in 2000, this forum has been plagued by debates that get to the core of the meaning and place of art today: should it be a place or places? Who counts as an artist? What is art? What counts as an artwork? Who should give it value or cultural meaning?

Will the real Biennale de Paris please stand up?

According to Gurita, the controversy surrounding the Biennale de Paris “would make a best-seller”. The BDP originally directed by Malraux was abandoned by the Ministry of Culture in 1985. Between 1985-2000, there were debates and investigations concerning the ways in which to modernize it and how to relaunch it. In 2000, Alexandre Gurita took over this project and changed it radically, from within. Through the notion of  « invisual art »(1), he broke the sacred law that says « art = art objet » which creates an automatic dependency between art and work of art. He asserts that art can express itself otherwise than through art objects and declares : « There is no proof  that art is depending from the art object. For that reason we can assume the contrary ». In a move that the sociologist of art Pierre Bourdieu would have been proud of, he also challenged the hierarchies imposed by all the mediators – art critics, gallery owners, museum curators – between artists and their public. In so doing, he also disposed with the idea that some artistic spaces – like museums of contemporary art or posh galleries – are privileged spaces to exhibit artwork. Some of the French officials and art critics were up in arms, even though many of them had applauded Bourdieu, one of the most highly consecrated philosophers and sociologists of art, for proposing exactly the same ideas. Gurita just put them into practice.

In his ground-breaking book, Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu argued that society uses “symbolic goods, especially those regarded as the attributes of excellence, […as] the ideal weapon in strategies of distinction” that shape various hierarchies, especially class hierarchies. The art world is still filled with such social distinctions, which aren’t only class-based, by the way. As I’ve argued before, most contemporary artists–no matter what class or place they come from–don’t have meaningful access to the public. Aside from a handful of (mostly postmodern) artists, most artists find it impossible to showcase their art in museums of contemporary art or in the most prestigious galleries. In turn, this means that collectors don’t get to see and buy their artwork and that critics don’t view it and discuss it. To change this hierarchical system of distinction, Alexandre Gurita dispensed with the mediators (gallery and museum curators) between the artists and the public. The participants set themselves the dates and the places for their own activities. On its official website, http://biennaledeparis.org  the reinvented Biennale de Paris includes the following tenets, a true Manifesto of a new aesthetic pluralism:

« The Biennale de Paris was launched in 1959 by André Malraux with the purpose of creating a meeting place for those who would define the art of the future. After a hiatus of several years, the Biennale was relaunched in 2000. Since then it has not ceased in its efforts to unravel art from institutions. The Biennale de Paris rejects the use of art objects, which are too alienated by the market. It does not confine itself to a framework that would hinder its present actions or its political, economic and ideological evolution. By acting upon everyday life and its unfolding realities, the Biennale seeks to redefine art by using criteria which rejects the idea of the artist as the sole protagonist in his work. Simply stated, the Biennale de Paris refuses to participate in today’s conventional art world. By mixing genres, exploiting porous frontiers and practicing the redistribution of roles, the Biennale de Paris allows art to appear precisely where it’s not expected. Furthermore, the Biennale de Paris has its own guidelines(2).

"Déjeuner sur l'herbe", Catherine et Jacques Pineau, Biennale de Paris 2004

In a personal interview, Gurita told me that he perceives undermining the system of distinction as “an instrument of liberty placed at the service of art. In 2000 my act created an enormous scandal and enraged certain representatives of the system. Others, however, liked the idea that an artist combats an institution.” Not everyone in France greeted this radical overhaul quite as enthusiastically. Government officials initially disowned the Biennale de Paris, claiming that the real Biennale was moved to Lyon. Even art critics–who generally can’t praise enough the cutting-edge and avant-garde art–weren’t too flattering. Did the Biennale escape them? In the Editorial of Beaux-Arts Magazine, for instance, Fabrice Bousteau referred to the project as “the regrettable Biennale de Paris, mixing expos, concerts, performances, conferences, and accomplish with the creators of the whole world in several areas of the city” (May 2007). The critic for France’s elite leftwing newspaper, Libération, adopted the official government position that the Biennale de Paris has been transferred to Lyon: “Since 1991, France itself has its Biennale in Lyon. The latter picks up the slack from the defunct Biennale de Paris, which had its last meeting in 1985.” (Libération, April 2006)

The objective of the new Biennale de Paris is nothing less than changing the idea of art as a unified domain of cultural production and rigid, hierchical distinctions. More than that, it proposes an art “without pieces of art, an art without exhibition, an art without spectatorship, an art without curatorship, authors without authority.” As for when it happens, don’t set your calendars, since that’s also relative. “The Biennale de Paris takes place when it happens. It exists in real time. Each biennial begins when the previous ends. Associated practices evolve over the course of successive editions.” Where does it take place?  “The Biennale de Paris takes place where it happens. Relocating itself, it looks for a reciprocity with the practices locality, in order to ponder over and modify social, economical, political and ideological backgrounds.

The Precedent of Impressionism and the Salon des Refusés

"Déjeuner sur l'herbe", Edouard Manet, Wikipedia Commons, Warlburg.edu

Before you conclude that you’re finding yourself in one of Eugen Ionesco’s absurdist plays, I’d like to remind you that the art world has often been subject to radical redefinition from within. To stick to the theme of French culture, I’ll use the Impressionist movement as an example. The Biennale de Paris is not the only one to be rejected by the establishment. It finds itself in good company, since the Impressionists –  are arguably still the most popular artists in the world–were rejected as well.

If any art collection can be said to have a profound impact upon the history of art and aesthetics, the paintings exhibited at the Salon des Refusés in 1863 would certainly be on a top ten list. This collection of paintings marks both a change of views about what counts as good art and a liberating shift in the institutions that consecrated French art to begin with. Before this crucial moment, the production of good art was heavily regulated. From the seventeenth-century, when Colbert instituted the first Salon that would display the art of the painters of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in the Salon Carré of the Louvre, the Salons and the Academy largely determined artistic standards. Even when the Salon was opened to all artists in 1791, the rules by which they were judged did not become less rigid, even though the number of artists who could display grew substantially as did the public patronage of the arts.

When in 1863 the official Salon rejected 3000 pieces out of the 5000 submitted by artists, with hindsight we can safely say that it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In a half-mocking, half-appeasing gesture towards the rejected artists, Napoleon III authorized a Salon de Refusés in a space that was distinct from the prestigious Salon sponsored by the Académie.

Like Napoleon I, the Emperor utilized art to express the glory of the French empire. The standards of the official salon were set by the traditional Count Nieuwerkerke, who was the Intendant of the Beaux Arts. He lived in a seventeen room suite in the Louvre and regulated all artistic life at court. By the 1860′s, however, artists and intellectuals–especially in more liberal newspapers– began to object to the rigid standards of the Academy and the Salon. Many of them demanded inclusion in the Salon for a wider range of talented artists.

Napoleon III paid a visit to the Salon and told Nieuwerkerke–perhaps in part to clip his wings–that many of the works rejected were just as good as those accepted. He then ordered that all the works rejected by the Salon be shown in the Palais de L’Industrie in its own show that would be called, condescendingly, the Salon de Refusés. This created the opportunity for new artists such as Manet, Pissaro and Whistler –the generation that had a profound influence upon modern art and especially upon the Impressionist movement–to become more visible in the public eye.

Manet also proved to be a key factor in the dissolution of the Salon de Refusés, however. Once the Emperor saw his Déjeuner sur l’herbe, he was shocked by its undisguised sexuality and agreed with the Academy that the first Salon de Refusés should also be the last. Nonetheless, the controversy stirred a heated debate over the nature of modern art and eventually opened the way for the Salon des Indépendants, galleries, and other institutions that soon rivaled and eventually exceeded the official Salon’s influence upon art. In fact, in a reversal of aesthetic values, less than twenty years after the Salon de Refusés, the artists associated with this controversial exhibit, particularly Manet, would be enshrined as the founders of modern art. Conversely, the official Salon art would fall into disrepute as mechanical, uninventive, formalistic: in short, l’art pompier, a pejorative term used to describe David’s Roman headgear, which resembled the helmets of firefighters (pompiers). As it often happens, the most effective subversive, anti-establishment artists and artistic movements often become–by their sheer cultural impact and visibility–the new establishment in art.

I believe that a similar process is at work in the manner in which Alexandre Gurita is redefining our understanding of the art world today. His pluralistic understanding of art opens up the field of cultural production to diverse artists, locations, modes of giving cultural value, and audiences. Although his project may have been accused by some of nihilism, I’d say that there’s a big philosophical –  actual – difference between pluralism and nihilism. Nihilism represents a flat denial of all values, be they ethical or aesthetic. By way of contrast, pluralism supports the value of a multitude of standards. Although pluralism can be relativistic, it doesn’t have to be. The standards for many aesthetic values can be defended and validated. Personally, as the founder of a more or less traditional movement in art (postromanticism.com) I’ll take artistic pluralism over rigid hierarchy any day.

As I have argued in my previous article, The Conformism of Postmodern Style, I object to the fact that elitist practices in museums of contemporary art and in some galleries impose a certain conformity (which I loosely associate with postmodern art) upon the art world. In so doing, they don’t give diverse artists a real, fair and democratic shake at presenting their works to the public. But, to my mind, envy of those artists who have “made it” or tearing down the entire artistic establishment is not the solution. Opening up the art world from within is. The French have a saying about this: Vive la différence! The art that Alexandre Gurita endorses – invisual art – is as far removed from my more traditional postromantic art movement as you can get. However, to my mind, the real issue is not imposing one standard of what constitutes good or true art, but making it possible for different kinds of artists and artistic styles to be shared with the public in a multitude of venues. This is what the reincarnated Biennale de Paris directed by Gurita aims to do.

In such a newly redefined art world – or art fields, more like it–it’s possible for more traditional artists like the postromantics to coexist and share cultural space and ideas with the more avant-garde postmodernists.  And if anybody in France still accuses Gurita of political correctness, they can blame it on Pierre Bourdieu, who, incidentally – and ironically – won the prestigious Médaille d’or du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). This goes to show that it pays to shake things up and repudiate cultural consecration. You might even get awarded a medal for it!

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

(1) The invisual is visible but not as art. Invisual do not need to be seen to exist.

(2) -Orientations : The Biennale de Paris rejects exhibitions and art objects. It refuses to be ”thought by art”. It identifies and defends true alternatives. It calls for “non-standard practices”.

-Strategy : To be liquid. If the ground floor is occupied, occupy the floor below.

-An Invisual Art : No serious proof exists that art is dependent on the art object. We can therefore assume the opposite. The Biennale de Paris promotes invisual practices which do not need to be seen to exist. The invisual is visible but not as art.

-A Non-Artistic Art : The Biennale de Paris defends an art which does not obey the common criteria for art: creative, emotive, aesthetic, spectacular…

-An Art which Operates in Everyday Reality : The Biennale de Paris promotes practices that relegate art to the background in order to conquer everyday reality.

-A Public of Indifference : With the Biennale de Paris there are no more art spectacles. The Biennale addresses what it calls “a public of indifference”: persons who, consciously or accidentally, interact with propositions that can no longer be identified as artistic.

-A Unified Criticism : Organised as a network, the Biennale de Paris constitutes a critical mass composed of hundreds of initiatives, which would otherwise have been isolated and without impact.