I suspect that those in the flow of the globalized 1% who advocate art for money’s sake (albeit killing the goose of artistic intention that laid the golden egg) are purposefully ignorant of Ursula Meyer’s key 1972 proposition. In her seminal anthology Conceptual Art she clearly and rightly articulates that “art is not in the objects, but in the artist’s conception of art to which the objects are subordinated.”
I had this phrase in mind when viewing Marcel Broodthaers’s current show, which takes us back to a time when the artists in the Belgian group “Surréaliste Revolutionnaire” — with whom Broodthaers associated — knew where to attack power: from above. Up, where the eagles fly.
The exhibition is ironically at the Monnaie de Paris, where for twelve centuries French currency has been produced for circulation. In this weighty context, Broodthaers invites a reflection on and reevaluation of the role of art as currency in our increasingly connected contemporary society.
The exhibition was curated by Chiara Parisi in close collaboration with Marcel Broodthaers’s wife and daughter, Maria Gilissen Broodthaers and Marie Puck Broodthaers. It more or less reconstructs Broodthaers’s sprawling installation piece, “Musée d’art Moderne – Département des Aigles” (1968–1972) in its most complete and accomplished form seen to date. The piece was first created as a conceptual museum in his Brussels home at 30 rue de la Pépinière. It had neither a permanent collection nor permanent location, and manifested itself in sections appearing at various locations between 1968 and 1971. These sections, inspired by the likes of Mallarmé, Magritte, and Duchamp, typically consisted of eagle crests and eagle mugs, kitchy eagle paintings, eagle silverware, eagle jerseys, eagle liquor bottles, and eagle-themed books. The result is something between an eagle antique shop and flea market. The bird of prey, is of course, since Roman times, a popular symbol of power in Europe, once associated with Nazi symbolism.
Broodthaers’s work represents a lame effort to dispute traditional museum and money practices by appropriating and altering institutional power and wealth, as he makes the act of exhibiting a collection a means of artistic expression, commenting on the financial and cultural power associated therewith.
The venture gained extra merit in 1970, when Broodthaers conceived of the “Financial Section” of the museum and when he claimed he would sell the museum “on account of bankruptcy.” The sale was announced on the cover of the Cologne Art Fair catalogue in 1971. No buyers were found. As part of the “Financial Section,” Broodthaers also produced an unlimited edition of gold ingots stamped with the museum’s eagle emblem. The ingots were sold to raise money for the museum, at a price calculated by doubling the market value of gold, with the surcharge representing the bar’s value as art.
One wonders what this project means today in the context of what Brussels-based collector Alain Servais has said in terms of “all of the money that’s pouring in to the art market from all over … spoiling things.” Servais is critical of “the relationship between the museums, and the galleries” saying that “right now only the wealthy galleries can get their artists work into museums.” But a real 1% Art for Money Saker doesn’t much care for showing art — a $70 million state-of-the-art storage facility that doubles as a high-end market place, recently reported in the New York Times, is a case in point.
The abysmal treatment of art as financial storage for high-end investment — ready to trade, not publicly to be seen — might fit Broodthaers’s head-games, but it does not fit my (or most artists’) conception of art. There are no new forms of subjectivity in the presentation of — or confrontation with — this stored-away art. Like Broodthaers’s reproduction-as-art pieces, in which he showed postcards of art as art in his museum, artworks are left in a state of waiting in the cool dry dark. Art becomes a semi-dead, bloodless thing. Waiting on a flip.
Therefore, via the Ursula Meyer mandate, this stuff is temporarily no longer “art,” regardless of what Broodthaers might suggest, as it no longer functions socially in a broad way. Broodthaers’s golden ingot can have, and deserves, the name “golden investment object,” but not art.
Of course this is not to suggest Broodthaers is at fault for this slippery situation — just complacent and premature. Broodthaers had a polymorphic artistic output over a period of only ten years. After abandoning his studies in chemistry in 1942, he spent 20 years in poverty as a struggling poet and at the end of 1963 decided to become a visual artist. Broodthaers made his first film in 1957, and after 1967 he produced over 50 short films in documentary, narrative, and experimental styles. He later worked principally with assemblies of found objects and collage, incorporating written language in his art and whatever was at hand for his raw materials, most notably egg shells and mussels, but also furniture, clothing, garden tools, household gadgets, and (most telling) art reproductions. In “Visual Tower” (1966), not in the show, Broodthaers made a seven-story circular tower of wood and filled each story with uniform glass jars. In every jar he placed an identical image of the eye of a young woman taken from an illustrated magazine. So sardonic humor runs through his work, playing on the relationship between art and its representation, between original and copy, between fiction and reality.
For him, art was a communal activity that stressed the solitude and privacy of the artist and the viewer, and mystical self-enhancement for all. He wanted art to beckon a look deeper, and not compute art as a value in the marketplace. However, the moment Broodthaers’s once-art-now-gold enters a hermetically sealed space, all deep flows are halted. Art becomes an exclusive commodity. It sits on the chopping block. Squandering away its artness.
His questioning of the museum and money may have launched what has become known as “institutional critique,” in which interrelationships between artworks, the artist, and the museum are focused upon, but the focus has gone soft in light of the increasing importance of the state-of-the-art storage facility and private market place. Broodthaers’s “Financial Section” needed to be more resistant to the art market rather than imitate it. It needed an asethetic of dissonance, not cynical mockery.
The network within which we and our money communicate and interact today is, to a great extent, based on infrastructures and devices that are increasingly invisible and “post-medium.” The now-famous “post-medium” idea of art was formulated by art critic Rosalind Krauss in her 1999 essay “A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition” where she discusses the work of Broodthaers in terms of conceptual art, television, and poststructuralist theory. However, with networked mobile computers and artificial intelligence at work now, Krauss’s preferred older techniques have become increasingly outmoded the way “Financial Section” has.
Artworks need innovative materials, definitions, and conditions, with new rituals and ceremonies, to survive as art. Krauss’s theory, like Broodthaers’s “Museum” failed to provide a different discursive framework for art than formal object-hood. It failed in providing art today with an escape from the art market. Broodthaers’s cynical satire offered no way of re-establishing art’s role as the common ground for collective imaginaries, shared aesthetic and ethical aspirations. To create new forms that demythologize art and money is one of the key jobs of artists. It is that philosophy that gives art its true value.
Marcel Broodthaers: Musée d’Art Moderne – Département des Aigles continues at Monnaie de Paris (11, Quai de Conti, 75006 Paris) through July 5.