The following is a recent exchange about artist Marcel Broodthaers with art historian Rachel Haidu. Haidu is an historian and critic of modern and contemporary art with particular interest in Western and Eastern Europe. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History, and Director of the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies, at the University of Rochester, and the author of The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers 1964-1976 (2010). Her current project, The Knot of Influence, proposes new models for understanding artistic influence with particular attention to historiography, identity, and the influx of performance and technologies of reproduction in contemporary art.
Silvia: In relation to a project, I’ve been looking at the 2012 publication, Marcel Broodthaers: Works and Collected Writings. It’s always interesting to start with the paratextual material in a book: the book is part of a series of artists’ writings edited by Gloria Moure that includes only one woman artist out of 12. That incomprehensible lineup aside, this book is fascinating. It’s interesting not just for the actual writings it contains, but also for its organization. The table of contents lists only the forward, introduction, two essays, and a general category of writings that itself takes up the majority of the book, 462 pages.
The methodology described in Moure’s introduction points out that they have observed chronology, occasionally privileging the thematic. I’m not sure exactly how the thematic is privileged, but the editorial approach intersperses some of Broodthaers’ visual/linguistic works among his writings, no doubt because so much of his work was bound to language.
This editorial approach produces an unusual experience for the reader. Because it’s the nature of Broodthaers’ work to “commix spaces, things, objects, and words…” (Moure), the reader gets immersed in a dizzyingly borderless compilation of genres, “styles,” authorial voices, types of address, etc. It’s as though one is experiencing the artist’s aesthetic strategies in a manner in which the exhibitions would not have made available. I’m interested to know your thoughts on this particular book.
Rachel: The book is beautiful, for sure. And full of fascinating, previously unpublished writings, though a few of them are of the sort that seem like they might have been so for a reason. There are some great moments, like the reproduction of the “author’s edition” of Pense-Bête with colored papers pasted over parts of poems (or sometimes a poem in its entirety) in that volume. It’s done in such a way that you can see the recto-verso, in other words you can see right through the paper just as in the original, which deepens the sense of playfulness, and connects it remarkably well to the Mallarmé editions that follow, some pages later. Throughout, all the work runs together, continuously, without the artificial, discursively-imposed categories of chapters and so on, in a way that I love.
There are also some odd choices, such as the ways that they translated the open letters into English. Some appear with the French original in facsimile next to the translation; others are without that original, as if they were written in English, which is made even more peculiar by the editors’ use of an old-fashioned font that’s very close to the typeface that appeared on the originals. Since the only other large published collection of open letters—edited by Benjamin Buchloh and published by October–is out of print, Moure does a disservice to future scholars who would want to parse the original texts. Why do that to Broodthaers, for whom “writing,” as Moure and Peltzer stress, is the key term?
This also points to the absence of information that would frame all of this. One almost wishes there were at least a key in the back to explain what the open letters were. There is a bibliography that oddly makes no distinction between published writings and “notebooks” and omits any mention of these very important, distributed “open letters.” A real guide to the writings, which explained to some limited degree what each republished “writing” was, would have been welcome, though of course it would have raised complicated issues about what information is necessary to define a piece of writing.
But here I’m nitpicking with a terrific and beautiful publication. I haven’t seen the other books in the series, so I can’t compare its presentation to theirs, but this one hews closely to Broodthaers’s approach: it feels simultaneously like a book of text and a catalogue, a series of reproductions and a series of publications…in other words, it lets all the categories run loose and flow into each other in a way that makes it possible to feel one is plunging right into his work, without having to piece it together, read the writings against catalogue images, etc. In that way it is remarkable.
Silvia: The book’s omission of information on the open letters is frustrating. For readers who may not know, Broodthaers’ open letters were written in 1968 and 1969, with most, but not all, taking an epistolary form of address (Dear Friends, Dear Sir, My dear Claura, etc.). Some look more like press releases, and sometimes the two forms are combined. Their language belongs to various genres -informational, allegorical, allusive, satirical, poetic – sometimes combining more than one in a letter.
In your fascinating 2010 book on Broodthaers, The Absence of Work, you wrote the following:
“In the European tradition, lettres ouvertes are written as open provocations by an individual for whom another individual is not an adequate or appropriate audience: the public must be addressed. Published or not, a lettre ouverte is thus characterized by its lopsided structure: it is aimed at “the public,” but from a position that stresses the individuality or even marginality of the author. The typical authorial position of a lettre ouverte is that of the loudmouth, troublemaker, or rabble-rouser, someone anxious to make himself heard from a restricted (nonpublic) position. In this sense, the lettre ouverte is a presumption to the openness of debate – to what is popularly, if problematically, called ‘freedom of speech.’ But by its very nature the lettre ouverte depends on a freedom so ‘free’ it expects no return. Though it might provoke a reaction, it does not and cannot anticipate a response; it is a letter without a return address.”
I’ve always been intrigued by the (non)circulation of the open letters of Broodthaers. Some historians refer obliquely to their having been “issued;” sometimes there’s a reference to their having been handed out at exhibitions. I agree that the open letter is one written without, so to speak, a return address, and to a “public” always in quotation marks. But there is a tradition of open letters being published so as to reach wide distribution. Possibly the most famous one is Émile Zola’s open letter on the Dreyfus affair, J’accuse. Addressed to the French president and published in a Paris newspaper in 1898, it played a big role in Dreyfus receiving a second trial, and still resonates, most recently in an essay by Jacqueline Rose on a related topic. There is also Martin Luther King’s well-known “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” of 1963, which went on to be published and republished over fifty times. And there are other examples. Often in an open letter the specific addressee is a stand-in for a different “public.” Today, with multiple, “rent-free” platforms, and the search engine, one need not even depend on the sympathies of a newspaper editor.
I realize that Broodthaers was an artist, and the examples I give here were not the work of those who functioned within the realm of what we used to call the “visual” arts, but in light of today’s distribution contexts, what do you think of the very limited circulation of Broodthaers’ letters in his time? Do you think there was a spectatorial value to that limitation, beyond what might be theorized today in an art history text?
Rachel: The lettres ouvertes were circulated in a variety of ways—some left in stacks at gallery openings, others sent to a mutating group of recipients. I think Broodthaers had in mind both the “mail art” that had been part of Fluxus’s range of approaches, and the great work with respect to invitations that was done, for example, by the artists in Anny de Decker’s Wide White Space gallery in Antwerp. In the book I mention a project by James Lee Byars that involved an invitation to a “Con. Art” opening sent in a tube; Lawrence Weiner had a show that was just his invitation to that show tacked up on a wall. And of course the lettres ouvertes also have to do with the cartes postales—the hanging of postcards on the wall of the Section XIX siècle of the Musée d’Art Moderne. As part of the Musée, the lettres ouvertes were called the “section littéraire,” considered another wing or “section” of the Musée that included the “Section Cinéma” as well as sections organized by epochs, like the “19th century Section.”
I’m not sure what you mean about what “might be theorized today in an art history text”—is there something specifically out of bounds that you’re thinking of? Does art history have really strict limits on what can be theorized?
In terms of spectatorial value, it’s complicated. Broodthaers was interested in the ways in which contemporary art—Minimal and Conceptual art, and before that Pop and Fluxus—limited art’s “spectatorial” value, its pleasures and those pleasures’ association with the marketplace. He was particularly interested in that as a writer, and as a poet even more: writing and poetry especially are ways of not making money and not reaching people. At least, that was a version of his experience that he liked to talk about. He liked to stress how few people he reached as a poet, and how therefore art was for him about “communication,” about succeeding where he’d failed as a poet, which of course is a great parodic statement, since his art almost always refuses to communicate anything as such (hence the title of my book).
So, for me the lettres ouvertes have specifically to do with that, which is why I’m so interested in their form, and the eloquent if abject position he designates as the one from which he writes. I like the poetic nature of that abjection—how he resorts to a kind of poetry that’s at times comparable to the concrete poetry of someone like Carl Andre and yet utterly different, because where Andre really is mostly interested in modularity and the typewriter, Broodthaers is really interested in the actual communicative dimension of the words themselves…how trite and yet sorrowful his isolation is, and how that too might be an “art project,” almost like Acconci’s, for example, except with more direct political ramifications having to do with speech, history, and subject-positions.
Silvia: What I meant by “beyond what might be theorized today in an art history text” is whether the experiential aspect of the reception of Broodthaers’ open letters might have exceeded what a historical/theoretical text can represent or theorize. How did spectators at the time experience the work, as opposed to how it is discussed in a theoretical text today? For me, there’s a gap that always exists in engaging a historical moment or artifact through another medium, another form of evaluation. That gap is not one I would characterize in negative terms, but it is for me the sign of a limit or a difference. It’s not that experience is pure and critical writing is mediated, but that a historical moment is always different in experience than it is in a retrospective framing.
I’m not sure I would accept Broodthaers’ take on writing being more removed from the economic realm than art. I’m don’t think there’s anything that achieves distance from economic systems and their effects, but as you say, that was the version of his experience on which he chose to focus. Maybe that focus signaled a blind spot, based on his lack of financial success as a writer.
Rachel: As to the Dreyfus affair and the political realm you brought up: it’s incredibly important, but perhaps I am trying to assert something about the way that Broodthaers can be read as a lodestar as people try to figure out how to be politically engaged in their art. I don’t mean that he can’t be, or that they can’t read him however they want; I am just trying to bring our conversation closer in to the specifics of how he works. For me there is a resonance with those artists who are working on the difficult emotional component of being politically engaged. Though I certainly don’t want to make Broodthaers into an artist of “affect,” I think that what the lettres ouvertes open up, specifically, is that particular position of the poet describing his own complex position, abjectly shut out both by virtue of his language and by virtue of the social position assigned to poets. (Here I’m intentionally using the gendered pronoun “he,” thinking of Baudelaire over Marianne Moore. But in fact this has become a particular preoccupation of feminists, such as yourself, Silvia, and other artists such as Sharon Hayes or even Jenny Holzer or Mary Kelly—again, staying with words and politics in the most literal sense.)
So if you want to talk about today’s distribution contexts, it seems you want to talk about the Internet, and the instantaneous, seemingly utterly public “realm” in which one can speak. First, of course, there are the well-rehearsed limits to just how public one can be on the internet. On the one hand there’s publicness and on the other hand there’s a voiding of that term in the way it’s been classically thought, and now has to be rethought. I’m referring to how segmented the public really is, on the internet, and the fact that it does not in fact reach “everyone,” though of course it has those pretenses. On the other hand, there’s the question about whether the position from which one writes (even on a public blog) has actually changed. I think that if Broodthaers were writing and making art today (which is impossible to imagine, but I can try), he’d still write in the same exact tone, full of pathos and irony at the same time, even if it were (God forbid) posted on Facebook or something. And that part is interesting to me: the possibility that the position of the poet he’s so invested in might not have changed one iota despite the apparent broadening of the realm of circulation of something like a lettre ouverte.
Silvia: As they say, funerals are for the living, and conjecturing about what kind of work an artist would be making if they were alive today (something I enjoy) is similar. It’s an important exercise, in my opinion, because it’s one way to think the present through the past.
I agree with your skepticism about the publicness of the Internet. Recently some Masters in Art History students from the Courtauld were visiting for a discussion and one mentioned an Ai WeiWei article in The Guardian [link] that equated blogs – and the internet in general – with freedom (in relation to Chinese censorship). As a populist (and promoter of individualism), Ai WeiWei would think that. I had to chuckle at this concept because, yes, if you have the notoriety of an Ai WeiWei you can start a blog and have millions of followers the next day. I welcome those followers! But those without notoriety or fame, or those writing, for example, about topics that are not notorious or outrageous or scandalous, will have a very hard time indeed building up a readership. It’s the parallel, in a sense, of Broodthaers’ notion of writing for nobody. Every post on a blog is like an open letter in that regard – written with an open address, with no guarantee of reception. Today, aiming for a quick, large and impactful internet “readership” more often than not discourages subtle thinking, analysis, or projects. On the other hand, there are those who see popular forms of communication such as gossip (an age-old “platform”) as just another means for forming, conveying, and changing social opinion. I might actually find this argument convincing if I thought that the human race currently had the leisure of time to address its dire problems. If we had all the time in the world maybe we could substitute gossip for governance!! Instead, we have what one podcaster calls “the Fuck-you-mankind Nuclear Plant.”
This is another reason why it’s useful to conjecture about what an artist like Broodthaers might be producing today, with his acute understanding of the interlacing of the realms of representation, institution, production, persona. When I mentioned to a colleague that we were having this discussion, he was surprised that an artist like me would be interested in so cynical an artist as Broodthaers. I suspect that he reads the irony that characterizes a lot of Broodthaers’ work as cynical, because some people collapse irony and cynicism. I don’t collapse them, but that said, it does seem that – in a moment of extreme consolidation of power – irony sometimes rings hollow.
One could say there is a hermetic quality to Broodthaers’ work, which is why it translates so well through the work of interpretive historians, but presents a cryptic face in museum collections. Would you agree?
Rachel: Well, certainly I agree that his work “presents a cryptic face” when it’s stuck inside an exhibit or a collection. And, probably, I would argue that some of the people who’ve written on Broodthaers are simply particularly good exegetes! But there are factors to do with reception that you are not quite allowing for, like curatorial uncertainty and institutional mal-adjustment. When I first saw works of Broodthaers’ exhibited at MoMA, when they opened the then-new building, I was stunned. The work looked simultaneously so polished and pretty, and so bizarre and silly and out of place. They had grouped some early work together in a room of Conceptual art works, and thematized them, I think, around chairs. Kosuth’s chairs and Broodthaers’s eggshell-covered stool…ugh. Never mind that Broodthaers is not a conceptualist, or that those eggshell works respond to another moment altogether (one that is wrapped up in Fluxus and Nouveau Réalisme, and certainly not yet Anglo-American conceptualism). More crucial than such curatorial misdemeanors is how those works, in a Belgian institutional setting, hook into a whole other set of histories that just gets eradicated by the Anglo-American art history that an institution like MoMA works within. Other institutions that are less glossy and “centrally” positioned rhyme better with Broodthaers’s remarkably messy, un-Anglo, self-consciously marginal, and above all unreadable gestalt. That is not to say that MoMA won’t do a terrific job with their upcoming Broodthaers retrospective, but to emphasize the ways that Broodthaers’s own work, in exhibition, performs some of his theses on art’s circulation and its relation to subject positions. It may be true that museums work with art’s portability, but that doesn’t mean that all art is equally portable, or that museums know how to handle art objects’ portability.
That said, there is another mechanism in place here. To me, in that mis-placement of Broodthaers’s work, what happens is that its profound unreadability—what I try to get at even just with the phrase “the absence of work”––is what gets missed, substituted for by a surface “what the hell is this?” It isn’t easy to penetrate, on any level, and what works across a bigger exhibit of Broodthaers’s work is a sense that that refusal or barrier to understanding is systematic, it goes through very different shapes and phases but ultimately unifies the work. So, without an aggregation of works—if you are just looking at one or two single works—then you lose that systematicity, which really helps to start to move you inside, towards the work.
As for cynicism, the phrase I go to—and use once, I think, in my book—is “gimlet-eyed.” It has a gleaming quality, more mischievous and sardonic, less smugly self-satisfied than cynicism connotes. Not that these lexical differences make much difference, I think. An artist’s position should be more complicated than a simple word or phrase can communicate, and certainly that’s the case for Broodthaers. On the other hand, what’s more cynical than “Fuck-You-Mankind Nuclear Plant”?
Silvia: I won’t belabor the “Fuck-You-Mankind Nuclear Plant” because the reference is out of context here, except to say that Hannah Arendt refers to humor as being essential to retaining one’s dignity in the midst of social onslaught. In spite of agreeing with Arendt in general, I think that when a culture depends more and more on desperate irony and sardonic exposé, something is very wrong. Such humor both elucidates and distances the immediacy of the threats we face; it is both survival strategy and symptom.
From a psychoanalytic standpoint, I would say that the concept of “subject positions” undercuts the kind of spectatorial fluidity that Broodthaers’ work creates. For the spectator, “understanding” work such as Broodthaers’ always depends on a double effort– reading about the work as much as seeing it. I was fortunate to have approached it that way by chance in the late 1980s, running across more comprehensive exhibitions than the recent installation at MoMA (which I agree is very problematic), as well as the scholarly writings and catalogues, and sporadic film screenings. Through that way of taking in Broodthaers’ work, the projects inform each other reciprocally, and the work itself, although never experienced as one might have contemporaneously with their production, gains something of its historical nuances, while also speaking to the present. That means that one has to read art historical texts very critically, because exegesis is always overdetermined. But then so is spectatorship. Perhaps we have to start to value spectatorship as a process – extended over time and place. And in that regard, we may be up against it.