Le problème de l’art contemporain

Dire qu’on a du mal avec l’art contemporain, c’est toujours un problème vis-à-vis des autres et de soi-même.

Les autres 

Vis-à-vis des autres, d’abord, car les raisons pour lesquelles l’art contemporain pose problème ne sont souvent pas valables aux yeux des connaisseurs.

Devant un monochrome de Malevitch, si j’affirme qu’un “enfant peut faire la même chose”, on me prend pour cet idiot qui réduit l’art à un simple savoir-faire, on me résume à cette personne un peu limitée qui n’a pas compris que le Beau en art est bel et bien mort.

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Si je me scandalise que le Balloon Dog orange de Jeff Koons se soit vendu 58,4 millions de dollars chez Christie’s en 2013 et que j’assure “trouver la même chose à moins de 20 euros chez GiFi”, on sourit très poliment devant ma crédulité et ma méconnaissance du marché de l’art.

En société, affirmer ne pas comprendre l’art contemporain, c’est ainsi jouer le rôle du rabat-joie ou de “l’imbécile”.

Je suis forcément rabat-joie quand je ne partage pas l’euphorie générale qui se manifeste devant trois points noirs au milieu d’un carré blanc. J’ai un peu l’impression d’être un “imbécile” quand l’art contemporain suscite chez les autres une réflexion sur notre rapport à l’univers, et que moi je pense surtout que le billet d’entrée et l’audioguide m’ont coûté 15 euros.

J’ai beau me forcer : si je n’ai aucun scrupule à reconnaître que la peinture byzantine du IXème siècle me laisse de marbre, je me sens un peu coupable de dire que l’art contemporain provoque chez moi une espèce de malaise.

Affirmer que l’art contemporain pose problème est devenu délicat pour une raison simple : il est aujourd’hui institué. Pour aller à l’essentiel : il est entré dans les musées. Or, une œuvre qui passe la porte du Centre Pompidou ou du  MoMA c’est un peu comme un auteur qui entre dans la Pléiade : il devient peu ou prou impossible d’en formuler une critique qui ne soit pas érudite sans se mettre en danger. On peut être en désaccord, mais pas n’importe comment.

La mise en danger vis-à-vis des autres repose souvent sur le risque de révéler sa méconnaissance des codes artistiques, des déplacements, des références que l’artiste mobilise et prend plaisir à détourner. Confier que l’on n’aime pas l’art contemporain, c’est souvent avouer qu’on ne maîtrise pas assez l’histoire de l’art pour voir la subversion, comprendre la démarche, bref, comprendre pourquoi “c’est du génie !”.

Car l’art contemporain est souvent un plaisir intellectuel avant d’être un plaisir esthétique. Il suffit pour s’en convaincre de reprendre le jargon des artistes eux-mêmes.

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C’est, par exemple, Vasarely qui affirme avec ses multiples concevoir “un système d’art mural à intégrer organiquement dans l’architecture”. C’est aussi Michael Heizer qui déplace un bloc de granite de 340 tonnes pour l’exposer au Musée d’art du comté de Los Angeles et ainsi faire de “l’art statique”. Enfin, c’est Yves Klein qui réalise en 1958 à la galerie Iris Clert une exposition complètement vide au titre énigmatique : “La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état de matière première en sensibilité (dite “Le Vide”)”.

Devant ce plaisir intellectuel, nous ne sommes pas tous égaux. On le sait depuis La Distinction de Pierre Bourdieu, la culture légitime est une affaire d’initiés, c’est-à-dire une affaire d’origine sociale. Or, “l’influence de l’origine sociale n’est jamais aussi forte, toutes choses étant égales par ailleurs, qu’en matière de culture libre ou de culture d’avant-garde”.

Qu’est-ce que cela veut dire ? Que le malaise que j’éprouve devant les autres, eux ne l’éprouvent peut-être pas. Pourquoi ? Car la stratification temporelle des goûts repose sur un double mouvement d’innovation des classes supérieures et de diffusion aux classes populaires. En un mot : l’art contemporain est fait par une élite, pour une élite, dans un souci de distinction. Si l’art contemporain me dérange, c’est que je n’appartiens probablement pas à cette élite.

Dans l’art contemporain, une poignée de galeries suffisent à faire le déclin ou le succès d’un artiste. La sociologue Annie Verger en cite quelques unes dans son article “Le champ des avants-garde” publié dans les Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. Pêle-mêle : la galerie Jean Fournier, la galerie Iris Clert, la galerie Maeght. Le monopole de la consécration dans l’art contemporain est souvent détenu par des individus au fort capital social (Aimé Maeght rencontre Bonnard et Matisse, édite les poèmes de René Char), économique (Iris Clert est fille de grands propriétaires terriens et de banquiers), et culturel (les deux directrices de la Galerie Gillespie-Laage-Salomon sont historiennes).

Ainsi, si les classes supérieures sont “en avance” sur l’art contemporain, c’est qu’elles décident de ce qui sera artistique ou non. Si on trouve aujourd’hui les Marilyn Monroe d’Andy Warhol à la La Foir’Fouille, c’est par mimétisme des classes populaires : double mouvement d’innovation et de diffusion.

Le vrai problème de l’art contemporain se situe pourtant au-delà de ces inégalités sociales. Au fond, le Grand Prix de Rome n’a-t-il pas exercé dans le passé une influence semblable à celle des grandes galeries parisiennes aujourd’hui ? N’y a-t-il pas toujours eu d’art populaire et d’art “légitime” ?

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Moi

C’est en réalité vis-à-vis de moi-même, spectateur, que se situe le véritable problème. C’est un fait : l’art contemporain est une mise en doute si radicale du jugement esthétique qu’il dégonfle mes certitudes en matière d’art pour les réduire à ce qu’elles ont de minimal. Ce  qui me touche, ce que je trouve artistique, a probablement été décrié dans le passé puis digéré et finalement adulé des dizaines d’années plus tard. Je suis au fond toujours condamné au rejet de l’art qui m’est contemporain. En perpétuel retard sur les créations de mon époque, je suis comme forcé d’attendre que d’autres digèrent la nouveauté pour me la rendre plus familière.

L’histoire de l’art nous enseigne d’ailleurs qu’il faut redoubler de prudence lorsqu’on condamne le renouvellement des formes artistiques.

La plupart des historiens retiennent comme acte fondateur de l’art moderne – au choix – l’ouverture du Salon des Refusés de 1863 ou l’exposition de l’Olympia au Salon de 1865. Dans les deux cas, Manet n’échappe pas aux rires moqueurs de ses contemporains. Ernest Chesneau, critique d’art alors en vogue décrit « une ignorance presque enfantine des premiers éléments du dessin, parti-pris de vulgarité inconcevable ».

Mais voilà, après le clip de Womanizer de Britney Spears et les happenings d’Yves Klein où de jeunes femmes nues s’enduisent de peinture bleue, le scandale de 1865 n’est plus si tapageur et le propos d’Ernest Chesneau nous semble clairement rétrograde. Olympia s’est assagie et Manet est devenu très fréquentable.

La démarche de Carolee Schneemann autour de “l’espace vulvique” qui consiste, disons-le, à dérouler un rouleau de papier logé dans son vagin, m’apparaîtra-t-elle un jour artistique avant de m’inspirer le sentiment d’une imposture ? Le doute est permis.

Le problème de l’art contemporain, c’est qu’on ne sait pas si la confusion qu’il provoque est l’indice que mon jugement est prisonnier de son époque, ou que, décidément, nous faisons fausse route.

 

par Rémi Perrichon

Was Bourdieu right? Art, Culture and Social reproduction

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There is currently a common belief in the Western world that high culture and arts are quite elitist and lead to discrimination: high-end humanities such as classic literature and philosophy, deep knowledge of history, arts or science are inaccessible to the common folk yet very rewarding economically and socially. To what extent is that true and can we – and should we – change it?

Have high arts and humanities actually hindered social mobility in the past?

From Antiquity up until the 19th century, the world was largely a society of classes. Indeed, since the 1960s there has been a consensus among historians, including prominent ones such as Fernand Braudel who worked on Mediterranean societies in the Middle Ages, that there was some vertical and horizontal inter-generational social mobility before the 19th century: some families were getting richer or poorer through generations and they could also change their main activities of subsistence. Both types of social mobility could take place through the military – mostly because officers and nobles killed in wars had to be replaced – but also through religious and administrative institutions which needed “qualified” labour. And while one could argue that at the end of the Middle Ages a more rigid society of orders arose in Europe, so too did the political and economic power of merchants; hence, vertical social mobility was still very present.
In that context, were high arts and literature a stumbling block for the poor? Not really, because the discrimination the “low-born” faced was mostly due to their lineage, and not to their lack of knowledge of the higher arts and humanities. Actually, there are many important historical figures who rose from very poor backgrounds into places of great power, like Pope Gregory VII; in these many examples and in life in general, high culture was actually used as a selection mechanism. Take for instance the Imperial Examination in China. It started in 200 BC and lasted until the beginning of the 20th century, and was a way to rank candidates for the administration of the Chinese Empire. The exams evolved over time but always involved knowledge of Confucian literature, of traditional Chinese history, of writing and painting techniques, along with other essential parts of Chinese high culture. From that description alone, one could definitely assume that this examination blocked the poor from entering the administration. However this reasoning fails because, considering that an examination favouring the poor would never have been accepted by the nobles, the only other alternative would have been selection into the administration based on lineage. Hence the Chinese Imperial Examination was an excellent compromise: it managed to prevent the least talented from the “highborn” from entering the administration while recruiting the most talented of the “lowborn”. The second appeal of such competition is that it was a way to define Chinese high culture and its ideals. In other words, it was also a way to unify culturally the Empire, or at least
its elites, and to spread desirable ideas.

So, historically, one should know that negative discrimination was very often based on one’s blood and not on one’s knowledge of the arts and high culture perpetuated by the nobles. In truth, one can argue that, in the past, using high culture to rank and discriminate people was beneficial to societies who did it, because it was the best alternative in a world where connections and lineage were everything.

How about now?

Much later, the industrial revolution in the second half of the 19th century and the advent of democracy and Capitalism in Europe, changed the foundations of social mobility completely. In these times, both vertical and horizontal social mobility in-
creased very rapidly as a direct result of the lower classes getting richer through new technological advancements in medicine, machinery and agriculture. Additionally, basic education, easier access to loans, and an increase in mobility allowed future generations to change career paths more easily. Nowadays, inter-generational mobility is decreasing in the West because growth has stalled, but is on a strong upward trend in developing countries. It is in this setting that the famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu – and many other sociologists – argued that arts, humanities and high culture are a tool of the bourgeois, of the rich, to prevent the poor from moving up the social ladder. In his opinion their main medium of oppression are schools, exams and competitions for highly qualified jobs because they all require such knowledge. For him, the elites are so self-preserving and organised that they have imposed their own culture, a high culture which is inaccessible to the poor, into schools.

Now, who could argue that arts and humanities are discriminating? Bourdieu’s empirical work already proved it: in any study on income, children who succeed at school have better paying jobs; at the same time children with rich parents succeed much more in school than children with poor parents, especially in the humanities. Hence, high culture requirements contribute to social reproduction and it is still the case today. As a matter of fact, in current France, most grandes écoles – the top universities in engineering, politics and management – require a high proficiency in French but also an extensive knowledge of French classic literature, philosophy and arts. So for anyone who has not been exposed to these texts and ideas from birth, it is extremely difficult to bridge the gap. An even harder ceiling can be found in countries where only one type of thought and behavior, only one type of culture, is allowed at the top such as Vietnam where adherence and knowledge of communist ideas and ideals is required.

So indeed we observe that high culture contributes to social reproduction, but to come back to Bourdieu, his explanation of the origins of social reproduction is extremely far-fetched, and most likely rooted in the marxist belief that the capitalist elites are, as a class, actively trying to destroy the social ladder. The much simpler and rational economic explanation is that the rich are like the rest and are not trying to change a whole system but simply acting individually in their own interests. More specifically, first, in any family the children will inherit the preferences of their parents, and will transmit their preferences to their own children in the future. This means that in rich families preferences for humanities and arts will be transmitted through generations. Second, on average, richer households are much more forward looking than poorer households, so that they will make “smarter” investments for their children and teach them about science and literature from an early age to ensure their future success. These controversial yet relatively old observations were first quantified by nobel prize winner Gary Becker in the 1970s, and largely explain what rich households teach to their children and why. Finally, the nail in the coffin against Bourdieu’s claims is the following: when a rich household emigrates, the advantage the children had because of their culture should vanish; So, by Bourdieu’s theory, they should fare way worse; However, in reality, we observe the contrary, rich kids are on average doing very well at school, even if they migrate.

Could we and should we eliminate discrimination based on high culture?
Knowledge – or the lack of knowledge – of philosophy, literature, etc… Leads to social reproduction. So, from an economic point of view, removing this “cultural” barrier to economic and social success could be seen as efficient. It would make the market for top schools and best jobs more competitive as it would decrease the threshold for entering the competition. Consequently, it could theoretically increase social mobility and total welfare. But there are many reasons to believe the contrary.

First, if these “cultural” barriers are removed, what would be the alternative? Possibly selection based on connections, which is a worse outcome. Possibly higher thresholds in maths, science, history and politics, but these subjects are as hard to apprehend for underprivileged children as literature and the humanities. Second, schools and businesses are private, so it is difficult to remove these “cultural requirements” in a democracy. Third, removing these requirements may have the opposite effect on social mobility because rich families can move their children to schools which still teach high culture. There is actually some evidence of this phenomenon in the U.S: in neighbourhoods which are diverse in terms of income, there is a growing trend of rich
families – including left-leaning families – to send their kids to private schools (see The New York Times “Family by Family, How School Segregation Still Happens”). Finally, there is a powerful philosophical and political argument to be made in favor of selection based on humanities and arts. This is an argument which is very popular among conservative and religious intellectuals such as François-Xavier Bellamy, a leading member of the right-wing French party Les Républicains. As mentioned briefly previously in the case of China, the arts and humanities which are taught or required for a job are most often important ideas and pieces of history over which a nation is built. In that sense, should a country not require its economic and political elites to be comfortable with their own high culture? Shouldn’t these important ideas, ideals and works be promoted, and hence their mastering be expected of people in positions of power?

This question is obviously open and controversial, because there is a lot of potential for abuse. Whether it is learning Latin in France, or knowing by heart the revised biography of Lenin and Mao in China, some teachings and parts of high culture should not be taught or required for a job. Thence, a middle ground could be struck: some dose of discrimination based on arts and humanities could be healthy for social cohesion and the social ladder, but also to push the ideals we think are important. And yes, we could do that and are already doing that because culture is always changing, be it with state intervention or not. Therefore, thinking that high culture will disappear if we do not teach it is foolish, because the rich will transmit it anyway and will segregate themselves. So through schools, museums and festivals, the nice and interesting parts, yet difficult to understand, of one’s own culture could be transmitted to those who grow up and have grown up without it.

by Hippolyte Boucher (September 2019)