Resurfacing dialogue reveals post-truth about today’s contemporary art

Translated from the original by Alessandra Marelli  -  September 15, 2017

A mysterious voice from the 1990s makes clear why art system’s current issues are actually old ones and the discovery of contemporary African art is not a phenomenon as new as the art marketplace seems to believe.

This is the first English version of a dialogue originally published in French in 1991. The dialogue introduced the very first exhibition in Europe of some Congolese folk artists that nowadays the art market is quickly turning into expensive African art masters. Who is hidden behind the alias Eminence K? Is he a collector, an art dealer or a curator? Who is his interlocutor? Don’t worry if you can’t spot them now, it will be revealed soon. Meanwhile you will certainly notice many sinister similarities between the art system he described 26 years ago and today’s one..

Part I

Your Eminence, I know you have been interested in Zairian painting for quite a long time.

I would say I am mainly interested in post colonial Zairian painting. Actually, to be more specific, in the folk artists of Kinshasa.

Would you distinctly differ these artists from their predecessors? Artists like Pili-Pili, Bela or Mwenze? Just to mention few of the most well-known ones?

Listen, I am far from being a specialist. Yet, it seems to me that the artists you are talking about come from the colonial academic system. In my opinion, the folk artists of Kin, like Cheri Samba, Moke, Maître Syms, Vuza N’ Toko etc., have nothing to do with them.

They are, first and foremost, “street” artists, aren’t they?

We could say so. In any case, they are all artists whose profession originally was realizing advertising billboards or commissioned portraits. Some, like Cheri Samba, started by drawing comics.

When and where did you discover them?

In Brussels, in occasion of an exhibition organised in one of the horrible shopping centers the town is crowded with. I remember neither which one, nor when the exhibition took place. It must have been the beginning of the 1980s.

Could you tell us who has initially drew you into this kind of painting?

You know, It’s very hard to explain how you feel when you meet somebody for the very first time. I’ve never seen anything like that. I was laughing on my own. I was excited. I wish I had owned one or the other canvasses on show. Or that I had painted them myself. You see? It’s kind of foolish.

I understand. How about thereafter?

If I wanted to justify the interest I developed afterwards in artists like those who have been gathered together at the Palais des Beaux-Arts of Charleroi, I wouldn’t be able to do so without comparing their works to the western artistic scene.

And so?

Let’s say that back at that time I found that scene – and I find it nowadays too – very sleepy, very morose, and rather poor. That painting was for me like an awakening. A little one, still an awakening all the same.

Poor? Oh, come on Eminence! Never before there have been just as many museums, exhibitions, galleries, artists! Never before, as many shows, concerts, festivals, theaters, performances… culture, at last! There is always something going on! Think of the spirit of the ballet! Nothing like that!

Earlier on I’ve spoken with priest F, who told me that when he was taking care of the cultural activities of his parish, the main question that in occasion of a show or an exhibition raised among his flock was “will we be having dinner before or after?”.

Come on, this is just a little story! You are not going to tell me that you drew any conclusion from this!

I remember that one day, in Vietnam, my friend Serge Daney has explained me very well how we have moved, in a few decades, from art to culture, then from culture to cultural tourism, and ultimately to just tourism, that’s it. We are there, my boy: to tourism!… Look, I open this newspaper which is by chance in front of us – we often have everything within our grasp, you know- and I read in the “supplement Madame” of this important Italian newspaper…

We should perhaps clarify for our readers that we are having this talk in Italy…

Yes, indeed. My duties demand me to often spend some time in this country, whose press delights me. So, I read in this magazine, between some little tricks by Claudia Schiffer on how to get tanned safely, and a feature about Ireland “tra natura e magia”, that this summer, the city of Perugia invites us for an “estate tutta Joseph Beuys”! Do you understand? Like Ireland, and Claudia Schiffer, Joseph Beuys is also a touristic product.

Come on! This is what it has been done! This is what has been done with everyone, after all! Mozart, Vermeer, Cézanne! Noone escapes! But contemporary art…

…hasn’t it conformed to the market demand? Is this what you mean? I agree with you.

No, no! This is your view, Your Eminence! To start with, which contemporary art are you talking about? It is so rich, so varied!

Do you really think so? It’s funny. I find it so depressingly dull. Of course, I’m talking about the official contemporary art, that of the Biennials, the Grösse Kunstbazaar, and of the contemporary art spaces. Well, of that that is faltering in a sort of perpetual rupture, and that bores me to death. At best, I grant it the qualities of a good ad.

Do you mean: the qualities of an advertisement?

Yes, I do. I see it crippled with constraints.

Of constraints?

Indeed. Commercial constraints, narcissistic constraints. I feel the artists are tormented by their problems of originality, by bringing out their little “logo” from the crowd, by the need of fitting their little difference in the Major Trend, by the need to become at last the artist as he is supposed to be. Under false freedom, I see an absolute constraint. I don’t think that ever in the history of art, conformism has been so oppressing, academic education so rigid, freedom so monitored.

Mister! Do stop claiming such reactionary opinions on contemporary art! Else, it becomes irritating.

Listen, it’s not me, it is Baudrillard who suspects contemporary art of being a conspiracy.

A conspiracy! It’s a pure and simple paranoia!

Perhaps, but I do agree with him. In my opinion, nowadays the work of “art” has to be placed between religious trinkets and bank holdings. It has become an object of speculation with a cultural veneer. And somehow artists, gallerists, critics, journalists, all take part to this conspiracy, inflating one after the other the same balloon. Look, it is touching to read in the same magazine issue I have here, under the section “opinion”, the statements of a collector who is showing off in an attempt to convince himself of the legitimacy of his purchases.

In a nutshell, if I am following you correctly, does this Zairian painting, where I would like us to go back to, Your Eminence, gains all its value in the Western frame?

Not only, but it moves away, as a matter of fact, from the widespread cultural decrease we are witnessing, and together with it, from the feeling that history stutters. It is from this background of eternal contortion of the Self, more and more insignificant, that the work of Zairian artists is breaking away.

Right. But there you are only talking between the lines. As opposed, if I may add, to when you talk about what you denigrate.

It’s true that I talk much better of what I don’t like. Do you know this quote by Baltasar Gracián “On ne saurait bien voir les choses du monde qu’en les regardenant à rebours”. It’s a nice way of put it, isn’t it?

Let’s try to move forward. Is there anything else you would look at in reverse?

Yes, there is. I’m interested in Zairian painting because it was born in Zaire.

Oh dear! Where do you want to get to?

I’ve told you that it stood out on the background of our abounding cultural impoverishment.

This is something we could talk about.

I do agree. But we cannot deny the fact that it – the Zairian painting- occurs in the real, material poverty, of the Third World. Also this, in my opinion, is distinctive. It’s rather unexpected, don’t you think so?

Painting is always an accident, claims Philippe Sollers.

Really? I bumped into this guy a few times around the Holy See. He is quite funny. We had such a laugh together! However, I don’t really know what he means by that. Does he perhaps refer to the act of painting? I will ask him. But in the end, with humble means, on poor canvases (very often on food aid flour bags), with car paints, here are artists who, in a distressed country, where you don’t expect anything anymore, create works that touch us deeply. I don’t know whether this is an accident, but for sure this ought to surprise us.

And does this surprise you?

Yes and no. Because I believe that the Third World has much to teach us.
If you were to talk about this painting, then you couldn’t help but talking about the Third World…

You couldn’t, as you say. You know, the Third World is not only needed to feed the bad consciousness of the Northern hemisphere! This North which seems to enjoy crying over what it demolishes. It destroys everything that it’s not its, then it affords itself the luxury of crying over it. It’s extravagant, isn’t it?

Have you travelled extensively in the Third World, Your Eminence?

Yes, I have. My religious duties have often led me over there. I advise everyone to visit the Third World. At least a bit. It is interesting.

Why are you interested in the Third World, and in particular in Zaire?

First of all, because there you really meet the wretched of the earth. The destitute of the destitution. Zaire, my son, is the south of the South. I believe to be necessary to witness with your own eyes how much our wealth does cost to the world.

Isn’t this view on things a bit too simplistic?

Are you aware that if the use of paper, just to take but a simple example, if the same use we do in the West was done by the rest of the world too, our planet would be deforested in a few weeks?

No, I didn’t know.

The Third World is our world, but a negative form. This is indeed what makes it unbearable. It shows the negative side of our industrialized societies, which we try so hard to repress. Look at it properly. You will see yourself.

Wait, Your Eminence, I am not quite following you.

Everything is so cruel, my son, so apparent. Private militia protect rich people, hidden behind tall walls with barbed wires on top. An incredible mass of people who has given up everything to come and try our glossy lifestyle which we sell them as being the Heaven. Woe to them! They come and crowd in the misery of the big cities, and the shame doesn’t let them go back to their village empty-handed. The failure would be too heavy to put up with. Everything over there is pitiful, marginal. But, this is a mirror!

Our mirror?

Yes, indeed. A reversing mirror, the mirror of Graciàn. The models we have imported over there don’t hold up,even if they cause troubles. They shape dreams but then they turn inside out.

I admit, Your Eminence, I’m getting lost. Could you please go deeper into this thought?

Listen, everyone nowadays would like to be in a movie. In Zaire, like everywhere else. In the same movie! With the same images! Thank God, the people of the Third World don’t act that well. They overdo it. Thus, the stupidity of our scripts does become too apparent.