Is neophilia killing contemporary art?


Translated from the original by Alessandra Marelli  -  June 27, 2018

Twenty years ago art collector Lucien Bilinelli diagnosed what is still a main issue within the art system. But he also suggested how to cope with it.

This is the first English version of a dialogue originally published in French in 1996 in the catalogue of an exhibition titled Bomoi Mobimba, that means All your life. The exhibition took place at Charleroi’s Palais des Beaux-Arts, in Belgium. It was the very first exhibition in Europe of some Congolese folk artists such as Pierre Bodo, Bodys Isek Kingelez, Cheik Ledy, Cheri Samba, Moke, Maitre Syms, Vuza Ntoko. Once almost unknown artists, they are now considered pivotal masters by the art market and main institutions – the MoMA, for instance, is dedicating a solo show to Kingelez. Collector Lucien Bilinelli, who lent all the pieces exhibited in Charleroi, is the personality hiding behind the alias Eminence K, interviewed by Belgian actor and director Stefan Liberski. Two decades after this book was released Eminence K intuitions are still fresh and thought-provoking. The art system is stuck on the same issues, the main one being a sort of neophilia forcing it to keep chasing the eternal present. By following this chimera contemporary art has become deadly repetitive and unable to generate true newness.

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 what was that attracted you at first into this 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 point out 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. By the way, 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 material 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.

What for instance? What does become apparent?

But I don’t know! Everything! Look at how tacky mobile phones have become, for example! Over there, believe me, with the total chaos as background, it becomes evident. Not the phone itself, surely, but the symbol of appearance that embodies. Here, we do force ourselves not to see it. In deference to money, without any doubt, we look away shamefully when a big Mercedes overtakes us full-speed on the motorway, with the driver on board wearing a blue shirt and striped tie, the wheel in one hand, and the phone in the other. In Zaire, it’s impossible to ignore these business men modeled after ours, these big fat lumps squeezed into outfits which are too tight for them, parading with their mobile phones. They are irritating. They are acting badly. They are too proud. However, the way they have to display so foolishly our “outward signs of wealth” becomes subversive. From that they protect themselves from the disdain and mockery of the white people.

Your way of thinking is rather curious, your Eminence! I’m not sure I understand you.

Do you know the dance of “sapeurs” (note 1)?

No, I don’t.

It’s a Zairian dance, in which the “sapeurs” show off their clothing. Don’t you? Oh, you have to see it!… I’ll explain you: the dancers gather in turns in the middle of a circle, a bit like in la bamba, and a commentator, holding a microphone, explains the outfit of each one, naming the brands and the price of the clothes. “Yamamoto shirt, 40.000!… Gianni Versace Jacket, 55.000!… Winston shoes…”

Weston, your Eminence.

Whatever. “Jean-Pierre Hautier trousers, 30.000!…”

Jean-Paul Gaultier, your Eminence.

Of course. Each sapeur dances and sways his hips to show the labels of their attire to the audience (who applauds the most beautiful pieces). It’s ridiculous, certainly. But is it not there that the best of our commercial tackiness is revealed? Is it not there what should leave our fashionable people speechless? They are all as pathetic as the “sapeurs”, you know, except that these latter ones are more naif, more direct. They get straight to the point. What matters is the label, the price. These are what adorn them. And no, I don’t know which excuse that are tough to understand: “ it’s a lovely colour, easy to wear, well cut”. Everybody couldn’t care less about this. What counts is the name, but you don’t have to mention it. The Sapeurs reveal it. They are innocent. And their innocence is a real joy.

I got it! You are suggesting that this innocence uncaps our own overacting. But let’s go back to our Zairian painters!

Actually, we have never left them! For this innocence is indeed at the base of all their works. The art of Cherie Samba or of Maitre Syms are, for me, equally effective. Their painting is extraordinary honest, and immediately familiar. And, above all, literally refreshing.

I was going to ask you about the so-called “innocence” of these works, but I think you have just responded.

Indeed.

These works embody nevertheless an astonishing evidence of Zaire itself.

They do! They tell everything, don’t they? Everyday life, their miseries, delights, funny things, resourcefulness, the happenings of the tyranny. They recount different facts, denounce the scheming, analyse politics, draw up reports. They are reportage, portraits, pages of diaries, lampoons, allegories, caricatures, moral reflections or religious jokes. It cannot be denied that these artworks are giving us information about Zaire. I would even say that they actually provide us with the best information about this country. Personally, I am struck by the truthfulness of these images, something that in our country is becoming rarer and rarer.

What do you mean?

This doesn’t surprise us within a dictatorship. But also here, you know, opposite to what they want us to believe, information is disappearing. What you read in the newspapers, see on television, it’s nothing more than communication. Each political, military, economic, cultural (and even religious, I must admit) institution nowadays owns an agency which filters through to the media what it has to be communicated to the public. And mind if these latter don’t obey! They – institutions – will make sure to cut off their ads on television or that important announcer.

Any example?

Oh, there are plenty! I would suggest that we don’t know anything about what has really happened during the Gulf Crisis. It’s possible that the Gulf War has never taken place. That it wasn’t but a ruse to get paid the transportation of an enormous quantities of weapons stored in Europe to Saudi Arabia.

Your Eminence, this isn’t quite the right place to discuss such issues…

I would suggest that Madame Mitterand has never written the book about her husband, from whom, moreover, she had been separated for more than twenty years.

Your Eminence, please stop…

I would suggest that the pages full of advertisement which peppered all the newspapers since its publication were lying when claiming that it was already a bestseller. Today, even before a book or a movie is launched, it is already a bestseller! It conquers the box office! They are just selling techniques, my dear. The world is pure marketing.

If I may, your Eminence, these paintings slightly remind me of The Guignoles (Note 2).

Very well! I would suggest that if the Guignoles are more popular than the newscast is undoubtedly because they are funnier, and above all because they are more real.

Considering what we have been saying so far, the main criticism we could do to this painting is that it is mainly illustration…

Why do you say so?

I don’t know…I know this is the sort of remark you should make when you pass judgment on painting..

I see… By that do you mean that this is a realistic painting?

I do…I don’t..Oh well…

Do you find it decorative? Do you think these painters paint “just to look pretty”?

No, I am not saying this, but…

Perhaps do you find that what we see in this painting is not deformed enough? …Doesn’t it fit into a coherent system of deformation?

To tell you the truth…

I can’t follow you.

Is this “great painting”? That was the meaning of my question.

Listen, apart from Picasso, if we are talking about our century, is there any other painter who we could define by all means great?

Er…

I remember, and this just came back all of a sudden, of the big deal we made about Pollock… Right now many don’t see anything but an old lace…

That is to say..

Let’s leave it here, my son. We won’t be in this world when God recognizes his Own…

Right. Let’s go back to Zairian painting—-

I was telling you, even if you reckon that some of these canvases suffer here and there of the mediocre quality of their colors, or that are ungainly crafted, they nonetheless are armed, in my opinion, with something that goes beyond everything else: that of having been painted in their time. Do you understand? They are evidence of an action on their time. They are “engaged”. Here is what is taking me out of our cultural stammer.

You have previously alluded to the idea of a fixed history. Do you mean that our history is immobile, that is feeding itself on pseudo-novelty?

History is not immobile! History is unfolding on a level which we don’t have access to anymore. Whereas it is the showbiz that is trapped in a false course of action, made of distorted news, trends, novelties…Listen, the trick is more and more visible – that does not in any way prevent it from working. “The new trends” turn around three times, leave and then come back. Each season brings along its harvest of identical leading articles. Each week is represented by interchangeable stars (whom surgery, if needed, takes care of conforming to the standard model). Each day politician crushes on one another: only their caricatures do manage to single them out! You mentioned the Guignols. It is all a small world of puppets which are playing on the media stage a strange perpetual present, while 358 merchants own already half of the revenues of the planet (and it appears that they have no intention of stopping on such a good route).

But, Your Eminence, the Zairian painting…

Even the denial of the showbiz has become nowadays a show itself. This morning I read in the paper L’Unità (I’ve told you that the Italian press delights me), thus I read: Addio politica spettacolo! A big title for an important article, whereby refined commentators announce, as a scoop, the end of the political marketing, the end of the “image” domination. It seems we are dreaming. The article, of course, aims at being a huge success because they were the first predicting it. What matters is not commenting and reflecting on it, but really the announcement of the pseudo-news, pseudo-paradoxical, pseudo-unexpected. If needed the end of the dictatorship of the viewing audience so to gain more share. This is how you will no longer have accuses which don’t know their redemption. No preconception that don’t deserve a column in the newspaper. It seems that this is democracy.

Your Eminence! Calm down! I don’t want to hear from you any comment on democracy!

This dimension of perpetual present in which contemporary history is taking place takes hallucinatory shapes at times. In the Italian press (which delights me so much) there are two or three weekly magazines which have been committed for years to show the lives of ‘celebrities’, naked on their yacht or on their private beaches. Each given week offers us the opportunity to catch a sight of the big white bottom of that finance prince, or the blurry breasts of one or the other lady of the showbiz. As if the public would never get tired of checking that they have two boobs, nor of reassuring themselves that billionaires have problems of fat hips.

Your Eminence!

The issues are so similar that an uninformed audience couldn’t even spot the difference between one or the other issue. That one is perhaps an extreme example, yet the majority of the magazines can’t really escape this stutter. Everything happens as if there were a watchword: “Above all, nothing is happening!” We don’t know from which authority this watchword came from, a structural expression of system by now very much mature.

You are reminding me, oddly enough, of Guy Debord, who asserted that never a system of government had been more perfect, and all that aspired to rule wanted to do it in the same way.

Indeed. In my opinion, the role of media, together with culture, is nowadays to maintain a feeling of permanent frustration, to induce the audience to be slightly behind this perpetual present. This delay conceals this immobility while contributing in creating it. Whatever happens, we are not, or no longer, excluded from a history to live with a slight delay. We have always – already missed the boat. We haven’t finished this  that something else has already occurred. Always behind a current trend, a taste, a movie, a book, a fashion that always comes before you, that always follows you, but that in the end go round in circles. This is how “néomanie” – this passion for novelty – eternal carrot which moves the donkey, (the carrot and the stick) robs humanity from its history, its memory, and reality.

Your Eminence, we are maybe losing our way here…

Culture, and I mean with capital C, feeds on “what one tends to forget”. It’s extraordinary the great number of works that stems from “what one tends to forget”. The last book I flipped through at the bookshop is the one by Luce Irigaray, titled The Forgetting of Air (in Martin Heidegger). We forget to breath, so it seems. Art, like the rest, has lost touch with reality. It takes place within the exclusive – isolated “world of culture”. It reveals nothing more than the symptom prevalent in our society: the reality is falling apart.

Like a paint that is flaking off?…

If you like.

In your opinion these paintings could be an opportunity to rediscover the sense of reality, that of truth, of commitment and God knows what else! Are you not going a bit too far, your Eminence?

We never know. Is this an “initial” painting? Or else, is this the last sparkle, the last glow of a burnt territory, we are nowadays throwing a last blasé glance at, hoping that it would still slightly pique our old curiosity? We will see. And, in my opinion, very soon.

It seems to me you have become, all of a sudden, very formal. Anyway, these are not sad paintings.

That’s very true! It’s impressive! Except for certain works of Bodo, those of Moke, Samba, N’Toko, Syms or of Ledy, strike me for their cheerfulness.

These works are sometimes violent…

Yes, they are. But never plaintive. At times they talk about pain, nontheless they are always merry.

They are full of humour…

Oh yes! You see, no matter whether the subject is serious, dramatic or cheeky, it’s always a joyful statement. Always! Have a look, for instance, at the “La Liberté de la presse étouffée” by Maître Syms. Despite the serious topic, Syms still seems to amuse himself by showing us that the newsboy’s trousers are ripped in the crotch. Take the darkest paintings by N’Toko, I’m thinking of those he painted while in exile, away from his wife and children. They – the paintings – are nonetheless colourful, bright, funny. Life seems to be always ready to start the party over again. Whenever one wants. Or else, in the Le Pasteur Monyato, where Maître Syms denounces the shady practices of the physicians of the soul. We can feel that this is also a pretext to show bottoms, legs, breasts, pants.

Your Eminence!

Something stronger than them goes over the topics they deal with. Humour, eroticism, celebration, life. It’s the Nietzschean’s “joyful” message, if you like. Deep down in these artworks, there is an idea which affirms life, faith in life. If they stop us, they… in the sinister art and its invariable sinister comment: “ Art is sinister because the world is sinister, worrying etc…”.

The laugh of the Zairian is well known!

That’s true! And I can hear, this laugh, in these paintings. Even in Bodo, who, once more, seems to me different, more tormented, more affected by the Christian nihilism. More bundled up in the education of the White Fathers.

If I may, your Eminence, I have the impression that Bodo’s painting are loaded with magic.

Do you think so?

Yes, I do. There is a disturbing presence of ancient fetishes. Those of accumulation, for instance. You know, those ritual statues covered in hundred of nails.

You must be right. What interests me is that I glimpse in him like ancient state of Christianity, an ancient layer of our techniques of proselytism. In my opinion his works are a sort of Jurassic Park of faith, so to speak! But his imps, I apologise in advance for what I am going to say, just make me laugh.


Notes:

1. “Société des Ambianceurs et Persons Élégants,” or SAPE – “the Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People”.

2. Les Guignols (News Puppets), is a satirical latex puppet show broadcast on Canal+, a French subscription-based television channel, the show being available without subscription.