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NO!art IN RETROSPEC
THE DARK AGES ARE BACK!
By JEAN-JACQUES LEBEL
Published in: NO!, catalog, Berlin 1995
In Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Chiapas civilians are gunned down like rabbits, in Rwanda they are butchered with machetes, in China, in Tibet, in Algeria whoever speaks up is shot dead. This is an age of racism and nationalism for T.V. junkies, in which social and cultural lobotomy, via the media-crazy, passes for "consensus". The word "ALIENATION" has fallen out of fashion (to the extent where the average European, American or Asian citizen probably wouldn't even understand its meaning), but never has the actual reality of alienation been so overpowering, so effectively in control of all our lives: The Cultural Industry is, of course, part of the dominant power machinery. Whoever denies that is a hypocrite or a cretin. Nevertheless, as artists, poets, performers, activists or, simply, as thinking and autonomous citizens, if we refuse to work with, or through, cultural institutions (museums, galleries, universities, publishers, theaters, concert halls, film producers, etc.) we get pushed aside and forced into silence. Today's world wide social and economic crisis brings back to the fore the fundamental questions formulated by Gauguin which the bullshit art-boom of the eighties, had tried to erase:
FROM WHERE WE COME? WHERE WE GO? WHERE WE ARE?
Those artists and/or art-gangsters, operators and speculators who had “forgotten” that art was about THAT (and not about commercial success, cultural politics and Hollywoodian glitz) are now suffering the results of their own poison. In substance, nothing much has changed since Gauguin: are we objects or subjects of our own history ?
Some of us who, back in the fifties and sixties, were fortunate enough to befriend the surviving dadaists or ex-dadaists - Duchamp, Breton, Péret, Man Ray, Tzara, Ernst, Huelsenbeck, Haussmann - never stopped believing that artistic activity, if motivated by dissent (and not consent) and expressed with humor (and not arrogance), could somehow, even indirectly, exert some kind of positive effect in the social field. We felt, and we still feel, totally estranged from the dominant culture, we pledge no allegiance to a country, a church nor a party, yet we feel part of a nomadic international underground whose "raison d'être" was and is to re-invent the World thru art. Not academic art - sound poetry and Happenings were obviously needed after Artaud and Cage - but, still, art, as a behavioral statement of existential sovereignty. A tiny but active minority of neither commercial slaves nor drop-outs, experimenting other ways of life, other means of expression, other cultural networks, in the libertarian mode.
Looking back, some - not all - of the most intense moments of my life have been collective experiences: hallucinogenic adventures in Paris with Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs at the Gît-le Coeur Hotel, in the late fifties; the Living Theatre trip (after meeting the Becks in Milan, at the 1960 Anti-Procès show) in New York, Italy and Paris; the brief but strong events lived with Sam Goodman, Stanley Fisher, Ted Joans, Michèle Stuart, Boris Lurie at the Hall of Issues and March Gallery in New York and my meeting, there, with Allan Kaprow (great friend and collaborator, to this day), the Antl-Procès shows, in Paris, Venice, Milan, to protest the Algerian War (bombs were exploding in the streets, torture was being practised by the Army and Fascist groups, Algerian corpses were thrown to the Seine, their arms tied behind their backs with barbed wire. THAT was Paris in the early sixties!); the large (4 x 5 meters) Collective Anti-Fascist Painting - the co-authors of which were Enrico Baj, Erro, Antonio Recalcati, Roberto Crippa, Gianni Dova and I - shown in 1960 at the Milan Anti-Procès show (I got arrested, the painting was confiscated and kept by the Italian police for 25 years); the Festivals de la Libre Expression (Happenings, exhibitions, music, movies) in Paris, the political and cultural work with the Noir et Rouge anarchist movement before, during and after 68; the Woodstock experience with the Yippies and Abbie Hoffman; Actions of Art/life, with Felix Guattari in Berlin (Tunix), in Bologna (Indiani Metropolitani), in Watts (Los Angeles); the many POLYPHONIX Festivals roving around the world today; all this in counterpoint with very private and silent laboratory work in my studio.
I remember the New York NO!art bunch as being immediately friendly and in total despair (as I was, also, upon arriving from the Algerian War zone which Paris was part of). Sam, Stanley, Boris, Michele, Ted were already disgusted - as I was - with what they perceived as another massive Hollywoodian hype operation catering to the Park Avenue and Golf Course crowd of "art collectors": Pop Art. They, like the early beatniks, were deserters and "nihilists" - in the Dostoievskian sense - wiping their asses with Art News and Art in America and refusing to set foot at the MOMA or the Whitney which, of course, was childish. I interpreted the title of their show as: "Our art says NO! to yours which is not art but prostitution. Our art is opposed to ‘Yes Men’ and ‘Yes Art’!”
After the boring Hell of Europe in the fifties, New York smelled like Paradise, One could spend nights sitting to Thelonius Monk playing his Nietzschian piano at the Village Gate; one could walk down Canal Street (Shangri La!) with Ted Joans, buy a real metal bomb (which I used in my BOMB! Mr. America sculpture) and carry it back on the subway; one could share a small studio on 10th Street with (now dead) Haitian artist Jacques Gabriel; one could dine with Duchamp and Huelsenbeck, Tinguely and Johanna; one could meet Ginsberg, Corso, Leroy Jones (now Amiri Baraka), Franz Kline or Bob Rauschenberg at the Cedar Tavern; one could do readings at the Living Theatre or participate in Oldenburg's Happenings; one could spend days with Sam Goodman sifting thru the 42nd Street Girlie Magazine stores to find the right ones to use as collage material for our American-reality sandwiches (such as I did for my "New York School" and "Bomb and Shelter" series); one could make movies with Jonas Mekas and walk from one end of the city to another as Rousseau walked across the Alps to Venice.
The Judson Church was where the anti-war and anti-racist activists met. It's basement was the perfect location for the Hall of Issues and the March Gallery, which were run mostly by Sam Goodman. They were completely different from the "normal" art world in that they were open to all that which the up-town dealers and museum directors were afraid of; screams of suffering, despair, insurrection.
Isn't that what every generation is obliged to do in order to survive: construct its own counter-institutions, its own instruments, its own space, its own language? It's not for me to say if NO!art is better - or worse - than that which it was reacting against. Is it strong stuff or weak stuff? Is it relevant or irrelevant today? Whatever the answers are we cannot be naive enough to hope that this art - or anti-art or NO!art -, can be "understood" or accepted. It still isn't (and, probably, never will be) the kind of chic and neutral merchandise affluent collectors hang on their dining room walls That's O.K. with me! Think about Pueblo Indian (New Mexico) sand-painting. Medicine men (i.e. "those who see") draw intricate sand compositions In color, creating, on the ground, sacred places for healing rituals. The magic works or it doesn't work, depending on the mental state of the individuals involved in the ritual. Anyway, sooner or later, a great wind win blow it all away.
So, take a look, a good look, while you still can.
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About JEAN-JACQUES LEBEL: Born in 1936, in Paris, France. Worked as an artist and art-critic and organized exhibitions in the dadaistic movement together with Arturo Schwarz and others. Social-political assemblages, collages and performances. Took part in the Involvement Show and the Doom Show 1960/61 at March Gallery in New York.Lives in Paris. | ►MORE