The atrocity exhibition. "One artist filmed himself as he sliced off his own testicles." Andrew Hussey reads a trenchant and invigorating attack on the decadence and extremity of the contemporary visual arts
Art and Fear
Paul Virilio Continuum, 115pp, £14.99
When this book was first published in France (under the title La Procedure Silence), Paul Virilio immediately found himself one of the most hated figures on the Left Bank of Paris. Most surprisingly, the attacks came not only from journalists in the art press and elsewhere, but also from gallery owners, dealers and agents - the well-heeled cultural brokers who cluster on the stylish terrasse of La Palette on the rue de Seine. The anger was all the more virulent because the art elite had casually assumed that, as director of the Ecole Speciale d'Architecture de Paris and a theorist long associated with the likes of Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida, Virilio was one of their own. His theories on the history of the avant-garde were therefore seen as the most heinous betrayal. Accordingly, Les Inrockuptibles, the bestselling magazine which is both judge and jury of le bien-pensant Paris, published a vicious article denouncing Virilio's arguments.
Having found him guilty of collaboration with reactionary forces, the writer of the piece, Arnaud Viviant, denounced Virilio as "a grey-shirted primary schoolteacher" and "a puritan censor", before snottily sentencing him to oblivion with the sign-off "Sans nous, Papy!" ("Get lost, Grandad!").
But what exactly had Virilio said to provoke such hatred? And why had the art world turned against him with such fury? The French reaction seems all the more overblown since what Virilio has to say in Art and Fear is, in some ways, at least from this side of the Channel, quite unremarkable.
Quite simply, Virilio states the obvious: that most contemporary art is a con-trick when it is not merely a sensationalist sham. Worse still, it all too often wilfully embraces the nastiest sides of human nature. Virilio traces this phenomenon back to the earliest days of the 20th century, to the Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck who addressed an audience in Berlin in 1918 with the words: "We were for the war. Dada today is still for the war. Life should hurt. There is not enough cruelty." Huelsenbeck's voice, Virilio points out, was a sinister echo of the Italian futurists who, five years before the cataclysm of the Great War, had declared with prophetic venom: "War is the world's only hygiene." It was from this starting point, says Virilio, that the avant-garde movements of the 20th century set in motion the project of "smashing humanism to smithereens".
The result, Virilio argues, taking surrealism, German expressionism and situationism along the way, is art shaped by a suicidal form of thinking, art that is attracted to horror and has no real moral content or value. The culminating point of this philosophical dead end is, to take one example cited by Virilio, the so-called art of the Viennese "actionist" Rudolf Schwarzkogler who died alone while slicing his balls off in an empty room in front of a video camera (it is not without relevance to Virilio's discussion of sexual brutality and art that Otto Muehl, a leading "actionist" artist cohort of Schwarzkogler in the 1960s, has only just come out of an Austrian jail where he was serving time for child abuse).
Virilio describes this kind of self-destructive narcissism as "pitiless" art, an awkward but effective translation of the French term "impitoyable", which also denotes a certain cruelty and fatalism. Against this he sets "pitiful" art, which is again an awkwardly translated term, but one meant to define art that is shaped by the older values of mutual compassion and empathy (strangely enough, in a book by a French high cultural mandarin, Bob Dylan is quoted as an example of such an artist).
This is hardly an original thesis, even in France, the traditional home of the most extreme avant-garde sects. What is genuinely heretical about Virilio is the high moral tone in which he writes. His style is the very opposite of the playful postmodern sensibility that Virilio was supposed to incarnate, and it is this aspect of the book which, more than any other, has come as a shock to his former admirers.
In his seriousness, however, Virilio is far more consistent; he is in fact closer to the original spirit of the old avant-gardes of the 20th century than his detractors will allow. His attack on modern art is explicitly driven by the notion that it is "spectacular" (the term "spectacle" is a recurring leitmotif in the book); that it is serving the purposes of modern forms of capitalism rather than subverting or challenging them. He reserves particular scorn for Charles Saatchi and the British artists he collects and promotes. Their work represents "a conformism of abjection". This analysis is, more to the point, very obviously borrowed from the French situationist Guy Debord, who originally coined the phrase the "society of the spectacle" in 1967 and who declared that modern art was dead as far back as 1962.
Virilio is not, however, a Marxist, a renegade, a postmodernist or otherwise. He has never made any secret of his Catholicism and his pursuit of a Christian humanism that matches the moral chaos of the present age. He occupies, then, in France a solitary position. He is a theorist of the avant-garde whose philosophical language is shaped by the Middle Ages.
Strangely enough, this places him in tune with the times, making him especially qualified to question fixed ideas on subjects as diverse as war, faith and catastrophe. In fact, these are the themes of an exhibition called "Ce qui arrive" ("What happens"), which Virilio has just curated at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. The chosen films and photos depict "pitiless" images of the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, and Oklahoma City. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the exhibition has been attacked in the New York art press as "intellectually fraudulent". But as this book cleverly reveals, it is the very presence of these images in a museum of art that makes Virilio's lonely voice more disturbing and more timely than ever.
Andrew Hussey is the author of The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord (Pimlico). He lives in Paris