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Zoë Gray

Secret Svengali

  • Sven Lütticken, Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art
  • NAi Publishers, Rotterdam and Fonds BKVB, Amsterdam, 2005

Sven Lütticken is perhaps Holland’s best-known contemporary art critic and, in 2004, was the first laureate of the Fonds BKVB’s prestigious Art Criticism Award. Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art was produced on that occasion, a compilation of essays dating from 1999, most of which had been previously published by the New Left Review or the Belgian intellectual art paper De Witte Raaf. Lütticken’s book—which is as much about art criticism as it is about art—should be viewed as an anthology rather than a critical manifesto. However, certain themes or preoccupations recur throughout, particularly the role of appropriation in both art and theory, and the anachronism of every avant-garde. As he stresses at several points in the book, “the new often turns out to be some form of repetition that brings the past into the present.”

In his introduction—muddier and less accessible than the essays that follow—Lütticken expresses his dislike for the “ostensibly discursive, theoretical foundations adduced for art,” which are “often little more than sound bytes that double as sales talk.” He cannot resist the occasional epigrammatic flourish himself, with the aphorism “A lie is a truth whose sell-by date has expired;” the claim “If Jeff Wall did not exist, he would have to be invented;” or his description of the front-man of deconstructive rock band Pere Ubu as someone “who makes Oliver Hardy look like Stan Laurel.” His agreeable writing style makes the book highly palatable, especially in essay-sized morsels. Yet, despite his geniality, he can be scathingly critical. Certain accusations hit home, for example his gripe that “exhibition catalogues and art journals bulge with texts that hijack ideas from elsewhere in order to put a theoretical stamp of approval on an oeuvre, a group exhibition, or a curatorial career.”

In “The Worst Audience,” Lütticken explores the emergence of art world sociologists that accompanied the institutional critique of 1970s artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Robert Smithson, Daniel Buren, and Hans Haacke, artists to whom he often refers, obviously considering them important touchstones. Focusing on Pierre Bourdieu, Lütticken examines how Bourdieu’s legitimization of Buren was in fact an act of self-legitimization. In his division of audience into three hierarchical levels — niveau de la vox populi, niveau des critiques, and niveau réflexif — Bourdieu situated himself at the top of the pile. Lütticken points out the failure of such a schema: “The sociologist in situ here emerges as an advocate of the artist who reserves for himself a privileged level of beholdership. In fact, his classified (or stereotyped) beholders hinder an analysis of the changing public for contemporary art.” He suggests that Bourdieu had failed to notice the differences between the audience who would visit Buren’s 2002 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou and the audience of his 1977 exhibition at the same institution. For Lütticken, Bourdieu had ignored “the gradual transformation of the avant-garde into a cultural tourist attraction.” Rather than simply leaving his analysis there, however, Lütticken turns to Andrea Fraser and explores how her work picks up where Bourdieu left off. Fraser herself acknowledges her debt to Bourdieu, but Lütticken seems to suggest that the artist can succeed where the sociologist failed.

In his essay on Jeff Wall, Lütticken highlights the way in which Wall’s own writing betrays “a continual need for self-legitimization—notably in historical terms.” He notes that Wall’s texts “tend to have a rather conventional art-historical character,” unlike the writing of Dan Graham or Robert Smithson, that Lütticken considers to be an integral part of their work, texts which “sabotage discursiveness by luring the reader into a Borgesian labyrinth of language.” He compares Wall’s reading of Graham’s work to the analysis made by Benjamin Buchloh and finds the former somewhat lacking. Lütticken admires Wall’s oeuvre—particularly his appropriation of genres from both film and painting—and, despite certain misgivings about Wall’s increasing tendency towards traditionalism, does not side with Buchloh’s dismissal of Wall’s practice as mere “light-box photo-conceptualism.” However, he does disapprove of Wall’s reduction of photography in conceptual art to the mere fact that it made his own work possible.

Lütticken’s essay on Dutch artistic duo Bik Van der Pol exemplifies his critical approach—labelling them as “genuine historians of the avant-garde” who seek to both “re-examine and reactivate the past,” he gives a brief outline of relational aesthetics, locates it in its historical context, and swiftly moves on to explain why Bik Van der Pol stand out from the relational crowd. He concludes the essay with “history should not be consumed and mythologized […] but reactivated […] Reactivating the avant-garde, then, is a perpetual deferral, an act always just around the corner, a potential always just on the verge of becoming actualized.”

Such a reactivation of the avant-garde seems, fundamentally, to be Lütticken’s aim with this book. He states that the collection of essays “attempts to examine the potential of the art world as a critical public sphere, an alternative publicness.” What he means by this becomes clearer in the essay that gives this collection its apparently contradictory title. Here he makes a brief but revealing foray into etymology, describing how the word “publicity” was used in the eighteenth century to denote the public sphere, now labelled “publicness.” He describes the secret society created by Georges Bataille, named Acéphale, which Bataille intended to be a counter-public in the way that Christianity had once been: a secret sect that could one day revolutionize the world. “For Bataille,” writes Lütticken, “secrecy was a prerequisite to establishing a radical publicness that could develop transgressions that would change society in the future.” Lütticken cites the work of Cerith Wyn Evans as an example of contemporary art’s growing need for what he terms a “counter-publicness,” but we could also look to Lütticken’s own writing and his reactivation of Bataille as an attempt to evoke (or perhaps invoke) possibilities for creating an alternative publicity through criticism.

Lütticken asserts that art should be conceived of as “an intervention that makes a difference—however small—in history,” and that “good writing about art actively intervenes in an oeuvre, discovering intentions that may not be those of the artist.” For him, writing is “a minimal act—a repetition that is also a rehearsal for an unknown possibility.” If we are to judge his writing by his own criteria, only contemporary and future artists will be able to decide whether indeed it is “good writing about art,” whether it prompts further reactivations that “rewrite the past even as they use it.”

About this Article

Secret Svengali was first published in Fillip 4 in Fall 2006. For more articles from this issue, see the Table of Contents.

Zoë Gray is an assistant curator at Witte de With, Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam where she is currently organizing a Brian Jungen exhibition for December 2006. Originally from the UK, she worked as a freelance curator and critic in France prior to moving to the Netherlands. She is a corresponding editor for Contemporary Magazine.

Notes

The views expressed in Fillip are not necessarily those of the editorial board or the Projectile Publishing Society.

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