Art And Utopia: Limited Action

Reviewed by Carter Mull

Shaping a history of the 20th century is like trying to put a collar on a shapeless mutt running in six directions at once. The competing stories of a tumultuous time chock-full of compelling dramas—world wars, student riots, technological innovations, the rise and fall of nations, rattle dissonantly like a child’s alphabet, the kind you shake in a plastic globe, searching for the word once the pieces fall where they may. Nevertheless, Jean Francois Chevrier’s Art and Utopia, an exhibition book from the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) published in the summer of 2004 begs for a read of its own fiction of our early years.
Nearly every work in the exhibition, be it major or minor, is a to-die-for rebus of internal relations grating out dialogical experience that is complex and productive. After moving through the mix of related plates (318 to be exact), one must navigate two short texts—Chevrier’s Own To Whomever, and a reprinting of Stephané Mallarme’s Limited Action (1895). The former is a bit of a rote overview, shaping with few words the decades and select practices for the reader. On the other hand, Mallarme’s Limited Action elegantly describes the theatre of both the life of the artist and the field of culture itself.  Mallarmé notes that art-centric, political action is indeed limited to the sphere of the socio-cultural, and only by speculation the socio-political. Moreover, the author reveals the relations between artists of all ilk to be a theatre of politics worthy of gossip and myth-making, yet rarely inking the news (even in ever-fascinating turn of the century Paris).
Between Broodthaers and Mallarmé, education and experimentation, Chevrier’s invocation of the symbolist period of the late 19th century to understand the 20th makes me look to what may form the poetic basis of the 21st. The period of 1965–1975 produced some of the starkest ontological questions to subjects and objects primarily via conceptual practices in life and art across the globe. Joan Didion’s The White Album returns to this moment, albeit with almost a decade of distance. And though she looks to the psychological darkness of a certain epoch in Los Angeles (1966-71), the text immediately pounds the gavel, calling to order the theatre of inner dialogue to out itself as the raw ideational substance of culture, even if made manifest from the haunts of depression.  “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” opens the depths of the first paragraph, which closes, philosophically, noting the following:
We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
To Chevrier: thank you for keeping the dream of dialogical experience tied to that of utopia, full of possibility and a vision of what may come—may such a dream never die.
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Jean-Francois Chevrier, Art And Utopia: Limited Action (Actar/MACBA, 2009)
Image: Marcel Broodthaers “Le Corbeau et le Renard”, 1967