We’ve heard of counterfeiters, artists who steal, destroy or are quite simply dishonest. But is there such a thing as illegal art? One made up entirely of offenses? Is an artist obliged to follow the legal norms in place? Difficult question, impossible answer. One thing is certain: art sometimes finds a home in deviance.
Howard S. Becker, Outsiders, Études de sociologie de la déviance (1963), Traduction française : © Éditions Métailié, Paris, 1985.
In art there are those who are mavericks, rebels, in other words, artists that nobody knows but whose eccentric, twisted works are sometimes just as interesting as those by more renowned artists. Or in some cases even more so.
For several years, every year at the same time and on the same road at exactly the same place, going at the same speed, Florian B intentionally drives over the speed limit. Inertia: His action, which he wouldn’t directly call artistic, consists of maintaining a state, creating an identical reproduction.
To take a stand against constant change, against progress?
But where’s the subtraction then? The story isn’t over yet. Later, Florian B. explains himself to the authorities by saying the following:
“Unsure as to how many points are left on my driver’s permit, I decided to consult my most recent traffic offenses that led to fines. There are three absolutely identical ones, dated 07/21/2015, 07/21/2016 and 07/21/2017 respectively, that require further explanation.” It is then Florian B.’s job to logically contest these absurd offenses, which are identical in almost every way—same time, same place, same speed when the offense took place—aside from being spaced one year apart, 2015, 2016, and 2017. Will the authorities in question perceive it as a bug in their computer system? The verdict is still out.
Florian B. makes institutions face up to truth.
Art history is swarming with transgressions, and that’s a good thing.
Artists are figures that always subtract themselves in one way or another, with or without elegance, from what they should be.
In 2016, critic Andrew Russeth published an article in the American art journal ARTNEWS Magazine entitled “When Felonies Become Form: The Secret History of Artists Who Use Lawbreaking as Their Medium1”. He recalls a relatively unknown event from 1976 in which German artist Ulay (who was 33 at the time) stole an artwork by from the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Der arme Poet (1839), a painting that had been admired by Hitler. After stealing it, he hung it in the living room of a Turkish family in Berlin. The action was the subject of a film. And of course the artist was quickly arrested. He could choose between 36 days in prison or paying a fine of 3,600 Deutschmarks. He fled the country, which put an end to the case. Strange thing: Ten years later, in 1986, the painting was stolen again while on loan to an exhibition in Denmark, and has not been recovered since. According to Russeth, the adventure is a kind of paradigm in the sense that it so aptly shows how things function when “felonies become form”: the artist commits a crime, publicizes it, and when the authorities get involved, the artist slips away. Russeth concludes his article by quoting one of American ex-president Richard Nixon’s political rules regarding “executive privilege” (in 1974, during the Watergate scandal, Nixon requested to invoke a privilege that would protect the confidentiality of his conversations): “When the President does it,” says Nixon, “that means that it is not illegal.” In the context of art, this rule can be conveniently rephrased: “When an artist does it, it isn’t illegal.” But of course, the author reminds us, we already know that this phrase will never satisfy the artists, the judges or any other moral defenders.
So let’s get down to the facts! Art has many established connections to deviance.
In Outsiders: Studies on the Sociology of Deviance (1963)2, Howard S. Becker brilliantly analyzes all of the contradictions inherent to the term “outsider”.
“All social groups,” writes Becker, “make rules and attempt, at some times and under some circumstances, to enforce them. Social rules define situations and the kinds of behavior appropriate to them, specifying some actions as ‘right’ and forbidding others as ‘wrong’. When a rule is enforced, the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind of person, one who cannot be trusted to live by the rules agreed upon by the group. He is regarded as an outsider.
But the person who is thus labeled an outsider may have a different view of the matter. He may not accept the rule by which he is being judged or may not regard those who judge him as either competent or legitimately entitled to do so. Hence, a second meaning of the term emerges: the rule-breaker may feel his judges are outsiders.”
It is time to conclude this Chronicle. In 2018, two eagerly-anticipated horror movies were released. One was Hereditary by American filmmaker Ari Aster, the other an Italian-American remake of Suspiria, directed this time by Luca Guadagnino. Both films have one thing in common: Critics unanimously viewed them as masterpieces spoiled by their overly anticipated endings, rendered infinitely mediocre because they give in to the conventional expectations that general audiences hold when it comes to these kinds of films. In art, we know that conclusions are not only stupid, but also useless in most cases. In art it is best to have no conclusion. We saw it in the article “When Felonies Become Form”: the artist always winds up disappearing, and that’s how it should be.
In an interview about his film Caché (2005), known for its open, if not incomprehensible ending, Austrian-born director Michael Haneke makes this brilliant comment, which will serve as our conclusion today: “I only understood one thing: there is no answer. 3”
THIS WAS: Defying the powers that be as subtraction. There is no answer as subtraction.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Cover: © Anaïs Enjalbert