From the very beginning of the year, what's been shaking up the Paris art scene has been more political than artistic in nature. No more glosses on post-Minimalism or post-post-Conceptualism, on the ubiquity of installation art, on the phantomlike return of "real" painting or of postpainting. No more taking the crisis generation seriously, with their trashy language punctuated by lots of "I, um, like, uh." Those fiery discussions about museum curators playing not just the directors' role (as in the theater, if not the circus) but also the artists', casting (real) artists as extras in their own shows - all forgotten. Politics has overshadowed everything.
To watch a right-wing president take over from a left-winger is to know the worst has arrived, as it did on Sunday May 7 with the election of Jacques Chirac. The funniest and most popular show on television, Guignols de l'Info - a Spitting Image-like satire showing politicians as cartoonlike puppets nakedly displaying their stupidity to France's 3.5 million unemployed viewers - has dubbed the new guy "the big ass"; the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine calls him Chateau Chirac (Chirac castle). Chirac's younger supporters, for their part, have adopted the slogan "On est trad!" (We are traditional!). It looks like "Trad art" is next - a frightful prospect.
Under the "cohabitation," the working arrangement endured by the socialist expresident, Francois Mitterand, a right-wing minister of culture, Jacques Toubon, was already in place. The moment he was appointed the art community went into a funk. Indeed Toubon has carried out a de facto policy of exclusion and centralization through innumerable bureaucratic measures aimed at frustrating the efforts of the regional art centers (known as DRACS and FRACS, in a system initiated in 1982). Most of these centers had tried not only to exhibit contemporary art but to acquire it; the 23 FRACS have mounted 700 shows and acquired 9,700 works from 2,300 different artists since their inception. Free from the political pressures and other demands faced by larger institutions, these spaces had shown a new openness to the subversive, inquisitive bent of art from abroad, or from the newest generation of French artists.
It's easy to imagine a worst-case scenario under the new administration: a conservative return to predigested, conformist blue-chip values, with plenty of interference at the government level. So it's not hard to understand the long faces of artists, dealers, critics, curators, and others in the arts, Even before the promised deterioration sets in, the artist Bertrand Lavier, with his characteristic humor and lucidity, has come up with the slogan "It was better before," to dispel the oppressive atmosphere and get everyone to stop kvetching like a bunch of old folks about the good ol' days. On the flip side, Christian Boltanski feels so hopeless in the face of the rise of regressive ideas, and the lack of progress in the arts, that he can no longer bear to show in institutionally sanctioned spaces, and often takes refuge in churches, or creates site-specific installations in unconventional locations.
On the more optimistic side, Paris has recently seen some grand exhibitions, the kind that give you such an eyeful that, like the sun, they can't be looked at directly. First place goes to Constantin Brancusi, an adopted child of France, who came to Paris from his native Romania on foot. Unrecognized and unsupported by the ungrateful French during his own lifetime, he has now been accorded a costly postmortem retrospective by the Pompidou. This is essential sculpture, for the pleasure of the eyes, as they say in the souks of North Africa, with the awesome intelligence of its pedestals and the prescience of its work-in-progress. The exhibition's great jokes (apart from the ridiculous reconstruction of Brancusi's studio, with its worn-out little tools displayed as if in a museum of folk art) were the metal plates on which the sculptures stood, which would beep loudly if a viewer made the slightest move toward them, as if a concert of burglars were trying to get through an armor plated door. …