“I think it’s time to break off…”

— Olivier Zahm

Initially published in Purple Prose, n° 11, 1996.


“I think it is time for me to break off…  The time to break off the terror of theory has come. It is a big case that we will have on our hands for a long time,” added Lyotard in 1971 in the first lines of an essay.[1] That is the situation we still find ourselves in today. The desire for novelty, the desire to appropriate one’s generation or to mark one’s moment, continues in art criticism, at least in France, to result in a position of control and authority over the artistic situation, in the name of theory.

Why not recognize that in the 1990s, art criticism has failed to find its vocabulary, a style and an original theoretical position, free of any libido for power? Why not say that most of the time, the only analysis it can offer is but a crude transfer of concepts, borrowed, as needed, from Foucault, Deleuze, or Maffesoli, to name a few. This is all the more regrettable as it turns out that the intellectuals have abandoned the contemporary art scene, judging it to be of no further interest. Which, at the same time, gives free rein to pseudo-conceptualizations by critics, who intend to take advantage of this gap, to fill it with peremptory and embarrassing statements. This fact (perhaps very French) may be regrettable but it is hard to see how one could impute it, the way a critic does, to any “theory deficit,” when it is precisely the opposite. Namely, a misuse of theory to mark one’s small critic territory, by simply transferring or plagiarizing concepts. The text introducing  the exhibition “Traffic”[2], a formatting of the current artistic situation proposed in terms of “aesthetics of relation” and “relational space-time”, is a mere slip of Michel Maffesoli’s analysis of a collective present into the field of contemporary art (without even quoting him). Regretting that this talented sociologist did not write the text himself. We fully agree with another critic who, in an even more peremptory tone, states that it is time to “give up speeches, to consider actions”. But who, in doing so, returns to the days of manifestos with cyber concepts which are incongruous for some École des Beaux-Arts. By trying to cut short any mediation of theory and claiming a theorization with no referent, in direct contact with the art of the 1990s (commendable intention) this critic is simply tripping.[3] As the title of the article suggests, theorizing in this way, even without a net, is like sticking to terrorism, “action directe”[4] style, with no motive, no reason, in a vacuum. Simply for nostalgia’s sake, whether it be revolutionary, punk, or proletarian.

Meanwhile, the proponents of the 1970s discourse are having fun. They continue to hold a monopoly over the discourse, strongly convinced that everything is void of meaning, confused, and superficial. The last article by Baudrillard, for whom we still fantasized in a certain proximity to the contemporary scene, is very clear on this point. We are all worthless. “The whole duplicity of contemporary art is this: claiming worthlessness, insignificance, nonsense, aiming for worthlessness when we already are worthless.”[5] When critical and cynical post-Marxist theory gets to the corner cafe, we have to stop. Bewildered, Baudrillard says, with a stunning vulgarity, what intellectuals think to themselves. Everyone agrees. Who will then be able to challenge the truncated reading of the art of the 1990s, by a magazine like Artpress, an extension of this unformulated theoretical Poujadism, ready to distort everything that we are. For the record, the six-month campaign against LHiver de l’Amour is a case in point. Or more recently, an essay about François Roche, which reduced his work to a landscaping critique of modernisticformalism, by eliminating the social and political impact of such contextual architecture.[6] This is the treatment we are getting, because we were not able to articulate (theoretically) our rejection of theory and critical post-Marxist thinking, Baudrillard being its ultimate degenerate avatar. We might as well stop. We must refuse to  take part in the perversion of this system which despises us.

While everyone agrees that art no longer faces its time in a frontal and conflictual manner (as defined by post-Marxism), we do not see why criticism would not change its attitude. When we agree on the fact that art acts on the surface and in rhizomes, through extensions and interferences, by creating relationships, proximity, and unexpected alliances … we wonder how art criticism could possibly escape this fact. If the art from the 1990s no longer proceeds in violent vertical cuts, but through crossover, extensive and intensive lines, I can not understand how art criticism can still operate vertically, with overhanging conceptualizations. If the cinema model was praised in the critical discourse of the early 1990s, it is because cinema has worked horizontally for a long time. Not through breaks, but through multiple relationships, with the industry, the media, the techniques and the modes of representation. Today, fashion tends to replace the cinematographic model, as it also works with multiple very real constraints, without starting a revolution, but by negotiations, movements, re-readings. We do not see why art criticism, which speaks so eloquently of mutations and transformations, should elude that which it announces.

Horizontality / verticality: it is a matter of attitude. A matter of style, also. Criticism continues to stand on a footstool, to keep up (theoretically) with its time, while the latter is a field of expansion, interference, and of maximum openness. Art criticism, obsessed with defining a certain “era” or a certain “generation,” to the tune of borrowed concepts, does nothing but continually take stock. Perhaps it is a national shortcoming. In the words of Deleuze, “the French are too human, too historical, too concerned with the future and the past. They spend their time in in-depth analysis. They do not know how to become.”[7] Art criticism always seems like a cadastre, a system of points and positions, whereas what we expect is motion (not a “movement”). Art criticism is precisely the opportunity to break away from art theory, to meet and interfere with art, i.e. to find a position and style. It is about creating interferences, not adding references. Concepts, Deleuze said, “are just like sounds, colors, or images, they are intensities that suit you or not, that work or not.”[8]

I think, I exist, only if I intercept. I am not in a position of authority or analytic superiority. I can only intercept if I go through numerous networks which I create partly through my interference, which then points back to me, and along which I meet various messages, ideas, and activities to be listened to, amplified, and extended. I am not anything other than this way of stepping in and of being as an interference. And this does not lie outside the field  of theory, but on its edge, at its periphery, precisely where concepts encounter a zone of uncertainty and interference, of testing, which forces theory to shed its misuse of language (as an instrument of domination or control). It does not translate into attacking theory and not seeing the links which art develops with thought in its most contemporary emergences. Quite the contrary. It means finding the right distance, the correct position with respect to theory as to establish a real connection to art, which is the one thing that actually legitimates the position of the critic (the relational as well as the conceptual reality of that position). When the best of the referents and interpretive systems is asserted, one must then interfere. Know how to interfere. Interference is the essence of this magazine. Purple Prose has without a doubt a full critical value, as a whole, in its intersections, in its combinations and collisions. It is a way, as a group, with thirty or forty people per issue, to break away from criticism. Break away from theory to confront it to its outside, that which beleaguers and shakes it into disturbance or lightness.

Interference is not a fad, it is a theory of time, a fun and stylistic theory of the right time. It is a way to generate the present. But a present without events, without the announcement of a new movement or a new era in art. A kind of art criticism, devoid of any philosophical foundation and free to use all the debris of the modernistic meta-narrative, it does not announce what the novelty is, it creates the present. It generates collisions, mergers, exchanges, without overhanging positions, through empirical and sensitive combinations. Interferences, not new definitions or new eras.

A kind of criticism that would make art space interfere with the time of culture, the time of the body, the time of the economy, of desire, and of images. A criticism of current events, a topical criticism which is not just another statement (authoritarian / artificial) of the new. It is the activity and vitality of the present. This is what happens when creating a magazine. We interfere, through the temporal filter of a diffracted portrait of our selves and of our time. A fleeting, yet real filter. With no ambition to mark its time, but which can serve as a calendar.

  1. [1] Jean-François Lyotard, Rudiments Païens (Paris: Christian Bourgeois, 1977).
  2. [2] Nicolas Bourriaud, “Introduction à l’esthétique relationnelle”, exh. cat. CAPC Bordeaux, 1996.
  3. [3] Frank Perrin, “Actions directes, notes pour un manifeste mutationnel”, Blocnotes, no. 12 (April 1996).
  4. [4] Ibid.
  5. [5] Jean Baudrillard, “Le complot de l’art”, Libération, 20 May 1996.
  6. [6] Artpress, no 212 (April 1996)
  7. [7] Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues(New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 37.
  8. [8] Ibid.