The Art of the Everyday: France in the 90s

In the last fifteen years, there has been a prevailing attitude in the United States that contemporary French Art was either non-existent or not of sufficient quality to be viewed on par with the art of other European, Asian, and North-American artists. Consider the recent article that appeared in The New York Times, 1/14/96; its title: Where Is The Glory That Was France, its lead header: "If cultural life is still flourishing in France, it is now largely thanks to foreign artists and performers." Equally distressing is the fact that there has been the dearth of exhibitions devoted to French contemporary artists, with the exception of few solo exhibitions. In addition, France has remained under- represented in prestigious group exhibitions such as Documenta and the Carnegie International. The Art of the Everyday: France in the 90s, co-curated by Thomas Sokolowski, Director, The Andy Warhol Museum and Grey Art Gallery Director Lynn Gumpert, should rectify this situation and will situate the artists included in the exhibition within a specific cultural attitude and tradition.

In 1863, Charles Baudelaire wrote an extended essay entitled The Painter of Modern Life as a thinly-veiled celebration of the painter, Constantin Guys. Subsequently, this literary work became the doctrine behind most modernist art produced during the second half of the nineteenth century. According to Baudelaire, only those artists who chose to focus on the 'memory of the present' were appropriate to the modern age.

Today, a number of younger contemporary French artists between the ages of 25 and 45 are focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, eschewing Baudelaire's celebration of the demi-mondaine pleasures of the café-concerts of Hausmann's Paris. With the advent of the twentieth century, the sophisticated urbanity of the nineteenth century flâneur has mutated into a city dweller well-acquainted with the nitty-gritty requirements of an urban existence. In particular, it was in post-war France that a philosophical study of everyday life included a fervent intellectual and political critique of consumer society which ultimately culminated with the student strikes and uprisings around May 1968.

A sustained cultural and political interest in the critique of the everyday inevitably has informed the art included in "The Art of the Everyday." As Henri Lefebvre, a key theorist on this subject, notes, the "concept of everydayness [can] reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary." The artists included in the exhibition (Joel Bartolomeo, Rebecca Bournigault, Claude Closky, Frédéric Coupet, Valerie Jouve, Philippe Mairesse, Jean-Luc Moulène, and Rainer Oldendorf) similarly find inspiration in the quotidian requirements of everyday life and purposefully reject an outmoded reverence for le grand goût evidenced in earlier French art. Some, like Claude Closky and Philippe Mairesse, employ the stuff of everyday life as material for their art. Closky creates endless series of taxonomies which he culls from words clipped from grocery store flyers and images gleaned from fashion magazines. With his creation of his photo agency GRORE, Mairesse pairs the pathos of found and discarded snapshots with the strategies of the advertising world which play upon the public's insatiable appetite for images. Others, like Valérie Jouve, chronicle marginalized, lower working-class French living in ghetto-like housing projects situated in the banlieues of major cities; the results resonate with their seeming haplessness. On another note, Jöel Bartolommeo turns to his family for his art, often filming the playful shenanigans of his children to create compelling yet bizarre narratives. Rainer Oldendorf recontexturalizes old movies within the confines of the Parisian suburbs and refits the parts with untrained, amateur actors. And Frédéric Coupet directs our attention to the transformative powers of the everyday: aspiring to the utopian in everyday life, Coupet (the name of whose pseudo-political party has been appropriated for the exhibition's title) revels in the notion that "politics is the art of making the necessary possible." His street performances and television talkshow appearances as a true man-of-the-people attempt to engage the ethnic minorities of Marseille to "Live Life like Utopianism."

In the end, "The Art of the Everyday" does not purport to claim that the artists selected represent an exhaustive survey nor form a cohesive movement with one particular style. Instead, it identifies one aspect of post-war French culture and looks at how it has informed the work of a current generation of contemporary French artists.