MARCEL BROODTHAERS: Art as Production as Production

      By Nancy Atakan*


      During his short but important career, the Belgian artist, Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976), systematically analysed concepts accepted as valid by the contemporary art system.  Broodthaers' innovative and questioning approach to art exposed problems, softened boundaries, and opened venues for younger artists. In retrospect, Broodthaers' work seems to link early twentieth century approaches to art with current trends. In his analytical approach, like Duchamp, he emphasized the importance of the artist's intention and used the ready-made instead of hand made object. Like Magritte, he exposed the disparity between images and real objects. In an interview from 1973, Broodthaers' statement that questioning art justifies the continuity and the expansion of ''art as production as production,'' brought to mind Joseph Kosuth's 1966 “Art as Idea as Idea”. It is interesting to note that Kosuth in his 1991 exhibition, “The Play of the Unmentionable”, adapted the artist-turned-curator format that Broodthaers' had used in 1968. By re-arranging the art objects stored in the Brooklyn Museum and adding quotations as wall panels, Kosuth showed how art objects judged as immoral at one time appear harmless a few years later.


      For this 1968 project, Broodthaers created his fictional museum entitled ''Musée d'Art Moderne, (Section XIX Siecle), Départment des Aigles'' [Museum of Modern Art, (19th Century Section), Department of Eagles].   He playfully questioned the accepted myths and ceremonies related to the process of exhibiting artwork in museums as he opened the art context for scrutiny. Using carefully designed letterhead paper that made the event appear legitimate, as a self-designated director, he invited guests to an official opening for this 'new' museum. Rather than staging the event in a large museum building, he directed unsuspecting guests to his former studio. To increase the look of authenticity, he parked an art shipper's van outside the gallery building. Instead of displaying art works, he exhibited empty crates customarily used to transport art works. Instead of gazing at valuable paintings and sculptures,

      spectators could only look at postcard reproductions of paintings by David, Delacroix, Ingres, and Courbet attached to the walls or read such words as 'picture', 'with care', 'top', and 'bottom' stamped on the crates. During opening and closing ceremonies, he conducted discussions centered on the social responsibilities of artists, rather than issues related to the aesthetic properties of art works.


      As an extension of this project, at the Städtische Kunsthalle, in Dusseldorf, Germany, between May 16 and July 9, 1972, Broodthaers organized a temporary show entitled Der Adler vom Oligozän bis heute [The Eagle from Oligozan until the present]. Using the theme of eagle

      as the unifying element for this exhibition, he collected, organized and arranged paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, decorations, illustrations, and other popular or commercial objects. Without regard for a hierarchical ordering of these ancient and contemporary objects,

      Broodthaers hung and displayed twenty-six objects borrowed from museums and art collections in Europe and America along side such mundane objects as cigar boxes or comic books from his personal collection. To accompany each object, he prepared a label with a catalogue number and the statement ''Ceci n'est pas un object d'art / Dies ist kein kunstwerk / This is not a work of art''. For the two-volume catalogue, using the normal museum procedure for classification, he arranged each object alphabetically according to the city from which it was borrowed. Thus, in the catalogue that presented the eagle in a range of geological, mythological, naturalistic, artistic, and symbolic forms, a reproduction of a drawing of an eagle by Rubens appeared along side the brand name of a 1910 typewriter. By juxtaposition of revered artefact next to a mundane object, Broodthaers provoked spectators to think critically about the manner in which objects are presented in museums. René Magritte used the sentence, ''This is not a pipe'', in his famous 1929 painting, La Trahison des Images [The Treason of Images] to point out the humour of mistaking a representation for a real object.

      Broodthaers used the label ‘‘this is not an art work'' to ask what makes inherently valueless objects become precious artefacts. Duchamp empowered the artist with this transformative ability.  In his mock exhibition, Broodthaers questioned the authority of curators to sustain this action. By relocating and reclassifying objects that had already been relocated and reclassified into museums and art collections by curators, Broodthaers reviewed and expanded

      the process of decontextualization. By separating isolated objects from their social framework, he showed how museums obliterate boundaries and obscure socio-economical realities as they accord a deceptive wholeness to fragments taken from different periods and cultures.


      In later works, Broodthaers questioned the legitimacy of avant garde artist's claim to be in opposition to bourgeois society. In 1974, as a pun, Broodthaers added the two-word title, Citron-Citroën, to an old poster that illustrated and listed the pleasures of the Belgium coast. Citron alluded to the lemon the vacationer would use on his oysters while Citroën referred to the family car used by the bourgeois family to reach the location of their seaside holiday. In his final book from 1975, The Conquest of Space: Atlas for the use of artists and military men, he linked military and artistic actions to show that artistic production is contained within the boundaries of the nation-state. His final installation, Décor, a conquest, referred to the Battle of Waterloo fought between the French and German on Belgium soil. To designate the avant-garde as the official culture of Imperialism, he traced the historical emergence of the avant-garde from the Napoleonic era of global conquest and domination.


      While reviewing the work of Broodthaers, I was reminded of Edward Said's appeal for interference to recover a history of the “Other” that has been either misrepresented or rendered invisible. Broodthaers, a master of interference, directed his work towards finding methods to reveal misrepresentation and to make the invisible visible. In his proposition, ''art as production, as production'', perhaps he continued the ethos begun by the Constructivist-Productivist avant-garde and continued by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, ''The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.'' Nevertheless, Broodthaers' work synthesized various elements from different art historical sources into a dynamic and innovative format designed to analyse the context of art. What is most interesting for us today is to see contemporary artists adapting Broodthaers' methods of decontextualization and juxtaposition to analyse a variety of authoritative contexts, even the logo centric concept of East and West.


      Many artists today use art exhibitions for interactive experiences that emphasize dialogue and discussion. Cosima von Vonin has presented works by friends and colleagues within the context of her own exhibitions. These have in turn generated other social events. In his exhibitions, Maurizio Cattelan has humorously made ironic comments about both the art world and society. In one show, instead of exhibiting work of his own, he allowed a perfume manufacturer to display an advertisement. To show how categorization controls and follows dominate ideologies, Mark Dion has exaggerated classification systems. By turning galleries and museums into storage, playground, restaurant, and theater spaces, the multi-cultural Rirkrit Tiravanija has further altered the expectations of the exhibition visitor.  In 1992 for the 303 Gallery in New York, Tiravanija and the gallery staff cooked and served Thai dishes while they chatted with the visitors. In this manner, these actively involved visitors participated in the making of the work. Tiravanija believes that, ''it is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people.'' I share this belief with Tiravanija. While I can only speculate about the other artists I have mentioned in this article, an awareness of Broodthaers' work has played an important role in leading me towards focusing on an interactive rather than a finished product orientation. If nothing else, he showed me how to laugh at the human condition.





      Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, ''Michael Asher and the Conclusion of Modernist Sculpture'', Richard Hertz, Theories of Contemporary Art, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1985, p. 237.



      Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, ed., Broodthaers, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1988.



      Uta Grosenick and Burkhard Riemschneider, ed., Art at the Turn of the Millennium, Taschen, Köln, 1999.



      Anne Rorimer, ''Photography-Language-Context: Prelude to the 1980s'', A forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, May 7-August 13, 1989.p. 147-148.



      Craig Owens, ''From Work to Frame, or Is There Life After ''The Death of the Author''?'', Beyond Recognition, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992, p. 126.