Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 23, 2020
Lily Woodruff Disordering the Establishment: Participatory Art and Institutional Critique in France, 1958–1981 Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. 336 pp.; 17 color ills.; 81 b/w ills. Paper $28.95 (9781478008446)

On May 19, 1968, French president Charles de Gaulle met with his cabinet ministers to address the mounting national conflagration that had erupted earlier in the month, when university students around Paris instigated a mass protest movement. By mid-May, a general strike had unexpectedly transformed the movement into a serious threat to the economy and the state. In addition to violent street battles between protesters and police, there were now millions of workers in almost every industry walking off their jobs or occupying their worksites and making radical demands. The only statement by de Gaulle from the May 19 meeting that was made public was his supposed declaration, “La reforme: oui, le chienlit: non!” The expression chienlit was so anachronistic and unfamiliar to most of the populace that many newspapers included an etymological definition in their reports. As was explained in Le Figaro, “these days, the term is taken to mean ‘disorder.’”

The title of Lily Woodruff’s book, Disordering the Establishment, which examines certain artistic practices over the first two decades of the Fifth Republic, would seem to place the artists discussed on the side of the chienlit de Gaulle denounced in May 1968. What emerges, however, is a more complex portrait, in which the sort of “disordering” pursued by the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), Daniel Buren, André Cadere, and the Collectif d’Art Sociologique (CAS) constituted reformist moves rather than the revolutionary or radically anarchistic connotations mon général had in mind. Indeed, in many ways this work troubled the clear distinctions between reform and revolution (or insurrectionary disorder) that structured the political vision of both Gaullists and their opponents.

These artists each sought to expand the range of sites and means for audiences to encounter and interact with art, even as they operated within traditional institutional confines and parameters. Much of their work was formally abstract, such as GRAV’s Op artinspired paintings, sculptures, and installations, Buren’s repetitive vertical stripes, and Cadere’s “round bars of wood” painted in systematized patterns of color (1). Even when it did mimic forms of administrative rationality, such as in CAS’s presentation of statistical information about neighborhood residents, the work lacked a clear function or message. As such, each artist’s or group’s output resonated with but crucially differed from the leftist politics that animated antiestablishment contestation during the period. GRAV’s desire to activate the spectator as a means to counter cultural alienation and enforced passivity echoed similar calls by radical groups like the Situationist International. However, their “technocratic aesthetic” was in tension with their ludic aims (11). Buren’s illicit wheat-pasting of his stripes on walls and billboards around Paris employed the same means and sites as the anonymous posters churned out by the atelier populaire during May–June 1968, but in forms that were emphatically antiexpressive, legible only insofar as they could be related back to the institutional framework of art. Cadere’s approach was even more anti-institutional; it involved the artist wandering around the city carrying one of his painted bars or leaving them unsolicited in various locations, including other artists’ exhibitions. As Woodruff argues, however, this was performed as an assertion of individual artistic autonomy rather than in the name of a collectivity or any political program. CAS spurned object-based aesthetics in favor of sociological methods that invited participation from nonart audiences. They thus extended the populist rejection of elite specialists in favor of an engagement with everyday life that characterized leftist critiques of disciplines like sociology during the 1960s. By using art to liberate sociology from its instrumental and interpretive functions, though, CAS provided a kind of technocratic mirror in which subjects could see themselves reflected in the interpellative language of postwar modernization.

Woodruff does an excellent job of fleshing out the context of the postwar technocratic planning that she argues was a main target of these artists’ practices. The problem is that the work does not always match that context. For example, she frames GRAV’s attempts to destabilize urban residents’ daily habits and perceptions with interactive artworks as an antidote to the stultifying effects of modernist urbanism associated with the development of suburban housing. However, as acknowledged in the book’s conclusion, GRAV’s public interventions, such as A Day in the Street (April 1966), were confined to the central and increasingly touristed districts of Paris (260). They thus were in line with the mounting sociocultural division between an urban core that was being transformed into a space of commodified bourgeois spectacle and the functionalist suburban periphery to which the working class, and increasing numbers of immigrants, were being banished.

Nonetheless, technocracy was indeed discursively pervasive, and Woodruff attentively elucidates how these artists engaged with it in ambivalent ways. She argues, for example, that “participation” as modeled in the work of these artists was distinct from the conception of participation proposed by de Gaulle, who used the term in an attempt to defuse class tensions by integrating workers into the planned economy of early–Fifth Republic “third way” capitalism (10). Yet the artworks largely abstain from representing or overtly addressing workers (with the partial exception of CAS’s sociological studies in Perpignan and other sites). Instead, the tendency was to conceive of audiences as divided between art “specialists” and “nonspecialists.” Such categories were used by the artists despite their otherwise frequent reliance on Marxist phraseology, the French intelligentsia’s lingua franca of the period. This suggests that a gradual detachment of socially critical art and theory from class analysis and “workerism” was taking place within these fields, a shift that Woodruff explains in part with reference to Jean-François Lyotard’s definition of postmodernity as an end to historical metanarratives and an embrace of plurality and individuality. Thus, strategies of phenomenological disorientation, decentralized infiltration of multiple sites, peripatetic roaming, and playful use of sociological methods are understood as destabilizing both the subject positions and the forms of institutional authority associated with French modernity, including the revolutionary subject posited as their dialectical antithesis.

Though this disintegration narrative is well worn by now, Woodruff’s careful reading of individual works and statements by these artists identifies earlier and subtler inklings of it than have typically been noted. While she frames the agenda of these artists as various attempts to “help the individual break out of society’s various prisons” (68), the question of where individuals found themselves after being thus liberated was one they refused or were not able to answer.

A partial response might be suggested by Benjamin Buchloh’s assessment of Fluxus, which he claims “risked becoming an unknowing part of a larger project of enforced dedifferentiation and desublimation” under conditions of culturally and technologically expanded capitalism (Art Since 1900, vol. 2, Thames & Hudson, 2016, 533). But Woodruff’s point concerning the work of these artists is not merely about the nature of the art object but also about the ways they sought to activate viewers. GRAV’s emphatic declaration that “it is forbidden to not participate,” which accompanied their installation at the 1963 Paris Biennial, takes on more sinister overtones when viewed retrospectively from within the “new spirit of capitalism” that emerged in response to May 1968 (Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Gallimard, 1999). For the “unity models that had been provided on the one hand by technocrats and on the other by modernist revolutionary ideals” gave way not only to the fragmentation of identity politics but also to new entrepreneurial conceptions of the self as flexible, adaptable, networked, constantly on the move, and open to possibilities and connections (262).

The protesters of May 1968 seized upon de Gaulle’s use of the term chienlit to ridicule him for being an out-of-touch old man. Indeed, the order he sought to uphold was on its way out. The work of these artists therefore signaled the kind of “disorder” necessary to destabilize outmoded institutional arrangements and subjectivities and that would enable the integration of individuals into the emergent and “unstable” conditions of neoliberalism by the 1980s.

Sami Siegelbaum
Department of Humanities and Sciences, ArtCenter College of Design