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0051 Wood Roberdeau, Poetic Recuperations: The Ideology and Praxis of Nouveau Réalisme

RIHA Journal 0051 |  10 August 2012 

Poetic Recuperations: The Ideology and Praxis of Nouveau Réalisme

Wood Roberdeau

Editing and peer review managed by:

Caroline Arscott, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London


Jill Carrick, Anthony Gardner


Taking previously un-translated writings of critic Pierre Restany as a primary source, this article demonstrates how his vision for the Nouveau Réaliste movement of the 1950s and 1960s demands a detailed and theoretical (rather than historically contextual) exploration of its attempt to reconcile visual art with the quotidian. Accordingly, Bürger's criticism of the historical and neo-avant-gardes is weighed against theories of aesthetics and politics from Adorno to Rancière. In addition, Heidegger's work on the art object, alongside Benjamin's interest in Hölderlin, serves to inform an analysis of Restany's investment in a concept of the 'poetry of the real'. Individual works by Niki de Saint-Phalle, Daniel Spoerri and Yves Klein are also investigated as exemplars of the Nouveau Réaliste ideology. My interest in Restany's life and work stems from recent art world concentrations on the banal or 'infra-ordinary' and its relation to similar concerns within sociology.



  1. The subject of the everyday is a popular one in many fields, and one that is so expansive that it is nearly impossible to pinpoint any definitive characteristic for its long-time incorporation within the visual arts. If viewed through a sociological lens however, it becomes less difficult to understand the potential for reciprocity between high culture and the mundane. Henri Lefebvre, for one, struggled to define the relationship between the marvellous and the real leading him to conclude that the everyday needed no embellishment for its poetic qualities to be revealed.1 He also identified the dangers of mythologizing the artist and supporting institutions of high culture since they inevitably create a rift or boundary between art and non-art. Made during the immediate post-war years and culminating in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life, these observations solidified the notion that society's greatest concern was alienation or the isolation of individuals from one another and the need for some sort of commonality. Much of the concern was triggered by the infiltration of capitalism and the shifting of attention from quasi-Marxist cultural reconstruction to the accumulation of wealth – a shift dependent upon the attraction of the aesthetic design of commodities and the propaganda of advertising. Within this climate, the art critic Pierre Restany (Fig. 1) positioned himself as the spokesperson for an art form that would seek to resolve these different approaches. Confronted with the issues proposed by the historical avant-garde, the Nouveaux Réalistes sought to renegotiate the discourse surrounding the autonomous work of art or aesthetic object and the previously undisputed need for its negation by embracing economic and technological progress. In essence, the expansion of everyday awareness – ways of behaving and observing – aided by visual art would reassign the role of artist to everyone living and working within the urban centre. Importantly, this potentiality continued to be pursued in later years by applauded artists such as Joseph Beuys and, much more recently, by theorists such as Boris Groys.2

  2. As a writer, Restany sought to establish a system in which the work of Marcel Duchamp could be considered a ground zero, a fresh platform from where modern art practices could leap. Borrowing Duchamp's concept of the ready-made and using it to confirm a style or technique invoked by the Nouveaux Réalistes emphasized an early act of appropriation as opposed to fabrication and set in motion a highly theoretical approach to art practice; as mentioned above, that every individual and not just the trained artist has within himself or herself the capacity to create, recognize, and appreciate a work of art and that the materials which make up such works need not be restricted by convention. That is, with the newfound popularity of the aesthetic of the everyday in France at this time, it was hoped by Restany that the field of creative potential might be widened to include those not necessarily trained in traditional artistic techniques. In his theoretical work of 1979, L'autre face de l'art, he wrote: 'An entire contemporary technological humanism, a rational optimistic pre-figuration of a future society capable of providing a tangible reality and an internalized individual practice to the theory of general creativity is founded upon the artistic baptism of the object: all men are creators.'3 Here, Restany disclosed a profound desire for men and women to play active roles in their own modernization. Such statements, often laced with what can be regarded as a teleology particular to their author, emphatically began to question the view that artworks retain any sort of potent originality that might be directly connected to the psycho-biography of their producers. In many respects this position is problematic since, for the most part, the artworks produced by the Nouveaux Réalistes themselves communicate what could be termed a signature style. Even so, the assigning of such recognizable attributes might be the fault of the institutional art market rather than that of the movement's founder whose intentions, on paper, were to open up a more generalized creative field. Restany's critique was limited by its self-proclaimed responsibility to map out the effects Nouveau Réalisme had upon the world; he required a definition of the movement and he needed it to be sustainable as an important art historical coup. Nuit Banai has argued that his concept of the ready-made was overly simplistic in the sense that its claim that the object acts as the univocal conduit between art and everyday life is far too narrow or that because the ready-made simultaneously replicates and demolishes the logic of capital, it could be said never to achieve a desired closure.4 Even so, it is crucial to remember that his teleological and performative approach – his ideology – should not be taken too literally; by relying on the symbolic object, it becomes possible to move beyond it and conceive of that space of participatory critical engagement that it opens up, a praxis supported by the artists themselves.

1 Pierre Restany, ca. 1960 (photo: Shunk-Kender; © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, Shunk-Kender)

  1. Historically, the group disbanded shortly after the signing of their manifesto in pursuit of careers which were based on their individual strengths rather than their adherence to a strict and all-encompassing methodology. Perhaps this was due to a growing appreciation of their work as well as the fast pace of socio-economic change during those years. Whatever the reasons, a similar tension found in other movements of the era formed between the theory behind Nouveau Réalisme and its practical application to the making of artworks. It should be noted therefore that I have chosen to consider the early days of Restany's efforts that are recounted in Le nouveau réalisme, a collection of essays and statements published together in 1978, where his theory of the 'poetry of the real' and its practice by certain artists is most closely aligned, actively creating a bridge between the coherence of rational thought and the necessary incoherence or aura (i.e. blind spot) of the artwork. Recent scholarship has proved that it has been challenging to completely satisfy neo-avant-gardiste aspirations when it comes to the actual production of artworks and, it could be said, even the Nouveau Réaliste manifesto is inevitably subject to loose interpretation by the very artists who are meant to represent it.5 Still, their works somehow separate themselves from those under other banners whose leaders are also faced with the question of modernity and its effects on daily life and visual culture; it is my intention to add to this discourse by looking more closely at Restany's idiosyncratic position alongside the field of contemporary aesthetics.

  2. To clarify the frequently underestimated uniqueness of the Nouveau Réaliste movement, it is useful briefly to compare it with general artistic practices in America during those years, which were directed at similar issues surrounding consumerism and the quotidian. After the Second World War, popular opinion conceded that New York had robbed Paris of its role as the heart of the art world and had drawn international focus away from continental Europe, primarily by the introduction of Abstract Expressionism to painting. Yet, once the novelty of such existentially oriented works had worn off, the next generation of American artists (e.g. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) shifted their attention outward to the streets and to industry. In this way, they were similar to their politically motivated Parisian counterparts in their desire to open up the realm of possibilities for art in terms of its contribution to common experiences and collective encounters. On a slightly different scale, the quickly growing capitalist climate in post-war France was, of course, fostered by the American example already in place. As Kristin Ross has underlined, '[w]hat is at stake in any discussion of the Americanization of France is less a conflict between two opposing ideologies than between two different economic organizations within the same philosophical framework.'6 Both countries sought advancement economically and culturally, yet whereas the U.S. continued along its familiar trajectory, France was just beginning to modernize at, what seemed to many, an alarming rate.

  3. The theory behind Nouveau Réalisme relied on a 'spiritual distance' between Paris and New York in that its participants responded to a '[...] modern urban consciousness within an [historically] artistic centre.'7 For Restany, this combination of old and new was unavailable in cities as streamlined as New York since, without a coherent sense of its cultural past all it could grasp for was its questionable future; in art, this problematic manifested as apparent disorganization or haphazardness that could not, realistically, be socially transformative. The artists working in Paris of the 1950s and 1960s were surrounded by its long history while at the same time faced with modernization; this juxtaposition was unavailable in most American cities. Pierre Mayol described the Parisian environment as follows: 'These seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city. They burst forth within the modernist, massive, homogenous city like slips of the tongue from an unknown, perhaps unconscious, language. They surprise.'8 Not only did Nouveau Réalisme respond to the responsibility of artworks under the socio-political conditions of a country grappling with a new economic system, but it did so within an environment that demanded that attention be given to its own physicality. If everyday life was always already being lived in terms of aesthetic awareness, then artistic production would be susceptible to its influence and therefore inform it more effectively than anything the American Neo-Dadaists had produced. Again, for the artists who rallied round him during the initial phases of Nouveau Réalisme, Restany's theories pertained more to a way of life than to a way of making art and yet, as a critic, he was bound by his field. This article seeks to liberate him somewhat.


Revaluating the Neo-avant-garde

  1. In the 1970s, Peter Bürger established a method of comparing the Modernist ideal of the autonomy of art and the historical avant-garde's critique of it with what he sees to be the inadequacies of the post-war neo-avant-garde art movements. Culminating in the nineteenth century and leading into the First World War, the notion of art as a progressively linear and therefore self-sustaining phenomenon became situated outside of any notion of the everyday, allowing for concepts of the aesthetic to be held in a different regard to the political.

Only after art has in fact wholly detached itself from everything that is the praxis of life can two things be seen to make up the principle of development of art in bourgeois society: the progressive detachment of art from real life contexts, and the correlative crystallization of a distinctive sphere of experience, i.e., the aesthetic.9

  1. Such an arena gave rise to the contemplative viewer as opposed to the involved participant, cementing the function of art as something other than socially transformative; what was thought of as artistic progress developed out of what had come before in art, not necessarily from any external material – form was admired over content, as it were. Bürger insists that this phenomenon, the 'bourgeois institution of art', was what enabled the historical avant-garde, particularly Dadaist practices, to begin attacking notions of art itself rather than simply acting as another art form whose purpose it was to critique other art forms and, in so doing, receive acclaim. 'The intention of the avant-gardiste may be defined as the attempt to direct toward the practical the aesthetic experience (which rebels against the praxis of life) that Aestheticism developed. What most strongly conflicts with the means-ends rationality of bourgeois society is to become life's organizing principle.'10 For Bürger, a typology in three parts is able to categorize the history of art: the function of sacral art was to create cult objects or objects of ritual, the production of these objects was collective as was their reception; courtly art's function was representational and was produced by artists who began to see the uniqueness of their vocation due to the social reception of their efforts; finally, the function of bourgeois art was to portray society's self-understanding and was produced by a recognized individual for elitist individual appreciation. It is this final development that made the avant-garde attack a possibility: 'In bourgeois art, the portrayal of bourgeois self-understanding occurs in a sphere that lies outside the praxis of life. The citizen who, in everyday life has been reduced to a partial function (means-end activity) can be discovered in art as [a] "human being".'11 Seeing this role of art to be false, the historical avant-gardistes sought to revaluate art's function in order to create an everyday life based on the ideal of artistic spontaneity; the time-honoured practice of depicting everyday life in art while, at the same time, removing art from that arena of the quotidian conditions not an opportunity to affect social transformations, but instead a vacuum in which only an alienated stance can be upheld. Rather than taking art's domain to be above and beyond the gritty activity of bourgeois society, the historical avant-gardistes desired to make art the new governing force within it.

  2. Crucially, if a failure of the historical avant-garde is to be considered, it must be acknowledged that the same institution it hoped to undermine was eventually instrumental in giving it strength and purpose. Bürger reveals that

[a]n art no longer distinct from the praxis of life but wholly absorbed in it will lose the capacity to criticize it, along with its distance. During the time of the historical avant-garde movements, the attempt to do away with the distance between art and life still had all the pathos of historical progressiveness on its side. But in the meantime, the culture industry has brought about the false elimination of the distance between art and life, and this also allows one to recognize the contradictoriness of the avant-gardiste undertaking.12

  1. It is the sterilization of such attempts at cultural revolution that presents a curious challenge for any art practices that follow them, begging the question as to how to avoid institutional absorption or shelving. There is a co-dependency here which suggests that art must, to some degree, remain separate from models of everyday life in order for the aesthetic and political to inform and enhance one another.

  2. Enter the neo-avant-garde; for Bürger, while the intention of artists such as the Nouveaux Réalistes might have been able to make a social critique, they really only served to perpetuate the behemoth that is the art museum: 'the neo-avant-garde institutionalizes the avant-garde as art and thus negates genuinely avant-gardiste intentions.'13 Even if he is correct in thinking that the approach of such artists was from a point where the institution was seen as an ally rather than a target and therefore inspired works which would have been automatically historical and devoid of any 'protest value', it is somewhat unfair to assume that the same desire to subvert is a prerequisite and that the neo-avant-garde was aspiring to replicate the accomplishments of its predecessors. If it were not for the failure and consequential neutering of the historical avant-garde, then its components, specifically the readymade, could not have been appropriated by the neo-avant-garde and remobilized then (in the late 1950s and early 1960s) with the hope of not destroying but unlocking the ivory tower and welcoming a completely separate set of socio-economic conditions (i.e. French post-war capitalism) into the jurisdiction of the art world. Certainly the work of Hal Foster has hinted at this possibility. Confronting Bürger directly, he asserts that 'one project in the 1960s [...] was to critique the old charlatanry of the bohemian artist as well as the new institutionality of the avant-garde.'14 Remarkably, and in equal contrast to Bürger's criticism (yet perhaps overlooked by Foster), Pierre Restany's writings allow room for the possibility that the institution can be seen as part of everyday life rather than as the necessary evil of a cultural depository. Such a stance could also be seen to provide a loophole for dooming statements, e.g., 'without surrendering its claim to truth, art cannot simply deny the autonomy status and pretend that it has a direct effect.'15

  3. The comparative reflections Bürger sets in motion confirm the urgency, evidently also felt by those he criticizes, to reorient visual culture after what he sees to have been a cataclysmic fracture. Turning to an article written for the forum 'Thinking Art: Beyond Traditional Aesthetics' held at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1991, it becomes clear that the reconciliation between modernity and postmodernity continues to be elusive. He asks: 'what's happened? A border has disappeared that [...] had the unquestionable status of a metaphysical principle guaranteeing the possibility of art: the border between art and the culture industry and, simultaneously, between art and non-art.'16 The construction of a barrier between art and everyday life, or what he calls the 'dialectic of the boundary', can be attributed to Theodor Adorno, whose work regarding aesthetics will be addressed shortly. For now, in the aftermath of Jean Baudrillard's insistence that high art has been irrevocably absorbed into an increasingly overpowering field of sameness and mediocrity,17 it is interesting to note how Bürger strove to articulate the problems facing contemporary art practices of the 1970s. Remarkably, a desire to maintain such a barrier is uncovered which suggests that life and art do indeed co-exist as self-critiquing entities. He claims that

[i]t is, however, neither the boundary nor the object that is active, but us. Every time the border between art and the everyday is wiped away we react by reinstating it. Paradoxically, the institution that determines what does or what doesn't count as a work of art gains in significance to the degree that works of art and everyday objects become indistinguishable.18

  1. It is the threat of art dissolving into the mire of the mundane that feeds any notion of its autonomy and we, as experiencing subjects, determine the level of reverence to attribute to avant-gardiste attempts at progressiveness. In other words, the status we give to certain aspects of visual culture based on their innovativeness or profundity is not attributed readily. For example, judging a street performance as a regular occurrence rather than as a work of art perpetuates the authority of the institution to make the same distinctions while at the same time allowing space for such an authority at all, thereby establishing a hierarchy of standards by which artistic achievement and cultural tastes are measured. Hence, for Bürger, the vehicle of art for art's sake is fuelled by a general expectation to encounter objects within a context that excuses them from any function outside of their aesthetic function, confirming for the viewer an emphasis on the artist's existential and privatized creativity over any possibility for the works themselves to form the catalysts for extended social experimentation.

Because the individual does not realize him- or herself in actions in and for society but only in pursuit of private advantage, he/she experiences society as an external limit to action rather than as something in essence universal. [...] Thus, as history withdraws as a possible arena for sensuous experience, so art becomes the site of imaginary self-realization. [...] Thus alienation necessarily penetrates into the realm of art. The experience of meaning that the subject longed for becomes the never-ending story of the representation of its absence.19

  1. If we are to put stock in the notions of Baudrillard, then it seems they have established the everyday as a wasteland where meaning cannot be distilled from the profusion inundation of imagery that clouds our perceptive abilities. As Lefebvre has stressed, a work/leisure binary supports a society of alienated subjectivities that consistently search for scenarios that might alleviate feelings of purposelessness.20 Here, Bürger insinuates that the experience of a work of art confirms a hope for meaning by literally illustrating meaninglessness; by referencing only itself it encourages a model for thinking the infinite. He is adamant that aesthetic discourse, as such, has always been rooted in the institution, which makes the thinking of objects as art a possibility and provides an arena in which to perform an escape from the real.21 Even so, following this logic, there is still a world outside the ivory tower into which the viewer must return. With this in mind, surely it is reasonable to suggest that neo-avant-gardiste practices such as those of the Nouveaux Réalistes had acknowledged the predicament described above early on and had circumvented any such assumed ignorance within the modern subject since, by combining the traditions of artistic display and appreciation with the soulless objects of consumerism, they also questioned the function of any boundary in between. In this way, they set themselves apart – or forty degrees above22 – the historical avant-garde's nihilistic approach. Consequently, Bürger's allegation that 'once you're inside the place called Art there's no getting out again'23 is highly contentious; what are the parameters of such a distinction? He concludes his article in a somewhat pessimistic tone:

It seems that the only chance of meaningful action in modernity is whole-hearted engagement with meaninglessness. [...] Art's attempt to assimilate itself to political agitation is the impossible gesture that must be forever enacted and then retracted. The new life will not come, but it remains an alternative we must continue to suggest.24

  1. In order effectively to come to terms with this concept of the 'impossible gesture', it is necessary to work from a specific model that is not new, but one that might be renegotiated within the context of Restany's agenda for art practice and, subsequently, the correlations between contemporary visual culture and the quotidian. Two camps can now be set up on either side of a proverbial field: at one end, art as aesthetic object and, on the other, art as political trigger; it is possible that Restany's position might produce a sort of truce between them.


Aesthetics and Politics

  1. Like Bürger, I would now like to turn to the writings of Theodor Adorno. Beginning with his dialogues with Georg Lukács surrounding the political responsibilities and capabilities of the arts in general and moving into his views concerning the artwork within the context of greater society, aspects of his Aesthetic Theory should be re-read through a Restanian lens. Primarily in terms of literature, but also visual art and music, Adorno and Lukács sought to determine what form or style could best represent the conditions of modernity; namely, alienation under the oppressive demands of post-war capitalism in Europe. For Adorno, the autonomy of the Modernist aesthetic could achieve such a socio-political critique better than the 'critical realism' or mimetic approach endorsed by Lukács.25 That is, an art that has the ability to inform everyday life by making use of either fictive narratives (e.g. the writings of Honoré de Balzac or Thomas Mann) or visual allegories (e.g. the naturalism of figurative painting and sculpture) only serves to perpetuate the world as lived by illustrating it rather than bringing about its transformation through critique. The Modernist artwork, on the other hand, demonstrates the inconsistencies and infinite variables that point towards the isolation and consumerism that dominate a world that exists post-Holocaust. For, as Adorno writes elsewhere, '[e]ven Lukács will find it impossible to get away from the fact that the content of works of art is not real in the same sense as social reality.'26 Art itself is greater than the sum of its parts; the work is not the object as much as it is the possibility for the object existing. Lukács's realism will figure later as a corollary to that second proverbial camp set in opposition to notions of art's full autonomy. At this stage, it is important to continue exploring Adorno's concept of society as it relates to artworks and the institutions that support them.

  2. As Bürger has pointed out, the reception of art within the bourgeoisie provided ammunition for the historical avant-garde to question its purpose – yet what exactly was its role? Adorno describes it as a condition in which art practitioners and viewers of art understand that what they are making and what they are looking at is cognizant of its own irony; art knows that its subject is its own position within the socio-political arena.

Art […] is social not only because of its mode of production, in which the dialectic of the forces and relations of production is concentrated, nor simply because of the social derivation of its thematic material. Much more importantly, art becomes social by its opposition to society, and it occupies this position only as autonomous art.27

  1. Because works of art have no other utility than to reflect upon the society from which they derive, they provide an ironic and liminal space in which that world can be criticized and, if only briefly, left behind. It is this apartness from the everyday that seems to be required for art to bear any cultural effectiveness that needs to be carefully reviewed in order to arrive at any neutral ground between the two camps of aesthetics and politics. Moreover, the tenets of Nouveau Réalisme need to be (re)introduced to an Anglo-American audience that is increasingly concerned with problems of objecthood and participation in contemporary visual art. Adorno continues: '[a]rt keeps itself alive through its social force of resistance; unless it reifies itself, it becomes a commodity. Its contribution to society is not communication with it but rather something extremely mediated: it is resistance in which, by virtue of inner-aesthetic development, social development is reproduced without being imitated.'28 This statement can be read as an early prediction for the state of today's visual culture that has so concerned thinkers like Baudrillard; how does one reconcile the function of artworks within a neo-capitalist context in which they have indeed already become commodities? For Adorno, there appears to be no question that art and the socio-economic sphere do not and should not mix. 'Nothing social in art is immediately social, not even when this is the aim.'29 He vehemently defends the notion that the aesthetic realm is diametrically opposed to that of the political in order to illustrate that the latter's tendency to codify and systematize all aspects of society will never be fully achieved. Rather, autonomous art will continue to negate such a possibility and establish itself as an ideology of free enterprise that is not bound by socio-economic restrictions. Artworks, by their very nature, condense the real into a mere referent and assume what Adorno would call a spiritual quality; though produced out of social situations they retain only their own interior a-sociality. 'Form works like a magnet that orders elements of the empirical world in such a fashion that they are estranged from their extra-aesthetic experience, and it is only as a result of this estrangement that they master the extra-aesthetic essence.'30 Here, Adorno almost begins to align himself with what can be gleaned from Restany, particularly regarding the notion of careful selection from the quotidian for the purpose of de-familiarizing it and thereby creating art. He would argue that this act, in spite of Nouveau Réaliste intentions, confirms the necessary segregation of art. Continuing this passage, if the reader keeps Restany's vision for art praxis in mind, it is notable that Adorno is highly cautious of such a potentiality, which sets him directly against any claims made for a socially transformative neo-avant-garde and makes him an attractive source for Bürger.

Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness. Through their difference from a bewitched reality, they embody negatively a position in which what is would find its rightful place, its own. Their enchantment is disenchantment. Their social essence requires a double reflection on their being-for-themselves and on their relations to society.31

  1. The 'baptism' of the object, while a social act, must also be classified as an artistic gesture in order to be removed from all other gestures; life and art can never wholly absorb one another since the one cannot exist without the other.

  2. A series commonly known as tirs or 'shooting' pictures (Fig.2), completed in the early 1960s by Niki de Saint-Phalle who, at the time, was associated with Nouveau Réalisme, consists of sculptures as well as false canvases; the latter were made by plastering over balloons of paint onto wooden panels. From a distance, the artist, her peers, and eventually members of the public would repeatedly fire at these objects with a twenty-two caliber rifle until the holes left by the bullets had exuded enough liquid to have 'composed' an abstract painting. Such a practice immediately questions the significance of authorship and the expression of internal or personal genius since the private space between work and maker has been unlocked but, more importantly, the act of flushing out the artwork with a hunting rifle introduces the disruptive territory of the political into the restricted territory of the aesthetic. In some respects, this reconciliation draws upon André Breton's pure Surrealist act of firing a pistol amidst an unsuspecting crowd32 and yet, problematically, after the artwork is performed, it becomes reduced to a mere painting that will later be displayed within the context of its own potential for autonomy; the neo-avant-gardiste object is captured and documented by the institution in a similar fashion to the subversive attempts of the historical avant-garde.