Modern Art Is Shit
I have tried to do what is true, not what is ideal. —Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
In 1898, the Parisian gallery owner Maurice Joyant photographed his childhood friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec defecating on the beach at Le Crotoy in Picardie.
A year later, Toulouse-Lautrec was committed to an asylum, and three years after that, in 1901, he finally succumbed to complications caused by alcoholism and syphilis.
The general consensus is that the photographs were an exercise in ribald japery by a man who was frequently intoxicated and who liked to shock. But what if they’re not? What if they’re something much more significant?
I’m frankly astonished that these photographs have been so glibly and cavalierly dismissed. Perhaps I shouldn’t be–when people don’t like the message, they can usually be relied on to ignore it.
But Lautrec was no schoolboy prankster. He was a serious and original artist and he had spent years expressing himself symbolically; creating images was his natural medium of communication, his means of encapsulating, examining and re-iterating his profoundest ideas.
And that’s what we should be holding in the forefront of our minds: these are images, Lautrec’s favoured means of expression, created at his direction.
So, what was Lautrec saying? We can only speculate, but defecation and shit have a long and honourable history as symbols of contempt, of disorder, of misrule–from the Brown-Rumped Turd-dropper of Aristophanes to the toilet humour of Rabelais to John Dryden’s MacFlecknoe.
According to Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World, it was appropriate to use shit to ridicule the king and clergy. This was not merely to mock and degrade, it was to unleash the people’s power, to renew and regenerate the entire social system. Shit represented a sort of healthy, proletarian honesty, a connection with the roots of the world; it was food, now it will fertilise.
To this day, the caganer (a peasant squatting and shitting) is a ubiquitous figure at Catalan Christmas nativity scenes and the old Catalan proverb tells us to: Menja bé, caga fort i no tinguis por a la mort (Eat well, shit strong and don’t be afraid of death)
From Aristophanes to Rabelais to modern Catalunya to Viz Comics, the turd as a great leveller is alive and well.
With this in mind, it’s unwise to dismiss Lautrec’s photos as nothing more than a vulgar joke. Obviously, I don’t know what Lautrec was saying but I believe he was saying something important. Feeling the end drawing near, he may well have been making his definitive statement, the culmination of all his work and thought.
Perhaps he was saying what Italian artist Piero Manzoni would say 60 years later when he canned his own shit. (Manzoni’s wonderfully acerbic commentary on the commodification of Art was to prove prescient when, on May 23, 2007, a can of his shit was sold for $124,000 at Sotheby’s).
Or perhaps he was saying something more straight-forward. The most recent exhibition of his work (put on by his friend Joyant) had been a critical disaster. As a message to critics and an unappreciative public, Lautrec’s defiant squat will strike a responsive chord with any artist.
Then again, maybe he was saying something more profound: that what you see is shit; that Art is the excreted waste-product of an altogether deeper and ineffable process; that what the artist really creates is something else entirely: a meme, a mood, a goad, an impetus for change, for evolution, for the re-ordering of consciousness.
Or maybe he just really needed to take a crap.
Get your minds into the toilet and let’s have scatalogical verse.
PS: I should point out that it was our friend Steven Augustine’s always cogent and entertaining blog that alerted me to the Lautrec photograph. Thanks, Steven.