January 5, 2015

We’re finally necessary: Kristen Ross on the Atelier populaire des Beaux-Arts


For May ’68 itself was not an artistic moment. It was an event that transpired amid very few images; French television, after all, was on strike. Drawings, political cartoons – by Siné, Willem, Cabu, and others – proliferated; photographs were taken. Only the most “immediate” of artistic techniques, it seems, could keep up with the speed of events. But to say this is already to point out how much politics was exerting a magnetic pull on culture, yanking it out of its specific and specialized realm. For what does it mean that art should suddenly see its purpose as that of keeping apace with events, with achieving a complete contemporaneity with the present and with what is happening around it?

The incommensurability or asymmetry that seems to govern the relation between culture and politics holds true for the ’68 period in France. In fact, that incommensurability is what the event is about: the failure of cultural solutions to provide an answer, the invention and deployment of political forms in direct contestation with existing cultural forms, the exigency of political practices over cultural ones. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the experience of the Beaux-Arts students who occupied their school in mid-May 1968, proclaimed it the revolutionary Atelier populaire des Beaux-Arts, and began producing, at breakneck speed, the posters supporting the strike that covered the walls of Paris during those months. The “message” of the majority of posters, stark and direct, was the certification, and at times the imperative, that whatever it was that was happening – the interruption, the strike, the “moving train” – that it simply continue: “Continuons le combat.” “La grève continue.” “Contre offensive: la grève continue.” “Chauffeurs de taxi: la lute continue.” “Maine Montparnasse: la lute continue.” Nothing, that is, in the message aspires to a level of “representing” what was occurring; the goal, rather, is to be at one with – at the same time with, contemporary with – whatever was occurring. Speed, a speedy technique, was of the essence; students learned this soon enough when they abandoned lithography early on because, at ten to fifteen printings an hour, it was far too slow to respond to the needs of a mass movement. Serigraphy, which was light and easy to use, yielded up to 250 printings an hour. Speed and flexible mediums facilitated the absolute interpenetration of art and event achieved by the posters, but speed is not the most important factor in rendering art capable of living the temporality of an event. Writing thirty years later, one of the militants active in the Atelier populaire, Gérard Fromanger, recalls the genesis of the posters in a brief memoir. His title, “Art Is What Makes Life More Interesting Than Art,” goes far in giving a sense of the dizzying opening created when the social refuses to stay “out there,” distinct from art, or when art achieves presentation, rather than representation:
May ’68 was that. Artists no longer in their studios, they no longer work, they can’t work any more because the real is more powerful than their inventions. Naturally, they become militants, me among them. We create the Atelier populaire des Beaux-Arts and we make posters. We’re there night and day making posters. The whole country is on strike and we’ve never worked harder in our lives. We’re finally necessary.
Fromanger describes in greater detail the stages in the dismantling of art and artists during May: how, as the mass demonstrations got under way in mid-May, art students first “got down off their horses to gather the flowers,” as the Maoists would say, how they left art behind as they ran from demo to demo. “We artists had been in the movement for ten days, we run into each other at the demos. We had separated from everything we had before. We don’t sleep in the studios… we live in the streets, in the occupied spaces… We no longer paint, we don’t think about it anymore.” The next phase describes a retreat to familiar spaces: “We painters say to ourselves that we have to do something at Beaux-Arts, that we can’t let the buildings be empty, closed up.” An old lithograph machine is located; the first poster, USINE-UNIVERSITE-UNION, is produced immediately. The thought at that point is for someone to run the thirty copies down to a gallery on the rue Dragon to sell them to help the movement. But it is at this point that “the real,” in the shape of the movement, literally intervenes, short-circuiting the steps that art must take to be art in bourgeois culture and hijacking it, so to speak, off that path, bringing it into the now. There is no time, it seems, for the art object to remain a commodity, even one that had been redirected in the service of the movement. On the way to the gallery, the copies are snatched out of the arms of the student carrying them and plastered immediately on the first available wall. The poster becomes a poster.

“Bourgeois culture,” reads the statement that accompanied the founding of the Atelier populaire, “separates and isolates artists from other workers by according them a privileged status. Privilege encloses the artist in an invisible prison. We have decided to transform what we are in society.”

- Kristen Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives


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