PAINTING AS A RADICAL ACT: ENRICO BAJ AND JEAN BAUDRILLARD

_ B. Gerry Coulter



I. Introduction


1. Enrico Baj working in his studio in 1985. (Photographer unknown).

Only painting which itself succeeds in beings a monstrous act succeeds in resolving and in reabsorbing the monstrosity of our lives, only painting that succeeds in becoming a mythic operator also succeeds in resolving the monstrosity of the social and of the social order, and in this Baj's painting succeeds admirably (Baudrillard, 2001).


2. Enrico Baj. Punching General (1963)


            The Italian artist Enrico Baj, who died in 2003, was a truly radical artist - not simply in terms of his adherence to a "critical" politics (his subject matter), but in his use of materials. Baj is also interesting because he was one of a very few contemporary artists who appealed to Jean Baudrillard.  We owe a debt in the English speaking world to Gary Genosko, who, in his The Uncollected Baudrillard, found two almost unknown papers in which Baudrillard's thought and Baj's painting meet (see Baudrillard 2001 and Baj 2001). In this essay I revisit these encounters, alongside of images of Baj's art, in order to explore the radicality of his painting.

II. The Power of Forms

Constellated with festoons, decorations, starry fragments of mirror, and scattered signs, these paintings display Baj's virtuosity. He plays with these signs at random, endowing them with some of the humour and freedom they have lost in being used as signals. He plays humorously with his material... (Baudrillard, 2001:142).


3. Enrico Baj. Person With Mirrors (1961)


            The world is an enigmatic game played with uncertain fragments. Baj was an artist at play with fragments, forms, signs, his artistic materials - yet with a serious purpose. He understood the joy and ecstasy of forms as few artists do. There is in Baj's paintings a willful and mischievous primitive quality.



4. Enrico Baj. Red Eye Special (1967)


Baudrillard felt that Baj's painting came from a "world that has reverted to larvae and masks" in which we can perceive the decay of modern culture (2001:142). All societies end up wearing masks and among the challenges Baj embraced with great skill was to paint the ones he saw around him.

            Baj never gave up belief in the avant-garde and saw himself as part of a surviving remnant of it which sought to do what the avant-garde has always done best: confront and oppose officialdom while also working against contemporary taste and aesthetics and its celebration of power and authority (Baj, 2001:144). Baj is the artist as challenger in a similar way to Baudrillard's use of theory as challenge. Baj relates his own times and approach with the unconventional one the earlier avant-garde - he sees himself confronting and resisting the "new academicism" which includes a good deal of contemporary art since Warhol in his analysis (Baj, 2001:144). Baudrillard agreed that Baj's work was about our toxic (rotting) culture but not a celebration of that culture as is most Pop Art and the art which came after Pop.


5. Enrico Baj. Decorated Woman (1979)

Baj reserves his art for a kind of violence done to the society and culture he worked within. His strong subversive instincts pressed him to develop contemporary forms which challenged the "exquisite corpse of the banal" (especially Warhol inspired Pop and Arte Povera), what he also refers to as "the new conventionality" - art that is clean and hygienic for the clean white spaces of the museums (Ibid:144-45). Baudrillard is the sole commentator on Baj to view the artist's violence in terms of the application and arranging of media). This is a key secret in understanding Baj's brilliant "monstrosity" - a violence in


6. Enrico Baj. General (1961).

the presentation of the media as much as in the subject matter. There is an authenticity to Baj's painting and this is vital to what Baudrillard says is Baj's "exploration and invention that's true to itself" (Ibid.:145).  Baj understood that art remains one of the few places outside of the terrorism of the police in our society where violence may be expressed.

            Even the fascist generals Baj portrays are not up to the manipulations and machinations of his hand.  Where fascism is itself an aesthetics of death, Baj's painting is an aesthetics of subversion. Baj's generals are not powerful and are often presented as tortured figures (limbs missing, arranged for further tortures,



7. Enrico Baj. The Tears of the General (1965)

as punching bags, or already in some form of pain from an unspecified source - as likely to be Baj himself as "the people". Baudrillard feels that it is here that Baj surpasses mere criticism and turns the historical violence of the generals on themselves and he does so by how he paints as much as what he paints - transmuting the "brutality of painting into a brutality of signs themselves" (Ibid.:143).


8. Enrico Baj. General (1962)


            Baj used artistic media to confront and surpass the monstrosity of his culture - and of his time - not through mere criticism but by surpassing the conformity of signs on which the social order is based. At its highest level, Baj's art problematizes the myth of the social rather than offering a simplistic critique of the it - his art far surpasses sociology. In doing this, Baj does not attempt to simplify the world but to render it as less knowable, more enigmatic and ambiguous. This may well explain Baj's appeal to a thinker like Baudrillard who himself resisted simplification and banal explanation. Baj also creates a radicality in the ambiguity of his work which in turn rejects the terrorism of transparency under which we all labour (Ibid). In Baj there was no effort to simplify or "dumb-down" art while making it radical. Perhaps it is this radicality that has led the art-world to largely ignore Baj since his death. With so much of the art-world invested in the culture of endorsement and high dollar value it is difficult to magine a Baj show taking place today.  Among the reasons for this are that Baj's values are not easily reduced to market values.


9. Enrico Baj. Go Home (1967)


            For Baudrillard, Baj succeeds in the most sublime sense in that his paintings become monstrous acts - "in reabsorbing the monstrosity of our lives"  which includes "democratic catastrophe and overpopulation" (Ibid.:146). "It succeeds also in that it becomes "a mythic operator... resolving the monstrosity of the social and the social order" (Baudrillard, 2001:143). Baj feels that ours is a  time of "a permanent crisis" - a time which is indifferent and unmotivating where many people lack drive and the ability to change direction (Baj, 2001:146-47).


10. Enrico Baj. Apocalypse (1982).


11. Enrico Baj. The Committee (1963)


12. Enrico Baj. Untitled. (1985)


            Baudrillard also says that Baj's art represented a very possible catastrophe for our culture which could arrive as a result of acceleration - "an accelerated unraveling of forms" which will ultimately lead the "system to a point where it will explode" (Ibid.:147). Baudrillard can see the worst in Baj's forms. Baj himself remained more optimistic than Baudrillard about the future which is not surprising for someone who saw himself as part of a vanguard. However, among the things Baj and Baudrillard share is an understanding that the problem of pollution is more than an environmental and extends to economics, politics, and art - including the "promiscuity and confusion of genres and styles" - "a very advanced stage of degeneration" (Ibid.:148,150).

III. Beyond Kitsch


13. Enrico Baj. Woman (1978)

            More than mere discomfort it is the horror of the inhuman - and its fascination with danger - which appears in the art of Enrico Baj. In her assessment of the painting of contemporary artist Odd Nerdrum, Victoria Alexander has identified another outcast from the mainstream art-world who works with the inhuman:
Nerdrum has been received largely as an outcast in the official art- world because his painting poses such a threat to it by evoking ideas that do not promote our culture or what the majority in the art- world consider to be art. Nerdrum's works do not possess a faith in humanism or ideologies of progress. This is not the art of enlightenment - it is an art of the inhuman - and the inhuman is something that occupies a far greater period of time in human history than does the human (Alexander, 2007).

I think this insight also applies very well to the painting of Baj. Like Nerdrum, Baj deploys an interesting use of the term "kitsch". Nerdrum takes kitsch as his own and is proud to be a producer of kitsch rather than "art" if art is limited to what modernist criteria say it is. Similarly, Baj also uses kitsch in a powerful manner in reference to the presence of certain forms (lions, tigers, snakes) in his work. The shared irony is that both painters seek to make an art that surpasses not only modernism but much contemporary art as well - which for them, really is mostly kitsch (what we could also call the aesthetics of simulation).


14. Odd Nerdrum. Amputation (1974).


15. Enrico Baj. Two Faces (1986)

            Baj disliked Warhol and Pop Art immensely. Like Nerdrum, and a few other contemporary painters (such as Francis Bacon), Baj worked to show us that some artists provide strong visual examples of how art may express radicality after Warhol and Pop. This is a point of disagreement between Baj and Baudrillard - the latter says it is still possible to develop new things but after abstract expressionism (the last avant-garde), it's all "posthumous representation" - from Pop onwards it is kitsch (Ibid.:144). Baj maintains that - and it is the one idea he shares with most  inhabitants of the mainstream art world - that the avant-garde persists after the point where Baudrillard believes it ended - Pollock and abstract expressionism (Baj, 2001).     


16. Enrico Baj. Two People Dancing With Their Dog (n.d.)

            We should also recognize that illusion plays a strong role in Baj's art - the kind of illusion which forces open radical interstices in culture. Baj produces a form of surreal expressionism so vital to a radical art which seeks to understand both the expressive and surreal aspects of everyday existence. His extreme figures stand up well to Baudrillard's claim that "art become a mythic operator" but one which is never far removed from the underlying chaos over which our understanding of a "social order" is mere gloss.

            Baj's art is also radical in its powerful sense of uncertainty. Like the best of thought and writing, Baj's painting also points to a key to problematizing the contemporary - to press that which is given to us as enigmatic and unintelligible to be even more so. Further, as is always the case with strong art (and strong theory), Baj presents a challenge to the real to expose itself as illusion.

IV. Conclusion
            The future of Baj's painting and its relation to the art-world is a double edged sword. On the one hand he may remain in relative obscurity, unappreciated by an art-world that labours under the burden of both humanism and the promotional culture of galleries, curators, and collectors. On the other hand, if certain collectors should intervene, seeing his art as a sound investment, then he may be absorbed into the art-world. If this happens we may be sure of one thing: his work will be interpreted quite differently than it was by Baudrillard or in this essay) and we are likely to read in the catalogue accompanying the show how his "main interest" was in "capturing the condition humaine, which he treats with a warts and all directness and immediacy" (Werthemann, 2007). Such an assessment will be no more true of Baj's work than it is that of Soutine - but as we have learned all too well in recent years - the mainstream art-world excels only in forcing artists into categories with which their work has little actual resemblance. It is to Baj's credit that his work continues to live out a marginalized existence on the periphery of the art world. Indeed, this is but one more of its pleasures.


17. Enrico Baj. Self Portrait, 1983


Gerry Coulter is founding editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies. An essay "Kees van Dongen and the Power of Seduction" appears in Euro Art (On-line) Magazine (Spring 2008): http://www.euroartmagazine.com/new/?issue=13=1&content=156; His paper "Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming" appeared in Games and Culture (Volume 2, Number 4, December, 2007:358-365) - also available on-line at: http://www.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/2/4/358. An essay "A Way of Proceeding: Joseph Beuys, the Epistemological Break, and Radical Thought Today" appears in Kritikos: A Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image (May - June, 2008): http://intertheory.org/gcoulter.htm; and a recent paper Article: "A Place For The Non-Believer: Jean Baudrillard on the West and the Arab and Islamic Worlds", appears in Subaltern Studies: http://www.subalternstudies.com/?p=476. In 2006 he was awarded Bishop's University's highest award for teaching - the William and Nancy Turner Prize.



References

Victoria Z. Alexander (2007). "Evil Breathes Deeply Here: Odd Nerdrum and Baudrillard's Challenge to Art" Big, Red and Shiny: An Art Journal. Number 68, September 12: http://www.bigredandshiny.com/cgi-bin/retrieve.pl?
section=articleandissue=issue68&article

Enrico Baj (2001). "The Transparency of Kitsch: A Conversation with Jean Baudrillard" in Gary Genosko (Editor). The Uncollected Baudrillard, London: SAGE.

Jean Baudrillard (2001). "Enrico Baj, or Monstrosity Laid Bare by Paint Itself" in Gary Genosko (Editor). The Uncollected Baudrillard, London: SAGE.

Seraina Werthemann (2008). Exhibition brochure: "Soutine and Modernism", published by the Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland (March 16 - July 6).




B. Gerry Coulter gcoulter@ubishops.ca
He is Full Professor of Theory, Art and Cinema in the Department of Sociology at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. He is the founding editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies ). His recent writings include: "Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming" appeared in the SAGE journal Games and Culture (Volume 2, Number 4, December, 2007:358-365) - also available on-line at:
http://www.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/2/4/358.

His recent Article: "A Place For The Non-Believer: Jean Baudrillard on the West and the Arab and Islamic Worlds", appears in Subaltern Studies: http://www.subalternstudies.com/?p=476; An essay "A Way of Proceeding: Joseph Beuys, the Epistemological Break, and Radical Thought Today" appears in Kritikos: A Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image (May - June, 2008): http://intertheory.org/gcoulter.htm; and his quarterly column for Euro Art (On-line) Magazine: "Kees van Dongen and the Power of Seduction" (Spring 2008) is available at: http://www.euroartmagazine.com/new/?issue=13=1&content=156. A recent paper: "Baudrillard and Hölderlin and the Poetic Resolution of the World" appeared in Volume 5, Number 4 of Nebula: A Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholarship in December, 2008:145-64: www.nobleworld.biz/Coulter.pdf

Another recent paper: "In The Shadow of Post-Democratic Capitalism - A Fascination for China" appeared in Avinus - European Magazine for Media, Culture and Politics (November 21, 2008): http://magazin.avinus.de/2008/11/20/coulter-gerry-in-the-shadow-of-post-democratic-capitalism-%e2%80%93-a-fascination-for-china-20112008/ . Dr. Coulter's teaching has been recognized on numerous occasions most recently by Bishop's University's highest award for teaching - the William and Nancy Turner Prize.