by Robert J. Hughes
Humor in art is a rare thing. Art is so, so very, very serious. Not to mention humorless. When certain artists do attempt humor, or even satire, the effect often falls flat. Not that many people (and fewer visual artists) are truly witty. And satiric humor can date quickly — when it works at all.
That wasn't the case with General Idea, a Canadian collective made up of three men, Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson, which operated from 1967 to 1994.
They were among the first artists to concentrate on conceptual, media-based work. They organized "exhibitions" and publicity stunts, published a magazine, filmed deadpan television spots, created mock documentaries, designed couture, created paintings, sculpture, you name it. All of it astute, a lot of it brilliant. And, as you can see from "Haute Culture," a terrific career retrospective now running at the Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, they were probably among the greatest, most incisive and important artists of the last decades of the 20th century. They should be much, much better known. But comedy gets no respect. Let alone incisive comic commentary with a gay perspective that dismantles the pretensions and posturing of the art world yet at the same time manages to be wonderful art in itself.
(Image: General Idea, P is for Poodle, 1983, Courtesy the Estate of General Idea/Galerie Frédéric Giroux, Paris)
General Idea had the savage wit of Monty Python and the anarchic energy of Dada. It took conceptual art forward in a focused and ferocious way. This discipline might account for the continuing relevance of General Idea's work (and it's continuing, after so many years, to remain almost unobserved amid a certain clueless art-world set). That, and the collective's trenchant intelligence, its verbal and visual prowess and its sheer effrontery. You will walk through this show erupting in shocked laughter, then smiling to yourself in recognition of General Idea's continuing timeliness. This exhibition is blissful and thoughtful and inspiring. Albeit one that has a tragic undercurrent: Two of the men who made up General Idea, Partz and Zontal, died of AIDS in 1994.
But even to the end General Idea thumbed its nose at convention, and kept its sense of humor about itself.
Consider its organizing principle: to free itself from the myth of the individual genius. The trio stuck to its guns. It really operated as a collective (there are many hilarious magazine layouts that use stock photographs of three men working together – the captions to these are an inspired mix of Oscar Wilde aphorism and Magritte surrealism).
(Image: (installation view), Haute Culture : General Idea, Une rétrospective, 1969-1994, au Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris / ARC, 2011. Courtesy of the Estate of General Idea and MAM Paris)
At the same time, General Idea cut to the chase with a deliriously honest phrase that it reproduced in several pieces: "We wanted to be famous, glamorous and rich. That is to say we wanted to be artists and we knew that if we were famous and glamorous we could say we were artists and we would be." It's still a breathtaking statement to read today when, for example, The New York Times Sunday "Styles" section has a completely un-ironic appreciation of the social-climbing of painter John Currin and his wife or when Damien Hirst bypasses galleries and holds his very own auction at Sotheby's and raises something like $200 million for himself (not that there's anything wrong with that).
"Haute Culture" is organized around five areas that General Idea explored over the years: the artist and the creative process (and the use of glamour as a tool throughout); the interconnection between media, consumption and mass culture; architecture and archaeology, and sexuality.
In the next part of this review, I'll go through the different sections of this big, absorbing, important and essential exhibition.
— Robert J. Hughes, a writer living in Paris
(Image at top: General Idea, Portrait of General Idea in front of Test Pattern: T.V. Dinner plates from the Miss General Idea Pavillion, 1988. Courtesy of Mam Paris and the Estate of General Idea)