NRC, 2023-03-23

Vertoon artistieke pornofilm met Houellebecq wél

Arnold Heumakers, NRC, 2023 March 23

Original in Dutch

Translation to English

Do show artistic porn film featuring Houellebecq

No artist wants to cede his sovereignty. That’s what the case between KIRAC and Houellebecq is all about, argues Arnold Heumakers.

What a bizarre project, a kind of artistic porn film featuring French writer Michel Houellebecq and his wife. The Amsterdam artists’ collective KIRAC (Keep It Real Art Critics) came up with it and the Houellebecq couple accepted, contract and all. In it, artistic direction was entrusted entirely to Stefan Ruitenbeek of KIRAC. After seeing the trailer, Houellebecq regretted it. He felt cheated by Ruitenbeek and his ilk. After Houellebecq lost a court case in France, the case is now before the court in Amsterdam. A verdict will be given on Tuesday. As an outsider, I don’t have to decide who is right. That is the judge’s job.

Sensation and scandal aside, the case is interesting for another reason. After all, here are two artists facing each other, with a work of art – joint or otherwise – at stake. On one side, the world-famous writer, on the other, a much lesser-known artists’ collective, which has been defying the art world for several years with videos (now already 26 ‘Episodes’) on the internet that are as entertaining as they are critical and sometimes vicious.

The scandal that has now arisen means nothing new for KIRAC. The same happened with earlier Episodes, about the hollow pretensions of much contemporary art, about right-wing thinker Sid Lukkassen (who also performed in a kind of porn film, initially also voluntarily) and following protests at the Rietveld Academy about alleged racism and sexism. Themes not unfamiliar to Houellebecq either.

Ruitenbeek and his club constantly seek out discomfort, friction and disruption, where delusion and reality collide, and where the boundaries between fact and fiction, between play and seriousness evaporate. KIRAC makes art that can really hurt, with humour, mockery and self-mockery, but without neutralising band-aids. You only realise how rare that is when you look at what is usually considered ‘critical’ or ‘abrasive’ art – nine times out of ten, it deals with themes such as immigration, racism or climate, which are also abundantly on the agenda in the media and which invariably lead to the same views and conclusions in art. KIRAC pursues its own completely contrarian course. In this respect, too, they have something of Houellebecq.

No losing control
Their conflict basically boils down to the fact that one artist does not want to be dependent on the other. Houellebecq wants a say in the film KIRAC is making about him, but KIRAC does not want to hand over the direction. How unreasonable. But what artist wants that? Since the invention of aesthetic autonomy, the artist has been sovereign in his own work, and he does not want to cede that sovereignty to the state, to religion or to morality. And here, therefore, not to a colleague either.

That is precisely what distinguishes this case from a conflict between, say, an interviewer and an interviewee. In that, there is a relationship of inequality. That is different here, despite the difference in fame and wealth. Here, art struggles with itself. It is sometimes said: the best criticism of a work of art is another work of art. Does the same apply to the criticism of an artist? To find out, the court would have to decide to let KIRAC have its way. Perhaps sad for Houellebecq, a great writer in my eyes, who – bravely or foolishly – has sought danger himself. For art, on the other hand, it could be exciting to see what form this confrontation between two wayward artists takes. Not as a cage fight, but as a work of art.