By Paul Krainak
Laurel Jean Fredrickson’s biographical narrative and analysis of artist/writer/provocateur Jean-Jacques Lebel leaves few stones unturned in an account of the surprisingly underrecognized, yet pivotal, French artist from the 1960s. Lebel was a Surrealist painter and poet, and a tireless and defiant organizer, publisher, and cultural revolutionary. He was a kind of model artist/citizen whose energy radiated furiously in the streets, storefronts, and backrooms of post-war Europe, alongside members of Fluxus, Situationists, Sound Poets, Lettristes, Automatists and Nouveau Réalistes, as well as numbers of the radical left and student dissidents. He was comrades with a surprisingly wide collection of Surrealists and Dadaists from Duchamp and Breton on the continent, to avant-garde figures such as Carolee Schneemann, Allan Kaprow, Man Ray, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg in the U.S. He marshalled them all at times for madly independent, often carnal, anti-art market and anti-war performance/events with the support of celebrated philosophers, poets, cultural critics, collectors, and political anarchists.
“Jean-Jacques Lebel and French Happenings of the 1960’s: The Erotics of Revolution” first zeros in on the theory of the rhizome, introduced by Lebel’s close friends Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Fredrickson details how the phenomenon of Lebel, who networked, sometimes surreptitiously, with sympathetic artists, leftists, and publics, was an agent of a social rhizome, i.e. he functioned as a node on a subterranean system which grew laterally, interdependently fragmented, and a-centered. The model perfectly suits Lebel’s anti-hierarchical moral code with respect to culture and economy and it’s useful in representing egalitarian, heterogeneous, multiplicitous, non-binary systems, even those that bridge time and language. In art and activism, Lebel was staunchly resistant to periodization, puritanism and dogmatism whether from church, state, academy, or museum, and he improvised on the experience of the happening as a vehicle for future insurgency.
Much is known about the virtuosity of synchronous artists like George Maciunas, Guy Debord, Yves Klein, and other of his colleagues who spearheaded aesthetic movements that critiqued art and society, but much less on the widespread cultural innovation of Lebel. He saw his role as a facilitator/engineer rather than mastermind/author. He zealously emphasized any discourse oppositional to artworld star-making, collaging inflammatory political texts in his paintings, and fragmenting event anti-narratives with explosive anti-establishment rhetoric and improvisation. His aim was cultural revolution via collaboration with artists, workers, and intellectuals and made no distinction between art and life.
Fredrickson’s portrait provides not only a discussion of happenings as a formal rupture in art production but a vivid image of differences with which radical art manifested itself on either side of the Atlantic in the 1960’s. A dynamic of anti-Vietnam War sentiment was the most visible cross-cultural subversive art content in the U.S. along with Chicago’s AfriCOBRA collective which occupied a groundbreaking, but critically sequestered dialogue on civil rights and Black identity. Politically charged exhibitions in the U.S. were limited to relatively few of the most progressive art schools and university campuses. Most of our art academies and markets were relatively indifferent to merging art and politics compared with the complexity of anti-colonial and anti-war sentiment embraced by young French artists and poets during the Algerian uprising. American arts professionals were more chafed about the growth of formal critique and the destabilization of late modern art genealogy and pedagogy. Although there were exceptions, activism was not an art game-changer, even as it would surface appreciably in popular music and media. While the percentages of actual artists in America and Western Europe that were committed to political reform was similar, cutting edge art, poetry, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy were more interconnected and no strangers to ideological discourse and real politics in France. With the encouragement of Lebel’s free-form happenings, vanguard art subjects were often alarmingly psycho-sexual and anti-Capitalist.
Fredrickson explains at the end of Chapter 1, “…Lebel followed Artaud’s injunction to bombard all of the senses in order to shock spectators out of passivity and to detonate a process that would transmute them into agents by encouraging transgression to elicit “forbidden” sexual desire, spontaneity and play – and to envision destruction as creation.” The structure of his happenings clearly displayed how little traditional cultural proprietorship meant to him and how adamant he was about disrupting standard middle-class virtue and traditions. A caveat expressed by Fredrickson regarding “the period’s exploitation of the female body” notes that the erotic images deemed to be important to shaking the foundations of proper French culture were still largely masculinist.
Lebel’s first and possibly most definitive happening occurred in 1960 alongside and antagonistic to the Venice Biennale. “Anti-proces 2” included an international exhibition that was undefined by nation or medium and it declared staunch opposition to what had become a war against Algeria in which French citizens were conscripted. It concluded with the “Funeral of the Thing of Tinguely,” a lavish and extraordinarily bacchanalian event that interred a sculpture of Jean Tinguely from a gondola surrounded by guests in motor boats on the Grand Canal.
Fredrickson quotes Lebel, “ The challenge was complex: to mourn and celebrate a friend; to grapple with the perversion of sexuality by Christian morality for which nonprocreative sex was a sin; and to defy censorship through what is considered taboo – all through acts that transgress the prohibitions of this morality by means of a ritual that was not religious.” Sixty years later it’s difficult for most Americans to imagine anything close to a state religion. Even then French youth were accepting much less liturgic authority, but Lebel insisted that the church and national identity had to be thoroughly extricated. His preoccupation with free sexuality was a hot button topic designed to reveal the excessive control that strict Catholicism exercised over eroticism and intimacy, and that such doctrine itself was a perversion and sacrilege.
The text documents how Lebel was instrumental in the Paris revolt and general strike of students and workers in May 1968 – a turbulent event that for many changed the nature of politics and became a blueprint for guerrilla actions on both continents. Lebel was an artist and activist of considerable influence and charisma and was present on the ground during weeks of protest. He helped build defensive barricades and Dadaist assemblages in the street and conducted open general assembly meetings with students while meeting covertly with automobile assembly workers at Renault. The intent was to pressure Industry, the university system and the state who had turned a blind eye to unjust economic policies, entrenched curricula, religious conservatism, and the institutional racism of the Algerian campaign.
The writer’s extensive research into Lebel’s decades of organizing public events, that have continued with international nomadic poetry and jazz performances, confirm that the happenings movement of the 60’s has had an equal or larger impact on higher education and mainstream culture than the reductivist art curriculum that once defined academia. It’s evident in the dramatic shift to performance art, social practice and non-genre artforms, a growth industry in artist residencies, and an uptick in interdisciplinary, trans-geographical collaborative projects.
The 1960’s happenings virtually overlapped with commune Bohemia and drop-out prankster-culture, even more so with respect to counterculture aesthetic hybrids in arenas like the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Harlem Cultural Festival and Woodstock in 1969. The continued growth in music and media festivals, such as Burning Man, immersive museum exhibitions, even corporate media displays, organic interactive temporary architecture, and burlesque political media spectacles also link the present to the late 60’s, as well as to centuries of carnival. Carnival DNA still mutates, co-opted in some cases, distorted in others, but preserved by the occasionally unhinged continuum of chimeric, uncanny, hopeful, peculiarly idealistic decade of free art, politics, hallucinogens, and sex. The aftermath of Lebel are multiple tributaries of influence that shelve the adulation of celebrity artists, auteurs, and architects to otherwise explore a community of reciprocated intellect, politics, and sexuality.
Laurel Jean Fredrickson is an Associate Professor of Art History & Visual Culture at Southern Illinois University. She earned a PhD in Art History from Duke University, an MA in Art History from the University of Illinois Chicago, an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a BFA from Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to studying art history, she practiced as an artist, exhibiting nationally and internationally and taught studio art courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Columbia College in Chicago.