“Usual Suspect” (2011)
Dear friend, dear art historian*,
Thank you very much for your e-mail I got a few days ago. Today, with my response I want to share with you a thought I had listening to your questions recently in Paris. It’s a thought I had before when listening to you but also to other art historians.
It’s the thought of being a “Usual Suspect.” But you must know: I am a “Usual Suspect”! And I want to explain to you why I am happy to be a “Usual Suspect” and why I have—as an artist— to be and to stay a “Usual Suspect.”
I am happy to be a “Usual Suspect” because doing art is something suspect, beyond certainty, beyond security, beyond assurance of being on the “good side.” It’s beyond knowledge,
beyond consensus, beyond “good taste” and beyond doing “good art.” To do art—today—implies being ridiculous and, where I am concerned, I am not afraid to be ridiculous.
If I like the term “headlessness” it’s not only because of Georges Bataille. I like it because I have always been acting as such, because I know that “headless” does not mean stupid, silly, or without intelligence, headless does not mean to be ignorant.
I am not an ignorant artist—because it is better not to be ignorant, as an artist! Of course—I love the beautiful book The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Jacques Rancière and its fantastic, enlightening title, but I am not a schoolmaster—I don’t even teach Art, as you know—I am an artist and as such, I want to be a “headless artist.” I want to act—always—in headlessness, it’s something important to me and I want to make Art in headlessness. “Headlessness” stands for doing my work in a rush and precipitately. Other words for headlessness are: restlessness, insisting with my work and insisting again and again heavily, acceleration, generosity, expenditure, Energy = Yes! Quality = No!, self-transgression, blindness, and excess. I want to rush through the wall head first, I want to make a breakthrough, I want to cut a hole, or a window, into the reality of today. I never want to economize myself and I know that—as the artist— I sometimes look very stupid facing my own work, but I have to stand up for this ridiculousness. And I do know this can make me look suspicious—but it’s O.K.
I am happy to be a “Usual Suspect” because this term is not only composed of “Suspect” but also of “Usual”—which means something we already count on, something not surprising, something normal, something “Usual” because it’s always the same thing, the same person. This is beautiful, because the “Usual” of “Usual Suspect” links me to all other “Usuals,” so it means that it is something “open,” something non-exclusive, something universal, something I share with other people who are normally the “Usuals.” Besides, there are so many suspects in the world today—all over the world and people are suspected for all kinds of “reasons”—that to think that I, as an artist, should not be suspicious, is obviously indecent.
I am happy to be a “Usual Suspect” because I refuse terms used today in contemporary art. I refuse to speak of “political art” or “engaged art” and I also refuse—and never use—such terms as “piece,” “installation” or “show,” and many other terms which I have always rejected because they are lazy terms, such as “Community art,” “Educational art” or “Participative art,” etc. What I want to do—on the contrary—is to invent my own terms. I want to invent my own terms in art. Philosophers use words with precision and exactitude, following their logic. Philosophers are sculpting concepts in the strongest way they can, the words they use are powerful and important tools in order to create new terms in philosophy, philosophers are inventing their own terms and I—as an artist—admire that enormously. I can learn from philosophy and from philosophers and I can try to use my own terms as well in relation
to art, in relation to my work and to myself. As an artist, this is what I want to do: To give terms to my work which make sense to me, perhaps only to me, but to me first, because—as an artist—I have the possibility to do it, I have the possibility to invent my own terms.
I am happy to be a “Usual Suspect” because I refuse to obey any kind of “political correctness” in the way I speak about my work, but also in my work itself, which is—of course—absolutely crucial. It’s crucial because to obey is always “the end,” and it’s crucial in order to continue doing work which wants to create a real “Critical Corpus.” I understand “Establishing a Critical Corpus” as one of my missions, something important, something
positive and something new, and I know this can make me suspicious—but it’s O.K.
I am happy to be a “Usual Suspect” because I am generous. Years ago, an artist colleague, who at that time had much more exhibitions than me, told me—to explain why it was so difficult for me: “Thomas, you are incapable of taking something, you can only give something!” I understood immediately that he was right about this fact, but I also understood immediately that he was wrong about the truth of this. He was wrong because this is the core—the hard core of art—because the truth is that art is a gift! And I decided to reinforce what others told me and considered as a failure or a lack. I always understood art as: “Art is a gift,” a gift towards me—from other artists, dead or alive—and as a gift from me, a challenging and unexpected gift, a gift which—by its generosity—blows off any thoughts of calculation and economisation. This was why my colleague was completely wrong! I want to give everything and I want to understand the form of my work as a gift. But the gift is not only the work itself, the gift is—as well—the “doing it” and doing it that way. What I love about the notion of “gift” is its offensive, demanding, and even aggressive part, the part that provokes the other to give more! It’s the part which implies a response, a real and active response to the gift. The gift—or the work—must be a challenge, this is why “auto-destruction,” “masochism,” etc., is unthinkable.
For me “self-cancellation” is connected to narcissism, to tearfulness. Those terms are not related to my understanding of art as an assertion—an absolute assertion of form—as an engagement, as a commitment to pay for, as a mission, as a never-ending conflict, as a strength, and finally as a position. In my work I assert forms that cannot be asserted and this is—really—the assertion, this is the gift. I want to create a new term, a new form in art!
Finally I am happy to be a “Usual Suspect” because I am working with galleries, commercial galleries, which means I am confronted with the money question, the question about getting money for the production of my work, but also the question of the commercial value of my work. I like to confront those questions, not because I like to speak about money, but because I think today the question of money is a question related to the kind of reality I also want to touch. It’s not “the reality” to me but it is one of today’s realities I want to confront. A lot of people want to avoid the money question in art. I am not speaking about art fairs and the comments on their circumstances, but about the practice of an artist who is “in production” today, because I know the importance of having the possibilities to produce. I know how difficult it is to obtain such possibilities and I know I always have to fight for these possibilities. I know how much the question of money can create the conditions for the production of an artwork today. I know how this question can influence or help the production of an artwork, and I also know how delicate this question often is. (I have a lot of discussions about the money question with my artist colleagues—mostly at their instigation by the way!) Because for different and sometimes contradictory reasons, people do not want to speak about it. The money question is important, it’s not crucial or essential or determining an artwork, but it’s important. And because it’s important, it’s better not to avoid speaking about money, because not speaking about money always helps those who do not want to pay, who do not want to engage, or who do not want to be committed to something. Speaking about money can make me suspicious too, but it’s also O.K.
I do hope that I was able to enlighten you on the question of my happiness at being a “Usual Suspect” and about why staying a “Usual Suspect” is important to me.
[Thomas Hirschhorn, 2011]
* Email letter written to art historian Pamela Lee.