A Courageous Gesture1
A few words for Jean
Baudrillard since the vultures are already circling, everyone is getting paid
for their thoughts and, with the possible exception of Steven Poole in the Guardian,
many are simply reciting the same tired joke.
An essay in the
Semiotext(e) anthology French Theory in America recounts the following
story: subsequent to his publication of Baudrillard's text Simulations,
Semiotext(e) editor Sylvere Lotringer arranged for Baudrillard to give a paper
at Columbia University. Baudrillard was as yet unknown in America so the talk was largely ignored and he ended up lecturing to a small audience. So
much for the academy. Nonetheless, Lotringer reports, before long the book proved
wildly popular downtown. Baudrillard had become a hipster status-symbol in the New
York art world.
transpired was the monstrous birth of a New York "Simulationist"
school, principally composed of the artists Peter Halley, Jeff Koons, Ross
Bleckner, Sherrie Levine, and far more principally marketed and masterminded by
freelance curators Collins and Milazzo, dressed down in a pair of sharkskin
suits. Baudrillard was now – there is no other word for it – an icon, and so,
in March 1987, four years after the first edition of Simulations was
published, he was invited back to New York – this time to speak at the Whitney.
Picture the scene: the
house is completely sold-out, packed with admirers. Lines snake around the
block, to the extent that a rival, anti-Baudrillard event has even been set-up
across the Village, in an opportunist attempt to cream off the surplus. Completely
nonplussed, Baudrillard, the calmest man in the room, steps up to the lectern:
"There cannot be a Simulationist School because the simulacrum cannot be
represented," he said. "It was”, he added, "a complete
misunderstanding of my work."
Lotringer concludes, "he was finished in the art-world after that". My
point is a simple one: Who amongst Baudrillard's eager detractors, supposing
that they were themselves faced with similar circumstances, and were given the
same choice between dismissal and lionization, would have had his same courage,
and performed his same gesture?