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Jason Farago on Broodthaers and Brussels


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For the New Yorker, Jason Farago writes about Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers and his current exhibition at MoMA in the wake of the Brussels bombings. It so happens that Broodthaers’s work heavily focuses on Belgian nationality–or perhaps more accurately, the peculiarities of national identity in an incredibly small country with three national languages. Check out Farago’s text in excerpt below, or the full version via the New Yorker.

In his barrage of materials and symbols invested with national significance—mussels, most famously, but also frites, coal, and the tricolor—Broodthaers treated nationhood, and the nation of Belgium above all, as something like a readymade. He saw Belgianness as a contingent relationship between an idea and a territory, with no inherent reason to be linked. That understanding of nationhood is in part a Duchampian inheritance, and in part distinctly bruxellois. In a city with bilingual street signs, every corner offers a daily reminder of the arbitrariness of language and borders. That’s what makes the sculpture of a human bone painted red, gold, and black so trenchant: nothing could be less convincing than to be Belgian “to the bone,” not in a country with six regional governments and a long-standing separatist tradition. Such is Broodthaers’s genius that the Belgian bone makes the French one look absurd in turn: all such identities, he shows, are little more than paint jobs.

Broodthaers’s Brussels and the Brussels currently undergoing an artistic renaissance now look set to be obscured by a third Brussels: a largely fictive place, drummed by the European hard right and their unwitting analogues on American television, in which the capital of the E.U. has been “invaded” by jihadist outsiders. Yet, as the French sociologist and scholar of Islam Olivier Roy has insisted, the jihadists of France and Belgium are not interlopers in European society—and they’re certainly not refugees, as has been implied by right-populists on both sides of the Atlantic. On the contrary, they are young, alienated, not especially pious men (and a few women) from two different categories, ready to attack and even kill their fellow European citizens. The first category, the majority, are second-generation immigrants, with French or Belgian nationality, who speak better French than their secularized parents, who grew up watching the same TV shows as everyone else, and who for complex and interlocking reasons (including time spent in prison, frequently) embrace a perverted pseudo-Islam. A substantial minority, more than a quarter by some estimates, are converts; most of them come from the countryside, where they would have met few Muslims in person. “We are not talking about a radicalization of Islam,” Roy writes, “but an Islamicization of radicalism.” There is no revolt going on among Europe’s Muslims; rather, there is a small, circumscribed class of youngsters who have latched onto an insane corruption of Islam as the most nihilistic game in town. Radical Islam, no less than Western nationhood, is not a freestanding haecceity against which you can go to war, as more than one Republican Presidential candidate has wheezed. It is instead, in a way Broodthaers would have understood, a floating and contingent identification, no more fixed than any other.

*Image caption: An untitled artwork by the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers combines eggshells with the colors of the Belgian flag at a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Credit Agaton Strom for The New York Times