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Catherine Millet, Getting Screwed in Paris

by Gavin Keeney

Paris-based bon vivant and arts dominatrix Catherine Millet’s sex memoir (The Sexual Life of Catherine M.) raised the collective eyebrows of the art-intelligentsia in Paris, for various reasons, when it was first published last year. Now that it has appeared in English, perhaps it is time to examine in detail Millet’s role in the culture wars of the 1980s as well. Some of these intellectual positions are more telling than the sexual calisthenics of the book, and, in one notorious case, they place her more definitively on the slutty side of things than any of the manifold tales of nonstop debauchery.

It was in 1991, while working on my Master of Landscape Architecture thesis at Cornell University, that I first encountered the idea of radical contingency in the form of the work of Scot’s poet-artist-gardenist Ian Hamilton Finlay. I made my way to Scotland, where Finlay was famously under self-imposed house arrest at his South Pentland Hills’ redoubt, Little Sparta, after a furious round of battles with the Scottish Arts Council and the Strathclyde Regional Council (now disbanded) over the nature of his activities at Little Sparta. Sitting in front of his peat fire, in March, I was treated to a short history of Little Sparta, plus the French Affaire. He asked me to write about the latter, given that the former was already well-documented.

But first a little history. “They”, the local authorities, said his gallery, a renovated outbuilding (byre) re-named the Temple to Apollo (the faux Doric facade carries the inscription “His Music, His Missiles, His Muses”) was a commercial enterprise and, thus, taxable. Finlay maintained that the garden temple was a sacred, tax-exempt structure, and Little Sparta en masse was a Republic (i.e., a “Raspberry” Republic) devoted to restoring the sacred foundations of artistic inspiration and etcetera. He was, at this time, “excavating” these foundations through exquisite works on paper (issued through the Wild Hawthorn Press), gallery installations, and in sculptural form in the garden groves of Little Sparta.

This all led to the Little Spartan Wars (the first in 1983), mock battles with the authorities that climaxed in a raid by the Sheriff and confiscation of “works of art” in lieu of unpaid taxes. Finlay organized the Saint-Just Vigilantes, an ad hoc group of supporters (including his good friend Nicholas Sloan at the Tate) and fought a polemical war (initially in the pages of the TLS) for almost a decade against the so-called powers of secularized art. It was during the 1980s that Finlay’s work, formerly based on the strenuous codes of Concrete Poetry, became “militarized”, and mock armaments turned up in the gardens at Little Sparta. Indeed, Little Sparta was the new name given to Stonypath, after the first skirmishes, and structurally denotes a territory set apart from Edinburgh (a.k.a. “Athens of the North”). The Raspberry Republic issued stamps, cards, broadsides, and other polemical memorabilia throughout this protracted battle.

The militarization of Stonypath included Finlay’s very strategic foray into the rhetoric of the French Revolution. In particular, he appropriated the Jacobin phase as rhetorical ammunition. And, zut alors!, in 1987, after a round of memorable gallery installations in France exploring repressed thematic nuances of the Revolution (part of his masterful campaign to “de-nazify” neoclassical architecture), Finlay was commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture to design a garden commemorating the Rights of Man for the then-forthcoming bicentenary celebrations of the French Revolution. This commission, and the subsequent soul-searching amongst the French intelligentsia regarding the Jacobin phase of the Revolution, caused much ado about rhetoric in the left-leaning Paris art world.

Enter Catherine Millet and Art Press, the journal she edited. Art Press, through Mademoiselle M., annoyed that a Scotsman (and a Jacobin to boot!) might actually build a lasting memorial to the French Revolution at Versailles (at the former site of the Hotel des Menus Plaisirs where the Estates General met on August 4, 1789 to declare the Rights of Man), orchestrated a campaign of character-assassination in Paris to derail Finlay’s prestigious commission. The key documents in Art Press were brazen, bizarre distortions of Finlay’s Paris 1987 exhibitions “de-nazifying neoclassicism”, and they more or less suggested that Finlay was nourished by an unhealthy (morbid) fascination with the iconography of Nazi Germany. This balderdash was spread by word of mouth as well (a fairly smutty mouth we now find out), and Finlay’s commission was revoked. This, notably, was also the time of the Klaus Barbie trial. It all came to a head with a now infamous broadcast on Europe 1 (Emission 8/9) with a panel of savants “discussing” Finlay’s commission. This panel included Catherine Millet, Catherine Duhamel (Ministry of Culture, Plastic Arts Legation), Michel Blum (League of the Rights of Man), and Stephane Paoli (Europe 1 moderator). It was, tout court, summary execution/ambush by media — a black ops/arts operation. The project was canceled post haste. This is all documented in my “A Revolutionary Arcadia: Reading Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Un jardin revolutionnaire” published in Word & Image Vol. II, No. 3 (July-September 1995).

Finlay fought back and eventually won 1-franc damages in the French courts. Millet enlisted the assistance of the so-called League of the Rights of Man (part of the Radio 1 posse), a group one may now wonder further about given Millet’s penchant for gang-banging her way to notoriety. Unfortunately, and in the tradition of the roman a clef, the protagonists/beneficiaries of her wide-ranging sexcapades are “masked”, in the manner of the grand orgy in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

The commission was never re-instated and Finlay was never paid for his work. After this all fell to pieces, another garden was designed for the historic site of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a garden which is — curiously — some sort of garden-architectural sop to the memory of Marie-Antoinette.

The French are still very uneasy about discussing certain parts of the Revolution. As a result, a form of selective amnesia wipes out those parts of history that are — um — uncomfortable to address, such as, say, Vichy. We all know now that anyone who stayed in Nazi-occupied France during World War II was in the Resistance, and the Vichy regime was populated by scarecrows. Anyway, The Terror was a repressed cultural memory, then, as now, and Millet played upon the fears and anxieties of the chattering classes to stoke suspicion regarding Ian Hamilton Finlay’s artistic agenda. The garden proposal, in itself, was never the issue. It actually was a highly poetic etude with mnemonic devices engaging Rousseau, neoclassicism, Michelet, and, without even trying, high dungeon of 1980s art criticism, intertextuality. Needless to say, the demolition of Finlay’s reputation in France took years to correct while Catherine M. slithered merrily on her way.

Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect / critic in New York, New York. He is the author of On the Nature of Things, a book documenting the travails of contemporary American landscape architecture. He can be reached at: ateliermp@netscape.net

OUTTAKES

REVIEW 1–U.S. edition (Grove)–The Sexual Life of Catherine M–“Written with the unsentimental precision of a guided missile, Millet’s slim book detonates little explosions of awkwardness and confusion in the reader, pitting arousal against intellectual contemplation. She writes about her experiences not only with incandescent prose but also with analytic detachment, as if she were a documentarian observing from the front lines of sexuality, fluids, limbs, and garments flying all around her.” (The Village Voice, 05/24/02)

REVIEW 2–British edition (Serpent’s Tail)–The Double Life–“Her book, The Sexual Life of Catherine Millet [La Vie Sexuelle de Catherine M], published in France last year, has sold 400,000 copies and is still inciting worldwide debate. ‘This has been one of the happiest times of my life,’ she says. ‘Not just because the book is a success, but because a lot of people understand it.'” (The Guardian Unlimited, 05/19/02)

REVIEW 3 –French edition (Editions du Seuil)–Body of Evidence— “For renowned sociologist Jean Baudrillard, Millet’s book aroused thoughts about the death of modern reality. ‘The naivety of Catherine Millet,’ he wrote, ‘is to think that one lifts one’s skirt to undress, to make oneself naked and so get access to the naked truth–be it the truth about sex or about the world. ‘But if one lifts one’s skirt, it is to show one’s self–not to show oneself naked like the truth (who can believe that the truth remains the truth when one lifts its veil?) but to give birth to a kingdom of appearances, that is to say to seduction–which is exactly the opposite.'” (The Guardian Unlimited, 06/30/01)

NOTORIETY —Confidente Publique–“Elle s’y est livree en Espagne, au Portugal, en Italie, aux Pays-Bas, en Belgique. Pour quelles questions? ‘A peu pres toujours les memes. D’abord: pourquoi avez-vous fait ce livre? Et tres rarement–beaucoup trop rarement–comment l’avez-vous fait? Et puis la question permanente: comment trouver le plaisir? La presse a insiste sur les experiences de sexualite de groupe: l’imagination des gens en a ete frappee, et ils m’interrogent essentiellement la-dessus. Alors, il me faut rectifier: ce livre n’est pas une apologie de l’hedonisme et de la realisation des fantasmes.’ “–(Le Monde, 02/20/02)

SELECT IHF BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ian Hamilton Finlay at the Tate St. Ives (2002)
Little Sparta (Hippeis Gallery)

Poursuites Revolutionnaires (Jouy-en-Josas: La Fondation Cartier, 1987)–Catalogue for exhibition of the same name at La Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, September 20-December 13, 1987

Inter Artes et Naturam (Paris: Editions Paris-Musees, 1987)–Catalogue for exhibition of the same name at Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, April 30-June 28, 1987

Alec Finlay (ed.), Wood Notes Wild: Essays on the Poetry and Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1995)–“Finlay’s determination to be in perpetual opposition to the times inspires his most persistent conceit, the presentation of his allegiance to tradition as dissident; ‘Reverence is the Dada of the 1980’s as irreverence was the Dada of 1918’.”

Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer (London: Reaktion Books, 1985; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992)

Graeme Murray (ed.), Concerning Nature, Poem, The Infinite (Edinburgh: FruitMarket Gallery, n.d.)

Robin Gillanders, Little Sparta: A Portrait of a Garden (Edinburgh: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1998)

Zdenek Felix & Pia Simig (eds.), Works in Europe 1972-1995 (Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag, 1995)

POST-NEO-SUBLIME FOOTNOTE

A propos the French penchant for selectively editing history, consider for a moment the fate of the sublime landscapes of Ermenonville, where Rousseau spent his last days. First, however, please note that Versailles or any other piece of Baroque splendour is maintained to the highest standards of modern historic conservation.

Ermenonville, reputedly designed with the assistance of neoclassical painter Hubert Robert, was the estate of the Marquis de Girardin (1735-1808), one of the “enlightenment era” nobles whose collective philosophical and political intrigues anticipated, if not supported, the French Revolution. (See READINGS 4 for a bibliography of material supporting a comprehensive recollection of this period.) Jean-Jacques Rousseau died in 1778 and was buried at Ermenonville. His remains were first interred on the Isle des Peupliers (Isle of the Poplars) in the middle of an idyllic lake created by damming a stream that ran through the estate.

Perhaps the reason this bit of landscape-architectural history has been allowed to decompose has more to do with its origins than its politics (as if those two things can ever be dis-entwined). Ermenonville represents the full-flower of the English-style park in France, a style that supplanted the Baroque in the 18th century and became the favored means of wearing one’s politics on one’s sleeve for the upper nobility. Le Notre’s Versailles, Chantilly, and Vaux-le-Vicomte are of course French national treasures and represent the authorized French national style (the politics of the ancien regime notwithstanding).

Ermenonville, on the other hand, was chopped into pieces in 1874. It has since been sliced up into various development opportunities. The park has been controlled by the Touring Club of France, since 1938, and they added a 20-acre caravan park. The chateau proper was until recently rented to the Hare Krishna sect. South of “Arcadia”, a 150-acre portion of the original park where a series of fabulous follies slowly rots into the ground, a 40-acre “poplar plantation” was added. The woods are now state owned. A zoo has been constructed nearby the rusticated “Mill” — one of the working follies to the north of the chateau — and other portions of the park have been sublet to long-term tenants for recreational ventures (sports fields, etc). La Launette (a stream that feeds La Nonette, which feeds Le Notre’s glorious reflecting pools at Chantilly) was polluted by a tinned-food factory. The Isle des Peupliers, where Rousseau’s tomb remains (whereas his remains were long ago removed to the Pantheon in Paris) is in the process of being undermined by water rats and collapsing.

See also, Dumas to the Pantheon! (Sydney Morning Herald, 06/05/02)

SEE ALSO BLUE (ABENDLAND)

Today’s Other Features:

Jeffrey St. Clair
Musicians Against the Death Penalty
The Executioner’s Last Songs

Susan Davis
Sleepless in the Suburbs
Curing Insomnia: a new use for The Nation?

George Sunderland
“Send in the Weekly
Standard”: The Screaming Pundits Assault Corps

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