In 1967 Susan Sontag published her essay,
"The Aesthetics of Silence,” on the craving towards silence in artistic
movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even though it appears
that notions of silence are still influential within the visual arts,
theoretical writings on silence are nearly absent. This article explores how
notions of silence emerged in the early works of Marcel Broodthaers, by
scrutinizing his works, related to Pense-Bête, together with the
writings of Susan Sontag and related ideas from Stéphane Mallarmé and Theodor
Adorno. Through a vivisection of these early works of Broodthaers, this article
argues how silence is visualized within his works and how Broodthaers deployed
silence as a method to convey his artistic message: as an expression of
critique; as a mode to navigate through various artistic movements; and as a
strategy to disrupt representational methods and transcend the boundaries
between different mediums.
aesthetics of silence; Marcel Broodthaers; limits
of expression; Pense-Bête; Susan Sontag
"Look! Books in plaster!"
Even without knowing the full context of this
exclamation, the reader notices something unusual about the books that are
being described. The encasement of books through plaster would, most probably,
negate their normal mobility and make them unreadable. It obstructs knowledge
of the written word, transforms its power, and presents a kind of silence that
is perceived by the eye, instead of the ear.
This exclamation is part of the writings of
Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976) and describes the reaction of his audience in
relation to the sculpture of Pense-Bête (1964): a wooden pedestal with a
bundle of eponymous black books held captive by a messy trail of plaster.
Notwithstanding the improvised and nonchalant appearance of this sculpture, Pense-Bête
actually functions as a benchmark within Broodthaers’ artistic profession. It
signifies both end and beginning: the burial of Broodthaers’ last work of
poetry and the inauguration of Broodthaers’ career as a visual artist.
Moreover, as suggested above, the sculpture reveals a method and visualization
of silence that reappears throughout Broodthaers’ later works and writings.
Marcel Broodthaers, Pense-Bête (1964). Books, paper, plaster, plastic ball, and wood. 30 x 84 x 43 cm. Collection of Flemish Community, long-term loan S.M.A.K., Gent. http://smak.be/en/exhibition/8288
This essay will focus on this particular, and
often overlooked, aspect of Broodthaers’ work. How is silence visualized in his
works, and to what extent does this visualization contribute to their meaning?
To answer these questions, several of Broodthaers’ works, closely related to Pense-Bête,
will be discussed together with notions of silence. By analyzing these works in
relation to theories of silence, this essay also aims to reveal ways of
perceiving art through notions of silence, silence as a concern for the visual
arts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Even though ideas and acts of
silence are present within art history, notoriously by John Cage’s performance
of silence or Marcel Duchamp’s renunciation of art by turning to chess, a
comprehensive study on the meanings, uses, and iconology of silence in modern
and contemporary art appears non-existent.
Several critics and philosophers, however, have
written influential pieces about the aesthetics of silence in modern and
contemporary art. Because of a limited scope, this essay will primarily focus
on arguably the most eloquent description of the aesthetics of silence, the
short, yet renowned, essay, "The Aesthetics of Silence" (1967), by
Susan Sontag. The
forms of silence Sontag describes will serve as a backbone throughout this
essay and, furthermore, will be extended with theoretical and philosophical
backgrounds. Therewith, this essay argues that in Marcel Broodthaers’ earliest
works silence functions as a method to deliver his critique on the arts, a
method that enabled him to disrupt the boundaries between art and poetry and,
moreover, deploy a strategy that transcends the differences between major
artistic movements of his time: neo-dada, conceptual art, minimalism, and
This essay will depart from the proposition that
the visual silence of Marcel Broodthaers is rooted in, and historically
determined by, the Romantic theory of art. His
rhetoric of silence and, more broadly speaking, notions of silence in the
visual arts appear entangled with the Romantic thought of literary silence,
most notably through a strong focus on form and materiality. To capture this
thought I will first relate Pense-Bête to the different notions of
silence described by Susan Sontag. These notions will be connected to a
Romantic theory of art and the thoughts on poetry and silence in the writings
of Stéphane Mallarmé that I regard as foundational to Broodthaers’ method of
silence. Subsequently, Broodthaers’ spatial expansion of poetry, his own
translation of silence, will be analyzed through his materials and composition.
This poetic expansion, lastly, will be related to the thoughts of Theodor
Adorno regarding a breach with representational methods.
and the pursuit of silence
The sculpture of Pense-Bête is built out
of unsold copies of Broodthaers’ last book of poetry, published in 1964, three
months before their casting into plaster and still wrapped in the original
paper from the printing house. The title of this work is a portmanteau
combining the French words for ‘think’ and ’beast,' homonym for ‘stupid.' Before
publishing this piece, Broodthaers had issued three other volumes of poetry;
after he had encased his last bundle into plaster he never published a book of
poetry again. Consequently,
the transformation of Pense-Bête bears witness to the literary silence
of Marcel Broodthaers, the published poet. Simultaneously, it initiates the
artistic practice of Marcel Broodthaers, the visual artist, a profession
Broodthaers would practice until his early death in 1976.
Throughout history silence has taken different
forms with distinctive meanings in theories of aesthetics. For example, as a
presence in theories of the sublime; a withdrawal of language in theories of
mysticism and Romanticism; a break with the past and search for the limits of
representation in theories of the avant-garde; an absence of signs and
subjectivity in artistic expressions, coined by Roland Barthes as the
"zero degree;" or as a potential to render an active experience of
consciousness, argued by John Cage in his extensive writings on silence.
In "The Aesthetics of Silence," Susan
Sontag relates these different forms of silence to artistic movements of the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She argues that these movements are
characterized by a persistent search for myths and justifications of existence.
The latest myth was a craving for "…the cloud of unknowing beyond
knowledge and for silence beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the
elimination of the ‘subject’ (the ‘object,’ the ‘image’), the substitution of
chance for intention, and the pursuit of silence." Sontag
reckons that the craving towards silence in art reveals both a spiritual
aspect, as a zone of contemplation and consciousness of the absolute truth, and
a provocative aspect, since silence is the furthest extension of a reluctance
to communicate. The ability to negate art’s relationship with existent reality,
history, and the audience is regarded by Sontag as one of the most important
strands in the aesthetics of silence: "by silence he [the artist] frees
himself from servile bondage to the world." Following Sontag, most artists
did not carry this gesture towards a permanent silence, that is, a complete
renunciation of their vocation as an artist. Instead, they continued to
communicate in a manner that disrupts and frustrates the expectation of the
Sontag predominately locates the origins of the
aesthetics of silence in the modern period of art, a period when art, and the
leading myth of absoluteness of the artists’ activity, become problematic, and
art’s very "right to exist can be called into question." The
sculpture of Pense-Bête not only signifies how Broodthaers questioned
his own artistic existence but also, as this essay will argue, how the works he
created as a visual artist disclose a complex relation to language and a
provocative stance towards the perception and expectations of the audience.
Furthermore, his works reveal a continuous tension between opposites that
appears closely related to the ambivalent character that notions of silence
This ambivalent character of silence had
crystalized though the writings of mysticism, a term derived from the Greek
word muein, which actually meant "to close the lips" or
"to close the eyes." Through the ancient writings of mysticisms, by
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Pseudo-Dionysius (5th-6th
century CE), medieval mystics as Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) developed a
negative theology to address their struggle with the apparent contradiction
that something beyond our consciousness, the divine, transcendence or infinity,
was unspeakable yet always subjected to written or spoken words. Words would
always remain insufficient compared to the truth they would express; only
silence would do justice to these unspeakable matters. Through an emphasis on
those matters that language could not express, the mystics, however, believed
to solve this contradiction and designate the divine and eternal: the realm
A certain paradox occurs within these writings.
Silence is not withdrawn from language but simply shaped through linguistic
styles and forms, two sides of the same coin that are irreconcilable yet
ambivalence within the mystical tradition between language and silence, the
material and the immaterial, the human experience and something higher, are
mentioned by Sontag as a religious precedent for the aesthetics of silence.
Following Sontag, these tensions and difficulties between silence and
materiality are even fundamental within the modern tendency towards the aesthetics
of silence. She relates this thought to the Romantic idea that art expresses
something absolute or inexpressible, the secular unspeakable, and, furthermore,
to the devaluation of language in the course of the nineteenth century.
This Romantic idea of art is closely related to
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and his Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790). In
this critique, Kant elaborated on the judgment of taste and the idea of
aesthetic autonomy, "reines interesseloses
domain without practical function through which the beautiful and the sublime
could be analyzed. His
thoughts on aesthetic autonomy influenced early Romantics, like Novalis
(1772-1801) and Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), whose writings reveal art as a
distinctive form in the presentation of truth. Art could disclose something
beyond our comprehension, an absolute truth beyond what we can perceive: "Er
[Sinn für Poesie] stellt das Undarstellbare dar. Er sieht das Unsichtbare,
fühlt das Unfühlbare,” as Novalis put it. It is
within this line of thought that Romantic poets searched for silence in their
work and, moreover, that the aesthetics of silence thoroughly infiltrated the
According to George Steiner, the Romantic poets
were fundamental for the modern critique towards the word. In the nineteenth
century, the thought emerged that words had no fixed meaning, were always
subject to change, and, therefore, were far from being a tool to unlock an
absolute truth. This
loss of trust in language is addressed in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s renowned
Brief des Lord Chandos an Francis Bacon (1902). In this
letter, Lord Chandos describes how he encounters difficulties with the power of
words. He argues that the body reveals everything to him, "new
relationships with all of existence," that we could only experience when
we "began to think with our hearts." Words ultimately fail to address
this experience. In
Romantic writings, this suspicion towards language had created an obsession
with the capacities of words and the limits of expression, a rupture by means
of communication and an opportunity to explore the possibilities of silence. An
opportunity, also, to think beyond words, with the heart, or, alluding to Pense-Bête,
to think stupid, like an animal.
The writings of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) are
embedded in this nineteenth-century perception of verbal language. In his work,
he alluded to the idea that the poet was a visionary who could reach for the
intangible Idée, or absolute, through une langue universelle.
According to Mallarmé, the poet could reach for this Idée with words
that constituted silence, with words that were marked by absence and a pursuit
towards nothingness or le Néant: a
stairway towards the absolute, demolishing all contingencies related to our
time-bound existence. Thereto,
Mallarmé deployed a method of elimination and reduction. He believed this
strategy would abolish the arbitrariness of language and all subjectivity of
the poem: both the subject of the poem, the "I" of the writer and the
"I" in the poem, and the object of the poem, the world defining the
perception of the subject.
Following Mallarmé, this negative tendency
enabled poets to translate silence in their work. The poem became a hermetic
system rejecting direct communication and worldly references; it would mark the
absence of perceptible reality and present an image of truth by suggestion. This
endeavor to explore the (im)possibilities of expression was part of Mallarmé’s
ambitious project of Le Livre. Although Le Livre was never
completed, its manuscripts reveal a preoccupation with writing a book that
would function as microcosm, a book that would end all books. It would be freed
from all subjectivity and transcend the limitations posed by the material
qualities of a book. Its chapters would be loosely bound, could be read in any
order, and even performed through different artistic forms or mediums. It is
interesting to note that even though many art historians and critics commented
on the relationship between the ideas of Mallarmé and the works of Marcel
Broodthaers, most authors addressed the issue of silence rather indirectly by
referring to associated concepts of absence, abstraction, and materiality.
In his essay, "The Space of Words,” Jacques
Rancière touches on these concepts, as he argues that the works of Mallarmé and
Broodthaers are entangled primarily because of a "knot between writing and
According to Rancière, both artists voiced a critique on the modernist theory
of art and the accompanying idea that the autonomy of art ultimately led to the
specificity of each medium, or purity of art forms. They investigated the
boundaries of the medium, particularly the spatial dimensions of writing, and
challenged the homogenizing forms each medium supposedly brought along. Their
works therefore testify, following Rancière, that Mallarmé and Broodthaers did
not practice any particular medium, yet "forged a new sensorium
against the links of common sense: other perceptible habits." In her
writings on the aesthetics of silence, Sontag explicitly relates this thought,
"new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc." as she calls it, to
"notion of silence, emptiness and reductions," as these promote a
"more immediate, sensuous experience of art or confront the artwork in a
more conscious, conceptual way.”
In quite an extraordinary way, Pense-Bête explores
this specificity of the medium. The sculpture questions the perceptible habits
of its audience and enforces a (re)consideration of the spatial dimension of
poetry. Besides, it enabled Broodthaers to deliver his artistic critique. Pense-Bête
was exhibited at Broodthaers’ first solo exhibition at Brussel’s Galerie
Saint-Laurent in April 1964. This exhibition was accompanied by a short
statement presented as an invitation. The text of this statement was printed in
a bold type on the recto and verso pages of a magazine. Translated, it reads:
wondered whether I could not sell something and succeed in life. For some time
I have been good for nothing. I am forty years old… Finally, the idea of
inventing something insincere crossed my mind and I set to work straightaway.
At the end of three months I showed what I had produced to Ph. Edouard
Toussaint, the owner of the Galerie Saint-Laurent. But it is art, he said, and
I will willingly exhibit all of it. Agreed, I replied. If I sell something he
takes 30%. It seems these are the usual conditions, some galleries take 75%.
What is it? In fact, objects!
This statement can be regarded as a faux-naïve
one, humorous and not a little cynical. While Broodthaers hints that his life
and literary career had been a failure, he implies that selling works of art
might make him successful. At the same time, he states that it took him only a
short time to produce these works, just some "objects" that were
regarded art because the gallery owner believed so. This thought, together with
the printing of these words on advertisement, draw on the suggestion that the
value of art was created and sustained by an economic system. It evokes the
suspicion that all art is intertwined with commodity culture: "something
insincere" and driven by commercial purposes. The objects on display,
naturally, obeyed this deception and dishonesty.
By placing this statement also on the walls near
the sculpture of Pense-Bête, Broodthaers alludes to the idea that its
content did not just accompany the exhibition but was intrinsically related to
a more personal and societal dimension. The sculpture actually amplifies and
visualizes his statement. The bundles of Pense-Bête were an ignored
piece of merchandise until they obeyed the language of commodity culture and
the conventions of the art of their time: the assemblage as practiced by
artists affiliated to Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme. Making
art, or "something insincere,” was taking the place of something regarded
as a failure: Broodthaers’ previous profession as a poet. Or, as posed by
Rachel Haidu, his art was taking the place of "something that has
disappeared and is generative through that disappearance, and much of his art,
however brilliant it is, reflects this belittled, contingent, self-disdaining
Notwithstanding this "belittled status,” Pense-Bête
reveals a great paradox. It demonstrates that the visual arts enabled Broodthaers
to deliver his vicious critique on commodity culture and the art world from
within. "Something insincere" is, therefore, provided with a certain
4. A spatial
dimension of silence
One thing implied or specifically mentioned by
every critic is the fact that Marcel Broodthaers remained a poet, a poet who
took up the visual arts and pushed his linguistic activities past the page into
the space of the gallery. The
transformation of Pense-Bête reveals that Broodthaers deployed a method
of silence, of negating supposedly true words to address a message or artistic
process that he could not just formulate with words. Therewith, it touches on
the same ambivalences between silence and speaking, the immaterial and the
material, or something higher and the human, as encountered by the mystics and
Broodthaers’ gesture of silence contains an
allegorical play with exactly these ambivalences; most notably because the
sculpture refuses a straightforward reading while reifying his poetry. This can
be deducted by a few peculiarities. First of all, Broodthaers attracted much
more attention by silencing his poems than through publishing. Second, Pense-Bête
attests to a manner of speaking that is marked by a ruptured dialogue, a habit
of provoking or frustrating the audience. This is
demonstrated by the fact that the transformation of Pense-Bête occurred
in two stages. Before Broodthaers had silenced his last volume of poetry by
means of plaster, he had pasted small geometric cut-outs of colored paper on
its pages. As a result, the words were covered with small rectangles and
squares. These forms, however, could be lifted, making the poems only partially
erased or precluded from the reading. An
active attitude of the reader or spectator was required in order to understand
the poems in Pense-Bête.
The importance of this active attitude is also
reflected by the loose structure of the sculpture; only a small part of the
lower half of the books was put into plaster, allowing them to be removed with
ease. In an interview carefully designed and edited by Broodthaers himself in
1974, "Ten thousand francs reward: an interview with Irmeline
Lebeer," he commented on this aspect of Pense-Bête and uttered a
great disappointment in the effect the sculpture had on its audience:
is the object that fascinated me, since for me it is the object of a
prohibition. My very first proposition bears traces of this curse. The
remaining copies of an edition of poems written by me served as raw material
for a sculpture… Here you cannot read the book without destroying its
sculptural aspect. This concrete gesture returns the prohibition to the viewer
- at least that I thought it would. But I was surprised that viewers reacted
quite differently from what I had imagined. Everyone so far no matter who, had
perceived the object either as an artistic expression or as curiosity:
"Look! Books in plaster!" No one had any curiosity about the text:
ignorant of whether it was the burial of prose or poetry, of sadness or
pleasure. No one was affected by the prohibition. Until that moment I had lived
practically isolated from all communication, my life was fictitious. Suddenly
it became real, on that level where it is a matter of space and conquest.
This citation exemplifies Broodthaers’ ambivalent
position towards the work and its characteristic silence. He emphasizes that
the books in Pense-Bête were not completely unreadable but rather
suspended from reading. They still reveal something that could, or even should,
be read. The books were transformed into art, yet he wanted people to destroy
its "sculptural aspect" and break through the insincerity of art.
Broodthaers could not address this matter, and his artistic statement, better
than through poetic silence. He attempted to speak through not speaking, and
stumbled upon a fertile negative strategy, a method to suspend and frustrate
the normal legibility of books and comprehension of art.
In this citation, Broodthaers sardonically
remarks that his life as a poet was "isolated from all communication"
and that "it became real, on that level where it is a matter of space and
conquest" through the visual arts. This relationship between poetry and
the "matter of space and conquest," maintained an important characteristic
of Broodthaers’ later works. It is even argued that Pense-Bête
functioned as a stepping stone for Broodthaers’ future endeavors, as it ushered
a movement through which linguistic themes and ideas were presented in art, a
shift from the verbal to the visual. This
time the visual expansion did not come through plaster but through the
reference to "La Moule,” an influential poem from the bundle of Pense-Bête:
roublarde a évité le moule de la société.
s’est coulée dans le sien propre.
ressemblantes, partagent, avec elle l’anti-mer.
The poem is based on a French pun: while "la
moule" refers to a mussel, "le moule" refers to a
cast or mould. A mussel is an organism that is said to create its own shell and
creates itself, "coulée dans le sien propre." It avoids
external pressures, "le moule de la société," and creates its
own containment. Their shells, however, show a great resemblance towards
each other: all of them are also "l'anti-mer," they are
both form (a positive) and hollowness (its own negative, as well as a pars
pro toto for the sea and the anti-sea). Therefore, the mussel "est
The artworks Broodthaers created with mussels or
other empty shells all emphasize this linguistic play with "moule."
Mussels, furthermore, visibly recall the word of muein, the closing of
the lips or, more precisely, the aesthetics of silence. Most of the works
containing these empty shells were made a few years after Broodthaers’
transformation of Pense-Bête and exhibited in Moules Œufs Frites Pots
Charbon, at the Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp, 1966. They
reveal that Broodthaers sought a reunification with his old profession as a
poet and that the themes he introduced in Pense-Bête were not buried
into plaster but rather reinvented through the visual arts. Moreover, this
visual expansion brought along new notions of silence by its non-conventional
choice of materials and subsequent references to hollowness and negation.
through forms and materials
In order to understand this focus on materiality
and accompanying notions of silence, it is important to return to the theory of
silence. As mentioned, the nineteenth-century perception of verbal language
witnessed a distrust towards the capacities of the word and a quest for the
limits of expression. Most authors emphasized that the consequential negative
attitude towards verbal language, the process of elimination and reduction,
created an abstract and self-reflexive understanding of modern poetry. The
poetic act became its own subject: a self-conscious poem reflecting on the
possibilities and impossibilities of language. The visual aspects, such as
typography, spacing, intervals, and white spaces, subsequently received greater
importance; as the form would express a directness that language supposedly
In his essays, George Steiner asserts that the
visual arts disclose the same suspicion towards language as poetry and
literature. He recognizes this tendency in the art after the
post-impressionists and their morphed and shifted depiction of reality, and in
artistic expressions that moved away from an accurate verbal equivalence.
According to Steiner, this movement was affected and enforced by the political
inhumanities of the Second World War, a thought obviously interwoven with the
writings of Theodor Adorno and his well-known dictum of 1949, "Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch."
This dictum is embedded in Adorno’s wider frame
of cultural criticism and his dialectical method and problems with a
progressive vision of history. Adorno assigns Auschwitz a critical point in
history: "the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism." He
regards this dialectic to have collapsed causing a disappearance of the
opposition between art and barbarism. In his essay, "Commitment"
(1962), Adorno clarifies this thought by arguing that his dictum questioned the
possibility of deriving aesthetic pleasure from artistic representations after
Auschwitz. The principle of stylization could provide "an unthinkable
fate" with meaning, and transfigure the horrors of the Holocaust into
something consumable. At the same time, he stresses the necessity of artistic
representation after Auschwitz because only in art "suffering can still
find its own voice."
This paradox is constitutive for Adorno’s theory
of aesthetics that insists on "the dual character of art as autonomy and
social fact." He
argues that the political potential of art can be found in its autonomous
position. Autonomous works of art "negate empirical reality, destroy the
destroyer, which merely exists and by merely existing endlessly reiterates
According to Adorno, both the material content and formal categories of
artistic creations originate in the empirical reality; a committed work of art
truly breaks free from this empirical reality by abandoning all commitments to
the world. This is only possible through its autonomous position and a
regrouping of the formal laws of art. Committed art, therefore, is constantly
in the middle of the ambivalence between art as an autonomous and a social
fact. It is constantly searching for manners of expression that disrupt the
socio-political reality and negate representational methods.
Following this line of thought, a notion of
silence would be present in art through a negative conception towards the
representation of reality, emphasizing rejections of both language and the
image. This regrouping of the formal laws of art and a break with representational
methods is visible in Broodthaers’ choice of materials and composition: his
reference to "La Moule" and use of empty shells. The catalogue
accompanying Moules Œufs Frites Pots Charbon contained the following
Moi Je dis
Je Moi Je dis Je
des Moules Moi Tu dis Tu
tautologue. Je conserve. Je sociologue.
manifeste manifestement. Au niveau de mer des moules,
perdu le temps perdu.
je, le Roi des Moules, la parole des Moules.
In this poem, Broodthaers elaborates on his own
rhetoric in which the subject, "Je," is the king of “Moules,"
a king of empty shells, connoting both form and absence, following the poem of
"La Moule," and the Greek word of muein. The subject
nonetheless speaks, "Je manifeste," but appears to have lost:
his words are just an expression of absence and hollowness. Furthermore, in
this rhetoric the subject is structurally incorporated in language. In order to
say something about itself, "Je dis, je," the subject is
represented by and dependent on words. In other words, the subject is empty
outside the system of language.
Therefore, Broodthaers’ rhetoric appears to be a circle, characterized by words
as empty as hollow shells.
The use of mussels and empty shells in Broodthaers’
works are therefore not only a visual expansion of poetry, a poetic conquest of
space, but also a direct reference to the suspicion of language and the limits
of expression. His series of Panneaux de moules (1966), exhibited at Moules
Œufs Frites Pots Charbon, are exemplary for this thought. These wooden
panels are simply painted and decorated with masses of mussel shells glued to
the surface; nothing but monochromes with empty creatures. Through the presence
of these absent creatures, however, Broodthaers visualizes his rhetoric. He
demonstrated that the limitations of language in "Ma rhétorique,"
the hollowness of language and the troubles with the subject, can be shown in
art. Empty shells embody the closing of the lips; reveal the ambivalences of silence,
the material and immaterial or form and hollowness; and visualize a withdrawal
from the word.
The difficulties encountered by the mystics, that
words were necessary yet insufficient to address silent matters, or described
by Sontag as the clash between the craving towards silence and the material
character of art, are solved by Broodthaers through this unusual choice of
materials. Silently, these materials communicate Broodthaers’ linguistic game
with poetry and its visualization, providing "something insincere"
again with something serious, the limits
of representation, and, as argued by Rosalind Krauss, "the revelatory
potential of the medium."
6. Pense-Bête and its
It goes without saying that Broodthaers’ works
with empty shells are all but easy to comprehend and comply to the aesthetics
of silence by their materiality and continuous habit of displeasing the
expectations of the audience. The
composition Broodthaers chose for these early works concurs with this enigmatic
character and resembles, at least to a large extent, the methods of the
avant-garde and neo-avant-garde of monochromes, grids, assemblages. Even though
Broodthaers’ own writings indicate that he primarily used these strategies in
order to criticize the art of his time, this method evinces a preoccupation
with the boundaries of expression and representation, as described by Adorno.
In their writings on modernist and post-modernist
art, authors such as Peter Bürger, Hall Foster, and Rosalind Krauss famously
reflect on the aesthetics of the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde. In general,
they describe a breach with representational methods and the tendency of
negative aesthetics of a hostility to history, narrative, and discourse,
addressed through techniques of structural and semantic breakdown. Art was
being disposed of its general assumptions and attacked from within, first, by
an attack on the autonomy of art and second, by an attack on the institutions
that provided art with value: museums, galleries, and so on. While the early
works described in this essay reveal that Broodthaers used Pense-Bête
and the poem "La Moule" to formulate his attack, on art and
its interrelatedness with commodity culture and the boundaries between art and
poetry, his later works would abandon these direct references.
His critique, however, would remain and return,
maybe even more fiercely, through the institutional critique of his Musée
d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (1968-1972), and also by
installations such as Décor: A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers (La Bataille
de Waterloo) (1975). Another thing that remained and returned, in different
disguises though, are notions of silence and Broodthaers’ preoccupation with
space, materiality, linguistic ambivalences, and ideas of absence and negation.
Most lucidly, this is reflected in the exhibition Marcel Broodthaers à la
Deblioudebliou/S, Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé (1969) and
Broodthaers’ adaptations, the visualization and spatialization, of Mallarmé’s
closest reflection of Le Livre: Un Coup de Dés Jamais
N'Abolira Le Hasard (1897).
This essay, however, has demonstrated that the
first artworks Broodthaers made are marked by the aesthetics of silence, by
different forms and notions of silence that would reappear and characterize his
oeuvre. By silencing the true words of poetry, Pense-Bête had opened up
on new manners of artistic expression. The sculpture reveals that Broodthaers
deployed a method of silence to amplify his artistic statement and visualize
his critique on the constructions and intertwinement of art and commodity
culture. This method enabled Broodthaers to play with several ambivalences that
the concept of silence brought along. Silence was used to reinforce the meaning
of his bundle and Broodthaers’ (ambivalent) message of failure; it transformed
his collection of poems into art and "something insincere," while at
the same time the message of Pense-Bête was neither silent, nor
Furthermore, the excessive use of empty shells
proves that even though Broodthaers had silenced his last volume of poetry, the
themes of his poems revived. His plastic reworking of "La Moule"
refuses a straightforward understanding and complicates a process of meaning
making. The mussel embodies the closing of the lips and visualizes, similar to
notions of silence, something dialectical, insofar as it implies an opposite
and depends on its presence: form and hollowness, substance and absence,
language and silence. Broodthaers’ reworking of "La Moule"
symbolizes this interrelatedness and denotes a break between the boundaries of
poetry and the visual arts: a spatial expansion of the page of the poem.
Moreover, it reveals a negative attitude towards the representation of existent
reality, and demonstrates that after the prestige of language had allegedly
fallen, that of silence had risen. Broodthaers
abandoned his profession as a publishing poet, disrupted and shifted his
poetry, and turned to the visual arts to formulate his ambivalent message, his
own spatial poetry of critique.
Elsbeth Dekker is a recently graduated master
student in Art History and Public Law at the University of Amsterdam. She is
currently working as an archival researcher for Nederlands Dans Theater (The
Hague) and working on a Ph.D. project at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
Published on September 25, 2018.
Broodthaers and Irmeline Lebeer, "Ten Thousand Francs Reward," October,
42 (Autumn 1987), 39-48, ref. on p. 44.
 I am
greatly indebted to the thorough and precise suggestions of the reviewer of
this article; the guidance of professor dr. Christa-Maria Lerm-Hayes, who
supervised the thesis underlying this article with much attentiveness; and the
sharp comments of Binkie Bloemheuvel.
Schwarz, ""Look! Books in Plaster!": On the First Phase of the
Work of Marcel Broodthaers," October, 42 (Autumn 1987), 57-66, ref.
on pp. 57-60.
Sontag, "The Aesthetics of Silence," in Styles of Radical Will
(London: Penguin Classics, 2009), pp. 3-34. Due to this focus on "The
Aesthetics of Silence,” only the thoughts of thinkers on silence who influenced
Sontag will be mentioned, either directly or indirectly. This focus will narrow
the scope of this article to theories of silence that depend more strongly on
negative aesthetics. Other theories of silence, related to a phenomenological
approach, are no less important yet will be excluded. See for example: Max
Picard, Die Welt des Schweigens (Zürich: Rentsch Verlag, 1948); Maurice
Merleau-Ponty, "Eye and Mind," in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics
Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. and trans. by Michael B. Smith
(Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993).
H.D. Buchloh et al., "The Moment of Marcel Broodthaers? A
Conversation," October, 155 (Winter 2016), 111-150.
 For an
extensive discussion of this thought, see: Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at
All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London: Verso, 2013), pp. 37-46.
accordance with this title, the poems in Pense-Bête reflect the ancient
tradition of the bestiarium: a genre which described and depicted
natural history together with fabulous creatures and moral lessons on human
society. See: Deborah Schultz, Marcel Broodthaers: Strategy and Dialogue
(Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), p. 31.
(1987), pp. 57-60.
H.D. Buchloh, "Open Letters, Industrial Poems," October, 42
(Autumn 1987), 67-100, ref. on pp. 70-72.
Longinus, Het sublieme (Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij, 2000), pp.
31-32; Edmund Burke, Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of
the Sublime and Beautiful (New York: Simon and Brown 2013), pp. 36-37,
65-67; Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and
Colin Smith (London: Cape, 1984); John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings
(Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1967).
(2009), p. 5.
 Yra van
Dijk, Leegte die ademt: het typografisch wit in de moderne poëzie
(Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), pp. 17-21; Shira Wolosky,
Language Mysticism: The Negative Way of Language in Eliot, Beckett, and
Celan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).
Katz, "Mystical speech and mystical meaning," in Mysticism and
Language, ed. Steven Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp.
3-41, ref. on pp. 3-5.
(2009), pp. 21, 31.
Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft (Hamburg: Verlag, 2012); Osborne (2013),
 Gerhard Schulz, Novalis: Leben und Werk Friedrich von Hardenbergs (München: Beck, 2011), p. 266.
Steiner, Language and Silence: essays 1958-1966 (London: Faber and Faber
 Hugo von
Hofmannsthal, "A Letter," The Lord Chandos Letter and Other
Writings, trans. Joel Rotenberg (New York: New York Review Books, 2005),
pp. 117-128, ref. on pp. 121-125.
(1985), pp. 47, 66-67, 111-112.
unusual title is on purpose in order to visualize the process of silence and
Pearson, Mallarmé and the Circumstance: The translation of Silence
(Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 4-5.
 In his
essay, "Mimique" (1886), Mallarmé emphasized this pursuit: "Silence, the sole luxury after rhyme itself, an
orchestra only marking with its gold, its brushing of thoughts and dusk, it
presents meaning like a silent ode, and it is the poet's task, roused by the
challenge, to translate it." My own translation from Stéphane Mallarmé, Œuvres
complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1951), p. 310. See also Pearson (2004), pp.
Strauss, Descent and Return: The Orphic Theme in Modern Literature
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 103.
Mallarmé’s thought on "Je dis: une fleur!" in Mallarmé (1951),
p. 368; Van Dijk (2005), pp. 38-39.
Carpenter, ""Le Livre" of Mallarmé and James Joyce
Ulysses," in Mallarmé in the Twentieth Century, ed. Robert Greer
Cohn and Gerald Gillespie (London: Associated University Presses, 1998), pp.
 See, for
example, the chapter "Reading Art" in Haidu, The absence of work:
Marcel Broodthaers, 1964-1976 (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2010), pp.
Rancière, "The Space of Words: From Mallarmé to Broodthaers," in Porous
Boundaries: Text and Images in Twentieth Century French Culture, ed. Jérôme
Game (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 41-61, ref. on. p. 44.
(2007), pp. 45-46, 54-56.
(2009), p. 13.
Garcia and Fransesca Wilmott, "Objects," in Marcel Broodthaers: A
retrospective [cat.], ed. Manuel J. Borja-Villel and Christophe Cherix (New
York: Museum of Modern Art, 2016), pp. 76-79, ref. on p. 76.
(2007), pp. 101-128.
(2010), p. xv.
authors have taken the above-mentioned intertwinement of Broodthaers’ artistic
statement and Pense-Bête to another level. They argue that Broodthaers’
declaration functions as a manifest characterizing all of his artistic
practices. Benjamin Buchloh, for example, argues that Broodthaers’ definition
of art as "something insincere" continued to mark his future
investigation as a "[…] reflection on the status of the (art) object under
the universal reign of commodity production, once the object had lost the
credibility of its modernist, utopian dimension." Benjamin H.D. Buchloh
(1987), p. 72.
Sackeroff, "Literary Exhibitions," in Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective
[cat.], ed. Manuel J. Borja-Villel and Christophe Cherix (New York: Museum of
Modern Art, 2016), pp. 136-139, ref. on pp. 136-137.
(2009), pp. 7-8.
(2007), pp. 59-60; Haidu (2010), pp. 55-56.
Broodthaers and Lebeer (1987), p. 44.
Sackeroff (2016), pp. 136-137.
Mussel | This clever thing has avoided society’s mould. | She’s cast herself in
her very own. | Other lookalikes share with her the anti-sea. | She’s perfect.
Translation in Marcel Broodthaers and Paul Schmidt, "Selections from
"Pense-Bête," October, 42 (Autumn 1987), 14-19, ref. on
and Wilmott (2016), pp. 78-79.
Niebylski, The Poem on the Edge of the Word: The Limits of Language and the
Uses of Silence in the Poetry of Mallarmé, Rilke, and Vallejo (New York:
Peter Lang, 1993), p. 5; Pearson (2004), pp. 5-6.
 See the
extensive discussion on the blank spaces in the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé in
Van Dijk (2005), pp. 38-61; or more general for the function of typographic
blanks in poetry Yra van Dijk, "Reading the Form: The Function of
Typographic Blanks in Modern Poetry," Word & Image, 27, 4
(1985), pp. 41-42, 117-122.
write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Translation in Theodor W.
Adorno, "Cultural Criticism and Society," Prisms, trans.
Samuel and Sherry Weber (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983), pp. 17-34, ref. on p. 34.
For a discussion of this dictum and the influence on different critics see:
Michael Rothberg, "After Adorno: Culture in the Wake of Catastrophe,"
New German Critique: An Interdisciplinary Journal of German Studies, 72
(1983), p. 34.
W. Adorno, "Commitment," trans. Francis McDonagh, New Left Review,
87-88 (1974), 75-89, ref. on p. 85.
W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London:
Athlone Press, 1997), pp. 227-228; Osborne (2013), p. 44.
(1974), pp. 85-86.
Rhetoric | Me I say I Me I say I | The King of Mussels Me You say You | I
tautologue. I conserve. I sociologue. | I manifest manifestly. At the sea-level
of mussels, | I have lost the lost time | I say, I, the King of Mussels, the
word of Mussels. Translation in Schultz (2007), p. 115.
Pelzer, "Marcel Broodthaers: The Place of the Subject," in Rewriting
Conceptual Art, ed. Michael Newman and Jon Bird (London: Reaktion Books
Ltd, 1999), pp. 186-205, ref. on p. 188.
Haidu touches on this thought but interprets it differently, as she argues that
the panels of mussels only refer to themselves and their linguistic qualities.
See Haidu (2010), p. 13.
E. Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium
Condition (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000). In this short treatise,
Krauss argues that Broodthaers’ work, his recognition of heterogeneity of media
and different systems of representations, should be considered as the
foundation of the "post-medium condition" and "differential
specificity,” two ideas that renounce the modernist belief in medium
specificity and recognizes the conflation of different media.
(2009), pp. 7-9.
 See the
interview: Marcel Broodthaers and
Jean-Michel Vlaeminckx, "Entretien avec Marcel Broodthaers," Degre
Zero, 1 (1965).
Bürger, Theory of the Avant-garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Hal Foster, The Return of the Real:
The Avant-garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996);
Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist
Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).
to Sontag (2009), p. 21.