Why “Bad” Literature Matters (and How We Should use It)

By Jan Baetens

Contrary to film or sports, for instance, literature is a part of culture in which there are still heated debates on what is “good” and what is “bad”. One may prefer Messi to Ronaldo, even after the Panama Papers, but nobody will deny that both are great players. One may like Ed Wood and dislike Hitchcock, but the merits of both directors will never be put on the same level. In literature, however, things are less clear. There exists of course a canon, but most readers, even professional readers, agree on the fact that this canon is often horribly boring and not really worth reading. On the other hand, many books that are avidly read will not really be defended by those who read them, as if they were ashamed of enjoying “silly” books or authors.

The situation is schizophrenic, but also complex. It is too easy for instance to frame it in terms of cultural snootiness (on the side of those sophisticated but “camp” readers who are proud of reading bad literature, while never trying to make a case for it as “good” literature) or inferiority (on the side of the many unsophisticated readers who are not always proud of what they actually like to read). Above all, the situation is sad, for it maintains social and ideological barriers that eventually harm both reading and writing.

One of the problems of “bad” reading is not only the persistent hatred that it provokes, not to speak of the psychological damage done to those who cannot love it as they would like, but also the negative effects in the long run on writing and literary culture in general. Just as some forms of “illegal”, that is illegally copied literature (see the recent essay by David S. Roh on this topic and my review on Leonardo[1]) can have tremendously positive effects on the creativity of a given community, “bad” reading should be considered a basic condition of literary invention. However, in order to make this point, one needs examples to demonstrate how this works in practice.

Here is where Robert Walser comes in. An important and even avant-garde Swiss author of the first half of the 20th Century, Walser was fond of “bad” literature, more particularly of cheap French romance novels of the twenties, infamous examples of what is called in French “industrial literature” (the term goes back to the 19th Century but it clearly anticipates Adorno’s distaste of the culture industry). Badly written, badly printed, totally ignored by serious readers, worse than all that one could imagine in all possible senses of the words, these books, actually more brochures than books which were sold in newsstands, not in bookshops, were read by audiences “good” readers have always been happy to mock (one of Walser’s examples is a novel by Sim – pseudonym of Georges Simenon –, Le Semeur de larmes, 1928).


While working as a journalist, Walser happened to review once in a while this kind of “bad” literature, and the way he did so offers an amazing demonstration of what one can actually do with this allegedly inferior literature. For reviewing meant rewriting, not just paraphrasing or summarizing and judging. Walser reinvents completely new stories, which often go totally against the grain of the original works, and this rewriting offers the possibility to deploy a stylistic firework that clearly demonstrates the springboard function of both the reading and the review. Yet what Walser is about is not to “save” the worthless books he is not supposed to read as a serious author, but to demonstrate how literary creativity works and how it can make use of any material whatsoever.

graf_walserSo please read the short essay by Marion Graf on Walser as a romance-reader, and try to do yourself with your bad readings what can be discovered in the examples in the second half of the book, a brief anthology of Walser’s creative reviews. It’s a small and inexpensive book, so you can keep it away from the eyes of those who want you to read Middlemarch or the complete works of Milton.

Marion Graf. Robert Walser. Lecteur de petits romans sentimentaux français. Editions Zoé : Carouge-Genève, 2015.

[1] http://leonardo.info/reviews/apr2016/roh-baetens.php

The Timeless Value of an Artistic Joke out of Exasperation

by Christian Wauters

Until the 5th of June, in ‘De Halle’ in Geel, the city where he spent his youth, runs – as a homage to Jan Hoet (1936-2014) – the impressive exhibition ‘Ungenau’ (“inaccurate” but better translated as “precarious” or “off-beat”). Hoet, remembered as a globally renowned art expert and curator, established for the first time, exactly thirty years ago, his international reputation with the exhibition Chambres d’Amis to which he invited American and European artists to create artworks for homes in Ghent, private residences but open to the public for several weeks. However, not everyone was enthusiastic about this heavily acclaimed innovation, including even one of the participating artists…


Among Flemish examples of so-called Money Art, a young art genre (especially emergent since 1990) that aims at the creation of art objects on the basis of real or symbolic money, Chambres d’Amis (‘Guest Rooms’ – 1986) by the world-famous installation artist Panamarenko (pseudonym of Henri Van Herwegen, b. 1940) presents a remarkable case that cannot be ignored by the art lover focusing on the relationship between art and money. The art object consists of a wicker birdcage and a shoe box on a coconut doormat with the imprint Chambres d’Amis (97 x 105 x 67 cm). The cage is filled with copied money and a pile of (ersatz) banknotes lies on the box. The work that was not even recognized as ‘art’ in its setup, quickly proved to be a playful, mocking and even quite insulting statement or provocation by a humorous but deliberately rebellious artist. It demonstrates (and this could be the ‘hidden’ research question) how an artistic ‘parody’ can become a genuine work of art, for Chambres d’Amis made its way to prestigious art collections and an international auction (Christie’s [London] 28 June 2012), at which it was sold for £ 25.000.

The background of this joke has been extensively documented. Jan Hoet (1936-2014), both hyped or maligned as an ‘art pope’ in artistic circles, organized an unusual exhibition under the auspices of the Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Ghent (Belgium), from the 21st of June to the 21st of September 1986. It was an art event in which fifty-one residents of Ghent declared themselves willing to provide (part of) their home to an artist for three months. The underlying idea of this idiosyncratic exhibition, which housed contemporary works of art in a social context, was to break the conservative exclusivity of the museum. One of the artists who was to participate in the project, called Chambres d’Amis, was Panamarenko who declared in a television interview (BRT-Flemisch Department, 21 June 1986) that he considered the initiative as ‘heresy’ and as restricting freedom and did not feel like participating. In his own idiom, he stated:

 (…) I was forced to make something for people in the so-called art world, (…) [I]t had to be modern of course, because they had here and there made an earlier purchase. (…) [T]hey wanted a modern version of all that old crap, without the content being different and that annoyed me.[1]

He nevertheless took part in the event:

So I took a birdcage and filled it with [fake] money and I did the same with a shoe box as well [sic] (as everybody always said that I possessed shoe boxes full of cash!). Finally, I added a doormat with the imprint ’Chambres d’Amis’ in big letters and there you have it!

In order not to have to say no, I said no by participating. I presume that many people, being so ostentatiously faced with that money, feel that they have been miffed.

Although the work was exhibited in the hallway (after all, the base was a doormat!) of the De Wilde-Van Peteghem residence at the Olympiadeplein n°.9 in Ghent, the organizers were not pleased with the contribution of an artistic funnyman! In his opening speech of the art event Chambres d’Amis Jan Hoet said: “This is something that we cannot call a true work of art!” But Panamarenko’s provocation did not end there:

The anger [of the curator] became even worse during the opening ceremony, which was broadcast on television. While the lectures were held, Jef Geys [°1934, an internationally renowned Flemich sculptor, photographer and installation artist] and I sat, deliberately uninterested, at a table, eating oysters and talking. That was an idea of Jef Geys, but of course it was staged. They [the organizers] had agreed but nevertheless. While ministers were speaking and everyone was listening, we sat at a table for two, eating oysters and babbling, with a lot of swearing in between and the television people of course broadcasted the silliest excerpts that nobody understood. The oysters have been paid by Jan Hoet but for Jef Geys, the game was over: in Ghent and in the presence of Jan Hoet, he was never to show his face again. But he [Hoet] just did not dare to throw me out (laughs).

With his mockery Panamarenko had pointed out the weakness of ‘modern’ (i.e. 1986-) art-enthusiasm as described in the testimony of art historian Dirk Pültau, editor-in-chief of the Flemish/Belgian art magazine ‘De Witte Raaf’ (The White Raven):

The atmosphere around ‘Chambres d’ Amis’ is indicative for the “ardency” of that time. Jan Hoet was the great defender of contemporary art and present-day art was presented as something that was afflicted and had to be defended. (…) If you look at it afterwards that enthusiasm was really only aimed at presenting contemporary art as a kind of controversial spectacle-commodity. This promotional fire has, in the long-term, made any serious approach to the art of our time impossible. The total acceptance of present-day art comes atz the expense of flattening it and making it more enjoyable. But I must admit that I have followed that apologetic discourse for a long time. I was far too uncritical of the things the museum did. (Gielen, 2004, p. 197).

With a bitter undertone, the above quoted cultural sociologist Pascal Gielen has also noted in his publication ‘Kunst in Netwerken…’(Art in networks…, 2004, p. 197) that ‘Chambres d’ Amis’ paved the way, for Hoet himself, to Documenta IX (Kassel, Germany – 1992):

The concept-note, with which Hoet finally applied for Documenta, covered only five pages. From this you can at least deduce that discursive mediators play a minor role in such decisions. Selection processes often build on previous merits and networks of formal and informal contacts. Moreover, in the art world, ‘babble’ is more central than text.

Furthermore, ‘Chambres d’Amis’ meant the end of the collaboration between Jan Hoet and the television director, executor and scriptwriter Jef Cornelis (b. 1941) who, between 1963 and 1988, made numerous artistic and cultural-historical breakthrough programs for the Flemish  department of the Belgian Broadcasting Corporation, thereby drawing TV attention to Hoet as well. Cornelis dedicated a six-hour broadcast called ‘De langste Dag’ (The Longest Day) to ‘Chambres d’Amis’. It was a satire on a mad contemporary art world, figuring, for example, quarrelling artists (a.o. Panamarenko and Geys) as well as Hoet’s (frequent) outburst of anger. In the year 2000, the director explained his point of view:

I lampooned Hoet in front of the camera; this was not an attack on his person but by reason of the media show in which the art had ended up at that time. A few moments later Hoet became aware of that and it meant the final break. (Gielen, 2004, p. 196).

With this contribution to ‘Chambres d’Amis’, Panamarenko, in his own picaresque way, commented critically on a wide-ranging promotional initiative for contemporary art. As we have seen, history proves that he was not the only one to comment in a critical way on propaganda  for “a modern version of old crap, without the content being different.” In this perspective, the birdcage and shoe box filled with photocopies of bank notes, can be considered as an authentic work of art with a far-reaching, meaningful and even timeless symbolic value.

[1] This text and the two following citations are quoted from an article by Panamarenko, which he mainly edited himself: Indispensable lexicon …” in the Flemish newspaper ‘De Standaard’ (The Standard) of the 21st of April 2005 (my translations).

Conference Photography Performing Humor

The international conference “Photography Performing Humor” will explore the nature and meaning of the relationship between photography, performance and humor within the field of visual arts and visual culture.

Although humor is clearly omnipresent in a wide spectrum of photographic practices — ranging from advertising or art photography to family snapshots with their obligatory ‘smile’ or the classic Tower of Pisa joke — the topic has yet to be fully discovered by researchers. While in recent years photography theory has witnessed the affective turn, its focus remained largely on photographic representations of suffering, trauma and loss.

It is no coincidence then, that one of the central metaphors to think the affective quality of the medium, Barthes’ punctum, relates affect to being wounded. This conference resolutely chooses to elaborate a lighter, humorous side of photography and aims to map different strategies and practices.



LUCA School of Arts
Paleizenstraat 70, 1030 Brussels

The evening lectures on 13 April (8 pm) take place at:
Vlaams-Nederlands Huis deBuren
Leopoldstraat 6, 1000 Brussels


13/04 > 14/04/2016


Attendance to the conference is free but registration is required before the 8th of April 2015.

Register by sending an email to performinghumor@gmail.com

Conference Programme

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

  • 9:00 am Coffee & registration
  • 10:00 am Welcome
    Carl Van Eyndhoven (dean LUCA School of Arts)
  • 10:10 am Opening word
    Mieke Bleyen (KU Leuven)
  • 10:30 am Keynote lecture
    Louis Kaplan (University of Toronto)
    A Morbid Sense of Humor: Reflections on Photography’s Dark Comedy
    Moderator: Hilde Van Gelder
  • 11:30 am Coffee break
  • 11:45 am Heather Diack (University of Miami)
    Playing It Straight: The Alliance of Humor and Photography in Conceptual Art
  • 12:15 pm Sandra Križić Roban (Institute of Art History, Zagreb)
    Elements of Humor in Proto- and Conceptual Photography in Croatia
  • 12:45 pm Johan Pas (Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp)
    “Défense de photographier.” Parody as a Postmodern Strategy in Some European Artists’ Books, 1960s-70s
    Moderator: Liesbeth Decan
  • 1:15 pm Lunch break
  • 2:30 pm Sian Bonnell (based in Cornwall; Falmouth University, Cornwall)
    Wilful Amateur
  • 3:00 pm Lieven Segers (based in Antwerp; MAD-Faculty, Hogeschool PXL, Hasselt – LUCA School of Arts, Genk)
    8 words on making something good
  • 3:30 pm Thomas Mailaender (based in Paris and Marseille)
    Screening A Very Serious Job
    Moderator: Nicola Setari
  • 4:00 pm Break
  • 8:00 pm Lieven Gevaert Leerstoel Lectures (at deBuren, Leopoldstraat 6, 1000 Brussel)
    Paulien Oltheten (based in Amsterdam)
    Sifting and sorting / centrifugal thoughts
    Hilde D’haeyere (KASK School of Arts, University College Ghent)
    CINEMACINE. Lecture on the Mechanisms of Screen Comedy
    Moderators: Mieke Bleyen & Liesbeth Decan
  • 9:30 pm Reception

Thursday, 14 April 2016

  • 9:30 am Coffee & registration
  • 10:00 am Keynote lecture
    Esther Leslie (Birkbeck University of London)
    Photography and Laughter’s Shattered Articulation
    Moderator: Edwin Carels
  • 11:00 am Coffee break
  • 11:15 am Alexandra Olivia Tait (University College London)
    Düsseldorf’s Commedia dell’Arte: Artistic Self-Staging in polke/richter richter/polke (1966)
  • 11:45 am Ann Kristin Krahn (Braunschweig University of the Arts)
    Adding a Giggle: Lee Friedlander’s Practice of the “Shadow Self-Portrait”
  • 12:15 pm Andrei Venghiac (based in Gothenburg)
    Reflections on the Concept of Play
    Moderator: Volkmar Mühleis
  • 12:45 pm Lunch break
  • 2:00 pm George Emeka Agbo (University of the Western Cape)
    Facebook and Photographic Humourisation of Political Activism in Nigeria
  • 2:30 pm Katarzyna Ruchel-Stockmans (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)
    Uneasy laughter. Photography and Humor in Poland
  • 3:00 pm David Helbich (based in Brussels)
    Being Part of the Problem is the Solution. Sharing and Conceptual Art. On “Belgian Solutions” and “Trying to Look Like a Building”
  • 3:30 pm Kevin Atherton (based in Dublin; National College of Art and Design, Dublin)
    Performing the Performance Documentation
    Moderator: Els Opsomer
  • 4:00 pm Mieke Bleyen (KU Leuven) & Liesbeth Decan (LUCA School of Arts)
    Closing remarks
  • 4:15 pm Reception

The conference ‘Photography Performing Humor’ is organized by LUCA School of Arts in collaboration with KU Leuven, Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography, Lieven Gevaert Leerstoel vzw, and Het Vlaams-Nederlands Huis deBuren.

Generously supported by OPAK Research Fund (LUCA School of Arts) and Lieven Gevaert Leerstoel vzw.