• Document: From: Part Object Part Sculpture Helen Molesworth, et al Wexner Center for the Arts and The Pennsylvania State University Press Marcel Broodthaers Fémur de la femme française, 1965 Laughte...
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From: Part Object Part Sculpture Helen Molesworth, et al. 2005 Wexner Center for the Arts and The Pennsylvania State University Press Marcel Broodthaers Fémur de la femme française, 1965 Laughter RACHEL HAIDU In 1965 Marcel Broodthaers acquired a femur, painted it with the colors of the Belgian flag, and entitled it Fémur d’homme belge for the purpose of artistic ex- hibition. In all its colorful ghoulishness, the object seems to set up Belgian iden- tity as the target of a visual joke: the nation-state as skeleton, or perhaps a Bel- gian-style bone to be given to a dog. Or perhaps the target of the joke is not Bel- gium itself but something like belgitude, the recently-coined term designating “a sense of belonging to a no man’s land, a country in the void that can only get out by privileging the imaginary”1 Even if the term is new, it reflects an old under- standing of the vacuum known as Belgian identity: as Charles Baudelaire wrote in the mid-1860s (thirty years after the state’s founding): “There is no Belgian people, properly speaking”—but also, “A Belgian is his own hell.”2 It follows from such characterizations that the symbolic manifestation of a hollowed-out national identity—an identity in search of an entity—would be only as “real” as it is “over,” and only as iconic as it is pathetic. Broodthaers’s Fémur is deeply engaged with the legacy of Magritte. It trans- forms a unique “relic” with an infinitely transferable and recognizable sign—a flag. What is more, the marriage of the somatic and the readymade happens in- stantaneously: the object is just paint on bone; it is quick, resisting deep contem- plation or extended viewing. There are fertile painterly enterprises like Jasper Johns’s Flag paintings, which convert the iconic flatness of the Stars and Stripes into depth and complexity; and then there is the Fémur. Taking the strongest bone in the human skeleton and draping it in unmixed, straight-from-the-can col- 1 Jean-Pierre Stroobants “La Belgique genie du rêve et de la derision,” Le Monde, March 7, 2005. 2 Charles Baudelaire “Divertisstments Belges,” in Fusées. Mon cœur mis à nu. La Belgique déshabillée, ed. André Guyaux (Paris: Gallimard, 1975-86) 234, 278. ors, Broodthaers arrests any sense of the potential infinity of artistic signification with a kind of flat “that’s all, folks” But why? Doesn’t Belgium merit the kind of rich painterly endeavor that Johns’s United States did ten years before? Is that the question here? In 1965 Broodthaers’s tricolor signified a state that had just lost its claims to empire. But Belgium’s claims to nationhood have always been peculiarly contingent, having been first drawn up by international treaty, then legitimated only as a seat of po- litical “neutrality” in an eternally divided Europe. Always rooted in an adminis- trative definition of statehood, always outside anything like even a fantasy of lin- guistic or cultural unity or coherence, Belgium’s claims to nation-state identity can appear as a kind of joke. But the operation of the one-liner that Broodthaers exploits with the Fémur does more than merely tease or mock: it suggests, rather, that his national identity is one that cannot be said “straight.” For what the joke- form articulates is that what it wants to say is actually unsayable—that for which jokes provide the necessary cover. What remains unclear is whether the problematic nature of national identity as it is revealed in Broodthaers’s work is peculiar to certain European states in the 1960s or whether it describes a more general condition for the expressibility of national identity in the postwar period. Since the publication of Benedict An- derson’s Imagined Communities in 1983, it has become almost a truism to refer to nationality as a site of “imagined community” Anderson defines such a com- munity as one that is not so much phantasmagorical or nonexistent as one that is consolidated through the disseminating, civilizing factors of print culture, ver- nacular languages-of-state, and correlative shifts in conceptions of time.3 And, as the writing of James Joyce or John Dos Passos suggests, modernist literary form eventually constructs an audience that admits to the boundaries, dialects, and conventions of “imagined communities” as one of its founding conditions. In other

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