May ‘68 made it as far as the Centre for Fine Arts. On the evening of 28 May 1968, artists and writers gathered in a Brussels café. They all wanted to mark the event with an immediate collective action... And what an action it was!
They decided to occupy the Centre for Fine Arts that very evening. What did they want and what remains half a century on?
That evening, in the Brussels café, no one really had a proper plan. The Flemish in the assembly knew that a cultural festival called “De Nederlandse Dagen” was due to take place at the Centre for Fine Arts. The poet Marcel van Maele was due to perform in Clito, ‘mobile plastic work’ by the conceptual artist Roland van den Berghe. The artists and writers in the café knew that the Centre for Fine Arts was known for being progressive. For the occasion, the central hall had been laid out as an informal meeting place and this was to be the spot that would be taken over by the occupants. It was the perfect place for a cultural gathering. Cardboard seats were put in place, as was a stage, a newspaper mural and a mimeo. With the aid of some scaffolding, a building company put up a stage there where the staircase leads up to the exhibition space. This was where the occupants placed three banners that evening: “No to class culture” (in French and Dutch) and “Protest against the cultural policy of our country”.
On the first day, a press release was published. It contained four main points:
- Solidarity with the students, teachers, researchers, workers and employees of the free assembly of the ULB
- Total challenge to the cultural system in place and of its dissemination
- Permanent occupation of the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels
- The free assembly is aware that a cultural protest will end as a protest against all of society.
There were two other banners at the entrance: POPULAR ASSEMBLY – OCCUPATION – EVERYONE WELCOME. Until that point everything was going to plan...
The cultural system
The first morning of the occupation, Marcel Broodthaers put himself forward as president of this “free assembly” and as mediator with the director and president of the Centre for Fine Arts. As a result he could often be seen in the press. It was a kind of verbal boxing match. Marcel Broodthaers wasn’t putting the Centre for Fine Arts on trial, but made a plea for a higher level arts education and for a museum of modern art in Brussels. After eight years, no decision had yet been taken concerning the site for this museum. This finally happened sixteen (!) years later. In 2012, the collection of modern and contemporary art arrived in the storeroom, awaiting to be moved elsewhere. And that’s where we find ourselves today... At present, the Region of Brussels Capital does indeed have a project: the Kanal museum, housed in a Citroën garage dating back to the 1930s, in collaboration with the Pompidou Centre.
Today, Belgian cultural policy evolves in a very different federal context. Following six state reforms, Belgium has no less than eight (!) ministers in charge of culture. Add to that the European character of our capital and its highly cosmopolitan population. In short, artists who want to oppose today’s cultural system are better advised to put their energy into something else...
Radical action or open dialogue? The artists began to speak and continued to do so. The artists and the management of the Centre for Fine Arts had found some common ground. Paul Willems had just been appointed Director General of the establishment. He was a writer and hoped, with his colleagues in charge of the programmes, to bring a breath of fresh air to the Centre for Fine Arts. Henceforth the occupation was a sort of “tolerated gathering”. The artistic interventions in the hall and its surroundings were planned by the Kunst- en Cultuurverbond, the institution behind the “De Nederlandse Dagen” festival. It was the perfect test for the planned renovation of the activity hall. During BOZAR Occupied, an exhibition in the Board Room (the space adjacent to the hall) shows how the occupation and De Nederlandse Dagen formed the blueprint for the renovation and transformation of the central hall into “a centre for information, reflection and cultural action”. These words are the precise conclusion of this occupation (press release of 15 September 1968, the date upon which the final occupants left the Centre for Fine Arts).
The final event of 8 June 1968 involved an incredible collaboration between the occupants and the Centre for Fine Arts. A naked woman appeared on stage and two men dropped their trousers! Hugo Claus had been involved in putting this show together, encouraging the use of nudity as a weapon against terror and fascism. This story of nudity found its way to the agenda of the Brussels council meeting the following Monday. Shouldn’t they make a provision for a judicial procedure because a writer (Hugo Claus, in other words) had already been sentenced for similar behaviour? The press was spellbound. Claus had indeed just been sentenced for indecent exposure. During the EXPRMNTL festival in Knokke, dedicated to experimental film and art, he had used three naked men to depict the Holy Trinity. He was sentenced on 5 June, the same day as the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, which meant it didn’t get much press coverage. The photos of the show involving the naked actors were indeed published, even in the weekly Kwik.
Between the establishment and the new
In the end, Marcel Broodthaers made a public withdrawal: “I’m retracting my personal opinion. I am afraid of the anonymous”, he wrote in an open letter on 7 June. The occupation would be the direct source of inspiration for his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section XIXe Siècle.
Do artists speak in the first person singular today? Or do they speak together by using “us”? Artists’ collectives are more numerous than ever before and a whole host of well-established artists speak out to defend the state. They don’t do it against cultural centres, but with them. Here it is not a matter of recuperation, but of dissemination and visibility. Wolfgang Tillmans ran a campaign in favour of Europe during the polls on Brexit. His posters will be exhibited during the Summer of Photography, as part of Resist! The 1960s Protests, Photography and Visual Legacy. Tillmans and Luc Tuymans also got involved in the culturalworkersforeurope.eu campaign. They didn’t do it for themselves, but they made their contribution to guarantee a more open environment, because culture and dictatorship are not good bedfellows. The artists enter into an often painful dialogue with the political decision-makers and the market operators.
BOZAR provides the opportunity for such a dialogue. In agreement with artists and numerous organisations we are happy to let you ‘occupy’ us. The BOZAR Occupied. 50 Years of Cultural Protest programme will continue this summer with Resist! and the exhibition Somewhere in Between. Contemporary Art Scenes in Europe. It is a collective project which brings together the contributions of 25 commissioners, the work of 74 artists and a network of 31 cities in 20 countries. Three Brussels art establishments (Établissement d’en face, Komplot and La Loge), the “Curatorial Studies” students of the KASK and the young people of the Next Generation, Please! project also got involved.
Since May ‘68, art schools have more than made up for lost time. The sector is thriving in Brussels and Europe, between what is established and what is new; just what Marcel Broodthaers wanted.
Kurt De Boodt
A detailed account of the occupation of the Centre for Fine Arts is included in the catalogue which accompanies Resist! The 1960s Protests, Photography and Visual Legacy, BOZAR BOOKS & Lannoo, 2018