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Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & the Territory

I picked up Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map & the Territory, in part, because the front cover blurb said it was “a serious reflection on art, death, and contemporary society,” and I was curious to see how a writer of Houellebecq’s stature and reputation would deal with contemporary art. The Map & the Territory is the life story of Jed Martin, a fictional artist who develops a very quirky artistic career. His first important body of work, the portfolio that he used to gain admission to the prestigious Beaux-Arts de Paris, was titled “Three Hundred Photos of Hardware” and consisted of nuts, bolts, and other pieces of precision engineered metalwork that he had photographed in a “neutral lighting, with few contrasts” in order to take away “the menacing nature of the forms.” Once admitted to the school, he began his “grandiose and maniacal” project of “the systematic photography of the world’s manufactured objects. . . suspension files, handguns, printer cartridges, forks.” His goal was nothing less than to create “an exhaustive catalogue of the objects of human manufacturing in the Industrial Age.” Jed’s simple argument for his work was that “the history of mankind could in large part be linked to the history of the use of metals.” Some art historians agreed and saw this early work as a “homage to human labor.”

Jed’s next important body of work came about as a result of a road trip with his father. The two stopped at a service station and Jed purchased a Michelin Departments road map.

It was then, unfolding the map, while standing by the cellophane-wrapped sandwiches, that he had his second great aesthetic revelation. This map was sublime. Overcome, he began to tremble in front of the food display. Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning, as this 1/150,000-scale Michelin map of the Creuse and the Haute-Vienne. The essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world, was here combined with the essence of animal life. The drawing was complex and beautiful, absolutely clear, using only a small palette of colors. But in each of the hamlets and villages, represented according to their importance, you felt the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls—some destined for damnation, others for eternal life.

Eventually, Jed turned his interest from the products of modern technology to the leaders of various industries, including the arts (which Jed clearly thinks of as an industry of sorts), making a series of large painted portraits such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, which depicted the two tech giants playing chess in Jobs’ living room.

In keeping with the industrial and corporate subject matter of Jed’s artworks, much of the writing in The Map & the Territory is very factual, resonant of a corporate report. Its pages are littered with the product names for everything from camera equipment to fashion items to automobiles to Jed’s artistic supplies, as well as the the names of the books and magazines on people’s tables and bookcases. But that’s not to say that the book is dry to read. Houellebecq’s otherwise omniscient, disembodied narrator gets gossipy and even a wee bit snide when dealing with the people in Jed’s life, becoming something of a social critic at all of the pretense Jed encounters in the art world. The narrator is quick to latch on to all of the clichés and code words drifting in the conversational ether. Here’s how the narrator describes why the architects at Jed’s father’s firm felt that they needed a new location for their headquarters (the italics are Houellebecq’s): “They had felt the necessity of going upmarket, and the headquarters now had to be in a townhouse, preferably in a cobbled square, or at least in an avenue lined with trees.”

Houellebecq’s narrator sees contemporary art—artists, curators, gallerists, publishers, collectors—as nothing but a vast market system, seemingly severed from any kind of aesthetics or non-monetary value. But Jed remains a bit of a naïf. With a big exhibition and catalog on the horizon, he can’t even manage to theorize about his work and has to turn to a writer to do this for him. In a move that is ripe with irony, Jed commissions a writer named Michel Houellebecq to write the this catalog essay for him. Houellebecq seems to have way too much fun satirizing himself. His character is lazy. He hasn’t managed to unpack, despite living in his new house for three years. He spends most of his time in bed, “watching cartoons on Fox TV” in his pajamas, depressed, drunk, and suffering from athlete’s foot.

His essay is late, of course, forcing Jed to delay his exhibition, but when the it arrives it “asserts for the first time the unity of the artist’s work.” Houellebecq declares that Jed’s subject has always been commerce, “hunting for the essence of the world’s manufactured products,” and he confirms that Jed’s work operates in a neutral and detached manner, without any political or social comment.

As payment for his promised essay, Houellebecq agrees to have Jed paint his portrait.

Houellebecq is standing in front of a desk covered with written or half-written pages. . . Captured at the moment of noticing a mistake on one of the pages on the desk in front of him, the author appears in a trance, possessed by a fury that some have not hesitated to describe as demonic; his hand holding the pen, treated with a certain blurring movement, throws itself on the page “with the speed of a cobra stretching to strike its prey” . . . The expression in the eyes appeared at the time so strange that it could not, in the critics’ view, be compared to any existing pictorial tradition, but had rather to be compared to certain archival ethnological images taken during voodoo ceremonies.

But then, after his exhibition, in mid-career, Jed suddenly becomes a hermit and makes no more art for many years. Decades fly by before he slowly gets back to work, secretly making short videos of nature near his rural French hideaway. Then he makes portraits of all his friends who are still alive before putting his final work together. Without any further explanation, Jed’s artwork takes an unpredictable turn.

The portraits of human beings who had accompanied Jed Martin through his earthly life fell apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming in the last videos to make themselves symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species. They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants. Then everything becomes calm. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The triumph of vegetation is total.

As Jed Martin dies, his final artwork signals the end of the Industrial Age. Houellebecq clearly knows his way around the art scene. The Map & the Territory is a cynical but relatively accurate portrayal of the contemporary art ecosystem (at least as it was a decade ago when the book was published), although I have yet to know any artists who managed to remain as unscathed by the tenacious claws of the art market as Jed Martin. The novel is generally very engaging to read, but it’s too comfortable in its own skin to stretch the novel’s form in any new way.

Jed’s hyper-methodical art practice and his interest in the aesthetic qualities of Industrial Age products will remind some readers of the photography of Bernd & Hill Becher, the German husband and wife team who rigorously photographed the industrial architecture of the twentieth century during the years of its growing obsolescence. A retrospective of their work is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until November 15, 2022.

Bernd & Hill Becher, Fördertürme, 1965–1996. ©ESTATE OF BERND AND HILLA BECHER

Michel Houellebecq. The Map & the Territory. NY: Random House, 2011. Translated by Gavin Bowd from the 2010 French original.

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