Emilie Renard’s L’Arcadie: ailleurs et autrefois, ici et maintenant et l’année prochaine is a project—built around a central text expounding her approach—that comparatively analyses numerous writings, pictures, and documents related to the notion of Arcadia. Study of the myth of Arcadia allows her to shed light on its multiple appearances in contemporary art, articulating notions of counter-culture, of collectivity, of community, and of an unknown or idealized “elsewhere.” Renard’s tentacular critical approach stems from research that attempts to explore what might now constitute a major artistic shift. It also includes an original method of categorization, organized into four main groups divided into subgroups, themselves composed of various elements. This collage-type method triggers startling ramifications, not unlike one of the explicit sources of the author’s technique, namely Dan Graham’s interpretative approach. Indeed, Graham’s text ARCADIA , translated into French and placed in perspective by Renard, occupies a specific place in the project.
Renard is an art critic and curator who lives and works in Paris.
This essay on the myth of Arcadia aims to describe its various resurgences in contemporary art, articulating artistic stances from different imaginative spheres of myth, which often yield a unique artistic situation: an out-of-frame art, a site of a potential counter-culture (incarnated, for example, by the pose of the teenager as a figure of spontaneity), of a collective approach that reflects a logic of decentralization, or of an idealized “elsewhere” elaborated through the exploration of inaccessible sites. In other words, it describes how this segment of the unknown can be the source of an artistic shift. Arcadia reflects an investment—by the society that conceives it—of the myths associated with it, such as the myth of community, of a blank slate, a new world, primitive nature. As it shifts, the Arcadian myth acts simultaneously as a deforming mirror of the utopias specific to the periods it traverses, and as a site where the desires of its commentators are projected. It thereby manifests a society’s ability to conceive the Other, to attempt the experiment of heterotopia or heterodoxy, to project itself into a collective paradise, to leap into a kind of blissful otherness. Thus current manifestations of Arcadia describe, in their turn, the period that perpetuates the myth: strong examples testify to the optimism of the society that conceives them, whereas weak ones indicate pessimism. Conceptualizing Arcadia today therefore means seeking the subtle elements underlying this re-enchantment of the world. Establishing the manifestations of Arcadia today entails not so much the question of the place it occupies today, nor its localization in a polarized discourse (shot/counter-shot), so much as establishing a duration, a period, a rhythm, and an intensity. Given the dispersion of resurgences of the myth, Arcadia could be defined according to systems of collective, ephemeral intensities.
This paper for ROSA B, based on and inspired by a 1989 text by Dan Graham, Arcadia , represents the first stage of my research, an initial exploration of the field. It develops lines found in Graham’s text, providing partial insight into Graham’s cultural references as well as my own extrapolations. It is a decomposition that takes the form of a commentary on another text, to be read as an unfolding series of associations, rather than as a linear argument.
A detour via Roland Barthes allows me to define my horizontal approach to the myth of Arcadia, which makes no distinction between stereotypical manifestations and unique ones, all of them being so many idiolects that contribute to an Identikit picture of the current state of Arcadia.
In “Le mythe aujourd’hui,” Roland Barthes described myth as simultaneously “speech” and “form,” a “message” and a “shaping of ideas” that is “open to appropriation by society.”  In 1956, Barthes denounced the deceptive effects of myth on cultural phenomena by making them seem “natural”: “In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the obvious, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.”  In reaction to this “obviousness,” Barthes held up the “mythical inversion” and deciphered its ideological foundations. He undermined what seemed to “go without saying,” he attacked “common beliefs” that sheltered behind myth. The semiologist’s task then involved deconstructing the alienating ideology of myth by incorporating it into the order of his analytical language.
Fifteen years later, in 1971, Barthes returned to the functions of myth in an article titled “La mythologie aujourd’hui.”  “Mythology Today” echoed the 1956 “Myth Today,” yet Barthes placed more stress on the study of myth—mythology—viewed as a teenager by its “father,” or more exactly by the theorist of a field of study which he already knew to be outmoded and which he wanted to revamp. In this article, Barthes noted the impasses encountered by a mythology that, in the demystifying days since May 1968, had “become mythical, in a way: there is no college student who fails to denounce the bourgeois or petty-bourgeois nature of various forms of life, thought, consumption, etc.; in other words, a mythological endoxa has been created.  Denunciation—demystification (or demythification)—has itself become discourse, a corpus of phrases, a catechistic utterance, in the face of which the science of the signifier can only move on, to halt (temporarily) somewhere further along… It is no longer the myths that have to be unmasked ( endoxa will take care of that), it is the sign that must be shaken: not in order to reveal the (latent) meaning of an utterance, a quip, a tale, but to fissure the very representation of meaning; not to change or purify symbols, but to contest the symbolic itself… Today the task faced by [semiology] is largely of the syntactic order (which articulations, which shifts, compose the mythical fabric of a high-consumption society?).” Given the complexity of the world and the languages that traverse it “through and through”—since “signs… quote one another infinitely”—Barthes proposed that the “critical decipherment” of early semiology be replaced by an “evaluation” of languages, of “degrees of phraseological density.” Thus he extended the field of action of semiology, which no longer sought “the destruction of the (ideological) signified,” but “aim[ed] to destroy the sign” by evaluating registers of language, associations of ideas, articulations of discourse. Indeed, myth, once reduced to its stereotype, is so over-signified, pregnant, and constant that it becomes a sign itself, that is to say an inextricable synthesis of a raw meaning (signifier) and over-interpretation (signified). Faced with this complexity, deconstructing myth means destroying it, whereas following the associations, links and connections to different levels of expression means detailing it, grasping it in the diversity of its expression. Thus, at the same time that semiology’s object of study extends to the structure of language, its field of investigation goes beyond the boundaries of “the (petty) French society” typical of the late ‘50s Mythologies, encompassing all of Western civilization (Greco-Judeo–Islamo–Christian), unified by the same theology (essence, monotheism) and identified by the system of meaning practiced by semiology, from Plato to the Sunday newspapers.”
The difficulty in describing a myth—other than in a highly approximate way, with no sense of déjà vu—stems from its initial “obviousness.” Arcadia is an ancient myth that has survived in collective representations the way folklore can do—it brings with it a standard set picturesque, clichéd images and captions. Here the stereotype is grossly repeated, because Arcadia has distanced itself from the variations found in the tales of Greco-Roman literature in order to establish a fixed image of itself: a setting of rustic scenes and sundry bucolic landscapes that, if inhabited, are peopled with scantily clad men and women, implicitly happy, living in “primitive” and spiritual harmony with nature.
Let us recall the facts: Arcadia, when first mentioned, was the childhood home of Polybius the historian, who described it factually and non-nostalgically during his exile in Rome. For Polybius, Arcadia was a lost land, simply described. For Virgil and Ovid, contemporaries of the Roman Empire, it represented a distant world, out of reach, beyond the empire’s strategic zones of control. It was a land of plenty where gods, men, women, and beasts shared the same felicitous life. No ethics could be applied to this part of ancient, pantheistic Greece, full of singular individuals and bold, and capricious gods, because it was literally “anarchic,” that is to say, an unorganized world bound by no rule or predetermined order. Whereas morals and ethics were a major concern of Greek philosophy, Arcadia flaunted, right from its poetic start, its divergence from the rational foundations of Western civilization. The Arcadian myth that emerged precisely in the midst of the “Western civilization” discussed by Barthes can thus be differentiated from that civilization, whose facts and content it contradicts. Arcadia is inhabited by foolish, isolated, unique individuals ranging from the insatiable god Pan to Jackass, indefatigable teenagers who wander through the unstable realm of an ever-commencing adolescence.
Concrete manifestations of Arcadia—those unique, out-of-frame phenomena—must escape any definition that tries to pin them down. Seen close up, Arcadia denies any panoramic view, waylaying the observer in the meanders of detail; its totality remains ungraspable. That is why it must be approached through snatches and idiolects that describe or escape from it. An idiolect is the particular language of an individual—his or her verbal habits—but Barthes extended it to a community, describing it as “the language of a linguistic community, that is to say a group of people interpreting all linguistic utterances in the same way.”  In “La mythologie aujourd’hui,” Barthes also discussed idiolect in terms of stereotypes: “Languages are more or less thick; the more social, more mythical of them display an unshakeable homogeneity, a weave of habits, repetitions, stereotypes… and key words, each constituting an idiolect.” Starting with a list of the idiolects that speak to Arcadia, we would be able acquire the language of Arcadia and begin to speak it.
By considering this myth as an autonomous phenomenon, as a cultural, historical, and contextual fact, as a complex, evolving object rather than a distorting filter or misleading image, I would like to propose a lineage reaching from the “primal” myth down to its metamorphoses in today’s culture. The field of expression of this myth is broad, covering not only unique manifestations and works of art, literature, and film, but also opinions, stereotypes, and experiences—an inevitably partial typology of which I have dried to establish here. The list of the metamorphoses of Arcadia is long, extending into the present, wandering down paths that fork, drawing a map of multiple territories to explore. For me, the question is not so much demystifying (or mystifying) Arcadia as observing its resurgences and the secondary effects that survive today. That is why I am keen to erect a scaffolding of Arcadia’s articulations while simultaneously tracing the digressions it takes on contact with current contexts, following the numerous myths with which it has been linked since it resurfaced in contemporary Western culture—and art in particular—as a series of exotic zones. This entails following the articulations and connections of a word by following a network of parallel meanings, as permitted by hypertextual links similar to the links criss-crossing the mythical landscape of Arcadia; hence this study proposes variations in which several relationships are possible between one block and another, one register and another. Even before undertaking a synthesis, before making choices, in this first state of research I am laying down the map of a territory to be explored, without destination or destiny.
When myth engenders myth, it is truly alive—thus, the more Arcadia generates links, connections, input and output, the more its image will become clear and enriched. In launching into my description of Arcadia, I therefore find myself in the same predicament as Edgar Allan Poe when he described the Domain of Arnheim: “I despair of conveying to the reader any distinct conception of the marvels which my friend did actually accomplish. I wish to describe, but am disheartened by the difficulty of description, and hesitate between detail and generality. Perhaps the better course will be to unite the two in their extremes.” Since the myth of Arcadia is itself exogenous in nature, branching out and entwining with other myths—wild nature, raw art, adolescent sensibility—it is a question of describing instances of exoticism that resist all depiction, while in Arcadia itself not many souvenir shops are still open for business.
1. Roland Barthes, “Le mythe aujourd’hui,” Mythologies (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1970 ).
2. Barthes, “Le mythe aujourd’hui,” p. 231.
3. Roland Barthes, “La mythologie aujourd’hui ”, Le bruissement de la langue (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984), pp. 81–85.
4. Barthes defined endoxa as “the secular figure of the Origin,” which he linked to Common Sense and The Norm.
5. Roland Barthes, “Éléments de sémiologie,” Communications 4, (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1964).