‘Any serious fundamental change in the intellectual outlook of human society must necessarily be followed by an educational revolution.’
Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and other Essays (1932).
Education is, by definition, a future-oriented activity. Students learn to prepare themselves for the things to come. Teachers teach to help their students and contribute to tomorrow’s society. Whether one thinks that requires deep knowledge of traditions that give you a solid footing, or whether the future is seen as fundamentally incomparable to today’s society is immaterial: education deals with the future.
One thing we can say about the future, is that we will be facing the greatest challenges humanity has ever encountered. The fact that even on the highest political level, governments have agreed that by 2030 all nations must have achieved the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is a clear indication of the urgency expressed by the SDGs. These challenges, which range from poverty to pollution and from gender equality to clean energy, are the result of what up until recently was referred to as ‘progress’: economic growth, capitalism, meritocracy, etc. The SDGs are more than a document with signatures from presidents and prime ministers. They reflect what is happening in the real world. They confront us with the fact that we have a world to answer to. Education can no longer be about us; it must be about the world.
Education has a central role in preparing pupils and students for the challenges they will face in their futures. Educational systems, however, are modelled on the logic of nineteenth-century western industry. In other words: the current educational system is part of the cause, rather than the solution of sustainable development. Research has indeed pointed out that several attempts at integrating sustainable development in (higher) education can actually be counter-productive when it fails to address the entangled nature of the goals (Salīte et al. 2021).
In my Comenius Leadership project we will be working on Higher Education for Sustainability. We will develop teaching materials that address the complexity of sustainable development and that can be integrated in all of our bachelor’s programmes. We will be looking at the SDGs as a typical form of a ‘wicked problem’, i.e., a problem that defies immediate solutions, or even clear understanding. Interestingly, wicked problems are at the heart of the way art schools are working. Rather than the traditional academic, neo-positivist approach in other universities, art schools train their students in lateral and divergent thinking, in reading against the grain.
That means that we cannot ‘solve’ the SDGs by adding a course in, say, climate science, to every programme. On the contrary, education for sustainable development must help students understand how they, as students of psychology, history, politics, culture, or modern languages, can contribute to the wicked problems they will all be facing in their futures. Higher Education for Sustainability therefore helps students to do what artists have been doing for a long time: think creatively, come up with impossible solutions, dare to make mistakes, and to see the whole in a detail. The future starts in the classroom.
Beloved author J.K. Rowling, ‘cancelled’ because of her allegedly transphobic opinions. Classic Hollywood films, from Disney’s Dumbo to the epic Gone with the wind, ‘cancelled’ due to outdated racist stereotypes (on the latter: see our research project, in which you can participate). An increasing number of artists from whichever field, ‘cancelled’ after #MeToo. In the last five to ten years, a large number of artists have been criticised heavily for ethical rather than aesthetic reasons, be it about the artwork itself or about the behaviour or opinions of the artist; about the past (seen in a new light) or the present.
Strong ethical protest against art from a more conservative side – sacrilegious!, moral degradation! – has been widespread since decades if not centuries. But since recently the art world must deal with ever more critique from progressive circles, often from within the art world itself. This type of critique is by no means new , but its impact has grown to an immense scale thanks to social media, which can give space to worldwide calls for boycotts in only a few hours’ time. Besides, for artists who call themselves progressive, it was much easier to ignore conservative critics than it is to dismiss allegations of racism or sexism.
Let’s look at a recent example of ‘cancel culture’ in the Netherlands that has been heavily debated. In September 2020, photography biennial BredaPhoto opened an artwork by Erik Kessels in a local skate park, called ‘Destroy My Face’, consisting of dozens of computer generated pictures of women’s faces that were ‘deformed’ by an overdose of plastic surgery. Skaters were invited to ride over these pictures, in order to gradually erase them, and hence, destroy the destruction. The day after the opening, an initially anonymous collective of art and design students in the Netherlands, @WeAreNotAPlayground, started a petition against this ‘misogynist’ artwork, that invites violence against women. This petition gained a global following, not only in the art world, but also in girls’ skating communities. Within a week, the artwork was removed (by the skate park, not by BredaPhoto).
Debates erupted about the freedom of art under threat by ‘cancel culture’ gone too far. But did it? In this essay I will weigh the arguments pro and contra removal.
Let us first look at the artwork itself. One cannot ‘objectively’ judge it on aesthetic grounds, but I can imagine it is an interesting endeavour to create an installation that is supposed to be destroyed by its spectators – or perhaps: that is partially created bythe spectators. One might call it an interactive piece of performance art of which only images and videos were supposed to remain. It reminds me of ‘Hungry Artist’ (David Datuna eating Cattelan’s taped banana as an artwork in itself), or Rauschenberg erasing a De Kooning drawing, but this time it’s the audience doing the deleting (although there are undoubtedly more examples). What makes it even more worthwhile from this perspective is its placement outside museum walls: BredaPhoto makes art accessible to a young audience that usually would not be highly interested in art. They can even participate in its creation (or destruction), by doing what they like most: skating! Finally, this case is not a simple clash between aesthetic and ethical judgements (original and interactive versus sexist and violent), as Kessels has a moral message himself. He wants to attack excesses in plastic surgery and Instagram fakeness and to propagate a more authentic vision of beauty instead, which is in line with recent counter narratives on body positivity, widespread on social media.
Of course, one can debate whether the destruction of destruction leads to restoration and beauty (what Kessels apparently intended) or to the deletion of faces whatsoever (which would have factually been the result – but maybe this is the “irony” that I’m missing). But one way or the other, that women can feel ‘objectified and targeted’, as the petition goes, when people are skating over women’s (albeit fictitious) faces, makes sense. That this artwork does not fit ‘within today’s climate of sexist behaviour and violence against women’ is therefore a logical deduction. Moreover, it is not far-fetched to point at the potential ‘very real and harmful effects’, when one considers the placement in a skate park, with its predominantly masculine culture. When the skating boys are supposed to be co-creators of the artwork, the flipside is that they are also made accomplices in the symbolic violence against women. It is no wonder that the petition was also signed by many members of the underrepresented female skating community. What might be considered a very inclusive step from the point of view of age (getting young people acquainted with art), turns out to be highly exclusive in terms of gender.
These arguments are in line with other moral debates on art: the artwork is derogatory to members of a certain group in society, who therefore do not feel included, and it can have actual effects in real life because a dominant discourse is reaffirmed. Furthermore, inclusion on an institutional level is discussed, as the writers of the petition blame ‘the rampant sexism, racism and other biases that are still so ingrained within our cultural institutions’.
Strikingly, the defence mechanism by the artist, the festival and others follows a familiar discourse as well. It is rooted in the modernist ethos that emerged in the nineteenth century and reached its height in the early twentieth century, when moral art critique predominantly came from conservative actors. The only common theme in this discourse that I did not encounter in this specific case, is the aesthetic prevalence over ethical issues, perhaps except for Volkskrant columnist Mark Moorman’s vague nod to the ‘quality’ of the work being made irrelevant.
Second, art is supposed to provoke, to shake up society and to entice a debate. Art history knows a multitude of morally ambiguous works that have enraged certain social groups, like the bourgeoisie or the clergy, or that confronted the audience with social problems. This is the main line of defence by Fleur van Muiswinkel, the director of BredaPhoto: ‘We precisely want the images to induce reflection. (…) The resulting discussioncontributes to solving social wrongs.’
Third, art knows no fixed or intended interpretation, to which the artist can be held accountable. Everyone can decide for themselves what to make of it; the author is dead, as Barthes claimed. Erik Kessels himself says that his work is supposed to raise questions: ‘Which ones? That’s up to anyone. I don’t judge, I only bring a certain issue under attention.’ This implies that the critics’ interpretation is not the only possible one, as Tinkebell stresses: ‘They think they own the truth, it’s really shocking!’ Funnily enough, at other instances, Kessels seems to imply that there isone true interpretation, but that his critics just didn’t get it. He refers several times to ‘irony’, and he wonderswhether the critics really ‘dived into the background of the piece’ or whether they ‘kept a critical distance’ before signing the petition.
Indeed, followers of such movements often take extreme positions in social media storms, particularly when they actually ‘cancel’ the artist in question. Erik Kessels was spit out like a wicked human being, and he was asked to resign from an international photography jury. But can this be said of the initiators of the protest? Their petition is not a quick statement full of unsubstantiated allegations, personal attacks and unreasonable demands by philistines who know nothing about art, but rather an eloquent pamphlet by young upcoming artists, who give a substantial institutional critique and who propose three ‘suggestions’, including – indeed – removing the artwork. Admittedly, the word ‘suggestions’ is probably a typically Anglo-Saxon euphemism for ‘demands’, and their refusal to participate (‘unpaid’) in debates before their suggestions have been followed is not common practice in consensus-based Netherlands. But their Instagram account has since been filled with creatively designed statements and with video interviews on the need for inclusiveness in the art world.
Moreover, they use a serious counter-narrative to the Modernist paradigm on which Kessels and his defenders build their argumentation. On the autonomy of art, they argue that artists and art institutions should take their social responsibility ‘rather than see yourselves as something that is “outside of society”’, as the petition goes. Indeed, one can wonder why there is one domain in society where social sensitivities have no value – it was nice that artists could protect themselves from religious dogma and commercial goals, but it is hard to hold ground in debates on sexism and racism. Second, the petitioners counter the argument that art should entice a debate, by stating that ‘there are more than enough ways to create meaningful and empathic discourse around controversial topics’ than by means of discrimination. Skater Van Rijssel adds that inviting skaters to ride over the faces is not exactly enticing a dialogue. Let’s face it, many contemporary young artists are highly socially engaged in their work themselves. Finally, they give the responsibility for diverging interpretations back to the artist who wanted to get rid of it: ‘Your work has an impact, which can be reviewed separate from your intentions’, one of their later Instagram posts declares.
Yes, the artwork Destroy My Face was ‘cancelled’, more or less comparable to overreactions that sometimes take place when the hordes on Twitter smell blood on some or other scandal. Part of the global Internet community also unjustly demands the head of Kessels himself, as if he is a born and incurable misogynist with nothing but bad intentions. But this is not the initial activists’ aim at all. Their arguments and fundamental critique on the art world are not simply to be overlooked. They ask for serious change, they deserve to be heard. The future will tell whether actions and arguments like theirs will lead to a paradigm shift, ending the era when art was seen as fully autonomous from the rest of society and when ethical judgements were discharged as invalid art critique.
P.S. BredaPhoto organised a debate on the issue, that took place 20 November and which I watched after having written this piece. It features, among others, the artist himself, the festival director and the female skater who are featured in this piece.
 See for instance the 1960’s critique on the racist tendencies in Mark Twain’s literary classic Huckleberry Finn, as Wayne C. Booth recalled in his 1988 book The company we keep. An ethics of fiction.
photo of Richard Long’s Full Moon Circle, Houghton Hall, 2016
Right now, West Europeans and North Americans have their mobility taken away from them at a scale probably not experienced since World War Two. Travelling to a neighbouring country, commuting to work, going to parties, meeting lovers… for the privileged among them* – for the privileged among us, I should say, these things are usually so self-evident that they receive very little thought (until we fall ill, perhaps).
Now, under the corona-regimes put in place everywhere in the world, ‘even’ we must accept severe limitations, limitations that may be especially hard to adhere to since it is so easy, with all our money, our health, our infrastructures, our passports and our safety, to overstep them. We cannot feel our limitations; we must think them, reason them; convince ourselves that we must stick to our self-imposed rules.
And while we are fighting ourselves, we also fight others: we cast suspicious glances at people walking too closely, people who cough, people without gloves on. These people do not only Spread the Virus and Kill the Elderly, they are also to blame for keeping us imprisoned in our homes for longer than strictly necessary. And finally, what we also feel about them is perhaps best characterised as envy: envy of their obliviousness to this Situation. Envy that they forgot to worry for a moment, and we did not.
This enduring feeling of always watching one’s step, of never letting go and going where one wants, reminded me of a work of art I saw many years ago. It’s by Richard Long, a land artist and performance artist.
I did not actually take a photo of the work of art itself. I just took a photo of the interpretive sign that accompanied it.
Photo by APHG, 2015.
Why did I not take a photo of the artwork itself? Richard Long makes wonderful art. As Wikipedia summarises one of his other artworks, the poetic piece Walking a Circle in Mist resulted in a “circular path approximately 75 feet in diameter”. And, because there is no such thing as coincidence, the “outside of [this] path fades outward creating a
corona-like effect”. You can see it for yourself on Long’s own website.
Wonderful art indeed. But the clue to the real wonder is in the title: ‘Walking a Circle in Mist’. The circle isn’t the art work. The walking is.
This is exactly what the interpretive sign to the work that I saw, many years ago, explained, too: ‘walking as art’; ‘Art about mobility, lightness and freedom.’
I looked up from the sign to see for myself. But the artist’s activity, his interaction with the landscape, in Vermont and New York where he found the slate, and back in the UK where he laid it down, this interaction, which is such an integral part of the work I was supposedly witnessing, was no longer visible.
Yes, its trace was still there: the red slate line which was the result of Long bringing the slate to the UK and positioning it in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield where I saw it. And such traces, too, form part of what Long’s art is about. But I confess I was a little devastated by the interdiction printed at the end of the interpretive sign, an interdiction that forbade all creativity and playfulness:
Strictly no walking on Red Slate Line.
For me, this took away all the fun – while fun, or effort, or suffering, but in any case: doing something(!) is such an integral part of land art and performance art. And with this particular piece of art looking so much like a red-slate version of Dorothy’s yellow-brick road, I could not help but feel invited to walk the Line. Yes, slate is preciously fragile. But isn’t the weathering of land art, and the fragility and unpredictability of performance art, which is created not in the last place by an audience that is allowed to make her body felt, part of the deal?
I was dumbfounded that the makers of the interpretive sign seemed not to have noticed the irony.
And though I, of course, accepted the restrictions that were being placed upon my movements (‘of course’? Well, being a teacher, I try to set a good example. And I was accompanied by someone who is particularly good at helping me stick to this resolution), although I accepted these restrictions, I could not help but think: why does the artist get all the fun, while the audience only gets to look on? Indeed, I felt very similar to how we privileged people sometimes feel in coronaland. And similar perhaps also to how many people must feel all the time.
This tiny restriction (only a thin red line of slate!) that was being placed on my mobility, in an otherwise completely accessible park, and in a pretty free life, sparked some noticeable frustration.
So, what am I trying to say?
Not just that one of the more positive effects of COVID-19 might be to remind the mobile half of the global population that the other half isn’t mobile (and during a pandemic such as this, it’s the already-not-so-mobile who become even less mobile) – in other words, that the virus will hopefully teach me and people like me a moral lesson about inequality.
I am also trying to say that it might give us some time to think about our own mobility. Like Long’s performances, it might inspire us to approach our own walking, or rolling, or cycling, as a work of art. As play. As a privilege, in the better sense of the word. Something to savour. A wonderful capacity that we have. Something to treat with respect and use well.
COVID-19 gives me, at least, time to think how I most want to use my freedom once I regain it.
Last month a major retrospective of the work of the nineteenth-century French painter James Tissot (1836–1902) opened in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. The exhibition will travel to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in the spring of 2020 and will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the French cultural spring season. Working on a brief essay for the exhibition catalogue, I could revisit the work of an artist who has fascinated me for years.
Tissot is the chronicler par excellence of nineteenth-century modern life, but his work is generally allowed into the canon only reluctantly. Contrary to his avant-garde artist friends, Tissot maintained a decidedly academic style throughout his career. As a result, he has often been rejected as an unadventurous and commercial painter. Regardless of Tissot’s style, however (which is brilliant in its own way), his scenes of everyday
bourgeois life are often extremely clever. They excel in subtle psychology,
social satire and a sharp sense of humour.
A point in case is The Gallery of H.M.S. Calcutta. The painting depicts a young naval officer and two women on the stern balcony of a navy training ship, entangled in what appears to be a love triangle. The woman on the right hides her face, and thus her left ear, behind a fan, possibly asking the young man, in Victorian fan language, not to betray her secret. The shadow on the window panes in the back of the painting, in the meantime, suggests the man’s closeness to the other woman. The conspicuous heart shapes discernible in the metal railing fencing off the balcony leave little doubt about what is going on.
James Tissot, 1876, The Gallery of H.M.S. Calcutta
Tissot’s choice to locate his scene on this particular ship, moored in Portsmouth dockyard at the time, and to include the ship’s name in the title, can hardly be accidental. It has been suggested that he used the
name of the ship as a pun, giving an unexpected twist to the meaning of the painting. ‘Calcutta’ would then refer to the French ‘Quel cul t’as’, or ‘what an ass you have’, and would thus direct our attention not so much to the stern of the ship as to that of the woman on the right, whose languid pose and hourglass figure are echoed in the ship’s undulating forms and simultaneously mirrored by the shape of the chairs on the balcony.
The author Henry James called the painting banal and vulgar, but Tissot’s joke seems less rude once we realise that it does not just make fun of the woman but is also made at the expense of the young officer, whose mind we may be reading in the phrase ‘Quel cul t’as’, or even at the expense of
ourselves, who may have been thinking the same thing before suddenly grasping Tissot’s play on words. The joke can also be seen as a satirical comment on the excesses of contemporary fashion, for the woman is probably wearing a dress with a so-called culde Paris, a padded undergarment designed to emphasise the back of the dress (and thus the woman’s backside). Finally, the combination of ‘Quel cul t’as’ with ‘H.M.S.’, or ‘Her Majesty’s Ship’, may even be read as a disrespectful nod to the Queen.
Tissot’s joke, whether we appreciate it or not, comes strikingly close to the pun in Marcel Duchamp’s much more famous L.H.O.O.Q. of 1919. This work is a simple photographic reproduction of the Mona Lisa to which Duchamp added a moustache and five letters. When spelled out in full, in French, the letters read as ‘elle a chaud au cul’ or ‘she has a hot ass’, the underlying suggestion being that this observation may explain the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile.
Marcel Duchamp, 1919, L.H.O.O.Q.
Duchamp’s iconoclast gesture questions the western art historical canon and even the very concept of art in ways that Tissot would never have thought possible – or permissible for that matter – but his pun is crude in comparison with Tissot’s more ambiguous double entendre. There are many ways in which Tissot is the more conservative artist and person of the pair, but his sense of humour seems at least as advanced and sophisticated as Duchamp’s. An unbiased reassessment of his art, made possible by the exhibitions in San Francisco and Paris, seems only fair.
Read more in:
– Nancy Rose Marshall and Malcolm Warner, James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1999.
– Melissa Buron (ed.), James Tissot: Fashion and Faith, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Franscisco and Paris: Musée d’Orsay, Munich: Prestel, 2019.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of spending two days in the city of light. Following professional as well as personal inclinations, I visited three exhibitions, which were strikingly different in size, organization, and
ambition – different to such an extent, indeed, that only the chilly and surly
demeanor of the porters at the entrance reminded me of their shared setting in Paris. In the following remarks, I would like to briefly reflect on these exhibitions so as to ponder the ways in which exhibitions shape our understanding of art, often in paradoxical ways.
The first exhibition was ‘Resolutely Modern’, an absolutely massive
retrospective of the French avant-garde painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of theatres and dancers in Montmartre have become iconic; his turn to posters as a medium for his art was revolutionary. Consider, for instance, La Goulue, a poster that ison display at this exhibition in the various stages of the printing process. The exhibition explores the many intersections between Toulouse-Lautrec’s work and that of his contemporaries. In the very first space, for instance, his work is compared to that of his teacher, Fernand Cormon, a historical painter. Seeing Cormon’s tableaux, the viewer is faced with a view of history that is marked not by the progress of civilization but by barbarity. This notion illuminates the art of Toulouse-Lautrec, in which supposedly civilized life is stripped of its veneer, so as to show the animality that lurks beneath. More recognizable points of reference, such as Degas and van Gogh, are present as well. Like these artists, Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the painters of modern urban life, and its seedy side in particular; his art has been pigeonholed as decadent or, less charitably, degenerate – a view that was reinforced by his physical disability and his bohemian lifestyle (at the exhibition, one learns that Toulouse-Lautrec sometimes stayed in brothels for weeks on end). As such, Toulouse-Lautrec’s work questions the distinction between high art (culture for the elite) and low art (culture for mass-consumption) that was so characteristic of his own time.
On the one hand, his works did not result in financial gain, but were
appreciated an bought by people belonging to his inner circle. On the other
hand, he took ‘vulgar’ culture as his subject, which may lead one to infer that his works were meant as an appeal to popular taste. In other words, Toulouse-Lautrec tried to have his cake and eat it. Yet, in the long run, his approach was successful, as this exhibition shows: a huge portion of his work is now displayed in the Grand Palais, a cultural epicentre, in an exhibition that spans three floors. The exhibition is so vast that as one proceeds, one begins to believe that it will never end. The story that the exhibition tells, then, is different from the effect that it achieves: while the exhibition explores the local and particular qualities of this marginal artist, it at the same time sanctifies this art as being of universal and everlasting value. My own feeling, on leaving the exhibition, was that, perhaps, Toulouse-Lautrec’s work was too popular, too vulgar, and that this
excessive vulgarity (which I here use in the qualitative and not the evaluative sense of the word) was what has made these works so prestigious in the long run.
The second exhibition was suffused with a more intimate atmosphere. I first discovered the wonderful Musée Jacquemart André in 2013, when my interest in Victorian literature led me to the museum’s exhibition of Victorian art, Désirs & volupté à l’époque victorienne. This exhibition showcased works from private collection of Pérez Simón. The exhibition that I saw this year featured works from another private collection, that of Alvaro Saieh and Ana Guzmán, ‘one of the most precious and little-known private collections of Renaissance art in the world’, as the booklet informs us. Unlike the monumental scale of the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the Grand Palais, which mostly consists of works that are in public hands,
and which promises to give the audience an overview, the exhibitions at Musée Jacquemart André appeal to a more select audience, composed of connoisseurs who already have such an overview, and who will be able to appreciate these private collections without the help of a framework. In the case of Désirs & Volupté, I managed to find my way, which was partly due to the fact that as a Victorianist I could place the paintings I saw. In the case of The Alana Collection: Masterpieces of Italian Painting, however, I was lost.
And this was unexpected, for there is a strong synergy between the exhibition and the museum’s permanent collection, which has a focus on medieaval and early modern works of art: an introductory film nicely highlights the many echoes that are thus created. No, I think I felt lost not because of my inability to understand the works in themselves, but because of their presentation. The exhibition’s title already points to nature of the problem: whereas in the case of Désirs & Volupté the name of the
collector was willing to share his collection with the wider public was hidden in the text itself, in the case of The Alana Collection, their names were emphatically present. The exhibition is in many ways a tribute to their willingness to share their works with the wider public. The first room of the exhibition tries to replicate the benefactors’ living room, where their paintings vie for space. While the effort is an interesting one, its purpose is all too obvious, and the result makes it difficult to examine and scrutinize the actual works. Even more, the exhibition even features a rather hastily taken photograph of their living quarters, so that viewers can fully appreciate these works’ contemporary location.
The first room of the exhibition, replicating the benefactors’ living room
The benefactors’ actual living room
As a result, the actual paintings get short shrift, even though these are magnificent. What the visitor remembers is the name of the collectors, but perhaps not in the way that the collectors envisioned. This is not meant as a jibe: without the efforts of private collectors such as Alvaro Saieh and Ana Guzmán, the art world would not be able to function in the way that it does, and it is their good right to ask that their willingness to share their passion with the world be acknowledged and recognized. What I want to highlight is another paradoxical effect: if one so openly asks for recognition, as in the present exhibition, the opposite effect is achieved. To be truly successful, an exhibition should let the collection speak for itself; only thus will the interested viewer fully appreciate the care that the collectors have taken, and be willing to recognize as benefactors, in the full sense of the word. I am aware of the irony that, of course, by addressing this issue, I have paid the collectors the compliment of talking about them rather than their collection.
The third exhibition which I saw replicated a similar dynamic on an international stage. The musée du Luxembourg, which lies adjacent to the French senate, features an exhibition with masterpieces from ‘The golden age of British painting: from Reynolds to Turner’. These works are on loan from Tate Britain. By allowing a select choice of works to travel to the heart of France, British art is given an ambassadorial function. It is paradoxical to encounter these British masterpieces in a French setting, but the effect is salutary one. The curators have created a fine and interesting narrative, one which manages to sustain the viewer’s interest, which is difficult to maintain when one is submerged in the halls of their home, as in the exhibition on Toulouse-Lautrec. As a result, this exhibition sheds some new, fresh light on works that viewers thought they already knew. One particular surprise, for me, was the inclusion of John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822), which is the final painting, to be seen when one leaves the exhibition. I will readily confess that I did not know this work. Martin’s work has only quite recently been revalued: while
his sublime historical tableaux were very popular in the early nineteenth
century, his work was considered too dramatic and excessive for Victorian
tastes. But it was not the innate qualities of this painting that struck me;
nor was I reminded of the nineteenth-century preoccupation with antiquity,
which is one of my own research interests. The first thing that came to mind – my mind, at least – was the album cover of ‘Sweet Apocalypse’, a beautiful
collection of haunting melodies by the contemporary German pianist Lambert, who always performs while wearing a Sardinian mask. This album’s cover is a painting by Mioke and shows the musician walking with a child towards an eruption of light, whose source remains unknown (but given the album’s title, it appears most sinister).
The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum
Albumcover Sweet Apocalypse
There is of course a striking difference: whereas in Martin’s painting the citizens of Pompeii attempt to flee the apocalypse behind them, in
Mioke’s painting two individuals calmly walk towards it. (Incidentally, Mioke’s creation of the painting can be reviewed here). At the end of this wonderful exhibition in the musée du Luxembourg, then, with the crème-de-la-crème of British painting behind me, I saw an artwork by a (for me) unknown artist, which made me think of the painting of the cover of an album by a pianist who performs anonymously, but whose music thus, paradoxically, is reaching an ever-growing audience. Whether Lambert and Mioke are consciously referring to Martin’s painting, I cannot say; intertextuality may work in mysterious ways, as theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes have shown. What I can say, is that in our times anonymity may be a better guarantee for creating
forms of imaginative engagement.
Money, or more specifically, capital, is a hot and controversial issue in the art world. As Jan Baetens noted recently on this blog, commerce in and commercialization of the art world are debated subjects. Magazines and newspapers report record after record in sales: just recently, nine New York auctions of art from the 1950s to today raised (combined) $ 2.230.800.000, with Christies alone raising 853 mil. dollar (682 mil. euro). These sales led to, for instance, the Dutch newspaper the NRC, and international art news outlets such as the Art Newspaper and Art News proclaiming it the greatest auction record in history, and noting that ‘never before has so much money been spent on art in such a short period’.
The fact that for instance Triple Elvis by Andy Warhol was auctioned for $81.9m makes people upset, to say the least. There are complaints about the art market being a bubble. Auctions houses, gallery owners, and buyers are accused of speculating. New billionaire buyers on the art market buy art only as an investment; or, at best, they buy art to increase their social standing. All of this is clearly considered deplorable. As Matthew Slotover, co-founder of influential art platform Frieze stated recently at a panel discussion, ‘Money should follow art. Art should not follow money’.
The panel discussion in question was ‘Art, Capital & Avantgarde’, hosted at Amsterdam discussion venue De Balie as part of the Amsterdam Art Weekend programme (28-11-2014). Other speakers included the new director of the Stedelijk Museum, Beatrix Ruf, artist Zachary Formwalt, and sociology professor Olav Velthuis. The discussion’s description asked whether there still even is ‘critical potential to a painting that has become a market-fetish, a toy for speculative investors and a glaring symbol of the global inequality of wealth?’ Indeed, can one even avoid the ‘pitfall, power and influence of big money’? A similar spirit of fear, distrust and even disgust towards money pervaded the panel. Traces of a moral panic were undeniably tangible. Artists, institutions, galleries and also, collectors and buyers should above all be motivated by the quality of art; or such was the consensus. The presence of capital in the art market—and its related associations of speculation and investment—was clearly considered a horrible development. Young rich buyers acquire art works of Hirst, Koons, Warhol or Richter only to store them; in other words, they don’t even have visual access to their art, let alone any aesthetic enjoyment if it. What horror!
The one really valuable contribution to the panel, in my view, was provided by the one scientist on the panel: sociologist Velthuis from the University of Amsterdam. Using data and statistics, Velthuis made clear that the money-discussion is indeed a moral panic, perpetrated by the media, which has nothing to do with actual developments in the art market. Indeed, corrected for inflation, the total amounts made at art auctions have over the past 30 years hardly kept any pace with the growing number of billionaires worldwide. Whatever those new billionaires are doing with their money, they’re certainly not buying art. Velthuis’s book Talking Prices. Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (Princeton University Press, 2005) clearly outlines how the panicky art discourse operates, and subsequently demonstrates why it is based on untruths and distortions by using historical data and insightful statistic analysis. Besides for students of art markets, art sociology, patronage and the arts in general, it should be obligatory reading for members of the art world as well.
In the end, the most important question, which touches upon the roots of this debate, remained unanswered. Why, in fact, are money and capital such “dirty” concepts in the art world? Why should art not follow money? Indeed, already in the art market of the Dutch Golden Age collectors were buying art as an investment, or to raise their social status, besides out of appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. In Renaissance times the Florentine Medici family were great patrons of the arts, and they used their patronage to gain further wealth, influence and power. Art has never stood apart from society and that society’s concerns. Obviously throughout the history of the arts aesthetic quality has been talked about as the major qualifier for discussing, collecting and acquiring art, but in the end, money, social standing and other concerns have always played their part in the real transactions of art. Only a cursory study of contracts between artists and patrons will reveal this. This, clearly, is why cultural historians are such a welcome presence in these debates. If only to point out that the notion that art should remain free of any social or financial worth, but be pure, authentic and original and only judged on its aesthetic worth, goes right back to 19th century art discourses. Thus this ‘moral panic’ about art prices is nothing new—and not even true, at that.
With all the fuss about the creative industries and 21st-century skills, it seems to have escaped our attention that the real revolution In the arts is taking place elsewhere: in the world of healthcare. The arts have subtly, to some even unconsciously, changed their slogan. Arts are good for you: they make you happy and healthy, they stimulate your social life and keep you sober, help you overcome your fears and keep you focused. The arts are therapy. And all of this keeps the arts funded – which is more than just a side effect.
Art Therapy was at its peak in the seventies. Theatre groups, like the Dutch Werkteater, staged plays in hospitals and penitentiary institutions with the aim to reform both theatre and society. The belief in the transforming power of the arts seemed unlimited. The dream did not last and from the late 1980s onwards, quality and management became the new standards in the arts world. Recently, however, the tide has changed. This paradigm shift was heralded by philosopher Alain de Botton in his exhibition ‘Art is Therapy’ at the Rijksmuseum (April-September 2014) and the accompanying book Art as Therapy, co-written by art historian John Armstrong – note the difference (is/as) in the titles.
While de Botton is unable to escape the 1970’s Freudian frame of the arts as the expression of the unconscious, a growing number of arts organisations have re-discovered the arts as a hard core medicine, for instance in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, or in the treatment of autistic children. Starting from the development of community arts and the proof of the effects of music on intelligence in primary education, the arts are now embracing their effects on social, cognitive, as well as physical health as their principal proof of their relevance to society.
While cuts to art subsidies seem to threaten specialised disability arts organisations the ‘able’ arts organisations are more than anxious to enter the domain of (mental) health care in reaction to the same budget cuts. In a desperate leap forward, arts organisations are claiming the therapeutic effects of the arts (art as therapy), just to keep the money coming. In reality, healthcare is itself the treatment for art’s own disease: poverty. Meanwhile, arts organisations risk changing the very nature of the essence of the arts from distant critic of politics to practical tool for society (art is therapy).
Image credits: ‘Unlimited Traineeship’, Ian Johnston -Dancer, Unlimited Festival 2014. Photographer: Niall Walker.