Is there a life after? – or: To Cycle or to Scooter, that is the real question

For Marijke

and with special thanks to the library staff at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

It had been some time back – I still stayed in Budapest. To be precise it had been the last day of this years academic stay. There are two ways of appreciating something like that, the one: panicking, thinking about all things that had been not done and still have to be done at some stage. In Ireland it is the pre-Christmas disease, in Italy the pre-holiday disease, both posing the same basic question which reads

Is there a life after?

The other way is more realist, assuming that there definitely is a life after which leaves sufficiently time to look after those things, and suggesting that if there is actually really no life after it doesn’t matter anyway to start working on all the pending things. Carpe diem even if the auto-correct suggested right now carpet diet, which may be giving a hint: stay on the carpet, walk on sound ground where actual life takes place every day.

After having been in Budapest for a substantial time without going to the real place, I chose that as appropriate for the last day, limiting the work dimension for the time being on deciding to which bath I will go. Result: the Széchenyi Gyógyfürdő és Uszoda. It is a reasonably long, but this day pleasant walk: along the Andrássy út, somewhat enjoying the “historical alienation”, imagining the historical contradiction: the aspiring bourgeoisie at the turn of the century, probably crowned by the opening of Budapest’s first line of what would be later the cities metro network; accommodating governments later, those of other countries: embassies and ambassadors, and now hosting remainders of the blaze of glory: the reappearance in the new clothes of the new richesse.

  • The one thing coming to mind are the obvious hegemonies and their change over time – sure, one may add two things. The one is that hegemony is exactly not about the obvious “ruling” and it’s incarnations in somewhat obvious structures. Of course, the standard for understanding hegemony is set by the definition given by Antonio Gramsci, later elaborated by Nicos Poulantzas.
    The other question that may be posed is, if one wants to call it this, a matter of political history – and as such it is a matter of assessing change: What is about the years between 1947 and 1989? Had that been socialism and is socialism – at least for some interim time – the re-construction of overcome patterns with(in) a different context. The phrase of the withering away of the state is rather complex as already the new state would actually not be the same as the old institutional system had been although it appears to maintain the same or at least a very similar institutional framework. We may have to speak of an emerging system that establishes itself only with the intention of giving birth to something else by (not before or after, sic!) self-destruction.
  • The other point is about the hegemonies in daily life – and though it is also a complex issue, one facet is that we are not least asked to look at free spaces.

*****

All the same, talking about governing, governance, hegemony …, we are always confronted with the actual question of self-determination. Leaving brute violence aside, “following something/somebody”, “part-subordinating” is not least about some form of freedom of decision. Now, such freedom can – and in someway is – a matter of …, the matter with which the decision is concerned: the well-known exit-voice-loyalty option suggested by Albert Otto Hirschman. It deserves some special attention that Hirschman’s contribution had been made in particular in the context of firms – such situations can be usually seen as under-complex in their very nature, as they consider the problem Hamlet put forward with his famous question as answered or irrelevant: in any case the being, the existence is taken for granted – and it is simple existence that is seen as relevant.

The question Shakespeare did not look at may actually be only recently – and temporarily – be of particular and peculiar relevance. The question is

to cycle or to scooter.

In this formulation it is of course posed against a special personal background: having lived for short time in Rome – where using the scooter seems to be part of the genetic code – and having spent again some time in Amsterdam – I’m sure that one day a tiny DNS-string will be found determining that people in that place use the bike.

Ops, but that is exactly the point …, and I will come back to it.

Sure, cycling or using the scooter are not the only options, another option is that of swimming, to be more precise: going to a bath. Why do we commonly forget how people live, how they shape, “design” their socio-personal life.

One reason is surely that we are – in daily small talk and scientific political analysis – more interested in differences instead of similarities. And paradoxically this means to look at the uniqueness of political-institutional systems. To the extent to which this is not about the concrete-individual case but the general-abstract, this can be captured by looking at the frameworks, leaving the actual life and living outside of considerations – go to any gallery and you will find so many paintings that are apparently hidden beneath a heavy frame.

And such a heavy frame seems to be at first glance dominant: a most beautiful bath, clear in its overall outline, complex in its internal structure with the various small pools with the different temperatures, shapes etc.; this frame is actually underlined by “something” that appears to be content: guests, bathers. There is obviously a difference between “framing guests” and those that truly belong to the content – and it is exactly this twofold meaning of content: being a matter of substance but at the very same time a matter of being content. You may say: appropriately filling the frame. And anything that really fills a frame must fit into it, must be appropriate by appropriating the available space, i.e. making it its property.

In this light, the bath culture in Hungary is something specific, mediating between different worlds: the world of nature which provided a vast wealth of hot springs; the world of a country that had been shaped by being historically a border country between Orient and Occident; the specific “encapsulation”, typical for a nation without or with limited state due to colonialisation and subordination under foreign – in this case Hapsburgian – rule … . – One could surely go on, looking at the details of a social space in the midst of the old Ottoman Empire which had been dominated by men and masculinity, though it left most decisive niches for women where they could actually hide in some way – also in the bath: talking and negotiating about their own business which included arranging marriages, thus being in a way the core ante-chamber of society building.

And indeed these baths are the places where wars are made and lost and won. Only on few occasions of my visits in one of the baths I did not see people playing chess, very often the board game, but frequently just in a metaphorical way: building governments, based on strategic alliances, elaborating policies and making declarations: never completely moving beyond the walls, but entering the public via a detour as part of the war of manoeuvre. – People who are swimming …, yes, but few and many of them are the tourists, the “framing guests”.

*****

Being that day in the Széchenyi Gyógyfürdő és Uszoda, looking at things to come during the next few days: the short visit in Vienna, interrupting my journey for a business meeting in the Kunsthistorische Museum, then moving home to Rome, the eternal city as they say: permanency of the timelessness. And it is a short thought only: Did Lenin also think about access of all these privileged places for the proverbial cook when he said that every cook should be able to rule the state? Behind all this is finally a question that is easily lost out of sight, that is not even consciously articulated. Aren’t we dealing with the intermeshing and oscillation of different realities? Borders between utility goods and luxury goods are blurring, means of ordinary communication are changing their position in the overall systemic structure, emerging as symbols of governing, oppression, compromise and accommodation; and from there they are returning into daily life: alienated forms of a supposed overcome reality: the

circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living

as Marx put it into words in his 18th Brumaire.

Perhaps we may usefully speak of an alienated trickle-down effect: things taken out of their context and simultaneously with this de-contextualisation gaining a new, pacified meaning – and with this, again simultaneously, pacifying meaning.

… It is about the Knot of Governing[1]it is also a matter of artefacts, multiplied and in some form imitated and mass-produced …

Si nous nous concentrons sur la stratégie commerciale, nous comprenons pourquoi les historiens ont normalement associé la question de la production de masse ou sérielle au problème du marché : la plupart de ces production, par leur coût relativement modéré, leur standardisation et leur modularité, s’adresse à des acheteurs anonymes plutôt qu’à des commanditaires. Il est vrai que les études des dernières années invitent à raison à ne pas opposer trop fortement le commanditaire à l’acheteur.[2]

And as such they are gaining access into peoples’ living rooms

Het was een voor Europese begrippen bijzonder fenomeen dat schilderijen in de loop van de zeventiende eeuw een onmisbaar element waren geworden in het interieur van de gegoede burgerij. Men had het voor het kiezen, want het aanbond was zeer divers, zowel als het gaat om kwaliteit als om typen schilderijen. Niet al die kopers waren kenners of fijnproevers met verstand van kunst; schilderijen weden door veel mensen beschouwd als een aardigheidje aan de wand waar weinig woorden aan behoefden te worden vuilgemaakt. Het was vooral de omvang van de vrije markt voor anonieme kopers die toen in Europa uitzonderlijk was.[3]

*****

Looking at the role of women is well worth a side remark.

One prominent and fruitful tendency, which has very much affected the selection of textual sources in this book, has been the growth of interest in types of object traditionally considered as ‘decorative art/. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (quattrocento and cinquecento) in Italy saw changes not only in the styles, format sand subjects of what we think of as ‘fine art’, but in the reorganisation of urban environments and of the ecclesiastical and secular buildings. Many such buildings were on a very large scale, ad by the later sixteenth century they came to be filled with a huge number of furnishings and other artefacts, …[4]

And in this context the role of women gained a new place. As pointed out elsewhere:

In historical perspective this meant indeed mass production. Everly S.Welch in her book Art in Renaissance Italy 1350-1500 (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997: 75) points out that this had also been an entrance for women into the sphere of this craft: though mainly undertaken by monks, the copying and skilful ‘illustration’ had been also undertaken by women.

Well, actually it is worthwhile to spend more as a side remark on this topic though it is again something that cannot be carried out on this occasion.

*****

Some weeks later, I am going to work – admittedly it is not in any kind usual work: not for most of the people and also not for me. I walk through the revolving entrance door at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And I walk through the checkpoint

– Hoi, goedemorgen. Hoe gaat het vandaag?.

– Je bent heel vroeg vandaag.

Indeed, I am early. Actually too early for the library where I work these days. So I take a detour, walking up the main staircase, being on my own, turning around the corner, walking thorugh the large hall.

Monumental, indeed: van Rijns Night-Watch. It is just me, standing in front of the painting, I’m the only person in the room,[5] looking in the eye of history, facing this monumental incarnation of the at the time when van Rihjn painted tjis work, aspiring burgers of the aspiring new trade-nation. Leaving the earlier, Italian, roots of the new capitalist mode aside you may say: I am standing alone in front of this impressive showcase of the early stage of the emerging imperialism: old capitalism, expanding trade, moving towards the new capitalism which later became “pure imperialism” as highest stage of capitalism. And all this in a specific way stablished on the foundation of a capitalist and caitalising agriculture if we can trust J.L. Price.

*****

I remember a much earlier, similar experience: I had been privileged enough to see without anybody else in the room Picasso’s Guernica. An equally impressive peace of art.[6] And it did what probably a good piece of art always should do – and what proves a piece of art being a good one: in some way it draws the viewer into its ban, fascinates him or her simply by its power of expression – be it beauty, aversion, the specific distance it creates from every day’s life by dissociation. But at the same time there is the other side, namely the mobilisation emerging from the energy it entails, thoughts, wishes, dislikes and critiques the painter did not just express but for which s/he used the artefact as mediator.

And as such it is also – being a good work – mediating between times, not obliterating contradictions and dynamics, but making it by subtle, at times barely consciously detectable hints possible for the viewer to retrace the tensions within the Zeitgeist.

On the canvas worked on by van Rijn the glamour of the ancient regime, as lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch still standing next to the centre, but, though dressed in a golden drapery, already pushed to the side, apparently degraded, a gofer behind the emerging power of the global trade, in personam Fans Bannng Cocq, who took over the lead: on the canvas we see the signs of time: determination, pride, failure, grief – the dynamic of a war-scenery metaphorically showing the real battles going on: with other means, though still about a power game of expansion – if nothing else, the East and West India Trade Companies witnessing the pattern.

And this makes it so important that we are looking at a genuinely dynamic painting. As such it is completely different to the commonly known portraits of the time, depicting people lined up in a seemingly static hierarchy.[7]

Picasso’s manifestation against the war, the accusation of the invader of the small town in the Basque country. But also the expression of those who actually suffered: the victims who are now at the centre. And here we find also the many hints: the lost past, destroyed by the supposed superiority but equally by the lack of their power.

Lost pride – as the ground that had been lost …, Werner Hoffmann says

society, possessed by collective madness, celebrates its suicide.[8]

And he traces it back to Goya:

Physical suffering is one of the great themes of modern painting of modern painting, and I call ‘modern’ the period which starts with Goya. His ‘Tres de Mayo’ is a painted manifesto. Until the 18th century history painting was content to tell the story of dramatic events ….The defeated seem to deserve their fate as in a sporting contest when the stronger will win without the moral complications or frustrations. The suffering of the victim is not a theme in itself.[9]

Still, one can easily agree with Rachel Wischnitzer’s assessment. Though as much I personally read it as antifascist statement, an assertion against fascist violence, there is another dimension to it: the generalised notion of rejecting that ‘suicidal notion’ of modernity and the positive movements. In Wischnitzer’s words:

Picasso does not refer to the Fascists, the Nazis, or to Franco at all. Guernica is concerned only with the situation in the Loyalist camp. France and England keep neutrality, Russia lends support, the survivors express hope and confidence.

That is how Picasso wants to see and present the situation.[10]

If this is correctly reflecting Picasso’s overall line of thought may be left open – it would be speculation. However that it is part of the artists reflection, or a reflection the viewer may feel encouraged to undertake, may duly claim evidence. To point on one issue, we may refer to Gijs van Hensbergen who writes

In Guernica, the raised arm of a woman holding a candle tight in her grip pushes from the right-hand side of the canvas and helps to illuminate the scene. Symbolic of liberty and truth, she enlightens the world while forcing us to survey tragic drama played out in front of our eyes.[11]

May be that this had been the reason that, standing in front of the accusingly monumental painting I felt something keeping my upright, maintaining my strength – a guiding arm, holding a light. Wischnitzer – with reference to Reinhold Hohl, points out that the arm is a kind of ‘reincarnation’ of the arm of Agnolo Bronziono’s Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Timeand looking at that painting from the middle of the 16th century this may well be true.

Most convincing, however, is Hohl’s discovery of the model for the huge arm carrying the lamp in Guernica, in Bronzino’s allegory: Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, c. 1546 … In Bronzino’s painting Time lifts the curtain with the majestic movement of his powerful, muscular arm. Truth, the figure on the upper left, helps holding up some folds of the drape. The central figures are Venus with Cupid on the left and Deceit (rather than Folly) on the right. Two masks are on the ground on the right.[12]

But times changed – and accepting a coarse simplification it means the allegory ‘Time’ changed and is in Picasso’s piece female. It is time for something that may be called ‘reinvented matriarchy’.

*****

And as much as it is a privilege to be allowed to stand alone in front of any of these paintings, it is an additional privilege having experienced both of them. For me personally there had been years between the two occasions, perhaps decades, and surely a long time of experiences, ventures, own successes and failures, hopes and disappointments. However, it had not been such a long period as it had been for the raise and fall of nations, empires and systems as the two paintings express: in this way two facets of an experience that makes history immediately palpable, appreciable.

And it may be suggested that there had been the from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel known cunning of reason secretly at play, forecasting the dark side:

At least since the cleaning of the picture in 1946-7, it has been evident that the scene takes place in daylight, with the sun streaming down from the top left. A further cleaning completed in 1980 showed that the tones are predominantly cool. The traditional title The Nightwatch which dates from the late 18th century, is therefore incorrect but it would be absurdly pedantic to suggest changing it now.[13]

– Reviving in my memory the two viewing experiences and combining them, empathising the large lines of historical development: glory and decay, I remember the recent phone conversation, talking to Paul who told me about his new publication – the first volume now in print: It is about the crisis, the systemic crisis, that is not only structural, but goes far beyond, concerning also the civilisation and of politico-environmental perspectives.

– It had been easy to agree on our common interest and work, and though it surely sounds a bit bizarre it is about scooters, bikes and baths.

*****

Later I leave the library, the usual ‘Hoi’ and I go this time through the exhibition halls.

The paintings I see now are very much my own paintings, part of my daily life. And I feel – at least here and now – a little bit like the cook who actually does not need a museum or a bath if governing really means to possess all these artefacts as life’s real facts. …

After having entered earlier that day the library through the backdoor, the servants entrance, and now leaving through the exhibition halls, it is strange to see the people around: standing in front of the paintings staring at the exhibits as they had been earlier standing on the balcony of the reading room, looking at the old books and …, looking at me, so many times I had been the only person sitting there and doing what the name of the room suggests: reading. Sure, at this stage – in my life and the life of our societies it is a privilege being able and taking the liberty to follow the vision, Marx suggested in the German ideology:[14]

… finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.

Indeed, as long as such ownership is not given we see waste produced – it is the case when we see the cook who wants and actually needs all this, even if it may well take the form of knickknack, the form of art in its own right. And it surely is a provocation, saying that the educated classes, ownership being reduced on intellectual simulation and understanding, is not really doing much better.[15]

*****

It is time now to keep the promise. Above I stated

I’m sure that one day a tiny DNS-string will be found determining that people in that place use the bike.

Ops, but that is exactly the point ….

– and I promised to come back to it. This supposed DNS-string is, of course, not really such encoding. It is not a given but it is the knot of governing which may be tightened by pulling at the wrong end, or which can be loosened by developing a considered strategy, applying both, a radical slicing of the knot as we know it from Alexander’s victory, and at the vey same time a circumspect and dialectical adjournment, dealing with all the different tiny fibres that are making up the strings. – Surely something that I have to consider more seriously in the book on which I had been working these days.

– It will take a long time to make Amsterdam a city of scooters although their current number suggests different. And if it shoud happen one day we will have to sit down to make the calculation of pros and cons.

For the time being it will remain an open question – as much as it is an open question if my visit and work in the Rijksmuseum’s library will result in my presence n many photoalbums worldwide, put side by side with photos from paintings, books and other exhibits, perhaps with a little note

Peter, reader, early 21st century – please, do not feed

or if it will contribute in one or another way to a real reading culture, seeing books not as something to be consumed by individuals but being part of a real culture of communication and honest dispute. It si similar to the other question on byke, scooter and bath, just a matter of appropriate, i.e. ‘appropriated’ culture.


[1]            Frigga Haug introduced recently some ideas under the catchword ‘Herrschaftsknoten’, furthering her thoughts on the Four-in-One-Perspective – http://www.rosalux.de/documentation/48090/am%E2%80%90herrschaftsknoten%E2%80%90ansetzen.html – and https://williamthompsonucc.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/four-in-one/

[2]            Tomasi, Michele, 2011 : L’art multiplié : matériaux t problèmes pour une réflexion ; in : L’art multiplié. Production de masse, en série, pour le marché dans les arts entre Moyen Âge et Renaissance. Sous la direction de Michele Tomasi ave la collaboration de Sabine Utz ; Roma :Viella:7-24 ; here : 14

[3]            Boers, Marion, 2012: De Noord-Nederlandse kunsthandel in de eerste helft van de zeventiende eeuw; Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren: 9

[4]            Women and the visual arts in Italy c. 1400-1650. Luxury and leisure, duty and devotion. A sourcebook/Selected, translated and introduced by Paola Tingali and Mary Rogers Manchester/New York Manchester University Press 2012: 1

[5]            Of course, security is there too – After a brief moment of a kind of ‘inner devotion’ on my side we begin to chat. I am another time in some way surprised by seeing that such jobs are at least for many not so much about security but about living in the middle of art work and history – though they are not allowed to ‘govern the state as Lenin’s cook’, they are allowed to look in some ways on what had been going on I history on the back stage …

[6]            It had been commissioned by the Spanish Republican Government for the World’s Fair in Paris in Paris, 1937 – on that occasion it had been by and large unrecognised and ignored.

[7]            Cf. Schama, Simon: Rembrandt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJYlzyNQjpc – 14/08/2013: 8:10 ff.

[8]            Hofmann, Werner, 1983: Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ in its Historical Context; in: artibus e historiae. Rivista internazionale di arti visive e cinema; IRSA-LiCOSA. Nr 7(IV); Venezia-Wien: 141-169; here 149

[9]            ibid.: 141 f.

[10]            Wischnitzer, Rachel, 1985: Picasso’s Guernica. A Matter of Metaphor: in: artibus e historiae. Rivista internazionale di arti visive e cinema; IRSA-LiCOSA. Nr 12 (VI); Venezia-Wien:153-172; here: 165

[11]            van Hensbergen, Gijs, 2005: Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon; London: Bloomsbury: 105

[12]            Wischnitzer, op.cit.: 163 f.; with reference to Reinhold Hohl, 1978: Die Wahrheit ueber Guernica; Pantheon, 36, Jan. 1978: 41-58

[13]            Galleria Dep Art Milano Italia A.Biasi Dadamaino Simeti Wilding: The Night Watch (1642)ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART EDUCATION © visual-arts-cork.com http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-paintings/night-watch.htm – 14/08/2013

[14]            Supposedly this text had been added by Engels, with a mocking undertone.

[15]            Just briefly contextualising this by pointing on marketisation, commodification and the loss of meaning of education in its humanist understanding.

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