Category Archives: Society

The Art of the Branded Self

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

At the advanced age of 60 and with a name designed to be garbled, the painter Roald Häkschle has unexpectedly made it into the major museum circuit. It makes one wonder what makes a painter successful in an age in which the art of painting itself seems to be an anachronism.

The first requisite is, I guess, a simple formula. Better stick to one idea and keep repeating it. A Häkschle is easily recognized by its limited subject matter — blind walls and pavements, minutely rendered repetitive surfaces that never seem to be part of any solid construction. Subdued colours: shades of red, yellow and (occasionally) blue.

And of course we recognize a Häkschle through the omnipresent figure of the painter himself, foreshortened, with heavy legs and a little head, dressed only in a short raincoat, under a 1940s type of hat. Always gazing away from us, showing his gray ponytail (which, I’ve heard it whispered, is false).

Every Häkschle is in fact a huge selfie. In the present climate of hysterical self-promotion it will no doubt help to put yourself into everything you make, and in this ego market Häkschle seems determined to compete by size if nothing else. Too big for your living room, his canvases stake their claim to public walls.

Behind every successful artist there is a broker, and in this case his name is Ernst Bronn. “Häkschle teaches us something,” he writes in the catalogue. “The man who stands on a street corner in Schnittpunkt III, hesitating and suspicious, maybe, faces the immeasurable emptiness ahead. It may be sunny on the other side of the street, but this naive yellow light may well be the false glow of empty promises and futile hope. The nudity of his stout legs makes him look both strong and vulnerable.”

(Two visitors in front of me were arguing whether he was taking a piss. He isn’t.)

“This recurring figure may borrow some of the artist’s features, but at the same time he is Everyman (and, I dare say, every woman, transgender and bisexual), trapped, like all of us, between walls, stuck at crossroads.”

True, but trivial. Maybe superficial symbolism too may help in becoming famous.

And strong one-liners. “The whole distinction between abstract and figurative is bullshit.” (“Der ganze Unterschied, abstrakt oder figurativ, der ist ja Scheiße.”)

It is true, a figurative painting may be seen in an abstract way (think of Vermeer, the master of red, yellow and blue); but the other way round? Häkschle’s titles suggest the abstraction of mathematics: intersection, line, plane (Schnittpunkt, Gerade, Fläche), as if we should forget the man in the raincoat and focus on the composition. But in every painting there is geometry to be found — so what’s special?

Is there anything about these paintings that makes one want to call out loud: this must be seen?

They have a vaguely surrealist, disturbing atmosphere. Mostly through the false perspective, the flat surfaces, rather like the scenery of computer games (and obviously the artist has designed his pictures on the PC). But like computer games, they leave an impression of mental constriction.

Roald Häkschle, Schnittpunkt III © Lodewijk Muns 2017

Roald Häkschle, Schnittpunkt III

Häkschle likes to play with focus in a photographic way, and sometimes creates a kind of dynamics within the static composition. Here size is of the essence; you can’t have the experience through a reproduction. Walk up to Schnittpunkt 3, and the lack of focus in the brick wall may give you an uncomfortably dizzy feeling. Your gaze will be forced towards the sharply drawn human figure, far on the right.

Beyond that, a “false glow of empty promises”.

The Bad, the Ugly, and the Shameless

Aesthetics and ethics. If ever there was a time to rethink these concepts and how they relate, it is now. As it was yesterday, and will be tomorrow (if we’re still here).

One thing baffling about Trumpian anti-culture is its utterly shameless inversion of values — of transforming vice (lying, denigrating, boasting, bullying) into a kind of anti-virtue. But even more striking is the way bad morals, bad taste, and shamelessness are perfectly aligned. The bad taste of gold plated office buildings, golf courses and pageants. A caricature of the nouveau-riche, even though the man is old-riche and has had ample opportunity to better his judgement.

De Efteling (2014)In The Netherlands a little row has occurred these days over a news blog called GeenStijl (roughly translatable as Bad Taste). ‘Tendentious, unfounded and needlessly offensive’ by its own definition, it attempts to convert vice into a kind of anti-virtue without altering its substance. Not so much a channel of free, anti-establishment speech, as a depressingly sordid puddle of racist and sexist abuse.

When this newsblog attacked a critical female journalist by inviting its readers to submit rape fantasies (a call promptly answered), 130 of her colleagues responded with a manifesto that was printed in two national newspapers, calling upon the site’s advertisers to withdraw their sponsorship.

A sensible and fair action. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. It’s just a pity that the action should be female-only, since that tends to confirm the opponent’s stereotypes (‘broom riders’).

Among the (sometimes unwitting) advertisers are McDonald’s, Rabobank, the Dutch Tax Authority and Ministry of Defence, De Efteling, and bol.com webshop. De Efteling is a fairytale theme park designed in a kind of neo-Biedermeier style. But its spokesman should find no major discrepancy between the site’s rapist hooliganism and De Efteling’s own ‘ideology’ (gedachtegoed). The Ministry of Defence initially saw no way of recruiting 4000 young males per annum without addressing the site’s typically male young adult audience (arming rapists with Brownings?), but has fortunately revised its position.

My personal dealings are limited to bol.com as a book supplier. So I let them know that I intended to suspend my patronage. Their answer: that they had one campaign running, and would reconsider only afterwards. Not good enough.

Bad style, bad taste, bad morals. The scary thing is that with its nearly 2 million unique visitors per month the site is not an obscure and negligible fringe phenomenon. As a branch of media company TMG it is firmly embedded in the right-wing commercial mainstream, which indirectly receives such encouraging support from the White House.

Is the fight against bad morals a fight against bad taste? Is there some common ground of shared — preferably, permanent — values between morality and aesthetics, some kind of ethical-aesthetic imperative? Does the Enlightenment idea of a morally uplifting cultural education, of improvement-through-art still have any validity?

If a pathological lack of shame is the clue to Trumpian politics, general behaviour, and aesthetics, maybe we should recommend a healthy sense of shame and good-natured modesty as ethic-aesthetic counter-attitudes. An old-fashioned virtue that is hard to cultivate in a society which constantly urges individuals to engage in bloated self-promotion.

The Road and the Landscape (2), or: Can Green Be Right?

Flakkee, Zuid-Holland © Lodewijk Muns 2016

Q. What is the first thing you would do once you are free to go outside?
A. I think I would take my own car which I haven’t been able to use for a very long time and would take a ride all by myself and enjoy it.
A child interviewing PVV party leader Geert Wilders, who has been living under close protection for twelve years. Jeugdjournaal (Kids News), Dutch NOS television, 3 March 2017

This is a man who watches the landscape from the road. Freedom equals driving a car. Unsurprisingly, a vehicle tax reduction of 50% is the crowning point nr. 11 of his one-page election ‘programme‘.

The position of this man’s Freedom Party (PVV) in the political spectrum is clear (even though its basic neoliberal austerity is sweetened with welfare goodies). Islam should be banned; the Netherlands should leave the EU; and human-induced climate change is a hoax.

If there seems to be a consistency between these principles, it is largely an effect of habituation. In fact, there is no logical contradiction between concerns about the rise of islamic militancy and oppression, about the social and environmental effects of immigration and overpopulation, and about global warming. One may consistently be anti-islamic and anti-fossil.

How green can the right be?

‘Green-right’ is a small niche that in the Netherlands has for some time been filled by fringe parties, unable to overcome the electoral threshold (Groen-Rechts, Partij voor Milieu en Recht, both defunct; Groen Liberale Partij, Nederland Duurzaam, and the cutely named Partij Bonte Koe or Spotted Cow Party). A few dropouts have found an unlikely refuge in Wilders’ PVV. It is a pale shade of green. Pro animal welfare, pro open landscapes, but anti wind energy — which counts as landscape ‘pollution’.

Undeniably, a nostalgic regret for disappearing landscapes may be one of the causes of feeling ‘green’. But though this nostalgia may easily take a nationalist tinge, it is totally at odds with the PVV’s fiercely automobilistic fossil freedom ideology.

A more prominent, but wishful liberal ‘green’ initiative (trusting the market to clean things up) has died as ingloriously in the Netherlands as it has in the UK. There is a fundamental contradiction between environmentalism and capitalism/(neo-)liberalism. Green politics calls for radical changes in production and consumption patterns. Which in turn call for government initiative.

But with an election outcome that favours a coalition encompassing the leftist green and the moderate right it has become an urgent question how far the right can be pulled toward the green side.

Elections, Muddleheadedness and Music

stemming  /’stɛmɪŋ/ (nom. fem.) 1. voting, vote; ballot; 2. ♪ tuning; 3. frame of mind; …

One good thing about the Dutch electoral system is that its low threshold allows so many parties to enter parliament, that absolute majorities are unlikely to arise. Maybe this mechanism has just protected us (the Dutch) from being governed by the nationalist ultraright.

Another effect of the system is that for any crackpot idea you may find a party to represent it, and sometimes several. Take, for example, basic income (a form of social security dispensed to all citizens unconditionally). To be sure, I don’t think this is a crackpot idea. There are strong arguments in its favour, and four parties in parliament at least encourage experiments (PvdA, D66, GroenLinks, Partij voor de Dieren).

And exactly because it should be taken seriously it is a pity that two fringe parties (which failed to win a seat) have made it their nr. 1 priority: the Basic Income Party (Basisinkomenpartij) and the Freethinkers’ Party (Vrijzinnige Partij, VP). “Free thinking”, I’m afraid, is a euphemism for muddleheadedness. Witness the curious paragraph on music in their election programme.

Much of the the trouble and strife in the world, according to the freethinkers, is due to the fact that musicians tune to a “fundamental” (grondtoon) of 440 Hz. This tuning “provokes discord and agression”. If only musicians would attune to a “natural” 432, harmony would spread through society.

The mistakenly so-called “fundamental” is, evidently, the conventional pitch standard (or “concert pitch”), fixed by reference to the A written in the treble clef. Now, the idea that this somewhat arbitrarily established standard is “unnatural” (and therefore unhealthy) is not new. Tracing its origins will send you spiralling down into a netherworld of superstition, pseudoscience, number mysticism and conspiracy theories. Which I disrespectfully decline.

If this proposal deserves to be mentioned at all, ever so briefly, it is because in the press coverage absurdity was raised to the superlative. In a somewhat ironic reportage, De Volkskrant, a leading newspaper, defined the so-called “fundamental” as “the lowest pitch produced by a vibrating source, such as a musical instrument.” (A mistake for which the journal’s editor may be to blame, who evidently relied on Wikipedia). As a result, the Dutch government was called upon to lower the range of musical instruments (to 432 Hz!), preferably in a European collaborative framework.

The fact that this garbled version of a muddleheaded idea has spread across the internet shows the helpless ignorance of the average citizen when faced with even the most basic concepts of music. Fixing the basics (De basis op orde) was the Freethinkers’ Party’s election slogan. Let’s fix the basics of education — giving their due to both music and critical thought.

The Road Seen from the Landscape, and the Landscape Seen from the Road

The landscape, seen from the road:
traversed, fleetingly observed in passing through
a twodimensional screen
suspended along the line of forward motion.

The road, seen from the landscape:
an obstacle that breaks a whole into disconnected pieces
a broad and colourless track of solidified speed
overflowing with noise and gas exhaust.

The road, seen from the road:
something to leave behind.

The landscape, seen from the landscape:
something to be in.

Can sanity be expected from the man
who watches the world day by day
from behind the glass of his limousine?

Waking up into a Nightmare

On with life, under the scary prospect of an unscrupulous and dick driven sociopath ruling the USA.

How to stem the rising tide of populism? — is now the concern of all of us who worry about the global repercussions. All of us who don’t include ourselves among those targeted by “populism” — which is, etymologically, “the people”. An uncomfortable singular that separates an ill-defined group from a plural (people) that includes me, you, and everybody else.

In Dutch there is the old-fashioned gepeupel. Denigrating like the Latin synonyms of populus: vulgus, plebs. Words that are obviously politically incorrect. Though it is hard to find a better coverall for everything DT says and does than “vulgar”.

It automatically stamps us (his adversaries) as “elite”. A vast elite, not defined by wealth and only weakly by higher education. Most worrying about DT’s rise to power is that it has made all basic virtues elitist: love and respect for truth, for science, for rational thought and logic, for nature, cultural diversity, you name it. By consequence, all the dirty behaviour of which he is so proud (“being smart”) has become a kind of anti-virtue, rather than simply vice.

Eager to trade one political class of “liars” for another, whose lies are much dirtier, “the people” are in for a disappointment. It’s hard to package that message nicely — the message that voting for this Führer or another is stupid. But maybe this is not the time to package the message nicely. Maybe we should just call it stupid, and say it loud.

But equally important are good tunes. Listen to the inane repertoire programmed for HC’s campaign: I can’t imagine it has done her much good.