maandag 29 november 2010

Rembrandt's Head

Art can be seen as a movement of detachment. Art that is worthy of the name implies an almost inevitable break with the uterus, a step from one’s comfort zone to come to stand on one’s own. And the power that can emanate from a work of art has a lot to do with that.

A work of art - basically the artist - takes position vis à vis the world. That is, in relation to light that touches us and to sounds that strike us. But also: in relation to others, to inherited traditions, if necessary in relation to sacred cows. Such power can be felt.

In this feature may rely the difference with kitsch. Kitsch emphatically wants to remain in the comfort zone and cherishes the sentiments of the uterus. Kitsch - or rather the kitschist - prefers not to be detached from fear for the risk to come to stand too much on one's own and from fear of the loneliness that comes with it.

The need to continually take position probably explains the connection between art and the occurrence of avant-gardes as at least in the West we know them for the last few centuries. The vanguard, as a group of people who set themselves apart, exemplifies what every true artist wants to do: take position.

That this is not easy to achieve may appear from the fact that belonging to a vanguard or the loneliness of an artistic life sometimes fall into extremes. Then the break is cherished and the romance of isolation is cultivated. Then a new comfort zone is created, rather than art.

But the need to constantly position oneself explains, when it succeeds, something else, namely the rigor that may prevail in the artistic world. A lot of discipline is required to achieve genuine art and that discipline has evolved over centuries into all sorts of strict rules about ideal proportions, composition and the use of color. With concomitant institutions and norms by which people can judge one another.

In Rembrandt's day this regime reigned firmly. Think of the mandatory orientation on classical masterpieces and Italian beauty ideals. Museums may, in their explanations of paintings from that era, still get lyrical about ‘balanced faces’ and ‘ideal Apollonian proportions’ between eyes, nose and mouth of a subject.

If you are aware of that regime your appreciation of Rembrandt may only increase. Because he broke twice. He not only made the break that every good artist makes, that of choosing position in relation to light and color. His paintings also bear witness a of a break with the severity of many of his colleagues.

It are no ideal proportions, no cosmic harmonies, no great reflections of light which he shows in many of his paintings. And especially not when he paints himself. He is not ashamed of his potato nose and his very ordinary face. Indeed, because of the way in which he takes position in relation to himself he does not have to. Therefore, I often cannot get enough of Rembrandt.

Also see Judeo-Christian and Rembrandt's Heads

vrijdag 19 november 2010

Rembrandt's Heads

These are tough times with all those lawyers for and against Geert Wilders. Rembrandt would have known how to handle it. What a pity we miss those beautiful black hats nowadays.

Also see Judeo-Christian and Rembrandt's Head

zondag 14 november 2010


I recently read that in large parts of Africa and Asia the embarrassment to talk about defecation, sanitary facilities etcetera is big. It is a taboo, to the extent that construction of toilets is hardly debatable. The paradox is that dealing with defecation takes place in a much more overt way than is the case with us. Occasionally it is being done on the street, or along the side of the road. And one does not shake left hands.

As openly as that we would rather not have it in the West, actually it is taboo to us. But meanwhile we discussed the subject extensively, almost shamelessly: we thought and talked a lot about toilets, sewerage, hand washing and toilet paper. That’s why all these facilities could be created. And now we feel uncomfortable if somewhere they are missing and people just relieve themselves. But then, these people prefer not to talk about it. So, with whom the inhibitions are biggest?

Whoever plunges into the (brown) matter - so to speak – apparently is less dirty when he emerges than the one who thinks it’s too dirty.

Another paradox. To an extent not displayed by any other civilization the West engaged in the fight against various threats, from floods to disease, from hunger to poverty. All this aimed at the increase of the certainty of life, and successfully so.

Simultaneously the very West seems more and more in the grip of fear and uncertainty. But these do not look so much like fear of fysical threats or deficits. These uncertainties are mainly socio-cultural in nature. People experience a vague feeling of being lost, of loneliness, anonymity and crumbling communities. People fear a social decline. Whereas our lives’s quality is better than ever.

Whoever, for fear of the threats of the elements, counters them successfully and creates certainty, comes out more frightened than he was when he started off.

This paradox fits in in Levinas’ descriptions. The latter speaks about the il-y-a and by that he means the terrifying indifference of the universe that may beat us with physical disasters, want and disease. Levinas will, in response to that, see the struggle of man against such threats as a laudable effort to remain upright against the terrifying il-y-a.

At the same time - Levinas says - in the tamed, safe society the il-y-a will keep returning. But it returns in its veiled variation, which means: in the shape of loneliness, dull bureaucracy or feelings of senselessness. Against this background Levinas positions the encounter with the Other. This encounter is manifested there in its full strength and may, in his opinion, serve as a new source of meaning.