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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Live and Let Live

It is summer, which means it is the time of the aggressive occupation of our public aural space. This implies that at least in the weekends, but preferably also during the week, at least from one but often from many directions one hears a subdued or sometimes less subdued 'whoomp-whoomp-whoomp' - the amplified bass drums of an open air music festival, and when the source is not too far away also amplified voices, bass guitars, guitars, coputers, turn tables. And if there is no open air music festival, there will be some whoomping because the local soccer club has its 40th anniversary and includes 'background music' - mostly so loud that one has to shout at the top of one's lungs to communicate over this 'background' - as an important feature. And if by chance there are no such festivities, than at least one of the neighbors will have decided to spend the entire 'evening' (which in this special case is defined as the time between17.30 pm and 02.00 am the next morning) organizing a barbecue and chatting happily away, not realizing that you can - and therefore must, you know how it works - follow every single word they say.

You may think I am a grumpy old man who wants to live in a silent world apart from his own noise. The thing is, I am not. I am fully aware that all this noise makes up the sound track of modern life. It is inevitable, and because I do not live in the ideal world and never will - also because my ideal world is a very particular one in which most other people would feel very unhappy - I accept all this with relative ease, within limits. It is only very seldom that I ask other people to lower their volumes, like last night, when the street next door had its annual party which meant the accompanying whoomping became louder and louder as the evening progressed - contrary to what one would expect in a street where many kids at some point go to bed - so that at a quarter past eleven I went out to ask my neighbors if they could lower the volume a bit because not only my kids but also me myself and I would like to get some sleep, whereupon one of the neighbors said they had a municipal permission until midnight - I didn't dare to quote Monty Python by saying "I am sorry, but this is irrelevant, isn't it?" nor did I tell the neighbor that a permission to have a street party until midnight did not imply by necessity the obligation to whoomp at intolerable high levels and then scream your conversation on top of it until precisely midnight. And I must admit they did lower the volume after my request. A bit. And they stopped at midnight precisely.

I exaggerate. But not much.

But anyway (as I am prone to write in this blog). All this has to with the idea of the 'public space' in which we share our lives. It is a contested place, this 'public space'. It is - or should be - owned by everyone, and it is the territory where our capacity to live a social life is played out in full.. It is the testing ground of our democracy, one might say - the testing ground of our capacity to "live and let live" without one part of the population doing the living and the other part doing the letting live, as it were. Food for thought, therefore - it remains an incredible mystery how it is possible that more than 16 million people in the Netherlands are able to live their daily lives in relative peace in spite of all the differences they meet. Something to cherish, and good to realize that this relative peace is never straightforward but is continuous 'work in progress'.

It is with this in mind that I want to draw your attention to a little incident. Noorderzon festival is taking place in Groningen these days. An art work by an artist called Harma Heikens, as our newspaper assures us "an internationally renowned visual artist", was exposed at the festival terrain, which is accessible to everyone for free and is, outside the festival season, a nice park in the middle of the town. Two men were shocked by the art work, finding it offensive, and threatened some people of the festival, after which the festival direction decided the work should be replaced at a less public place.

I am not going into the question whether or not the festival directors were right or wrong (I guess their decision may be defendable given the fact that the festival terrain temporarily is something in between 'public space' and 'museum space' - I think in a museum one can - or must? - exhibit offensive art whereas in public space this is less straightforwardis; at the same time the decision may be questionable given the fact that it was the festival who invited the artist to expose the work in the first place - they might have been concerned about the publicness of their space a bit earlier), or whether it is good civil conduct to threaten people (obviously it is not). But I would like to draw your attention to the reaction of Harma Heikens - at least to the description of it in our newspaper.

According to the newspaper, Heikens did not think the art work - described as "a phantasy figure with an artificial penis and sagged knickers" - is offensive, telling that it was shown at the RAI and a group of kids were sitting around it drawing without being offended or shocked. I showed a picture of the art work to a good friend, and she remarked that of course Heikens could not imagine this image would be offensive because probably it depicted the artist herself in one of her daily public poses and of course people would find this a completely acceptable and normal public pose.


What worries me in all this is the self-evident way in which a visual artist claims that she may take possession of something - public space, and our gaze in public space - that is ultimately not hers to possess. Public space is not an artistic space, and the fact that many artists (and some musicians) think they are there to work at the boundaries of the offensive does never give them the right to imply others in their offense by force. Which is what they do when they work in public space (the argument "you don't have to look" - or listen - is invalid in public space, of course). And which, I think, in the end can sometimes amount to wittingly and from a very egocentric standpoint jeopardizing that so fragile work-in-progress which is the relative peace most of us strive to live in day by day.

Artists may, or maybe must, play with fire. And it is fine if they set their own house on fire. But deliberately setting fire to public space and then denying they lighted the match has nothing to do with art. And if it has, I don't like such art because of its hypocrisy. And you may quote me having said that.

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