Society as studio and work of art

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Essay by Christiaan Weijts on the ten-part podcast series "What Is That Doing Here?" which portrays nine visual art projects that explicitly address social issues. Writer and essayist Christiaan Weijts examines how they cast the time-honored discussion of autonomy and engagement in a new light.


Sometimes everything seems like art. One afternoon in February 2023, I saw three station benches lying near the back entrance of Rotterdam Central Station. Askew, tilted, torn from the hall and carelessly plopped down. Shiny planks on a base of sturdy steel.

Having just spent hours on the ten thousand square meters of Art Rotterdam, my first thought was: this work interrogates the complex position of the station hall as a semi-public space in relation to the social issue of homelessness.

Inside, the artist collective staged a performance. Dressed as workmen wearing orange reflection vests, they unscrewed the last bench and lifted it with yellow slings onto two wheeled platforms. They proceeded with exaggerated care, using protective blankets against scratching as they carried the object away, as if it were a fragile piano they had to move.

Beuys saw the artist as a sculptor in the social realm

"Is this art, or can it go away?" I sometimes ask that question at home, when we are cleaning up. In German, it has long been a standing expression, mocking a specific type of art. German art critics Christian Saehrendt and Steen T. Kittl used it as the title of a book Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg? (2016), which viciously lashes out at an art world that deals in millions for works that seem to have come from the trash rather than a studio.

Their indictment focuses on meaningless art, geëxposed in a white cube, a term still used almost exclusively as pejorative is used, as a synonym for the "ivory tower" in which unworldly artists retreated in the nineteenth century.

The irony is that the origin of that German expression - Ist das Kunst oder kann es weg? - is often associated with an artist who is precisely uít wanted to break that ivory tower and have strong socialëngaged, namely Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). In 1973, one of his museum installations was mistaken for a dirty baby bath and cleaned to rinse glasses in. In 1986, his work was Fettecke, five kilograms of butter on a wall of Düsseldorf's art academy removed by cleaners.

In both cases they were installations, by someone who had revealed himself precisely as an "artivist," co-founder of the ecological party die Grünen and who claimed that art was the only medium in which environmental problems could be solved. Beuys saw the artist as a sculptor in the social domain, someone who, with the picks and chisels of his objects, writings and actions, tackled "social sculpture. The opposite, then, of the type of art that makes you shrug your shoulders in laughter: Ist das Kunst oder kann es weg?


What's that doing here? is a title in which I also hear that phrase playfully echoed. And again, the visual artists who are featured in it areïnterviewed, very explicitly social sculptors. Some transform a poor neighborhood into a sustainable one, others enhance a languishing piece of nature. Some make art together with undocumented refugees, the underprivileged or people with disabilities. Others change the public space with a collective garden, or work for rights for the North Sea.

Sometimes their work scrapes very close to activism, sometimes close to social work. Is this art, or is it social design? As it turns out, the creators themselves don't always know this either, and experience an in-between-walk-and-skip position, they say in the podcast.

If everything and everyone is art, there is ultimately nothing meaningful to say about it

Joseph Beuys would no doubt say it doesn't matter at all. Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler, reads his most famous adage. Still, it is interesting to examine more closely what exactly is the art component in projects like this. After all, if everything and everyone is art, there is ultimately nothing meaningful left to say about it.

A better approach, therefore, seems to me to address the "does" from "what does that do here? In the following, I would first like to address that do, on the workings of art, and then examine them through the projects discussed and three themes that are prominent in each: perspective, public space and community. Each project puts all three of these aspects in a new light, tilts them, changes our perception of them, or assigns them a new role.


In October 2022 at the Peace Palace, there were two tanks of water on the witness stands, with bottom water. One water desert where the eel gets no shelter, the other has a living bottom with mussels and aquatic plants, which the judge, with sleeves rolled up, could feel. Moments later, sound recordings of coral reefs sounded.

This artistic test case, through which the Embassy of the North Sea was trying out whether the North Sea would qualify as a legal entity, illustrates very nicely how art can open a new perspective, using the senses.

'Sensory knowledge,' the philosopher Alexander Gottieb Baumgarten (1714-1762) called it. To him we owe the whole concept of "aesthetics. In his main work Aesthetics (1750-1755) he claims to introduce a new science, the "scientia cognitionis sensitivae," the science of sensory knowledge, which reveals aspects of reality that remain invisible to abstract logic.

This is exactly what the Embassy of the North Sea wants. "Breaking free of paper thinking about the North Sea," artistic director Harpo 't Hart calls it in the podcast. According to him, we have confused the concepts of abstract and concrete. "Policy makers and lawyers when they think of concrete always think of maps and tables, and when we put a microphone to something they see it as abstract. But it's a riff, and that's what it sounds like. It doesn't get more concrete than that."

What you see here, as in many of the other projects, is a confusion of those two levels of knowledge. Aesthetic knowledge is something that a logically structured society does not do well.

Sensory confrontation, which, like a shock, gives insights in a non-rational way

Melle Smets, for example, has a plan to build a giant wood-fired furnace in the poor Bos-polder Tussendijken neighborhood of Rotterdam, which in ONEone glance makes clear what it takes to provide a meal for everyone in the neighborhood. Smets: "When they see that, it is indeed art. It's an imagination where you think: Gee, this is who we are, this is what we do, and could it be done differently?"

That sensory confrontation, which, like a shock, gives insights in a non-rational way, could be called "aesthetic power. The German philosopher Christoph Menke uses that term in his attempts to fathom the workings of art. In Kraft (2008) and Die Kraft der Kunst (2012), he develops his theory that art arises in the conflict between "power" and "ability.

Ability Menke sees as a "social practice," the capacity to get something done, of which you can say afterwards whether it was successful or not. Our ability can be practiced, perfected. Power works radically differently. Force works outside of our subjective abilities. It unfolds like a game, with no goal in mind and no outcome known in advance.

You also hear the latter in many geïnterviewees in the podcast. They are on an adventure, they emphasize. "We are a community of example," Melle Smets says of the House of the Future. "We are not creating the solution but an example project, and so that can also go completely wrong."

Looking at this with Menke's pair of concepts, the project is thus only on the side of "strength" than of "ability.

Yet it is more unruly in practice, also acknowledges Harpo 't Hart, of Embassy of the North Sea. His clients sometimes see his artistic adventure, with open ends and uncertain outcomes, as something negative. "That makes no sense, they then say. We can't build a social enterprise on this." It's a world of concrete goals and targets, from which he can't escape either. "It's always balancing between keeping it open and under-researched and still having a kind of safety and feasibility. Sometimes you have to be very concrete to include the people you're working with."

Paul Keizer and Albert Dedde, the Spacecowboys, who made a slavery monument in Tilburg also recognize it: "In practice, the frameworks are fairly tight. We have to take into account the budget, the place, the facilities. The adventure happens much more between ourselves."

Sandra van den Beuken, from The Butterfly House, dedicates himself as a landscape designer to nature improvement in Limburg, and speaks of an "art component," where the art is thus ONEn component, in addition to ecology and heritage, for example.

Works of art emerge from the dichotomy between aesthetic power and rational ability


Does this mean that this makes them less "art," less "autonomous" than the traditional visual artist who surrenders to whatever aesthetic force arises within him and exhibits it in such a contested white cube?

According to Christoph Menke, not necessarily. In his view, works of art always arise im Widerstreit von ästhetischer Kraft und vernünftigen Vermögen, that is, from the dichotomy between aesthetic power and rational ability.

Go figure. The classical sculptor, Michelangelo, may not know exactly where the power of his inspiration is taking him, but once he gets busy, and sees the vision taking shape, there is a great deal of practical handiwork involved, and when it is completed, he can indeed say whether it is successful or not.

One goal of the House of the Future is to help the neighborhood in question with its energy transition. Gradually, the artists who participated discovered that a great deal of knowledge about sustainability was already present among the residents, often from their own cultural background. They already knew - concretely, sensorially - much more about circularity than policymakers thought. In that respect, they do for social sculpture what Michelangelo said to do with a block of marble: make visible what is already in it, cut away the excess stone.

In the traditional studio, this is an interaction between artistic inspiration and craftsmanship. If, as is the case in all the projects discussed in one way or another, the outside world zélf somehow turns into studio, then this handiwork includes the world of legal procedures, spreadsheets, excells, meetings and schedules.

Artists are often invited as "wall hangers," Melle Smets explains in the podcast. He gets to come and "add decoration to the walls of society." He is addressed, in other words, as someone with a specific "ability. But the power component brings in something that is more unchangeable and can bring a change that is no longer cosmetic.

If the outside world zélf turns into studio

No work is driven purely by force or purely by power. There is no switch between the two. Each work has its own balance and dosage between the two.

The question then becomes: how is this balance in the projects discussed and what does this mean for the position of their creators? Is there a moment when they lose their autonomous position and conform too much to a desired goal? What do we learn through their practices about the old opposition between autonomous and geëngaged art? To do so, let's dwell on three themes they share - perspective, public space and community - which are being redefined in all of these projects.


The three themes come together very nicely in the project on care center Reinaerde. Visual artists Sjaak Langenberg and Rosé the Bear have been working with this for years, and did have to convince the organization of the added value of art in the beginning.

But it was very evident in one of the projects, carried out at the Woudenberg location. Filmmaker Floor Hofman decided to zélf put the camera in his hands. That intervention gave new insights. Touching, for example, is the moment when one of the residents says, "Maybe it's sad for me but I just want to be with Benny but I can't. I like these feelings for Benny. I don't want to talk to a psychologist all the time. I don't want that. I want to move on. Not stand still."

This story was new to healthcare providers. It came off because of this shift in perspective. Sjaak Langenberg says, "Making is another form of listening, and in this case the two coincide and something special is created."

It's a movement we see in more of these projects: the statusless becoming makers in We sell reality. The young people from underprivileged families in Curaçao who are with Tirzo Martha work. The Volkshortus in Selwerd, Groningen., where neighborhood residents from eighty different backgrounds and nationalities plant a greenhouse together. Or the creators of Embassy of the North Sea or The Butterfly House, who put themselves in non-human perspectives and ask questions like, "How would we design the landscape if we thought primarily from a hedgehog's point of view?"

Invariably, the artist's view, the creative force from outside, provides a perspective that overturns existing assumptions, and produces something in the community and in their relationship to their environment.

Elke Uitentuis articulates this beautifully when she talks about what she, at We Sell Reality, calls the "pass-on method": artworks-in-progress are passed down each time, and are therefore unsigned. "All kinds of manuscripts flow into each other, and that's exactly what I envision art should be moving toward," he says.

Invariably, the artist's view provides a perspective that overturns existing assumptions

Marcel Duchamp freed the artwork from its frame. Then artists like Joseph Beuys liberated the work from the museum. Perhaps here we see the next step being taken, that in which the artwork is freed from its maker, or at least from ONEn maker.


This approach deals a severe blow to the classical conception of the autonomous artist, the creative genius, as we have come to know it since Romanticism. That their sovereign, independent position could be questioned from the outset was well demonstrated by philosopher Maarten Doorman in his book The navel of Daphne (2016). He stated, "Often it was the disciples of the l'art pour l'art principle par excellence who challenged the bourgeoisie in work or with their lives in the areas of sexual morality, drug use, religion and freedom of expression. After all, just look at Oscar Wilde or Charles Baudelaire.

His conclusion: 'For the romantics, the opposite of autonomy is not commitment, but submission. Those who throw off the shackles become autonomous, but the artist need not thereby immediately live on an island or make work that turns away from the world.'

As an example, Doorman cited Ai Weiwei's Sunflower seeds (2010), also recently on display at Rotterdam's Kunsthal: one hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds, presenting a wealth of paradoxes: 'It was about theft and ownership, about individual and community, about the totalitarian state, about globalization and about commitment.'

Only ambiguousëngaged art, without an unambiguous message, is worthwhile, in his opinion. Doorman: "Art stands outside the world and sometimes embraces it so fiercely that for a moment it coincides with it; it is, to put it romantically, absolute in its isolation and total in its embrace. Both. At the same time.'

Aloof autonomy we can no longer afford well

By those standards, some of the projects in the podcast are closer to that fusion of autonomy and engagement than others. For example, the project We sell reality, with statusless refugees, for example, stemming from activist groups such as We Are Here.

But even projects like The Butterfly House, Embassy of the North Sea or the Slavery Monument in Tilburg do not necessarily have all kinds of ironic ambiguities. It would also be very strange for artist to work completely aloof in this, and only be allowed to make ironic, ambiguous comments. There is a lot going on in our world, so aloof autonomy is no longer something we can easily afford.

Even more literally than the examples cited by Doorman, these artists coincide with the world in which and with which they work. They go even a little further in this. Almost all of them take the step in which the people who inhabit that world are also co-makers. They liberate the autonomous artist from his individual isolation. They turn society and public space into a studio in which a larger community works on a work of art.

Is that still art? I myself have been leaving my writing room more and more lately, giving writing workshops, or going with a group to tell stories around a campfire. That's where wonderful things happen in groups that open up and connect with each other. That definitely has to do with the power of art, but I wouldn't call the whole thing a "work of art" yet.

Art is here ONEn of the forces. It is what musician Merlijn Twaalfhoven calls the "artist's mindset. In 2017, he founded The Turn Club, a movement of artists from a variety of disciplines who want to tackle social issues from that "mindset.

The strength of the artist mindset is precisely that it looks from the outside and challenges consensus

The projects in the podcast are very much in line with Twaalfhoven's ideaën, which he described in It is up to us (2020): 'With an artist's mindset, we can make abstract ideaën question, play and feel. We do not then get stuck in generic symbols, vague externals or oversimplified activism, but make it tangible, experienceable, palpable. An artist translates. That goes beyond a belief or intention that the world must become sustainable or just.'

His advocacy is compelling and the practical examples, like those in the podcast, are often heartbreaking. At the same time, though, there is a danger that geëngaged art in the perception by the outside world always amounts to leftist and progressive, with the caricature of woke culture as a bugbear.

Twaalfhoven even concludes his book with five lessons we can learn from the church, in forming a common ideals. However well-intentioned, I wonder if this is the right way to go. Centuries ago, the arts finally freed themselves from submission to the church, and now they should convert to a new, in practice invariably leftist church?

The strength of the artist's mindset is precisely that it looks from the outside and challenges consensus, questioning fixed views and, by definition, does not permanently adhere to ONEn ideaënformation conforms. Social change, empowerment, sustainability, justice: it's good that the arts can do something here, but that doesn't negate the fact that there are ók should be room for the contemporary Oscar Wilde or Baudelaire who taunts and provokes the leftist church, and ók for artists for whom the slide between "power" and "ability" remains very close to the former.

After the last elections, there is a danger of art regaining the old image of "left-wing hobby. It is up to the art world to make it clear that the power of art is not left or right, but that it is a deep human force that can actually do something everywhere do.

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