Ex Statu Pupillari: Against Guardians

Sam Vangheluwe 

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

My late father loved to drive his car. Whenever he lost the way (the era before GPS), he would rather stay lost than ask someone for directions. Whenever he set about assembling a newly purchased item of furniture or piecing together some apparatus, he would do so without touching the manual, without even acknowledging its existence. This in spite of the risk of messing up, and in contempt of his family’s appeals to read the bloody instructions for goodness’ sake. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another, he would retort. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. I cannot guarantee that he quoted Immanuel Kant verbatim, but his utterances sounded almost as eloquent. 

In Kant’s day, self-incurred tutelage was brought about through “guidance from books for understanding, a pastor to serve as one’s conscience, a physician to determine one’s diet,” and so on.

The Ancien Régime is long gone, organized religion has lost much of its clout, slavery has been abolished (officially), the fair sex is emancipated (?), gender identity is on the agenda, and children have learned to talk back. Even animals are on the cusp of enjoying, well, animal rights. Yet it seems that early 21st-century humankind relies more than ever on alien guidance. In statu pupillari. Collectively underage. We delegate everything. Duties, responsibilities, skills, life choices, care, power – all are left to benevolent guardians who act on our behalf. We are so thoroughly accustomed to being supervised that we don’t even start to question our permanent nonage. We rely on specialists to feed and clothe us, to look after our children, to represent our interests, to think, act and feel for us. The poor are guided through the rocky road of privation, the rich are provided with a lengthy description of what they are about to eat, and how to eat it, at each new course.

Nowhere is this self-imposed immaturity more surprising, if not vexing, than in the arts. Recently on Flemish tv, a middle-aged actor – on his first visit to a museum – complained to his interviewer that as a child he had to learn the periods and schools in art history without ever visiting a museum. “Take me to a museum!” he exclaimed anachronistically. “Ah,” answered the interviewer, “but in that case what is important is who accompanies you, who opens your eyes. Who is your guide?”

Not only in the fine or visual arts do we crave guidance. In music: a live concert performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in a church in Bruges. First, a lengthy spoken introduction by some person, on what we are about to hear. We must be truly dim. Then, throughout the performance, the rustling of pages being turned in concert by the audience, who, with heads bent over their libretto, do not want to miss a word, of the original and the translation.

In theatre: as a 16-year-old, during an interval in the performance of the Apology of Socrates, a bare knuckle fight to the death with my Latin-Greek teacher, who maintained that without prior knowledge or thoughtful guidance, the audience would merely be the proverbial swine, incapable of appreciating the pearls that are cast before them. I reckoned, and still do, that if the tragedic or comedic substance of any piece fails to reach the audience, most likely there is something lacking in the piece or in its performance. Or, indeed, the audience must be a vegetable garden, and thus beyond guidance anyway.

Many years ago, I inadvertently offended a kindly middle-aged Japanese lady who offered to guide me through Matsumoto Castle, by politely refusing her services. She was bewildered, vexed and possibly inconsolable. But I stood my ground (since then, I have learned that flat refusal doesn’t sit well with Japanese mores). On that same journey, I was acquainted with further examples of benevolent Japanese guidance: the Zen garden of Ryōan-ji in Kyoto, where the visitor was (in illo tempore) invited to enjoy the meditative silence by a voice roaring unceasingly from a Tannoy. Or the spectacular fireworks at Lake Biwa, drowned out by the kindly advice on how to enjoy not only the sight but the subtleties of the soundscape as well, broadcast from a vast loudspeaker system.

The Japanese might have a particular penchant for docility under guidance, but are the rest of us so much more liberated?

What is (visual) art, to most people? It is an object, a form, purportedly imbued with meaning, with content. The artist provides the form, but who furnishes the content? As the public is often not conversant with the artist, or the latter unable and/or unwilling to act as a guide, this role is left to, and eagerly taken up by the specialists: the art historian, the curator, the art critic, the museum guide – the guardians of the fine arts. 

Guided tour in a museum

Let us admit it: we are all docile creatures, and blindly trust our guardians. As Kant wrote: “Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the walker to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone.” Any attempt at walking alone is subverted by our guardians, and moreover, we ourselves are utterly loath to walk independently. How many people do I know, good friends among them, who feel they get a raw deal when not provided with some easy-to-swallow, predigested explanation of a work of art they are faced with. In the case of painting, it is all in the ‘story’ – specifically: the details, the sacred details. Painting as a picture puzzle. ‘Abstract’ painting presents other problems. More than once have I witnessed someone confronted with an abstract painting, and – bereft of any back-story, symbolist interpretation, or reference to ‘familiar’ reality – evolving from a state of minor irritation, to outrage, to outright fury: “What on earth am I supposed to make of this?!”

“Standing in front of it, I‘d rather know that Guernica is an anti-war painting against the bombing of a Spanish town by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists,” says the layperson in art, “without that knowledge, what and how am I to see?” Good question. “What if my ignorance causes me to fall, what if Guernica gives me the impression of a terrible vitality, of life, god forbid, instead of death and destruction?” Fear of falling has the viewer cling to commonplaces, and prevents him or her from further exploring what and how to see – where it all starts.

Guernica (P. Picasso): Death or Life?

This is the ultimate danger that haunts the fine arts museum or gallery visitor: being abandoned, and falling. There are a thousand reasons why you might stumble and fall in the face of a mute work of art. It might just not be your day. Or the work might indeed be insipid. You might completely overlook the essence of a work of art. You might feel indifferent toward a masterpiece, or attracted to some banality. You might pass judgement and be mistaken. However, this danger is inflated, as, in Kant’s words: “after falling a few times [you] would in the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts.”

Anyone visiting the Museum Insel Hombroich (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany), as I did as a youth, will experience that timidity upon being abandoned: this singular museum does (did) not provide captions to accompany the works from various eras and cultures. None. No artist’s name, no dates, no techniques. “Is that a… Rembrandt etching? Is it a real Rembrandt? Is it an etching or a drypoint? When is it from?” Thus one is enfranchised, left to one’s own devices. It is striking how soon a certain irritation rises, so loath are we to dispense with our fetters.

Lacking the guardians’ harness, and maintaining this simplistic and specious separation of form and content, the average museum visitor vaguely distrusts his or her esthetic judgement (for being superficial), and feels that one’s own intellect is inadequate at grasping the ‘correct’ meaning. How could one’s own understanding ever be on a par with the specialists’ expertise? And thus, the forsaken visitor relinquishes all further attempts at walking alone.

There is however, imperatively, only one configuration that allows art/painting to live: that of the viewer and the work of art facing each other, one to one. Without external mediation. This setup is equally abhorred by the guardians and the public, for it risks rendering the former obsolete, and liberating the latter from tutelage for good.

And therefore no stone is left unturned in order to avoid that calamity. Visit any museum of fine arts today, and you will be beset by benevolent attempts to tether you to some form of guidance. You will be hard-pressed to walk alone. Walking alone, in these days of mass culture, is increasingly tricky – a successful museum of fine arts being, by definition, an overcrowded museum. In the very reception area, visitors are harnessed with audio gear to crowd their brain with text, and thus avoid the one-to-one relation with the art. You can of course also download the museum app and choose a themed tour. That is if you don’t participate in a guided group tour, thereby averting serious contemplation altogether. You’ll be positively encouraged to take photographs (selfies!), for looking though a lens is safer than looking at the work. Your feeble attempts at escaping tutelage will be wiped out by a tsunami of written text, on walls, labels, in brochures, on touchscreens and so on. Interventions by residing artists, ‘commenting’ on the works of art, will distract your overview by insisting on the details, the sacred godforsaken details. Curators will have rearranged the collection into some nifty thematic order of their own devising, impeding your autonomous gaze. No more bored children: the museum has become an exciting adventure trail, a treasure hunt, a family-friendly playground for young and old.

Yet the alternative is bafflingly simple. I firmly believe that anyone, especially those innocents who are not inclined to partake of the fine arts, or who feel intimidated by their supposed stature, can indeed develop a meaningful relationship with a work of art, without the tutelage of guardians or guides. Under their own steam. After all, they have not yet been (entirely) spoilt by “rules and formulas, those mechanical aids to the rational use, or rather misuse, of [their] natural gifts, […] the shackles of a permanent immaturity” (Kant). These innocents are trustful, available, new. 

It is particularly appalling to abuse these innocents’ trust and availability by imposing on them an immaturity which is a lesson in servility, an attack on the freedom of the mind and the dignity of humankind.

Just look, dear friend. Linger a while. Trust your senses. Do not look left and right for text. That can come later. Detach yourself from the tour group, run away from the guide. Switch off your audio. Remove the museum app from your phone. Do not take pictures: photographing = not seeing. Stay away from the touchscreens. Ignore the circus. Art reviews are not gospel. Don’t be told what to see, what to feel, what to think. Sapere aude – have the courage to use your own reason.

Quotes by Immanuel Kant taken from: 

What is Enlightenment? Berlinischen Monatsschrift

(December, 1784), pp. 481-494.

Sam Vangheluwe