"what is there to look at?"

The sprightly 10-year old merrily ran through the contemporary art centre. In each room she halted and gazed around intently before turning to her mother with the imperious question: “qu’est- ce qu’il y a à regarder?” -  “what is there to look at? ” 

An excellent question indeed! Because, as John Berger famously remarked in his Ways of Seeing, we only see what we look at. 

And of course, we do need a minimum of guidance for our gaze.  As to ancient art, being an avid reader of art history may have helped me to better look at old paintings, appreciating style, understanding  iconography.   At contemporary art exhibitions I come less well prepared -  armed merely with my status of a contemporary – and a reluctant & inadequate one at that.  So I faithfully read the accompanying exhibition leaflets,  searching for clues & meaning amidst the convoluted jargon  (the west does love complicatedness!  be it in theological tracts or in contemporary art discourses.) 

But in the end, whether you love a painting (an installation, an object, … ) or not – is a matter of personal taste and affinity.  Affinity with the expression of some purely human emotion – be it  a longing or an elegy, a meditation or an  accusation.

For instance, what I love in Lili Dujourie’s sculptures is the melancholy tension between gravitas & vanitas .  The remembrance of the rich draperies in old master paintings, the tangible sensuousness of heavy folds, the fleetingness of an image in the mirror.

And I do intensely feel for the paradoxical theme of this exhibition  “Unexchangeable” : the exchange value of art bought on the art market by collectors versus the supposed singularity of art works -  our age of infinite reproducibility contrasted with a bygone era of artefacts whose value was vouched for by masterly skills, precious materials and a sheer  irreplaceable material uniqueness.

I find it heart-wrenching how little our contemporary artists can count on a durable shelter for their ideas.  Their use of discarded objects and perishable materials  (ah, an  almost decomposing matrass  25 years after its première ) – their ephemeral performance art …  It does make me want to cry out with Ruskin “now, lastly, will you tell me what we worship and what we build? “ (1)

(And now, how is art still to preserve some of its singular, communal bonding power amidst the  avalanche of images & videos  & words massively unleashed by each one of us on social media?)

(1) Let me confess
I’ve been reading a lot of Ruskin lately – I love  his 19thC style of writing, his erudition (encompassing bible & hymns & ancient writings).  I do love his unflinching belief in holding up the highest standards for aesthetics and morals – which he sees as linked. It’s lost (forever, I suppose) that belief. 
As a 21st C sceptic  I may be unable to share his convictions, but I can still envy him for the following sentence - however exalted & sentimental, however denounced now as a privileged
illusion : 

  “[…] a picture of Titian’s, or a Greek statue, or a Greek coin, or a Turner landscape, expresses delight in the perpetual contemplation of a good and perfect thing. That is an entirely moral quality – it is the taste of the angels”   


Easter came and went - and no ponderous blogpost, no melancholy musings?  No humble contribution to the training of Google’s algorithms in the meaning of Easter for post-religious humanists?

Well, maybe it’s just wise to keep some mysteries off line? Unless, on the contrary, we should make sure that, amidst the billions of frivolous words & pictures that are continuously uploaded to the Internet, we also add our very own fleeting fragments? Feed our own morsels to that ever growing corpus of data which only an artificial intelligence can still digest.

 Meanwhile, off line, I’m grateful for the very tangible exhibition of old (1130-1600) Netherlandish sculptures in the Louvain Museum. 
The still & solid presence of  these sculptures and reliefs appeases me -  their (relative permanence) & companionship :  how many  people have stood before them, meditating, seeking & finding solace? 
A sculptured group of  a swooning Maria under the cross, held by a commiserating John ( #compassion). 
A relief of  a seated, mourning Maria, surrounded by pictures of her sufferings  (#7sorrows). 

I am also grateful for the very real voices & instruments of the Minimes Chapel Choir & Orchestra , singing and playing every month that divine music which is surely far better than us, poor sinners.   Bach’s music in the Castle of Heaven, il Divino Claudio (Monteverdi) (#sacredmusic), ....

So yes, as a post-religious humanist I am profoundly grateful for  sacred art and music: invented-sculpted-composed- sung & played by human beings – incorporating (and perhaps even assuaging) our longings for transcendence. In fact I’ve often wondered whether this sublime art could only have been created thanks to true religious faith, a real belief in the possibility of transcendence?  

But humanist appreciation of sacred art, however sincere & devoted, is not necessarily welcomed by true believers.   
Think of the notices in churches sternly admonishing visiting art lovers that "a church is not a museum".  
 Or take for example the sad fact that, after 35 years of performing Bach Cantata’s in the Church of the Minimes, the  Minimes Chapel Choir & Orchestra was compelled to look for another home (which thank god they found in the church Saint Jacques sur Coudenberg), because the Minimes Church authorities wanted to give priority to the Cult – dismissing the Bach cantata’s as "mere culture". 

The previous Minimes Parish  priest,  Abbé Van der Biest (who passed away in May 2016), an ardent Bach lover himself , would surely have disagreed.    So, at the last concert in the Minimes church , as a tribute and out of sheer human piety, the passage from Bach’s Magnificat that Abbé Van der Biest loved best, was sung.  

And while the music soared upwards, the whole congregation of music lovers rose and listened devoutly (#devotion). 

Ephemeral Stores of Memory

It was a bright Sunday afternoon with a bitterly cold wind sweeping the streets. Not many people about, not even in the lively university neighbourhood. The local second hand book store was open though, as always a comforting haven on cold & bored Sunday afternoons. 

Half of the shop window now was plastered over with the gaudy signs of spectacular price promotions “minus 20% on top of all discounts!”.  But no dopamine-shot of  potential gain for me,  only the sinking feeling of loss, because it also  read “ liquidation totale avant fermeture définitive”.  Total” selling out! “Final” closing! No appeal possible against those adjectives.   

I’d always loved this book shop – it had the typical French university flavour of longwinded verbose humanities, but also sections that testified to the idiosyncrasies of its managers (or owners).  Such as a DVD section filled with classical ‘golden age’ Hollywood films - the man running the DVD section  boasted an absolute memory of all film titles & editions.  I myself was mostly drawn to the art history section, well stuffed with late antique & byzantine art books. Once I willingly let the manager convince me to acquire one of those door stopping art books ( this one about Christian art from Late Antiquity) weighing over 10 kilos (L:35,W: 20, H: 8 cm ), if only because it contained the close-up of a particularly dignified angel, from an obscure  mosaic high up on the wall of Santa Maria Maggiora in Rome (to which I once peered up in situ without however seeing anything).   

They also had an intriguing Middle East section with a merrily diverse offer of  books, covering  Pagan, Jewish, Christian  and Islamic thought, ancient & modern history, rationalist, religious and esoteric thinkers.   While browsing the Middle East shelves I overheard the student worker who manned the shop on Sundays, explaining to his friends that with the lease of the shop coming up for renewal,  the owners had had to face a steep increase in the rent .   He briskly summed up the shop’s financial situation “revenues down because of the likes of Amazon or Netflix etc – rent up -  so no way to turn a profit any longer. The owners have 2 more second hand book shops in Brussels, also nearing the end of their leases. So now they are re-thinking the entire concept.  They might go for ephemeral stores only”.  

Well in fact he said “magazins éphémères” –  endearingly lyrical French for “pop-up store” (I assume). The young man and his friends, all 20 somethings, did bemoan the unrelenting market pressures chasing out bookshops at the benefit of yet another café or restaurant  -- but they also sounded curiously upbeat.  Somehow excited about the change, welcoming perhaps the arrival of a new trendy, concept.

Meanwhile, squatting in front of the book-shelves, I had spotted an interesting book cover –  with a picture of antique arches  and capitals, bathing in golden sunlight and a title in pseudo old fashioned lettering  “Syrie - carrefour des civilisations”  (“Syria – crossroads of civilisations”).  A lavishly illustrated book : full of glossy pictures of glorious ancient buildings, undulating landscapes, cityscapes full of unsuspecting people leisurely going about their business (selling tea in the streets, lurking at water pipes, kneeling in mosquees and churches). At the back of the book I found the publishing date : October 2011.

When I handed my find at the young man at the counter, we  also chatted briefly about the closing of this shop. He tried to cheer me up:  “I’m sure they’ll open up some new venue in the neighbourhood”. He was routinely handling the transaction, but then stopped and started leafing pensively  through the book.  He looked up at me – “beautiful pictures. So much has been destroyed. My father is from the region.  From his expression I gathered that he himself had never been there, only knew  the region’ through pictures.  

 For a moment we gazed together at the sunlit glorious images –  muttering something about “human folly” and  morosely agreeing that “at least it’s all still there in books”.  But then he perked up and enthusiastically started telling about how scholars are painstakingly reconstructing all ancient buildings with 3D computer models. “They will rebuild everything!” he stated with all the endearing confidence of youth.
And that’s of course how humanity keeps carrying on despite all the catastrophes – with always new generations beginning anew, not yet dragged down by too much knowledge of ever recurring human folly.