The artist as a ‘baron in the trees’

Speech given at the opening of Casco, 1 May 2014.

These last years, the cutbacks in the cultural sector have led to a reconsideration of the place of art in Dutch society.

There are those who have advocated a return to art’s traditional bulwark: the classical notion of autonomy. The art world in this perspective should be considered as a somewhat sanctified space, free from considerations of utility. The flipside of the coin is that art is also deemed impotent to signify anything outside of its institutional perimeters. In the words of the Dutch art critic Den Hartog Jager: “[W]hatever you do as an artist, however loud you scream, it is impossible to really exert an influence on the world, to leave something behind that is meaningful outside the artistic realm.” A similar -romantic- notion of autonomy is prevalent in the Dutch literary scene, where irony and ambiguity are celebrated as the precondition for artistic integrity.

And there are those that have advocated a complete immersion of the arts in society and the abandonment of autonomy. This can take on many guises: the artist as entrepreneur, as a social worker, as a form of cultural branding, as raw material for the creative industries, as the icing on the cake of real estate projects, the artist as a therapist, and so on. This idea of immersion has been promoted under the label of new engagement and participatory art. Generally, it means the artist becomes an instrument of governmental policy and private interests. In this perspective, art can meaningfully change society, but in the end it is not the artist who is in control of that change: that is decided upon by the market and/or the state.

What I want to explore shortly here is an in-between approach, that for me, forms the basis for the critical practice of an art space like Casco. The ingredients for such a vision can be found in the work of Jacques Rancière, who states that the aesthetic regime of art departs from the inherent entanglement of autonomy and heteronomy. Autonomy refers not so much to the artwork itself, rather to the autonomous place that art is given in society (within the walls of the museum, for example). A space that implies a particular sphere of experience, meaning that one is supposed to approach objects in a different (in the words of Kant and Schiller, disinterested) manner than in everyday life. Heteronomy means that art always relates to everyday life. It is impossible to perceive art, separately from day to day experiences, such as landscapes, bodies, objects or social and political realities. The avant-garde ideal of the fusion of art and everyday life, or the Dadaistic incorporation of everyday objects in the artistic sphere, is based on a similar logic of heteronomy. In the words of Rancière:

‘A critical art is in fact a sort of “third way”, a kind of specific negotiation between those two constitutive politics of aesthetics. This negotiation must keep something of the tension that pushes aesthetic experience toward the reconfiguration of collective life and something of the tension that withdraws the power of aesthetic sensibility from the other spheres of experience. It must borrow from the zones of indistinction of art and life the connections that provoke political intelligibility. And it must borrow from the separateness of art works the sense of sensory foreignness that enhances political energies. Political art must be some sort of collage of the opposites.’[1]

According to Rancière, the tension resulting from the negotiation of autonomy and heteronomy, conditions the force of critical art. An art practice that employs such a hybrid strategy implies a different form of engagement than the commonplace notion that a political stance inherently results in a sacrifice of artistic autonomy. It is exactly the adherence to autonomy, intervening through the material of the arts, or the sphere of the arts, that generates the tension that determines the critical force of the intervention.

An interesting metaphor for this more hybrid form of commitment is the allegorical novel The baron in the trees by Italo Calvino[2]. The story opens in Liguria, 1767, at the moment that the twelve year old baron Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo is served slugs for lunch by his sadistic sister. A fight ensues, and the young baron takes to the trees of the estate, with the solemn promise that he will never set foot on the ground again. The hope of his family that this promise derives from some form of youthful folly is proven unfounded. Cosimo will live in the trees for the rest of his life. In the beginning it presents him with many problems. He must learn how to survive, to make a home for himself, to hunt and defend himself. But his unconventional position is not simply a restriction of his abilities. It increases his freedom of movement, since Cosimo is now able to leave the estate of his parents, and is able to associate with other inhabitants of the valley. In the trees, he reads enlightenment philosophy and literature. He corresponds with Voltaire and Diderot on the ideals of a universal society. From high-up he organises a local fire patrol, helps the impoverished youth steel fruit, fights off a pirate raid, publishes his own newspaper, helps the troops of Napoleon, and develops a problematic love life with a girl that would rather want him to come down. What the tale of Cosimo tells, is that by taking distance, by living in another world, the baron was able to develop a critical perspective and associate with others. At the end of his life Cosimo understands ‘something that was all-embracing, and he could not say it in words but only by living as he did. Only by being so frankly himself as he was till his death could he give something to all men.’

As for Cosimo, critical artistic practice implies the need to survive in a different world. And subsequently to associate, to deepen critical understanding, and to intervene in society, from the treetops of autonomy.



[1]Jacques Rancière, The politics of aesthetics, available online at:

[2] Italo Calvino, The baron in the Trees, Mariner Books 1977.