The artist’s arrogance (excused)

Recently, I have been reading in the works of Multatuli. He is well-known for a.o. Max Havelaar and Woutertje Pieterse and, if you ask me, one of the best writers of nineteenth-century Europe.

What immediately strikes the innocent reader, is Multatuli’s arrogance.

Multatuli, by unknown photographer, repro found on literatuurlijn.nl

He referred to himself as

a man who throws his honour, his name, his future in the face of a criminal government of a degenerated people [that would be the Dutch] […] who daily pushes away Satan in order to fulfill “the word that is written” in his heart. […] who chooses the long road to Golgotha… not just to be crucified there, but to be crucified at every step he takes […] for the sake of justice

(I am here translating from Idea no. 206; without pretending to capture its literary qualities by the way!)

Multatuli described himself as a knight, a saint, a new Luther – a modern Christ even – seeking to raise his readers’ ‘slow understanding’ (Idea no. 528). For what was his point, what drove him? He wanted to open people’s eyes to the pretense, the hypocrisy, ‘de schelmery die deze wereld voor de meesten maakt tot een hel’. Institutions such as the church, the snobbery of class (whether nobility, merchants or petite bourgeoisie/middenstand) and colonialism as Multatuli encountered it in what is now Indonesia, were what ‘makes this world into a hell’ – except for the powerful few, of course. Again and again Multatuli emphasised that he wrote no pretty stories: he simply wrote the truth. Only, it was a truth only he and a few others had grasped; and whatever he did not grasp was not the truth.

The self-importance that he derived from his task is not pleasant to witness. (This self-importance does not only surface in his writings, by the way. Something of a parallel may be drawn to the lives of Marx and Dickens. All three were men who in the course of their fight for social justice spectacularly neglected their immediate economic and legal dependents, that is, their wives and children.)

But Multatuli’s writings are not alone in this. I was sent a fable by Karl May, another great nineteenth-century writer. It is an orientalist fairy-tale about a weaver weaving a magical prayer rug. Unlike ordinary rugs which anyone can buy on the market, this rug reflects its users’ religious convictions as they really are: often untrue, superficial and hypocritical. When not in use for prayer the rug is just an undecorated, greyish creation. As was to be expected, its magical features are not universally appreciated. What people want is art which ‘even’ ‘porters and donkey boys’ find pretty. The weaver, however, chooses to work for those he esteems, those who show wisdom and understanding. He works for eternity (‘aus Fäden, die nie vergehen’).

Karl May as Kara Ben Nemsi, by unknown photographer, 1896, repro found on karl-may-gesellschaft.de

Karl May’s tale was something of a roman à clef: it was a satire, not just of the publishing industry in general, but of a very specific conflict he had with the publisher of his pacifist novel Et in Terra Pax. Just like Multatuli stressed that he undertook his labours out of love, May wanted to guide his readers towards love for their fellow human beings. Yet like Multatuli, also, he seemed quite convinced of his own superior insight. Both emphasised how they did not just produce ‘thoughts’ but ‘deeds’, ‘action’. As May’s alter ego says in the story: through my work of art ‘I will forever keep on showing you the truth!’. Of course, history has decided in their favour, and I am the last person to disagree with their social critiques. Yet it remains uncomfortable to hear these intellectual heroes call other people’s work ‘mere market goods’ on sale to customers with ‘ordinary taste’. As May’s alter ego cries out: ‘It is not my craft, but Allah who provides for me!’ May and Multatuli were above base economic concerns. Or at least, that is how they wished to present themselves.

Still, how could they have done otherwise? How could you air such unfashionable opinions as May and Multatuli were doing, and sacrifice so much time and money to them, if you were not convinced that these opinions were the truth, that they needed to be heard by everyone, and that you were among the few people capable of making them heard?

May and particularly Multatuli are simply more marked examples of something that applies to all artists, and to scholars, scientists and political activists as well. To publish something, to write a book or compose an opera, to ask money for an experiment or signatures for a petition, is in itself an act of some arrogance: apparently you know something that others don’t, and apparently this something needs shouting out. You may call it courage or you may call it arrogance; artists may soften it by self-doubt or expressions of modesty – the fact remains that we need at least some of it if we want new ideas to come out at all.

P.S. It is on purpose that I mix up literary characters, implied authors and actual people in this column.

P.P.S. I present the ‘artist’s arrogance’ as a universal feature here, but I hope to be placing it in its historical context in a future episode.

Thanks go to Ines Stassen-Driessen for alerting me to May’s story.


The Joy of Chinese Painting?

Have a look at these two types of paintings:

‘Bright Autumn Trees’ by the American TV personality Bob Ross (1942-1995), or any other of his landscape paintings (please click on the link, because I cannot reproduce the image);

and, to give just one example, this landscape by Fan Kuan, a painter living under the Song dynasty (flourished 990–1020):

Fan Kuan, 'Sitting Alone by a Stream' (via Wikimedia Commons)

Fan Kuan, ‘Sitting Alone by a Stream’, now in the National Palace Museum in Taipei (via Wikimedia Commons)

How do you appreciate the two?

On me, in any case, Fan’s painting made a much bigger impression.

Now, I know very little about Chinese painting, but I think that I can safely say that both Bob Ross and Classic Chinese landscape painters worked in a circumscribed tradition, within genre rules that made each work clearly recognisable as a particular kind of landscape. I may offend people were I to call their works cliches, but both painters, I think, wielded stock elements, both specialised in particular painting techniques and both were masters in what they were doing.

Then why do I admire Chinese landscape paintings such as Fan’s so much more than Ross’s? Is it simply the aura of exoticism that for me, as a European spectator, surrounds Chinese art? Or the aura of a venerable age (Fan’s painting is a thousand years older than Ross’s)? Or is perhaps something even more unfair going on?

Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, wrote how people derive status from showing off their cultural knowledge – or, to be more precise, from internalising high-status aesthetic taste. In other words, in order to ‘make it’ you have to find beautiful what others who have already made it also find beautiful. If this analysis is true for my feelings about the two paintings above, that means that in the end, I judge Fan’s work to be ‘art’ and Ross’s work to be ‘kitsch’ just because this is the taste expected from me.

Or is it really something inside the picture that distinguishes Fan from Ross? Is his painting more skilled, more profound, more original? Who can help me?