Roosegaarde and Rodin
Metropolis M magazine
Text written in response to the TV programme College Tour, during which guest Daan Roosegaarde walked out. March 2016.
Next year will mark the centenary of the death of artist Auguste Rodin, an excellent moment to invite him to take part in College Tour. Rodin has a good profile for the programme: a famous artist whose work is ground-breaking. What makes him extra special is that he was immortal even during his lifetime and remained so after his death. All the guests on College Tour hanker after exceptionality one way or another, but none has achieved immortality yet. The only question Twan Huys would have to ask is: how is that done?
Rodin embodies a myth of the artist in which genius is expressed not just in the work but in the artist’s life. Nowadays the Musée Rodin fosters a cult of personality to which Rodin actively contributed when he was alive. The remarkable thing about the myth of Rodin is that in the century since his death he has managed to adapt to the zeitgeist several times. After the Second World War, for example, he was rediscovered as the father of modernism, despite having detested it.
It’s fascinating to see how the myth of Rodin permits such a transformation in image-building, the reason being that myths are inconstant in nature, to the point of mendacity. Immortality doesn’t exist, after all, but myths are legitimate as a faith construct. Art is faith packaged as craft.
The fact that artist myths reconcile inherent contradictions became apparent again with a recent College Tour guest. Daan Roosegaarde, Artist of the Year, walked out feeling hurt by repeated critical questioning about his working methods. There were suggestions he gloried in the work of others. The question of whether doing so was legitimate or not has since been asked in talk shows and on opinion pages, but more interesting is the contradiction that underlies the Roosegaarde myth.
Roosegaarde’s artistic practice is modern. He heads a company based in the Netherlands and Shanghai, and his work is innovative. He works with scholars, planners and ministries. Whether the results are art or something else is a matter of indifference to Roosegaarde; he wants to make the world a better place. He pulls the future towards him and presents us with ways of experiencing it.
He has made some genuine discoveries that have a huge wow factor. A machine that converts smog into fresh air and jewels would once have been the preserve of Gyro Gearloose. Roosegaarde makes it a real possibility. But in the enthusiasm that his work generates you can also spot the mythmaking. Among the public there is a great desire to believe in this kind of progress, which – and here comes the contradiction – creates a personality cult that verges on romanticism.
As the object of such a cult, Roosegaarde closely resembles Rodin, partly because he encourages attention to his own person. He does so with topoi, the building blocks from which every artist myth is constructed. You recognize them because they can be retold easily and often, as proof of exceptionality. This first struck me when I was watching Zomergasten and Roosegaarde said that as a student he worked in a bookshop and also slept there, on a mattress in the aisle with all the great Russian writers. There you recognize the topos of contact with great masters from past centuries. Rodin placed himself on a par with Michelangelo and Donatello. Another topos is Roosegaarde’s repeated statement ‘I fell in love with places instead of girls’, used as an example of a heightened sensitivity manifested at a young age. Rodin had similar statements at the ready about his youth.
If you put it like that, a hint of dishonesty comes to hang over the victim, but it’s more complicated. An artist myth is an agreement maintained from two sides. Geniuses and their admirers live in a double bind. The myth is still nourished, but also tested. The need for mythologization expresses itself from time to time in a need for unmasking. College Tour derives its rationale from this dynamic. The entire audience and the viewers at home believe in the myth of Roosegaarde. There is plenty of room for homage, but the litmus test of the myth lies in criticism, which refreshes the image of the artist so that it can continue to meet a collective need.
Every era seeks its own version of the artist myth. Roosegaarde’s considerable success is attributable not just to the inviting perspective he offers with his work but to the fact that he fills the hole made by the draconian cuts to the culture budget in 2011. It wasn’t just a matter of less money; the social role of the artist was supposed to change too. The VVD wanted a free market: fend for yourself. Coalition enabler the PVV dismissed artists as subsidy guzzlers and left-wing hobbyists. Roosegaarde precisely fits the profile that has been dominant ever since. Something patronizing used to cling to art in public space, and at the very least it required critical interrogation. With Roosegaarde the starting point for every work is the feelgood factor. He no doubt still receives subsidies, but nobody ever mentions them. He looks like an economically viable entrepreneur, and that is reflected in his artistic practice.
Most surprising in fact is how seamlessly the switch has gone. Fleetingly there was a rupture, but art has capacities of self-repair. There are always artists who manage to adjust to the demands of their time. For that alone Roosegaarde should be given enormous credit, because he embodies his time. He conquers new terrain for art by detaching his work from that old word. What does it matter if it’s still called art? New definitions await.
The question is whether on the centenary of his death Rodin will or can say much in College Tour about that myth-laden artistic calling. It is very much in his interest, as it is in Roosegaarde’s, to preserve his own myth. Son of romanticism. Father of modernism. Grandfather of postmodernism. Great-grandfather of image-building. It’s the last of these that makes him interesting now, because our culture is shaped by it more than ever. The myth of Rodin is robust enough for that. How things will go with Roosegaarde after College Tour is mainly up to him.
Roosegaarde breaks away from art in many respects, but he continues to cling to one thing: a personal artistic practice. This is problematic. Somewhere in the newly conquered terrain lies the question of how to deal with another person’s expertise. It is not a new issue. Rodin likewise relied on the craftsmanship of others. He didn’t carve his marble statues himself – his signature was added by his assistants – but he got away with it. It’s a different matter now for Roosegaarde. At the moment when he walked out of College Tour he lost command of his own image-building. With a clear answer to the question of how collaboration and appropriation fit within an individual’s artistic practice, he would have kept the ball in his own court. How to go about repairing the damage is an interesting design question.