Johannes Scott – February 2024.
Everyone is an artist, the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys once famously proclaimed. Had he said anything can be art – that any object, even a prefabricated ready-made item, can have function for aesthetic form – his statement would have drawn less scorn.
But that is not what he said – his focus was not on aesthetic form. Beuys, as he later in 1973 attempted to clarify, said he was pointing to the function of creative individuals in reshaping our socio-political order into a “work of art.” Nevertheless, the phrase prevails, not for being notoriously misunderstood, but because it begs the question: What form would this aesthetic object have? Without form – without difference to other aesthetic forms – the endeavour would lack symbolic recognition, discursive significance, and enjoyment of illumination.
A decade later, French philosopher Michel Foucault presented his academic audience with a genealogy of the self as a work of art. At the Collège de France, Foucault delivered a series of public lectures on historic practice of self-examination and self-cultivation. Titled Care of the Self, the lectures show how the ancients developed techniques of austerity to aestheticize their lives and give illumination and wellbeing to their experience of life. Pertinently, Foucault points to the transformation of this practice during antiquity, renunciation in the Middle Ages, and reemergence in modernity.
Foucault shows a sequence of different models of techne tou biou (the art of conducting one’s life) practiced during antiquity. His focus is on the Hellenistic notion practiced within Greco-Roman culture by the Epicureans, during the first two hundred years AD. The Epicurean model – known as epimeleia heautou (care of the self) – differs significantly not only to the preceding model founded by Greek philosopher Plato and the successive inversion practiced by medieval Roman-Christians, but also to the modernist, Cartesian notion based on self-knowledge, namely, gnothi seauton (know thyself).
For the Epicureans, like with Plato, care of the self is not an introspective activity, instead, it means to be concerned with aesthetic and scientific knowledge. It means to gain familiarity with the discourses of the world and by means of austere practice such as self-discipline and repetition, and to apply and conform to these ways of the world, to give cultivated form and context to one’s experience of life. For Epictetus, who was born into Roman slavery, understanding the ways of the world was vital for his well-being, both in his labour and free time. But it is at this point where the Epicurean mode departs from Plato’s model, for whom austerity is restricted to political and public service. The Epicurean model extends to domesticity; an austere practice by free choice, tolerant to everyone, everywhere.
Following collapse of the tolerant Greco-Roman culture, the ancient understanding of the self – not being precast within but cultivated by outer reflection – was dramatically inverted by the intolerant, medieval Roman-Christian culture. During the Middle Ages, classical, autonomous care for self was outsourced to ecclesiastical institutions – the pastorate was empowered to care for others on their behalf and instruct them on the preservation of an authentic, precast self. The ancient techne of austerity was revived in the form of spiritual practices that renounce, prohibit, and decipher the self for truth, hidden within. It is not until the Renaissance, and its resistance to pastoral power in favour of institutional science and modern aesthetics, that we see the return of the idea that one can transform one’s life into a work of art. For example, by the mid-fifteenth century, portraiture became an established art form in which the hero depicted may itself be the artist.
The life of renaissance empiricist Bernard Palissy exemplifies a return to the Epicurean idea of care for the self. Palissy embraced renaissance knowledge and applied these discourses in his desire to unravel the technology of Chinese porcelain. Born into a world of poverty and therefore without formal education in Latin or Greek, Palissy dabbled as French peasant potter while enrolled for knowledge in the guild system, apprenticed as glass painter, and completed his education as journeyman, travelling Europe. He published and delivered public lectures in Paris on discourses such as mineralogy, geology, metallurgy, and hydrology, and contested the medieval view that fossils are debris from the Biblical Flood. Instead, Palissy argued, fossils are the result of natural petrification. Moreover, for him, petrification was not only akin to pottery in general, but he also imitated the process of petrified fossils in the making of his ceramic art. While working under the royal protection of Catherine de’ Medici, carrying the official title ‘the king’s inventor of rustic figurines’, he casted little creatures of fauna and flora from life and famously, moulded these onto his ceramic ware. Palissy died a Huguenot prisoner at the notorious Bastille during Protestant riots.
By the end of the 18th century, after the fall of aristocracy and dawn of Romanticism, we see the emergence of an alternative form of aestheticizing the self, namely dandyism. “The last burst of heroism,” is how the modernist poet Charles Baudelaire describes this self-made man of middle-class origin who imitates the artifice of aristocratic appearance. “An aesthetic form of nihilism,” is how the post-modernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard defines dandyism when the self is centred upon the discursive world. Countering the loss of social certainty caused by defunct discourses such as religion and monarchy in favour of unranked, scientific discourses and its associate proliferation of temporaneous identities, the dandy retreats to ego for an imaginary image of authenticity. The industrial revolution and its practice to standardise the population worsened the identity crisis, prompting a Cartesian consciousness for self-knowledge. In the age of industry, the self is seen as a deep shelter for unlimited prodigy, waiting to be discovered and brought to light by personal endeavour and private ambition.
The industrial revolution and its establishment of leisure time consolidated care of self as we understand it today, proverbially. For example, the fact that the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in 1851 at the London Crystal Palace, was visited by a third of the Victorian population was possible only because of the novelty of leisure time granted by industrialisation. Moreover, the exhibition enabled another novelty, namely recreational practices. Six million visitors were inspired by the exhibits, and many started imitating these inventions of art and technology as informal diversion to the standardised world. These leisure time novelties included travel, sport, art, and amateur astronomy amongst others, conventionally practised by academic and expert qualification only. For example, the Minton Company’s exhibition stand showcasing their Staffordshire majolica pottery production of ‘Palissy Ware’ drew huge crowds to the Great Exhibition. Consequently, classes in ‘painting on china’ and imitating the Renaissance pottery of Bernard Palissy became vogue, amongst other recreational activities such as modelling copies of Greco-Roman busts and ‘Grand Tours’ to Italy for Sunday painters to sketch Roman ruins – the art of plein air, as it is known today amongst recreation artists.
Compared to the Great Exhibition of 1851, we have in our contemporary world a form of art exhibition that has the potential to recall Epicurean care. Instead of inspiring to recreate technique and process, as was done by the leisurely Victorian public and today by aficionados visiting the likes of design fairs, the contemporary art curator aims to generate an imaginary scenario in which the self can be experienced as immersed in the world of social discourse. Instead of mediating relations between artists and artwork, or artist and public, the task of the contemporary curator is to mediate context and public reception for consequential aesthetic affect. For example, curators of Manifesta (the European nomadic exhibition in Barcelona) and the biennial Venice International Art Exhibition aim to present the public with a reimagined context of critical discourse for the public to reconfigure the location of self in the symbolic world.
Manifesta Barcelona 2024 is presenting an art cluster named Cure and Care at the 9th century monastery of Sant Cugat. The contextual form of the art curation is ecocritical accountability between “caring for the self, each other, and the natural environment.” The 2024 Venice International Art Exhibition, titled Foreigners Everywhere, aims to immerse the public into a psychosocial dynamic of lost identity, seeking recognition that “no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner.”
For symbolic significance, these exhibitions invoke austere public participation and promise to generate a sense of ethical well-being. It is in this context that anyone and anything have the potential to signify in the discourse of art. The number of visitors to these two exhibitions is anticipated to exceed 1.5 million.
Johannes Scott is an independent artist and writer. He received the BA degree for theory of literature at the University of South Africa (2011); postgraduate studies in theory of drama (2013), narratology (2014), and critical theory (2015); specialising in the metafiction of J. M. Coetzee; Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction; Michel Foucault’s technologies of the self; and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of aesthetics.