Blue, Blue

As a melancholy teenager, holed up in a room with "pale blinds drawn",  I hummed along with Bowie's "Sound & Vision" : "blue blue electric blue that's the colour of my room where I will live, blue blue".

In the end, I never did paint any of my rooms in electric blue. And instead I rather became enamored with that pale, simmering 18th century blue. And with those still lifes depicting the gifts of "sound & vision" - in 18th C terms: " the Attributes of Music"," the Attributes of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture"


the sea-borne soul of Dunkerque (1)

Closed for lunch

The attendants at the ticket counter looked positively shocked when we walked into the museum.  Their embarassment deepened when we asked for two entry-tickets: “we are very sorry, but the museum is closed!"
I felt dejected, our day's outing sabotaged by the implacable quirks of opening hours : "Oh, so you're closed for the day?"  They smiled at such ignorance: "Well no, just from noon till 2PM"
Of course, the sacred French 'pause du midi' – it's not because you're only 15 kilometers across the Belgian border, at Dunkerque, that French customs would no longer hold sway (2).

Thus evicted from the  Musée des Beaux Arts, we wandered about in the cold, drifting towards the harbour. Everything about Dunkerque feels naval and seabound. From the salty taste of the air, over the echoing screeches of seagulls to the rhythmic clicking of  masts & poles & wires rocking  in the wind.

Naval & industrial history

Cosy or fashionable Dunkerque is not – what with  its  abandoned naval shipyards and the ominous shapes of  the remaining, fuming industries on the horizon. Even with a strong sea-breeze your throat & nose smart from the potent mixture of sea-salt & chemical smells. There’s nothing frivolous either about its history – over the ages it has been besieged and occupied by various military forces (much like Belgium in fact) with the WWII bombings as a devastating finale.

Dunkerque could once boast one of the biggest naval construction works of France – but they all have been dismantled in the 80s of the past century. Even now, the city’s outskirts are marked by industrial buildings, utilitary infrastructure typical of a bygone industrial age, a channel and a railroad prominently crossing the landscape. Grey concrete walls  covered with graffiti add to the industrial suburbian atmosphere. Only along the coast  Dunkerque offers some old fashioned resort charms with Malo-les-bains still sporting many a frivolous seaside villa.  Contemporary art, too, has been deployed to redeem this battered region: a huge old shipyard building got a contemporary make over and has become a popular art hot-spot. 

Reconstruction & corrosion

Much of Dunkerque-city  has been rebuilt after WWII.  In the city-centre only the church tower and the city-hall have been restored to their former shapes – the other parts of the city have been rebuilt with lots of concrete & iron, bravely reflecting the modern city-conceptions of the time. With some effort you can still imagine the optimistic 50’s-60’s urbanistic models with colourfully decorated cubist buildings, modern cars and optimistically smiling young families.  By now, inevitably, the modernist  vigour has faded, the iron is getting rusty,  some of the concrete is rotting, and the fancy colours are  dulled. Everything looks  quite grey and used – concrete does not age well...

There’s nothing picturesque either about the open air market on the main square: the stalls look shabby, they mostly ply utilitarian wares: some with professional and household tools, others with various cheap clothes – somewhere a dieselmotor  adds its fumes to the cold air resulting in a heady mixture of sea salt and burnt fuel, creating a smog which no  7 beaufort wind can dispel. 

La Brasserie

But, also in Dunkerque, one French institution bravely battles on, watching over French civilisation : The Local Brasserie. During the  lunch hour it is packed with animated people,  all babbling, all savouring three course meals. No fast food in sight, no gaudy furniture or neon – but nicely covered tables, a well equipped kitchen, a true zinc and the distinctive clatter of dishes & cutlery.  And of course:  the disciplined ballet of attendants, chefs and headwaiter who, every day again, with unperturbed  authority and flair, accomplish a perfect lunch hour performance.

The Fine Arts and The Sea

At 2PM sharp we mount the stairs to the Musée des Beaux Arts again – no pompous 19th century affair this, but a 70s building, true to Dunkerque's reconstructed soul. The interior is spacious and  functional , so endearingly 70s in its furnishings, from the PVC faux plafonds with neon lighting to the metallically gleaming  balustrades of the  stairs. There's a moving authenticity to this building and a palpable sensitivity in the arrangement of its collections.

How well Dunkerque's sea-borne identity is captured –  the past naval exploits,  the multifarious riches it attracted as an international hub of ocean trade, its  present status as a small port in a small, lost corner of Europe, and beyond all that : the eternal screeching of seagulls,  the rolling& crashing  of waves, the whistling of the wind – this is the sound track  to this building. 

Post-colonial love of the world

The museum exhibits duly incorporate a contemporary post-colonial, critical awareness – but all the while giving loving due to the objects, to the enduring allure of all these  works of art that have been accumulated over the ages – and that make up 'the relative permanence of our world' .

In the museum lobby one can browse through cases with  nautical  books (both technical and romantic)  and gape at displays with old shipping journals. Dear C's sailing experience comes in handy to decipher some of the daily sea & weather chronicles, which yield unexpectedly poetic impressions alongside meticulous meteorological & sailing details.
“temps couvert, le vent est irrégulier. À 11h la brise fraîchit un peu. Croché les écoutes doubles. Rien à signaler.
Temps à grains, mais sans vent, la brise fraîchit et radonne dans les grains. La mer est phosphorescente et belle. Rien de particulier”

In the rooms with the aptly named 'Retours de mer' ('returns of the sea'),  European painted seascapes of all periods hang alongside  Oceanic decorative art and functional objects (functional but mysterious, god knows how this exotic paddle arrived here) - here &there teh noise of contemporary videos erupts, showing various modes of struggling with the sea.

Works of art as shifting frontiers of the human domain

Wonder &  enchantment await the visitor of the permanent collections,  a whole floor packed with objects and paintings from the museum reserves. The collections have been built from donations by local connoisseur-collectors, spanning  art of all genres,  ages and continents. Who were these men,  whose portraits hang side by side: they were rich, for sure, esteemed solid citizens, but also men with a  personal taste and particular inclinations guiding their acquisitions. 

It's to the huge credit of the curator to have created a wonderful atmosphere  of correspondences between disparate works – one feels privileged to wander amongst the many works, to explore, to discover. Here one can become besotted with a little gem by an  unknown painter, there one stumbles on a work by a famous master.

This is more than a cabinet de curiosités, it is a  dépot full of enchanted  objects that “help the soul to exist”, that help the spectator to be attentive, to reflect, to ponder, to savour, to recognize, to  look and look again - to compare,  to contrast, to choose, to love.

Dans ou à travers les oeuvres, ce sont bien les frontières mouvantes du domaine humain que [l'on] va reconnaître”. [...] Aussitôt mis en circulation, l'objet utile est comme dévoré par la jungle des choses. L'oeuvre d'art résiste : elle continue […] d'irradier [..] la présence humaine. Dans l'universelle indifférence, les oeuvres d'art posent la différence de l'homme. Elles l'aident à exister.” *

(* Introduction par Jean-Clarence Lambert aux “Ecrits sur l'art” de Paul Valéry)


Disclaimer and a nod to all things French

(1) Disclaimer - the above post was written before terror broke loose on January 7th/8th/9th. More has happened since last Sunday to make sense of, but I have little coherent thoughts to add.   4 million people marching  without incidents – that’s good I suppose. Thursday’s foiling (in Belgium) of another terrorist plot is good (the foiling) – it is also bad since the plot confirms the deadly mix we all have been dreading since May:  readily available Kalashnikovs on the black market (the Paris jihadis, too,  got their weapons in Brussels)  + returned Syria-combatants (in proportion to its population Belgium is thought to have the most Syria-Jihadists in europe)  +  radicalisation (radicalize and de-radicalize: new omni-present verbs) in disadvantaged neigbourhoods (Belgium scores worst in Europe as to the education- and employment-gap between immigrants and natives).

What else did we get: the resurrected CH cover (funny, both forgiving and self-derisory for one part of the world ; insulting & provocative for another part of the world  --- confirming how deep the gulf between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ values is?)
As to myself - I'm sinking into irrelevant melancholy musings about the original human sin.  Our selfish genes – which we try to overcome by creating group bonds based on ideologies or religions. The empowerment and the solidarity of groups, the rousing calls of ideologies and religions to transcend mere selfish and  material interests. And then the sad fact that all of these absolute beliefs  have all, at some point in time, in some place in the word, led to destruction and disaster.   

(2)   Ah the battle of ideas & customs between the Anglosaxons and the French!  Quite amusing to watch for Belgians (suffering occasional disrespect from both).   Dutch-speaking Belgians may of course seek refuge in English from arrogant ruling class French - there may even be some schadenfreude at the loss of french grandeur. But then, there’s also a simmering resentment of the all pervasive global anglosaxon culture to which the French at least offer some, however fallible, alternative. People seem to grow increasingly weary of a certain type of Anglosaxon victorious capitalism. As to me, for instance, it’s not the uncompetitive  French egalitarian  spirit I would mock, like all those London bankers do when hearing about French financial sector topguns fleeing France’s high taxes and emigrating ‘en masse’ to London. It’s rather the apparent sense of personal entitlement (the greed?) of those footlose top-earners which offends me. 

Reluctant politics, again

Trying to make sense of what is happening.

CH did not have that many fans, with their tiny circulation they were always on the verge of bankruptcy. From what I have seen of CH's production, I'm not a big fan either: by temperament I have little affinity with that kind of rowdy & bawdy approach. They also seemed well staffed with those typical  French sexist intellectuals which I have always found wisest to ignore.  But their undeniable  redeeming feature: no pompous authority (of whatever stripe or colour) was safe for their searing sarcasm (1). So yes, I find it  reassuring to live in a society cherishing a tradition in which  this kind of exuberant irreverence can be part of the landscape. 

However, as b.  pointed out in a recent post, it may be very difficult to understand a tradition in which one has not grown up.  Just as it is not easy for a religious person to understand a  tradition of combative secularity (2) ,  it is not easy for a 'modern' to understand a tradition of love and reverence for religious authority.

Which constitutes an enormous challenge for a diverse, pluralist society which is now composed of  people coming from very different  traditions and backgrounds - how to live together (3) with so very different backgrounds? How to find a common stock of shared values and objectives to build a society upon? (4)  How to accommodate profound differences of opinion? That's what  politics is all about.   

What would Arendt say? 

Hannah Arendt always insisted on plurality as the essence of humankind: "the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world" .
Arendt's view on politics as summed up by Peter Baehr: (5)
"Politics is a public space where people articulate and clarify common concerns, though from different points of view" [...].
 The specific means of politics is not 'violence', which isolates people and compels them to be silent, but 'power',[... ] deriving  from collective action [of individuals].

Violence ends the debate and the possibility of politics

So I suspect the only solution is : debate, more debate, shouting even, but keep talking: open politics in order to, hopefully, find a compromise allowing people to live together in peace.

Violence ends the debate and the possibility of politics.

Freedom of expression (6)  is essential for debate and for the possibility of politics in a diverse society. The separation of state and religion, together with freedom of religion,  is a necessary pre-condition for a pluralist society.
That set of values constitutes the core of a  pluralist democracy.  It can not be negotiated as it would mean the end of the possibility of having people of different traditions and religions living together  peacefully.

Crushing the offensive voice (or pencil, for that matter) by violence is inadmissible, because it ends the debate and therefore the possibility of politics in a pluralist society.


As an afterthought - the most interesting recent comments I have come across all paid tribute to Ahmed Merabet, French citizen and police officer.  Merabet was a muslim and most probably not a fan of CH, but he was executed by the CH- attackers  because he defended the values and public order of the French republic.

(1) I keep laughing at the CH cover about the revered French actor Depardieu (very talented, worshipped by the French, but over the years having become both exceedingly rich and fat) seeking "Fiscal Asylum" in Belgium. The cover showed the familiar bloated face of Depardieu on a background of Belgium's national colours ; a rhetorical question on top: "Can Belgium  Take In All The Cholesterol of The World"? 
(2) as a Belgian politician from the left insisted quite some time ago : "we're not going to hand back to the Imam, what we have taken from the Bishop"   
(3)   In Dutch the  word "Society" translates as "Samenleving" - "Togetherliving"
(4) off the top of my head: some useful values to build a society upon:   "Live and let Live" -  "Do not to another what you do not want done upon yourself"  - "Peace" - "Individual Freedom without hurting or constraining others" - "Equal opportunities" - "Liberte, Fraternité-Sororité, Egalité"
(5)  The Portable Hannah Arendt - Introduction by Peter Baehr

(6) ok, freedom of expression, but should people be insulted regarding that what is dearest to them? The answer depends on whether you ask for a judgment of good taste or for a political judgment. So where do I stand on this? I’d like to sub-divide the question in 5 gradations:

1.Would I myself want to  offend someone’s feelings by poking fun at religion?  No I would not, that is to say, I would not as long as that religion were a matter of private faith for a community of consenting individuals. So when my Muslim grocer offers me free sweets at the Ramadan-feast, smiling & beaming “c’est la fête”, then I graciously accept the gift.   Because I respect his personal attachment and because courtesy and civility are the cement of good neighbour-ship. (That same grocer wishes me 'Merry Xmas' on Dec 25th). But all the same, I do maintain that, in general, people are entitled to publicly state and defend their atheism.

2. Do I find it personally good taste when a magazine publishes satirical pictures seeking to provoke and offend? Well no, not really.  Savage provocation is not my cup of tea. I also think that more empathy and sensitivity would certainly help to smooth out strained relations between different groups. But, then again, there's a huge difference between ridiculing fundamentalist terrorists (by all means, do deploy pencils against kalashnikovs)  or ridiculing the faith of common law-abiding citizens (not gracious). 

3. Should it be forbidden by law to publish satirical pictures  that provoke and offend?   
Each citizen has the right to go to court if he/she thinks the line between satire and hate speech is crossed. A judge should carefully consider whether a single group is systematically singled out for contempt and derision up to the point that it might foster hate towards that group. Incitement to racial or religious hate is no laughing matter.  
 But if religions and authorities of all kinds are equally targeted by such a magazine? Hard to maintain then that it is persecuting a particular  religion or group.
So no,  I ‘m not in favour of an a priori ban on offensive satire, but case-by-case judgments of whether the satire verges into hate-speech can be sought by each citizen.    

4.Should the law forbid “blasphemy”? ( the web says “blasphemy  is  the action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things”).  Euh, well …… how to define “God” and “sacred things” in a pluralist society? Each religion has its own revealed sacred truths.  And what about the truths atheists and agnostics hold dear?  So no, the law in a pluralist democracy cannot forbid “blasphemy” 

5. Do those who feel offended by “sacrilegious” pictures or deeds have the right to physically attack  the persons responsible for them: No, Never.