A Living Conversation in a Wild Bar

Erwin Jans – dramaturg at Toneelhuis Antwerp – on why the urban performing arts need to position themselves in a place of ‘engaged autonomy’. 

Towards a new ‘engaged autonomy’ in the (urban) performing arts

Ten years ago, under the revealing title How Much Globalization can We Bear? (2003), German philosopher Rudiger Safranski wrote a still relevant essay on the many confusions or “entanglements” associated with the process of globalisation. This notion of ‘entanglement’ is clearly expressed in the challenges of the 21st century city and its growing complexity: Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and this number continues to grow. Cities exercise a huge attraction. At the same time, the urban challenges are gigantic. The Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans describes it like this: ‘a deep humanitarian significance – one that may never be lost sight of – continues to cling to the concept of the city. The city is the territory of man-made communication par excellence, in its most advanced form.’

The arts too are developing more emphatically in relationship to this urban context: in the meantime terms and concepts such as audience participation, cultural diversity, education, social-artistic projects, ecological awareness, urban engagement, social participation, art in the public space, neighbourhood action … have become an integral part of the vocabulary with which the arts reflect about themselves and their functioning.

From Autonomous to Networked Arts – A Paradigm Shift

It is no exaggeration to say that a paradigm shift is taking place in defining the place of the arts in society. Until now, this place was marked by autonomy. It is this notion that is in crisis at the beginning of the twenty-first century, or at least in need of redefinition. This crisis is closely linked to the crisis of two other forms of autonomy: that of the individual and that of the state. Nineteenth century civil culture was based on a dual development: that of the individual and that of the nation. There is undoubtedly a connection between the autonomous individual, the autonomous nation and autonomous art. The three notions emerged around the same time – the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Free-floating art

In this social context of an assertive bourgeoisie and developing market capitalism, art emerges as an autonomous domain with its own rules of production, distribution and reception. It breaks away from all servitude to church, nobility or bourgeoisie, despite the fact that literature, art and music play an important role in the formation of national awareness at certain moments. Modern art is characterised by what we can call a form of ‘social free-floatingness’. It is no longer associated with a specific worldview and is no longer supported by a clearly delineated religious, political or economic elite. It develops independently of institutionalised social expectations and cultural prohibitions. It shows little interest in the demand for intelligibility, beauty or entertainment. Moreover, it is highly self-reflective. In its avant-garde variant, modern art is provocative, subversive and shocking. This notion of autonomy has become the core of art’s functioning since the early twentieth century.

We are the entanglement!

However, in the process of globalisation, the autonomy of the individual and of the nation state – the cornerstones of modernity – have been weakened and cut back. Both the individual and the nation, each at its own level, have been incorporated into a network of relationships. Which does not mean that they no longer exist or have become completely powerless, but rather that they function in a way that is radically different than before. The nation state no longer has its former sovereign power, and must share its power with transnational institutions and organisations.

Individuals have also become nodes in a network that includes not only our relationships with other people but also and mainly our embedding in or ‘logging in to’ a mediatised society. In a network society, the inter, the between, becomes more important than the intra, the inner. In this perspective, we above all are di-viduals, ‘two-seers’, instead of in-dividuals, a term that literally refers to our so-called indivisibility. Philosopher Henk Oosterling puts it as follows: ‘We are entwined in networks. We are not entangled. We are the entanglement[i]. In my opinion, we have always been entangled. Entanglement is our human condition.’ Oosterling states that the confusion and entanglement of the postmodern person, eagerly in search of strong stories instead of Great Stories, is bound by culture and time: ‘The foundations of the oppositions between which the tightrope has been strung for 150 years, have been eroded. High and low in culture, right and left in politics, good and evil in morality, true and false in science have now finally become, like beautiful and ugly in art less than a century ago, empty terms. Quality presents itself elsewhere.’ The contradictions at the foundation of modernity seem to have had their day.

It is obvious that the art world is also affected by this ‘entanglement’, this ‘networking’ of society. For some, the end of modern autonomous art is already almost a fact. For American historian Wendy Steiner, for example, the 20th century is the century of ‘autonomous’ art, which she calls ‘sublime’. The 21st century on the other hand is for her the century of heteronomous art, which she associates with ‘the beautiful’. In her vision, the sublime stands for wrenching, disturbing and alienating art that seeks no recognition from a specific audience or a specific community, while the beautiful stands for communication, consolation, openness and dialogue with the audience.


However, (thankfully) things are not this simple and black & white. The point is not the contrast between subversive and affirmative art. It is important that art preserve its quality of being ‘un-measure’ (a term of Paolo Virno): a ‘un-measure’ that repeatedly questions and challenges the ‘measure’ of culture. However, it is important to interpret the ‘un-measure’ of art much more broadly than the provocative, subversive and nihilistic gesture of avant-garde art. It fundamentally concerns searching for a new relationship between art and society, where it is also crucial to make a distinction between the individual artist and the artistic institutions. Participation is broader than social-artistic and educational practices in the sense that it points to a broader trend within the arts to deal differently with their audiences and involve them more as active partners in the processes of creation and the production of meaning.

The comment of art critic Anna Tilroe brings us a little further. She asks for a revision of the notion of quality as well as the notion of art history: ‘The discussion concerning what quality is and what quality has must be conducted more broadly and via a different approach. The art historical project initiated at the beginning of the twentieth century can no longer be considered as the only one. We need to acknowledge that multiple art histories exist and can be written about.’ Tilroe pleas for greater openness and attention to developments taking place outside the art world, but also within art itself ‘from the VJ and website culture to partnerships of artists, architects, designers, fashion designers, researchers and commercial undertakings’.

These new developments, together with the growing cultural and ethnic diversity in cities, force a repositioning of cultural and artistic practices. The evolution of media technology, commercialisation, the impact of popular culture, the demands for recognition of minority groups, the debate on participation… undeniably have an impact on art, the artist, art institutions and the experience of art.


Erwin Jans

Erwin Jans, Toneelhuis Antwerp

Read the full article in the Culture.Shift Workbook

[i]   Oosterling here makes use of a wordplay in Dutch involving ‘in de knoop’, to be entangled or confused, and a ‘knoop’ or a node in a network.