Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Spaces of power and spaces of gentleness

Today we experienced two kinds of space that are diametrically opposed, or mutually exclusive. The first was the palace and gardens of Versailles, known as the residence of a succession of French kings, of whom Louis XIV and Louis XVI are probably the best known (the latter with his equally well-known queen, Marie-Antoinette, who was beheaded nine years after her husband, in the wake of the French revolution). The second was the house and gardens of Claude Monet, the artist, one of whose paintings gave the Impressionist movement its name.

And what a difference! While Monet’s house and gardens, including the famous Japanese garden, with the Japanese footbridge that Monet painted several times, exuded a sense of peace and tranquillity, the palace at Versailles struck me as the embodiment of what Deleuze and Guattari (in A Thousand Plateaus) call “striated space” — a specific modulation of space according to lines of power that organise, hierarchise, exclude or hem in. In fact, compared to Versailles, Monet’s estate, while certainly not devoid of a subtle kind of striation, or the kind of gentle power that is peculiar to some kinds of art, including impressionism, struck one almost as an exemplary instance of “smooth space”, where the freedom of nomadic exploration breathes a welcoming aroma.

Not even in the most ornate Baroque buildings in Europe, or the most flamboyant palaces in China — with their penchant for red and gold — have I ever witnessed such excessive opulence. Small wonder that the impoverished masses of France launched a rebellion that eventually turned into a full-scale revolution in 1789. If they had seen the interior of Versailles palace, they would have rebelled much earlier. Although it had started out as a mere hunting lodge used by Louis VIII, about three hours on horseback from Paris, he eventually turned it into a brick and stone palace, which was enlarged and completely transformed by his son, Louis XIV, who also decided to move the royal court as well as the seat of government to Versailles in 1682. He may not have read Machiavelli’s The Prince, but he certainly knew that you had to keep those who might undermine your power close to you, within view, as it were.

And what power it was! Small wonder that this was the clearest example of an “absolute monarchy” around; Franklin Baumer (in Modern European Thought) goes as far as alluding to the French king of this era as a “mortal god”. Louis XIV was called the “sun king”, and everywhere around this splendidly preserved palace the iconography – in sculpture, painting and metal ornamentation – confirms his megalomaniac self-conception. True, if it had not been for this inflated idea of his own importance, the palace would not have been the repository of as much outstanding art from the 17th and 18th centuries as it is today. Louis XIV died in 1715, and the further embellishment of the palace continued under Louis XV and Louis XVI in the 18th century. The latter and his family had to leave Versailles during the first few days of the revolution in 1789. Although French democracy was arguably born with the advent of the revolution, it was soon followed by “the terror” in the guise of the persecution of everyone suspected of not having the requisite amount of revolutionary fervour, and ironically it did not take too long before the monarchy was reinstated, with King Louis-Philippe opening a museum dedicated to “all the glories of France” in Versailles palace in 1837.

What particularly interests me is the paradigmatic embodiment of political power in everything that makes up this palace and its enormous gardens and parks. I have already mentioned the notion of “striated space” — space qualitatively marked by the imprint of power — here, “absolute” power, which is imprinted in the many sculptures of the “sun-king” on his horse, or posing in regal paraphernalia in many paintings, usually dressed predominantly in red (the colour of royalty; even their shoes were colour-coded: red for royalty, blue for nobility, etc). Interestingly, the presence of thousands of visitors streaming through the palace on a daily basis with their cameras and mobile phones represents the incursion of “smooth space” into what used to be the striated space of monarchical rule, and what has today become the striated space of (here, French, but ultimately international) capital — no one gets to enter the palace grounds without paying a hefty entrance fee. Sure, it is needed to maintain the place in pristine condition, but it is also aimed at turning a handsome profit.

Ranciere gives one another, complementary perspective on Versailles with his evocative phrase, “the distribution of the sensible”, which is the manner in which the extant world is organised, arranged, and ordered according to what is visible, audible, admissible and sayable. In every era this “distribution” changes according to the parcelling out of social spaces by the dominant powers of the time. In the 17th and 18th centuries this meant a hierarchy of classes from royalty through nobility and the bourgeoisie down to the fourth estate, or proletariat, whose absence from this elevated space is conspicuous in that they are not represented anywhere in the artworks surrounding one. In other words, they were pretty much invisible, AND inaudible, until they made themselves heard in the clamour of the revolution, which was a disruptive manifestation of what Ranciere calls “equality”, the gist of the political. Simply the violence would not cut it; as Ranciere reminds one, the assertion of the equality, in principle, must be accompanied by the logos, or the assertion of the ability to speak, no less than those in power.

Compared to Versailles, the home of Monet is gentleness incarnate; here the “distribution of the sensible” operates according to inclusion, not exclusion. What Ranciere labels the art of the “aesthetic regime” is conspicuous here, in contrast to the hierarchical art of the “representative regime” at Versailles. Accordingly, Monet’s paintings, replicas of which are everywhere in the house, are of flowers, trees, mountains, ordinary people; that is, objects of interest selected from the endless spectrum of what offers itself to artists, and not as dictated by conventional rules — as it was the case in Monet’s day by the French Academy of the Arts, from which artists like Monet broke away. His love of Japanese prints, which adorn many of the walls in his house, reflects his openness to the world around him.

Monet’s house and everything it contains, together with his gardens, reflective of the “aesthetic regime”, therefore instantiates a model for true democracy — everything is treated with equal love and gentleness. Versailles, on the other hand, represents a model of what Ranciere calls “the police”, a symbolic constitution of the social according to hierarchies of exclusion. And don’t make any mistake: the French absolute monarchy may be long gone, but in its place we have an equally ruthless, globally extended, dominant power that perhaps deserves the epithet of “absolute” more than Louis XIV did. But as historical events showed, “absolute” was a misnomer. Let’s hope today it is, too.

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