Looking back, remembering and reliving the encounters I had with him on many different occasions and trying hard to analyze his role in the more or less complex art world, one sentence pops up instantly in my mind, like the title of a chapter in a silent movie, written in big letters on the screen of a packed theater with smoking, noisy people impatiently waiting for things to come. It reads:
“Art comes with the artist as a gift.” Yes, this text is about Jan Hoet.
I ask myself, is art a gift ? A good question. Some of us might know of the forgotten, old, traditional system described by anthropologists as “gift culture.” The American Indians call it potlatch, the Chinese call it guānxixué (pronounced guan-shee-shwe) and the Arabs call it waqf (pronounce wa-kf). What these traditions have in common is that the gift is a unilateral gesture. They differ from Western culture based on mutual reciprocal relationships in which any gift is expected to be returned in a appropriate manner. Everything given should be paid back, preferably with high interest. We live not in a gift culture but in a guilt culture, based on personal possession with many personal debts that will never be paid back.
As we know.
The artistic practice one might say is related to this old tradition of giving. Let me try to illustrate this.
The artist is one who makes “something” or “something else” and during the process of creation, makes many decisions that will ultimately lead to different kinds of works culminating into something attractive, something to be seen and hopefully something to boast about.
To me the artist is a specialist in the effects, all the effects, of his decisions. He can tell you if a curved line comes from a straight line or the other way around; he knows how many holes a form can have and still be solid; he knows what colors can cover a surface, or tell a story,what space can hold; he knows how long a smile can last, he knows when to pause. A pencil line can make him tremble and you too. He is a specialist in measuring, manipulating and controlling the consequences of his choices. The artist is obsessed with provoking an effect, with causing pain and giving relief to the public.
Artwork is made in order to exist in a special way; it is created to make an impact. The artistic practice is based on the autonomy of an artist who makes free choices. And nobody asked for this to happen. Nobody could ask for it because no question could ever be as specific and explicit as a work of art. The presentation of an artwork to a public, especially within the framework of an exhibition, is a gift. And if an artwork can be considered to be a gift, than the culture it generates can be defined as a gift culture. In this respect the relation between the artist and the artwork is unique and constructive.
But the art world is not based on the premise per se that the relationship between artist and the artwork is the crucial and central motor for the art world’s functioning. On the contrary. The curatorial practice, from the 60s onwards, developed the relationship between the visual power of the artwork and the hybrid, ideological structure of society, through which the artwork becomes a signal of what is wrong or what is good or needed in our society. With such a signal came the deconstruction of our way of thinking. Thinking! Within the art world we see all sorts of themes pushed to the front, implying and demanding that the artwork reveals insights about humanity, dignity and social struggles while asking questions about race, sexuality, gender, spirituality, globalization and multiculturalism, all coalescing together in the Big Question that has tormented generation after generation up until now: “how do we distribute power and combat privilege?”The curator educated us in social awareness,
Important notions that surfaced in the 90s, reflecting the search for public activism, created their own concepts or ideologies such as “kontext kunst,” “social engagement” and “relational aesthetics.” The artist-artwork entity is not the pivotal, central figure in these discourses, as the artist is not seen as a specialist in the field of philosophical-political debate. As you know. Thus, the artwork is not defined by its relationship with the artist, but by its well-constructed relationship with an often shifting social landscape if not banality. This produced a new phenomenon: the artwork and its relationship with the public became paramount, and with this phenomenon, the artwork became a indispensable part of an art event even to the degree that the artwork itself is the art event, finalized and completed at the moment it functions socially, politically or for that matter, psychologically.
Jan Hoet worked in this intellectual environment but advocated for the acceptance of the artist as a figure of importance. His loyalty as well as his expectations towards the artist were limitless, inspiring and confronting. He took the artist seriously at all times and on many fronts. He knew he had to be clever so as to not to give up on the relationship between the artist and the artwork that he respected so much, all while never distancing and alienating the art from real, living concerns or from questions and needs within society at large. He knew how to convince the artist, never fearing long discussions, that public space, including exhibition space, although historically constructed for the canonization of binding truths and rules, could be simultaneously a battlefield for those who revolt against them. Awareness of social bonds came naturally, for Jan Hoet,as they were part of Jan’s life and museum practice.
Jan Hoet constructed a personal image of the artist and attributed to it certain capacities. I remember vividly pleasant, surprising and often mind-boggling encounters with him. He considered artworks to be personal gestures made to give LIFE its form and dynamism. He knew the artwork forces others to react to propositions that are included in the artwork. Just as Jan did, he reacted vigorously himself to the artwork. And often so. Talking with Jan Hoet was a discussion about life, art and the inner constructs of your being in one huge breath, in one fell swoop: nothing was categorized, nothing was excluded, nothing was given preference over something else, nothing could be omitted as everything was on the table: Jan’s doors were open even when he slept on a stretcher in his office. Artists were part of his dreams and Jan Hoet’s dreams became part of the artists’ dreams. Our heavily entangled conversations became a common ground where I learned I could speak about myself without forgetting the others, knowing that what one says is just a tiny part of what can be said and that the remnants of all that was said and spoken would be infused in the artwork my work as well as the work of others, becoming part of the world just because it was uttered!
Within this holistic framework where nothing is excluded, the artwork has an emotive quality. And when formalized, the artwork acquires analytical and critical capabilities. Jan Hoet was open to humanist, surrealist, revolutionary or structuralist views on art, allowing all views to participate in this one great movement where art must play its part of the game. For that, he avoided constructing myths around the lives of artists, for that would be the same as burying them; no, no myths just many stories, fantasies that sprang from daily life, from the encounters and meetings and parties that came with the artworks and that proved that art is a good reason for a social event, a good reason for a good laugh, something to stumble on and stand still, something to talk or shout about, something to pour into the psychological imperatives of human beings.
With Jan Hoet we can say that the artwork always stands in the present tense and the artist is directly involved in what could be called the actual state of being, THE PRESENT CONTINUOUS. Art never dies. The artist is within this concept an initiator, an interventionist, a promotor of reality, a radical, a rebel, a game-changer, a crying child in the arms of no mother. Call it what you will, but the artist is someone standing at the beginning of something that is there to be taken seriously and will not leave at any command. Jan Hoet placed the artist in the light of warm friendship.
Let us discuss that other great theme in the work of Jan Hoet: the public, so central for a successful, engaged art world. Jan Hoet had a particular relationship with the public which was also especially interesting for the artist, being more or less a lonely soul working in its own universe. With an acutely meticulous sensitivity and intuitive intelligence, Jan built a circle of friends, allies and loyalists, through which the social relevance of art was expanded directly into society. Jan understood that in the end art can only function through and with the public, within the open minds of those who were interested in it. It is still amazing to realize that he succeeded in affirming art’s role as a social-political force of intriguing importance, all without limiting the artwork.
To be more specific: the relationship between the public and the museum was socialized, and not necessarily the artwork. Jan never gave the artwork away to the public. Instead, he asked the public to come to the museum and have a look. The success of the artwork, which is the influence of the artwork on the social space, is redirected, coming back to the museum in the form of passionate visitors that know they are welcomed by an equally passionate art lover like Jan.
Jan Hoet established a specific connection between the artist, the museum and the public. The traditional Greek concept of the theater comes to mind here. Applied to the museum of contemporary art it means that the museum becomes a stage on which the artist and artwork can act as vocal and non-vocal transmitters of what is considered to be of interest. The public has a role of its own to play, which is that of the reflective and critical voice. As I said before, the empowerment of the public creates an important necessary dynamic within art’s role in society.
But, even more importantly, by preserving the artist, the museum and the public as separate, independent forces—however interconnected and even well acquainted with each other—the artwork was placed in the center of all this extravagance. This tripartite construction made it possible for these three forces to engage unilaterally with the artwork, without expectations or agendas, much as in the “gift culture” I evoked earlier. The artist is related to the artwork as a creator, the museum is related to the artwork as a manager of public interest and the public is related to the artwork through the benefits it enjoys while collectively elaborating a shared identity, with all the pleasures and satisfaction that come with being part of the construction of a cultural life.
So we have the artistic practice and we have the curatorial practice, interrelated with the public. But there is another practice with considerable influence on the art world and Jan Hoet was totally aware of its power. Our Western capitalist society—as we should call it— creates an artwork that is an economic good with a price, and always a good price. The relation between the artist and the artwork is, within this larger framework of the economic practice of galleries and art markets, nothing more (or less) than a price tag that counts for its authenticity. This work behind me, The Blue Bench, on which Jan and I were sitting preparing the opening speech for my exhibition in KUK, Monschau in oktober, 2013, which I later called The Sea and that was shown in the exhibition dedicated to Jan Hoet in Muzee in Oostende in 2014, is a “real Henk Visch.” Of course it is not really me. Anyway, as an artist I have the humble function of signing for the legality of its existence as a work of art.
Jan Hoet knew that buying and selling works of art is a special important and often intensely ritualized aspect of art’s functioning. There is this special reciprocal relation between the seller and the buyer that is built upon the fundamental trust between them. Let us hope so. It is a relationship different from the one between the artist and the museum, in that when an artwork is sold, the buyer inherits all that it signifies and will view this value, the value of a private good, as something he owns. In a certain way the public functioning of art ends here. A dramatic moment when Public becomes Private. But the buyer as well as the seller are at the same time part of the general public. The public status of the artwork implies it being influential, being supported by the public, being criticized by the public and being recognized by the public as something of value. So whatever the status of the artwork, public or private, the intentions of the buyer and the seller will soon resonate through their daily lives, traveling across different social spheres or circles within and outside the art world.
This artwork sometimes has a busy life, carried and pushed away from room to room, packed and unpacked, forgotten and rediscovered, appearing on covers of magazines and in catalogues, admired or neglected. But it can never be stripped of its unpredictable and uncontrollable effects, these can never be possessed.
It is a toy for the mind of the intellectials and fools alike. It can be anything, really.The artwork can only be taken care of. It is fully equipped to be loved and lives and grows in natural light, it is at ease beeing in the center of our attention, in a intense celebration that hopefully will never cease to exist.
The most influential aspect of all of Jan Hoet’s care and inventiveness is the installation of a powerful art world in our fragile lives. He managed to place the artwork in the center of our shaken and constantly changing cultural awareness.
And the artwork is still here—this beloved and disturbing gift.
Eindhoven, April 2016
Lecture at the occasion of the presentation of the Collection of Jan Hoet at ART Brussels (B)