Imagine you are sitting outside of Leuven’s Café Noir on a warm day in July. While sipping coffee and watching the buses struggle up the steep Naamsestraat artist and art historian Roosje Baele and me dive deep into some art talk.
MH: Roosje, imagine the dream scenario of every twenty-something: you are invited to a cool party and someone there asks you about your profession. How do you introduce yourself?
RB: That’s tricky. I’d probably first say I’m an art historian, doing some research on medieval manuscripts (but this is also tricky, because apart from art historians and people who have a keen interest in medieval art, there aren’t many people who understand what you’re talking about when you say “medieval manuscripts” or “illuminated manuscripts”. Until the moment you show some impressive artifacts and how much these are actually worth (I mean culturally but also moneywise) - then they’ll say “ooh”. Then I’d casually mention that I’m also drawing or maybe I wouldn’t it mention it at all. Also, it depends on the people who are present at this super cool party but indeed; I would be too shy to say “hey, I make these awesome drawings”. My art comes from deep inside of me, as if I would give myself away (this is not arrogance, au contraire), a part of my inner self, or to put it differently: I feel more vulnerable when talking or showing my art, then when I’m talking about my art historical self.
MH: But why is that? Time wise you starting working as an art historian 1,5 years ago, while you spend 4 years in art school. Do you think presenting yourself as an art historian rather than as being an artist somehow seems more “solid“?
RB: Yes, in a way it feels like saying you are an art historian has more weight than saying you are an artist. In my mind it sounds more serious.
MH: Do you think that even in our open community art history through its theoretical orientation is rather connoted with professional “seriousness“ and respectability than being a practicing artist yourself?
RB: “Open community” is rather relative, don’t you think? We can say this
because we ourselves have studied at university (where we learned to be critical and to be open minded), we’ve been abroad, we’ve seen parts of the world, in a way we’re privileged. We can open
our minds to lots of things. This is not the case for everyone in society. There are still a lot of prejudices in this world, misunderstandings. When I was studying fine arts, there were still
people who did not understand why I did what I did: “Can you make a living out of your art? Is that useful?”. As if you’re just messing around - even when I studied art history (“What can you do
with your diploma?”). In this capitalistic environment, focused on individualism and quantity and output rather than quality, it is not that easy to position yourself as an artist. And I must
say, here in Belgium there is still a sphere of conservatism: e.g. when you say you study to become a doctor or a lawyer, or even an economist people tend to react more comfortable, because with
these diplomas you “definitely” get a respectable job (read: you’ll earn a lot of money). So, that’s what I meant with “seriousness”.
MH: So as a consequence many of us “hybrid art people“ split these two and sort them into a hierarchy of importance: I’m doing something respectable to make my living (ergo the theoretical engagement with art), while the creation of art (ergo its practical engagement) is degraded as a leisure time activity. Why is it so hard to “admit“ to be equally interested in both?
RB: To be interested in both on an equally basis, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, that’s not the problem. But it is like you say, “a hierarchy of importance”, in this society you have to account for what you do (which is in a way absurd, as if a baker has to defend himself for “why the hell he’s making bread”, because that’s what he does and loves, right?). Is it out of shame? Because let’s be honest: only a small percentage of the artists can make an actually living of their art, and only a small percentage actually makes it to the “top” (and I won’t even mention the gender gap). A lot of artists have to split their being in two, because, you have to survive, right?
When speaking of myself: Somehow there is still a conflict in my head that keeps me from saying: I am both an artist AND an art historian. I even thought about publishing my drawings under my Japanese name to stay anonymous. But that would be living a lie or ignore the person I am. Probably because of what I experienced during my art school education – I might have tried to distance myself from the art scene there. This world seemed to be all about image, making impersonal art for a select audience, as if you created some new product and had to sell it to the highest bidder, which was in my eyes very snobbish and arrogant. For instance, I felt like paradoxically you only get appreciation in art school when you are able to theoretically underpin your work in an attractive way – mixing psychoanalysis, cultural theory and art historical references in your statements. This seems to make your work both deep, and in the end more sellable.
MH: So how much theoretical “staffage” or reflection need your pieces?
RB: Well, of course defining the aim and strategy of my historical research is far easier than of my own practical work. Explaining my paintings and drawings is like attempting to explain how my mind works – it’s both very personal and often not that easy to grasp. When I start drawing I have a clear vision in my mind, and I can always tell if it’s a good work or not, but if I have to present it to a bunch of people it’s difficult to put these inner dynamics into words. It is as if I’ve to translate certain dreams/ nightmares to the audience, dream images as it were, which are mysterious and abstract, other times they deteriorate (the dots, the lines) before I can grasp them. It is like memories, most of them you remember partially or you combine images to create a new one. Or it becomes a knot, a blur, a shadow and therefore unreadable.
MH: Historically, discussions concerning art critique often argued that a piece of art is only engaging when it “speaks” for itself. Isn’t that the opposite of what we have seen at this year’s Art Brussels?
RB: You’re right, and I was quite surprised with the works at Art Brussels this year. I missed personality in most of the works and the element of wonder. I just remembered this banal work: parts of an exploded balloon hanging on a needle. That was it. The first thing that popped in my head was: okay if you buy this piece of art, how are you going to preserve it and what if it pulverizes after a few months? Than you made a bad investment as an art collector, right? Often artists are playing with art historical references without knowing art history, just as they are referring to some philosopher with whom they “happened to see” a close connection to their own work. So, the works at this year’s Art Brussels were indeed overflowing with conceptualism (I would almost say intellectualism), so the materialism becomes secondary. It creates a distance between the work and the audience, that can’t always be bridged.
MH: So there were both extremes: including obvious art historical references that will be understood by the art historically interested audience, like telling a joke which is a bit flat but you can be sure that everyone gets it. And then there were works references hardly decodable to anyone, because their “deeper meaning” could only be understood through the explanations accompanying them.
RB: Yes, the audience needs to participate, has to think, but what if your work becomes unreadable? In art school the techniques for the different media were fading, e.g. the graphical arts: I was the only one in my last year who actually made stone prints. student - nobody wanted to it anymore because it was hard work and certain students didn’t want to make their clothes dirty. The same thing with etching. Also, these techniques take time (not only to learn it properly but also to get your result), and a lot of art students seem to lack patience. I’m just wondering all these years: how can you make art without knowing your materials, your techniques, your art history, without being curious to the things that surround you? How can you express yourself? And if you find the different kinds of media not important, then what the hell are you doing any way? Then you’re selling an idea, how much does that differ from l’art pour l’art? I can’t help seeing a sense of loss, a sense of boredom in much contemporary art.
MH: How many art history classes were offered in the art school schedule?
RB: Disappointingly, art history played a rather limited role in our education there. In Belgium, it is expected of you to place yourself as an artist in art history. But how do you do that if there is only very little theoretical knowledge taught there?
We mostly had classes on modern, mid-20th century and contemporary art, but these limitations meant on the other side, that everything coming before the 50ies got largely ignored. We also had some art-philosophical classes, but the participants there were not very critical, and often it was just empty talk. So again – young artists were encouraged to prop up their own work with some theoretical considerations, because this sounds good. Most people there made statements referring to Lacan and Wittgenstein, so philosophers that are very hard to understand. Whenever you read them you’ll find something new, and you referring to them in retrospect as great inspiration is hypocritical.
MH: So in the end theoretical name-dropping was more encouraged than honesty and reflection?
RB: Yes, the reason for that might have been that at the Brussels art school we were being prepared for a gallery career as THE artist. So we were supposed to exclude all personal feeling as a valid source for creation and tried to cover up the gap by using art theory. Writing a deep and personal statement of your own work requires a different approach, and in the end it’s always rooted in emotions.
More about Roosje:
Rosamunde Baele (°1990) studied Fine Arts (specializing in Graphic Arts) in Antwerp (Saint Luke) and Brussels (LUCA School of Arts). At the same time, she followed a 3 year extra training in drawing at the Municipal Academy of Leuven. After completing her BA in Fine Arts, she studied Art History at the University of Leuven. In 2018 she graduated as a MA in Art History with a thesis on a French Book of Hours (Ms. 299, Paris, ca. 1490-1510) from the Museum Mayer van den Bergh Antwerp. At the moment Roosje works for book researcher and conservator-restorator Prof. Lieve Watteeuw, preparing her PhD-proposal.
Check out her delicate and precise work, playing with dissolving and dissecting figurative motives, on her website: