Milano master-class

24. A Brief History of Walking as Artistic Practice

#lesson4 #history #art #troubadour #flaneur #mysteriesofparis #impressionists #excursionists #situationists

As I recall, there was this course I planned four or five years ago on street art in Marseille; it was for Koreans. So, it was a course on walking, on the possibility of walking as an artistic posture.
We started with the Middle Ages and the troubadour. The troubadour, which is a Homeric legacy—one of the origins of literature—was a narrating walker. This was the same figure about whom stories would later be written, forming what would become literature.

I’m from Bordeaux, and as a teen, I was told that love is not real. Our experience of love—a red heart beating wildly for another human—is a medieval poetic invention, which arrived in several parts of the Mediterranean thanks to these walking poets.

And so, in Bordeaux, there was a poet named Jaufré Rudel, who was a real troubadour, and would therefore recite texts in the street to earn money. And to make even more money, he invented a spellbinding tale: he claimed to be in love with a Tunisian princess whom he’d never seen with his eyes but only heard speak; and so, he would go from town to town and tell everyone he was in love. That was how people discovered this hitherto unknown notion of ardent love. And that was how he earned his living.

Meanwhile, at around the same time in the Middle East there was Arabian Nights, which was the same thing: an invention of love as a means of captivating an audience and then continuing on with one’s walk.

I gave a cursory overview of this history up to the nineteenth century. After Napoleon’s Empire, economic growth led to the emergence of a leisure class—a social class with nothing to do. These people, who made money without having to work, needed a means of proving their legitimacy in public spaces. These were people on the streets who didn’t work, didn’t have a purpose, weren’t going anywhere, but who were visible. And those whose public legitimacy came through work judged them; those with nothing to do needed to remedy this.

In the 1830s-1840s, at the same time as The Mysteries of Paris and the great serial novels of the era were being published, guides for people with nothing to do, known as Physiologie du flâneur, began to appear. It’s fascinating. The guides provide answers to questions like, “Should you greet everyone or not?”; “When there is a gathering of inquisitive bystanders, is it appropriate to join them? In front? Or behind?”; “How you should hold your hands. Should you place them behind you? In front of you? At your sides? Is a cane appropriate or not? When should you remove your hat?” And the possibility of idle strolling was invented.

At the same time, serial novels began to appear in the first regular newspapers (television series are a legacy), and one of the first was The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue. It’s the story of a bourgeois gentleman who becomes bored of his bourgeois life. His solution is to dress up as a beggar (he has bodyguards to prevent injury), and he goes to places where there are prostitutes and bandits—bars and nightlife locales—and his life starts to get interesting. And that is the DNA of television series: the story of the bored bourgeois who turns to the streets to share the life of the people, and I see that as a poetic moment.

And that was the beginning of a kind of golden age in the mid-nineteenth century, with Baudelairian flânerie and strolls down Paris’ grands boulevards. Walking would become more than an artistic practice but a poetic obligation. And the invention of paint tubes meant artists could get out of their studios to paint. Paintings were made of street scenes, and these were the first major cityscapes, with the impression of rain on cobblestones by impressionist artists. So here, going out onto the street was a poetic obligation. This extended to Marseille, with the Excursionists at the end of this period. They called themselves the “Air Drinkers”.

The twentieth century came shortly after the appearance of this group, ushering in the shock of world wars and technological progress. And the idea of city strolling no longer made much sense. Over time, walking would become a sport, with, for instance, hiking federations. An incredibly ambiguous sport that wasn’t competitive and didn’t involve much effort. And walking was classified as a sport with an anti-urban objective, its purpose being to seek wide natural landscapes. And there was the emergence of the tourism industry. This involves seeking out the pristine and deforming it: ski and other resorts, the industry of tourism, and so on. And then there’s our generation in the late twentieth century and the paradoxical situation of walking, which seems strangely inaccessible. So, in the late 1960s, the idea of walking became avantgarde. But what is avantgarde? The French view of the avantgarde is funny: we invest in the avantgarde, we artificially create it. Walking would be taken up by situationists, who would leave their mark on art, but we are still trying to figure out what they wanted to say.