On Monday afternoon, through the back door and the freight elevator, philosophy students entered a room on the second floor of the Depot Boijmans. The walls and ceiling of the room are painted four shades of grey. From the corners of the room, two CCTV cameras monitor the two works of art in the display cases. One of a bald head of a mannequin with long, colourful clay tongue and another of a brown baguette sprouting seven baby-sized feet.

Lecture: Aesthetics (Monday afternoons 3-6 pm, usually in Sanders 0-01 but today at the Depot Boijmans)

Lecturer: Sjoerd van Tuinen

Subject: Postmodernism

Audience: Second-year philosophy students – most of whom are doing a double degree. Thirty students do not want to miss out on the visit to the Depot and listen attentively to the lecture.

Reason for attending: You get to explore the thoughts of philosophers, plus it is more relevant than you might think because you learn about the artistic, cultural and socio-political implications surrounding art as well. You also visit museums, and by the end of the lecture, you will have gained enough knowledge to analyse the works of art there like a true art critic.

In that room, thirty students sit at four long tables. Lecturer Sjoerd van Tuinen divides the three-hour lecture up into three sections: presentations by students who have written a paper on a Boijmans work of art, a lecture by the lecturer themselves, and a visit to the Depot.

Peanut-Butter Platform

Student Arnoud begins his presentation with a headline from eleven years ago: Gallery visitor must pay for damage to Peanut-Butter Platform himself. It concerns a work of art by Wim T. Schippers that is made up of 1100 litres of peanut butter spread across the floor. A tourist accidentally stepped on the Peanut-Butter Platform and had to pay for the damage.

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

“My question is: was the artwork actually damaged?” Arnoud says. The creator himself claimed that shapes or drawings were not supposed to be added to the Peanut-Butter Platform, such as the tourist’s shoe prints. “But he also said, ‘If you can’t help yourself, then by all means go ahead and do it.’ So, it seems like he didn’t mind if people stepped on it.”

The artist wanted to create confusion with the Peanut-Butter Platform, Arnoud goes on to say, “But if we were to bring in philosopher Jacques Derrida, then I think we could say that the artwork is all about redefining. It is meant to deconstruct the discourse around peanut butter and food.” Deconstruction is a method to interpret texts and works of art. To Derrida, it is a melding of construction and destruction. In deconstruction, you dismantle and destroy, as it were, the idea and structure behind an artwork.

“With this in mind, Derrida states that art is always in motion. If you want to immutably define the meaning of a work of art, then the work is no longer art,” Arnoud explains. “As for the Peanut-Butter Platform, I think the visitor should not have had to pay for the damage because he didn’t damage it. As Derrida would have put it, the incident was effectively a concrete – and literal – redefining step. As a consequence, there is motion and the work changes in terms of its meaning. The incident was basically a deconstruction of the Peanut-Butter Platform. In my opinion, the artwork is not damaged, but on the contrary, it has been enriched by the shoe prints. So, its restoration was not necessary either.”

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After the break, Van Tuinen resumes the lecture with a story about Postmodernism. This is a philosophical movement that emerged around the 1970s as a reaction to Modernism.

We could see our current society as a postmodern society, the lecturer notes. Postmodern society, according to philosopher Jean Baudrillard, is all about symbols. It is no longer about having or using an object, but more about the experience and symbolic value of an object.

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

“How many people carry a Susan Bijl bag around with them?” Van Tuinen enquires. Four hands shoot up. “You probably don’t buy Susan Bijl bags for the bag itself, because it’s pretty simple and isn’t that much different from other bags in terms of use. You buy it mainly because it is a symbol of a certain culture. It sends out a signal that you are a part of Rotterdam. This is what Baudrillard meant by the political economy of symbols: everything that we consume is a symbol, a cultural expression,” the lecturer explains.

Similarly, the way we experience art – and even life – has also changed. According to Baudrillard, human experience has become an simulation of reality. “We crave authenticity, but it no longer exists. Everything is a simulation: we grind our own coffee beans; we prefer to drink craft beer. Though, of course, everything is contrived, it’s not the craft beer that people drank a hundred years ago.”

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Student Yfke was not expecting to enjoy the lecture. “Art is not my thing, so I honestly didn’t feel like taking this course. If it had been an elective course, I wouldn’t have taken it,” she explains. “But apparently there is more to art than meets the eye, and that makes it a lot more interesting.” She finds context in art particularly fascinating. “Art does not stand on its own; it is made in a certain kind of world. That world plays a role and influences the artwork, even if the artist is not conscious of that.”

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Student Julius is studying Economics and Business Economics and Philosophy. As an economics student, he finds the lecture extremely interesting. “Economics is a numbers-oriented subject, whereas here I get to learn about a whole host of different perspectives. Philosophy is not at all vague as a lot of people tend to think, philosophers talk about specific topics and you’ve got to have really good arguments behind your ideas. The thought process involved in formulating an argument intrigues me.”

He also finds the lectures dynamic. “In Economics, I can understand the material thanks to the presentation slides, as it were. But in this class, the lecturer always makes a really nice and interesting story about the thoughts and ideas of philosophers, accompanied by some great examples,” he says. He also finds the collaboration with Boijmans fantastic. “The lecture deals with art and aesthetics, and the Depot is of course a perfect place to talk about these.“

Spend more time looking at art

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Students walk around the Depot after the lecture. Student Jordis is amazed to see the works. “I’ve never been here before, it’s fascinating to be able to look at the collection in this way,” she says. “I used to quickly walk past abstract and surreal artworks, but now I can use the knowledge from the lecture to understand them and philosophise about the ideas behind them.”

She also really relishes the lecture given by the teacher. “I always enjoy his lectures, he is spontaneous and funny and always gives a great explanation of the subject matter,” she adds. “I find this lecture really great. At first, it was kind of scary to me, because I generally had no experience with art or aesthetics. But now it’s my favourite subject!”

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