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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  • 55 Responses to “Spaces of power and spaces of gentleness”

    1. It is inevitable that a well-crafted space, immersed with power and finesse, will evoke an internal emotional response. Following, are two contrasting examples of spaces that epitomize spaces of power, and spaces of gentleness.

      Striated lines of power organize the palace of Versailles, and the spaces within tell a story of vanity and dictatorship, where the opulent decoration and excessive size of the palace exhibit mans greed and desire. In the case of Monets work, it is the power of freedom and smooth space that allows for picturesque harmony. Having briefly studied Monet’s work as an adolescent, the Japanese bridge within its blooming garden context has remained unscathed in my memory. Even at a young age, I was able to comprehend the peaceful, natural landscape that Monet depicted, reinforcing my idea that nature is the ultimate beauty.

      The smooth space of Monets garden versus the striated space of the palace of Versailles instill contrasting evocations of “the distribution of the sensible”. Through the harmony in Monets work, his impressionist approach gracefully encompasses ordinary people in an extraordinary world, a place if infinite beauty. On the other hand, humans have always had a tendency to organize space, hence the striated space that embodies the palace of Versailles.

      So long as we seek power and control as a global entity, we will never be able to experience smooth spaces and the freedoms that exist within.

      May 26, 2014 at 7:40 am
    2. T. Kolobe #

      “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” these explicitly draws a clear picture of space of gentleness. Therefore distribution of senses as in Japanese gardens, places of relaxation and peace of mind.

      ” 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” space of power which is fortunately expressed on paintings and ornaments within the building. I think most of us in these era would love to dwell in the space of gentleness than space of power

      May 26, 2014 at 9:26 am
    3. Jacquiline Modu 212315757 #

      The article has been insightful in describing the phenomenology or feel of both gardens despite not physically being in the spaces. Both Versailles and Claude Monets gardens have strong intentions each being influenced by the driving force of its time and context.
      Versailles being a “striated space” gives of the stench of dominance and exploitation of power, because such a place embodying such structures and wealth shouldn’t possibly belong to a certain “standard” of people in comparison to what the people that didn’t embody the required “standard” lived in. Where, compared to Monets gardens that give of a “smooth” sense as described, embodies a completely different sensual character, where one can experience life, earth through the spaces and paintings of nature and humanity.
      Though surely one can argue that a striated space is of necessity to indicate power being that it was for the king himself, but how far one can go with the “pompousness” of the spaces is the question to ask.

      May 28, 2014 at 3:18 am
    4. Matthew Morris #

      Through reading this article I was able to gain a better understanding of your lecture awhile back on “striated space” and “smooth space”, now being able to envision your two comparisons I can quite easily feel the difference of these two spaces. It is clear that’s both buildings and their surrounding resemble the personalities and character of the people that inhabit them. With the palace and gardens of Versailles having a very grand and decorative spaces that almost feel closed off and unwelcoming to its surrounds. It is purely a sculptured space to portray the magnitude of power in a selfish manor. Whereas the house and gardens of Claude Monet is a space that welcomes you with many of its features, from the peaceful tranquillity of the of the pond, and the less dominant lines flowing throughout the space on a more down to earth human scale. This portraying the fact that one individual does strive to outdo another.

      May 30, 2014 at 12:40 pm
    5. Kimon Maré (212363654) #

      Spaces of power and spaces of gentleness.

      How excessive wealth could be wasted on a building as elaborate as the Palace of Versailles whilst your country struggle to make ends meet, baffles me. All though it has has become one of the most sought after buildings and popular tourist attractions to date. The English garden of Versailles, with it’s geometric layout, unmarried walkways, and extreme maintenance it requires together with the Palace is probably the best display of hierarchical striated space. Grounds not to be entered if one does not posses a highly regarded social status.

      The nomadic feel of smooth space such as Monet’s house and garden sheds a feeling of restfulness and peace, a complete opposing feel given by the Palace of Versailles. Translating the artists’ love for nature and beauty though architecture and landscaping as well as inspiration in his art works.

      June 1, 2014 at 12:23 am

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