The misunderstanding of Jans Muskee
The fate that Oedipus will undergo is inevitable. The curse of his father rests upon him, and without knowing it he murders his father, marries his mother, copulates with her, and begets four children. Then comes the moment of truth. Jocasta, his mother, wife and lover, hangs herself in their bedroom. Oedipus discovers her body, realizes what has happened, and puts out both his eyes. For the rest of his life he wanders in darkness, a fugitive, homeless and outlawed. Guilty as hell. Or not?
The classics are not particularly kind to us, and certainly not in the context of sex, violence, pain, and double-crossing. In comparison to the heroes of Sophocles, the characters in Jans Muskee’s drawings are very commonplace, almost colourless. So why are these drawings so distressing? Why is it so much more disturbing to view a drawing by Muskee than it is to read an old myth, a dirty novel, or a topical news article?
Although Muskee usually restricts himself to the exact reproduction of visual reality, the drama that lurks under the surface is painfully obvious in his drawings. There is a reality that you do not see behind the façade. The drawings are carefully staged, the events are placed in a sharp theatrical light, and they reveal precisely what you are not supposed to see: frustrations, obsessions, pain, guilt, anxiety, and incapacity. Jans Muskee shows us the naked truth, in all its lousy triviality. He reproduces the cool facts.
The man. The woman. The child. The single-family home. The office.
She is dressed in an elegant summer dress, conscious of her maternal role and the power to arouse desire. He, the working man, suit and tie, captured by her call, his urge.
The child: innocent.
The car: shiny.
The street: tidy.
In their commonplace, everyday literalism, the characters in Jans Muskee’s drawings are primarily artificial and unreal. They are thrown back on themselves, like actors in a bad play. There is no genuinely experienced interaction. The poses they assume are vacuous and revealing at the same time. Precisely because these men, women and children scarcely display any emotion, they arouse our yearning for warmth, intimacy, and symbiosis. In short, the longing is evoked by exactly that which is not visualized in the drawing itself. You could say that, in doing so, Muskee uncovers human failure and the inability to escape from the subconscious, the servility of custom, the habituation, the cliché, and self-evident authority. But, at the same time, it also demonstrates that we want to see in his drawings something that we miss: protection, sympathy, emotion, contact. Fortunately. We also are here.
In general, we are inclined to regard everything that is not normal as an incident, a temporary disruption of the known world. This fascinates us, it offers sensation, excitement, regardless of whether or not it is pleasant. It may be a minor misfortune, an accident, or a disaster. Muskee filters these kinds of incidents from reality and places them in a perfectly normal context. He acts as if there is nothing happening. The infant who has to watch over his baby brother (hold on tight!) while his mother glides her nipple into the father’s mouth. The father who kills his wife and children, and hangs himself in their sun-drenched single-family home: a family drama with a touch of Ikea. A family posing with a big smile, with faces the worse for wear, with twisted mouths, and grim outlook. The discrepancy in his work is great, everything pulls in different directions, to put it mildly. Muskee dissects humanity gone wrong, and the surgical knife is a sharp one.
Look, she’s looking at you. If you look back, are you also guilty?
Everyone would like to be free of guilt, free of longing and frustration, living in a carefree Utopia. Christians, yes, they have found a way of releasing their feelings of guilt and of harnessing their urges. God’s will is their will, and humility is the motto. They live in a peaceful world in which Eva can play badminton in the nude, where the word of God is written in the stars, where doubt is rejected because it is earthly and banal. However, there too, it’s like asking the fox to watch over the geese, and, in the Apocalypse, the secret of mortality, of the end of time, of the dissolution of humanity into all-embracing nature will be ultimately revealed.
It is precisely the ability to fail that makes us human, for it is our failures that distinguish us from the ideal, the divine. You can also look at it that way.
In fact, Jans Muskee draws like a writer. And if his drawings are autobiographical, then he resembles a novelist who cannot avoid his own train of thought. He has engaged in writing in the past, with a monologue, a short story, and a romantic novelette with an inverted perspective, where the woman is the active seductress and the hesitant man eventually falls for her wiles. Muskee is also a great reader: Elfriede Jelinek, A.M. Homes, Martin Amis, all of whom are authors who do not mess around, who take reality as it is. On the power of language, Jelinek once said: ‘Language is traditionally a means to ward off reality. Think about magic spells. What can be articulated is no longer fearsome.’ This sounds reassuring but this hardly applies to Jans Muskee’s drawings, for they seem more real and consequently more shocking than literary fiction. Even his most revealing drawings relate to the power of language, if only because he quotes abundantly by processing text fragments from novels, newspaper articles, films, and song texts. As such, they enable various layers of interpretation. They are strange combinations of text and image, which evoke confusion about the authority of language: ‘People interact by means of the discussion, and an erroneous and incorrect understanding of words takes control of the concept in a special way, because words violate the concept to the maximum degree and place everything in a confusing light,’ wrote the philosopher Francis Bacon.
‘Go ahead, make my day’, says Clint Eastwood in the film Dirty Harry. In Muskee’s drawing, this quote is placed next to the gleaming, invitingly poised buttocks of a blond porn model who is looking backwards somewhat perfunctorily. Come on, do something! The drawing is a part of the Midlife Highlights series, which seems to capture the fate of the middle-aged man who has to find gratification in the sexual surrogate of thirteen porn girls representing the beautiful but unreachable teenagers in his own environment: the girl next door, the shopgirl, or the children’s baby-sit. They look at us invitingly and self-consciously, apparently untouched. Professionally, others might maintain. And what about us? What does that say about our gaze? Does that leave us, as viewers, unmoved? And if we look, are we equally guilty? Or are we guilty if we don’t look?
It occurs so often that there is something not quite right, something minor, a white lie, or something dramatic perhaps, like suicide, incest and adultery. We didn’t want to see it and thus somehow managed to miss it. When Oedipus discovered that he had shared the conjugal bed with his mother, he put his own eyes out. Because he hadn’t seen it. He had somehow managed to miss it.
Can pornography be art? Dutch author Willem-Jan Otten does not think so. In his essay ‘Denken is een lust’ (1984, Thinking is a Lust) he wrote: ‘Every attempt to elevate porn to aesthetics, to good taste, toward art, reduces the user value of porn.’ Art is simply not a consumer article. Which man masturbates in front of a painting? In that context, the Flemish writer Kristien Hemmerechts discusses the pure literalism of pornography, where she refers to the banal functionality of the pornographic image. Here, the desire to see everything exactly, to unveil every detail, manifests itself on the path to self-gratification. Art ought to distinguish itself from this, just as a novel distinguishes itself from a newspaper article.
But this does not apply to Jans Muskee’s drawings, even if his drawings are pornographic in a certain sense, because they make use of a cool, distant reality that functions as a trigger of primitive impulses, complex emotions, and an essential yearning for salvation.
Jans Muskee’s truth, the facts that he presents to us in a genuinely realistic style, in a closed skin of Wasco, is also an existential truth in which the foundations of the perverse, human mind are exposed. But watch out. It is not a masquerade, it is not just innocent irony or pure melancholy. His works slowly approach a point of blood-curdling compassion, certainly in one of the most recent works entitled ‘Revelations 21:4’. Here we see a nocturnal scene with a man behind a red-and-white cordon, the hand palms raised upward, with a look as if he is about to announce an urgent message. The headlights of a police car are shining in the background, just as in a police series on television. What in heaven’s name has happened here? Has someone committed murder? What exactly are we witnessing?
Could be anything. But in the top right-hand corner of the drawing, a clearly-lettered text is presented, taken from the Book of Revelations: ‘and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away’.
These are comforting words. The drawings of Jans Muskee are absolutely not cynical. That is a misunderstanding.