Jan Fabre’s Old and New Clothes

Door Petra Van Brabandt, op Wed Sep 19 2018 22:00:00 GMT+0000

The dancers’ testimonies have touched Petra van Brabandt deeply. Their open letter is not a public “crucifixion", but a public outcry addressed to all of us. The abuse of power in the name of art can no longer be tolerated.

Twenty of Jan Fabre’s (former) collaborators speak out in an open letter about the structural abuse of power they experienced, as either victims or witnesses. In their extensive analysis they connect the personal with the political and express their concerns about the new generation. They urge us to critically examine artistic liberties, the myth of the solitary genius and the value of fame and charismatic leadership. To what extent can this violent, nondemocratic and exclusive paradigm still be considered ‘contemporary’?

What this group has accomplished is unique, even from a MeToo point of view. This letter is not just a string of individual accusations, but rather the outcome of a collective process of solidarity. Individual emotions were translated into shared experience and transformed into collective action and emancipation. To me, this recalls feminism’s original hopes and it touches me deeply.

Have we become such cynical ‘democrats’ that we readily accept the humiliation of young women as collateral damage of ‘beauty’?

But besides admiration and gratitude, today I also feel anger. Have we become such cynical ‘democrats’ that we readily accept the humiliation of young women as collateral damage of ‘beauty’? How is it possible that even intelligent people still keep thoughtlessly reiterating that obsolete spiel of genius and suffering for your art?

Double agent

I am also furious with myself and I suspect me of working as a double agent in the service of the patriarchate. It still functions as my polar star and moral compass. I too, and without being paid for it, have contributed intellectually to inflate Fabre’s aura. My critique of his marathon performance Mount Olympus was banal and salonfähig; merely a pose of criticism, not radical, I never embodied it. When he directed his actors (and not himself) to exhaustion, I never questioned the pornographic rhythm of his neoliberal dressage, nor did I expose his instrumentalisation of the female body as beauty incarnate, as a muse or a primal force.

The letter about Fabre’s abuse of power does not aim to “publicly convict” or “crucify” him, as some claim. It’s a public outcry against the artistic leadership of a public role model who has been publicly venerated for decades, and has been amply rewarded, both symbolically and financially, for his leadership.

The letter is also a public response to a public intervention by Fabre himself, who said to deplore MeToo’s negative impact on his artistic practices. Those who argue against public accusations and want to reduce the whole matter to the juridical perspective of guilt and innocence, forget that MeToo is essentially not concerned with juridical guilt or innocence.

Essentially, this letter is addressed to all of us.

MeToo targets a history and a culture of male privilege that facilitate the abuse of power, which can result in criminal acts, within or outside the working space. More fundamentally, it is an outcry against violations of (bodily) integrity and a culture of (tolerance of) structural abuse of power. If we, like many opinion leaders, do not make this distinction, we would ignore what is at the core of MeToo, as well as its public relevance. Moreover, in some cases it takes years to become aware of the abusive nature of a collaboration and to understand in which way you might have been the object of the abuse of power, which the French so aptly call abus de faiblesse.


Essentially, this letter is addressed to all of us. The art schools, the cultural and artistic institutions, the Ministers of Culture and Education. Media makers and artists, programmers, journalists and art critics. As a teacher at an art school, I feel addressed personally. We have to introduce new paradigms, ideals and role models in our schools. Art as the practice of a few individual ‘masters’ has always been a model for abuse.

What has changed now, is that we won’t accept that anymore. It belongs in the museum of twentieth century folklore. We have to initiate and socialize students in democratic practices based on dialogue. These are not new or rare, or even inexistent. They don’t belong, however, to the dominant curriculum or canon, let alone that they would be compatible with the myth of the individual artist of genius.

Additionally, it is also important to promote critical literacy concerning sexist and racist imagery and behavior, both in students and teachers. At Theater Aan Zee, theater student Btissame Bourrich described how, during a theater history class, the teacher wouldn’t let her speak when she questioned the use of blackface in a theater performance.

It would be an illusion to think that we can solve the problem completely by promoting resilience, education and economic protection.

The teacher’s ideal attitude should be that of Jacques Rancière’s ignorant schoolmaster. When a student’s critical abilities seem to outstrip yours, you should admit to your ignorance and provide guidance in the learning process. Authority or fame in the arts is not fruitful pedagogy. The teacher must unremittingly try to relate to new critical insights, texts and arguments. This is rarely a factor when people are hired to teach at art schools.

Behind the scenes

Power relations are often not discussed explicitly in education. Nevertheless, they are an inherent part of any institution, artistic practices included. We should have the courage to discuss fair working conditions, the risks of power and the different forms that abuse of power can take. Art education and art production take place in a context of work and production, but these more profane aspects of art people prefer to keep hidden away behind the scenes. Here art education fails and because of its failure, young adults are exposed to ignorance and abuse.

I hope Minister of Culture Sven Gatz (Open VLD) wants to initiate and facilitate this urgent and necessary discussion. But here we also touch on another aspect of the abuse of power in the media and the cultural sector, namely high competition and the worker’s economic vulnerability. While it would be a good thing if Minister Gatz created hotlines and appointed confidential counsellors, he should improve social protection as well. The collaboration between the trade union ABVV and the authors of the open letter shows that this can prove both productive and emancipatory.

Risk Assessment

It would be an illusion to think, however, that we can solve the problem completely by promoting resilience, education and economic protection. Ultimately, the problem of power abuse lies with the person who occupies the position of power. During a recent discussion on Terzake, Minister Gatz pointed out that abuse of power comes with positions of power, and that we can hardly eliminate the latter. Here Gatz’s thinking lacks innovation. We certainly can promote other forms of leadership, collaboration and organizational structures, which the minister could prioritize in cultural institutions or organizations subsidized by the government.

The emperor has lost his clothes, now all we have to do is shout out that he is naked.

I invite the minister to consider the integration of risk assessments in grant applications. A rigorous risk assessment of positions of power and working methods could become an important part of the grant application. The inclusion of this as a condition would force the organization or artist to do a self-reflexive analysis. This includes that you identify risks, locate sticking points and eventually develop an action plan.

A theatre collective, for example, is not necessarily a better work environment. When the female members are significantly younger, less experienced or simply outnumbered, this will have its impact on their power position in the work process. These are artistic criteria as well. How we work is an integral part of what we make, and it is not uncommon that for example in Great Britain gender equality, ecological sustainability, diversity and a risk assessment of positions of power and working methods are a part of the grant application. It is only to the extent that power is held accountable that our commitment against abuses of power is real.

But no matter how important these propositions may be, the biggest challenge lies in transforming our culture of denial and neglect. Beauty or genius built on abuse of power and submission are neither aesthetically nor intellectually credible. The emperor has lost his clothes, now all we have to do is shout out that he is naked. And burst into liberating laughter.