270 Un crocodile pourpre

Bureaucratic bloodymindedness has no place in the arts. Schwartz cites and chides a particularly abrasive example, further philosophizing about art and bureaucracy.


A major French cultural institution that occupies 40 acres in the middle of Paris has invited me to give a lecture there. The institution offered to pay for transportation from and to the place where I live and asked me how I was intending to come to Paris. When I let them know that I was driving by car, I received the following response, in English:

Concerning your travel by car, you will receive travelling expenses calculated in accordance with several elements.

So, I need you tell me now:

  • the trademark and pattern of your car
  • the number of “horses” of your car
  • the registration number
  • the name of your insurance company
  • the number of your car’s insurance policy
  • the dates of begining and end of your car’s insurance (before and after the 18/01/2007)
  • the risks insured (all-risks or…)

Moreover, you must bring on the day of your lecture:

  • a copy of your driving licence
  • a copy of the registration document of your car
  • a copy of your car’s insurance certificate valid on the 18/01/2007
  • your bank details (I need absolutly the name and exact address of your bank, your personal bank account number, the IBAN code of your account, the SWIFT or BIC code of your account).

Hereupon followed an exchange of mails that in diplomatic language would be characterized as “frank.” A few days later, the department that was responsible for the auditorium program and had invited me in the first place stepped in and took over again after what I imagine was a fierce internal dispute with the administration. Now I only have to bring my “car papers” for photocopying as well as toll-road receipts.

Being once more on speaking terms with the Louvre (it slipped out, oh well), I told them about the new Dutch expression for the kind of behavior displayed by their administration: een paarse krokodil, a purple crocodile. It comes from a television commercial for an insurance company. A mother brings her daughter to the lost-and-found desk at a swimming pool to see if the little girl’s inflatable purple crocodile has been found. They see it behind the attendant and point it out to him. He ignores it and out of a pigeonhole right next to it takes out an A4 form and shoves it in front of the mother: “In capitals, place where lost, etc. etc.” She fills in the form and gives it back. The man turns it over and says “The other side.” She’s good enough to obey. When she tries to submit it to him, he says, “Hand it in tomorrow morning between 9 and 10 at the Recreation Service.“But it’s right there,” the woman cries. “Yea, it’s right there.” This trenchant 25-second drama captured the heart of the nation. The Ministry of Finance even named a new law concerning its own procedures the “Wijzigingsplan Paarse Krokodil.” As the citizen of a fellow European country, I felt obliged to inform the French that the Netherlands had at least gotten so far that it recognized bureaucratic bloodymindedness for what it is and was denouncing if not eliminating it.

It must have been forty years ago that I first had the idea of writing down all the definitions of art that occurred to me. It’s a good thing that this became one of my countless unexecuted plans. Somehow, probably because this prize purple crocodile emanated from a great museum, a bit of my abandoned ambition was revived.

Here it comes: Art is the opposite of bureaucracy. Whether it is conventional or experimental, a group or individual effort, commissioned or autonomous, a work of art can never be the outcome of a completely predetermined “absolute,” “exact,” “need” and “must” process such as the above. It will always reward the responsive viewer or listener or reader with a taste of the kind of free choice and spontaneous inspiration that most of us can only dream of. And of which the bureaucrat who wrote that mail does not even want to dream.

© Gary Schwartz 2006. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 23 December 2006


As you can divine from the above correspondence, my lecture at the Louvre is to take place on 18 January. The time is 6:30 p.m. I am starting off a series called “Le dernier oeuvre.” with a lecture on Rembrandt’s last pictures. In the past I have always especially enjoyed speaking in the auditorium of the Louvre. The Louvre attracts a large, interested and informed audience of colleagues and general public, in a comfortable and well-equipped space that furthers concentration. You are all welcome on the 18th. I have a new thesis to offer on the subject, combining a historical reconstruction of the meanings of Rembrandt’s last works with an analysis of 20th-century discourse on the late style of great artists in general and Rembrandt in particular. If you cannot make it to the Louvre, there will be a second performance in Los Angeles on 22 February at UCLA.


I have managed to catch up with the posting of Schwartzlist installments before the end of the year. The Rembrandt year. The tally of my Rembrandt appearances since January at universities, schools, museums, congresses, courses and meetings, comes to 47 turns at the rostrum in 23 cities in 11 countries. I won’t be likely to do that again until the next Rembrandt year, but it’s nearly upon us. In 2019 it will be 350 years since Rembrandt’s death, which in contrast to his birth – more likely to have taken place in 1607 than 1606 – is adequately dated.

2019 might also provide an opportunity to rise to Martin Warnke’s challenge at the end of his review of my new book in Die Zeit to write a third book on Rembrandt. After having treated life and career (1984) and artistic production (2006), Warnke wants me to concentrate on aesthetics and form in Rembrandt’s art. These are the qualities, he says, that have made for Rembrandt’s survival. It’s true that I back away from the role of the explicator of artistic greatness, even of artistic effect, and that I think of aesthetics and art history as separate endeavours. I have heard and read too many presentations that fudge the two to want to add to them. But if Warnke, who is anything but uncritical, thinks that I can do it, maybe I should try. But before then I have countless other plans.

I wanted to catch up today as well in order to wish you all a festive New Years Eve and a good 2007. I have one main resolution for the new year. That is to slow down and work at the pace that gives me the most pleasure and those around me the least stress. I’m sure I have experienced it before, so I know that I can do it. When was it again?


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