neo-realisme: just a joke?

Duchamp en wheel

Onder de titel ‘Picturing Reality‘ stelt het aankomende ALCS Congres (zomer 2018) de relatie tussen kunst en werkelijkheid centraal. Vertrekpunt is de aanname dat kunst – ook als zij geen nadrukkelijke band met de vertrouwde realiteit aangaat – ons iets kan leren over de werkelijkheid. Deze aanname impliceert voor de congresorganisatie dat er vooral gekeken wordt naar zogenaamde ‘contact zones’, het literaire werk als ontmoetingsplaats van feit en fictie bijvoorbeeld, of van leven en kunst, van waarheid en verbeelding. Ik neem het thema ‘Picturing Reality’ te baat om door te denken op het onderwerp waar ik al sinds mijn studie door gefascineerd ben: de manier waarop Nederlandse auteurs zich vanaf het einde van de jaren ’50 laten inspireren door de moderne beeldende kunst om de literatuur te vernieuwen en hoe dit type literatuur – door literatuurhistorici ‘neo-realisme’ gedoopt – als minder literair, en zelfs als onartistiek wordt gewaardeerd.

Recente literaire ontwikkelingen, zoals de grote populariteit van ‘waar gebeurde’ persoonlijke verhalen en de wens van schrijvers om met hun werk expliciet ‘in de wereld’ te willen staan als ook het bijbehorende engagement-debat, maken bestudering van het neo-realistische werk uit de (late) jaren ’50 en jaren ’60 opnieuw relevant. Waar kwam de behoefte van auteurs als K. Schippers en Armando vandaan om de realiteit als een ready made in de literatuur te brengen? In hoeverre verschilt het neo-realistische gebaar, of komt het overeen, met de beweging richting de werkelijkheid in de literatuur van nu, zoals die bijvoorbeeld wordt gesignaleerd door David Shields in zijn pamflet Reality Hunger (2010)?


Hieronder het Engelstalig abstract van mijn bijdrage aan ‘Picturing Reality’ dat plaatsvindt van 28 tot en met 30 juni 2018 aan de University of Sheffield. Zie de website van the Association for Low Countries Studies voor het volledige programma en aanmelding. 



When in the 60s neo-realistic Dutch writers such as K. Schippers, J. Bernlef, Armando and Hans Sleutelaar started to adopt the ready made-principle the literary establishment was shocked. Although these writers took inspiration from international artists, such as Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg, the application of the ‘ready made’ within (Dutch) literature was evaluated as ‘easy’, ‘lazy’, ‘just a joke’ and moreover ‘non artistic’ (see Mourits 2001).

Until today this reaction to the neo-realistic gesture pops up. Recently, critic Arjan Peters for example stated that Schippers was fooling his readers (de Volkskrant, 16/09/2017). Underneath this evaluation lies a strong believe in literature being different from reality; the idea that the artist – by means of his exceptional talent – can offer us an alternative reality. At the same time, this view is much contested by those who argue that literature should not be approached as something different from reality, but as a means to (critically) break into reality (see Vaessens 2009 and Van Rooden 2015).

Still, within this debate which in the Netherlands circles strongly around the notion of ‘engagement’, the neo-realistic gesture of the ‘ready made’ is much neglected. In my contribution I like to revisit the work of K. Schippers and Armando, two writers who are still active, and propose a different interpretation of their work within the current debate on literary engagement. As a guideline I like to take David Shields thought-provoking manifesto Reality Hunger (2010) in which Shields argues that a new literary model has arrived, one that builds heavily upon the ‘ready made’-principle and hence meets our deep need for reality in a high-tech, mediated world.


Afbeelding: Marcel Duchamp met Bicycle wheel (1913)   

CfP The Icon as Cultural Model

Mona Lisa Graffiti 7
Op donderdag 25 en vrijdag 26 januari 2018 organiseert de Open Universiteit het interdisciplinaire congres ‘The Icon as Cultural Model: Past, Present and Future’.
De Call for Papers staat nu online! Kunsthistorici, filosofen, mediawetenschappers, letterkundigen, cultuurhistorici: tot 1 juli kun je een abstract for papers insturen!

Theme description

Journalists, artists and scholars, among others, tend to refer to iconic events or images from the past in order to better understand present-day developments. For example, in the wake of the American elections media repeatedly referred to the iconic ‘years of crisis’ of the thirties of the last century. Also, they recalled George Orwell’s iconic depiction of a dystopian society from his novel 1984 to contextualize the use of ‘alternative facts’. In this respect, the icon functions as a model that generates cultural meaning by connecting past and present. But the icon not only shapes our (collective) image of the present, nor does it merely re-evaluate our image of the past. It also opens up potential scenarios for the future – be it brilliant or gloomy.

The making of specific icons is a much-studied topic in cultural studies, literary studies, art history and even in the history of science. However, theoretical and/or synthesizing studies on how the icon functions as a cultural model from which we can learn how to act or perform are scarce. The conference ‘The Icon as Cultural Model’ wants to fill this gap.

First, it will do so by addressing different manifestations of the icon. Traditionally understood as a static visual image, the concept of the icon is also used to refer to:

  • a specific period (e.g. the thirties or sixties, the Enlightenment or Golden Age);
  • a specific place (e.g. Waterloo or Woodstock, cities like Amsterdam, Rome or New York, or imaginary places such as Orwell’s ‘Oceania’);
  • a specific person (e.g. Christ, Michelangelo, Mae West);
  • a specific phrase (such as Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ or Clausewitz’ ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means’).

Static as the icon may be, its evaluation by different groups (artists, scholars, politicians) can change through time. Recently, scholars have shown an increased interest in phenomena linked to the theme of the icon: such as fan culture and celebrities, artists’ self-representation, cultural marketing, and processes of canonisation. This poses the question why at present the search, and explication of, cultural models occurs to be highly relevant. By posing this question the conference’s second aim is to encourage reflection on how the icon has functioned and still functions as cultural model (and how it can be studied as such).

In addressing the icon as cultural model the conference explicitly wishes to bring together scholars from various disciplines such as art history, literary studies, history and philosophy. In this way the conference wishes to offer room for joint interdisciplinary reflection on the question how the study of cultural models may contribute to our understanding of the dynamics of culture in general.

Paper submissions

We welcome abstracts for papers (20 minutes max. excluding discussion). Contributions can address, but are by no means limited to the following aspects:

  • How do periodical concepts like the ‘Golden Age’, ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Renaissance’ function as icons? How does the evaluation of these concepts by artists and/or scholars change through time? And how can we study this shifting evaluation?
  • How do both general spatial notions such as the ‘city’ (as opposed to the ‘country’ or to ‘nature’) and specific places function as models for writers, philosophers and artists?
  • How do specific historical events become iconic? Who attributes power to these events? And how, why, and by whom are their cultural meanings rewritten?
  • How do artifacts such as novels, poems, paintings, sculptures, and films construct iconic images of the past and/or future? How can we study iconic representations within these artifacts?
  • How, and for whom, do certain phrases from philosophers, politicians or artists function as icons? What are the contexts that make phrases iconic?
  • How do specific historical persons function as icons in art, philosophy and scholarship? And how can we study these cases in the broader context of the study of cultural models?

Note: all papers’ conclusions should include a statement on how cultural icons may contribute to an increased understanding of the dynamics of culture in general.

Abstracts of papers consist of approx. 250 words and should include the name of the speaker, affiliation, full contact address (including email), the title, and the summary of the paper.

Practical information

Deadline for abstracts is 1st of July, 2017.

A notification of acceptance will be sent no later than August 15th, 2017.

Abstracts can be sent to Marieke Winkler via

Papers will be selected for publishing in the conference proceedings.

The conference takes place at Utrecht, the Netherlands.

See also the website:

How to Write Literary History?


In the little and smartly designed booklet Modern Times. Literary Change (2013) written by the members of the Leuven based research group MDRN it is stated that literary history is again at the heart of literary studies. As such it responds to a need felt both inside and outside academia for new historical accounts of literature. Yet, literary history remains a difficult genre: ‘While there is a consensus on its necessity, there is arguably no agreement on how to write it.’ (p.9)

In the ‘ABC of Literary History’, the manifesto that opens the book, several reasons are addressed that make the writing of literary history such a difficult task. One of the reasons is the fact that our conceptions of literature – as well as the way we use literary texts and appreciate them – are always linked to the social-historical and cultural context in which we are working. This is why our views and ideas on literature change all the time and why literary historiography was, and still is, ‘more norm-governed and more normative then we usually like to admit.’ (p.11)

Because there is nothing inherent to literature that determines what literature is (and what it is not), literature is not something that simply ‘exists’, according to the writers, but something that ‘becomes’. Therefore, Modern Times. Literary Change argues for a functionalistic approach. That is, an approach in which we no longer need to study literature’s properties (what is literature?), but its functionalities: how do people make use of literature? To what end? And what is the effect of the different uses of literature?

The proposed direction bears resemblance to the view expressed for example by Robert Hodge in Literature as Discourse (1990). In this book Hodge states that if notions like literature or history ‘cannot be accepted as absolute truths, at least they can be usefully studied as social facts.’ (p.17) Bearing this conviction in mind the attention of the literary historian drifts from literature to literary strategies, opening up the scope of literary studies towards the analysis of the discourse and practices of non-specialized and non-highbrow readers, to the study of modern rhetoric or peripheral ‘literary’ genres such as the speech or interview, or to the way authors, through their writings, reflect on new technologies that change our perception of time and place, of sound and vision. At least, these are the examples presented in Modern Times. Literary Change, but as the writers of the ‘ABC of Literary History’ add in the last sentence of their manifesto: ‘There might be many’.

It is likely that one can encounter some challenging proposals and demonstrations of concrete new models of writing literary history during the MDRN Writing Literary History Conference that will take place from the 14th till the 16th of September. I am already looking forward!

See here for the Call for Papers. Deadline 4th of May.