Museums

The Political Problems of the Contemporary “Flâneur”

An exhibition at the Barnes Foundation uses the theme of the contemporary flânuer to draw connections to its 19th-century collection, but the concept is deeply muddled.

Installation view of Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie at the Barnes Foundation (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

PHILADELPHIA — The figure of the flâneur is commonly described as a man of wealth and taste, leisurely strolling through the city streets. He watches the crowd, yet is totally disengaged from it. He’s an aloof observer, silently making passing judgments on those who share public space with him. He is a loafer, synonymous in many respects with the dandy — the foppish, 19th-century urbanite man of gaudy fashions and self-congratulatory quick wits. He is a figure of privilege, who has no need for the pedantry of a job. He is implied as white, and definitively male.

The character of the flâneur is central to the new exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie, which refers to its multitude of 50-some international artists as “present-day flâneurs.” The show is extremely diverse, representing artists across many national, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, which is notable. The theme was chosen for its potential to draw connections back to the Barnes’s exquisite 19th-century collections, but the exhibition is deeply muddled.

The viewer enters into a pseudo-maze of screens and objects in vitrines, repeatedly crossing into the path of the show’s many projected videos. This anxious atmosphere is an unsuccessful attempt at invoking the open, wandering path of a city street. Gestures are repeatedly made toward the 19th century in an attempt to draw lines back to the original concept of the flâneur, but these traffic in the ridiculous, such as the puzzling decision to have an unfortunate art handler move one of Virgil Marti’s beautifully ornate, wildly patterned, 19th century-style poufs around the city and place them in the middle of a park, a cemetery, and a playground for a few hours at a time. The choice feels clumsy and like an advertisement for the show.

Installation view of Franz Ackermann’s “Mental Maps”

A few of the featured artists may indeed identify as contemporary flâneurs, but some works, when confronted with the dire political realities presented primarily by the show’s artists of color, smack of privilege and do a disservice to the art. These include pieces like Franz Ackermann’s “Mental Maps,” in which the artist is described as a “global tourist” “skipping from city to city” until he returns to his studio to color his remembered route on a map; Ingrid Calame’s cheerful, brightly colored abstract paintings of sidewalk detritus; or Slater Bradley’s video “Don’t Let Me Disappear,” which features a young white man indulging in his inner turmoil as he walks down a crowded street. While these works are perhaps acceptable within another context, the harsh and oblivious juxtaposition of these works with others makes the show difficult to swallow, and renders the artists as cultural tourists, playing dress-up with other people’s spaces and identities, literalized in Marina Abramović’s 1975 “Role Exchange” performance, where she traded places with a prostitute in Amsterdam’s red light district for a few hours.

Installation view of Slater Bradley’s video “Don’t Let Me Disappear”

These works are pitted against ones advocating for political change and agency, such as “The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (Whitney Version #2)” by William Pope.L. In this video work, the viewer watches as Pope.L crawls on his hands and knees the length Broadway Avenue in New York City, while wearing a Superman costume with a skateboard strapped to his back in lieu of a cape. The performance speaks to the everyday struggles of people of color. Another similar work is “Superman 51” by Papo Colo, wherein the artist ran down the Westside Highway in New York while dragging 51 pieces of wood, tethered to his body like a cape, to protest the US’s refusal to make Puerto Rico a state.

These artists are wandering the street not for leisure, but out of necessity. These are acts of protest and affirmations of humanity. Dread Scott’s proclamation in his performance piece, “I Am Not a Man,” exhibited here in documentation, is a reference to the “I Am a Man” signs of the Civil Rights era, drawing attention to the ongoing denial of the humanity of African Americans in the eyes of society and the State. Wilmer Wilson IV references the police intimidation technique of “turf dropping” in his endurance performance “Channel,” where he walks through the city’s neighborhoods with a television. Keith Haring addresses the dire situation of gay men living with AIDS in the ’80s through his drawing “Still Alive in ’85”, and Jefferson Pinder makes reference to African Americans’ lack of social mobility in video documentation of his performance “Marathon,” where he runs through the streets of Baltimore, beginning naked and putting on consecutive layers of clothing until he is fully dressed in a suit. These artists’ works fly in the face of the stilted airs and apathy of the flâneur. By definition, the flâneur is distinctly not an activist, but rather a passive observer. The conflation of the politicized street and the apolitical wanderer is where Person of the Crowd’s troubles manifest.

Installation view of Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie at the Barnes Foundation

The most cloying part of the exhibition might be its ham-fisted social media campaign that asks, “Where do you stand?” This query is part of the “cyber-flâneurie” project by Man Bartlett, and instructs visitors to respond to the question by snapping a selfie with the hashtag #personofthecrowd. The phrase “Where do you stand?” is a question typically used to denote a political position (it was used as a slogan for the Men Can Stop Rape Campaign, for example), but in this instance it has been cutely turned back into its literal meaning of “where is your body standing right now?” The Instagram posts are transmuted by a bot into descriptive text like, “A group of people posing for a picture,” “a man standing in front of a store,” “a man holding a box of doughnuts,” all of which is read to you ad infinitum in a robotic voice when you visit the website. This gesture manages to co-opt a deeply confrontational question that asks people to take an active stance on a political issue, and turns it into another desperate attempt for museums to connect to millennials via a spectacle-oriented opportunity for narcissism. It is the art equivalent of the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial.

The issue here is less about whether work is good or bad, or political or apolitical, but rather that the frame of the flâneur, and the leisure and privilege it implies, simply don’t apply to the majority of the artists represented. The flâneur is an outdated concept, too closely tied to traditional structures of power and privilege to find real ground in this century. To quote South African civil rights activist Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In our current political state, it is no longer enough to be a passive observer — silence is an act of complicity, which always serves to benefit the oppressor, and never the oppressed.

Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie continues at the Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Philadelphia) through May 22. 

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