An ample stock of feel-good tales with a melodramatic twist may well be essential equipment for living. These tales come in all shapes & sizes: ‘from-rags-to-riches’ stories spur on the ambitious poor, tales of glorious sportsmen conquering insidious diseases teach perseverance, legends of debauched heretics eventually turning into saints remind us, poor sinners, that we still may correct our dissolute ways.
As to me, I dote in particular on those many instances of art (or beauty, or goodness) that have sprung in conditions of hardship. Somehow they reconcile me with our quite pathetic human condition. Maybe because belief in the autonomy of the mind & the heart appeals to a naïve trust in ‘mind over matter’? Or perhaps, more pessimistically, because it is a last-ditch defense for anyone fearing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. A bit like the Stoics, who anxiously tried to console themselves by proclaiming the independence of the moral self from the wretched worldly conditions: “though I can’t be happy, I can be good”.
But this penchant for “beauty-in-hard-times” is not merely about spineless escaping in dreams of happiness and success (with the eventual rude awakening). It’s rather about a quite stubborn affirmation of the self, the will to practice our most cherished faculties despite all adversities.
It reminds me of an exhibit of ancient Chinese drawings and aquarelles I went to a while back – these most delicate studies of clouds and trees had been made in a period of great upheaval and hardship in China. I myself was at the time struggling with a whole set of petty assaults (ranging from nasty practical problems, over minor health issues to a general emotional malaise). And so what could be more wonderful than concentrate for an hour or so on these fragile and yet so powerfully beautiful images. The accompanying commentary read “ the artist felt it was important to still be able to create beauty, also in these hard times” . Yes. Yes. Indeed.
But I can recommend even stronger consolatory stuff! Nothing like a good story of an unhappy artist, preferably isolated and/or infirm, who still manages to create great works of art, and who by the end of his or her life achieves recognition and fame. (I must admit I’m a bit less keen on stories of posthumous fame – I do wish people to have their morsel of happiness in their own lifetime).
Now I’m definitely not talking here about self-assured ego-trippers chasing glory – no, in this context I prefer my unhappy artists to be rather unassuming. It is then all the more vindicating when glory finally strikes.
For me, one of these exemplary artists is Clara Haskil
(1895-1960) , a Roumenian born pianist and Mozart-specialist. After a flying start as a child prodigy she was beset by ill health and long bouts of depression. It is only at age 55 (!) that she is rediscovered and then she goes from one acclaimed performance to another, recording Mozart sonatas and concerto’s, Beethoven sonatas, …
For a few years she receives her due from the world, in terms of recognition and happiness. But then, at this, improbably belated, height of her career – fate strikes again: “a fall on the steps of the railway station at Brussels ended a life that had [seldom] known optimism or a sense of victory, had been ill-equipped to face everyday life, and was ruled by self doubt, self-hatred, and depression”(1) . But now, almost 50 years later, her few recordings are still devoutly cherished. Because of that resilient piano-play that comes to us, through all the crackling recording imperfections, so dashing, dazzling & delicate.
And then there’s this Finnish artist, Helene Schjerfbeck (1862- 1946)
– who now, after all this time…,has a deserved retrospective in the Paris Museum for Modern Art. Hers is also a tale of ill health, impoverished living conditions and decades of isolation.
But ah, how she sublimates a childhood wretched by infirmity in that sparkling and endearing portrait of a convalescing child. … There is so much light there and so much stubborn life ….
Apart from these delightful impressionist exercises, she comes most into her own when rendering tranquil scenes (of women sitting while reading or sewing or talking) in a formal language of great economy, focusing on shapes and shades, almost Chinese-flat & subtle if it weren’t for a persistent attention to the stray variations of light (by the way – that is my single greatest objection against abstract art: bluntly shutting out the enchanting play of light and atmosphere, how dare they!) .
But most impressive perhaps are her self-portraits … As a young adult they show a classical northern beauty , but with already a disturbing gaze of persistent inquiry. By the time she has turned 60 she starts a courageously confronting series of self-portraits – portraits concentrating on the stark lines of an emaciated face, on the persistent gaze of staring eyes, on the expressive lines of lips. And always that fierce expression …….
Yes, one is haunted by these old age portraits – because they have attained the haunting bareness of truth.
“Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.” (2)
(1) CD-sleeve-notes by Uwe Kraemer
(2) WB Yeats
Well, I must admit, from a Francophile youth I’ve evolved into quite an anglophile. With even a soupcon of amused disdain for the persistent French “délusions de grandeur”. But nevertheless, part of me does remain loyal to my youthful infatuation.
And infatuated with Paris I was! Oh how I fantasized at age 15 about life on the Paris left bank. Sitting in cafés, clad in black, smoking gauloise cigarettes, drinking coffee, reading the papers and feverishly discussing the latest events in the political and intellectual world. Yes, that definitely seemed like an alluring life program at the time. But despite having spent in my early twenties quite some hours sitting in those cafés, drinking black coffee and smoking numerous cigarettes, no exciting bohemian life has ever revealed itself to me. So maybe it’s because of those spurned youthful advances that I turned my back to Paris for so many years.
I rediscovered Paris in my thirties – in a more detached and aesthetical mode. Because really, about urban aesthetics the Parisians are never wrong. It’s a city of an amazing beauty. Just take those boulevards, such harmony of colors (the soft beige stone of the façades, the black of the balustrades, the luminous grey of the rooftops) and the sheer orderly rhythm of the façades! The soothing regularity of windows and balconies saved from blandness by all those slight variations that are so entertaining for the eye.
And then, how astute the French are with their use of red (1) everywhere - from the “Tabac” signs to the many awnings. And how elegantly that perpetual Xmas red contrasts with the distinguished grey & beige of buildings & plane trees alike. Not to mention the many red reflections on wet pavements. And that soothing skyline of grey-blue rooftops against a grey sky - how caressing those delicate variations of grey and blue (worthy of a Whistler painting). Oh yes, trust the Parisians to turn northern gloom into another opportunity for refined color-harmonies.
So it’s a good city to wander about in these dark December days. With its illuminated café-windows so generously open to the streets.
And though I no longer feel like emulating Simone De Beauvoir, and even though I’ve quit smoking, I still love sitting at one of those little round tables in a smoky café, reading a French paper, looking at the people hurrying by in the streets.
And I wonder whether it’s the French commitment to politics with passion that made the French articles about Benazir Bhutto’s death so much more empathic than the British ones. With even a tremolo of drama and moral indignation in the comments (notably the Bernard-Henri Lévy comment in La Libé).
And for one who cannot bear much Glühwein cozy-ness or Xmas-markets bustle, the Paris way of spending those December days at art exhibits seems so heartwarmingly civilized. Even if it means queuing outside a museum for an hour and getting chilled to the bone. One feels solidarity with one’s fellow-queuers, equally red-nosed and stamping their cold feet, trying to hold a book with numb fingers. And how welcomed one feels then in the warm buzz of the museum – the murmur of muffled voices and shuffling feet. Roused by the expectation of a major cultural Event, which is always faintly thrilling in the Paris air. Yes, I suppose I do love Paris more than I usually care to admit….
(1) red, the city said
Those sheltered days, they “can’t come again, but are for others undiminished somewhere”.… (1) It’s lovely to watch now children engrossed in their Xmassy activities. Or take those teenagers loitering about the streets: their un-Xmassy bravado so very much a reminder of the schools’ Xmas vacation and the cozy Xmas trees at their homes.
But for an adult, these dark December days between Xmas and New Year hold other charms. Like travelling by train from Brussels to Paris. No, a car-ride won’t do, it’s the station-atmosphere you want in these December days. Whole families in thick overcoats and scarves, hauling big suitcases, are thronging in the station’s hall, anxiously watching train announcements on the screens. Yes, it’s another kind of travelling than in the ski-season or during summer – it’s less frivolously exotic, more family related and that’s perhaps why it feels more poignant. All those uprooted people travelling back home to their families for the holidays….. (2)Oh, I love to wander about stations in this period of year.
On the train, people then settle in their seats with their provisions for the journey: fruit, papers, books. I myself plunge into a book and shut out children’s cries & old ladies' chatter by hiding in headphones full of Mozart.
But then, when I look up from my book, staring vaguely into the compartment, my attention is arrested by that tragic portrait filling the entire first page of a fellow traveler’s paper: Benazir Bhutto… Brutally murdered during an election rally the night before.
I had been shocked upon learning the news on Internet. To me she had always seemed the embodiment of intelligence, grace and courage. Here was an educated, determined woman, loyal to her country and her faith but a secular democrat, the first female prime minister ever of a Muslim country. I had considered her return to Pakistan as an act of bravery, one offering some hope for the region. “Praying for the best, preparing for the worst”, as she had said herself.
Of course she was such an icon, and I only knew of her via articles and one or two appearances during debates on TV. So maybe I have always projected too many fine qualities in her. And of course there were the dubious family dealings, there was the whiff of corruption, there were the allegations of being manipulated by the US into returning to Pakistan.
So, granted, there is a shady haze surrounding the Bhutto dynasty and thus Benazir Bhutto herself . But still, this stubborn fact remains: she abandoned a comfortable life in London & Dubai to go back to Pakistan. She went back, knowing the risks. All for the sake of participating in the public debate and in the democratic election process. This is an act of bravery that no blinded kamikaze can suppress, that no slander campaign can ever squelch. Yes, Benazir Bhutto had this foremost of political virtues: courage.
And perhaps we can come to terms with her tragic ending by seeing it as an example of secular courage, of courage without bigotry or violence. Yes, maybe she gave an example that may inspire others … Or am I being too naively hopeful … Reading the papers now, the talk is of revenge, rioting, chaos …
But no, I do want to believe that the legacy of her actions during these last weeks will bring some good, proving as it were that rational proponents of democracy can muster more courage than any blinded zealot or despot. Benazir Bhutto as a symbol of democracy. So, I prefer to conclude with these TS Eliot lines as a tribute: “What [she] had to leave us – a symbol: a symbol perfected in death”
(1) From some poem by Philip Larkin – I’ve forgotten which one
(2) lo and behold, this might well be a bible flash back- the nativity story – didn’t Joseph and Mary have to travel to their ancestor’s home for a census?
“art works are the worldliest of all things” (1)
A phrase that raised my hackles some 10 years ago. Art? Worldly!? Art works mere Things? Was not art part & parcel of the life of the mind, unsullied by the base materialistic connotations of words like “worldly” and “things”?
It has taken me quite a few years and quite a few Arendt reading sessions to understand that Hannah Arendt’s “world” is neither base nor materialistic. For Arendt the “world” is the sum-total of cultural, technological and political artifacts that lend a degree of permanence to our transient human existence.
That “world” is meant to outlast the short lifespan of each succeeding generation. It is meant to resist the forces of living that consume and devour without leaving a trace. And so we can for instance contrast the world’s cultural objects with life’s entertainment.
“Entertainment, like labor and sleep is irrevocably part of the biological life process. A metabolism feeding on things by devouring them”.
We consume entertainment.
Whereas the excellence of the world’s cultural objects is precisely measured by their durability. “The cultural world, which, insofar as it contains tangible things – books and paintings, statues, buildings, and music – comprehends, and gives testimony to, the entire recorded past of countries, nations, and ultimately mankind. As such, the only nonsocial and authentic criterion for judging these specifically cultural things is their relative permanence and even eventual immortality. Only what will last through the centuries can ultimately claim to be a cultural object.”
And what is the factor that ensures this relative permanence? It is not functional usefulness…. Use-objects are prone to become obsolete and to be discarded. Not many contemporary spectators stand in awe of highly useful medieval horseshoes. …
So is not beauty then the ultimate criterion? That “most important and elemental quality, which is to grasp and move the reader or spectator over the centuries.”
Why can I, agnostic 21st century city-dweller, still be moved by a medieval cathedral? Why am I, Brussels-based dilettante, moved by photos of 15th century indo-islamic buildings?
Because in that cathedral I am dazzled by the elaborate music of pillars & arches & light& shade (2). Because the buildings in the New Delhi Lodhi Gardens are “treasure troves of light & shade & shapes & incredible soul” (3).
And so yes, I now fully agree with Hannah Arendt :
“art works stay longer in the world than anything else, they are the worldliest of all things”
But this is a highly contested affirmation these days … in an art world that distrusts aesthetics, that values concepts and processes over objects.
Just by way of exemplary contrast – here are parts of the Wikipedia entry on Artur Barrio , a contemporary Brazilian artist:
“Artur Barrio is seeking to create an experience. He uses both ephemeral and precarious materials […] . His use of inexpensive materials (garbage, toilet paper and urine) was a rejection of the aesthetic elite and the art world they controlled”
He repudiates any aim of permanence:
“Barrio has no interest in the preservation of his pieces since the art he is interested in is the experience of creating the art and the experience of interacting with art. To Barrio, the artifacts that are used to create these experiences are not the art and do not need to be preserved. […]
This and the fact that so much of the materials used in creating his works are perishable and decay means that there is very little work of Barrio’s in existence in permanent collections.”
But in the end, the artist’s yearning to leave a trace in the World of durable objects does seem to win out – or so I conclude from the fact that durable replica’s of the artist's eminently perishable works were made to ensure a more enduring afterlife in art galleries.
Wikipedia about Barrio’s legacy:
“Artur Barrio has become more accepting of the greater art community. His work (or replicas created as examples of his work) is now exhibited with increasing frequency”
But whereas I can feel sympathy for Barrio’s initial passionate plunge into transience and for his wish to defy elitist standards, I am deeply suspicious of the motives of an artist like Damien Hirst.
After a rich career of shocking and un-aesthetic installations (diverse animals on formaldehyde), he recently went for the permanence of a richly decorated object (to be precise: “a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds, including a pear-shaped pink diamond located in the forehead of the skull”).
I suppose the title he gave to his decorated skull, “For the love of God” is meant to cynically echo the dedication “ad maiorem Dei gloriam”(4), which motivated generations of anonymous cathedral builders (1) and sublime composers (Bach).
But no doubt this 50mln pound skull should be interpreted as a courageous statement of the artist exposing the mercantile and materialistic ways of the contemporary art world.
footnotes, again, not to be missed
(1) Hannah Arendt “The Crisis in Culture”
(2) “The cathedrals were built ad maiorem Dei gloriam, while they as buildings certainly served the needs of the community, their elaborate beauty can never be explained by these needs. […] Their beauty transcended all needs and made them last through the centuries; but while beauty […] transcends needs and functions, it never transcends the world. On the contrary it is the very beauty of religious art which transforms religious and other-worldly contents and concerns into tangible worldly realities. In this sense all art is secular […] it reifies and transforms into an ‘objective’, tangible, worldly presence – what had existed before outside the world, whereby it is irrelevant whether we localize this ‘outside in the beyond of a hereafter (traditional religion) or in the inmost recesses of the human heart” (from: "the Crisis in Culture”)
(3) see this Flickr Photostream treasure trove
(4) to the greater glory of God
Well, I could start by listing some names & titles (1) :
- John Armstrong: “Why Beauty Moves Us to Tears”
- Hannah Arendt: “Jews and Society – between Pariah and Parvenu” ; “Stateless Persons – Jewess and Shlemihl”
- Edward Said: “Intellectual Exile : Expatriates and Marginals”
- Marc Chagall: paintings with people floating in the air
So what could they have in common: the settled British Philosopher of Aesthetics (still alive), the combative Palestinian Intellectual & Professor of Literature (died in 2003) and the Jewish Political Philosopher (died in 1975)?
Well, they seem to share a common sensibility to the condition of exile and marginality.
Now you can take exile in an actual political or geographical sense, indicating the dislocation of whole communities and the flows of migration. There’s also exile as a literal individual banishment from one’s home or community . And then you can take exile as a metaphor, indicating a state of un-at-homeness in a personal or even poetical sense.
But whether it be the fate of a community or an individual, an actual or a metaphorical state, exile always means “existing in a median state […] beset with half-involvements and half-detachments, an adept mimic or a secret outcast". It is “the state of never being fully adjusted, always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by natives”.
Said’s "secret outcast or adept mimic" seems like a variation then on Arendt’s account of the choice faced by those who live on the fringes of mainstream society: either remain a Pariah or become a Parvenu.
Said sees exile as a potentially fertile ground for a critical intellectual because of the “double perspective” exile offers: the exile’s ambivalent position means that for him or her “an idea or experience is always counterposed with another”, he or she incorporates multiple points of view. Arendt then sees as the “privileges of pariah’s : “ humanity, kindness, freedom from prejudice, sensitiveness to injustice”.
Being an exile, marginal, pariah, …. might almost seem a highly romantic fate, rewarded with a heightened sensibility and a unique outside glimpse of the world. And perhaps exile is an opportunity indeed …. well, for a few lucky individuals that is. For those lucky enough to be endowed with innate self-confidence and talents so as to be able to reconcile their own inner contradictions and at the same time take on an indifferent or hostile world.
But more often exile, whether coped with as a pariah or as a conformist parvenu, is alas a condition of utter solitude and isolation. And it is striking that both Said and Arendt (1) , when getting into personal instances of exile, mention the demand that “ one harden oneself against self-pity”, that one should not fall into the trap of “envying those around one who have always been at home”.
And what on earth could the settled professor of aesthetics have to tell about exile? Ah, he knows about exile too, as we all do. He gently reminds us of all those moments when we are moved to tears by beauty – be it in the serenity of an evening sky, in the sweet welcoming smile of a medieval Madonna, or in the wisdom of some lines of poetry.
Does not this beauty hurt, because it reminds us of those better (wiser, more serene, more warm and welcoming) parts of us we all too often neglect while getting on with the strenuous business of life? Does it not feel then as if these moments of beauty are intimations of a home we have been forced to relinquish? And aren’t we all exiles from this home, exiles from our better soul , only every once in a while reminded by beauty that our aimless wanderings are (2)
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
Or take the Russian-Jewish expatriate painter Marc Chagall, what he had to show about exile, with his dreamy anguished paintings of violinists floating in the air above cozy houses and gardens. He wrote (3) :
“the houses have been demolished since childhood. Their inhabitants rove about in the air, in search for a home. They dwell in my soul.”
As always, there’s truth to be found in bulky footnotes
(1) this is no name-dropping! Allow me to quote from a previous post: I don’t drop names, I recite them , reverently & lovingly. Somehow those names serve like talismans – “reminding me of what I value”, evoking a world of wisdom & wit & beauty where I alas cannot often dwell.
(2) There is for instance Hannah Arendt’s book on Rahel Varnhagen (a Jewish woman having lived in Berlin from 1771 to 1833, looking for “recognition and a morsel of happiness” in a society that valued very lowly indeed a sensitive Jewish woman without particular beauty or wealth). This curious book (so uncharacteristic for Arendt’s oeuvre) is a “meditation on human marginality”, showing the inner consequences of it, how it makes a person vulnerable to alienation, how it may drive one inward. How a person may seek refuge in the realm of abstract ideas and art, so as not to confront a concrete personal reality of unhappiness. “Objective and impersonal thought was able to minimize the purely human, purely accidental quality of unhappiness - thus the power and the autonomy of the soul are secured” – but at a high price …
(3) And here’s more of the Wordsworth verse – I put it in the notes, because I feel awkward about its religiosity. I’m not a religious person, but of course I dote on the metaphor of a glorious home we would have left behind.
"Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home. "
(4) Chagall, extracts from “Ma Vie”:
« Les maisons ont été détruites dès l’enfance,
Les habitants vagabondent dans l’air
A la recherche d’un logis.
Ils habitent dans mon âme. »
Ha, I bet you didn’t take me as a pink, polka dot kind of person! Well, there you see, the liberating and mind expanding effects art can have.…
It was out of a sense of cultural duty, and dragging my feet, that I went to the opening exhibit in the brand-new Wiels-centre of contemporary arts in Brussels (housed in a former brewery).
I mean, an obscure (to ignorant me, that is) Japanese Icon of Sixties Pop-Art and Fluxus movement. An installation of pink balloons, an artistic oeuvre inspired by a crazy obsession for polka dots? What could that kind of irrelevant tripping possibly teach me about the state of the world, the depths of the soul, or the intricate beauties of the senses? These woolly frivolous creative hippie sixties types …. Polka dots! ?!! Pink Balloons????No really ….
Well …. I must say … there I was, drawn into a fairy-tale… as anxious and obsessive and primal and enchanting as fairy-tales go.
Imagine a huge white industrial space, lit by a golden afternoon sun. Entirely filled by giant pink inflatable balloons, covered by black polka dots. And some of the balloons you could enter, seeing yourself endlessly reflected along with even more polka dotted balloons….
Yes, there I was, slaloming and dancing amongst the balloons – dazed and dazzled – and happy, I guess.
And then moved, when I read about the artist, Yayoi Kusama, who for 40 years obsessively has filled an entire aesthetical universe with polka dots. Tormented by neuroses and anxieties. Living, since 1972, in an apartment in a psychiatric hospital in Japan. And still working, still inventing, still piloting exhibits of her work. Well cared for, there in her hospital, I hope. And happy among her dots, I hope.
(*) Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Manifesto, 1960
Anyone suffering from bouts of insomnia knows the trick: when you lay there wide awake, it is of the utmost importance to control your thoughts. No way you can have them straying leisurely into the vast plains of past failures and present fears. Neither is 2AM the time to ponder the state of the world or the sufferings of humanity.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”
Or, to placate those who might think I have sold out to mindless optimists, here’s Pascal’s precept to allay fears of death and misery: ne point y penser …. (2)
“Since man has not managed to abolish death, misery, ignorance – he has, in order to be happy, resolved himself simply not to think about it”
(1) Gosh, do I really believe this myself?
(2) « Les hommes n'ayant pu guérir la mort, la misère, l'ignorance, ils se sont avisés pour se rendre heureux, de ne point y penser »
Take that cleaning service across the street, with a busy ladder outside – surely the harbinger of some very useful activity about to be performed. There’s not a shred of self-doubt in this whole set-up. It is just there . It is reality. It is solid.
Or take that house with adjacent garage. That door, so very accomplished a door – you can imagine the light filtering through its glass windowpanes into the silent corridor. And that garage : so perfectly closed a garage! You can just hear the rusty rumble when the garage-shutter would be raised.