Saturday, August 15, 2009

Art Will Save No One; Art Requires Salvation

by J J Cohen

From today's NYT, a dispirited meditation by Michael Kimmelman on the failures of art in a Dresden where bigotry has been murderous:
What are the humanizing effects of culture?

Evidently, there are none.

To walk through Dresden’s museums, and past the young buskers fiddling Mozart on street corners, is to wonder whether this age-old question may have things backward. It presumes that we’re passive receivers acted on by the arts, which vouchsafe our salvation, moral and otherwise, so long as we remain in their presence. Arts promoters nowadays like to trumpet how culture helps business and tourism; how teaching painting and music in schools boosts test scores. They try to assign practical ends, dollar values and other hard numbers, never mind how dubious, to quantify what’s ultimately unquantifiable.

The lesson of Dresden, which this great city unfortunately seems doomed to repeat, is that culture is, to the contrary, impractical and fragile, helpless even. Residents of Dresden who believed, when the war was all but over, that their home had somehow been spared annihilation by its beauty were all the more traumatized when, in a matter of hours, bombs killed tens of thousands and obliterated centuries of humane and glorious architecture.

The truth is, we can stare as long as we want at that Raphael Madonna; or at Antonello da Messina’s “St. Sebastian,” now beside a Congo fetish sculpture in another room in the Gemäldegalerie; or at the shiny coffee sets, clocks and cups made of coral and mother-of-pearl and coconuts and diamonds culled from the four corners of the earth in the city’s New Green Vault, which contains the spoils of the most cultivated Saxon kings. But it won’t make sense of a senseless murder or help change the mind of a violent bigot.

What we can also do, though, is accept that while the arts won’t save us, we should save them anyway. Because the enemies of civilized society are always just outside the door.
Powerful writing, especially in the face of some of the ugliest acts of which humans are capable ... but I disagree. I say that not because I believe that art will actually humanize us (and it appears that what Kimmelman means by humanize is something like "render tolerant, nonviolent, respectful, just"); more that I don't think humans ever have had a monopoly on art. To believe that art is ours alone -- something only we can cherish and preserve, something that we create but are separate from -- limits art so severely that it is suscepitable to becoming the passive, imprinted product that Kimmelman describes. But what if art was never human to begin with? What is art has always been inhuman?


Anonymous said...

"But it won’t make sense of a senseless murder or help change the mind of a violent bigot."

Rilke also disagrees with this. The point isn't that art is meant to change a murder, or a bigot...its meant for "you":

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Suhaylsaadi said...

That's an excellent and astute point, Jeffrey. I might draw on it sometime, if I may - and will be sure to render acknowledgement. Art is inhuman; it attempts to define, or at least to catch murmurs of, the Absolute.

And of course, on a somewhat separate, though perhaps linked, note, as oft has been stated, all the high, low and mittel art of Europe did not stop Germany from commiting genocide during WWII.

Indeed, in my novellette, 'The Aerodrome', there is a Luftwaffe pilot who was a concert pianist.

Eeven when we reach the stars, we will still be gazing into the gutter.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for this comment, Jeffrey. I read the article and found it annoying, and you made gold out of it.

I wish its writer had gone in a different direction. There's a lot of noise these days about the 'Muslimification' of Europe (which, incidentally, relies heavily on bad or invented statistics). The writer might have observed, then, that it's not the Muslimification of Europe but its Nazification that Europeans ought to fear; that the enemy is their own history, their own definition of Europe. 7500 Nazis in Dresden? Imagine such a rally in the US! After turning on Europe's own self-imagination (which would require reassessing Dresden as 'cultural capital'), he might have thought through statistics themselves, especially the imaginative kind, as a form of art.

Suhaylsaadi said...

Absolutely, Karl (if I may). Well said.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Kvond, thanks for that poem, which is lovely.

Suhayl, wonderful to see you posting here! It's funny, in this project I'm doing right now I find myself haunted by your novella The White Cliffs, which beautifully enfolds a story about English history, mythology, and story-telling into a meditation on art that also has to do with the inhuman as conveyed by rock -- the looming island that is black and yet white, that seems so solid but is riddled with holes ... I love that little book and am thinking about using it as an introduction in my 'Myths of Britain' class.

Karl, the article is annoying, and is really more of a reflection/opinion piece than an article per se (although it was on the NYT front page). As you say, what is more to be feared is the reversion to a German past that wasn't all that many decades ago, not that Islam is some eternal and unchanging and constantly enlarging entity.

Suhaylsaadi said...

Thanks, Jeffrey. I'm really enormously pleased you like that story, and it's a real honour for me that you'd think of using it in teaching. Did you know also that there are two finished versions of it? The one in the book and one - the original, actually - which was used as the basis for a stage drama (though in truth it's probably more filmic than theatrical) which was produced in 2005 as an intense two-hander. Firstly, in the language (the longer prose version from which the stage adaptation was drawn contained more complex syntax and language and also references (a la Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the English Psychedelic Movement et al) to 'south coast' people like T. E. Lawrence. But there was also a plot difference. In the original, in their previous lives the two had been Cathars and so were victims of the crusade which destroyed Cathars and Love Courts, alike, while in the published book version, it was the bubonic plague that got them! I'd been reading about, and listening to songs by, the trobairitz, the female troubadours, Beatritz de Romans, Bernarda Ventadorn, etc. Actually, specifically in the stage version, we had a backstory intro'd by the director about the half-Polish 'recently deceased writer-friend of mine on whose diaries this play was based' who was named Adam Arnald Slotsky (note the Provencale/ Occidental, if I recall correctly, middle name) and "we'd like to express our gratitude to his widow, Mrs Slotsky" who we were immensely honoured to have 'in the audience today' (every day, for a week). It worked, and everyone - even all the other writers and actors present on each occasion - believed that there was this widow was in the audience. Initially, I'd wanted the actors on stage also not to be told it wasn't true, but I decided that would be a bit too 'William Friedkin' (of 'The Exorcist'). It made everyone intensely reverential - though that had not been my intention, rather, I had been playing with the (arguably impossibility of the) concept of absolute historical narrative truth - Orson Welles, Fernando Pessoa, etc. People will believe almost anything, won't they! The bigger the lie... Freaky. In the end, I almost had myself believing it and like you, felt somewhat haunted. Sometimes I think that these stories are dictated to us by the ghosts of the long-dead.