ON THE NATURE OF ART OVER TIME

By Gabriel Thy • Uncategorized • 2 Mar 2008

IN A LETTER to Stephan Lackner, dated January 29, 1938, after fleeing Germany for Amsterdam after being dubbed and banished as a painter of “degenerate art”, Max Beckmann nevertheless writes, “politics is a subordinate matter whose form of appearance is forever changing according to the need of the masses. Hence, it is nothing essential – what mattersis that which endures, the unique, the being in the flight of illusion—the withdrawal from the workings of shadows—perhaps we’ll succeed in that.”

We should not confuse the specifics of political intrigue with the costumes and postures of the times in which any particular artist works. While Beckmann continued to stress his reluctance to consider the politics of his time anything more than the passing fancy of accidental geography, he did not shy away from depicting in his work the shapes and depths of such external geographies while digging deeper for the internal, or the invisible.

Writes Beckmann, “Politics is an odd game, not without danger, as I have been told, but certainly sometimes amusing.” He observes that “making war and peace” are natural components to the catastrophic nature of the modern world, and seeks to assail it by artistic investigations.”The greatest danger which threatens mankind,” he said, “is collectivism. Everywhere attempts are being made to lower the happiness and the way of living by mankind to the level of termites. He is more interested, like the writer Henry Miller once put it, not in society, but in individuals, in the particulars as well as the whole, because he finds in the “I” and the the “you” emanations of the “self: as the great veiled mystery of the world.

I would add to Beckmann’s words that the world is self-evident. The world is what stresses us, divides us, threatens us, confuses us, tricks us, buys us, sells us, gives us over to strangers. The loss of liberty is a quickening of the spirit of the world. The opening lines of my long 1982 poem – Contrapunctus America – Section 1, Some kind of joke – highlights those points made by Beckmann:

The year is nearly unimportant. Zinc is in pattern
but I can only purchase my thoughts on even numbered
days. Poor, acquainted more clearly
with a poor folk’s rag theory
than with the possibilities awaiting
to be chosen, I swear on a stack of paperbacks
I ain’t no fucking prophet…
but a walking man walking,
walking without bail and rolling on past
damp December, born into debt,
a free state, and a slap upon
the cheek…born to choose, born to hesitate,
free to lose in storming screaming success,
my swelling head tossed off in oft repeated duress,
and designated on some long lost Monday
to openly investigate.

So let us presume now that the poet has few means beyond those into which he is born. He writes that he is born into debt, that is perhaps to say original sin with individual and trillions of dollars of national debt in the worldly extreme. Which of these two debts is more persistently pressed upon his life? It has long been presumed that he is born to choose which path might set him onto the most glorious pursuits of liberty, the pursuits of personal success even to the ends of loss. But the world is everpresent. And thus, he is also born to hesitate as a sudden residual of the free state of mind in which free choice is the common denominator of all humanity except when corruption and worldly notions intercede.

The world’s inertia claims his attention and even mimics his attention span. He is lost in time, but has no choice about one matter, the most import matter—that urge within him that he must openly investigate in order to transcend the chaos of a world marked with lies and illusion. In this succession of aims, the man becomes artist, regaining his soul in his death to the world. It is only later that he learns that this investigation is the path of perpetually competing claims, the path of argument, confusion, confuscation, and the mirage of intersecting lines, not the path of the transcendent self but the path of sorrow and self-destruction, the path of violence and bitter sweetness, the path to nowhere in particular.

Here we find a few articles on Beckmann:

  • The Mythic Imagination of Max Beckmann in Exile in The New York Times by Ken Johnson
  • Germany’s Black Years in The New York Times by Alan Riding
  • An online biography can be found here.

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