|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
A memoir, composed by a maker of images (an artist) should be quite different from that of a business man, scientist or writer, not only in substance but style and structure. This then is bound to be less an orderly chronology than the meandering itinerary of a lost soul and the art which guides it.
Much of my art consists of what may be called “assemblage”: often cutting and recutting my own works into always new configurations, resulting in a procession of fragmentary snippets beyond proper chronological order. Inevitably, this now literary self-portrait would reflect this same sense of assemblage, where only fragments of memory define its past. At times, recollection would appear (and reappear) like a multi-dimensional tapestry, a complex of weavings where strands of past events intersect, seen through a multi faceted mirror.
A decision to compose one’s memoir may well be preceded by some form of gestation, conceived long before. What triggered this “gestation” was a tour of Japan in 1981. Hiroshima had become an obsession ever since I learned of its nuclear destruction not many months after I had seen Buchenwald - as an American soldier. “Holocaust” took on new, wider and ever more ominous dimensions in the ensuing years; it pursued my thoughts and imagery and reflected in much of my work. I had to visit and see Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Vivid dreams and nightmares (often turning into the images of my art) have always been part of my nightlife. But those that followed me in Japan were like no others: Following a herd of cattle into a slaughterhouse, I watch bloody carcasses transformed into bellowing humans roasted over open fires. Every night, during the tour of Japan, dreams continued in a succession where one dream appeared to pick up where the previous one left off (recorded in Chapter 23). The moment I left Japan, the dreams stopped, but, strange and unnerving, they kept nagging for a rational explanation, perhaps by the events of my past.
Thus began the process of digging and uncovering, digging deeper and deeper into the cellars and dungeons of memory, scraping away layer after layer from a past which I had always tried to bury and forget. Digging into my past was meant to explain - at first - only those unexplainable and unacceptable dreams, but, eventually, expanded to provide a rationale for a life which often had appeared equally inexplicable and unacceptable. This, then, in 1981, may have been the beginning of the long process which, four years later, resulted in my resolution to face my past, and no longer as mere explanation for some strange dreams.
Just as the decision to compose this portrait of my past was preceded by a long history, my promise to give away my art also must have been incubating for a long time. There were discussions: What is a work of art, is it an object, a commodity, or should art not rather be viewed as a reflection and expression of the artist’s innermost sensibilities? If so, at what price? What price for your child? Wouldn’t any price cheapen and demean what should be a labor of love, perhaps of passion, even of obsession? What price for love and passion? Wouldn’t that be a form of prostitution? And what about talent? Is not talent a gift? Should not the expression of this gift be a gift as well - a gift beyond any price? The questioning nagged and would not stop.
What added to my final decision was the experience of World War II: Returning from that war, I felt increasingly obsessed with the images of not only war but especially the Holocaust. I had tried to banish all reminders, but its images returned to taunt and haunt. During that war, before I came upon Buchenwald, I had seen the remains of the so-called “Arbeitslager” in which its inmates were not immediately exterminated but ultimately worked to death. Their average life expectancy was nine months, considered nothing but “commodity”. All the concentration camps, its inmates and all their possessions, even their hair, became a vast and most profitable commercial enterprise. How can you possibly profit from that horror by your art now, became ever more nagging.
But even these mindful ramblings must have begun years before - during the discussions in my parents’ home in Germany. Discussion was the great family sport which any visitor was immediately drawn into. My father, the Yiddish writer Samuel Lewin, had gathered about him a widening circle of other writers, artists, intellectuals of various persuasions. Almost any topic was fair game, but discussion revolved mostly around art and politics, the role of the artist in society, the nature of art and the relationship of esthetics and ethics.
Discussion became perhaps a fitting and filling substitute for the often meager fare on the dinner table, and my two brothers and I were encouraged to participate. We would not only sit open mouthed, but occasionally venture forth an opinion, and father would reprimand anyone who dared to dismiss “this childish talk”. “Listen and learn to what children have to say”, he would admonish any skeptical adult. “Go on, go on”, he would encourage his sons. Long before I could comprehend what was debated, I was fascinated. Often with dramatic gestures, voices rising and falling, waxing and waning, sometimes shouting, fingers, hands, arms sweeping and flaying the air, pointing here and there, a discussion was indeed more than sport or intellectual exercise. Discussion was high drama, sometimes appearing like some rhythmic vocal dance, pantomime or chorus. When comprehension began to sink in, I was sure that I was privileged to be part of an event which not only pounded the table but shook my very world. What was said during these debates, especially on the subject of “ethics and esthetics” must have left a profound effect.
The success of my first exhibition, at the age of 13, might never have given cause for concern if not for certain notions already deeply embedded. Actually, the gallery of my first exhibition was but a small room in back of a book store. But drawings and paintings were sold - my first sales, whereas before I had been happy to give them away. At the show there was one painting in particular, which proved most popular: an oil of a group of cold and bedraggled men trudging through snow. It could have been inspired by my admiration for the work of Kaethe Kollwitz and similar expressionists of that period, commenting on the “human condition”. At age 13, I was full of equal Weltschmerz. That particular painting proved so popular that I began making copies, every buyer believing that it was the one and only original, and I began dreaming of fame and fortune - in America. Some doubts may have arisen, which, however, were cast aside when Hitler triumphed and I fled to France in the Spring of 1933.
A year later, age 15, I found myself in Grenoble and “madly in love”. The young woman, however, turned out to be a professional, a prostitute, as I eventually learned. “I have to make a living”, she countered my entreaties to change her ways and come with me to America. “How do you artists make your living?”. Smiling, she would pat my cheek: “What do you think you artists are?” What indeed.
The question nagged and followed me to America. Surveying the ever increasing commercialization of the New York art scene (especially after World War II), I finally came to view art galleries and auction houses as whorehouses, lorded over by madams and aided and abetted by pimping agents, critics and curators. That much I said in letters to art publications, interviews and articles announcing the decision to give away my art: “The market place, this art business is compromising and corrupting the artist as well as art, even art appreciation”. I braced for an onslaught of requests. But few requests for donations followed. Within the close, symbiotic relationship between museum, patron, collector and gallery, the artist was not welcome to disturb the long-standing and well ordered system. Nine years before, I had washed my hands of that system when I left the last gallery I had been associated with. By declaring my work “price less”, had it rendered all previously acquired works worthless - a bad investment? Art, I insisted, should be beyond possession.
The sense of possession, however, runs deep. The pleasure of art ownership becomes less one of authentic art appreciation than of possession - perhaps of the artist himself. Collectors invite you to see “my Picasso”, or whoever. By owning, especially a “famous” artist, the owner, as well, gains importance. For an artist to declare himself beyond possession: “I won’t be bought, sold or owned”, becomes an affront. The work of art becomes a status symbol, a collector’s item and a conversation piece. Greed, as well, may become one of the driving forces - acquiring art for speculation. But confronting others with one’s own troubled conscience proved totally unacceptable.
I had hopes of, possibly, other artists joining - removing their works from the marketplace. “Artists must make a living!” was among some of the milder reactions. But the only time all American artists truly “made a living” from their art was during the Depression, the WPA days of the 1930’s - specifically, the Federal Arts Project. On the other hand, during even the most prosperous post war years, never more than 4 to 5% of all artists existed from their art alone. A few would become wealthy, even multi-millionaires, but most would have to support themselves and their art by doing something else - ¬teaching, if they were lucky. Art became a competitive “free for all” - for recognition, fame and fortune, and some artists would do anything to gain it.
One of the alternatives to selling art, which I proposed, was a lending system, perhaps an adjunct to libraries and museums, where original art could be borrowed for a fee, part of which would go to the artists. And reproductions, through modern technology, can hardly be distinguished from the original. If it is truly art and esthetics one craves, there really is no need to own the original. A good book can be enjoyed without being the owner of the original manuscript. Again and again, following my decision, I felt called upon to apologize for this “crazy” idea of art without a price.
Questioning an established value system in one field, ¬and its underlying morality, could end up questioning an entire existing value system: The price of “price less” art may be too high. I had taken not only my art out of the marketplace but myself beyond the pale of acceptability. Within a culture which revolves around the marketplace, this proved unacceptable. “It’s insane, even subversive, treason; you’ll be an outcast!”, I was advised. “If you derive no income from your art you can no longer be considered a professional but an amateur and your work merely a hobby”. Ultimately, I found myself “outside”; the doors to any meaningful exhibitions closed.
Step by step, from earliest discussions about ethics and esthetics to possibly premature success, followed by misgivings, and on to a youthful infatuation with a prostitute, and on to view the business of art as one of prostitution and corruption, I had, perhaps, no choice but to move on - through fear of death and prayers and a promise to change my ways. The final “crazy” resolution seems only the ultimate step in a long procession of inevitable steps. But, of all the various reasons for my decision, probably the most critical was one which I was not yet ready to face for many years and chapters.
“Look, this is how I see the world” motivated my need to exhibit. I needed the forum of a public wall, as a musician or actor needs an audience or a preacher a podium and congregation. As the years went by and the doors to exhibit remained mainly closed, I became increasingly conscious of the isolation my decision had wrought. It proved not only foolish but self defeating.
"Compromise, give the devil his due, face reality!" Over the ensuing years various ingenious schemes were suggested how to lessen the consequences of that “foolish” decision of mine. No compromise seemed appealing. I acknowledged Reality, though suspicious that Reality might be no more than a poetic metaphor or illusion, even of one’s self. Reality did not appear composed of only black and white or good and evil, but of a broad spectrum between absolutes. Possibly, one even contained the other and might, in fact, not be possible without its counterpart; good and evil existing only in some symbiotic embrace.
As the years passed and my decision of 1985 receded - together with fear of divine retribution - the question of "legacy" began to loom; it may be but another sign of aging. "Legacy" came to mean bequeathing not an estate of worldly goods, but to leave behind some worthwhile idea. The idea of "price less" art, free of its commercial bondage, appeared a "splendid idea" to bequeath. The notion of "legacy" expanded and bloomed into ever stranger dimensions until - in step with advancing age - it lost all moorings to acceptable reality.
Indulging in the fantasy of an idea to bequeath - I would dream of some great prize offered, but turning it down. ” Art and creation should be its own reward!” Great prizes may, in fact, be counterproductive: how many of those who received the Nobel Prize went on to greater creation. Perhaps, such grand prize extinguishes some passionate fire in the recipients belly, leaving only embers and ashes of comfortable self-satisfaction. And, how many, many desolate and embittered losers are created for every winner. However, to bequeath some worthwhile idea - human life not as mere and meager biological existence, but as an idea, "to make a point", without which life would be pointless. A meaningful life might set a precedent, and who knows where this might lead. My resolve (to reject any prize, reward or award) was never put to test. But dreams of a different, distant, better world had always pursued me, and the notion of a meaningful human life as a worthwhile idea and legacy became its inevitable consequence.
At the time I made my fateful decision, I was 67 years old probably prone to foolish decisions. Looking back upon what I considered a long lifetime it occurred to me that, on balance, I had been spared too many foolish decisions. Certainly, my insistence, at age 14, to leave Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933 was wise despite the general consensus that “Hitler could not last more than six months”. And my youthful dream to go to America probably saved my life, though it had some unexpected consequences. On the other hand, my decision to join the Army and fight the Nazis almost cost me my life. Some “foolish decisions” may only appear worse than death, and be the special privilege of children and the old - comrades in arms against the pompous seriousness of middle age. Artists, perhaps, never quite outgrow their childish, juvenile stage, unable or unwilling to conform to Reality.
Never set or settled, reality often appeared to me like some strange pendulum, undulating in stately arcs between nightmare and dream. Dreams may well be the beginning of all art - as response to the tyranny of reality, the very first awareness in every child, perhaps already of the fetus. No doubt not my first dream, but the first I remembered, occurred in a sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland, where at the age of five, I had been sent, suspected of tuberculosis. In this dream I felt compelled to look behind to see a "monster" crouched, ready to jump at my throat. I woke up screaming and in this very instant heard my brother, Isaac, scream also (he was in a bed across from mine). For long afterwards, Isaac insisted that he woke up, actually saw "something of a monstrous cat" above his younger brother’s bed and that his screams drove it off. We never did agree as to whose screams woke who or whether there really was “something”. Eventually, increasingly conscious of dreams, I would wonder whether both, I and my brother, might not have had the very same dream at the same moment. If two people could have the same dream together, than why not many - dreaming some collective dream, or nightmare.
Without dreams, however, in whatever form, there could be no art, or possibly life itself, no matter how ordinary or even tragic. The artistic sensibility must transform the bareness of existence into something extra-ordinary and even supernatural, even beautiful. Beauty may not only lie in the proverbial "eye of the beholder" but within the very essence of the world. The artist can only discover and reflect the beauty there is; he cannot invent it. Whenever he tries to invent, his art turns to contrived artificiality. The beauty is already out there, reflected, whether in the melodies and rhythms a Mozart hears, or in the designs and colors a Klee perceives, or in the formulas an Einstein discovers, or in the strange divine voices and visions of a Buddha or Moses.
But what if - beyond all dreams - there really is only relentless reality, moving at its own cadence between life and death, beyond even “tragedy”? "What if ‘tragedy’ is nothing but an artistic concept and conceit", was a recurring question in the discussions in my parents' home. From those heated debates, my childhood recollection had to conclude that reality had many facets and that illusions and delusions appeared inseparable from either reality or tragedy which, it was argued, might well be one and the same.
"Tragedy" then, in one form or another, appeared central to human awareness and possibly the main motivation for artistic responses in all its varied media. It is tragedy which seems to pursue and, in the end, overtake us. But it is the artist - ¬whether poet, painter or preacher - who might be the most fortunate, through his ability to sublimate and, possibly, humor tragedy, call it comedy. And what if tragedy, along its tonal range of black to white, should reveal itself as rather elegant and explain its great attraction and fascination? Art, in all its many forms and norms and through its various practitioners, must be viewed as not only a response and defiance, but ultimately as the only possible conquest of tragedy; at least the illusion of a temporary victory. Considering most human reactions to reality an Art - of one form or another - I had to wonder whether, ultimately, Reality itself might not also be some divine artistic creation. But it is the sense of “tragedy” that remains our constant companion, the price we pay for consciousness. It begins early, possibly already with a new-borne's first confrontation with a world beyond the womb, provoking its first natal howl.
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