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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Despairing of the World - how artists cope

I wrote in April about my experience of having my bust sculpted by one of Bulgaria’s best-known sculptors - Spartak Dermendjiev (also known as “Paris”). His uncle was a partisan in the second-world war and Spartak was baptized in his honour with his nom de guerre   
Last night I unveiled the completed bust for a few friends (inc Spartak) - painfully aware of the conceit involved but still grateful for the opportunity to have "sat"/"stood" for such a great artist.....
Like most gifted people perhaps, he displays his contradictions more openly than the rest of us….His charming manner and superb studies conceal a despair about the world which finds expression in that part of his work he calls “cynical  art” – artifacts which, for me, are more appropriately described as “erotic art”, focusing for the most part on pudenda and vulvae.

The theme of Don Quixote is, for some reason, a beloved one in the work of Bulgarian sculptors and  also figures in Spartak’s work – in 2003 indeed he had an exhibition entitled “Don Quixote dies” which for him -
reveals the Way of Despair - from the lunacy of Idealism, through the rude awakening of living, to Despair and Death.Art creates Idealists, life kills them…Don Quixote did not die from the sword of the Evil, rather from the poison of Despair…. 
There is no place in life for Don Quixote, and he left… .Outside Temples, beyond the cover pages of books, beyond the frames of paintings, the Faith in Good and Justice dies…
Don Quixote died, but left his ghost to remind us that without Faith in the Good - the human in us dies…


Recently he also staged an event whose title also reflects on his outlook - "Fin Du Monde". The video of the event is worth watching although you have to wait until about the 7th minute to get the denouement (I'm the guy in the blue anorak who wanders across the scene at the end of the 2nd minute and pretends to ignore the painting!) And here is his tribute to Georgi Markov the Bulgarian writer whose ultimate dissidence brought his famous murder on a London street, pierced with a poisoned umbrella tip..... 

I must confess that I am drawn to the work of artists who have a sense of outrage about the world – summed up in German poet Bert Brecht’s memorable challenge – “So ist die Welt – und musst nicht so sein” . I was drawn immediately to Hieronymous Bosch, the original inspiration for scenes of horror; to Kathe Kollwitzs powerful depictions of poverty and war in her graphics and sculpture of the first couple of decades of the 20th century; to George Groszs savage portrayals of Weimar life and the Pillars of  German Society (which I use as illustrations for   some of my posts); to Frans Masereels woodcuts (ditto); to Goya’s series on the victims of war. 


And British cartoonist Ralph Steadman has been a hero since the 1970s.
When, however, I hear the phrase “cynical art” I think not of such people but of Damian Hirst – who has cynically milked stupid rich people of their money – and duped many galleries into showing his offensive rubbish. Or of the work of Tracey Emin

Spartak talks of “sin” and I wondered at one stage whether his use of the phrase “cynical” art was a pun on the word sin……..Since we have become friends, we discuss and explore the phrase in various ways – indeed he invites me to help improve the English translation of the titles he gives his various pudenda!
I have googled “cynical art” and get references only to some modern Chinese movements….it simply is not a phrase that has caught on…I tried “Nihilistic art” and got Dada references.

But it is the work of the German artists of the first quarter of the 20th century which best caught the “Angst” or despair of that period… Although I like their work I don’t see it as nihilistic

Paul Celan memorably said that “After Auschwitz, it is impossible to write poetry”.  

Googling brought me this interesting quote -   
Until now nihilism has been a theory, an abstraction... the dark muse of poetry, philosophy and art. But now we are confronted with a nihilistic moment that neither Turgenev nor Nietzsche could have prophesied: a global meltdown wrought by wars – on terror, on planet, on self.
 We are confronted with the moment when this experiment of ours on Planet Earth meets its spectacular and terrifying end, when civilization reaches its summit and begins to tumble into permanent decline. This new breed of nihilismcall it eco-nihilism, psycho-nihilism, apocalypto-nihilismfalls far beyond the bounds of the deeply personal loss of meaning Nietzsche warned of.
This new kind of nihilism degrades our very cosmic fiber, consuming not only our psyche, but the planet itself. And for this new, collective brand of nihilism, no philosophy has ever been written, no remedy ever prescribed.

Coincidentally I came across a couple of reviews of Michel Houllebecq’s novels. Karl Ove Knaussgard – the title of whose multi-volume My Struggle (ie another “Meinr Kampf”!!) hints at the bleakness of his own vision - pays tribute to Houllebecq’s work in this review. Another long review puts it bluntly -   
callow, cynical and sex-obsessed, openly racist and misogynistic in turn, rife with B-grade porn writing, full of contempt for art and intellectuals, and operate on a kind of low masculine anger at the indignities of being beta-chimp. Houllebecq’s novels …. owe their reputation to artistic achievement as much as any naughty thrill they elicit.

I’ve read a couple of his books and this quotation from “Elementary Particles” seems to sum up his world view – 
His effort at self-analysis emerges: “But I don’t understand, basically, how people manage to go on living. I get the impression everybody must be unhappy; we live in such a simple world you understand. There’s a system based on domination, money and fear … there’s a … system based on seduction and sex. And that’s it. Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else

I can understand nihilism but, despite my recognition of the truth of such an analysis, I can’t support it. I still believe in goodness. I see many reasons for despair about our collective future - but feel that, at a personal level, it would help if we cultivated a more “fatalistic” (Buddhist?) approach – “his too will pass”……… And that’s also why I find it difficult to deal with cynicism. 

Woody Allen expressed it well when he suggested that The artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”

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