||Kein Volk Traegt Uns|
Heinz Henghes 1959
May of this year the Listener published the most amazing statement
concerning the condition of art and society which I think I have ever
read, Sir Herbert Read, in an article entitled "Aspirations in
Perspective," stated, after a preamble dealing with the good
old days, his belief that society is now utterly materialist, interested
solely in bread and the circus, and that art "will survive as
it did in the dark ages, in small circles, among the elite,"
To quote that paragraph in full.... "Art will survive... etc..
But for art to become socially significant again, which is to say,
for art to recover its greatness, great social changes must first
take place, Mankind will perhaps grow tired of its playthings and
cast them aside; universal boredom will lead to universal despair,
and art will be renewed when life itself has been renewed." The
preamble to this conclusion deals with the aspirations of the pre
and inter-war periods, from 1911 onward, which, it seems, failed or
were not realised.
Sir Herbert Read is the doyen in England of those arbiters of taste
whose influence is almost mystical. He has done more than any other
single man I know of to sustain and further the present predilection
for abstract art, and his judgment has seemed, even to those among
us who differed with it, to be based on a conscious belief that the
form of art he mainly defends is representative of our age and society.
The apocalyptic note he now sounds implies of course that he has defended
a form of art activity created for an "elite", and which
is, even at that, not art in the absolute sense of the word, but something
less than great art, something which exists faute de mieux.
"The people of the Welfare State are not interested in Art. Art
is highbrow, art is phoney, art is a challenge to feeling and understanding
which they resent..." says Sir Herbert Read. But who and what
exactly are - the people? Are they the millions who pay their shilling
to visit the great exhibitions of modern art at the Tate Gallery?
The Picasso exhibition at the V&A? The yearly Open Air Sculpture
Exhibitions in various countries? The changing shows at the Museum
of Modern Art in New York, in Paris, in Sao Paolo or in Milan? It
seems to me that there has never been so much popular interest in
contemporary art as now, - nor has that interest ever before been
so widespread through so many social strata.
Interest.... certainly the word might be defined as past of the Roman
phrase- bread and the circus,- the circus part, and by implication
the people who visit art shows are thus accused of lacking understanding.
But at what period in history has the mass of people ever understood
in the rarefied and absolute sense of Sir Herbert Read? All understanding
is in the end personal, and each man is an island unto himself. Even
words are only conventions by which we approximate personal meaning
and convey it more or less, but never precisely, because we have no
absolute means of communication between us.
In 1924 Paul Klee concluded a lecture at Jena with the phrase.. "Kein
Volk tragt uns", -no people carries us,- or - in other words,
the people are not with us. (Also quoted by H.R.) Fine words, but
I ask again, - who are the people? The intellectual, or even the moral
elite, the people who go to art exhibitions, those masses who, driven
by the misery of their moral circumstances and by the atavistic memory
of generations of fear sense themselves compelled to think of welfare,
- according to the modern, social idiom, before they can begin to
develop a whole mind and senses to think of love and art?
The whole premise implied by the designation, -"the people,"
is in itself false. Somehow, in our allegedly democratic age, the
term- society- has become shifted to the more amorphous and sentimental
and politically exploitable term- the people. In fact, the real business
of art has never been exclusively with the people nor even with society
only. When art is valid, valid in a sense that goes beyond contemporarily
amusing, its primary concern is with man, or, if you prefer, - with
humanity. Society, in that hierarchy, is a phase of man, and people
are the component members of that phase. The artist draws from his
own age and society its prevailing concerns and aspirations and tries
to phrase, or let us say, - to crystallise them. His statement is
valid if his interpretation of that climate is sensitive enough and
if it is tied to an immutable sense of time,- is tied, in other words,
- to a sense of the continuity and of the inevitability of life. If
his own society appears to be futile and lost, the end of an age,
an era or a civilisation, (which is certainly not the case of our
present day society,) he will still draw, even from that fading society,
a sense of its hopes and fears, and if he can tie these to the stream
of the deathlessness of life, his work will be valid when the social
conditions of his own age are long forgotten.
Those intellectuals who lament the uncertainties and the vulgarities
of our time ask for a Welfare State of their own. They ask for a Golden
Age in which their own sense of purpose is officially and visibly
guaranteed to them here and now. They have simply lost sight of the
deathlessness of human life on earth.
My own work is figurative,- (a word meaning all that is not wholly
abstract.) The reason for which I have kept it so, that is, - have
kept it, although non-realistic, based on either human form or humanistic
symbolism, is that I consider that art is made by man for man. By
man for man does not mean that it must at all costs be immediately
intelligible to all and sundry, nor even to a majority, anymore than,
for example, the Quantum Theory is intelligible to anyone who, like
myself, has not bothered much about understanding it. It means that
the terms it employs are based on anthropomorphic values which seem
to me to be eternal in man,- on values and senses which,- if they
are not "eternal," are certainly unchanging for as long
as evolution itself has not created some totally different mind.
Aesthetics may change, but aesthetics are a super-structure whose
ultimate validity depends entirely on their eventual integration with
these human values, and senses. The exercise of aesthetics in vacuum
is ultimately vapid and will always be discarded sooner or later as
experimental failure if these aesthetic experiments fail to integrate
somewhere along the line with the sense of man.
An apparently valid counter-theory to this idea is the notion that
contemporary art has no business to concern itself with any moment
in time but its own. Statements whose interests rest solely on the
social need of the present are said, by this idea, to be valid since
that mood reflects on our own moment in history and since our concern
is and should be for our own time only. Bad quality paint, impermanent
materials used for sculpture etc.. become acceptable by this reasoning.
(I need not here draw an analogy between this use of art and materials
and that part of modern architecture which is deliberately impermanent
due to notions concerning future urbanism or social conditions.) This
theory cannot be logically discussed because it is based on a form
of social philosophy, and philosophy, being an art which is similar
to poetry, can, for a time, create its own conditions if one chooses
to follow its precepts. One can only deny it categorically. It is
false because it tries to ignore the biological factor which is that
it is simply not true that we live in or for our own time only.
In architecture the urbanism of the future would simply take another
form if our buildings were made "for all eternity..." The
solid cathedrals of Milan have not prevented skyscrapers from rising
by their sides, once the odious mentality which wishes to preserve
not only an old building or object, which may well merit preservation,
but clings forever even to its setting, disappeared in Italy under
the pressure of today. In painting, architecture and sculpture, in
poetry and in music, it is most certainly our business to work with
a sense of time, endless time, - since only that attitude of mind
can hope to open means to valid statements in us.
The bulk of the 2 or 300 statues which are scattered about the world
for whose existence I am responsible are carved in stone. More than
3/4 of them are marble carvings. Whenever I meet a nice, rough block
of stone lying around somewhere something happens inside my head.
I want to shape it, change its form, hack it about, give it volume
and organisation and, if I can possibly do so, I carry it away to
my studio and I gloat over it until the day comes when I attack it
with clubhammer and chisel. I began stonecarving thanks to the kindness
of Ezra Pound who gave me my first opportunity to own a block of marble.
A great glittering mass of white crystals he bought me in Rapallo.
When I stood in front of it I knew that I had found my medium. I have
never been able to change it since, nor do I wish to. The only instructions
I ever had in stone-carving were given to me by an Italian marble
mason named Perugi, an old man, thin and gnome like in whose yard
I confronted my first block of marble for the first time and where
I worked on it. Perugi's English consisted of one internationally
known word only, and that word is unhappily inapplicable to sculpture.
My Italian was fragmentary and comprehensible only to myself. Perugi's
instructions to me were to thrust a 3lb hammer and a chisel into my
hand and say--- "Hit it."... with appropriate gestures.
Hit it I did, driven by my fear of Ezra Pound and encouraged by occasional
shouts of "Forza, Smithele," from Perugi who kept an eye
on me from the shady door of his shed. "Smithele,-" because
Perugi thought that all English speaking people must be named Smith.
Since that day I have worked my way through a sizeable chunk of the
hills of Carrara and Perugi's encouraging cry of "Forza,-"
still serves me as a motto when I am inclined to laziness. It has
seen me through many a moment when I wondered why I did not stick
to poetry, (preferably of the - underneath the bough and jug of wine
- kind, - for stonecarving is hard work and marble is hell on wheels
compared to other stones because it combines hardness with great sensitivity,
- it "bruises" when hit too hard but it requires hitting
Of course, I do not only use marble, nor do I exclusively carve. The
concept of a sculpture dictates the material it must be made of. Stone
allows different shapes than marble and there are forms which neither
can reasonably be made to take. These must be modelled. But these
basic, purely physical tenets apart, I consider that the sculptor
must shape his material and must use the natural qualities of that
material only to the point where these qualities do not compromise
his concept. To what we have to say the material must fully contribute,
but it must not predominate and swamp the idea. Aesthetic meanderings
in texture or in the sensual qualities of materials for their own
sake seem epicene to me since I insist on clarity of concept and insist
that every millimetre of a statue contributes to the clear expression
of that concept. The material must serve the concept, - not vice versa.
Concept is one of those words which sound to most people as though
it derives from an act of the intellect. (In that context I suppose
that - inspiration, - would be a brainstorm.) In fact, how mind and
senses operate in the way a statue is formed is happily impossible
to describe in words. A clear concept, in the sense in which I use
the term, means simply that I start to work when the statue is, form
theme and all, finished in my head, although, in the process of the
work, the form will generally depart, but not in essentials, from
that original vision.
I have come by such visions of a work to be as often through the bottom
of a wineglass or in some sordid city corner, as in nature or in a
mystic moment. Probably the process is subconscious. It works itself
out with mind and senses involved separately and together and, either
natural maturity of the idea or some last, casual accidental moment
precipitates the whole. I don't think one should worry about that.
I think one should worry about keeping oneself alive, continually
sensitive to all life around us and avid for all that our minds and
eyes can grasp. A hard enough job that, - some days... and other days
it comes easy and flows along all by itself.