On freedom, art, and danger

Boris Nemtsov surrounded by riot police

“Our inheritance comes to us by no will-and-testament,” 

I came across this aphorism by René Char, a French poet and writer, in Hannah Arendt’s books (she mentions it on more than one occasion), and it keeps recurring in my mind, like a line from a forgotten poem, like an answer to a question I haven’t yet asked.

Char was writing about his experience in the French Resistance: French intellectuals who were thrown, unexpectedly, into the realm of political action discovered that

“<…> he who joined the Resistance ceased to be “in quest of [himself] without mastery, in naked unsatisfaction,” that he no longer suspected himself of “insincerity,” of being “a carping, suspicious actor of life,” that he could afford “to go naked.” (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, p. 4),

And in this new, naked state of mind, they have been “visited by the apparition of freedom” —

“<…> without knowing or even noticing it, [they] had begun to create that public space between themselves where freedom could appear. “At every meal that we eat together, freedom is invited to sit down. The chair remains vacant, but the place is set.” (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, p. 4)

This was their unexpected inheritance, accidentally found in the time of darkest crisis: both a state of an individual mind, and a “public space”: a space of interaction, the medium in which communication can happen, where a genuine connection can exist. Arendt calls it “the lost treasure of the revolutions” — because it seems to come into existence only in times of political crisis, and then disappears again in the trance of day-to-day “normal” life.

We don’t have a name for this experience; it’s absent from our languages. Arendt equates this namelessness, the elusive nature of the “lost treasure”, the non-existence of will-and-testament for it, with a failure of the Western intellectual tradition:

“Without testament or, to resolve the metaphor, without tradition which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future, only sempiternal change of the world and the biological cycle of living creatures in it. Thus the treasure was lost not because of historical circumstances and the adversity of reality but because no tradition had foreseen its appearance or its reality, because no testament had willed it for the future. The loss <…> was consummated by oblivion, by a failure of memory, which befell not only the heirs but, as it were, the actors, the witnesses, those who for a fleeting moment had held the treasure in the palms of their hands (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, pp. 6-7).

I have had a similar experience — this glimpse of freedom, and the naked reality of being — during the collapse of the Soviet Union, three days in August 1991, filled with danger and hope, when its future was decided on the streets; and then it was lost, as though in an unfathomably stupid nightmare.

But I am writing this just a few days after Boris Nemtsov, one of the very few people who had not lost our shared inheritance, was murdered under the walls of Kremlin. But there is a recurrent theme in all obituaries written by those who knew him personally: he has always been incredibly, overwhelmingly alive; someone even said: almost indecently alive, as though echoing René Char’s metaphor of going naked. All through these last days, mixed with sadness and anger, I’ve been feeling something else — a sentiment I could not recognise at first, so out-of-place it was. I now know that it was envy: Boris Nemtsov won in this game of life, because he has never lost the treasure of freedom, and nobody can take this victory away anymore.

Why is it, I wonder, that some people can keep the treasure alive, while others lose it, or never find it? I recall another similar experience, from even earlier times. Back in the years of the Soviet Union, in its freezing and thoroughly false public atmosphere, I was growing up in an oasis of free thought. My father organised a “home seminar”, a small public space where people could come and talk freely. It was about everything really: history, philosophy, mathematics, art, memoirs, poetry, politics. That space was free from political pressures, from ideological and social considerations of academic and literary carriers, fashions, conventions. It wasn’t going to advance anyone’s career in any field; quite the contrary: unlicensed by the omnipresent totalitarian state as it was, participation could easily put one in danger. But people would come, because they needed this breath of the fresh air, this space of freedom.

This was an atmosphere quite different from anything I knew later, in a variety of seminars and conferences all over the world, where the politics of academia was always present, in one form or another. It is, as they say, “the real life”: nobody can afford to go naked in real life. But Hannah Arendt is right: it is not the “adversity of reality” that makes one lose the treasure of freedom. The atmosphere of modern free world is by no means more adverse to freedom than the Soviet Union or the German occupation of France. But is it just a failure of intellectual tradition, the lack of “will-and-testament”? Come to think about it, it may also be the lack of courage — why else would we seem to find the treasure of freedom only in the darkest times, when there is nothing to lose?

A couple of days ago, Google+ brought me a link to Steven Kotler workshop on flow states (or “optimised brain performance”) on the Big Think website. What caught my attention in this workshop was Kotler’s emphasis on risk and danger as “triggers” for flow states: essentially, he says that we need danger to be at our best (and also at our happiest). The danger need not be physical — social and emotional risk-taking has the same flow-inducing magic in it — but it must be danger nonetheless. This, I feel, is the missing piece of the puzzle — when everything seems well, safe and secure, it takes willingness to put oneself in danger to find the treasure. Paradoxical as it sounds, it’s easier when the times are perilous and dark. It’s not just the lack of intellectual tradition, it’s also the desire to feel safe that keeps one from finding the treasure of being alive.

There is a striking similarity with the experience of art, another “lost treasure”. It might seem that this inheritance, at least, has been properly cared for: stored, catalogued, exhibited in museums, performed in symphony halls, printed in numerous editions, and, more recently, added to the mind-staggering web of knowledge given to us by the internet. But no: although it is here, for all to read, see, and listen, this treasure, too, came to us without will and testament. We have a whole vocabulary of names for forms and genres of art, for its styles, techniques, and epochs, and libraries filled with books of art history and criticism, but there is really no proper word for the genuine experience of Art, which opens the way for the same apparition of genuine freedom, the reality of being alive, to the incomprehensible place where the mind of an artist connects with the mind of the beholder, beyond the usual capacities of language.

It may sometimes seem as though each of us can stumble on this treasure only by luck, because there is no “will and testament” to tell us how to find it — a problem recently raised by Alain de Bottom and John Armstrong in “Art as therapy”. They write:

“Since the beginning of the twentieth century, our relationship with art has been weakened by a profound institutional reluctance to address the question of what art is for. This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent”.

There is a truth in this, but, again, it’s not the whole truth. There is no doubt that the experience of art can be facilitated by a tradition of appreciation, by art education, but, in the end, it’s also a matter of courage, risk, and danger.

Just like the apparition of freedom comes in the darkest political times, when there seems to be nothing more to lose, so the genuine experience of art often touches us in the darkest valleys of our lives, in the midst of emotional turmoil, loss, mourning, grief. But when all is well, when one feels emotionally safe and secure, this experience is easily lost, and art degrades into a matter of entertainment, luxury, taste, style, technique, social status, small talk. It takes willingness to risk one’s emotional stability, to put oneself in danger of sorrow; otherwise, the door remains closed, the apparition never comes. It’s not unlike the risk Vincent van Gogh took when he opened himself to Paul Gauguin’s influence — the beholder’s share in the risk is not as huge as the artist’s, but it’s a risk nonetheless.     

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On Art as Möbius strip

In their recent book, “Art as therapy”, Alain de Bottom and John Armstrong write that the question of what Art is for “has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent.”

Do I share this feeling — and the accompanying reluctance to discuss this question?

Leonid Pasternak. Rilke
Leonid Pasternak. Rilke

I think so, yes: if someone were to ask me this question, “What is Art for?” in a personal conversation, I would probably feel awkward and look sheepish (or arrogant — these two are commonly confused). Questions feel impudent if you feel obliged to know the answer, but don’t. And so it is with this question: I don’t know the answer — even though, as a painter, I feel that I probably should have one ready. But then again, it may be one of the questions that don’t really have the answer; one may have to live the question, as Rilke said in a letter to a young poet. “Perhaps, — he continued, — you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.

Perhaps I should just go ahead and memorise Rilke’s suggestion just in case someone asks me? Because insofar as I feel like I have lived into some answer to this question (an answer if not the answer), how can I put it into words? Try to put it in general, universal terms — and it sounds too audacious, too lofty, way over the top (I almost hear myself telling myself “Come off it” before I even open my mouth). Try to be more personal — but then the question feels way too private, the answer too intimate to be voiced (as though someone were to casually ask me to explain what it is I love about my husband).

Edouard Manet. Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Oil on canvas. 1863
Edouard Manet. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Oil on canvas. 1863

And so, unfairly or not, but the question does end up feeling illegitimate and impudent — which makes it immensely tempting to resort to the familiar “art for art’s sake” adage; perhaps Kandinsky was right: it’s the best the age we were born into can attain to.

But there is the rub: we aren’t just born into this age; it’s also we ourselves who make it what it is, complete with its growing art-alienation (which may be but another aspect of the life alienation of the modern world). As Kandinsky puts it, “those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing.”  Or, in de Botton and Armstrong’s somewhat more detached language:

“We are likely to leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed, or even bewildered and inadequate, wondering why the transformational experience we had anticipated did not occur.”     

And this is what they propose to change with their concept of “art as therapy” — the concept of art as a “tool” that, like other tools, “has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with.” Art “compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties.

Lascaux animal painting
Lascaux animal painting

Metaphors are our way of understanding the unknown: we equate it with something familiar, something we feel we already know. “Art-as-therapy” is such a metaphor: therapy stands for a familiar, established way of healing human psyches — or, if we abandon Greek and put it in plain English, of healing our souls. If an artist were to tell you that he is out to heal and transform your soul (as Kandinsky does, by the way), it would likely sound pretentious and overblown to a modern sceptical ear. “Art as therapy” metaphor has exactly the same meaning, but adds a demystifying, comforting, almost “scientific” ring to it. Actually, I am hypothesising here, because I happen to be less familiar with (and more suspicious of) therapy than with art. After all, art has been around for fifty thousands years at least, while therapy is what? Barely one century old?

“Art-as-tool” is another demystifying metaphor; after all, we’ve got lots of tools for expanding the capacities of our minds — so art must be just one of them, something like an old-fashioned Google Search (in fact, compensating for the inborn weakness of human memory is the very first “function of art” discussed in the book; I suspect Google Search might be a more effective tool for this particular job).

The value of these metaphors (of which, as you might have noticed, I am not entirely convinced) will become clear (or not) in how well they “work”: whether they make their way into our shared worldview and help to decrease the art alienation in our world (and the book is filled with specific proposals to this end).

In the meanwhile, they made me think of another metaphor for art — something I could honestly say if casually asked what art is for. Here it is:

Art is a Möbius strip for reality.   
M.C. Escher. Möbius strip I. 1961

If you don’t know what “Möbius strip” is, it might not seem like a good metaphor. But you can do it yourself very easily: just take a paper strip, give it a half-twist, and then join the ends to form a loop. What happens is this: the paper strip now has only one surface. If you look at it at any specific point, it still seems to  have two neat sides — but follow it from this point with a finger tip, and it will soon find itself on “the other side”, without ever actually jumping from one side to another. With one movement, you have created an object with a single surface. And not only this: it now has neither a beginning nor an end. I still remember the sense of unbelievable miracle when my father showed me how it works (I must have been about five — one is eager for miracles at that age, but this one still stays with me).

But what does it have to do with art? The thing, our lives are happening in the constant state of duality — between spirit and matter, between soul and body, between consciousness and nature, between “inner” and “outer” (each age choosing its own terms).

Whether this duality is real or illusionary is an interesting question, turning the duality on itself: Does it reside in consciousness or in nature? Does it belong to the mind or the matter side of itself? And which of these sides is actually real? Be it as it may, we are stuck with it, because it is so deeply and unavoidably embedded in our languages: one cannot even begin to talk without, consciously or unconsciously, dragging the duality in. Notice how it is right there when de Botton and Armstrong explain the function of art (in the quote above), in this case opposing the mind and the body.

What art does with reality is exactly what a Möbius strip does: it temporarily banishes its duality. It gives the reality a half-twist and momentarily joins the ends. It quite simply, literally doesn’t belong to either side (or belongs to both of them, which is the same thing), however we define or describe the split: it’s the inner making an appearance in the outer, the mind shaping the matter, the subjective transforming into the objective (and vice versa).

As I was writing this, Maria Popova published a post about Anne Lamott’s book (“Stitches: a handbook of meaning, hope and repair”). Here is one quote:

When you love something like reading — or drawing or music or nature — it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is.    

This sense of connection comes, I believe, from the dissolution of duality — from connecting the two sides of life into one. That’s what Art is for.

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