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Why Do We Cling to Art in Apocalyptic Times?

May 28, 2020 10:07am

Max Ernst Triumph of Surrealism
Max Ernst: The Triumph of Surrealism, 1937, oil on canvas, 44 7/8 by 57 1/2 inches. PRIVATE COLLECTION. © PROLITTERIS, ZURICH/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK.

Scientific consensus on the accelerating twin cataclysms of climate change and ecological collapse offers two pathways for global capitalist civilization. One is characterized by a rapid, unprecedented, and almost certainly undemocratic revolution in energy infrastructure, economic policy, social life, political institutions, and the daily consumption patterns of billions of human beings, with the goal of substantially decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and reorienting industrialized society’s relation to the nonhuman world from a posture of unending predation to one of symbiotic cohabitation. The other path is characterized by abrupt and catastrophic ecological transformation that could, in at least one model, see the planet warm by more than 20°F within a hundred years.1

Climate Change Has Already Transformed Everything About Contemporary Art

Neither future offers any clear possibility for the perpetuation of contemporary values, systems of meaning, or cultural formations. The absoluteness of this temporal-existential disjunction is difficult to comprehend. One way to think of it is as if we were intergalactic explorers, marooned on the surface of an utterly strange and unknown planet. Another way to think of it is through the concepts of mortality and natality: contemporary civilization must die so that a new world might be born.

Yet another way to look at this disjunction is through moments of cultural collapse that are comparable in some ways, examining transformation available in the historical record, such as the repeated Jewish expulsions from Israel, the European conquest and genocide in the Americas, the “Little Ice Age” of the seventeenth century, and the devastation of the twentieth century’s two world wars. While none of these events brought about “the end of the world” in the totalizing sense of destroying all life on Earth, we can see in each catastrophe the end of a way of life, the end of a specific cultural form, the end of a human “world.”

However we might choose to represent our situation to ourselves, the preeminent challenge we face is sustaining faith in a doubtful human future whose form is both wholly unknowable and wholly alien. Thus the role of art in the Anthropocene, or at least any art that struggles to be worthy of the attention it presupposes, must be founded on a hopeless hope: the end of global human agro-extractive capitalist civilization concomitant with the end of the mild climate of the Holocene, and the reemergence of human collective life in a new and terrifying world.

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Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920, oil transfer and watercolor on paper, 12 1/2 by 9 1/2 inches. ISRAEL MUSEUM, JERUSALEM

IN SUCH DIRE STRAITS, it is comforting to imagine the Angel of History as he is described in Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1942), weeping as he is blown backward into the future and watching the catastrophe of the past pile at his feet; for even though it is the haphazard wreckage of our own endless and unassuageable suffering that is the object of his grief, and even though he floats above us transcendent in an unreachable beyond, our transient and ultimately meaningless human desires are nonetheless dignified by being reflected in his tears. The figure of the Angel of History conveys a promise that someone is watching and remembering, even if they are impotent in the face of that wind called progress.

Yet we must entertain the unnerving possibility that this world, the one in which humanity is doomed to wander the desert of its own profligacy, is overseen not by Benjamin’s Angel of History, but rather by Max Ernst’s Angel of Hearth and Home (1937). In this painting, a gargantuan polymorphous horror thunders across an empty landscape, screaming in fury and pain. The creature’s hands flail in agonized spasms; its grotesque birdlike mouth gapes with what must be a howl of grief; its clothes, even its body, are nothing but motley tatters; some parasitic needle-toothed being clings to its side, merges with it, is stuck to it, feeds on it. The angel’s eyes are closed in mindless rage, as if it sees nothing, knows nothing. We imagine that over its own piercing screams it can hear nothing, not even the cries of those it is about to crush: the painting’s viewers, unnoticed at its feet.

In 1938, Max Ernst retitled this painting The Triumph of Surrealism, thus making ironically explicit the connection between fascism—which was the painting’s allegorical subject, as it was painted both in response to the Republicans’ defeat in the Spanish Civil War and in prophetic angst over what was to come from Hitler’s Germany—and Surrealism, the most celebrated art movement to emerge in 1930s Europe. The inarticulate terrors and murderous drives ostensibly repressed in the civilized subconscious, so cleverly transformed into art on the canvases of Surrealists, were bodying forth as monstrosities rampaging across the killing fields of Europe and Asia.

Ernst was a German Catholic and a veteran of the first World War. He helped found the Cologne Dada group, then left Germany for France in 1922. He became one of the key Surrealist painters; his work was featured both in the groundbreaking 1936 “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in the infamous Nazi exhibition of “degenerate art” in Munich the following year. Much like today, the 1930s were a grim and tumultuous period, in which most thoughtful observers could see disaster looming on the horizon. And also like today, though many were aware, few were conscious; many Americans and Europeans sleepwalked into war as if they’d been enchanted.

Though not as endangered as German-Jewish dissidents, Ernst was still regarded by the Nazis as a political enemy and would have likely been sent to a concentration camp in Germany had the Gestapo gotten hold of him. But he waited, lingering as if insensible to the danger, dallying in France until it was too late. After the 1939 German invasion of Poland, the French government rounded up Communists, foreign nationals, and anyone else they deemed vaguely dangerous, then imprisoned them. Anti-fascists who had risked their lives in the struggle against Hitler were not exempt: the bureaucracy saw them only as “enemy aliens” and potential fifth columnists, so activists such as Lisa Fittko were imprisoned alongside thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin.

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Max Ernst with several of his sculptures at his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961. RUBEN GOLDBERG/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK

As were artists. Max Ernst, the world-famous Surrealist, was arrested at his farmhouse in Saint-Martin d’Ardèche, in the south of France, where he lived with painter Leonora Carrington. He was imprisoned in Largentière, then transferred to Camp des Milles, a former brick factory, where he slept on a straw pallet covered in brick dust in a dim room with three hundred other men. “Brick dust filled our lungs and got into our eyes,” writes German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, who was also imprisoned there.There were no chairs or tables; meals comprised bread and watery lentil soup; the latrine pits were open to the elements; the camp was plagued by dysentery. In December 1939, after three months of miserable confinement, Ernst was freed thanks to the intervention of Surrealist poet Paul Éluard. Others were not so lucky.

Over the winter, the German army began shifting from Poland to the borders of Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. In early spring, a crisis in the French government led to the resignation of the prime minister, Édouard Daladier, and the Nazis conquered Norway and Denmark. Morale in the French military was low, and the French military leadership fatuously insisted—despite the precedent set in World War I, when the German army invaded through the Low Countries—that the Germans would not and indeed could not invade through the Low Countries, and thus would be held off by the massive defenses of the Maginot Line. The writing was on the wall: war was coming, and there was little reason to hope France would be victorious.

Some of those who’d been imprisoned in the fall of 1939 and then released began making plans to leave. Ernst was among those who stayed, having convinced himself that somehow it would all work out. As Leonora Carrington later testified, Ernst “couldn’t imagine giving up Paris. . . . He was sure there would be somebody he could talk to, somebody who could make special arrangements if anything went wrong.”3 We face climate change today with the same uneasy ambivalence that Ernst showed toward the imminent Nazi invasion of France: we bargain with fate, wish for our lives to go on like normal for just a little longer, and convince ourselves that someone will find a solution—that somehow we will be able to make arrangements.

On May 10, 1940, the German army crossed the French frontier. Before the month ended, Ernst was once again arrested and taken to Camp des Milles. As the Germans overran France and the French government collapsed, the fate of those German nationals imprisoned in French concentration camps hung by a thread. Those prisoners at Camp des Milles deemed most at risk of being deported to Germany were put on a train, ostensibly to be sent to forced labor camps in North Africa, an act of mercy meant to keep them out of German hands. But the train went nowhere, pointlessly crossing back and forth across the south of France. Somewhere near Nîmes, Ernst managed to escape.

When he finally got back to Saint-Martin d’Ardèche, he discovered that his farmhouse had been seized and Leonora was nowhere to be found. Shocked by Ernst’s sudden imprisonment and having no idea when he might come back, Carrington had suffered a nervous breakdown, and, in a drunken emotional spiral, signed over the farmhouse to a local bar owner who promised to protect it from the Nazis. She then fled to Madrid, where she was hospitalized for a time, and eventually settled in Mexico.

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Peggy Guggenheim at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1942.AP/Shutterstock

Ernst lived in hiding, humiliated and distraught, on the charity of friends, until March 1941, when he made his way to Marseille. There, he found refuge in the Villa Air-Bel, an ad hoc artists’ colony set up as part of the Emergency Rescue Committee’s effort to help save European intellectuals and artists from the Nazis. Ernst’s old friend Peggy Guggenheim, who had been lingering in France scooping up modern art on the cheap from desperate artists, met him there. She offered to pay for his passage to New York and bought all the artwork he’d managed to save (for two thousand dollars, minus the cost of his passage), then the two began an affair. Some weeks later, Ernst left Villa Air-Bel, crossed illegally into Spain and rejoined Peggy in Lisbon, Portugal. The two escaped to New York, where they married.

WHAT LESSONS CAN history offer about how humans behave when the end is nigh? What lessons might we glean about the value of art in desperate times? Some still say art is necessary “now more than ever,” insisting that this peculiar social practice of commodified craftwork identified as “aesthetic production” offers a bright flame which can light our way through a dark and tortuous night. Yet the hope that modern art’s complex ideological matrix of individualism, novelty, critique, and consumption might be in any way adequate to the unimaginable global cataclysm that will define the twenty-first century seems to be as much a delusion as Ernst’s hope that somehow the imminent Nazi invasion, the collapse of France, and the broader catastrophe of World War II wouldn’t really affect him, that he’d be able to stay in his cozy farmhouse in Saint-Martin d’Ardèche making art with Leonora, that somehow the tempest would pass him by. The most striking lesson offered by that particular historical moment, of which the capture and flight of the famous artist Max Ernst is an illustration exemplary only by virtue of the exceptional fact that he survived, is that we lie to ourselves all the way to the bitter end, refusing to accept that the fateful knock on our door is really for us, refusing to see where these strange men are taking us, refusing to accept that hard natural laws of probability and entropy have anything to do with the carefully circumscribed fables we make of our lives.

Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History is a figure of hope, a being with the power to redeem our suffering through transcendental grief. This salvific figure was created by a man who climbed the Pyrenees lugging a suitcase containing a manuscript he could not leave behind, who, when told by police at the Spanish border that he’d be sent back to France the next day, took a lethal dose of morphine. Ernst’s Angel of Hearth and Home is an ironic figure of nihilistic doom, an all-devouring leviathan whose inescapable agony makes a mockery of our all-too-human pretenses. Its creator was a man who would find himself forced to give up his home, his lover, and every piece of art he’d made for the chance to start over again in a strange new country.

We face a choice, amid the slow collapse of a derelict civilization. It is not a choice of whether to stop global warming, whether to head off its inevitable consequences, or whether to save the world. The choice we face, like the choice Ernst faced on his escape from Camp des Milles, is simply whether to accept the reality we find ourselves in. Such an acceptance demands letting go of the burdens we have dragged so far, letting go of any hope for salvation, letting go of every piece of hoarded flotsam we think we might yet need, and facing the fact that the new world we are doomed to inhabit is as alien to our lives today as are the moons of Jupiter, the ziggurats of the Aztecs, or the blood cults of the ancient Greeks. There is only a narrow passage to this new world, the eye of the fiery needle, and to linger on the threshold is to die. On the doorway’s lintel are inscribed these words: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

One recent study suggests that as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels around 1,200 parts per million, which we are on track to hit sometime in the next century, changes in atmospheric turbulence dynamics may dissipate subtropical stratocumulus cloud decks, radically decreasing overall planetary albedo and adding as much as 14°F warming on top of the more than 7°F warming already expected by that point. Tapio Schneider, Colleen M. Kaul, Kyle G. Pressel, “Possible climate transitions from breakup of stratocumulus decks under greenhouse warming,” Nature Geoscience, 2019, 12 (3), p. 164.

Lion Feuchtwanger, The Devil in France: My Encounter with Him in the Summer of 1940, Los Angeles, Figueroa Press, USC Libraries, 2009, p. 18.

3 Carrington quoted in Rosemary Sullivan, Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille, New York, Harper Perennial, 2006, p. 168.

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