Einstein on the Political Power of Art

“Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art — neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion.”


Good article on ‘Parade’ by Si Lewen. From brainpickings.

True use of art as an expression of experience and a reminder that art making can contribute to cultural health as well as personal health given a recent preponderance for ‘parades’ as demonstrations of power.

Original article here


BY MARIA POPOVA

Einstein on the Political Power of Art

“Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch wrote in her arresting 1972 address on art as a force of resistance. “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art,’” Chinua Achebe told James Baldwin in their superb forgotten conversation at the close of that decade, “are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”

A generation earlier, in the final years of his life, Albert Einstein sat down at his desk in Princeton, New Jersey, to compose a letter of consonant sentiment — a stirring letter of appreciation and assurance to the Polish Jewish artist Si Lewen (November 8, 1918–July 25, 2016), who had just quietly released a staggering work of art and resistance.

Si Lewen

Born days before Armistice Day, Si was five when he decided to become an artist — or rather (as such elemental self-awarenesses tend to bubble up) when he knew that he was one. In those formative years, his family fled from place to place as the situation for Jews in Europe was darkening by the minute. During a period of refuge in Berlin, while ostracized and bullied at school for being Jewish, he began receiving his first formal art lessons from a disciple of Paul Klee’s. His young imagination and his understanding of the world were being imprinted as much by his refuge in art as by the thickening political atmosphere of animosity that would soon erupt into the world’s grimmest war yet. 

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

Lewen was still a teenager when his family fled to America as Hitler usurped power. When he arrived in New York, he was at first elated at the prospect of a new life full of art and free of persecution. He began taking drawing classes and going to the Metropolitan Museum every day. But when an antisemitic policeman beat him nearly to death, the terrifying thought that he would never be free from bigoted brutality and that the life of art could never be separate from the troubled life of the world drove him to a suicide attempt. And yet, like Lincoln, Lewen rose above the self-destructive impulse and turned the darkness into a motive force for action, for revising this broken and brutal world with his particular light.

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

He enlisted in the American Army, in a secret intelligence unit of German-speaking immigrants who were flown into Germany for the invasion of Normandy that backboned D-Day, the liberation of France, and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis. There to do translation work and to illustrate posters and pamphlets rallying the troops, Lewen walked into one of the major concentration camps the day after it was liberated and saw what had happened to countless people who looked like him, who spoke the same language and dreamt kindred dreams — saw the would-be destiny he had narrowly escaped by making it to America as a refugee. 

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

When he returned to New York with a wounded body and a scarred soul, he spent six months recovering at the VA hospital, then poured his surviving spirit into a stirring narrative suite of fifty-five drawings titled The Parade — a wordless, intensely emotional, consummately illustrated black-and-white charcoal meditation on the grim and abiding paradox of armed antagonism: that every war appeals to some primal part of the human spirit in order to gain its destructive momentum, and every war ends up destroying what is most buoyant and beautiful in that spirit. 

Art by Si Lewen from The Parade

Einstein, who had spent the years between the two wars making an emphatic case for the interconnectedness of our fates and corresponding with Freud about violence and human nature, saw The Parade — unclear how, but very probably through the trailblazing photographer Lotte Jacobi, who was soon to exhibit them in her New York gallery. Einstein had sat for her more than a decade earlier and remained in touch. 

Albert Einstein by Lotte Jacobi, 1938. (University of New Hampshire Museum of Art.)

And yet despite how stirred those who saw it were by Lewen’s work, it fell into obscurity until it was rediscovered more than half a century later and resurrected in the final year of Lewen’s life in the stunning accordion volume Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey (public library), envisioned and edited by Art Spiegelman. It opens with the letter Einstein wrote to Lewen on August 13, 1951 — his most direct and impassioned statement on the political power of art:

I find your work The Parade very impressive from a purely artistic standpoint. Furthermore, I find it a real merit to counteract the tendencies towards war through the medium of art. Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art — neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion.

It has often been said that art should not be used to serve any political or otherwise practical goals. But I could never agree with this point of view.

In consonance with his contemporary and fellow humanist Anaïs Nin’s ardent case for the centrality of emotional excess in creativity — “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” she wrote to a seventeen-year-old aspiring author whom she was mentoring — Einstein adds:

It is true that it is utterly wrong and disgusting if some direction of thought and expression is forced upon the artist from the outside. But strong emotional tendencies of the artist himself have often given birth to truly great works of art. One has only to think of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daumier’s immortal drawings directed against the corruption in French politics of his time. Our time needs you and your work!

Lewen died days before Spiegelman’s gorgeous resurrection of The Parade was published, in the politically precipitous months leading up to the 2016 American election. He never lived to see the country that had given him refuge crumble into a republic of racism and xenophobia for four years, but also never lived to see the redemption of the republic in the subsequent election of a President who, in another time and another place, would have perished in a concentration camp. 

Couple with another Nobel-winning Albert, Camus, on the artist as a voice of resistance and an instrument of freedom, then revisit Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry.

Quote – John Berger on place and performance

It has always struck me as odd when people talk about the value of their home and then quote the price of their property without realising this tacitly tells me something about their own values.

Berger gets to the heart of the difference between place, a located set of values, and space, a location without values. We fill space with values and make it place, but the actual space does not matter. We acquire space and perform place. A theatre is an empty space until it is filled with people acting together, including the audience. Then the empty space becomes a place full of people just being together. But an audience is never passive.

Whilst this does not apply to just to the underprivileged, the street, like the web, is an easily accessible and very public space to enact theatre. Theatre and performance help us rehearse making place out of space. This process of theatre as making place has always taken place on the street, like BLM, but now includes the web, social media, TV, Netflix, Facebook, TikTok, Animal Crossing etc and as such new places will be made.

Quote – Nacio Jan Brown on identity

“There is a sense in which this kind of photography involves taking something from people without giving them something in return. People reveal something to me, however subtle, which they would normally reserve for those much closer to them. My photographs then show this to others. But this is not so simple. Long after the moment of exposure, when the incident has been forgotten by the subject, I am confronted by it again and again—on the negative, on contact sheets, on proofs, and in prints. The images in this book have become my family. My feelings about them run too deep to be expressed objectively. The notes that follow may seem technical or detached, but they reflect my thoughts when I look at the images now. My feelings about the people then must be in the photographs themselves.”

Nacio Jan Brown

Quote – Kiki Smith on art making

The point isn’t to know what you’re doing. The point is to have an experience doing something.

Kiki Smith has often turned to fairy tales in search of dramatic female personae and alter egos. The poignant vulnerability of childhood is an underlying theme in many of her images, like this one, based on Lewis Carroll’s manuscript drawings for Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (1886). The tension between young girls and animals pervades this scene as Alice struggles in a pool of her own tears with the duck, the dodo, and others. In order to represent the animals close to life-size Smith drew on the largest copperplate ULAE’s etching press could accommodate. From MOMA