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Visual Arts

The 'Murderous' Art of George Baselitz

Dinner in Dresden (1983) (partial)

For Baselitz, the true artist is the eternal outsider. While he leads a good bourgeois family life, at his art he becomes a murderer, a man on the fringes of good society, a destroyer.

Georg Baselitz

Director: Heinz Peter Schwerfel
Distributor: Facets
MPAA rating: Unrated
US DVD Release Date: 2008-08-26
First date: 2004

In everything we do, there is an implicit ought. We may choose to ignore it. We may even disavow it altogether. But if we are to be honest with ourselves then everything we make, everything we say, every conscious act is suffused with an "ought", an obligation, a duty. To shirk our fundamental responsibility for the things we do is to renounce our claims to rationality, to purposive action, to humanity.

Here detractors of such claims face a paradox, for even if we believe that we can never be fully responsible for the things we do (whether owing to psychologism, notions of the fragmented self, or belief in fate and divine preordination), we still must behave as though we were acting with responsibility and therefore the maxim remains unscathed: in everything we do, there is an implicit ought.

However, when we register this existential obligation through conscious awareness, when with every step we estimate our moral progress through recourse to a misguided and overwhelming variation on the Kantian categorical imperative (something against which Kant himself warned) so that we, along with Prufrock, measure out our lives with coffee spoons, then the weight of our responsibility threatens to crush us altogether and we wish to flee. And yet, in this as in so many other things in life, we often find ways to simultaneously abnegate and embrace our obligation to both disavow and accept the radical ought of our existence.

It seems to me that something of this moral economy can be glimpsed in the two films (from 1987 and 2004) on painter and sculptor Georg Baselitz directed by Heinz Peter Schwerfel now being released by Facets Video. The earlier film consists largely of an interview with the then 50-year-old artist at the time of his retrospective at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. Although now a success, Baselitz remains somewhat truculent, defensive, and guarded.

Seventeen years later, the 2004 film features Baselitz viewing and responding to several of the comments he made in the earlier film while exploring changes in the direction of his artistic output and investigating another side of the man—Baselitz as collector of African sculpture. The Baselitz of the later film is certainly less belligerent and seems to have attained a certain placidity that may have come with years of fairly uncontested prominence. But something remains just beneath the surface, sometimes emerging in the often vague but always intriguing statements the artist makes, that ties the calm 2004 Baselitz to his more haunted 1987 incarnation—his overriding concern with his obligation to the history of art.

Such things are not easily discussed without broaching the limits of decorum. An artist such as Baselitz always risks slipping into a pretentious stance, but the historicist impulse itself is deeply humbling. This is, perhaps, nowhere more in evidence than in the work of a German artist. Germany has a long tradition of seeking out a literary/ artistic/ philosophical continuity and basis for unity among the German-speaking public where political/ social continuity has often failed.

By the late 18th century, German-speaking writers and educators were heavily concerned with the notion of Bildung. Although the roots of Bildung as a concept go back to 16th century Pietist religious ideals, its modern formulation took shape during the German Enlightenment or Aufklärung. Indeed, one of the most famous articulations of the term Bildung is that of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn in response to the question “Was ist Aufklärung?” (“What is Enlightenment?”) in which he claims that “enlightenment” along with “culture” (“Kultur”) is subsumed beneath Bildung.

Whereas enlightenment, for Mendelssohn, pertains to universal knowledge, culture pertains to social mores. Enlightenment is the theoretical element necessary to attain the “destiny of man”, whereas culture is the practical element necessary to attain that end. Together in perfect harmony they give rise to Bildung. Thus Bildung is the mastery of all elements necessary to attain an ideal vision of the educated, cultured human being.

Obviously related to the German word for “picture” (“Bild”), Bildung derives from the verb “bilden”, meaning “to form, to mold, to give shape to, to acquire”. Thus Bildung implies far more than the English word that often translates it: “education”. Indeed, Bildung embodies a certain philosophy of education.

Bildung is the process of forming oneself, of giving shape to one’s personality and one’s mind (bilden), through recourse to a certain cultural image of the ideal (Bild). Insofar as this ideal image developed out of a German tradition of self-knowledge and cultural attainment, it is itself deeply and irrevocably historical in nature.

But this historicism is not concerned with political history—inasmuch as German-speaking peoples had long considered Germanic political history to represent an utter failure to attain coherence and unity—but rather with cultural history; it is, after all, within philosophy, music, literature, and the plastic arts that Germany was in many ways first created—that is, there was a Germany (here “Germany” is a unified conception of German-speaking peoples and thus has more to do with language than politics) of Goethe, Beethoven, and Kant long before there was a unified Germanic political entity.

Thus at least since Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, the Germanic process of Bildung has involved a development of one’s personality through an appreciation of philosophy and art—and, for the most part, this meant German philosophy and art. But in 1933, with the enactment of the Enabling Act in a Germany that had only been unified politically for a little over half a century, German-speaking peoples, wittingly or not, began to realize the unrealizable: a political unification of the Germanic peoples.

That, however, ended much as it had begun: in destruction, cruelty, hatred, and death. It was the terrible culmination of an era of hope; it was the horrific realization of the contradictions, the inherent antinomies of the Aufklärung as Horkheimer and Adorno suggested in the year that ended the great conflagration.

Meissen Woodsmen (1968-1969)

For Germans of the succeeding generations, brought up to believe fervently that their cultural and historical past had brought about both the apotheosis of artistic achievement and the nadir of misanthropic depravity, it was a bitter inheritance to accept. For the foreseeable future, Germany would be irrevocably split into East and West, communist and democratic, restricted and free. But even freedom in a political sense meant little insofar as the German—so steeped in history—could never be free of the past. The German growing up in post-WWII Germany led a split existence—embracing Germany’s cultural history as the only tenuous hold on German identity and disavowing its political history as the unspeakable crime of the father visited upon the sons and daughters, a new and cataclysmic original sin.

This deep-seated inner contradiction found one intriguing manifestation in the career and the persona of Georg Baselitz. Throughout the 1987 film, Baselitz decries any presumption on the part of the artist that it is possible to bring about social improvement through artistic creation. Having grown up in East Germany and having been expelled from the East Berlin Academy of Fine and Applied Arts in 1956 for “socio-political immaturity”, Baselitz is as suspicious of any pretensions toward a social utopia achieved through the apotheosis of art as he is of an idea of an artistic proletariat.

For Baselitz, the true artist is the eternal outsider. While he assures his listeners that he leads a good bourgeois family life, when he works at his art he becomes a murderer, a man on the fringes of good society, a destroyer.

However, Baselitz does feel that he belongs even as an artist. He registers his own working-out of the rift between the German literary and political pasts by declaring that he is a German twice over. In the political sense, he is the bourgeois family man; but, more importantly, in the artistic sense, he belongs to the tradition of German painters that includes Dürer and Caspar David Friedrich. Thus, he is an insider within a tradition of outsiders.

He claims that German painters have always concerned themselves with chaos and with ugliness. To hear anyone characterize Friedrich’s work as concerned with ugliness no doubt comes as a shock to those familiar with the master’s work. However, perhaps Baselitz sees in Friedrich’s evocative moonlit landscapes the specter of an ideal that is always promised and yet continually withheld. With Friedrich we constantly look over the shoulders of his subjects. Like these subjects we await something that promises to appear on the horizon but is always deferred, has always already withdrawn. By sharing their view, we come to absorb it and the subjects are emptied of their subjectivity, emptied of their subjective content.

Similarly, Baselitz works on the representational object to empty it of its content, of its meaning as the object it represents. Thus his “upside-down” portraits, which are clearly representational, force their subjects into a decentered object position. They are legible figures and yet that legibility is forcefully (and through such a simple or even simplistic gesture) reversed so that the read is the reread, the understood is the no longer understandable.

This is why, as Baselitz himself acknowledges, his work always skirts the perimeters of kitsch. The means of objectification are so apparent, so utterly artless in a manner of speaking, that they almost beg to be dismissed. These paintings dare you to take them seriously while constantly threatening to ridicule you for collapsing their irony by taking such irony to be “truth”.

The Baselitz of 1987 is determined to be an autonomous artist with respect to society and politics while remaining very much dependent upon the tradition of German art. For Baselitz, as for so many Germans (this much is deeply traditional), the tradition of art is the only worthwhile political legacy of the German people. The purpose of German art for Baselitz is the presentation of chaos and disharmony that, almost despite one’s intentions, inevitably becomes harmony. This is an aesthetics of idealized spirit in a society that must have felt to Baselitz as though it were sapped of anything ideal and sapped of spirit itself.

The Baselitz of 2004 remains concerned with history and his place within it, but now the artist seems to be far more open to the possibility of a connection between his political/ social life and his artistic career. Although Baselitz remains convicted that the artist’s only worthwhile goal is to decenter expectation, he no longer seeks to sever his personal history from his work.

His later paintings are reworkings of photographs from his past—Baselitz as a child, his mother, and so on. He shows the viewers two huge sculptures: one of himself and another of his wife—both in their underwear. They are older now; he seems humbler, kinder. She refuses to pose nude, thinking it ridiculous. It is the kind of anecdote one associates with an avuncular figure, not the rebellious nihilist he sometimes appeared to be in the earlier film.

In this later film, Baselitz also introduces the viewers to another fascinating aspect of his artistic life—this time playing the role not of creator but of collector. His insights into African sculpture and what it means to collect it—how it impacts one’s life, its relation to its own historicity—make the film worth viewing all on their own.

Together these two films make for a remarkable experience. They allow one to gauge an artist’s historical development vis-à-vis a history that pervades his thinking and his creative life. Here he confronts not only the meaning of being a German and a German artist at various points within the trajectory of those histories, but he also confronts his own history vis-à-vis his own earlier self and his own earlier ideas.

Georg Baselitz

Those ideas are not dismissed or negated, they are embraced but they are embraced with a certain kind distance, a certain awareness that communicates itself less in words and more in Baselitz’s general demeanor. To confront one’s own thoughts, to respond to the history of one’s own creativity and one’s own work—what great obligation, what greater ought can there be?

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