Rudolf Rocker

The artist as a universal human being

(1937)

 


 

Note

The cosmopolitan Rocker emphasised the universal aspect of art at a time when subservience to nationalism and the state dominated, even among many artists.

Source: Rudolf Rocker, Nationalism and Culture, Book II, extraits from Chapter XI, 1937.

 


 

That which is revealed at first glance in the work of a great artist who puts spiritual problems into visible shape is not the accident of his nationality but the deeply human in him which belongs to all times and teaches us to understand the speech of all people. Compared to this the assaults of the local environment - however important they may be as indexes for the technical and historical judgment of his work - play a very small part. But even the quite local touches in a work of art do not give it a national character; for within every nation, and especially every great nation, there are a multitude of local influences that peacefully work together in motjely mixture but can never be assembled within the narrow frame of a fictitious concept of the nation.

[…]

Just as in history the alleged national currents are forced quite into the background by the universal flood-streamof the time, so also in art. Thus we could hardly picture to ourselves the art of Albrecht Dürer withoit the Reformation and its countless undercurrents. Only if one keep clearly in mind the storm and stress of that time of ferment in which old and new were so completely churned together can one understand the strange combination that are revealed in Dürer’s work. We cite Dürer because he has been so often and so baselessly styled the “most German of all German painters. Such a designation really means nothing at all. If one wants to designate as German the master’s deep feeling for the tender inspirations and spiritual radiations of his native soil, by all means let him do so, but this in no way expresses the distinctive essence of Dürer^s art. Lafarge was quite right when he said: “ But the German side of his work is its limitation. The national or race side of any work of art is its weakness. What is called German is probably nothing more than the form of a less lengthy civilization.” (John Lafarge, Great Masters, New York, 1906)

[…]

Every great artist is free from national limitations and affects us so overpoweringly just because it rouses in us the hidden strings of our humanity, reveals the mighty unity of mankind. Let one sinks himself in the creations of Francis Goya from which radiates all the warmth of southern plains. Still, behind the outer forms of southern surroundings dreams the soul of the artist, stand ideas and problems that were revolving in his brain, and which were not simply the problems of his country, butb the problems of his time. For every art of vital strength brings out the value of the spiritual contribution of its epoch, which is struggling for emotional expression. And right here there enters that purely human quality that overcomes the foreign and sets us on our native soil.

[…]

Every artist is in the end only a member of a great cultural unity which, along with his personal endowments, determines his work; and in this nationality plays an entirely subordinate role. In art also one recognizes the same universal phenomena that are revealed in every other field of human work; here, too, mutual invigoration within the same culture circle, of which the nation is only a fragment, plays a decisive role. Let us remember the words of Anselm Feuerbach, who was certainly no man of revolutionary trend. "Men have been pleased to represent me as preeminently a German artist. I solemnly protest against this designation, for that which I am lowe in part to myself, in part to the Frenchmen of 1848 and to the old Italians."

It is further significant that this allegedly so German artist was during his lifetime altogether proscribed in Germany itself, and so thoroughly that he was even denied to have any talent as a painter. The nation as such, therefore, not only produces no artists, it lacks all the preconceptions that make it possible to appreciate properly a work of art. The "voice of the blood" was never yet in a position to discover the “race-related features" in a work of art, otherwise the number of the artists who have been so terribly misunderstood, despised and slandered by their contemporaries in their own nation would not be so large.

Let us just keep in mind what a strong influence the various trends in art have exercised over the work of individual artists; from it their nationality has been quite powerless to free them. The different tendencies in art have their source not in the nation, but in the time and the social conditions of the time. Classicism and romanticism, expressionism and impressionism, cubism and futurism are time-phenomena on which the nation has no influence. The close relation between artists who belong, not to the same nation, but to the same school of art is recognizable at the first glance; between two descendants of the same nation, however, of whom one is an adherent of classicism, while the other follows the path of cubism or futurism, there is-so far as concerns their art-no point of contact whatever. This holds good for all arts and also for literature. Between Zola and the adherents of naturalism in other countries there exists an unmistakable kinship; but between Zola and De Villier or De Nerval, although they are all Frenchmen; between Huysmans and Maeterlinck, although they are both Belgians; between Poe and Mark Twain, although they are both Americans; there yawns a wide abyss. All the talk about the "national core" which allegedly lies at the basis of every work of art lacks any deep foundation and is nothing more than a wish-concept.

No, art is not national, any more than science or any other sphere of our intellectual and material life. Let it be granted that climate and external surroundings have a certain influence upon the spiritual status of men, and consequently upon the artist; but this frequently occurs in the same country and within the same nation. That from it there can be deduced no law of nationality is shown by the fact that every northern people that has moved to the south and settled there, like the Normans in Sicily or the Goths in Spain, has not only forgotten its ancient speech in the new homeland, but has also adapted itself to the new surroundings in its emotional life. The national standard, if it could be enforced, would condemn all art to dreary imitation, and take from it just that which alone makes it art - its inner inspiration. What is usually called the "national" is as a rule only the clinging to the past, the despotism of tradition. Even the traditional may be beautiful and may inspire the artist to create; but it must not become the sole compass of life and crush everything new under the weight of a dead past. Where men try to awaken the past to new life, as is happening today so grotesquely in Germany, life becomes dreary and stale, a mere caricature of what has been. For there is no bridge that leads back to the past. Just as a grown man, despite all his longing, can never return to the years of his childhood, but must go on and finish his course of life, so also a people cannot recall to being the history of its past. Every cultural product is universal, most of all, art. It was none other than Hanns Heinz Ewers, who now basks in Adolf Hitler's grace, who gave this truth expression in the words:

Whole worlds separate the man of culture in Germany from his fellow countrymen, whom he sees every day on the street; but a mere nothing, just a trivial bit of water, separates him from the man of culture in America. Heine felt this and cast it in the teeth of the Frankfurters. Edgar Allan Poe uttered it even more clearly. But most of the artists and scholars and educated men of every people have had so little understanding of it that even to our day Horace's fine Odi profanum has been incorrectly interpreted! The artist who wishes to create for "his people" is striving after something impossible and often neglects in doing this something attainable and even higher: to create for the whole world. Above the Germans, above Britons and Frenchmen stands a higher nation: the nation of culture; to create for it is the only task worthy of an artist.

Art and culture stand above the nation, above the state. Just as no true artist creates only for a particular people, so art as such can never be stretched on the Procrustean bed of the nation. It will rather, as the finest interpreter of social life, contribute to the preparation for a higher social culture which will overthrow state and nation to open for human-kind the portals of a new community which is the goal of their desires.

 


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