The Nietzschean Return
Art Where Philosophy Begins Again
By Mark Daniel Cohen
In the final analysis, artists have only one tool at their command - their minds. All their works are to be estimated according to the capabilities they possess for the cogency of compelling and incisive thought and the extent to which that thought is infused into their work. Everything else they employ are merely means to their ends - mechanisms that are pointless without a point having been given. The brush is a broom, the chisel a hatchet, paint is a stain, stone is stone and clay is mud - the found object is junk pulled form the trash, video a shadow coiling on a wall and film the flickering of an indecisive flame - until a meaning is injected into this merest stuff of the earth. The value is in what gets said, for art is, tin the end, an intellectual enterprise.
It is from the sense of such a thought that one must review the current scene and take stock of the caliber of meaning as we have found it now for years. Irony is everywhere about us in the visual arts - it is the term that is valorized and the attitude that has been magnetized. It is the posture that seems most prepossessing to the crowd. And from the sense of the significance of though, one must acknowledge that irony is minted with the stamp of bad conscience. For it is one thing to mean something, and it is another thing simply to undermine the meaning of others, if irony is as far as our artists go. And that is as far as we find them.
We find that too much of the art we see if more a mocking than a criticism, more a tantrum than a deliberation, more bullying than enlightening - more a matter of demagoguery than philosophy. And what underlies it is what always underlies such tactics: fear, and the inability to demonstrate the courage to take a stand, the unwillingness to risk a position - a diffidence to meaningful thought and the commitment actually to mean something. And there is the awareness that such is the case, a lurking quality of guilt about it - the case of bad conscience.
It was not always this way, and it will not be, for bad conscience is the antecedent of good conscience, the mark that what has gone is going to return. Courage is a s natural as the lack of it, and it has an innate stage of urgency, and intrinsic capability of itself, a native incipience and spontaneity of its own arise. It will recur of its own tendency - there always will be artists with the fortitude to mean something directly and to state with forthrightness what they mean. There will always recur artists who think to interest and who root their work in the most interesting thinkers who can influence them. And so it is pertinent that over the summer there arrived exhibitions by two artists who claim the influence of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
They did not take Nietzsche in the same way, and it is Chawky Frenn who takes the philosopher's thinking at the heart. "Ecce Homo," which appeared at the Housatonic Museum in Bridgeport, CT, gave a display of 34 astonishingly beautiful and breathtakingly skilled paintings that took the eye as the royal road to the soul - it is astounding how few works of contemporary visual art do that - and, on the soft bed of exquisite painterly technique, did contentious battle with the alluring horrors and beckoning powers of destruction that plague the human spirit at its very center. His works were filled with images fused of tenderness and carnage, of passion and destruction, of faith and perfidy, of life and death. Frenn was born in Lebanon, where he spent his first 20 years, living through six years of civil war. As Frenn states in the press materials for the exhibition, he witnessed, "people killed, sacrificed and terrorized in the name of God, of the Nation, of scared beliefs and basic rights." It was an experience of "a paradox of clashing realities," a recognition of the need to seek "meaning amongst the chaos and absurdity." But Frenn learned that the absurdity is something other than an easy condemnation, for, as he quotes the philosopher in the beautifully design exhibition catalogue: "One must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star." The debt to Nietzsche was evident everywhere in the exhibition - in the several quotations from the philosopher included in the catalogue, in paintings such as Homage to Nietzsche, 1998, and in the very title of the exhibition, "Ecce Homo," which is not only a reference to the words of Pontius Pilate when presenting Jesus to his accusers, but is also the title of one of Nietzsche's last books. What Frenn obtains of the philosopher is Nietzsche's sense of ultimate "tragic insight" - the recognition that the human heart is riven, caught between the drives toward creation and decay, toward life and death, toward acceptance and slaughter. And yet, not caught, for in a difficult sense, these opposites are the same, and the human condition is rooted somewhere "beyond good and evil." You could see the realization in such works as Creation, 1998, a triptych in which a portrait of the artist is partially eclipsed by a skull in profile, and in The Dance, 1998, another triptych in which all the panels couple the artist with the skeleton and, in the center panel, the two do their dance of life and death.
This is art as philosophy, as very diffuclt philosophy, as the knowledge that - in the way Frenn puts it in the title of another painting - Where images stop, philosophy begins, 1997.
Artists, in the end, have only one tool at their command - their minds. And the mind, as Nietzsche well knew, is a paradox. We may think our way into the world around us and find the strangeness of our own natures, or we may delve the heart of ourselves and find something of the truth of the world. We may never be certain of the site of what the mind holds. In our thoughts of the world, are we seeing into the nature of the world or into the nature of our thoughts? The philosophy and the psychology belled together. But what we can see clearly is that art is a matter of ambitious intelligence, for it shares the concerns of all endeavors of ambitious intelligence, and that the most compelling artists, those with the most authoritative call upon our attention, are those who temper their imaginations by something more than fashions or creative techniques. The strongest artists are those who also read books.