A review of The Beckmann Retrospective, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
“Do you not see that we poets cannot be either wise or upright? . . . Our masterful command of style is an insane lie; our honorable reputation a farce, the people’s tolerance of us most ridiculous. To attempt to educate through art is a dangerous gamble which should be forbidden. For how can anyone be an educator whose ineradicable and natural tendency is for the abyss . . . for knowledge has no dignity or strength of purpose. It is knowledgeable, understanding, forgiving, without firmness or fixity. Knowledge sympathizes with the abyss; knowledge is the abyss.”
(Aschenbach in Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, V)*
Max Beckmann (1884-1950) faced life’s crucial conflict with rare honesty-notably in his self-portraits, less directly and therefore less candidly in the grandiose earlier (impressionist) and later (triptych) work. I will concentrate on the self-portraits, particularly the 1922 woodcut. Tucked away to the side of an exhibition room along with other graphic masterpieces, the woodcut at first was hardly noticeable. Yet it is difficult to notice anything else, once confronted with its alarming combination of medieval gothic and modern Nazi. By “Nazi,” I mean what Karl Loewith (Cesammelte Abhandlungen, pp. 122-23) noted in his discussion of Heidegger’s Nazism:
The spirit of National Socialism was not so much concerned with the national and the social but much more with that radically private resoluteness which rejects any discussion or mutual understanding because it relies wholly and only on itself. . . . At bottom, all its concepts and words are the expression of the bitter and hard resoluteness of a will asserting itself in the face of its own nothingness, a will proud of its loathing for happiness, reason and compassion.
That loathing and its price are nowhere more evident than in Beckmann’s 1922 woodcut self-portrait. To be sure, the compassion and humanity often ascribed to Beckmann is there too. That is the gothic element, reflecting faith in some ultimate redemption from life’s nihilism. But Beckmann is not Gruenewald or Riemen-schneider. Ancient-medieval or even contemporary soporifics are, at bottom, illusions for him, annihilated by that Nazi loathing which Thomas Hess (New York, May 5, 1975, pp. 98-99) caught in his criticism of Beckmann and George Grosz:
The images spell out the archetypal horrors lurking behind the massive forehead and bulldog glare with which Beckmann fortified his ego in a long series of self portraits . . . Grosz’s and Beckmann’s contempt is all embracing. There is a bullying streak, an edge of hard cynicism in these fervent anti-nazis that takes them perilously close to the Brownshirts’ credo. . . . Coarseness, brutality, vulgarity!
The archetypical horror springs from realization that nothing, no divine or natural order, endows anything with a nonarbitrary being, an identity not subject to radical change at any moment. There is nothing in or behind or above things to make them more than empty experiences, impressions as Hume called them. Beckmann’s best work reveals the terror inspired by awareness of this universal nothingness.
Here the paths of men part; the crucial line is drawn between those with faith in something, especially in any moral-political cause, and those who see reality for the emptiness that it is. I side with the nihilists or atheists for whom everything high or low (including the distinction between high and low, good and bad, truth and falsity) is radically devalued when seen in its essential nothingness. This devaluation seems ridiculous to the vast majority whose faith in their common-sense identity, in their being something rather than nothing, makes Beckmann’s world seem ridiculously pessimistic.
In an unpublished fragment, Nietzsche rightly notes the need for the rarest form of courage here: “The courage of the knower reveals itself not where he inspires wonder and terror . . . but where he must be experienced by the non-knower as superficial, low, cowardly and trivial.” This courage, which Nietzsche in his Zarathustra (IV:4) called the “conscience of science,” informs Beckmann’s woodcut self-portrait.
Like anyone confronting reality’s void, Beckmann did indeed experience a boundless need to fortify his ego. It surely is no accident that sleep eluded him for his last twenty-five years. Intellectual honesty is difficult, probably impossible. In his diary (March 19, 1944), Beckmann writes: “I still hold my head high like a drowning man-yet sooner or later the black waves of nothingness must crash together over me . . . well, I am prepared to become a nothing again in spite of the immense effort I have made to become a self.”
Being a self, being anything rather than nothing, is illusory in reality’s emptiness. There Beckmann’s emphasis on becoming a self makes as little sense as anything else: “Nauseating and amusing life. A chaos of weakness and exultant, useless strength” (Diary; July 10, 1949). To live, to be something rather than nothing, is irrational. Life’s impossible, self-contradictory situation in a nihilist world is captured in Beckmann’s best work. His family or group pictures, except a few in insane asylums, show individuals hardly, if at all, aware of the others in the group. The stark black and white of his graphics catches this horrifying privacy and loneliness better than his colorful oils and watercolors.
Color’s richness is far more tied to mankind’s usual retreat from nihilism, common-sense’s comforting lies, than are those bleak, startling graphics. Encouraging no quixotic aspirations to selfhood, the graphics, especially the woodcut self-portrait, leave artist and observer with nothing. Of course, it holds no terror for those shielded from reality by the common-sense faith that they and their world really are something and not nothing. Nothing more prevents an understanding of Beckmann than this “stimulating” delusion.
Beckmann’s work demonstrates, insofar as demonstration is possible, the abyss obfuscated by ancient-medieval pieties, but also by their remnants in contemporary “science” and “education.” In this crucial sense, Beckmann is more scientific than a Newton or an Einstein, if science means knowledge of reality. His tortured, resolute nihilism shows the impossibility of any non-arbitrary community or communication. This grim realization is at the core of his final self-portrait (oil, 1950), although it is less “Nazi” than the 1922 woodcut. It also informs the famous tuxedo self-portrait (oil, 1927). Here, at the peak of Beckmann’s worldly success, arrogant with cigarette in hand, that hopeless resolution in the face of reality’s void still dominates. The art critic Fritz Stahl condemned its Prussian arrogance as Thomas Hess deplored Beckmann’s need to fortify his ego with that “bulldog glare.” But how else can men knowledgeable about reality create in themselves the illusion of being something rather than nothing!
When I recommend the 1922 woodcut, as I usually do in every class, I do not do so because it belongs to an academic “discipline” called “art” in order to promote “interdisciplinary” studies between “art” and “philosophy” or “science.” Concern with disciplines misses the point of education. I use the Beckmann exhibit (as I use Wagner’sTristan and Isolde or Grosz’s Ecce Homo) because it is one of the few attempts to seriously confront the horror of self-knowledge and knowledge of one’s world or worlds. This is the only worthwhile goal of any study, “disciplinary” or “interdisciplinary.”
In that decisive sense, no real distinction exists between sciences or humanities or between any of the so-called disciplines. What any school worthy of the name does for its students and teachers, is done, insofar as it can be, by serious reflection on the works in this Beckmann exhibit. If the goal of education, as distinct from propaganda, is unflinching confrontation with the truth, Beckmann is one of the very few who hazarded the agonizing enterprise of learning and teaching.
Awareness of that agony is responsible for Beckmann’s pedagogic superiority. The superiority was brought home to me by an exchange between a student and a professor about the worth of a class. The student asked how the course would help her to know herself and her world. The professor saw the course primarily as “rounding out the major” in his “discipline.” His was a safe, conventional answer to her dangerously unconventional question.
“Discipline” is a military term. One disciplines oneself to reject “forbidden fruit.” “Discipline” substitutes for rational persuasion, particularly when reason is with the forbidden, life-threatening temptation. The professor’s flight to his discipline reflects his conscious or unconscious need to flee “the archetypical horrors lurking behind . . . the bulldog glare with which Beckmann fortified his ego in a long series of self-portraits.” Anyone seriously contemplating Beckmann’s work realizes the powerful need for the professor’s intellectual dishonesty.
The student was asking for genuine knowledge of herself and her world, blissfully unaware that “knowledge is the abyss”! The professor’s cowardly unwillingness to risk her question indicates greater awareness of its horror. This awareness was mercifully obfuscated for him by pride in his “discipline.”
That obfuscation is anathema in any school whose aim is education and not propaganda on behalf of salutary myths. In Mann’s Tristan (10), the usual futility of education is deplored by Spinell:
“The world is full of what I call the ‘unconscious type’ and I cannot stand all this dumb, unknowing, uncomprehending life and action, this world of infuriating naiveté around me! It tortures, me, driving me irresistibly to explain, to articulate all existence, to bring it to self-consciousness as far as I can . . . unconcerned whether the consequences are helpful or harmful, whether it brings relief or intensifies the pain.”
Beckmann demonstrates that education always intensifies the pain.
The professor’s flight from the student’s question avoids that pain. When those sharing his intellectual cowardice band together, they create, over centuries, a shield of respectability for their “disciplines” and for their propaganda on behalf of schools as refuges where they are free to bury themselves in disciplinary or interdisciplinary studies. For them, Beckmann is an “artist” whose work is best evaluated by “experts” in German expressionism in art “departments.” Each department is free to deal with its own discipline by its accepted “methodologies.” This is the usual meaning of academic freedom. Shielded by this freedom from the harshness of the student’s question, the professor confidently ignored it. In this decisive respect, he mirrors the liberal democracy shaping his defective pedagogy.
Liberal democracy’s pluralism encourages faith in the right to form groups to defend one’s group-interests. Generally political liberals see as little arbitrariness in this right as academic liberals see in their defense of their discipline’s interests. Indeed the same liberally inspired intellectual dishonesty sparks faith in both academic and civil rights, for if no “laws of nature and nature’s God” exist to endow men with “unalienable rights” to life and liberty, those rights are grounded in nothing. Then all efforts to secure the rights are no better than Beckmann’s futile willing of selfhood in a nihilist world. Beckmann’s awareness of this futility made him an honest teacher.
The same candor sparked the Communist Bukharin’s final apology (1938) to his judges. Whittaker Chambers urged that his words be prominently displayed in all American classrooms. He hoped that this would awaken at least a few American professors to the depth and power of Communism’s (and Nazism’s) threat to their dreams about anyone’s rights to anything.
Remember that Bukharin publicly confessed to crimes of which he was innocent:
I shall now speak of the reasons for my repentance . . . for when you ask yourself: “If you must die, what are you dying for?” . . . an absolutely black nothingness suddenly rises before you with startling vividness. There was nothing to die for if one wanted to die unrepentant. . . this, in the end, disarmed me completely and led me to bend my knees before the party and the country. . . . And, at such moments, citizen judges, everything personal . . . all personal rancor, pride and a number of other things fall away, disappear.
I doubt that the cry from the abyss informing both Bukharin’s words and Beckmann’s self-portrait could eliminate the intellectual dishonesty responsible for the professor’s evasion of the student’s question. Probably such terrors would only strengthen his resolve to hide whatever doubts he had behind dedication to his discipline and to the civil rights supporting that dedication. His illusions can be maintained only in a liberal democracy whose faith in its God-given rights has not suffered dissolution by rejection of the traditional pieties supporting the rights. Most liberal professors are unaware that their attack on those pieties (as outmoded superstitions or prejudices) also undermines their academic (civil) right to avoid serious education by fleeing to their disciplines. Should they be deprived of that right, the real meaning of education might well dawn upon them. This will occur if America loses its war with Russia. If the subsequent loss of all rights leads to perception of their emptiness, even liberal professors will be confronted by the terrifying choice forced upon Bukharin and Beckmann by genuine education: Frank acknowledgement of reality’s “black nothingness” or fanatic commitment to its obfuscation. Until that grim day, the Beckmann retrospective offers one of the best available antidotes to the cheerful intellectual dishonesty endemic to liberal democratic schools.
Liberating him from that dishonesty, Beckmann’s education precluded joining liberal artists and intellectuals who, while acknowledging the external world’s emptiness, nevertheless find meaning in their own individual selves. These are the apostles of self-expression, the champions of the sanctity of individual freedom and its “rights.” Among artists or poets, theirs is so-called abstract or nonobjective work which denies the meaningfulness of objects, of the external world, while affirming the richness of inner experience.
At his most perceptive, Beckmann, unlike Klee, Kandinsky, or Pollock, realized that man’s inner world is as devoid of substance as the external. No inner complexity or integrity exists in reality. Only men alive to life’s total nothingness are as scientific-as knowledgeable about existence-as men can be. Other intellectuals, whether humanists or “scientists,” liberals or conservatives, are no more than conscious or unconscious propagandists. Beckmann was no propagandist!
Beckmann’s contempt for the regnant academic (liberal) propaganda left his work open to life’s only serious struggle: the war between reason and passion. Reason (insight into reality’s nihilism) is repellent to passion. All passions are teleological, striving to obtain some good or avoid some evil. Consequently all passions are irrational subsisting on faith in common-sense’s teleological world of goods to pursue and selves to pursue them. When genuine science, liberal education, forces abandonment of this faith, the wrath and frustration of the passions is directed against reality itself. Like liberalism (their external, political reflection), the rabid, because enlightened, passions now demand their “rights.” That demand becomes more strident, the more its inanity is realized. The 1922 woodcut’s “Nazi” pride in its “loathing for happiness, reason, and compassion” reflects reason’s response to this rebellion by the passions against reason.
The ground of the terror informing Beckmann’s best work is evident in Mann’s Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus. There the murderous, because enlightened, drives destroy the liberal education which liberated them. Theirs is the fury of passions deprived by reason of the illusions necessary to sustain faith in their “rights.” No powerful desire can tolerate education or science unless they are domesticated, that is, degraded into uplifting propaganda. At his best, and that is frequent, Beckmann adamantly refuses to domesticate science.
The warning against genuine education has been sounded from Aristophanes’ Clouds and Genesis (2-3) to Mann’s Death in Venice and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Nowhere is it more alive, and therefore less welcome, than in Beckmann’s 1922 woodcut. As a whole, the Beckmann exhibit reveals a life-long war with education by one of the very few who knew what it really is.
Nietzsche rightly found at the heart of science the most terrifying war or experiment: Can truth be incorporated into life without destroying it? Is the examined life really livable? “In relation to the importance of this struggle everything else is trivial: The final question about the conditions of life is here raised, and the first attempt is here made to answer this question experimentally: How far does the truth permit incarnation (Einverleibung)?-that is the question, that is the experiment” (Joyful Science,Aphorism 110). This question the Beckmann exhibit, like all serious thought, confronts.
*The research for this article was aided by the John Brown Cook Association for Freedom. The problems of nihilism, education, and politics are further elaborated in “Political Philosophy or Nihilist Science? Education’s Only Serious Question,” in Natural Right and Political Right: Essays in Honor of Harry V. Jaffa (Durham, 1984) pp. 365-74; “Nietzsche,” Ultimate Reality and Meaning (December 1982), pp. 280-95; “Politics or Nothing! Nazism’s Origin in Scientific Contempt for Politics” (to be published in The Journal of Value Inquiry, 1985).