Within the same two-month span, I’ve been reading Gotz and Meyer by Jewish-Serbian writer David Albahari -b. 1948- and The Shape of Content by Lithuanian-American artist Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898 – March 14, 1969). Though the subject matter and the implications of the subject are severely different, I cannot help but find similarities between the two reading them so closely to each other. So that you can follow, I’ll briefly summarize the portions of the text relevant to these similarities.
Gotz and Meyer
Gotz and Meyer is a startling account of two SS servicemen during the Jewish Holocaust. The duty of Gotz and Meyer was to operate the then-latest technology in mass homicide. They picked up, transported and killed over 5,000 unknowing Jewish men, women, children and infants through the course of their service on a massive, airtight truck in which exhaust and poisonous fumes were redirected from the exhaust pipe into rear of the truck when Gotz (or Meyer) took a brief respite during the transport to cap off the pipe. The question Albahari seems to present is how can a human being, in this case Gotz or Meyer, acclimate his soul to a situation that demands of him to systematically murder over “5,000 souls” over the course of approximately 50 trips from the Jewish residences to the lifeless Fairgrounds.
The Shape of Content
Artists in Colleges, the first chapter of Shahn’s book, sets forth the three blocks to the development of a “mature art” especially as it pertains to artists in the somewhat non-dynamic environment of the university. The three blocks are dilettantism, fear of creativity, and a “romantic misconception” of what sort of man (or woman) the artist is. Shahn delves into the many positive and negative spaces of this literary sketch of the issues pertaining to the artist in the university community. By all means, if you’re an artist, you’d do yourself a great service to read this book.
The tragedy of the Holocaust, the mass murder of Jews by German Nazis, is understood without mention. With that said, I could not help but notice the systematic yet soulless nature of mass education with some exceptions of course. Many young people leave institutions of higher education less educated, if not more confused, than when they entered. It becomes even more tragic when this soulless instruction happens in the field of art. And how? Art is a field that not only involves soul, but requires it. Yet the truly original, creative artist can be rendered artless if there are strict confines that demand he conform to theory, to form, to the applications of soul as created and established by members of a canon. At what point does the modern artist live amongst real life for the soul of living things to speak themselves into his art? I don’t mean dabble. I mean really create something new and origina1! Can this really be fostered in the university environment? Could the embracing of art within the university setting be the Holocaust of the creativity of contemporary artists?
As an artist, I see the potential for this to take place. The bigger question is how do artist maintain the souls in the face of systematic “education?” Can we secure for ourselves that type of instruction that is personal, that seeks to know our souls, that sees the variations and depths of that soul to make more beautiful creations flourish?
I know it’s possible. I’ve had some instructors who have actually concerned themselves with the soul, the source of my art. But, to present these questions on a larger scale is so important in an oxymoronic world of rapid change and blind, systematic acceptance.