Art is Doing What You Cannot do

Thus says the writer Peter Handke in an interview with DIE ZEIT (No. 49 / 2022, p. 60). Art means doing what one cannot do. Doesn't art therefore derive from the artist's ability, from his or her skill? Some further tracks on the path of art and (non)ability: The painter Cy Twombly ties his brush to a long stick to reduce the ego's influence on the painting process.

Art is Doing What You Cannot do

What the ego has learned and is able to do, he considers a disturbing factor in his art. He even painted in the dark during World War II, during his time as a decipherer for the US Army. Are the eyes deceptive, or is it their grip on things? Where does art aim when artistry becomes an obstacle?

The writer Uwe Johnson approaches the reality he wants to bring to light by repeatedly aiming with words, and also by numerous paraphrases that, despite or because of the distance they maintain from it, reveal their object more precisely than familiar or supposedly exact terms possibly could. Johnson’s art discloses a realness that is usually obscured by our everyday reality – and our everyday consciousness. Knowing that he cannot “simply show” reality, Johnson creates a literature that equals reality in complexity. As the reader delves deeper, he reenacts the author’s quest.

[…] I was seeing him for the first time, […] at once sonething took hold of me, lifted me up set me down again. I found myself completely attentive, as only once before in my life. If I remember correctly, I immediately began searching for words. Which I discarded again, one after the other, they all decrsibed a characteristic, this man didn’t seem to have any. It was like this: his exterior engraved itself at once, ineffaceably, in me, and if I now say: „he was tall and broad-shouldered and solid, that day he looked a little gloomy (not sad) to the observer“, he could be mistaken fo anyone who merely resembled him.[1]

The aforementioned artists are searching for a reality that is hidden behind everyday reality and that cannot be grasped through mere depiction. Success would be to touch the dimension of reality in which the secret, the real, dwells and to open it up for the reader / viewer. Art: This is then more than a craft that creates images or texts. It has the courage to search for the real; it also deals with the pain of everyday reality, which, as Rainer Maria Rilke writes, has something disappearing about it, because our dealing with it – remarkably – resembles an escape from the world.

Is it possible […] that one still hasn’t seen or recognised or said anything that’s real and important? Is it possible that there have been thaousands of years in which to look, to reflect and to record, and that these thousands of years have been allowed to go by like a school break when one eats a sandwich and an apple?
Is it possible that despite inventions and advances, despite culture, religion and worldly wisdom one has remained on the surface of life? Is it possible that even this surface, which at any rate might, after all, have been something, has been covered over with unbelievably boring material so that it has the look of drawing-room furniture in the summer holidays?[2]

This text dates from 1910 and could not be more up to date. On the surface of things lie not only our opinions, concepts and feelings, but also the use we make of them; today, moreover, they are overlaid by images without number and drawn into the virtual realm.

Thus, art can be a way to get in touch with the eluding reality. In the best sense it can be its mirror, and sometimes it is at the same time the expression of a spiritual approach to life. Not knowing what reality is, refining one’s own tools more and more, and going beyond one’s own knowledge and ability again and again, even giving it away, in order to allow a deeper reality to show itself: that would therefore be art. The painter seeks ways to help a painting come into being and to assist this process. The composer listens to the movements of his soul, even to the laws of the cosmos. The musician lets another’s composition find its own expression. The novelist rejects the familiar templates of reality, seeking immediate perception and writing it down as well as he can. All practice and refine their tools daily. At the same time, they know that the next step is always to be taken in not-knowing and not-being-able. For this process is not about themselves and what they think they already know.

When people want to become builders of the „new man“, they do something similar. They try to see the new man behind the appearance of the – nowadays increasingly unrecognizable – everyday ego, in his or her struggle and also in failure. The path brings daily deepening self-knowledge. Walking it one perceives the abyss between knowledge and action, and ultimately also that the old consciousness is an unsuitable vessel for the being and life of the new man. What then? It is possible to lay the old being on the threshold of the new – and get up transformed in the next moment, many thousands of times.

[1]In this scene, Rohlfs , an Officer of the Ministry for State Security, meets Jakob, the protagonist of Uwe Johnson’s “Speculations about Jakob,” for the first time. London 1963, p. 59

[2]Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Lauruds Brigge, translated from the German by William Needham, am 07.12.2022

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Date: January 4, 2023
Author: Angela Paap (Germany)
Photo: Rostende Liebe -Ausschnitt - Ruth Alice Kosnick CCO

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