Life, etc

Burning Insight: When ignorance destroys art

By Tony Jackman 12 April 2016

Fahrenheit 451. It’s the temperature at which paper burns. Or at which a pile of works of art in their frames ignite. It’s a point of no return, for once burnt, nothing can be unburnt. Damage can be repaired, but the consequence of destroying is destruction. Forever. By TONY JACKMAN.

Seeing François Truffaut’s cinematic adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 as an 11-year-old kid in 1966 chills you to the core of your small being. It makes you understand that those who would burn the books were decimating knowledge and mauling insight. It opens a chapter in your formative mind. 

One of the great dystopian stories of the genre that includes George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Ray Bradbury’s chilling Fahrenheit 451 is set in a future society in which literature is banned and books burnt. In a milieu of firemen whose task it is to maintain fires at the heat at which their incendiary job can be done, a fireman meets a young woman whose passion for books makes her a fugitive.

Watch: Fahrenheit 451 trailer

Truffaut’s film had a mixed reception when it was released, although over the decades since its reputation has grown. Its fans today include the director Martin Scorsese, who has said it influenced his own films. Whether Fahrenheit 451 really is the specific temperature that ignites paper is disputed – there’s a temperature range at which paper will catch fire – but no matter: Bradbury pitched it at that temperature as a device when he wrote the novel in 1952, and it works.

But the burning of art is not restricted to fantasy, sci-fi or otherwise. As with any creative force, it is inspired by, or inspires, real life. Wikipedia points us to incidences of the burning of art throughout recorded history, whether in China (burning of books in the Qin Dynasty in 210 BC), Egypt (burning of the Library of Alexandria for the first time in 48 BC, possibly by Julius Caesar), or France (incineration of Jewish manuscripts in 1244). In our age, American evangelical pastors just love setting fire to nasty, sexy tomes and CDs. Beatles fans still have not forgiven the ridiculously-hatted Ku Klux Klan for burning their records in 1966 after John Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus (and South Africa’s own Nationalist government joined the Klan by banning the Beatles from the local airwaves).

Deeper in history, the French Revolution, from 1789 to 1799, saw massive destruction of works of art by anti-royalists, which perhaps bears comparison with the recent incident at the University of Cape Town in which students set fire to paintings – the disadvantaged disrespecting the art of the old privileged order, with justifiable arguments for their anger deserving an outlet. If it’s ever justifiable to destroy art.

The Nazis destroyed art. In the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s, members of the German Student Association burnt books that were deemed subversive or as not portraying Nazi ideologies, or opposing them. On one day, 83 years ago last week (April 8, 1933), the student body proclaimed a day of “action against the un-German spirit”. The organisation’s office for press and propaganda bombarded newspapers with press releases, and invoked the “Twelve Theses” – mirroring Martin Luther’s 95 Theses of October 1517 – and the burning of books considered to be “un-German”, for which read Jewish or other unwanted influences.

Photo: Nazis burning books, April 8, 1933

The theses were posted on university walls and called for purity of language and literature, preservation of folk traditions, for the Jew to be regarded as alien, and called on German students to overcome “Jewish intellectualism” and the resulting supposed liberal decay in the German spirit. The student body demanded “the selection of students and professors in accordance with their reliability and commitment to the German spirit”, and that German campuses be “a stronghold of the German Folk tradition and a battleground reflecting the power of the German mind”.

To quote Wikipedia: “On 10 May 1933, in an act of ominous significance, the students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books, thereby presaging an era of uncompromising state censorship. In many university towns, nationalist students marched in torch-lit parades against the ‘un-German’ spirit. The scripted rituals of this night called for high Nazi officials, professors, rectors, and student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged, banned books into the bonfires with a great joyous ceremony that included live music, singing, ‘fire oaths’ and incantations. 

“In Berlin, some 40,000 people gathered in the square of the State Opera to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: ‘No to decadence and moral corruption!’ Goebbels enjoined the crowd. ‘Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glasser, Erich Kästner’.” And of many others.

“The future German man will not just be a man of books,” [Herr Goebbels continued], “but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of this young generation. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed – a deed which should document the following for the world to know – Here the intellectual foundation of the November Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.” Ja. Herr Goebbels. Stirring, no? No Mein Kampf in that pile of ash, for sure.

There would have been no point telling him that a book is a work of creative art. Just as a painting is. Or that burning a painting is arguably even worse – because a book is usually one of many volumes, yet a painting is almost invariably one of a kind, and irreplaceable.

Is this the point at which to ask whether we in our time and country should not be concerned at any attitudes that favour the destruction of art, or books, or the censorship of anything cultural that perhaps does not align with our individual beliefs? Should we be fearful of a society that might condone such actions? Of young voices who now disrespect art one day being in authority and having far greater power to destroy it?

There is a monument to the German students’ burning of books. It is in Hesse, Germany, on Orpenplatz, a square in front of the city hall. But the desecration of literature was not confined to that city or even that date. Rain delayed some of the planned bonfires but ultimately the student body facilitated heated destruction in 34 university towns, turning to cinders the works of (as per Wikipedia):

  • “Traitors, emigrants and authors from foreign countries who believe they can attack and denigrate the new Germany (HG Wells, Rolland); 
  • The literature of Marxism, communism and Bolshevism; pacifist literature; literature with liberal, democratic tendencies and attitudes, and writings supporting the Weimar Republic (Rathenau, Heinrich Mann); 
  • All historical writings whose purpose is to denigrate the origin, the spirit and the culture of the German Volk, or to dissolve the racial and structural order of the Volk, or that denies the force and importance of leading historical figures in favour of egalitarianism and the masses, and which seeks to drag them through the mud (Emil Ludwig); 
  • Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism (Hackel, Benedict); 
  • Books that advocate ‘art’ which is decadent, bloodless, or purely constructivist (Grosz, Dix, Bauhaus, Mendelsohn); 
  • Writings on sexuality and sexual education which serve the egocentric pleasure of the individual and thus, completely destroy the principles of race and Volk (Hirschfeld); 
  • The decadent, destructive and Volk-damaging writings of ‘Asphalt and Civilisation’ literati: (Graf, H. Mann, Stefan Zweig, Wassermann, Franz Blei); 
  • Literature by Jewish authors, regardless of the field;
  • Popular entertainment literature that depicts life and life’s goals in a superficial, unrealistic and sickly sweet manner, based on a bourgeois or upper class view of life;
  • Nationalistic and patriotic kitsch in literature;
  • Pornography and explicit literature by Jewish authors.
  • All books degrading German purity.

The blind writer Hellen Keller wrote an open letter to German students: 

“You may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on.”

The authors whose works were destroyed by Weimar students included Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Karl Marx, Victor Hugo, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, DH Lawrence, HG Wells, Aldous Huxley (lovely irony there), James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Upton Sinclair. There were persecuted German authors who later ended up in concentration camps. Others committed suicide.

In Cape Town not too long ago, the works that were destroyed included five by Keresemose Richard Baholo, described by GroundUp as the first Black student to receive a master’s degree in fine art at UCT. Associate Professor Fritha Langerman, Director of the Michaelis School of Fine Art, called the destruction of five Baholo works “particularly tragic” because the paintings, produced during 1993, “are part of a valuable archive of a period in our collective histories, and have been used in several courses to teach about ways in which the past is signified in the present. It is ironic that these works that celebrated academic freedom should have met such a fate,” she told GroundUp.

The best way to understand a nation, whether its history, its foibles or merely its idiosyncrasies, is by visiting its galleries and museums, watching its homegrown movies, seeing the plays of its creative minds. To listen to the voices that have told the story of a country or a city. Baholo’s voice, his take on the South African struggle narrative and its aftermath, is now silenced, at least the part of his repertoire which was among those burnt at UCT. No artist will ever repeat his original work. Once it’s gone, it never will return. That legacy is lost to our children and grandchildren.

Does this mean that any artworks by less noble artists do deserve destruction? Here’s a paradox. Leni Riefenstahl was one of the most effective propagandists for the Nazi regime, in films and photography. Yet her work was utterly beautiful when judged in artistic terms. So what do you do with it? Burn it? Or let it remain as a record of what the Nazis did, what they were like, how they behaved and what we detest and fear about them? Lest we never do it again ourselves?

Photo: Cover of Leni Riefenstahl’s book The Last of Nuba

Does the art ultimately transcend the prejudice of its creator to become an unlikely, and unintended, purveyor not of what the artist intended to purvey but an indictment of the thing that the propaganda has promoted? We have Holocaust museums; Riefenstahl created Nazi art but moved on to other subject matter. Would an exhibition of her photographs of naked Nubians taken during the 1960s and ’70s when she was living among them in Sudan be ill-advised? If they were to be destroyed, the world would lose the most fabulous and possibly the sole visual record of this intriguing community.

Then there are her films of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Das Blaue Licht (1932, recut 20 years later with sound) in which she starred herself with a cast that included the presciently-named Beni Führer. Triumph of the Will (1935) is pure Nazi propaganda, yet it gives us, for posterity, the best-known and most frightening footage of Hitler doing his work. Are we not better informed by knowing what we’re up against – like the inextinguishable images of the planes going into the Word Trade Center on 9/11? If we did not have Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, would Hitler be quite the bogeyman he remains today, and will continue to be for generations as long as Riefenstahl’s footage survives for future humans to be chilled by – or inspired by? There’s the double-edged rub.

For every billion or so art lovers there needs be only one who would take that work of art and trash it. If that represents power, it may be the most selfish kind and bring to mind a Kim Jong-un, with his willingness to rule and kill anyone who does not follow his family line. And the ways of destroying art are many. Some methods, like the sticking of a piece of chewing gum to an oil painting in an Amsterdam gallery or scratching a line on an Impressionist work in Paris, seem relatively innocuous, but the skill and cost involved in restoring it is massive. Not to mention the fact that, once tampered with, the work is never the same again.

In May 1945, 14 precious works by the Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, including his Garden Path with Chickens and Farm Garden with Crucifix, were burnt by retreating German SS forces. How brave is the frightened man with a gun… The Nazis were very down on works of surrealism and cubism, on works regarded as degenerate, and of course on any art made by Jews. Hitler’s own watercolours, mostly pastoral scenes or examples of grand architecture, largely survived his war, and occasionally crop up at auctions to be sold for far more money than he made from them during the years he painted them, between 1908 and 1913 (dubbed his “Vienna period”, which must be darkly amusing for liberal Austrians).

In our own time, works of art were collateral damage in the World Trade Center attacks. They included a tapestry by Joan Miró and a Roy Lichtenstein painting. If that was incidental, Islamic State (Isis) showed tremendous purpose in sending bulldozers to level the ancient city of Hatra and shortly thereafter, Nimrud, in March 2015, laying waste to precious antiquities in the Mosul Museum and many others, in what Unesco called an act of barbarism showing the contempt in which Isis holds “the history and heritage of Arab people”. At Nimrud a ninth century BC palace was laid waste, while targeting pre-Islamic heritage.

Driven by a perceived godly call to decimate the supposed idols of the supposedly ungodly, the fundamentalist with fire in his heart can cause great damage to artefacts that have survived for thousands of years. But even one solitary person operating with rogue intent can, like a Mark Chapman having it in for John Lennon, commit a single act that changes cultural history.

Random vandalism sees acid flung at paintings, a knife taken to a watercolour, a hammer thundering onto a canvass. In August 1911, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, now arguably the world’s most famous painting, was stolen from the Louvre in Paris by an itinerant gallery employee who had removed it from its frame and casually walked out with it. Two years later he was arrested while trying to dispose of it in Florence. The man, Vincenzo Peruggia, had thought Napoleon had stolen the Mona Lisa and that he would be rewarded for its return. Ironically, Peruggia had done the art world a favour: the ruckus surrounding the theft had helped turn the painting into the phenomenon it became.

The Mona Lisa suffered an acid attack in 1956 and was hit by a rock later the same year. Bullet-proof glass has protected it from more recent attacks such as the spraying of red paint at it during a Tokyo exhibition in 1974 and the hurling of a teacup at it in 2009 (by a Russian woman who had been denied French citizenship). Petulance is not kind to art and even a painting as iconic as the Mona Lisa, thanks in particular to the 1956 rock incident, has had to undergo restoration work which makes it no longer precisely as it was at the painter’s hand.

Rembrandt’s magnificent The Night Watch has survived since 1642 despite the odds. It was attacked with a shoemaker’s knife in 1911, slashed with a bread knife in 1975, and in 1990 – only a year after I had seen the painting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – was sprayed with acid. The Night Watch, more so than the Mona Lisa, bears visible evidence of the knife  damage, although the effect of the later acid attack has been overcome during restoration.

Brett Murray’s The Spear was daubed with black paint in 2012 at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, covering the exposed genitals of a Jacob Zuma in a Lenin pose, prompting legal action by an ANC led by a man who we know, now, doesn’t think much of the law when it gets in his way, but finds it useful when his manhood is made fun of. Priorities, priorities.

Screw the politicians, let’s hear it for the creators of fine things. The talent to write, or to paint, to sing or to orate, is given to few. They are the scribes, the sculptors, the orators, often the proclaimers of what is good and especially of what is bad and to be opposed and exposed. The ANC, the party of liberation, by challenging Murray’s work, stood shoulder to shoulder with the loathed National Party when faced with creative works that it did not agree with. The Nats liked to ban everything. Books, art, movies, songs, whether for political or religious reasons or, as they liked to say, to prevent the morals of the youth being “depraved”.

Are we not more depraved when we are denied the art that enlightens us, our morality skewed by lack of knowledge, affecting our reasoning and judgement, even our world outlook? Our society, a society searching for the salvation that comes with ultimate freedom, should be guarding creative works, not destroying them. 

The dreaded alternative is a dystopian world in which the creative arts no longer exist, stultifying thought, nullifying freedom. A dank world of grey walls where the art once was displayed, silent screens where once life was imitated and challenged in moving pictures, hollow stages where pantomime and mystery were once portrayed; a world where draconian souls in disturbing uniforms point their weapons at those who will not comply. A world of Kim Jong-uns, Adolph Hitlers, Pol Pots and Big Brothers with eyes on your every secret.

Yet for all of the vandalism over the centuries, the most surprising destroyers of art are sometimes the artists themselves. When they’re depressed. When the muse has gone into hiding. Or when they just couldn’t be bothered. “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction,” said Picasso.

But Heinrich Heine, whose work was to be burned by the German students in the Weimar Republic of the 1930s, had written more than a century earlier in his 1821 play Almansor: “Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”

If we respect our personal beliefs more than we do the art that runs counter to them, what respect can we have for the lives or museums of those who disagree with us? Maybe we should ask Isis. Or Hitler. DM

Tony Jackman is an arts and culture journalist, playwright, and Chief Sub-Editor of Daily Maverick.

Photo: Students burn art belonging to UCT. Photo: Ashleigh Furlong / GroundUp

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