Kein Volk Traegt Uns
Heinz Henghes 1959

In May of this year the Listener published the most amazing statement concerning the condition of art and society which I think I have ever read, Sir Herbert Read, in an article entitled "Aspirations in Perspective," stated, after a preamble dealing with the good old days, his belief that society is now utterly materialist, interested solely in bread and the circus, and that art "will survive as it did in the dark ages, in small circles, among the elite," To quote that paragraph in full.... "Art will survive... etc.. But for art to become socially significant again, which is to say, for art to recover its greatness, great social changes must first take place, Mankind will perhaps grow tired of its playthings and cast them aside; universal boredom will lead to universal despair, and art will be renewed when life itself has been renewed." The preamble to this conclusion deals with the aspirations of the pre and inter-war periods, from 1911 onward, which, it seems, failed or were not realised.

Sir Herbert Read is the doyen in England of those arbiters of taste whose influence is almost mystical. He has done more than any other single man I know of to sustain and further the present predilection for abstract art, and his judgment has seemed, even to those among us who differed with it, to be based on a conscious belief that the form of art he mainly defends is representative of our age and society. The apocalyptic note he now sounds implies of course that he has defended a form of art activity created for an "elite", and which is, even at that, not art in the absolute sense of the word, but something less than great art, something which exists faute de mieux.

"The people of the Welfare State are not interested in Art. Art is highbrow, art is phoney, art is a challenge to feeling and understanding which they resent..." says Sir Herbert Read. But who and what exactly are - the people? Are they the millions who pay their shilling to visit the great exhibitions of modern art at the Tate Gallery? The Picasso exhibition at the V&A? The yearly Open Air Sculpture Exhibitions in various countries? The changing shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in Paris, in Sao Paolo or in Milan? It seems to me that there has never been so much popular interest in contemporary art as now, - nor has that interest ever before been so widespread through so many social strata.

Interest.... certainly the word might be defined as past of the Roman phrase- bread and the circus,- the circus part, and by implication the people who visit art shows are thus accused of lacking understanding. But at what period in history has the mass of people ever understood in the rarefied and absolute sense of Sir Herbert Read? All understanding is in the end personal, and each man is an island unto himself. Even words are only conventions by which we approximate personal meaning and convey it more or less, but never precisely, because we have no absolute means of communication between us.

In 1924 Paul Klee concluded a lecture at Jena with the phrase.. "Kein Volk tragt uns", -no people carries us,- or - in other words, the people are not with us. (Also quoted by H.R.) Fine words, but I ask again, - who are the people? The intellectual, or even the moral elite, the people who go to art exhibitions, those masses who, driven by the misery of their moral circumstances and by the atavistic memory of generations of fear sense themselves compelled to think of welfare, - according to the modern, social idiom, before they can begin to develop a whole mind and senses to think of love and art?

The whole premise implied by the designation, -"the people," is in itself false. Somehow, in our allegedly democratic age, the term- society- has become shifted to the more amorphous and sentimental and politically exploitable term- the people. In fact, the real business of art has never been exclusively with the people nor even with society only. When art is valid, valid in a sense that goes beyond contemporarily amusing, its primary concern is with man, or, if you prefer, - with humanity. Society, in that hierarchy, is a phase of man, and people are the component members of that phase. The artist draws from his own age and society its prevailing concerns and aspirations and tries to phrase, or let us say, - to crystallise them. His statement is valid if his interpretation of that climate is sensitive enough and if it is tied to an immutable sense of time,- is tied, in other words, - to a sense of the continuity and of the inevitability of life. If his own society appears to be futile and lost, the end of an age, an era or a civilisation, (which is certainly not the case of our present day society,) he will still draw, even from that fading society, a sense of its hopes and fears, and if he can tie these to the stream of the deathlessness of life, his work will be valid when the social conditions of his own age are long forgotten.

Those intellectuals who lament the uncertainties and the vulgarities of our time ask for a Welfare State of their own. They ask for a Golden Age in which their own sense of purpose is officially and visibly guaranteed to them here and now. They have simply lost sight of the deathlessness of human life on earth.

My own work is figurative,- (a word meaning all that is not wholly abstract.) The reason for which I have kept it so, that is, - have kept it, although non-realistic, based on either human form or humanistic symbolism, is that I consider that art is made by man for man. By man for man does not mean that it must at all costs be immediately intelligible to all and sundry, nor even to a majority, anymore than, for example, the Quantum Theory is intelligible to anyone who, like myself, has not bothered much about understanding it. It means that the terms it employs are based on anthropomorphic values which seem to me to be eternal in man,- on values and senses which,- if they are not "eternal," are certainly unchanging for as long as evolution itself has not created some totally different mind.

Aesthetics may change, but aesthetics are a super-structure whose ultimate validity depends entirely on their eventual integration with these human values, and senses. The exercise of aesthetics in vacuum is ultimately vapid and will always be discarded sooner or later as experimental failure if these aesthetic experiments fail to integrate somewhere along the line with the sense of man.

An apparently valid counter-theory to this idea is the notion that contemporary art has no business to concern itself with any moment in time but its own. Statements whose interests rest solely on the social need of the present are said, by this idea, to be valid since that mood reflects on our own moment in history and since our concern is and should be for our own time only. Bad quality paint, impermanent materials used for sculpture etc.. become acceptable by this reasoning. (I need not here draw an analogy between this use of art and materials and that part of modern architecture which is deliberately impermanent due to notions concerning future urbanism or social conditions.) This theory cannot be logically discussed because it is based on a form of social philosophy, and philosophy, being an art which is similar to poetry, can, for a time, create its own conditions if one chooses to follow its precepts. One can only deny it categorically. It is false because it tries to ignore the biological factor which is that it is simply not true that we live in or for our own time only.

In architecture the urbanism of the future would simply take another form if our buildings were made "for all eternity..." The solid cathedrals of Milan have not prevented skyscrapers from rising by their sides, once the odious mentality which wishes to preserve not only an old building or object, which may well merit preservation, but clings forever even to its setting, disappeared in Italy under the pressure of today. In painting, architecture and sculpture, in poetry and in music, it is most certainly our business to work with a sense of time, endless time, - since only that attitude of mind can hope to open means to valid statements in us.

The bulk of the 2 or 300 statues which are scattered about the world for whose existence I am responsible are carved in stone. More than 3/4 of them are marble carvings. Whenever I meet a nice, rough block of stone lying around somewhere something happens inside my head. I want to shape it, change its form, hack it about, give it volume and organisation and, if I can possibly do so, I carry it away to my studio and I gloat over it until the day comes when I attack it with clubhammer and chisel. I began stonecarving thanks to the kindness of Ezra Pound who gave me my first opportunity to own a block of marble. A great glittering mass of white crystals he bought me in Rapallo. When I stood in front of it I knew that I had found my medium. I have never been able to change it since, nor do I wish to. The only instructions I ever had in stone-carving were given to me by an Italian marble mason named Perugi, an old man, thin and gnome like in whose yard I confronted my first block of marble for the first time and where I worked on it. Perugi's English consisted of one internationally known word only, and that word is unhappily inapplicable to sculpture. My Italian was fragmentary and comprehensible only to myself. Perugi's instructions to me were to thrust a 3lb hammer and a chisel into my hand and say--- "Hit it."... with appropriate gestures. Hit it I did, driven by my fear of Ezra Pound and encouraged by occasional shouts of "Forza, Smithele," from Perugi who kept an eye on me from the shady door of his shed. "Smithele,-" because Perugi thought that all English speaking people must be named Smith. Since that day I have worked my way through a sizeable chunk of the hills of Carrara and Perugi's encouraging cry of "Forza,-" still serves me as a motto when I am inclined to laziness. It has seen me through many a moment when I wondered why I did not stick to poetry, (preferably of the - underneath the bough and jug of wine - kind, - for stonecarving is hard work and marble is hell on wheels compared to other stones because it combines hardness with great sensitivity, - it "bruises" when hit too hard but it requires hitting hard enough.

Of course, I do not only use marble, nor do I exclusively carve. The concept of a sculpture dictates the material it must be made of. Stone allows different shapes than marble and there are forms which neither can reasonably be made to take. These must be modelled. But these basic, purely physical tenets apart, I consider that the sculptor must shape his material and must use the natural qualities of that material only to the point where these qualities do not compromise his concept. To what we have to say the material must fully contribute, but it must not predominate and swamp the idea. Aesthetic meanderings in texture or in the sensual qualities of materials for their own sake seem epicene to me since I insist on clarity of concept and insist that every millimetre of a statue contributes to the clear expression of that concept. The material must serve the concept, - not vice versa.

Concept is one of those words which sound to most people as though it derives from an act of the intellect. (In that context I suppose that - inspiration, - would be a brainstorm.) In fact, how mind and senses operate in the way a statue is formed is happily impossible to describe in words. A clear concept, in the sense in which I use the term, means simply that I start to work when the statue is, form theme and all, finished in my head, although, in the process of the work, the form will generally depart, but not in essentials, from that original vision.

I have come by such visions of a work to be as often through the bottom of a wineglass or in some sordid city corner, as in nature or in a mystic moment. Probably the process is subconscious. It works itself out with mind and senses involved separately and together and, either natural maturity of the idea or some last, casual accidental moment precipitates the whole. I don't think one should worry about that. I think one should worry about keeping oneself alive, continually sensitive to all life around us and avid for all that our minds and eyes can grasp. A hard enough job that, - some days... and other days it comes easy and flows along all by itself.