The pair of stunning shows at the Zeitz MOCAA Museum, and the Norval Foundation, Cape Town, world class exhibitions devoted to the protean work of William Kentridge raise any number of questions about visual art in relation to politics, South Africa, the Russian avant- gardes and the brutality of European colonialism and world wars. Certainly, the forces of colonialist and Apartheid violence, Truth and Reconciliation, the brutality of labor, the politics of Europe and Africa, are everywhere acknowledged in his work. His work is about politics, and about history, and about the role of history and the tremors of past violence in human memory. It raises moral questions about remembrance and its duties, about culpability, about acknowledgment of others.
But in an important sense it is I believe wrong to frame Kentridge's art around the question of politics, although colonialist and Apartheid violence, Truth and Reconciliation, and the brutality of labor, the great political forces of the twentieth century are everywhere in his work, nearly omnipresent.
Great art is always philosophical in that it raises deep questions about art in relation to such matters, causing one to reflect on the matter of whether and how this art (or other art) might or might not for example make a political statement, inspire solidarity or effect political agency, aim, as the European avant-gardes did and where in many ways Kentridge lives, to raise consciousness in a way that produces a politically driven subject. I think in an important sense it is wrong however to frame Kentridge's art around the question of politics. Or incomplete in a way that diminishes the power of the art, as if his artistic voice were meant to be the efficient cause of some political statement or policy or action, as if its goal were to be some kind of propositional assertion or even weapon. Rather politics and history, time and memory are the materials from which he composes great art. The politics are there, sometimes strikingly so, as in his multi-media theatre piece Ubu and the Truth Commission of 1997, created during and about the tumultuous events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the moment of transition to South African transition to democracy, and speaking of the violence endemic to the South African past. But the purpose of this work is not simply to address politics. It is rather to respond to the intensities of the time in a way that creates something powerful and profound from them, to coax these events into form and medium, visual geometry, line and character, duration and plot, so as to produce a work of art that at once contains and vivifies the intensities of politics and history, and vivifies their poignancy, taking the audience on a journey of deep rumination. This is the world of Shakespeare: where the failures of kingship and the overthrow of the crown, the problems of ruler and servant, the anxieties of living in a religiously conflicted and nationally fragile state are transposed to the stage, where they may at once find an aesthetic form that transcends them, thanks to composition and prose, declamation and dramatic resolve, but only to deepen their nagging reality for us.
The problems of life are not overcome in art but given room to be thought. Art is in this way a form of thinking, one which can and usually should stay away from propositional declamation and rather vivify the question of life, its existential predicament, in a way that is unresolved. This is what rumination is: the kind of thought that is not organized around an endpoint, a successful argument, a logical deduction, a clearly stated proposition, but rather reviews the world from a number of angles, shifting in mood from hope to guilt, despair to resolve, resolve to comedy, comedy to the joy of making things up. Rumination is a kind of permanent state of skepticism. Kentridge's art is this kind of thinking. It is not art that seeks to "make a statement" as the great aesthetician Arthur Danto would have had it. Rather it is full of one-liners which come and go in the manner of sound bites, propaganda posters, moral adages, homilies, ideological prompts, remarks from the history of assertion (meaning of politics), none adequate to the journey betwixt and between them that his art makes. Often layered against multiple images in the frame, they serve as part of a larger form of presentation in which they are subjected to reflection. You want propositions, the work asks, well there have been too many such certainties and look what they have wrought in the world. Let us rather be wrong for once, or uncertain, the proper existential condition. (That is as close to a statement as you will get in Kentridge).
Beginning from history and politics, the events of South African and European trauma and power, but also from the history of ideas, Kentridge subjects these materials to reflection, the slow and deep process of rumination on the intensities through which he has lived, the footprint of his time, and that of his parents and grandparents, a footprint reaching across the history of racial capitalism, of colonialism, law and Apartheid, of Jewish immigration to South Africa and its various forms of life and remembrance, of the great themes of the 1920s and 1930s--fascism, communism, the shredding of democracy, impoverishment, collapse, violence, of guilt, pain, of degradation and the spirit of endurance, of the crippling and exuberance of living a life and empathizing the lives of others. Rumination usually finds its home in the past, even if it is motivated to understand what should happen next, and in a past which cannot easily be worked through or reconciled, but remains uncertain: a question, a nag, a form of regret and even horror. Where there is uncertainty there is anxiety. "His anxiety flooded half the house" the intertitle of his first film in the Soho series, Johannesburg, Second City After Paris, says Soho's rival Felix Teitelbaum, pining for his lover, Soho's wife: and Felix is modeled on Kentridge himself. The poetry of moods is that of rueful, guilt-ridden, mourning, but also joyous identification with past love and the memory of being young, silent film comedy and political parody. The future perfect tense often appears, in the form of machines which bespeak modernity reeling towards its future while being treated as auratic, old, ruined, quaint, and lovely. (En passant, if there is anything Jewish about Kentridge's work it is the tendency towards deep and unresolved rumination, although Jews are not the only people in the world to ruminate, as one can easily see from Rembrandt's famous image of Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer.)
It was the avant-gardes who turned art into an activity of constant innovation informed by ideas, and who began to compose visual works that were not only sublime, but forms of processive thinking. Their interests were in biology, cognitive perception, the construction of a new world on higher (more scientific) principles, the relation between aesthetics and ideas, the way history might be shaped by the thinking mind, deduced from historical propositions and unfolded in the course of events. This side of the avant-gardes (The Bauhaus, Constructivism, Le Corbusier) aimed for historical certainty, at least in part. That is not Kentridge's side. For their other side aimed for uncertainty of the kind that liberates the human being from habits of attention and perception, from institutional commitments and from the social systems of modernity. This is where Kentridge lives. He no longer believes his work will change the world in the manner of Constructivism, created in the wake of the Russian revolution and meant as its conduit. That went out after the Second World War. Rather he believes that the vast tapestry or tableaux of history, its great theatrical panoply, when presented in the manner of theatre or re- framed as memory, is the revisiting of tumult and fragment in the manner of a question rather than an answer, an invitation to thought rather than an endpoint in knowledge or worse, the illusion of mastery.
And this is the real point. When art thinks, it does so apart from propositional content, logical argument, deductive reasoning, dialectical synthesis. Or should largely do. An art that in its essence asserts, argues, deduces is philosophy, law, history, or even perhaps science masquerading as art. This would be the price of pushing the medium beyond its proper limits. Which can be interesting sometimes, even important, but cannot be the norm of art-making on pain of dissolving the difference between visual art and philosophy, to the point where one might as well read the book and dispense with the visual object. Visual art properly thinks from the inner, instinctive mind whose talent is to find ways of framing its inner, largely unconscious or intuitive thoughts in ways that allow them to appear. It works through training, and through intuition, like a writer composing a work of fiction. Ideas obviously enter, but the work is not the elaboration of an idea. (Kentridge's ideas include such things as the critique of epistemological certainty, the belief you are absolutely right in relation to colonial practice and the making of war.)
Here again Kentridge's sources are in the 1920s, which is in many ways where he lives as an artist. Think of the painting and drawing of Paul Klee, which is more musical in its line than strictly characterizing or delineating, and whose line and color takes one on a journey around figures and scenes, encircling them, exaggerating them in a way that is comical, thoughtful, strange, beautiful, disturbing, and unresolved. Klee's poetry is that of whimsy and wonder, his tonality obscure. He makes life seem peculiar, calling forth its existential nature in the form of thoughts found deep in the mind, of the kind Freud called archaic or childlike. Klee paints the world like an adult but also a child. Freud's idea, which can be easily separated from his psychoanalytic explanations, is that the artist retains an early childhood capacity to know the world through drawing it, to discovery it by finding it in the medium of color and shape, to play at the world in a way that excites the mental capacity for re-thinking, re-vision, re- formulation in a way that is humane, poetic and deeply felt. His or her genius consists in the ability to access and call forth feelings, desires, hopes, attachments with the resonance of the archaic, the emotional language of overwhelming feeling, and the subtlety of a brilliant observer. Genius is the ability to give these shape or form.
Call it play. And play is a form of thinking, one that is not deductive or logical or written in the form of an argument for or against, but instinctive, abrupt, juxtaposing, full of shifts in mood or language and of ambivalence, deeply felt and deeply poetic--although ideas may be involved. This is I think why he loves early silent film, because it was early to invention, and incomplete in its capacity to invent. Everything was new then, and magical, film in its childhood, its thinking was strange, funny, sad, its plots simple, its invention magical. (His most direct homage to early silent film is his take-off on Journey to the Moon by Georges Melies: Seven Fragments for Melies, 2003).
Of the many kinds of drawing there are three kinds of relevance to the work of Kentridge. One, from the Renaissance, delimits, shapes, frames in architectural space story and character, depicts. One might say very loosely that it is propositional, more strictly that it is iconographic. The second takes one on a journey in the manner of cinematic line. This is what Klee is about. His line is music. And third, drawing seeks to bring something into existence, as if by drawing it one can make it live. Here is the child's world: that of magic. Here is the Pygmalion fantasy. It is Kentridge's world in perhaps his most poignant film, Felix in Exile of 1994. Felix is separated from his black lover, and in the days of Apartheid miscegenation was a crime. Alone in what seems to be a prison cell but isn't, since he has a mimeograph machine, which in the old days is what one used to print political pamphlets by cranking a drum round and round, he draws her shape and it magically appears before him (whether in fact or in memory is left obscure). They spy each other through a long spyglass, out of his window, also drawn into existence.
Drawing is the act which brings her close to Felix, a fantasy of her presence literally drawn into existence. The unconscious does not recognize, Freud said, the gap between wanting a thing and having it. This kind of drawing satisfies that deep unconscious desire. In Felix in Exile, this kind of drawing is the work of longing, of desire, and of magical fulfillment, a fulfillment which will turn rancid as she is brutally shot, and abandoned to the empty liminality of the Veldt, to be covered by stray newspapers blowing aimlessly in the wind.
Kentridge lives in the tension between these three forms of drawing, perpetually unresolved. This is the tension between trauma, memory, fact, representation, knowledge, desire and the magic of the unconscious to erase time and distance. It is pretty much how I think I live in this world, and perhaps also others do. Art in this way is an icon of (my) life. Which is, I have to say, the life of a highly ruminative philosopher.
And so, in a deep sense it is the wrong kind of question to ask: Is this work political? Does it motivate agency, make a statement, generate solidarity etc.? Is it a weapon? Rather the question should be: What does the work make of politics? Meaning create from politics? How is the aesthetic created from the tumultuous materials of history, politics, and family? Politics is in Kentridge's work, along with the rest, the substance from which his aesthetic is formed.
Daniel Herwitz is Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of Comparative Literature, Philosophy and History of Art at the University of Michigan