December 3, 2008
What is art good for?
The planet's on the verge of destruction, entire nations are starving to oblivion, man's cruelty to man has reached new heights, and yet we persist -- writers and musicians and painters and sculptors -- telling stories in one form or another when we all know they've all been told before, that nothing we could invent would rival the truth in its enormity and outrageousness, that on any given day there are bigger, more urgent tasks at hand.
What is the wisdom, I ask myself every day, of working so hard (and we do work hard) to offer the world something it has not asked for and probably doesn't want?
It is true that I write because I can't help it, that every artist is compelled by a wanting that is more forceful, more insistent, than good old common sense. But it is also true that I wake up every day to the same question that haunted me the day before: to what end?
Years ago, on a perfect spring afternoon in Los Angeles, I had occasion to sit next to a very elegant, very quiet gentleman at a luncheon on an outdoor patio. He was introduced to me by one of his fawning, breathless fans as "Jack Boul, a great artist, exceptional, really, though he doesn't like to talk about it, he lives in Maryland, he's had a retrospective at the Corcoran, and would you believe that Paul Richard, dean of the capital's art critics and longtime critic for The Washington Post, said his work 'delivers to the brain bracing little jolts of a strong emotion sensed seldom in contemporary art.' Can you imagine? Sensed seldom in contemporary art?"
Graciously, if a bit embarrassed, or so it seemed to me, Boul shook my hand, then looked away. For the rest of the afternoon, he listened politely to the conversation but spoke little, giving the impression that he was thinking of other, more significant matters; that he was looking through his surroundings at deeper, more remarkable places. Just when I thought he had had enough of the shallow, West Coast -- it's all about me and my social ambitions -- talk that is the hallmark of all such luncheons, I heard the click of a camera and turned to see that Boul was taking pictures -- of me, of all people -- just shooting away without a word until, satisfied with what he had captured, he put the camera down without an explanation.
"He likes to study things," the fan volunteered. "The walls in his studio are covered with photographs."
Weeks later I would receive a picture of myself in the mail: I'm sitting under a tree with very green leaves; it's a bad hair day, and I have no makeup on, and I'm wearing something dark and simple, which makes me look even more washed up, and yet, this is the best picture of myself I've ever seen. It's more real, more familiar, more I know this person than any image I could find, even in a mirror. I put the picture in a frame directly outside my office.
Is this, I wonder every time I go into and out of the office, what art is for? To capture the truth of a person or a thing? To tell that truth in unexpected ways to people who expect it least?
This month, the Museum of the Holocaust in Los Angeles will feature 17 monotypes by Boul. Titled, "Responses of the Innocent: American Jewish Artists and the Holocaust," the exhibition also includes works by two other artists, Lee Silton and Rifka Angel, and will run from Dec. 14 to Feb. 27.
Boul's monotypes are of dark, shadowy figures that linger in the memory long after they've been viewed. Eric Denker, senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art, wrote about them in his book, "Intimate Impressions": "While the subject of the set is the nightmare of the Holocaust, the more universal content examines man's inhumanity to man."
Is this, I ask myself as I sit down to search again for the right words, the right voice with which to tell a story, the purpose of art? To study the nature of man, understand its failings, expose its vices?
Boul was 19 years old, the son of a Russian émigré father and a Romanian mother, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1946. He was born in Brooklyn, had grown up in the South Bronx. When the Army called, he was studying at the American Artist's School in New York. But the Army sent him to Europe, to a prisoner of war camp outside Pisa, Italy, where he served as a sergeant in the Army Corps of Engineers.
"I remember showing German prisoners of war pictures of the liberated concentration camps," he says of his time in Italy. "They refused to believe the pictures. 'You have your propaganda, and we have ours.'"
Back in the United States after the war, he finished art school, became a highly successful painter and printmaker. He taught art at the American University in Washington and later at the new Washington Studio School. He painted landscapes, urban sites, the human figure in its many forms and manifestations.
Mostly, he sought to reveal the core of his subjects, to overcome the physical details that set one apart from another and arrive instead at their collective truth. In 1987, many shows and exhibits and years of teaching behind him, he went to see a film, "Shoah," and remembered the German soldiers at the prisoner of war camp. Forty years had passed since he heard the soldiers deny the Holocaust.
"I was very moved," he says of the film. "It showed the cattle cars that transported people to the concentration camps, the furnaces where people were cremated and the fields where the ashes were scattered. It never showed the victims. I remembered the photographs I had seen in Italy 40 years earlier and decided to look for other photos of the camps."
In the U.S. Archives in Washington, he found hundreds of photographs from different concentration camps.
"I looked at the photos for days and made drawings. In my studio, I made these monotypes from the drawings. I wanted to make something that would help to keep that memory alive."
The result was the 17 monotypes that will be on view at the Holocaust Museum. This is only the second time (the first was at the Corcoran) that Boul has allowed the collection to be shown, and it's due in no small part to the efforts of Mark Rothman, the museum's executive director, who has made every attempt to craft an exhibition that stays true to the intent of the artist and the merit of the art.
Perhaps, then, this is what art is good for: to bear witness to the truth, no matter how often it is denied? To remind those of us who want to forget? To tell a story -- yes, a story that has been told a thousand times before -- one more time, to one more person.
"Responses of the Innocents: American Jewish Artists and the Holocaust," Jack Boul, Rifka Angel, Lee Silton," runs Dec. 14 to Feb. 27 at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 651-3708. http://www.lamoth.org.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is "Caspian Rain" (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.