The Art of Elias Friedensohn

His Writings

My Lovely Impassioned Students, 1972-73

Excerpted by Doris Friedensohn from an essay published in connections, 2: Toward a Vision of Education as Transformative Action, spring 1974. Republished in Lost Orchard: Prose and Poetry from the Kirkland College Community, edited by Jo Pitkin, SUNY Press, 2014.

Since the late sixties students have poured into art departments in such extraordinary numbers that an area once considered marginal has burgeoned into an empire. Some of these are my lovely students. They are, many of them, more impassioned, better students than those in the sixties. In demanding that the arts be an established part of their curriculum and their lives as well, students have understood something about the potential of art.

Our students have experienced since infancy the instantaneous, simultaneous communication generated by the mass media: that rape and bombardment, that blurring of the real and unreal, the like and unlike. They are no longer constipated by the conventions of puritanical literary and intellectual values that for so long have dominated other senses. However, their backs are up against the technological wall. They smell death in the passivity that technology enforces. Will they find a way to use it and dominate it? Will they evade it? Or will they become, like the machine, beautifully, seductively soulless? Their reaction is action. It is, curiously enough, something like ceramics—ancient and of the hand—or a dance—ancient and of the body—that does not lie to them.

Political and social theorists have yet to acknowledge the possibility that cultural forces create the seedbed of change. It is in this arena that discontent, despair, disgust, awareness and anger, joy and celebration are first made manifest. Inevitably, as a crisis grows, artists face the hue and cry of the self-appointed firing squad: “Social utility or die.”

The firing squad (which can include artists) recognizes that the arts, in their best and truest form, are inevitably the enemy: they are as much the enemy of the ideals of liberal/radical change as they are the support of authoritarian systems. While political critique may be an important part of an artist’s work—and a source of strength—it is, nevertheless, not central. The moment such concerns are imposed from without, art begins to die.

Art does not change the world in any immediate sense. But it does create the climate that makes change possible. It does keep alive “impermissible” possibilities by embodying them in a form that is the condition of that experience. It makes that experience believable by evoking an alternative world. The possibilities that art envisions are not necessarily “good” but rather reminders of the full range of being. Recognition is not permission. It is, rather, an acknowledgement of wholeness and balance. It may be that art continuously attempts to address the psychic imbalances of individuals within a given culture.

What so many of our students want is the chance to be generative. They want to move as actors and creators. Poetry, painting, photography and the guitar are closer to them than the rest of our baggage at this moment. These are roads to the quiet center from which structures emerge honestly. It is from creative gestures that critical acumen will grow. From there students will move to writing and reading. The language of the senses is an enormously significant form of intelligence and understanding. For many students it has become the creative thrust and the primary form of inquiry. It is, for many, the new spiritual center.

We live in a time of painful transition and flux, in a state of heightened anxiety. We live among people who feel threatened; their cherished values and interests, their life’s work and commitment are under attack. Let us then admit our anxieties and acknowledge those of our students – particularly since anxiety is one of the necessary components of intelligence and sensitivity. Students speak of being spaced out, hung up, and freaked out. They need to get their heads together. These phrases refer to their anxiety (and ours) in a world that seems to be coming apart. To put it all together is to want wholeness, identity, meaning, self-knowledge.

It is perhaps healthier to play the guitar and make love than to be overcome with anxiety and hopelessness. It is healthier to reassemble the inner self and then to make again connections with structures outside the self. It is not an insignificant part of change to do this. In fact, it is fundamental if the changes we seek are not to be warped and blighted in the process of changing. History has taught us that the revolution eats its children. Thus, it behooves us to move with caution and to search not only for change but for new ways to change.

Nazi aesthetes collected art along with lampshades made of human skin. We remain mindful that there is no necessary equation between the love of art and the love of good. However, some of our students make that equation for themselves. They see clay in their hands as an affirmation of their human center; as a rejection of the tyranny of the machine, of the production line and consumerism, of the beast in each of us. The ceramists, carpenters and guitar players take their places in the commune; they struggle to balance the needs of a life to be spent, at least three quarters of it, in the rat race.

Our students are searching for continuity with the world of nature, materials and sensation that the ancient Japanese craftsman had when he invoked the spirit of the wood before carving it. In search of durable meanings, they are prepared to try everything from Yoga and Lubovitcher communities to Jesus, Zen and dope. They are prepared, if these goal are clear, to submit to disciplines of extreme rigor as they glimpse the relationship between focus and revelation.

Our students are not certain that revelation is possible, but they seek it nevertheless. They seek it in the past, in those places and times that have invoked it. In their innocence, they resist us and our invasions. They do not want to know too much about history or too much about art. Art is a place in which purity of the self can be preserved, they think. To make art is to be active. It is their rebuttal to hopelessness.

Yet we cannot allow them their innocence. Nor should we be mournfully content with the aesthetic limits of our own lost innocence. Consider, finally, Borges’ statement of our condition:

“Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this immanence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.” ●  TO TOP