Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Lively Jewish Arts and Culture

The Angel of InspirationThe Angel of History:
A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
— Walter Benjamin(1),
Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History

Recently I have been thinking about Benjamin's Angel of History as I have been preparing for my final classes. I re-read a wonderful piece by Raymond Barglow from Tikkun(2). He uses Benjamin's piece as a way into the mind -- the mind of humanity, Barglow's family's minds, and the mind of Jews affected by totalitarianism. Others have written about the Angel as a meditation on history and history as a being that looks back, yet is propelled forward by the wreckage of time.

Lately I have been thinking of it more from an aesthetic perspective. Is the Angel an angel of the arts and is s/he mourning the loss of culture and the arts? Is the Angel seeing the remains of culture that have been swept up in a mechanistic world, that only sees things in terms of "product" and "commodities" and "acquisitions".

Is this Angel of Arts and Culture looking into the future and seeing the wars and famines and devastations caused by societies that limit the creative spirit? The Nazis prohibited "Degenerate Art" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degenerate_art and Christian Fundamentalists wanted to censure Serrano's depiction of the crucifix in urine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piss_Christ

Today there are those who want to pass a constitutional amendment to disallow gay people to have legal unions and though it probably won't pass it will be used to define who is a "liberal" and therefore have the same effect of political censure.

Tony Kushner wrote "Angels in America" and in an ever-so prescient artistry, evoked the McCarthy period that blacklisted those who are in an outsider culture in America -- gay people, Jews, blacks, women, artists -- all under the rubric of "commie". And he used the image of Benjamin's Angel in History as the image of the outsider swept along by events, yearning to look back through the wreckage of hate, violence, despair, bigotry, and oppression.

Yet this is an image that comes from the Hebrew Bible. It originates as a vision by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel I:1) and describes an angel that has multiple faces, legs, wings, wheels, fire, torches, multi-directional, with an indescribable form above it and an awe-inspiring gleam. and this creature came to Ezekiel to give him the words as a text that he ate so that he could speak to the Jews in exile.

What have we done to that Angel? This is the Angel of Creation, the Angel of Art, Culture, Aesthetics, Multiple Forms, Inclusivity, Visions -- the Angel for the Exiles.

(1)Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892 – September 27, 1940) was a German Jewish Marxist literary critic and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and the Jewish mysticism of Gershom Scholem.Benjamin was known during his life as an essayist, translator and literary critic. Since the appearance of his Schriften in 1955, 15 years after his death, Benjamin's work has been the subject of numerous books and essays. As a sociological and cultural critic Benjamin combined ideas of Jewish mysticism with historical materialism in a body of work which was an entirely novel contribution to Marxist philosophy and aesthetic theory. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Benjamin

(2)The Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’s Vision of Hope and Despair
by Raymond Barglow
Published in "Tikkun Magazine," November 1998

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