One of my favorite images in Arendt’s writings comes not from Arendt herself, but her citation of the poem “Magic” by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke’s poem reads (in an approximate translation):
From indescribable transformation originate
Amazing shapes. Feel! Trust!
We suffer often: To ashes turn our flames;
Yet art can set on fire the dust.
Magic is here. In the realm of enchantment
The ordinary word appears elevated
But sounds as real as if the dove called
To seek its invisible mate.
Arendt cites Rilke’s poem in the final section of the chapter of the Human Condition on Work. It is part of her discussion of art and her claim that “the immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought.”
Art, Arendt writes, has its foundation in thinking. Works of art, she writes, are “thought things.” They are thingifications of thoughts, or to use a word that is so often abused, they are reifications of thoughts—The making of thoughts into things. It is this process of transformation and transfiguration that Rilke captures in “Magic”: To “set fire to the dust” and bring beauty and truth to the real world. That is what art does.
My mind turned to Rilke’s poem as I watched the great South African artist William Kentridge deliver the first of his 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard University.
Kentridge spoke in praise of shadows, and situated his talk within a reading of Plato’s allegory of the Cave in Book VII of the Republic. The story of the cave begins with prisoners shackled and unmovable who see shadows along a wall projected by a fire. First one sets himself free and climbs out into the light of the sun and, slowly, painfully, comes to recognize in the light of the sun that the shadows were indeed shadows, untrue. The parable illustrates the error of sensible things and is one part of Plato’s illustration of his theory of ideas. The ideas, supersensible truths of reason and logic, do not deceive and change like the shadowy things of the world. Only what lasts eternally is true; all that is sensible and fleeting is false.
Kentridge tells the story of Plato’s cave to explain why he sees art, and especially his art, in opposition to the Platonic idea of truth. If Plato celebrates the primacy of the eternally true over the shadows, Kentridge argues that art elevates the image above the truth. For this reason, at least in part, Kentridge’s art works with shadows. Shadow figures and shadow puppets.
Kentridge lauds shadows. In the very limitations of the shadows, in the gaps, in the gaps that inspire in us leaps to complete an image, that is where we think and learn. The leanness of the illusion pushes us to complete the recognition. It is in shadows that we find our agency in apprehending the world.
Shadow art is, for Kentridge, political. Plato’s politics depends on a truth known and understood by the few and then imposed on the many. In this sense philosophy is, in Arendt’s words, opposed to politics, and the philosopher either must seek merely to be left alone by the people (which is difficult because philosophers are dangerous), or they will always seek to dominate and tyrannize the polity with their reason. Arendt’s lifelong battle is to free politics from the certainty of rational and philosophical truth, to open us to a politics of opinion and openness.
Knowledge is power and there is, in Kentridge’s words, a relation between knowledge and violence. Kentridge embraces shadows and silhouettes to oppose the philosophical and Platonic tyranny of reason. He writes elsewhere:
I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending – an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.
Optimism must be kept in check since any certainty about the destination can underwrite the need for violence to bring others to that end. For Kentridge, “There is no destination. all destinations, all bright lights, arouse our mistrust.”
Kentridge offers us an image of the artist. He speaks from the studio and from his notebook to emphasize the source of artistic truth in the thought image rather than the logical word. An artist thinks. He sees. He makes art. He makes things that reflect not truth and certainty but gaps, misgivings, and questions. Kentridge gives reality to the questionability of the world in his shadow art. In this way his art reminds us of the magic of Rilke’s fire that transfigures dust into flame.
Few modern artists work magic like William Kentridge. His Norton Lectures are a great introduction to his art and the thinking behind his art. If you are not graduating this weekend, take the time to hear and look at what Kentridge says and makes.
You can view Kentridge’s First Norton Lecture here. Consider it your visual weekend read.