Of Roots and Veins: A Testament

Draftsman, wood engraver, and sculptor, LEONARD BASKIN, a Well-known artist, leaches at Smith. He was born in New Jersey. turned to the graphic arts in his mid-twenties, and has developed a philosophy which he fluently expresses in his lectures, in his works of art, and in essays such as the one which follaws.

MY PATERNAL grandfather was a miller. Betimes he wrote fluent letters in Aramaic, the tongue of Herod and of the Virgin, with no profane tradition for two thousand years. He died of pneumonia, aged thirty-eight years. He would not deny flour to the poor, and was blessed in his innocence of the means of business. His widow, moneyless and distracted, stole her sons from their schools and put them in apprenticeship. My father then was set to learn the cobbler’s trade. After two days, dispirited and shamed, he escaped (to use his word) and walked several scores of miles through forest and field to a seminary conducted by a distant relative of his mother. He would not be moved. Truculent and committed, he survived the nasty soul-cracking poverty of a wandering scholar in the pale of the poor. He was ordained rabbi at eighteen. After Vilna, the further flowering and fluttering of my father’s career are not cogent to our concern here, except that at the turn of the century he emigrated to the United States, where after extraordinary adventures in the postfrontier towns of Salt Lake City and Denver, he turned eastward and ultimately moved to New York City when I was seven, that my brother and I might be sent to the Yeshivah, or Jewish parochial school.

The seminary ill prepared me for a beady-eyed world I never made. Hidden away in dark rooms, our bodies shriveled and our minds expanded as we dealt in metaphors we could not grasp, in abstrusities beyond our ability, and in an Aristotelian logic that made little sense. The teaching technique was recitation, recitation only, with its awful anxiety and sense of Damoclean doom. We were in class for seven hours each day. There was no pandering to our childishness, no condescension by the teachers, who were often vicious and who, at the slightest faltering during a recitation, would beat us. Nor was that all. for the golden mead of the prophets hung in the air, and one of my deepest memories is of a tender and beloved teacher reciting the terrifying words of Hosea: “Plead with your mother, plead; for she is not my wife, neither am I her husband: let her, therefore, put away her whoredoms out of her sight, and her adulteries from between her breasts; lest I strip her naked, and set her as in the day she was born, and make her as a wilderness, and set her like a dry land, and slay her with thirst. And I will not have mercy upon her children; for they be the children of whoredoms.”This teacher shrouded himself in the “terrible beauty” of these verses and, trancelike, spoke the words with gentle fervor. His bearded face glowed with the tears he cried. And I, terrified, experienced for a few moments the rapture of poetry.

Thus the pride of books was early instilled in me. And thus also was I forever soured on the ubiquitous American good-time Charlie. The cracked world around me impinges at every open sluice, and my very air is charged with waves and echoes and rays from a society and civilization in which I feel like a mixture of outlaw, leper, and pariah. On every level hovers the brooding brutishness of despair: over the mangled and hopeless lives of the poor, the crypto-poor, the middle class. The objects around us are fouled and misbegotten, sullied and dispirited, for want of a human hand in their manufacture, of love in their contrivance. Imminent in their spoilage, articles of our most secret and public use are worthless. These are the artifacts of the doomed, of the society of excess, the dreck-products of profit. Within this junk-furnished web I must perforce live and rear my son. Can one survive an automobile ride from Baltimore to Washington? Can one relate to McDonald’s hamburger (over one billion sold)? to the unspeakable food of Horrid Johnson? to the whole panoply of neoned sodden nothingness? Can one survive? Indeed, one does, but at what price? In dead brain cells; in swollen optic nerves.

Are my poems spoken in the factories and fields,
In the streets o’ the toon?
Gin they’re no’, then I’m failin’ to dae
What I ocht to ha’ dune.

MacDiarmid worries, and I am left stunned at the thought. Blake’s “chartered streets” are by now so subdivided, entailed, and entangled that the countryside is disappearing in the grimy efflorescence of suburbia. These pirates of fresh air and greensward rob their children of the sight and sound of old people, speaking in a variety of tongues the tales of a vanished world, the sagas of escape and discovery, the accents of a history still warm. There are no old people in the stale, still, fresh air of suburbia. There is only an inconsolable apery, a gathering in of canned ecstasies. I dread to think of the lives and careers of the children nurtured in these barren climes: a kind of festered horde, knowing nothing but the beery wisdom of television and the sanctimonious folly of Life. “How is the Gold become so dim?" (Donne)

I do not mean to assume the cankerwormed mien of a half-baked Jeremiah intoning the impending doom of a parched Sodom. But as I walk through my homogenized ambience I cannot but feel isolated and brutally thrust away from what should be my nurture and my increase. Everywhere I see the exploited disbelieving their exploitation, the debauched innocent of their debauchment. The slick talismans are caveat emptor, laissez-faire, and status quo. Nowhere do I see carved “cave canem.”

Porcus, that foule unsociable Hogge,
Grunts me out this still: Loue me, loue my dog
And reason is there why we should so doe,
Since that his dog’s the loulier of the two.

MY UNHAPPY disengagement with my society extends as well to the art and cultural attitude of the society. If the structure be rotten could the superstructure fail to be rotten as well? Thus Marx. And Trotsky, fiercely and bitterly indicting a decadent society with the ability only to produce decadent art. In those faraway days of youthful pride I thought that consciousness of decadence was ipso facto a thwarting of it: that one could frame works of art in despite of the structure, howsoever desiccated it might be. I have grown old; I have grown old; I shall wear the bottoms of my culture rolled, and reach for my cap gun and blow the top of society’s head off.

Infantile gestures are the spasms of a faltering spirit. Let me deal with the most recent excrescence produced in this nightmare moment of the American dream: pop art. One must assume the sincerity of at least the pioneers of pop, else they are not worth considering. Is this a revitalized Dada? Hardly. The creation of Dada was a political art. The Dadaists were revolutionaries convinced of the hollow meaninglessness of their society, and they sought in their senseless public performances (really outrages), in their unreadable typographies, and in their plastic jokes to make tangible and largely visible their contempt, even hatred, of their time. When the movement lost this political sense it splintered into surrealism, formalism, and so forth. If I am correct, the main activity of the Dadaists was conducted with little reference to the established art galleries.

The artists of pop, however, have not the rankest whisper of radical politics about them. Their art, and I am being generous, is the perverse celebration of all that is commonly advertised as the blessings of America — that is, comics, the Fifth Avenue Omnibus Company, Coke, hamburgers, cellophaned steaks, canned soups. Here is the inedible raised to the unspeakable. The bedeviling question is, Why should these men seek to celebrate the odious? Beyond the pure perversity of it, this may be another facet of that exhilarating product we call advertising art.

No other group in America is, I should imagine, so befuddled by cant, by an attempt to forge a mystique, a philosophic system to mask its true business, which is merchandising. These grandiloquent salesmen forgather for symposia ad nauseam and publish endless aspen papers heralding their wondrous elixirs and panaceas, which are the simple magic of good designing the evil out of the world. They are insufferable charlatans. They provide the soft and the hard sells with the beautiful art and the beautiful words. The claims for catsup and tin cans are put forth with the wisdom of Western man made visual. This nasty hocus-pocus which we call Madison Avenue deceptively displays the ugly as beautiful, and these “popped” artists, decamped from Madison Avenue, are the purveyors of that mischief in art. This limp malfeasance is at the heart of the so-called “new realism.” As art this work fails on the most elementary level. To express chaos one cannot be chaotic. One must so cunningly order the chaos that it may be communicated. Making a cast of a beer can will not do. Simulacra in art, whether of a can of tomato soup or of a venerated uncle, must prove to be interesting only to the manufacturer of the soup, or to the family of the uncle. One can haltingly imagine what led these artists to produce these articles, but what is inexplicable is the possible motive for anyone to buy these “things” and to adorn his house with them. Can you imagine yourself living with one of Oldenburg’s gigantic hamburgers? What viable aesthetic experience would ensue? One’s sensibilities would be bruised to a squashed artichoke; and as a joke, it would wear thin. But these works are bought as are all the other puerile artifacts of decay. The avant-garde has reached a bizarre station when it is instantly acclaimed, indeed, snapped up. What manner of avant-garde is this when it constitutes a great mass? It is the “rear-garde” for me.

And who is that poet come in off the streets
with a look unleal and lour?
Your feet are muddy, you son of a bitch,
get out of my ivory tower. (Thomas McGrath)

I must own not a little embarrassed bewilderment at being ensconced in an ivory tower. So it must be, if I scorn virtually all that goes on about me. And yet I do not hesitate to score the Myrmidons in their senseless mimicry of the pseudo-avantgarde. I execrate all who celebrate the irrational act in art. May I confess to being an unalterable four-sided square. The hipsters, heaven knows, are soured on their society. They seek to unfetter themselves totally from the vicious constraints imposed by a benighted social order. Their so-called freedom achieved, they, alas, proceed to nothing. The hipsters are notorious for their inability to work, except perhaps in their special subjective and formless jazz. I note them at all for they impinge the security of my newfound tower. Their “marijuana-soaked" ids make futile gestures at mastering the bomb, the murderous bureaucracy, the cop on the street. The wisdom of Engels’ maxim “Freedom is the recognition of necessity" is my emblem for continued creative existence in this conformist, neo-authoritarian society. To yield to infantile pleasure drives, to stamp one’s phallus in rage, to become lumpen, is to shackle and imprison oneself in impotent ineffectuality. The greatest poet of the age was a bank teller.

FIFTEEN, when I left the Yeshivah, I was already deeply engaged with sculpture. Having once experienced the exaltation of building in the reality of space, I could never fix my attention elsewhere for long. This childish perception of the displacing presence of sculpture made sure and final the commitment then entered into. Nothing since has had a real depth of meaning, and no event, not even the years of execrable work, has threatened the glassy rigidity of that aspiration. I was unhealthily precocious as a youth, and almost at once I was carving an abstraction a week in wood. Those were other days, when to be abstract meant to derive pleasant forms from synthetic cubism. I did learn a great deal about carving as those pieces proliferated. I consumed all in those days, I forced myself onto a sculptor (advice which I continuously give to my students), and during two years I slowly sapped him dry. He had much to teach, and I an immensity to learn. At the end of the relationship I had grown academic enough to have merited an honorable mention from the Prix de Rome competition. I was then eighteen years old. I had traveled backward through Rodin to Michelangelo, and it was not until a decade later that I realized I had not pushed back quite far enough.

In 1940 I was a student at the Yale School of Fine Arts. It was then an academy of the right. A vitiated and repudiated beaux arts curriculum was in force. It was odious, uncondonable, unendurable. I held my masters in contempt. It was the only true bohemian period in my life. I drank, was physically quite foulsome, and began my proper education by devouring books in the epitome of libraries, the Library of the Linnonian and Brothers Society, separately housed in Sterling Memorial Library. Instead of going to class, I went to the Linnonian and worked my way through it, reading as one can only in youth. I managed that state of affairs for well over a year, when the dean announced to me in tones of marked alarm that I was to be expunged, expelled, put down. I assured him that there was little need since I had resigned and had enlisted in the Navy. My experiences in the Navy, often bizarre, always exotic, need not detain ns here. To characterize those three years, in a word, I entered as a seaman 2nd class and was discharged as a seaman 2nd class.

The beneficent GI Bill of Rights allowed me that grand measure of freedom to ferment slowly into maturity. In those days just after the war I was very political. Epigraminatically, I have always said that I have never joined anything except left-wing political parties. I was then twenty-four, married, enrolled at the New School for Social Research (to qualify for the monthly subsistence), attended classes at night, and worked at sculpture all the day long. Alas, my labors availed little. It was my foolhardy notion to exploit sculpture for the expression of political ideas. My sculpture was tendentious to a gigantic fault. As unsuccessful work succeeded unsuccessful work, I slowly came to understand that the proper vehicle for my political-artistic energies was the graphic arts; and thus I began to make woodcuts, and thus slowly, freed of the need, my sculpture came to be free of tendency. My turning to the woodcut was, I have no doubt, the salvation of my sculpture. Where I was forlorn and sculpturally maladroit, I was acute and graphically forceful. The manufacture of woodcuts and wood engravings then went apace. There was no need to expose my sculpture rashly and prematurely, for that swollen artist’s ego was pacified by the telling impact of the woodcuts.

I graduated from the New School, and to remain solvent, a year of travel and study in Europe on the GI Bill ensued. Beyond the general artistic reinforcement that such a year brings, there were a series of specific discoveries that led to the formation of my style as it now exists. Seeing for the first time what I had only dimly perceived from photographs before, seeing the great carvings of Sumer, was one of those telling experiences. Here was sculpture of the purest kind: the massivity of the works, their great frontal rigidity, the sensual forms no more than a stony adumbration, the simultaneous revealing and hiding, the great stoical mass undisturbed. Here was an envelope of stone, the vitality and life of the work smashing against the envelope. It was a moment of transfiguration, and nine months in Paris were made endurable by the presence of these hieratic statues.

The steeping of my brain in the great works of the past was further intensified by a three-month sojourn in Florence. I shall not chronicle and catalogue the marvels that stayed my eyes and rooted my feet. The great day of our “Italian journey” occurred quite by mischance. We missed, very early one morning, by a few moments, the bus from Florence to Siena. Instead, much against our arrogant instincts, we took the bus to Pisa. I reverence that day, for Pisa proved to be the great sculptural experience of my life. Here I discovered for the first time the miraculous carvings of the Pisan school: the works of Giovanni Pisano and Tino da Camaino—not the pulpits of Giovanni Pisano, nor even the splendid Madonnas, but rather those stark and fearful figures that circle one of the tiers of the Baptistery, ravaged by time, the forms rendered if possible more elemental, more deeply expressive, more fervently eloquent in their evocation of passion bound and grandeur fulfilled. And Tino is the one artist whose vision, bred in the trecento, I have as far as possible embraced for my own. The sculpture of Tino da Camaino is the embodiment of those sculptural qualities which I extol as monumentally human. Here is held, as though magically, the grand and the tender, the large and the small, the haughty and the humble. The Caritas in the Bardini Collection is surely tenderly awesome and poignantly beautiful. This wondrous coupling of the intimate to the monumental is the secret glory of his art. The standing courtiers surrounding the seated Arrigo the Seventh are nothing so much as a group of early T’ang tomb figures become Italianate. Never was king surrounded by a more spirited company. In Tino, the miraculous is held with the commonplace, the gentle bold, and the compassionate contained.

Tino then became my mentor. Spiriting his vision, securely snared in my baggage, I began working anew, which leads me to the end of this essay. Wherefore then do I labor? Though I despise the corrupt and alien world around me, the tower I have built does have windows, does have a portcullis forever raised and drawbridges permanently lowered. However debased, man, fixed in his splendid natural habiliments, caparisoned in sheet of muscle and bundle of nerve, and held upright by an extraordinary ivory, man is marvelous. Freed from the gesture and manner of his destructive and coercive society, man is glorious; was even capable of cracking the “wondrous mystic art of painting speech and speaking to the eyes.” It is man exalted by virtue of his being man that has in the few years of my maturity preoccupied the steaming core of my sculptural concern. Condemning the irrational in art, abhorring the irrelevant, and disliking the abstract, I see my way as passing along that great continuum, the column of the past in art extending into the future. One must mesh the great lessons of the modern movement with all that is quick and glistening in the art of the past. One must confound the breeders of taste, the despoilers of fashion. One must rout the masked supersalesmen. One must rake the muck and cast out the soiled corrupter and scaly exploiter. Man must rediscover man, harried and brutalized, distended and eviscerated, but noble withal, rich in intention, puissant in creative spur, and enduring in the posture of love.