Would You Risk Your Lives for Art? These People Did.


Painting by Nelly Toll

Musings by @APosner on the @NYTimes article “Art From the Holocaust: The Beauty and Brutality in Hidden Works”

If you think beauty is a luxury and not a necessity, think again.  

While in hiding or in work camps during the Holocaust, Leo Haas, Bedrich Fritta, and Nelly Toll, just age 8, struggled to survive.  Smuggling food, staying sheltered, and trying their hardest not to get sick — the basics of basics — were a daily challenge.  And yet, they spent their hours imagining and capturing beauty.  And what’s more?  They would risk their lives smuggling art supplies into their rooms to fulfill their need to express their talents.

Interestingly, Haas, Fritta and Toll didn’t depict images of horror or suffering as we would expect given their circumstances.  No, they painted or drew glorious images of landscapes or fantastical paintings of fairies.

How could they let their imaginations go there?  And how could they even think about beauty, let alone, risk their lives to obtain beauty supplies?  What about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?  Logic tells us that we focus on immediate needs in order to survive, like food, water and shelter.  Certainly art should be the last thing from our minds.  

What’s going on here?

As Ms. Toll, now 80 years old, explains in the NY Times article “Art From the Holocaust: The Beauty and Brutality in Hidden Works“: ‘“When you’re fighting for your life and your basic human needs,”… creating art “is not just an escape, it’s an active choice of defiance.”’  Bedrich Fritta depicted Jewish concentration camp workers in his pieces, not as feeble, ugly and downtrodden victims (as the Nazi’s liked to show), but as muscular, proud and handsome men.  He was later executed because of these works.

We often analyze art to better understand the times in which the artists lived.  We learn about what sorts of technology was available or their cultural values.  We effectively see the world at the time through the eyes of the artist.

But what’s so interesting in this case is that the very act of creating art — not necessarily just what it depicts, is a form of defiance and rebellion.  Art was these victims’ lifesaver.  It was as necessary as food and water.

Now, I’m going to tread into familiar ground.  But I still feel like we have to talk about this.  

Our society values the arts.  Our schools have art classes, philanthropists fund museums, and city governments create boardwalks and parks.  But when the budgets are cut, what’s one of the first items to go?  The arts.  After all, we need to learn math more than art, right?  And art won’t prevent us from getting diseases.   Art won’t lower the crime rate.   Net, net, we don’t need art to survive.

Ah, but we do!  The arts not only reminds us of what is good in our world, but it fortifies us, challenges our thinking and sparks our ingenuity.  And without that those things, we, as individuals and as a community, cannot survive.  If some people are willing to die for it, shouldn’t we at least raise the arts to the level of daily necessities?

These paintings are now on display at the Jewish Historical Museum in Berlin and accessible via web.  Take a look and I guarantee you they will fuel your imaginations and emotions.

Weekend Observations: Is Graffiti Art Worth It?

As I was getting a few minutes of “elliptical time” this weekend, I watched NY1 — the only channel my apartment gym gets these days.  Because NY1 only broadcasts the latest news around NYC, you end up seeing the same scenes and bite-sized stories about seven times over the course of a workout.
This weekend, one scene caught my attention.  Graffiti artists in Long Island City were pushing to have “5 Pointz” turned into a historical landmark.  Why now?  The City is looking to demolish it and build two residential towers in its place.  By turning 5 Pointz into a landmark, the graffiti mecca is saved
As a New Yorker, I totally sympathize with need to create more housing.  Apartments are in high demand and extremely expensive.  The more we can build, the better for everyone.
But in this case, I share the passion for the 5 Pointz protestors.  This site doesn’t represent just another mural on a side street.  It’s a museum of graffiti from a whole slew of international artists.
If you’ve read many of our past posts, you know that I’m a huge proponent of beautifying our cities.  But is beauty more important than housing?  Maybe.  While housing does shelter a large number of people, beauty enhances everyone who sees it.  And that enhancement can lead to happiness, inspiration and hope.
So, is graffiti art worth a protest, even the cessation of important construction?  Yes.

When Beauty Is A Matter of Survival

I’ve written about the moral, social, personal values of beauty and beautification in many posts over the past few years.  But I’ve never been as moved or inspired by the critical role beauty has in our lives until I read this story by Emily Rapp in the Huffington Post, Beauty:What Does It Look Like?

Like many teenagers, she went through periods of hating how she looked and even experienced bouts of anorexia.  The she decided to give it all up in her 20’s in an effort to express her natural beauty.  While she started putting more effort back into her routine as she got a bit older, she reverted again to going au natural.

But this time it was for a heart-wrenching reason.

Nine months after giving birth to a beautiful boy, she learned he had a horrible degenerative disease, Tay-Sachs.  Within the next two years, her little bubbly baby would devolve into a vegetative state and then die. As a mother you can’t help but tear up while reading her story.  And as you can imagine, beauty was last on her priority list.  She left the house un-showered for days, went months without haircuts and was lucky if she brushed her teeth.

But then a switch flipped.  She realized she NEEDED her beauty and beatification rituals.  They gave her a sense of control and agency.  They gave her some happiness.  They weren’t frivolous acts of vanity.  They were  a matter of survival.  She writes:

“But there I was, I realized a year in, as I looked at my wan face and split ends and weak body, something I could do about how I felt.  I could make myself feel better by making myself look better, according to my own standards.  It wasn’t a superficial, thoughtless act to rediscover  a sense of authentic beauty; it was necessary.  It was about survival.”

Our circumstances my be shit and we may not all have the greatest canvass to work with, but we ALL have the ability to change how we look, even just a little bit.  And this empowers us, affirms us, and grounds us.

Now I’m going to hug my kids.

Want to share?  Comment or tweet us @Beautyskew

Weekend Observations: Remembering Through Beauty

Have you ever seen an ugly memorial?  Of course not.  In fact, memorials are often more beautiful than what laid before it or what they actually symbolize.

Case in point?  The 9/11 memorial.

Here’s how the memorial’s website describes it:

…It features two enormous waterfalls and reflecting pools… and the Memorial Plaza is one of the most eco-friendly plazas ever constructed. More than 400 trees are planned for the plaza, surrounding the Memorial’s two massive reflecting pools. Its design conveys a spirit of hope and renewal, and creates a contemplative space separate from the usual sights and sounds of a bustling metropolis.

Swamp white oak trees create a rustling canopy of leaves over the plaza. This grove of trees bring green rebirth in the spring, provide cooling shade in the summer and show seasonal color in fall. A small clearing in the grove, known as the Memorial Glade, designates a space for gatherings and special ceremonies.

Unquestionably the Twin Towers were design feats but the experience of this memorial is far different.

So why do we create beautiful memorials when the acts they recall were so ugly? As a society we seek things of beauty because they not only elevate our spirits but force a hard question on us: Is our current reality as magnificent, harmonious or vibrant as the beauty we are currently encountering?  If not, maybe we should try to change that reality.  As Elaine Scarry points out in On Beauty and Being Just,  the pursuit of beauty is really the quest for improvement.

Obviously, the 9/11 memorial reminds that our reality isn’t rosy.  Our world is full of people who hate themselves and others, and are willing to hurt people because of this hatred.

While I’m in awe of the splendor of the 9/11 memorial and am proud that we, New Yorkers, are remembering our fallen brothers and sisters so fondly, I also hope that the beauty of the experience encourages us to change our world for the better.