FOR BHANU KAPIL: ON TIME & ART DECO


The old hand-carved Goethanum in Dornach, Switzerland, destroyed by fire in 1923.

Bhanu Kapil,
Quite seriously, we do appreciate your noticing, and hope you’ll feel free to come in whenever you think either we’ve lost it or got something worthwhile on the hook. We’ve treated you harshly, for sure, but schools of poetry have never been nice to each other, and if you think about it we’re cheerleaders compared to the axe men operating in the poetry rags at the time of John Keats or E.A.Poe, or even fearful little hatchet men like Travis.

But you are making heavy going of it on Harriet, for sure, and you and your friends are emerging as not only conservative but passé!

Here’s a huge historical parallel to back up that statement.

Goethe emerged as a giant of almost everything at the beginning of the 19th Century, and changed forever the western perception of composition and color. Indeed, his seminal input altered the whole thrust of European art away from delineation, representation, and order toward a shimmering new spiritual dimension. As an example, even architecture moved away from it’s right-hand man, the right angle, an unnatural design element that had up to that point lifted human structures out of nature, up over the trees, and was preparing it for the modern skyscraper. The Goethe impulse softened up the right angle so that organic forms began to appear in every detail from the leafy scrolls on your mirror to the early round box for your radio — i.e. Art Deco.

But that came much later.

In the latter part of his own century, Goethe’s impulse reached a kind of apotheosis in the work of the Austrian scientist and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. Initially entrusted with the formation of the Goethe Archives, a huge task, he was secretly working late hours down in the stacks as a closet-theosophist. And when he came out and published “Knowledge of Higher Worlds,” he utterly astonished everyone at the time, and his movement became the cutting edge for thinkers — recently we had occasion to link Yeats with Aleister Crowley through The Golden Dawn, for example, all part and parcel. Steiner’s own most “modern” of movements came to be called Anthroposophy, but today most people have never even heard of it.

Except for the schools, Waldorf Schuler, which still remain a viable alternative in most Germanophone communities and are right at this moment enjoying a huge new interest in the U.S. — even if the architecture is embarrassing.

And to be sure, even for contemporary followers, some aspects of this movement are intensely embarrassing because the fundamental design elements now look very much like kitsch! The aversion to the right angle in the architecture and furniture of the 30s, for example, that’s just retro. And what started out as the philosophical and religious cutting edge, Spiritual Science, now smacks of sceances, table rappings, and conjuring up previous lives — and the art just says “Art Deco.”

With all due respect, you and your friends are the same, Bhanu — like Anthroposophists you and your “post-modernist” colleagues, or whatever you call yourselves now, are convinced you’re the contemporary cats whisker whereas in reality you’re just a backwater. Yes, you’re starting to look just as dated, naive and parochial as Steiner’s most noble edifice, the Goetheanum!

Pacé Goethe and Steiner, great men who took great risks but in the long run failed to lead the revival they were so sure they were heralding, largely because of the slavish imitation of their followers. Pacé your Modernist ancestors in the same way, a few of whom were great too but who you’re now dragging down into the mire of repetition, absurdity and oblivion.

You’re movement is already a footnote, and in the poetry eyes of the world a very brief and silly one.

And with a beautiful name like you’ve got, Bhanu Kapil, you’ve likely got some models of sublime artistic endurance in your heritage. How could you opt for something so limited, as if “new” meant better?

What’s happened to your superior philosophy of the unimaginable dimensions of time?

Christopher Woodman

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