On more occasions than one I have said that I would be a very happy hermit, and sometimes I actually think that’s true. I like solitude. I need solitude. I’m not one of those people who need, or even like, to always be surrounded by people. I crave my alone time. Writing obviously has a lot to do with that. But if I am to be perfectly honest, I don’t actually think I would be a good hermit. Or at least not a happy one. For the very simple reason that If I never saw other people I would miss out on all those life changing encounters. Those interactions that so fundamentally change who you are forever. And those have everything to do with a real face to face encounter. As much as I love books and ideas, and as much as those have also changed me, there is just something about the real world interaction, encounters in the flesh, that I actually wouldn’t want to live without. Moments of transformation.
I have had a few of those in my life by now. People I’ve met that changed my life forever, who lead me on to new paths and showed me new horizons, new ways to relate to the world. People without whom I wouldn’t be who I am today. And I am not talking about lovers or friends, I am talking about people who just made a brief visit in my world, people who I didn’t necessarily have a close relationship with, but who through that moment when our paths crossed, made such an impact that I walked away from that meeting a different person.
One of those people was my high-school art teacher. I can’t say we were ever close in the way you can be close with some teachers, he wasn’t a person I would confide in or anything like that, but he became a person I truly respected. But that’s not at all how it started. It actually started from the complete opposite side, I hated his guts. He annoyed the hell out of me for the whole fist year. Everything he said rang of provocation in my ears. I had grown up around art and I was convinced that art had everything to do with talent, a kind of either you have it or you don’t stance. In the very first class we had he challenged that view. He came right out and said that art was all about technique and practice. It made me furious and I remember going home and telling my parents that my art teacher was an idiot. I don’t remember what they said to that, but I suppose they let me go on ranting and raving about how much I hated him without that much commentary, that’s how they usually reacted. Yes, this man provoked me in a way that no teacher had ever done before. I was thirteen and I was furious. A big part of my rage had to do with the fact that I was secretly hoping that I was actually talented. As mentioned, I grew up with art, my father is a painter and my sister was too, and I was sort of nurturing this idea that paining was to be my path too, and here this idiot was saying that talent had nothing to do with it!
But slowly my rage subsided and I started listening to what he was actually saying. And when I began grasping the message he was conveying something changed in me. I began to see him in a new light. He was talking about ideas. And that’s what he really meant with that comment about talent. True art has nothing to do with talent, anyone can learn how to paint, but the ideas, that’s where the art resides. In our second year he substituted the traditional art class format, with practical exercises in drawing or painting, for a few weeks with lectures on art history. Since then I have studied art history at university, but what I learned in these high-school lectures was more profound, more relevant to my whole understanding of the concept of art, than anything I ever came across at university. For two hours he would stand and talk about revolution, about ideas and about transcendence. Many of my classmates expressed bewilderment and in some cases also annoyance over this series of two-hour lectures. “Man, he just stands there and talks for two hours! What the fuck is his problem?” But I loved it. His words had me tripping like nothing had ever done before. My initial hatred had evolved to a profound respect and admiration for this man. Because he was actually trying to teach us something that went far beyond what the curriculum dictated. He was trying to teach us about the power of ideas. He was teaching us what true revolution means. And when he told us about the Dadaists, about Marcel Duchamp and the Surrealists it felt like gaining an entry into a world that was so much more exciting than anything I could have ever imagined. And then he incorporated music in the picture. This man was the first person to introduce me to what is to this day my favorite band, Einstürzende Neubauten. At this stage it was all just words, he didn’t play any of their music to us, but his description alone was enough. I knew this was my kind of music. And I was right. A few years later, when I finally heard the music for the first time, I understood exactly what he had been telling us. And that audio encounter was the initiation of what would become the soundtrack of my life.
After these lectures he went back to the more traditional art class format with drawing and painting. But he told us to utilize the ideas of the surrealists, the Cubists, the Dadaists. He told us that the aim was for us to create things that he couldn’t understand. To break the rules, to transcend the given formats. And it was all music to my ears. For the first time in my life someone was actively encouraging me to not try to fit in, to not engage in this futile fight that I was so obviously losing, and it just felt so damned good. So breathtakingly liberating.
I don’t think high-school is easy for anyone, you are constantly confronted with various social games and the directive to fit in. You are no longer a child but you are not quite an adult and it’s all one big game of trying to define who you are, to establish your social position. A constant grinding against the norm with a clear dictate to adjust, to fit in. But I didn’t really fit in. I was a freak and people constantly, daily, reminded me of this. Art class was the one place where this was not an issue, where it was actually ok to be who I was. And I started looking forward to art class as you look forward to a party or a holiday. It became my weekly refuge, my source of energy. I went there to breathe in the sweet air of freedom, to recharge my soul. I doubt I would have even endured the whole high-school experience if it hadn’t been for art-class, if it hadn’t been for this amazing austrian man who told us to break free, to think outside the box.
When graduation was looming I actually begun to wonder how I would do without my weekly injection of liberty. Of course I was more than happy to finally be done with high-school, but the thought of not getting to see my art teacher on a regular basis was putting a definite dent in my relief. But apparently I wasn’t the only one who had been touched by this man. One day, towards the end of the very last semester, he told us that there was a group of old students of his that still met every Thursday evening to paint and that any of us was welcome to join if we wanted to. It felt like getting yet another gift. Not only was I going to escape the valley of spiritual death that was high-school, I would also be able to continue getting my weekly doses of liberty, life was looking brighter by the minute!
For three years those Thursday nights became holy to me. There was nothing that could keep me away. My attendance was of one of religious dedication. For two hours we would paint and have coffee and talk and listen to music. I was one of the youngest in the group but I never felt unwelcome, quite the opposite. And I am sure I was very naive, sometimes even embarrassingly so, but no one ever gave me a hard time. It was an atmosphere of tolerance and encouragement with no competition and no judgement. It felt like being embraced into a secret society of liberty. We would get to try different techniques and different motives, all selected with an enormous amount of creativity driven by the simple fact that we didn’t really have any resources to speak of. It was all done and executed on a non-profit basis driven by passion for art and solidarity with those that didn’t have anything. You paid a symbolic fee to cover the cost of material and to give the model some money if you could. If you couldn’t pay you were still welcome and there was never any discussion. Towards the end of those three years I was very grateful for that policy and for the unquestioning manner in which it was carried out.
That art-class was my first exposure to a group activity driven by passion and solidarity and it transformed me in more ways than one. I got to be surrounded by people who treated each other with respect and who were only interested in creating a space for creating art. That and our profound respect for our former teacher, was what united us.
I didn’t turn out to be a painter, I discovered that my vocation wasn’t one of images but of words. But I am convinced this man played an instrumental part in my journey to find this path. Today I realize what a massive influence he had on my understanding of art in the wider perspective, how my own definition was very much shaped by the one he presented to me back when I was 14 years old. His mantra of “you can do what you want with the model”, lead me to a realization of the unlimited freedom that resides in art. You are truly in possession of your own boundaries, free to decide where they are to be set. Art is a bout vision, about freedom of mind, and therein lies its formidable power. He came from a background in sociology and I am sure that played a big part in his very unorthodox teaching style and his constant exhortation of free thinking. And I am sure he had a very strong political conviction, a conviction that manifested itself in his constantly looking out for the less privileged but always in a non invasive way. He wasn’t one of the “do-gooders”, with him it was always just a simple matter of fact attitude. He was always the one to point out that not all parents could afford to pay for their children’s school trips, that some parents were actually struggling just to put food on the table. And he would do it in his very unsentimental, prosaic way with a voice that gave no room for excuses.
I wouldn’t be who I am today without this man. And I wouldn’t have made it through high-school as relatively easy as I did without him. He fed my head with ideas that I stay true to and cherish to this day. He was a teacher in the truest sense and he taught inside the classroom as well as outside. I learned that art lies in the vision, in the idea, and that therein also lies the power to change the world. If I can show you the world through my eyes, I can help you understand, I can help you widen your horizon. That is art. And art is by definition revolutionary. To quote the band he introduced me to: “was ist ist, was nicht ist ist möglich, nur was nicht ist ist möglich”, “what is is, what is not is possible, only that which is not is possible”*.
And this is why I actually don’t want to be a hermit, because complete solitude would deprive me of these experiences and I am eternally grateful for having had this encounter. For having had the privilege to be taught by this man.
* by Einstürzende Neubauten – “Was ist ist”, from the album ‘EndeNeu’.