Over the years we’ve published the work of artist Ladislav Hanka. Something deep runs in the family. His uncle Erazim Hohák’s profound meditation
The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, University of Chicago Press, 1984, is an example. It happened that I’d read the book and, as I was reading one of Ladislav’s meditations, suddenly I was reminded of it. Could the two be related? So when Ladislav, in response to my query, replied, “Yes, he’s my uncle,” I wasn’t completely surprised. Hanka, most recently, sent me the following note:
You have a way of finding the right connections and publishing them—which I appreciate greatly. Among those have been the interviews with Lewis Hyde and Peter Kingsley. I’ve had a worthwhile correspondence with Kingsley and now your recent interview with Lewis Hyde got my attention as well. As I was reading his book on the values of forgetting, Peter Kingsley showed up in my e-mails, spurring me to continue that dialogue. You might enjoy what I sent him. —Ladislav”
And I thought readers would find Hanka’s letter of interest. Because of limited of space, I’ve done a light edit
. —R. Whittaker
I received your plea for money and appreciate that getting one’s work out is difficult and often must indeed be subsidized. I don’t mind making a modest contribution, but first I will entertain you with some money talk.
There’s no getting around it: making a livelihood as an artist is damned difficult and, with age, it’s not getting easier on my soul to look upon others with dollar signs in my eyes. I hear the radio station begging for funds and talking about the value of the arts industry and its multiplier effects on the rest of society and I wonder—what industry do they mean by that? Increasingly, I have been settling into giving away a lot of my actual work, which I was born to do, and finding my money elsewhere. Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift
helped me understand how curiously odd it is to be shoehorning the arts into a cash economy. And how right we are to be uncomfortable with it.
I’ve long thought capital markets an essentially un-principled way of making money. If somebody gets something for nothing, then somebody else is getting nothing for something. It all feels unclean.
Years ago I was invited to study at the Art Academy in Vienna and so I descended on Europe with portfolio in hand to show and sell (of course). It was bursting with etchings, and after encountering no bureaucratic blockades from customs in Luxembourg, or for that matter, crossing into Belgium, or at the French frontier, my real trial by fire began at the border crossing from Strassbourg into Kehl, Germany. Deutsche Grenzkontrolle
(customs) nabbed me. The guards yanked me off the train and I could see they were ready to enjoy watching me squirm. Any doubt left in my mind as to their expertise in extracting confessions and revenue evaporated as they escorted me to a subterranean interrogation chamber. I was left there alone without a clock for what seemed like a very long time. I studied the tiled walls, the single, bare light bulb, the old manual typewriter, trying to ignore the claustrophobic feeling rising and observing my hands beginning to tremble.
Eventually my time alone with my cold sweats came to an end, as the turnstile of good cop/bad cop commenced and the officials, in turn, took their stabs at me. This dog and pony show—demonstrating the power of the state—went on for two days. There was also a peculiar third party present; the man alluded, with a perverse understated humor, to his presence there being mandated to “insure that no human rights were being violated.” My skin crawled.
By the end of the second day, I was heading east to Vienna, ”enlightened” from all my artwork and a four- hundred-dollar-deposit. “Jesus, all my artwork and most of my money,” I thought. “Don’t let them see you cry.”
When a year later I returned to collect my art,
I was required to sign away any rights regarding legal complaints I might harbor against the German state, and I was forced to forfeit the deposit. Charges were dropped for my transgressions against German security, and as I shouldered my portfolio, the customs agents extended a handshake and wished me well. “Just following the rules, you understand. No hard feelings, right?”
I returned from Vienna to the familiar embrace of Kalamazoo, Michigan, (continued on p. 68) but with a hard-won veneer of sophistication; to me, “worldly” meant ready to roll with the punches. I was determined to show them all and succeed as an artist. But what did that actually mean
I surveyed the art scene of the times—a marketplace of ideas and objets d’art
being traded in the academies, museums and gallery world. Much of contemporary art is essentially self-referential, that is, about art—insider’s material, made for colleagues, art critics and art historians. It’s art that requires the most specialized education to appreciate.
For me it was vital to apply both a vocabulary and technique that didn’t force the viewer to question if this was art. I wished to smooth the way and encourage others to enter the vision and explore it with me. I was more interested in the transcendent than the merely timely. Good luck with that—right?
All that aside though—I’ve been revisiting your writings which pertain very directly or, at the very least, obliquely to all the above. You’ve been helpful in many ways. In the moment though, I’ve just picked up Jakob Boehme. It’s hard to read and yet he seems another signpost along the way. I’ve also picked up the latest book by Lewis Hyde, A Primer for Forgetting
. He explores the many situations in which forgetfulness is more useful than memory—in myth, personal psychology, politics, art & spiritual life—and that has given me pause to think about knowledge and forgetting. The melancholy engendered by acute memory is hard on any of us and perhaps more so on those who span several cultures and speak a language probably foreordained to extinction. What is Czech or Latvian but the old world’s variety of Ojibway or Navajo and the enormous wealth enfolded within their complex grammar and genetic memory? How desperate it can all seem. Should we just gradually be forgetting it all piecemeal so we can move peacefully on into the oblivion of this brave new world?
Somehow this eternally not-forgetting, though—it all leads to equations and linearity of thought. This takes me back to my days as a student listening to lecturers in biology, ghemistry and the like. Something in all those attitudes and the self-confident belief that they have epistemology, and all else, by the balls—it drove me into the arts.
“Science is physics, or it’s stamp collecting!” proclaimed my physics professor in stentorian tones early one morning in 1979. Leaping about like a marionette, cracking jokes, he’d been doing his best to capture the attention of groggy students slumped in the seats of a cavernous Colorado State University lecture hall. Half asleep myself, the professor’s assertion snapped me to attention.
With my mind’s eye I looked past the professor’s insult and envisioned all the young budding physicists, years later, in white lab coats, ashen faced, staring into computer monitors. The cliché of the unkempt zoologist with twigs in his hair, binoculars around his neck, crashing through the underbrush, butterfly net in hand, hot on the tail of a fritillary, began to look not so bad.
The physicist’s statement, delivered from on high, ended up being a trigger that set off a chain of reasoning that led me to choose the life of an artist. With all my being I desired to be a collector of the marvelous minutiae of nature; a starry-eyed aficionado of its nooks and crannies; a devotee of its mysterious surfaces, my antennae tuned to its infinite bandwidth.
I ultimately absconded from the laboratories of science—butterfly net and sketchpad in hand—precisely because I did find the “stamp collector” model more aesthetically attractive, and therefore a more convincing purveyor of truth. I was quite sure that a living consciousness was itself the driving force in nature. The treasure house of sensual beauty all around us was indeed compelling evidence of this. The inevitable-seeming, cold calculations of inertia sucking the energy from us and dissipating it throughout a cold, dark the universe—that’s all given the lie by life itself
Here I sat, a scientist in training. But the methodology of science did not appear to make room for emotions, feelings and non-quantifiable numinous phenomena; these were not conducive to the usual experimental protocols with their double-blind replications in university labs.
What should I do with having been born with vestigial memories of past lives? Why should I let somebody explain away the occasional appearance of the dead, who have at times guided me? Do I disavow that my nocturnal dreams frequently do take place the next day; that I’ve avoided car accidents, because of nagging premonition? What should I do? Science is the systematic structuring of empirical knowledge is it not? And my experiences too, are empirical knowledge, are they not?
Scientific fieldwork took me into the front range of the Rocky Mountains. High up in the arid rain shadow of the eastern Rockies I discovered extraordinary old junipers. I spent hours among them, absorbing their breathtaking contortions and convolutions as they engraved themselves into my neocortex. Back in my apartment I obsessively drew imaginary junipers late into the night. I kept one of these juniper drawings on my desktop for years; it served to remind me of my calling—who I was and why I was here.
A decade later, my wife Jana and I were exploring the legendary energy vortices and power spots encircling Sedona, Arizona. At day’s end we ascended through the red rocks and rabbit brush of Airport Mesa to pray—the profound calm propelling us into a deep meditative state. Resurfacing, I opened my eyes and there in front of me, lit up in the last rays of the setting sun, I beheld my juniper—the very tree I had drawn a decade earlier in Colorado from my imagination. This was without a doubt one of those postcards from the other side, sent to awaken us from time to time. I reached for my camera and later, when I compared the snapshot and the drawing (that’s the scientist in me, the doubting Thomas who demands incontrovertible evidence), the two coincided remarkably except for one curious detail: the drawing was a mirror image of the photo.
My imagined juniper had not only materialized, but it had been a foreshadowing of things to come, because, as all printmakers know, the plate on which we etch and carve our images, when printed, duplicates the image, but reversed—as if looking into a mirror.
Ah yes, the mirrors we encounter from time to time. We do well to notice, and better to live by them. Better yet to call them to mind years later and remind ourselves continually of who we are and what we are here to do and experience.
Yours truly, Lad
See more at www.ladislavhanka.com