Rousing the Desire for Creative Work

CW Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.jpg
Over the past few days I’ve groused about evangelical aspirations to make films, outlining my concerns accordingly. It is not that I disagree with my colleagues Craig Detweiler and Robert Johnstone they are right to awaken us to God’s revelation in popular culture and the importance of listening to culture both to see God and to communicate our beliefs more effectively in the context of that culture.

By pointing out the fallen-ness of popular culture and its limitations, I am not saying we should not show respect for it; as a matter of fact,in light of popular culture’s passionate adherents, we show God’s love (and ours) for them, by becoming literate in the language they speak. This is what is behind Cornell West’s provocative comment, “You can’t communicate with others unless you respect people and their world and find the best idiom to communicate with them¢â‚¬¦ Ten-dollar words and abstract ideas may win praise at Princeton, but they won’t go over well in a working-class, African-American barbershop where everyday language rules. And they’ll let you know.”

I do not intend to dwell on the negative in my conversations about popular culture and Christian involvement in it I simply want to call us to a higher artistic standard, to borrow a phrase from Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the calling is to rouse the desire towards creative work.” If you aren’t familiar with her you should be and the NYT “Keeping Creativity Alive, Even in Hell” and New York’s Jewish Museum “Innovator, Activist, Healer: The Art of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis” are a good place to start.

Her story illustrates why art is not peripheral to life and faith and reminds us of the importance of rousing in the next generation a desire for creativity in whatever work they pursue. It is my belief that such a calling is rooted in faith and only by going deep in faith will our life and work enrich culture to the glory of God. I find her story inspiring and instructive.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was a remarkable Jewish artist who kept creativity alive, even in the hell of the concentration camps. IN the 1930’s she was “a prolific painter but also designed furniture, toys, textiles, costumes, theater sets, even pocketbooks¢â‚¬¦ Though the paintings for a time are dark and despairing, particularly after she was exiled from Vienna, her work mainly exudes an eagerness for surprise and enjoyment in life and art¢â‚¬¦The artist’s letters indicate a desire to take part in everything: theater, music, art, cooking, languages, literature, philosophy.”

In 1940, having moved to Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazi’s she wrote to a friend, “Today only one thing seems important to rouse the desire towards creative work, to make it a habit, and to teach how to overcome difficulties that are insignificant in comparison with the goal to which you are striving.”

“Even art could not stave off the madness outside. As more and more friends and relatives were deported during her last months at Hronov, Dicker-Brandeis stopped painting. In 1942 she and her husband were taken to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp built in the town of Terezin, not far from Prague, and given numbers, 548 and 549. She redesigned the children’s barracks to make them cozier, if such a word can be used about such a place. She began teaching the children to draw. (Twenty-one of the children’s pictures are on display at the Jewish Museum.) She was 44 when she arrived at Theresienstadt, an artist in some ways just beginning to realize her power. In the concentration camp, defying the surrounding grimness, her paintings became colorful again.

In the words of Julie Salomon, she “she persisted in pursuing her goal ¢â‚¬Ëœto rouse the desire towards creative work’ spend[ing] the last two years of her life convincing children that art could help them withstand, if not overcome, unfathomable misery. As they waited for early death, she taught them to draw. She treated this not as a distraction but as a calling. She graded their work in several areas (dimension, color) and provided rigorous instruction. The pictures that emerged from her stubborn, irrational hopefulness have been her legacy.”

“Ella Weisberger, who was imprisoned in Terezin for more than three years, starting at age 11, was one of Dicker-Brandeis’s students there. Dicker-Brandeis lived in a tiny room in the building where the concentration camp’s young girls were kept. Ms. Weisberger, in a telephone interview, recalled that after every class one girl was chosen to roll up all the artwork and take it to Dicker-Brandeis’s room. “Everyone was always excited to do this,” Ms. Weisberger said. “Her room was full of the most beautiful paintings of flowers on the wall. She had covered the wall with a blue sheet and over this, her paintings. This little room became a wonderland, something that made us feel we have the greatest teacher.”

She died in the camp but not without leaving a rich legacy in these children. Interestingly throughout her life, “Her urge to influence young people crops up often. Even the agitprop posters she designed for the Communist Party which she joined in reaction to the Nazis focused on instructing children. In one poster, a collage of disturbing pictures, she wrote: “This is how it looks, my child, the world you were born into. If you do not like this world, then you will have to change it.”

According to Salomon, the exhibit in New York “provides novelistic insight into Dicker-Brandeis and her lifelong talent of using turbulence as a catalyst for creativity. In a letter written when she was in her early 20’s, she wrote to a friend, “Anxiety is extinguished by work it is a sort of flight from inner turmoil.”

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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