Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.

Ecce Homo

Ecce Homo

One evening last year in San Francisco, a number of people came together to hear discussion of a nonhuman concept of beauty , e.g., what a butterfly or blue whale or a three-toed sloth might 'define' as beautiful in another member of its group. The zoologist Peter Warshall emphasized that it was, seemingly, those functions or physical attributes which permitted the most appropriate (secure and productive) rapport with environment that were chosen. I was interested that the other participant that evening was Diane di Prima, whose Revolutionary Letters constitute a basic 'how-to' manual for social-political survival. The series itself, of which this evening was one instance, had been arranged by the physicist Frank Oppenheimer, who, with his brother, Robert, had faced a severely imposed 'question' as to legal conditions of human interest and commitment during the fifties.

Whether the art be painting, music or writing, one may note its overwhelming preoccupation with process during the periods of the Modern and, now, the Post Modern. Also echoing in mind is William Burroughs' somewhat sardonic remark in Naked Lunch , "Where do they go when they leave the body. . . ." One may presume that the substantially collective human body was left toward the end of the nineteenth century, and that, in the Western world, the faintness of an intellectual humanism, having no physical authority for its ruminations, went down also, as increasingly sophisticated fragmentations of the human event took over. The point

Introduction to the exhibition catalog R. B. Kitaj: Pictures/Bilder (London: Marlborough Fine Art, 1977, with German translation by Ursule von Wiese).


here can be made simply by noting some of the primary names of that time, Freud, Einstein, Marx, et al.—each of whom, be it said, thought to speak for a collective situation of the human, but, nonetheless, presents primarily a singular plane of its event. Schizophrenia , as Surrealism or Cubism, is a term invented about the time of World War I, and Ezra Pound's great cry de profundis , "I cannot make it cohere . . . ," has obvious parallel with Yeats—"The centre cannot hold. . . ."

What had been lost, to put it so, was an image of man , some order of and in experience, both collective and singular, that could propose itself as constituting something , in whatever dimension or context of practical fact was elsewise the case. The insistent, whining question of our time is, "Who am I?"—and that I is not the one which is of necessity the many, plural and communal as given. Quite the contrary, it is Descartes' proof of existence, swollen with paranoia and frustration to a me of irreconcilable abstraction. Marlowe's Faustus—possibly the first significant instance of this crisis in our literature—now becomes Everyman. "O, I'll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?" Be it said that there are a remarkable number of cultures and persons surviving who do not share in our specifically Western dilemma, but our equally specific use of the world since 1900 has resulted in a horrifying reduction of such cultural units and the language groups relating.

In his notes concerning "The Human Clay," an exhibition he selected for the Arts Council of Great Britain (1976), Kitaj says, with disarming simplicity, "The single human figure is a swell thing to draw . . . I'm talking about skill and imagination that can be seen to be done . It is, to my way of thinking and in my own experience, the most difficult thing to do really well in the whole art. . . . It is there that the artist truly 'shows his hand' for me. It is then that I can share in the virtue of failed ambition and the downright revelation of skill. . . ." This preoccupation has nothing to do with a 'documentary' art or with 'photorealism'—each seems too simply an exploitation of a one-sided 'reality.' Rather, it's what that single footprint meant to Robinson Crusoe, in Defoe's mind. It's there , physically, without question. What Defoe then realizes, by means of Crusoe, is the informational crisis it provokes in another human. So James Joll and John Golding, extraordinary humans indeed, look out 'From London' to see Europe, their own information surrounding—as Kitaj, in turn, sees them, and remembers both the Europe of their insight and his own determining sense of it, all present in such resonant, echoing detail, from such a range of hu-


man preoccupation and vocabulary, one cannot simply list its occasions. For one instance, however, see that Mr. Joll's head has been 'repaired' in the manner of certain frescoes of Giotto—which recalls, in turn, that charming Modernist tenet, "a painting is a two-dimensional surface," etc. As Kitaj might say, of course .

More complex possibly, as its title, If Not, Not , can be felt to signal,[*] are the multiple dimensions of this painting, 'measures' of an insistent variety of human information and feeling about 'things,' a curious soft welter of 'dreams.' Here the physical order of sight shifts and turns in 'perspective,' informed by diversities of human artifact, presence, and memory. Color leads and coordinates, a deliberating act, insisting on the primacy of the painting as a human decision.

The Jew Etc. —as the earlier Bill —begins a 'character' (like those one might find in a novel, Kitaj said in conversation, who come and go in various possible books) found also in If Not, Not . Here he is singular, in progress—as a 'history' in a shifting 'place.' The other figures thus—as Catalan Christ (Pretending to Be Dead) —are historic increment and prototype, but in situations which have their own decisive echoes and accumulations. The physical dimensions of the 'single figure' paintings themselves are frequently the literal measure of a human space.

If anything stands presently in need of definition, like they say, more demandingly than the word person , I don't myself know what it is or can be. Whether the preoccupations be social, political, psychological, legal, economic, or biological, there seems no commonly satisfying resolution of meaning, either in or among the concepts variously attached. When the zoologist pointed out that particular markings of the Monarch butterfly are apparently considered to be 'beautiful' to others of that species, he presumed that the 'reason' was the camouflage they afforded—and that the Monarch's bitter 'taste' was also 'beautiful' insofar as it protected it thus from the interest of possible predators. Another species of butterfly, in fact,

* As instance of Kitaj's own social and political context, and the complexity of its resolution here, consider the following from a book found in his library: "'We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we, to accept you as our king, provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not'—this formula of the ancient coronation oath of Aragon defines the relations of the sovereigns to their noble subjects in all the kingdoms of medieval Spain." F. D. Klingender, Goya in the Democratic Tradition , 2nd ed. (London, 1968), p. 18. All these elements, e.g., Klingender, Goya, etc., can be present, albeit transformed by Kitaj's use of them in the painting itself.


mimics the Monarch's color pattern for this very reason. It may be late in the day to invoke such utilitarian concerns, but I wonder, finally, if we've ever truly had done with them. Certainly I hope not. Put simply, I want to know something—I want to know how and why and what it is, to be human —and I believe, as did Konrad Lorenz, that the arts give any of us the most specific, intensive information of those questions possible in the given world. If Kitaj were only a 'genius' insofar as painting was concerned—if he could not otherwise count beyond five or read a newspaper with a literate comprehension—delight me he well might, but it would be as the wind in the evening or the water's deep present blue. I am human, and I am restless, unsure, insistently questioning as to how you are feeling, what it is you know, and what do they mean. In Kitaj's art there is such a driven amplitude of attention, so many articulate layers of information and care. The axes of possible directions at times seem infinite—as if one might 'go anywhere'—and yet the preoccupation seems to me always rooted in the fact of the human: the singular, the communal, the one, the many, in the places of its history, in the presence of our lives. As he says, "No one can promise that a love of mankind will promote a great art but the need feels saintly and new and somehow poetic to me and we shall see. . . ." Here I believe that we do.


Ecce Homo

Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.