“The earth laughs in flowers,” Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Kalman Aron died late last month at the age of 93. When he was 16, the Germans invaded his Latvian homeland and within two years had murdered most of the country’s Jews, including his parents. Aron spent the next four years in seven concentration camps, and in 1949 he came to America. He was, according to his obituary, “newly married, unable to speak English and, by his account, carrying only $4” – the kind of immigrant profile we don’t want here any more.
He survived the holocaust, at least in part, because he had been an artistic prodigy as a child, and in the camps he bartered portraits of guards and their families for a little food, a blanket, and ultimately his life. In the U.S. he had a long and successful career as an artist.
In Kalman Aron’s life, art quite literally prevailed over power, allowing him to survive in a place where he was powerless. On a broader level, I wonder whether there may yet be a role for art in a world in which power is the supreme – and increasingly the only – value.
Almost six years ago I posed a question that got a good deal of response (at least by my standards): Who has made a greater difference to the world, Mozart or Napoleon? Who, in other words, has had a more lasting influence – those who seek to create something beautiful, often by withdrawing into a private world, or those who are driven to immerse themselves in public affairs? My schoolboy history books, I wrote, told of the lives of “doers” – generals, statesmen, and titans of industry. Artists were relegated to sidebars in catchall chapters on culture. Yet art endures, as empires don’t, and beauty seems a greater legacy than conquest.
I resurrect these questions to ask again if art has anything to say to a world where power, and particularly military power, is venerated as it hasn’t been in years, and in a nation where the arts are once more relegated to the sidelines, underfunded and ignored?
I believe it does. In a country as divided as ours seems now, art can forge a collective spirit in ways that almost nothing else can. Our best songs, images and stories have never been limited to the esoteric few, but have instead borrowed from all the strands of our diverse people to create an American culture that has room for us all.