First Diasporist Manifesto (an Excerpt)

By R. B. KITAJ

Diasporism is my mode. It is the way I do my pictures. If they mirror my life, these pictures betray confounded patterns. I make this painting mode up as I go along because it seems more and more natural for me, so natural that I think I've been a Diasporist painter from the start without knowing and then slowly learnt it in a twilit period, until it began to dawn on me that I should act upon it. Diasporist painting is unfolding commentary on its life-source, the contemplation of a transience, a Midrash (exposition, exegesis of non-literal meaning) in paint and somehow, collected, these paintings, these circumstantial allusions, form themselves into secular Responsa or reactions to one's transient restlessness, un-at-homeness, groundlessness. Because it is art of some kind, the act (of painting) need not be an unhappy one. Although my Diasporist painting grows out of art, as for instance, Cubism or Surrealism did, it owes its greatest debt to the terms and passions of my own life and growing sense of myself as a Diasporist Jew. I have spent half my life away from my American homeland, that most special Diaspora Jews have ever known. Until now, I've only rarely painted there and I set down these first exilic ruminations still from a bittersweet abroad, but written in my homesick, Americanist tense, haunted by the music of Diaspora.

I've always been a Diasporist Jew, but as a young man I was not sure what a Jew was. I was unaware that such ques≠tions were debated within Jewry, even in the Knesset itself. Jews were Believers, I thought, and I assumed you were whatever you believed in, that if you became a Catholic or an atheist or a Socialist, that's what you were. Art itself was a church, a universalist edifice, an amazing sanctuary from the claims and decrepitude of modern life, where you could abandon self and marry painting. My friend Isaiah Berlin says:"A Jew is a Jew like a table is a table." Now, that interests me greatly, but the thing was blurred in my youth. This was, I learned later, a classic assimilationist pose. My maternal grandfather had been a Socialist Bundist in Russia, on the run from the Czarist police. He passed on his religious skepticism to my mother, who brought me up as a freethinker with no Jewish education. Ours was a household full of secular Diasporists who seemed to be Jews only by the way. It would be many more years before I learned that the Germans and Austrians who did what they did in that time, when I was playing baseball and cruising girls, made no distinctions between Believers or atheists or the one and a half million Jewish infants who had not yet decided what they were when they got sent up in smoke. One third of all Jews on earth were murdered in my youth. It is well known that a Silence fell upon our world for some years after what Winston Churchill called 'probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world'. It was the break with traditional evil, its own archetype, someone said. The classic texts on the Holocaust are fairly recent and as I got around to them and the paradox of Jewishness began to enthrall me, the Diasporist painter in me started to grow alert, after a numbing, morbid period. The mystery of dispersion now seems to me as real as any located School known to art. I didn't know it at first, but I had stumbled upon a tremendous lesson, taught long ago by many conflicting personalities both Jewish and Gentile (Sartre, etc.), by such absorbing figures as Ahad Ha'am (1856-1927), that it is Jewishness that condemns one, not the Jewish religion. It became reasonable to suppose that Jewishness, this complex of qualities, would be a presence in art as it is in life. In Diaspora, life has a force of its own. So would Diasporist painting, never before particularly associated with pariah peoples. For me, its time has come at last.

Diaspora (dispersion in Greek) is most often associated with Jews and their two thousand-year old scattering among the nations (longer by other accounts). What the Jews call Galut (Exile in Hebrew), had become a way of life (and death), consonant with Jewishness itself, even though Israel is reborn. I am one of those who are possessed by the consonance of art and life. Some are not. I think that memories, events and beliefs are sacred dreams for painting and so the mode of my life is translated into pictures. In translation there is not ultimate accuracy, only an illusion of truth, as in art. Because neither Diaspora nor Israel can live really happily ever after anyway (or so it increasingly seems) and a normative coexistence replaces the "normalcy" once wished upon the state, many of us who make our lives in dispersion follow its peculiar, various, often very homelike (America), very complex destinies where, as someone put it, Jews have achieved emancipation without auto-emancipation. The compelling destiny of dispersion is one's own and describes my Diasporism, which describes and explains my parable-pictures, their dissolutions, repressions, associations, referrals and sometime difficulty, their text-obsessions, their play of differences, their autobiographical heresies, their skeptical dispositions, their assimilationist modernisms, fragmentation and confusions, their secular blasphemies, their longing allegiance to the exact art past which corresponds to the historical moments when Jews became free to pursue a life in art (I mean from the late 19th century on).

Diasporist art is contradictory at its heart, being both internationalist and particularist. It can be inconsistent, which is a major blasphemy against the logic of much art education, because life in Diaspora is often inconsistent and tense; schismatic contradiction animates each day. To be consistent can mean the painter is settled and at home. All this begins to define the painting mode I call Diasporism. People are always saying the meanings in my pictures refuse to be fixed, to be settled, to be stable: that's Diasporism, which welcomes interesting, creative misreading; the Zohar says that the meaning of the book changes from year to year! And now as I come to life again after fifty, the room in which I paint be≠comes a sort of permissive cheder (room, the room or school where one studies) in which art becomes what I think, dramatizing my mind's life, while the ancient religion itself whispers its Covenantal, mythic, Midrashic, ethical, exegetical, schismatic, Zaddik-ridden, arguments. There is a traditional notion that the divine presence itself is in the Diaspora, and, over one shoulder, Sefirot (divine emanations and "intelligences" according to Kabbalah) flash and ignite the canvas towards which I lean in my orthopedic back-chair, while from my subconscious, from what can be summoned up from mind and nerve, and even after nature, other voices speak more loudly than the divines, in tongues learned in our wide Diaspora. These are the voices I mostly cleave to. Listen to them. They will tell you what a Diasporist has on his mind (Michelangelo said you paint with your mind) as he strokes his canvas.


Reprinted with permission from the author.