BY Tirdad Zolghadr in Opinion | 05 MAY 09
Featured in
Issue 123

Man of Letters

Heinrich Heine, emails, art and friendship

BY Tirdad Zolghadr in Opinion | 05 MAY 09

Portrait of Heinrich Heine on the cover of Jugend, 1906

I’ve been reading a staggeringly detailed biography of the German poet and writer Heinrich Heine (1797–1856). A self-indulgent diva of a man, Heine zealously picked fights not only with monarchists, communists, republicans, the Jewish nomenclature, the Christian church and his wife, but also with demonologists and vital sponsors such as his uncle Salomon Heine. (‘The only good thing about you,’ Heinrich wrote to him, ‘is your last name.’) As it happens, Heine is one of the lesser known contenders for having coined the phrase ‘l’art pour l’art’ (‘art for art’s sake’), the better-seeded names being Benjamin Constant, Théophile Gautier and Edgar Allan Poe. But Heine’s example is remarkable, since, despite being widely known as the supreme ironist (‘I no longer know where irony ends and the sky begins’), rarely will you find someone who so insistently made life hard for himself; in his essays, in his plays and especially in his correspondences.

While his more strategic rivals – those with radical agendas but surprisingly good connections – were published and celebrated, Heine himself bitched and cursed until he was censored, banished and broke. From what I remember from my days as a Comparative Literature student, his endorsement of art for art’s sake was not a retreat into aestheticism but an aggressive plea for professional self-confidence. There is a formalist predisposition at work here, but art as an end in itself did not necessarily mean self-referential autonomy. The suggestion, rather, is that art can be a means to repeatedly betray your own background, supporters and peer groups. This leaves art as the only remaining end, the only remaining loyalty or possible cause de facto.

As is often the case with famous citizens of the république des lettres, we learn this from Heine’s correspondence. I’m not referring to his open letters to Prince Metternich, for instance, but rather to the notes he wrote while he lay crippled and dying of a spinal infection, to his lover. Consider, for a moment, your own emails – the village gossip, the pretentious sloganeering, the screaming rants at your ex-lovers – and the option of these being published one day (‘frieze: the epistolary issue’).

Compared to hand-written letters, emails hold just as much potential in actual content, but are delivered with immediate mouse-click ease, making exchanges bizarrely emotional at times, which heightens the stichomythia of unnecessary conflict. This in turn means that, given that pain is always entertaining, emails are dangerously attractive material, and Heine would have approved of the brutal candour they offer. Emails reflect the unguarded practice of conversation, neatly transcribed and, as such, they are places where you can trace professional ideologies at work with more precision than usual.

Which is why I actually do share and disclose emails – both real and invented – as PowerPoint projections during my lectures, giving me the opportunity to discuss the art world’s hidden labour, and its intellectual supplements and subtexts. A superb case study to open any discussion on artist/curator divides, particularly the practice/theory gulf that is routinely mapped onto them, was, for example, the email reply I received from Kutlug Ataman upon an invitation to participate in a research project. It read: ‘I respect your job; I only wish you would do it after I’m dead.’ This was seven or eight years ago; email was already commonplace, but not quite as ubiquitous as today: Hotmail alone administrates over 300 emails per second, although few of them are as killer as Kutlug’s.

Before returning to Heine and his insistence that art is the only friend you need, allow me to bring in an example from a different context. The Economist recently quoted a study proving, yet again, that graffiti spurs criminal behaviour. This is an encouraging argument for the agency of art and aesthetics generally. For graffiti doesn’t usually say ‘Vandals are Cool!’, but something like ‘FGJKSDJAG’ or ‘BUSTID’, which in turn suggests, if further proof be necessary, that tenor and ambience have consequences regardless of meaning. The artist Peter Stoffel has pointed out that the reason you never see a Ferrari spray-painted with graffiti – only public amenities such as subway stations and post offices – is because the spray painters believe they’ll be driving a Ferrari themselves one day. Heine would have appreciated this parable of strategic fury. If art were the end, and not some oedipo-cathartic means to an end, it would be used on the Ferrari first and foremost. Art is your only true friend, the one thing you need to worry about.

Tirdad Zolghadr is a curator and writer who teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, NY.