An Israeli ensemble performs a musical piece composed by Jewish Holocaust victims (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

The children of Terezín

The human will triumph over the technological in culture

Artillery Row

Under the silent vigil of the thirty baroque statues that line its balustrade, the Charles Bridge takes the perpetual throng of tourists from Old Town Prague to the castle. A few streets back from its mediaeval stone is the Pinkas synagogue. Set back from the slow flow of the Vltava river, it dates back to the 16th century. On the first floor is one of the most moving exhibitions of art I have seen. This exhibition shows us what AI generated art, produced by generative tools such as Open AI’s Dall.E 2, can be and can never be. It perhaps even helps us answer a question debated for centuries: what is art?

The walls of the ground floor of this small building of mixed gothic, baroque and renaissance styles are covered with the names of about 78,000 local Jewish victims of the Shoah. Up a narrow stone set of stairs is a permanent exhibition of pictures drawn by Jewish children in the Theresienstadt Ghetto.

German troops crossed the Czech border on 15 March 1939, declaring the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The new authorities started placing restrictions on the Jewish population. By September 1940, Jewish children were banned from schools. Despite the ban, to give the children some form of normalcy and to distract them from the frightening changes happening around them, the community organised classes in private apartments.

In October 1941 the onward transportation of Jews from Prague to the ghetto in Lodz started and then, from the end of November, to the newly established Theresienstadt concentration camp in Terezín, 60 km northwest of Prague. The Nazis converted the military fortress there into a transit camp, where Jews were to be gathered before being moved to the extermination camps further East.

The Nazis wanted to create a “model ghetto” at Terezín. They attempted to conceal its function as a way station on the road to death, instead presenting it as a spa resort. A propaganda film was made in which young people dance and sing and children drink lemonade.

According to the Jewish Museum in Prague, the reality was very different: 33,000 of the 140,000 prisoners that passed through Terezín died, mostly from malnutrition and disease. The majority of the rest — particularly the children — were transported on to their deaths elsewhere.

At Terezín clandestine classes for the children were set up again, including drawing lessons from Viennese painter and graduate of Weimar Bauhaus, Frieda Dicker-Brandeis. From 1943 to 1944, she gave art lessons with smuggled supplies. Influenced by her time at the Bauhaus, Dicker-Brandeis saw drawing and art as a way for the children to understand their emotions and their environment and communicate these emotions.

In September 1944, when her husband was transported to Auschwitz, Dicker-Brandeis volunteered for the next transport. She was murdered in Birkenau on 9 October 1944. Her husband survived. What also survived was the art. Before she left, she entrusted Raja Engländerova, chief tutor of Girls’ Home L 410, with two suitcases containing 4,387 drawings. As Dicker-Brandeis insisted that each child sign their work, these drawings are some of the only records of existence for many of the children. The paintings on display in the Pinkas synagogue are some of those paintings.

Over 80 years later, I first stopped in front of a steam train passing through the countryside, by a Petr Holzbauer (1932–1944). It reminded me of the drawings of steam trains that my eldest son used to do. It would have been a steam train that took Petr to where he was murdered. There was a subsection called “Memory of Home”. Some of these paintings captured homes that would have never been seen again. The drawings convey a shattering of innocence, which all of us go through as we grow from children to adults, but it was accelerated for the children in Terezín in the most brutal of ways.

I paused on one called “Dream” by Helena Mändlová (1930–44). It was a collage made from printed forms. The children used any materials they could acquire. Helena had cut stars out of the ochre forms and stuck them on to a dark red sky. Under these, it looked like there was a thick forest, with either taller conifers or jagged rocky outcrops rising from the left of dense trees made from the same forms. Printed words on the cut out forms were still visible at a variety of different angles. They translated from Czech as: “Accounts receivable”, “Months of the year” and “Cash journal entry”. These bland terms of record keeping take on sinister meaning in the context of the Holocaust, but cold unfeeling pages of bureaucracy had been physically shaped by Helena’s imagination into something beautiful. Helena was put on Transport Eo, no. 1142 on 6 October 1944, which took her from Terezín to Auschwitz.

Helena was destroyed by that evil bureaucracy, but what she created lived on

Drawing helped the children to bear the oppressive reality around them. It enabled them to see and describe sadness and the fear of their new environment, but it also helped them return to happier memories of the world from which they were torn. Moreover, their art carried them away to a world of imagination where they controlled their own stories, where they could be reunited with those they loved, and they could live out lives most of them would never get to live. Standing in the city many of the children longed to return to, I saw their drawings of roads and crossroads with signposts pointing back to Prague.

Only a small fraction of the children ever got home, but these paintings were an act of creation that states “I am here”, countering attempts to erase an entire race. They are acts of defiance and hope when there was no hope to be had amongst the horrific destruction. Thanks to Dicker-Brandeis, the paintings are still here, long after the Third Reich. Helena was destroyed by that evil bureaucracy, but what she created lived on.

Viewing these drawings is an incredibly moving experience. They are not done by accomplished artists, even though some clearly display artistic talent. Is it the drawings themselves that move me or is it the context in which they were painted? For them to be art, or good art, would they need to stand alone without the context and meet a certain threshold of artistic “quality”? The New Critics, such as the poet T.S. Elliot, argued art must be able to stand on its own; if it didn’t, it wasn’t good art. These are sentiments shared by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, prominent artist in the Art of Art’s Sake movement. He claimed, “Art should be independent of all clap-trap — should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear.”

Art emerged around 50,000 years ago, long before cities and civilisation. The carved Lion Man of Stadel Cave, Baden–Württemberg, Germany, has been dated to around 40,000 years old; the wall paintings in the Lascaux caves, which so startled Picasso, to around 17,000 years old. For much of this history, those that produce art were judged solely on their technical ability, seen as artisans rather than what we understand today as “artists”. The word “art” comes from the Latin ars by way of the Greek techne, meaning, skill.

Some new applications that leverage artificial intelligence (AI), like Open AI’s Dall.E 2, have already reached this level of mastery, creating images and text of high standards of technical excellence, greater than those the children of Terezín could reach. So much so, there are now concerns in the creative industries that such programs will take jobs. The recent Hollywood screenwriters’ protest is one expression of such concerns. DALL-E 2 allows the user to generate images with words instead of art supplies. The AI uses encoders to input text into a high-dimensional vector representation that captures its semantic meaning, then uses probability distribution informed by images that match the encoded text vector which it has been trained on, to then “create” new images. It can expand existing images or create stunning new compositions, from text prompts alone.

We no longer judge art on its technical brilliance, however. Today, art is made by artists. They are measured more on what feelings or ideas their art reveals. There has been a shift from the pursuit of technical skill to a pursuit of meaning and communication. Art is more about the experiences it elicits, rather than about the technical qualities of the object.

Since philosopher Alexander Baumgarten first introduced the concept of aesthetics as the study of sensory experiences in 1750, there has existed a school of thought that conflated the experience of art with the experience of beauty. Beauty is seen as a form of absolute perfection perceived by Whistler’s “artistic sense of eye or ear”, associated with only certain types of sensory experience created by high art. It is the artist’s job to find beauty, in the sublime of an underlying spiritual presence or religious reality, the awe of nature, the indefatigability of the human spirit or in the mundane of the everyday, then convey it to the viewer. It’s the viewer’s job to then perceive it correctly. Baumgarten hoped to introduce rational principles that would make the critical judgement of the beautiful a science.

The logical consequence of this approach would mean that some things are beautiful and some things are not. Studying aesthetics can enable the sorting of objects into piles marked beautiful and “other”. Baumgarten has strongly influenced our understanding in the West of what is and isn’t art, but, as Oscar Wilde points out, “no object is so ugly that, under certain conditions of light and shade, or proximity to other things, it will not look beautiful; no object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly”. Wilde argues it’s not what we experience but how. There is just one pile. What matters is how we approach it.

To thoroughly understand art, we must understand its social context

This sorting into piles would require a set of a priori laws (proceeding from theoretical deduction rather than observation or experience) to which our judgement of taste must conform. As the difference in tastes across times and cultures demonstrate, aesthetic judgement is subjective. Philosopher Bence Nanay claims that “your aesthetic evaluation is not some kind of universal standard. It is a very specific affair, deeply rooted in your very contingent cultural background”, and he encourages us to have “aesthetic humility”. For some, instead of an externally mutable idea of beauty resting in the qualities of an external object, there are just internal feelings of pleasure or displeasure. This leads to the postmodern position held by those like critic Roland Barthes, who claimed the author doesn’t create a text — the reader does, by reading. The role of the viewer and the role of the art are as co-creators of meaning; there is no objective truth to be interpreted.

Writer Leo Tolstoy provided a different definition of art that does not rely on beauty or pleasure. Tolstoy argued, “Art is that human activity which consists in one man’s consciously conveying to others, by certain use of external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.”

Tolstoy believed the stronger the infection, the better the art is as art. He went further and stated what sort of emotions art should infect one with. To be good, art must promote a religious feeling. A deeply religious man, he believed that art should attempt to infect with “the consciousness of sonship to God and the brotherhood of men”. Tolstoy included “jokes”, “home decoration” and “church services” as art, as long as they conveyed feeling. He was critical of the “high art” of his time, seeing it as an empty distraction for the wealthy, with artists producing insincere works for money rather than conveying sincere emotions and experiences to others.

I think Tolstoy would have recognised the children’s drawings as sincere attempts to convey their experiences and emotions. When viewing Blanka Metzlova’s “Deserted Table”, a drawing of one lone figure sitting at a family dinner table, I was infected with her feelings of loneliness and longing for missing loved ones. I did not need to know that Blanka was murdered on 18 May 1944, before she could be reunited with those missing from her drawing, to experience the connection.

Ongoing debates, over whether we can still appreciate the art of an artist when we find out they have held objectionable views or even committed crimes, show that many of us do care about the context behind art and do not view it standing alone. Tolstoy needed to know if the artist was sincere. New Historicism, a critical approach developed in the 1980s through the works of Michel Foucault and Stephen Greenblatt, claims that all works of art are embedded in the time and place they were created in. To thoroughly understand them, we must understand their social contexts.

As the drawing lessons were happening, the Nazi approved cultural gatekeepers were leveraging the same criticisms as Tolstoy against modern art: it was a decadence for the select few. They encouraged art that drew on traditionalist styles linked to nature, the family and the homeland, celebrating ordinary people, often in rural or domestic settings. It idealised Aryan female beauty, the military and the party. The context in which it was produced is crucial to understanding it as propaganda, not art. Its aim is not connection or sharing emotion, but manipulation towards political ends, ends that could not have been further from Toltoy’s brotherhood of men.

As we live in even more virtual worlds, and AI is more successful in creating art and even fictionalised supporting context to manipulate viewers to find it more appealing, we might struggle to distinguish genuine context from fictional context. If this is the case, art could cease being a mirror in which human truths are reflected back. It might instead become another screen through which we are manipulated. The propaganda value of AI “art” is vast.

Understanding the context of the children’s drawings intensifies the experience of viewing them, but it is not essential to forming a connection with them and, through them, with the artists. There are cultural barriers and contexts that will prevent you from fully understanding art, but there are some universal characteristics of our condition that can be expressed by art that crosses time and cultures.

Art is a bridge that can span profound gaps of time and experience

In 2017, I went to the British Museum to see the Stadel Cave Lion Man. Just 31 centimetres tall, it has the head of a cave lion with a human body. He stands upright, legs apart, arms to the sides. He seems to stare straight at you, collapsing the millennia between his creation and the present. Through the glass, I felt a connection. It is believed it would have taken around 400 hours to make. The wear on his body suggests he was passed around as part of a narrative or ritual. We don’t know what that story was, but his existence suggests that those who made him were in some ways like us. They told stories to understand their place in the world, build community and find meaning. They had a shared story which showed each person their connection to one another and their place in this world. That story, whatever it was, became buried in fragments, but tens of thousands of years later we brought those fragments back together. In doing so, we brought it and those that made it into our story.

The piece elicited in me a feeling of connection to the wider story of humankind; it hinted at something more lasting and greater than any individual. Art is a bridge that can span profound gaps of time and experience. It is the connection itself that makes it art, not what it conveys, but to connect requires recognition of the self in the other — or at least the possibility of the self in the other. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker believed that all human activity is largely driven by unconscious efforts to deny the inevitability of our demise. We invest in activities, institutions and belief systems that we think will allow us to transcend our brief time in the world. Art is one of the most important of these activities. Becker wrote, “We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of underlying helplessness and terror of our inevitable death.” We often connect with this attempt in art to try to make sense of our condition, to give us a sense that we’re part of something greater than ourselves, to lay down something that will persevere after we die.

The Jewish author Saul Bellow reflected, “Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” The best art is what we decorate that backing with. The art we make to explore this idea may outlast us, but even it will one day pass. The Holocaust is one of the most tragic and epic examples of our impermanence. The children’s drawings from Terezín are one of the most unique expressions of our ultimate vulnerability.

The AI we are making may outlast us, too. It can already claim artisan status through displaying skills it has no real understanding of. Some may approach AI art and find beauty within it, or at least pleasure, but AI art cannot move us in the way the Terezín drawings can. AI won’t replace art that we create; art is a creation and a reflection of humankind, a connection between people who share the same vulnerabilities and awareness. When AI does start making art that reflects its own experience of the world, there is no guarantee we would understand it any more than a cave lion would have understood cave paintings. AI is a creation of human reason, but it is already becoming beyond our understanding.

The poet Lord Byron said, “The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.” Thanks to Dicker-Brandeis, we know the children of Terezín existed. For a brief moment, through their art, we can still connect with them, ensuring we never forget their pain. Through connection to those individual experiences, a quantifiable human link to an almost unquantifiable context is created.

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