A Method to His Madness: Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in't,” Polonius says in Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet after an exchange with the title character. After encountering the unique sculpture of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, you can’t help but feel the same way. In Franz Xavier Messerschmidt 1736-1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism at the Neue Galerie, the tragically underexposed tragic artist gets the attention of the American public for the first time. A successful portraitist of the nobility and the rich, Messerschmidt suffered some kind of breakdown in 1771 that left him reeling. He found some kind of anchor in a series of “character heads” modeled after his own appearance that served as talismans against the demons he felt chasing him. That haunted feeling makes Messerschmidt’s eighteenth-century art seem remarkably modern—a study of demonology that set a precedent for the demons to come in the twentieth century.


“In 1771 there must have been a strange rupture in Messerschmidt’s life,” Maria Pötzl-Malikova writes in the catalogue to the exhibition, “to which those around him reacted with rejection: there were no commissions and the artist became isolated.” Where once Maria Theresa of Austria, Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, and even Franz Anton Mesmer stood for sculpted portraits, such opportunities disappeared along with, apparently, Messerschmidt’s sanity. In his isolation, Messerschmidt began sculpting a series of works known after his death as “character heads.” “In Messerschmidt’s view,” Pötzl-Malikova explains, “proportions controlled the entire world and also influenced one another.” By distorting the proportions of his own face, which he studied in a mirror as he sculpted each work, “[h]e believed that he could thus alter the proportions of his face in a way that would enable him to master the spirits torturing him.” Each sculpture thus “preserve[d] the magical effect of his grimaces and protect[ed] their creator from overpowering dangers.” Messerschmidt’s magic realism born of his amazing technique fulfilled a real (for him) life or death purpose.

After Messerschmidt’s death in 1783, his “character heads,” which had attracted a kind of cult following during his lifetime, went before the public with titles given by an anonymous author. We don’t know what Messerschmidt would have called them or in what order they were made, so any labels or chronologies are pure speculation. All we have to resort to are our own eyes. In the eyes of that nineteenth century author, one head with a highly detailed open mouth’s interior suggested the title The Yawner (shown above). To modern eyes, including those of critics, the expression seems more a scream of pain than a yawn. Messerschmidt’s works straddle the divide of those different sensibilities.

Like William Blake and others, Pötzl-Malikova suggests, Messerschmidt strove to “liberate the antirational artistic themes from the shackles of the centuries-old tradition” as part of the larger “intellectual emancipation of humanity in the late Enlightenment.” This heroic element, especially in the face of real psychological pain, elevates Messerschmidt’s art beyond just one time and one place. Antonia Boström explains in her essay how Messerschmidt’s sculptures, long considered merely fascinating curiosities, found a whole new audience in the Vienna Secession at the turn of the twentieth century. That influence, begun more than a century after Messerschmidt’s death, spawned this exhibition at the Neue Galerie, which dedicates itself to the development of German art in the twentieth century. Messerschmidt the misplaced modern, born before his time, found easy company with the Freudian-thinking collectors and artists of Vienna.

And, yet, a work by Messerschmidt sold for a few hundred dollars in Los Angeles as recently as 1972—a perfect illustration of just how unknown he was and still is in America. It’s too easy to see these works as the products of a damaged mind and little else. The workmanship and detail show the painstaking methods Messerschmidt used to achieve his desired effects. Each work is a self-portrait of sorts, rendering the exact expression but not necessarily the artist’s own exact features. To see the artist himself, we must look at the works as a whole and experience the anguish he felt. Some comic, some terrible, some sublime—these “character heads” hint at Messerschmidt’s complex character as a kindred spirit of the modern condition. Yes, this is madness, but the method in it, and the liberating humanism behind it, make Franz Xavier Messerschmidt 1736-1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism anything but a yawner.

[Image: Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783). The Yawner, 1771–81. Tin cast. H. 43 x W. 22 x D. 24 cm (16 1/2 x 8 5/8 x 9 1/2 in.). Szépmuvészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts), Budapest.]

[Many thanks to the Neue Galerie for providing me with the image above and a review copy of the catalogue to the exhibition Franz Xavier Messerschmidt 1736-1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism, which runs through January 10, 2011.]

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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