Thomas Raat: Dynasty
My Ghost Companion
Notes on the works of Thomas Raat: A visual artist from the early Twenty-First Century
Professor Nick Hackworth. Chair of Twentieth & Twenty-First Century Studies, University of New
‘As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small–he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.’ —Plato, The Republic
This is my last essay as Professor and Chair of Twentieth & Twenty-First Century Studies. It is also
my most personal. Its subject may surprise the general reader, but will, I hope, bring a smile of familial
recognition to many of my students and colleagues, both past and present. I will not attempt to have a final say on those topics that have defined my academic career. Everything I have to say on the socio-cultural origins of The Cataclysm, the connection between images and ethical corruption in the late Capitalist period, the ideological foundations of twentieth-century concepts of private property, and so on, I have said. The discoveries and debates will continue, but without me. It is my hope, nonetheless, that my contributions have helped increase understanding about this dark but critical period in human history. Instead, I want to introduce you to a ghost, a ghost who has kept me quiet company over the last four decades as I have worked to discover and understand the world from which he came. He has been a spirit guide of sorts, an Aeneas to my Dante, I imagine sometimes. He has been a conversational partner, though of course it is only I who speaks (I have on countless occasions had the embarrassment of being found by students talking out loud to him, musing or asking him questions). He has been for me a profoundly personal connection, even if imagined, with that now long and distant culture. My ghost is called Thomas. I want to tell you about Thomas and what I have learnt from him and his work, not only about his time, but about the acts of thinking about and imagining the past - acts that I have devoted my life to.
Thomas Raat was an early 21st-century Dutch visual artist who lived, worked and flourished in the decades leading up to the beginning of The Cataclysm and who, in all likelihood, perished in the first, devastating, nuclear strikes of World War III. He is well known to students of twenty-first century-history principally because his atelier is one of the best-preserved archeological sites from the period. Indeed as Dr Chin, who discovered and began excavating the site in 3031 C.E., observed, its state of preservation is nigh on miraculous, having survived not only the wars, but more impressively still, a subsequent, centuries-long submersion beneath the seas that rose rapidly in the ravaged and polluted, postwar world. This incredible survival was due, it seems, to an impermeable, sarcophagus-like envelope that fused itself together around the site, formed from an especially deep layer of superheated fallout ash and detritus from those first strikes. I had just begun my postgraduate studies when the studio was discovered. I vividly remember being anxious as I rushed to volunteer to assist in the excavation of the site. I feared I would be either too late or too inexperienced to be selected. I needn’t have worried. Back then choosing to specialize in the study of the late Capitalist period leading up to The Cataclysm was, while being neither formally prohibited nor strictly taboo, regarded as strange, certainly morbid and probably perverse. Since then there has, of course, been a slow thawing of our culture’s abhorrence and fear of engaging with the late Capitalist period and culture that so monstrously birthed The Cataclysm.
For our society, which at its core is defined by the collective goal of not repeating the mistakes of our ancestors and a fear of ideational infection, this is no small thing. It is a development that I believe our department's pioneering historical studies themselves have accelerated as well as benefited from. Underscoring this attitudinal shift is a growing cultural consensus that understanding the past is not only essential in our quest to learn from it, but can also be an end in itself, an idea that in no small part my investigations of Thomas's works helped spark. I soon found myself as a fresh grad student not only on Dr Chin's team, but standing in Thomas Raat's studio. The site comprises a modestly sized, one-story brick building structure divided into a store room, a small kitchen and toilet and the main studio in
which the artist made and displayed his work. The main studio room, which measures 10 × 12 m, was
found to contain twelve paintings, six large, four medium and two small. Half of the canvases had
suffered minor damage, some through having fallen off the walls and some from paint loss and material
degeneration over the last millennium. Additionally, they discovered five sculptural objects, three
large and two small, all in impressively good condition. The picture reproduced here is of the site as
it stands now, restored and returned to what we approximate being its original state after the excavations and cataloging were complete, and that can be visited by those with academic dispensation.
As my students well know, a large framed print of the picture hangs above my desk. For many it has been the first such framed image they have seen and naturally it is a source of great curiosity. The personal display of an image is an affectation that my professional studies dignify with the illusion of necessity. For me, however, the image is talismanic. It still reminds me of the sense of awe I felt as I stood in that studio in those early days, of the sense of profound, if still largely undefined, connection with the past. Dr Chin, noticing my wide-eyed wonder, confided in me that in the first moments when she climbed down into the studio site, so unexpectedly perfect in its state of preservation, all she could think of was an account she had read by a pioneering nineteenth-century archeologist, of their impressions and sensations when they first entered the burial chamber of an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh, glittering in the gloom. Of all the intimate connections that we experience in our lives, those with the past are perhaps the strangest. For us, such physical encounters with the past are rare of course. It is a strange irony of history that despite its grotesque ubiquity and overproduction of almost everything, relatively few sites from the late Capitalist period have survived physically intact to this day. So profound were the destructive forces, both human and natural, which swept that civilisation away, that landscapes of ruins are its true material bequest to posterity. Thomas’s artworks were utterly mysterious to me at first. Even accounting for my relative inexperience with images, let alone artworks from a thousand years ago, they seemed strange indeed. A painting depicting the stylised shape of a pyramid, one comprising roughly rectangular black blobs that perhaps were representations of ancient standing stones, a pair of paintings, each one depicting a crocodile beneath a rectangular block of colored fabric. Intriguing paintings of text such as ‘Avant Garde’ and, poignantly, ‘The Fall’ (why would anyone make a picture out of words?) and, absurdly, a painting of a banana! I burst out laughing when I saw that one. Attempting to decode and understand these works was my first professional academic task. A speculative assignment from Dr Chin, granted I suspect as a thoughtful act of encouragement more than in anticipation of success.
For us culture is a profound and sacred thing, with roots deep in the earth, that celebrates and venerates sacrifice and bounty in equal measure and is articulated only in the spoken, the written and the performed, the visual arts of our pre-Cataclysm ancestors are found far beyond our contemporary frames of reference. If as a school boy I tried to imagine the art of the twentieth & twenty-first centuries, I dreamt up naive images of desire and of desirable objects, though what precisely those things might be, I did not know. I certainly didn't imagine works like Thomas’ oblique, minimal and curiously compelling ciphers. A profound suspicion of the nature of images, from the artistic to those once produced by archaic industries that were integral to late Capitalist culture, advertising, media and pornography, is, of course, a cornerstone of our society. Our founding Elders took Plato’s warnings against the corrupting influence of the delusions that can be conjured by poets and the arts at face value. Though it’s likely that Plato was being at least partially rhetorical, the idea has been a useful element in the narrative that it was our ancestors’ moral and ethical failings that authored The Cataclysm. So, when, in their extraordinary act of historical revisionism, the Elders decided to “start again”, they turned the clock back to a time before things, in their estimation, started to go wrong. Thus our school children know more about Golden Age Athens than the late-capitalist, global civilisation of the twentieth and twenty-first century, a fact I have always felt stems more from our deep, collective fear of confronting the horrors of the past rather than from a measured desire to cultivate only the Good in our youth. I guessed that Thomas’ work amounted to some kind of expanded meditation on history as that seemed the only plausible link between a set of subjects that encompassed a pyramid, standing stones and the avant garde (a topic I had of course to research to understand). I could not however divine the deeper meanings of the work, a confusion compounded by what seemed to my untrained eye the strangely disparate styles of the different works. Aid however came from an unexpected source, Thomas himself. The university laboratory digitally recovered a brief passage of text from a long-since faded document found in the studio, seemingly an artistic statement by Raat himself. It read: "My work focuses on the - - - - - d broad - - - - - f the modernist visual language and the fragmentation of its original ideal, with a strong emphasis on the period between 1945 and the 80s, roughly the period between the ending of the historical avant-garde and dawning of postmod - - - A period - - - of modernism infiltrates the economy of everyday life and the bourgeois becomes progressive. It gave expression to a newly obtained social optimism and responded to the postwar need to reshape t - - -orld. Based on this new visual standard, an art historical twilight zone of derivative movements…"
These brief passages of course afforded me a degree of success in my efforts to decipher Thomas’ work. In the following weeks and months I began working my way through piles of ancient art and art history books deep in the archives of our Great Library of the New Athena, trying to follow Thomas’ cues. Most of the books I pulled out from the stacks had not been opened since they had been first cataloged, hundreds of years ago. A few fell apart in my hands, their pages reduced to dust and fragments. I read, searched, noted and cross-referenced. I tried to track down clues and contextual information to illuminate each of the works. I remember feeling that an effort to recover their meanings was the least they deserved for so improbably surviving an apocalypse. I delved, as far as my haphazard access to source material allowed, into the history of Modernism, a little researched and understood subject back then, and discovered its many constituent movements. I was astonished and perhaps even somewhat charmed by this ancient faith that art styles and the design of objects and buildings could help shape people and society for the better and judged against the bar of our cyclical understanding of history (how could it be otherwise?) the idea of progress is but a child’s fantasy. How strange I remember thinking in those revelatory days, when information, ideas and questions flooded my mind, that a culture so destructive should dream such beautiful and naive dreams. I became enthralled, especially reading about the idea of the Avant Garde, cultural heroes who fought and starved, it seemed to bring a radical future into the present. I researched Pop Art, saw pictures of comic books and the work of twentieth-century painter Roy Lichtenstein, and guessed at a connection with the pyramid painting. I presumed links between the several chairs that had once sat on plinths in the studio as if they were statutes of significance and design movements like the Bauhaus (a perennially popular topic with my twentieth-century culture students) and marveled at the gaudy colors of the chairs, still bright after a thousand years. Several of the works, of course, remained utterly mysterious. The web of references that birthed them in the mind of the artist, long since blown away. Nonetheless, after a few months of study and hypothesizing I felt a growing, general understanding of Thomas’ work. As a cultural historian hailing from a largely imageless society it was fascinating to see and explore how it was possible to use images, graphic representations and visual forms to think critically about the past, about ideas and ideologies. Taking the cue from the fragment of his artist statement I began to see Thomas’ practice of constructing his works from strange, minimal, visual quotations that echoes his recent past as a knowing reflection and perhaps critique of the failures of his culture’s recent past. As I thought of Raat’s meditation on this period of decline and decadence, when heroic ideas fade into the everyday, a word that kept pushing itself to the front of my mind was ‘anagnorisis’, that moment of painful self-recognition, especially in the great tragedies when a character realizes with full clarity, the arc of their fate. I wondered what it felt like in those decades leading up to The Cataclysm. Did they know an end would come so fast and so devastatingly?
As much as I learnt academically from the world of the twentieth and twenty-first century from my investigation into and around Thomas’ work, the greatest impact on me of that time was more personal in nature, and grew out of the extraordinary serendipity that my first significant contact with a twenty-first-century human should be with one with a profoundly historical sensibility. The connection that I felt with Thomas, as fellow historian of sorts at times, was at times vertiginous. I imagined the fabric of space and time concertinaed and a cascade of parallel moments, myself investigating Thomas and his world, Thomas in turn studying the recent histories of his own culture to make his work, some Bauhaus professor perhaps, standing in some austerly functional classroom interrogating the history of design, and so on, back into the increasing obscurity of the past. We can do little, if anything, to control our fate and the fate of our times.
What we can do is to treat our fellow beings with empathy and respect. It was in those formative months and days, many spent at the site of Thomas’ studio, breathing, as it were, the air of past, surrounded by the material remains of a lost civilization, I realized with a sense of essential certainty that we are honor-bound not to confine our care in the present, but extend it into the past and the future and that the effort to understand, especially when we are faced with the difficult, the mysterious or the horrific, is an act of deep empathy. At the risk of seeming ridiculous, l felt then and have ever since, that the true historian is guided by a great feeling of love.
So that is how I met my twenty-first century ghost. I have learnt much about his world in the decades since then. I have imparted that knowledge as best as I can onto several generations of often eager students, discussed topics ad infinitum with my colleagues, and through it all I have kept Thomas, hovering by my side. Sometimes the act of asking him questions has led to answers. Sometimes not. But his presence has been a constant reminder to be, that everything was contemporary once and each one of us lives in our own fragile worlds - soap bubbles floating in the ether of time. To current and future history students I hope you find your own ghosts to guide you through the periods you study and are drawn to, however strange and obscure they may be! Who knows, perhaps one day we too will become ghosts in the minds of those who will come after us.