The Hero Transfigured: Basquiat + Berdyeav + Beethoven

by the Rev’d Craig Lemming

“In romanticism there is an urge to surpass being… romanticism involves transcendent impulse. This romantic creative urge reveals the transcendent nature of creativity, which passes all bounds. The romantic creative urge is deeply related to the Christian feeling of life, to the Christian idea of another world.”
– Nikolai Berdyaev, ‘The Meaning of the Creative Act’ (1955)

“I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”
– Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

We see the rage with which Beethoven violently crossed out the word “Buonaparte” on the title page of his third symphony; an anger so fierce that it created a hole in the manuscript. As his student Ferdinand Ries recounts, “I was the first to tell [Beethoven] the news that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor, whereupon he broke into a rage and exclaimed, ‘So he is no more than a common mortal!? Now he, too, will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!’” In our own dystopian era of tyrannical leadership, most of us can sympathize with Beethoven.

Facing the political crisis of the Napoleonic Wars and his personal crisis enshrined in his Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven’s decision to rename his symphony ‘Eroica’ not only transcended his shattered illusions of political heroism, the new title more aptly venerated his symphony’s revolutionary subject: the Artist as humanity’s true Hero. Everything about Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ was unprecedented and its colossal spirit transfigured music itself entirely, in form, substance, and purpose, forever. I used to share my beloved Ravel’s lukewarm sentiments about Beethoven until the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s sensational live recording finally convinced me that Nikolai Berdyaev was right: “In the spirit of music there is prophecy of incarnate beauty yet to be. Beethoven was a prophet.”

The art of Jean-Michel Basquiat is equally prophetic, as both Tamra Davis’ documentary and the following short reveal:

Many say Basquiat prophesied his own death in his final works, including his monumental ‘Eroica’ paintings. Relating Basquiat’s ‘Eroica’ paintings to Beethoven’s symphony, this analysis teaches us that:

“The second movement, the funeral march for the fallen hero, resonates with Basquiat’s Eroica. This movement was played at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral, which is a perhaps coincidental although fascinating connection back to the present work, in which Basquiat writes ‘FDR blues’ in the lower right quadrant. FDR Blues is itself a musical reference to the blues musician Champion Jack Dupree’s record of the same title. Dupree, the African-American blues pianist moved around the United States until he settled in Detroit where he met the boxer Joe Louis who encouraged him to also become a fighter (from whence he was given the name Champion). Dupree, and other African-Americans supported Roosevelt and his ‘New Deal’ which produced jobs and promoted equality for minorities. Basquiat throughout his career was interested in famous Black figures in music and sports and chose to represent them in various ways in his art. The present work is a push and pull of death and heroicism, that resembling the Beethoven symphony, demands our attention and with a potent exuberance that continues Basquiat’s legacy.”

Nikolai Berdyeav declares: “In its essence, creativity is painful and tragic. The purpose of the creative impulse is the attainment of another life, another world, and ascent into being.” This essence of creativity is revealed in the pain and tragedy of both Basquiat and Beethoven whose lives gave us other worlds and new ways of being. In our shared pain and tragedy, and as we prepare for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, seek out that “romantic creative urge” in Beethoven and Basquiat – both of whom transfigure and resurrect the Heroic Artist who dwells in each of us. Like Berdyaev, I believe Beethoven and Basquiat staked their lives on art that calls us to live creatively, because:

“A transfigured world is beauty. Beauty is victory over the burden and ugliness of the world. Through beauty there takes place a break-through into a transfigured world, into another world than ours. And this break-through takes place in every creative act of art and in every artistic reception of that creative act.”

– Nikolai Berdyaev, ‘Slavery & Freedom‘ (1944)


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