Zwei Männer (einander höherer Stellung vermutend)

A 1903 etching by Paul Klee. Its "peculiar" title is almost always translated as Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other to Be of Higher Rank. The picture features two naked men encountering one another in what appears to be a remote, barren place; they are bowing to each other, in case one may wear the uniform of a high official under normal circumstances.

Klee is offering a criticism of society's propensity for rigid hierarchy, a trend especially prominent in the region in which he made his home: pre-war Central Europe. So much is so concisely voiced in this simple image: how barbaric, how contemptible, how loathesome these two men are! Cowering like fools before each other, each assuming that the other would be wearing a uniform of rank, were he to be clothed! Each man is humbling himself, because he fears that his fellow may under normal circumstances wear a uniform of power, a uniform that commands his obeisance. Appearing naked before each other, the two men are each negated and reduced, and one sees clearly just what a sham this contrived system of the ranking of men is, and just how low the dignity of all men is, that they conform to it.

It takes an artist to make this criticism. Later, Klee's work would come under criticism by the fascists, and be deemed "degenerate". But the word "degenerate" was not nearly so precise, pointed, and revealing a criticism as that issued by Klee himself with this work. Indeed, one could even go so far as to say that these men are Nazis, or any fascists, that they give themselves up to rank, that they lower themselves, and love to lower themselves, to a rigid, ridiculous, damning hierarchy. In a way, Klee predicts, with this criticism of something he detects as unnatural in the society around him, the bizarre compromise of human dignity which was to come, which was to stem from a collective society simultaneously renouncing its own humanity, and bowing to the uniformed man because he wore a uniform. If only mankind would have heeded Klee's advice, would have held on more tightly to its own self! This system is arbitrary, warns Klee. You are both men. Be men.

The Nazis named Klee's work "degenerate" because it had a free voice. He did not have a religion to which the Nazis objected, nor did he have an ethnic heritage or homeland that clashed with their putrid ideologies, but rather it was his disgust with the lowering of humankind that the Nazis needed to silence. Klee objected to, found silly and arbitrary, the unforgiving religion of social hierarchy; it was this claim to dignity that the Nazis felt the need to silence.

The message of this etching reaches quite far from its source. One sees these two men, and one may not be sure that the link to a criticism of fascism is there. But it exists, inevitably, on a visceral level: no one wants to be the naked, bowing fool, bowing when he needs not bow, honoring the ugly body of perhaps a janitor or a king. An association is created with this etching, one that makes humility before rank become contemptible rather than noble; this association will color forever the viewer's understanding of the hierarchical systems of mankind: what was once nobly dutiful is now somewhat embarrassing, what one once understood as proper is now laughable and arbitrary. These men look like insects. Will you still bow as easily, now that bowing is attached to these creatures by this art, now that accepting and respecting social hierarchy has been depicted as such an ugly thing?

Sometimes people fail to apprehend the message of a piece of art, or at least think they don't get it or that there is nothing there, when in actuality they are being re-programmed, changed dramatically with a single glance at a single thing, by the association the art generates and the permanent attachment of this association to an idea, word, place, or anything. That one does not recognize this shift in associations, and this change in oneself, this is no indicator of the worthlessness of a piece of art. Rather, the condemnation of a piece of art as being without message is only the admission of the limitations of one's own capacity to engage it.

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