“I really don’t think the artist is an intellectual. I believe that the artist is a set of nerves.”
I was paging through a catalog of the photomontage work of Hannah Höch when I came across “Angst,” a very simple collage she made in 1970 using a photograph from a 1960 Life magazine article, “Harriet’s Celebrated Show of Nerves”:
It’s not my absolute favorite collage of Höch’s, but the source material fascinated me: the article is about a college janitor who donated her body for dissection after eavesdropping on an anatomy professor complaining in one of his lectures about the availability of corpses to study. (More of the story here.)
On the second page of the article was an image that totally spooked me, because I’d seen it before — I’d found it online back in February, when my son Owen was going through a “human body” phase. I printed it out and gave it to him to copy. I then asked him to write “ALL NERVES” above it:
The drawing currently hangs in my studio. When I look at it, I think about our times, how bombarded with electrical signals we are, how close some of us are to a nervous breakdown, how we all seem to be in the business of getting on each other’s nerves —“the nerve of these creeps!”
Then, sometimes the drawing says to me: Your nerves are all you’ve got. Don’t lose your nerve. Steady your nerves. Touch a nerve.
I think of Frank O’Hara, who said of writing poetry, “You just go on your nerve.”
And Emily Dickinson, who wrote: “If your Nerve, deny you— / Go above your Nerve.”