Jean Loewinson

Tendencies in the Sphere of Culture and the Question of Hegemony: The Visual Arts and Literature in the 20th and early 21st Century

Confronted with a new century tormented by the deepest economic crisis of Capitalism since 1928, faced with the challenge of global warming and climate change, a worldwide increase in hunger and human misery, rapidly decreasing bio-diversity, desertification, dwindling water resources, overploitation and wasteful use of raw materials as well as depletion of scarce energy reserves, don’t we have to ask ourselves whether our action is needed, not only as concerned citizens but also as artists, as writers, poets? And this in a way not much different from what we demand of today’s scientists, sociologists, economists and philosphers? 

Does the question of our responsibility pose itself, with greater urgency than maybe for long? 

In fact that urgency, despite the many wars of the last 65 years, may never have been more acute since the 1930s and '40s – the years when artists, poets, writers, philosphers and scientists in many countries joined the struggle against fascism.
Picasso, in painting ‘Guernica’, took a stand.

Many artists and writers in France, Belgium, Greece, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia etc. joined the resistance. Committed writers in Japan perished in prison at the time.
Many of those who opposed Nazism in Germany chose emigration.(1)

In the U.S., artists like Ben Shahn painted works that accused social irrationalies and deep inequality. Muralists from Mexico worked in the U.S. as well as in their native country, exposing the ills of a mode of production that relied on exploitation, denying human dignity as well as a decent way of life to large parts of the population (and in many countries, to the overwhelming majority). In their work, they critiqued an economic system that periodically produced the most horrible misery, as well as political repression, colonialism, neo-colonialist intervention, and frightful wars.

Photographers, during the New Deal era, working for the WPA, in an  exemplary way documented the misery of those of became victims of the Great Depression. Writers like John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Erskine Caldwell, James Agee, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos and others did not fail to reflect the ills of American capitalism.  Singer songwriters like Josh White and Woody Guthrie intervened in the struggle for social justice using their own specific art form.
Artists took a stand.

Can we afford today to fall back behing the position they chose to take?

It is true that there are many ways to take up the struggle and to intervene, as an artist. As Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, André Breton, as Frieda Kahlo and Pablo Picasso and many others demonstrated in their time, there is not one way to speak out against what is inhuman or irrational. But there are also many ways in which we can close our eyes to what is wrong in our times, our rotten age, choosing to be content not to be artists concerned about  ‘the whole’   but painters, draughtsmen, printmakers, creators of happenings or installations, filmmakers, novelists, poets etc. deeply involved in our craft, our ‘speciality’  – and in not much else.

The world of the arts was already divided before and during World War I. How many artists and writers chose to enter that war, in what they thought was a ‘patriotic’ mood!

Anthroposophic, theosophic and other irrational tendencies were in full sway during the late 19th and early 20th century. It was an apt expression of the deep socio-cultural crisis felt shortly before the outbreak of World War I.(2)  But no matter how irrational and helpless such a conversion was, it still constituted an understandable reaction against the blind trust in technological progress at the service of the dominant social forces, at the service of Capital accumulation rather than real needs of the majority. It was also a reaction against the bureaucratic tendencies of the modern State and modern social institutions (health and insurance systems, the army, the school and university system, etc.) – in other words, a reaction against exactly the tendencies that Franz Kafka, in a subtle and grotesque way, laid bare in his novels.

Kafka never was a ‘socialist realist’  in any sense of the word, but – as Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (as well as a few others?) have made clear – his critique of modern Capitalist society is revealing and to the point. We owe it to the irrational trends in 20th century literary criticism that he has been portrayed as a writer haunted above all by the metaphysically absurd, by religious problems, and involved only in the literary creation of riddles and mythical puzzles that project an ‘eternal’  and eternally absurd condition humaine.

The reactionary and irrational reception of Kafka’s oeuvre has of course social and political causes that are rooted in the interests of the dominant social forces and in the confrontational politics of the Cold War period. In a similar way, abstract art was pushed by cultural institutions and government agencies since the late 1940s.  We all might do well to look more closely perhaps at the strange role played at the time by the International Committee of the Museum of Modern Arts in New York and the American politicians and political institutions drawing the strings (and making available considerable financial funds) when exhibitions of abstract artists were organized in major museums in Western Europe, and when Congresses for the Freedom of Culture were held in Paris, West Berlin, and elsewhere.(3) It is clear that a massive intervention in the cultural arena occurred  for political reasons that sought to marginalize, and in part marginalized, committed artists and writers. U.S. regionalists were ‘out of fashion’  and some, unable to still make a living as an artist, stopped to paint altogether.(4) Even figurative painters like Edward Hopper were looked down on by the influential institutions of the ‘art world.’   In West Germany, the work of major pre-war artists, like John Heartfield’s, for instance, was suddenly almost forgotten, and only received renewed attention briefly since 1968; there were attempts to marginalize Brecht (and he staged his come-back in Europe in Switzerland where Max Frisch supported him, and in the G.D.R. when, harrassed by the HUAC, he left the U.S.). In the German-speaking countries, with the exception of the G.D.R., Erich Maria Remarque, Anna Seghers, and others were no longer looked up to by young novelists as writers one could learn from. Still others, like Erich Muehsam, were almost completely forgotten. U.S. ‘models’ influenced the young Heinrich Boell and his generation. In Italy, the situation was similar.(5)

Of course, before this politically motivated intervention in the field of culture (in museums, publishing houses, newspapers, radio and TV) occurred in Western Europe, Japan and – first of all – the U.S., socially committed art and literature had not been the only kind that existed. Naturalist (and realist) artists had not been automatically socially engagé. Painters like Picasso who had embraced diverse modern tendencies, including abstract art, had been very committed. At the same time, the kind of social realism propagated in Eastern Europe and soon also in the P.R. China had, by and large, been discredited. If many ‘socialist realist’  art works in the Warsaw pact countries and China appeared boring, this was due to intellectually stifling Etatist intervention and to the subsequent mediocrity of state-supervised art. Of course, Mao’s question posed in 1942 was relevant. An important task of progressive artists and writers was to determine FOR WHOM they wanted to (and perhaps ‘should’ ) create works of art. FOR WHOM, and thus, IN WHOSE INTEREST? The need to take sides could not be without consequence, regarding the way one worked and how one would continue to intervene, artistically. But, as Picasso had shown, and as Breton and others were to show as well, the responsibility lay with the artists and writers themselves, not a government or a party. And the search for relevant forms of expression was their task; it could not be prescribed in any helpful and meaningful way by critics or bureaucrats.

In the end, the Cold War situation has meant that open intervention in the arts and literature took place in the East. And more subtly introduced, less noticeable but no less effective forms of intervention by governments and cultural institutions took place in the West, with results that continue to be felt until today. Still, a multiplicity of trends, reaching from extreme l’art pour l’art positions to radical political agitation, continued (and still continue) to exist, of course, in what the ideologues of the time once called the Free West. 

But the strong position of progressive forms of expression in the arts and literature that existed in Japan and Germany until  the late 1920s or early 30s (that is, until dictatorships at the service of the Capitalist social forces in these countries were put in place) and that lasted in France, Britain, and the U.S. till about 1945 or 1950, was rapidly destroyed. A cultural hegemony of subjectivism (and concern for individualist ‘problems’  - for instance, petit-bourgeois marriage problems) was established most clearly in the field of literature, thanks to the bias of people placed as “gate-keepers” in major publishing houses. Simultaneously, an aesthetically radical yet subjective,  usually a-political, ‘experimental’  cinema emerged in the U.S. in the 1960s.(6) Something similar appeared a bit later in Western Europe and Japan when the U.S. cultural institutions (including the universities) furthered the New American Cinema and when, subsequently, the U.S. Information Agency distributed these works via their America Houses abroad.  I have already referred to the intervention of U.S. museums and the U.S. government in favor of “abstract art”, pop art, every thing that was anti-realist, and that departed from the routes chosen by artists who were “engagé”. 

Since progressive artists have been successfully marginalized and a hegemony of non-committed, often ‘aestheticist’ art has been achieved, the further development of the art scene has been left to market forces, resulting in increasing commodification of what always had been (not primarily in every case, but also’ ) a commodity, a product for sale in the art market. 

Today, as everyone knows, the radically aesthetic can be (and often is) marginal, and it can assume a subversive quality to the extent that it challenges and opposes art market trends and thus, commodification. The old kind of ideological hegemony in the sphere of culture that was established shortly after World War II subsists nonetheless in the ‘advanced’  industrialized countries: the subaltern classes have been pacified, and those artists and writers who dare to be ‘engagé’ risk being ignored or, if that is not possible, belittled and treated as ‘somewhat crazy.’  In the field of cinematic arts, it is hardly possibly anymore to see the works of Joris Ivens, Chris Marker, Robert Kramer, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Jean-Luc Godard and others in ‘art cinemas’  or by turning to reputedly ‘high brow’ television channels – their only outlets in the past, apart from university film clubs. Left-wing artists like Hrdlicka are seen as ossified ‘antiques,’   and writers of the left fare no better. Brecht is “out of fashion” as young critics object to what they ignorantly call his “much too didactic plays.” Hardly anybody reads and debates the works of Lu Xun, P.A. Toer or Miguel Angel Asturias whereas a certain, conservative Peruvian writer receives all the attention he likes, by the grateful media. And Franco Fortini has even been called an “old Stalinist” by liberal intellectuals in Italy.

But is it a reason to join the flock? Or to outdo others  artists by being superficially provocative? Do we have to become hermits, ‘doing our thing’ regardless of what others say, not caring who still gets a chance to see the works we accomplish? 

Do not despond, I tell myelf. The way out of the dilemma, an end of the isolation of committed art and committed artists may not be visible yet. But the times, they are a-changing...


(1) As Dieter Hildebrandt pointed out some time ago, German culture suffered terribly as a consequence of the rise of the fascists to power. Not only did many  writers, artists, composers, sociologists, philosophers etc. flee the country and emigrate to Britain, France, Belgium, Cuba, Mexico Turkey, Palestine, the U.S. etc.. A large number of the German intellectuals were murdered by the Nazi regime - probably as much as a quarter if not more.

(2) Today, to some disconcerted contemporaries, a turn to 'New Age philosophies,' but also Americanized or European versions of 'Buddhism' and generally, 'mysticism'  etc. seems to offer similar 'escape routes'.

(3) Regarding the role of the mentioned  'International Council' in the context of covert, that is to say secret  Cold War activities in the field of culture, see for instance: G.F. KENNAN, International Council of the Museum of Modern Art (1955); but also Michael WARNER (ed.), CIA Cold War Records: The CIA under Harry Truman (1994);  and especially: R. J. ALDRICH, Diplomacy & Statecraft (1997) - a study that throws light on the "American Committee on United Europe" in the years 1948-1960, on OSS and CIA operations (also in the field of culture and the arts), and on the  role of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Arts between 1948-1960 in the cultural arena. - Among the congresses referred to, it is necessary to mention especially the Kongress fuer die Freiheit der Kultur in West Berlin and the Congrés pour la liberté de la culture in Paris (1950). These congresses found their East European counterpart in the 'Kafka conference' at the castle of Liblice near Prague where Roger Garaudy. a member of the central committee of the French Communist Party and a respected philosopher at the time,  pleaded for "une réalisme sans rivages" ( a "realism without bounds") that would include Kafka, Dos Passos and artists like Picasso. 
- George Kennan, the first author here referred to, was Deputy for Foreign Affairs, National War College, August 1946-July 1947; Director, Policy Planning Staff, Department of State, May 5, 1947-December 31, 1949; and Counselor of the Department of State from August 4, 1949. 

(4)  Roger Medearis (1920-2001), for instance, who had studied with Thomas Hart Benton and became a respected regionalist painter, stopped painting after World War II when he couldn't sell his work any more, as regionalist art was shunned by many museums, talked down by critics, and squeezed out of the art market. It took years before Medearis began to paint again in 1966 when he was rediscovered by an art dealer.
His story is exemplary in a way. Figurative painters, especially those who focused on social and regional reality in the U.S., began to have a hard time since the late 1940s. Today we know that to some extent this was also the result of a concerted and determined effort of those entrusted with the American Cold War strategy in the field of culture by the Truman  administration and, to a lesser extent, the Eisenhower administration.

(5) See for instance: Cesare Pavese, La letteratura americana e altri saggi. Torino (Einaudi) 1953

(6) The work of Stan Brakhage is rather characteristic of this very subjective approach to cinema. Of course it is aesthetically fascinating. But what is so remarkable is that the USIS and the America Houses pushed exactly this sort of cinema in the 1960s while, on the other hand, John Ford never got a chance again to do a film like Grapes of Wrath (1940), a film that is even more fascinating, both aesthetically and in terms of its democratic engagement.