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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
(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
(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.