“An army without culture is a dull-witted army and a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy.” – Chairman Mao Zedong
john heartfield, the hand has five fingers, 1928
COMMUNISM & ART
i would first of all like to begin by quoting from the fantastic essay ‘My New Pictures’ by the german artist george grosz:
The artistic revolutions of painters and poets are certainly interesting and aesthetically valuable – but still, in the last analysis, they are studio problems and many artists who earnestly torment themselves about such matters end up succumbing to skepticism and bourgeois nihilism. This happens because persisting in their individualistic artistic eccentricities they never learn to understand revolutionary issues with any clarity; in fact they rarely bother with such things. […] What should you do to give content to your paintings? Go to a proletariat meeting; look and listen how people there, people just like you, discuss some small improvement of their lot. And understand these masses are the ones who are reorganizing the world. Not you! But you can work with them. You could help them if you wanted to! And that way you could learn to give your art a content which was supported by the revolutionary ideals of the workers. […] The anarchism of Expressionism must stop! Today painters are forced into this situation because they are unenlightened and have no links with the working people. But a time will come when artists – instead of being scrubby bohemian anarchists – will be clean, healthy workers in a collectivistic community. Until this goal is realized by the working class the intellectual will remain cynical, skeptical and confused. Not until then will art be able to break out of its narrow and shallow confines where it flows anemically through the life of the ‘upper ten-thousand’, not until then will it become a great stream capable of nourishing all of working humanity.
while sadly i feel the actual works of george grosz never authentically measured up to the sentiments expressed here, never really developing beyond vague antinationalism & moralism against the bourgeois (& eventually he would slide slide into simple apolitical views & assimilation into american society), i feel this essay displays one of the greatest intellectual understandings of the role of the artist in relation to socialism.
berlin dada & the new objectivity: communist art in germany
raoul hausmann, the art critic, 1919
during the first world war, a movement of radical intellectuals opposing the bourgeois nationalism & colonialism at the heart of this international conflict was founded in the city of zurich. this movement, dada, is pretty widely considered the first major cultural touchstone in the contemporary avante-garde. while the zurich dadaists made significant leaps in attacking the cultural language of the bourgeois, mainly by exploring new techniques in the creation of art such as photomontage & assemblage, their political sentiments never advanced beyond vague anarchism. the dadaist movement would find their main political voice elsewhere, in berlin.
“Dadaism demands: The international revolutionary union of all creative and intellectual men and women on the basis of international communism” proclaimed the berlin dadaists richard huelsenbeck and raoul hausmann in their paper What is Dadaism and what does it want in Germany? (as you can clearly see, the painting of the dadaists as anarchic postmodern blah blah individualists is clearly false). among other things, the berlin dadaists would establish a ‘Central Council of Dada for the World Revolution’ & fervently support the spartacist uprisings of karl liebknecht & rosa luxemburg.
hannah hoch, da dandy, 1919
HOWEVER in huelsenbeck & hausmanns paper above we can see the main flaw in dadaism and its art – it was a movement of juvenile & utopian left communism, and as such separate from the material conditions of reality & divorced from the proletariat masses. but, in dada we can see the seeds for a genuine artistic culture in service of the proletariat. this can be seen in the open letter in opposition to the supposedly ‘socialist’ artistic organization the november group, written by berlin dadaists including otto dix, george grosz, raoul hausmann & hannah hoch : “Our love is for the proletariat, because only the proletariat will bring about, through communism, equality for all people and forms of work, and freedom from exploitation. […] We are aware of our duty to work together with the masses towards the achievement of this society. Our goal must be seen to be the overthrow of aesthetic-formalistic pedantry by a new objectivity, born of a disgust with exploitative, bourgeois society.”
otto dix, three prostitutes on the street, 1925
this new objectivity would soon arise in the later works of george grosz & otto dix, among others. they showed a renewal of interest in painting, something dada had largely abandoned, and sought to express a sort of realism, an examination of the everyday, but with a distorted emphasis on the vulgar & ugly.
george grosz, untitled, 1927
again, while the works produced by george grosz (& friends) in this period were a major step forward in the creation of an artistic movement truly in the service of the proletariat, the politics of grosz’ art were not of authentic socialism.
Analysis of Grosz’s work reveals that the political message of his drawings does not reflect his Communist militancy at the time; on the contrary, the distance between the two is striking. […] In 1921, Grosz published the portfolio The Face of the Ruling Class, curiously considered the first portfolio intended to improved the consciousness of the proletariat. The drawings depicted the injustice and brutality of the police, and portrayed the workers as repressed victims, who work until they die, and are sometimes murdered while defending their interests. However, the drawings represent the workers not as revolutionary heroes, but rather as disagreeable figures from the point of view of the dominant class. Grosz portrays the workers in the same manner he portrays the bourgeoisie; thus the worker also becomes a negative stereotype. […] In 1924, Grosz developed the Red Group, an organization of artists who were members of the Communist Party. The following year, he published declarations in which he condemned artists who did not promote a political message and defined themselves as communists and defenders of the proletariat. The text shows that while Grosz considered himself to be a revolutionary, at the same time he referred to the workers as ‘philistines, reactionaries, uncultivated and vulgar’. thereby revealing his true face. He had a ‘bourgeois’ vision of the proletariat and did not believe in an egalitarian society.
(i recommend reading all of this essay it’s really good)
george grosz, cafe, 1926
grosz even confessed in 1927 that “I have to be content with my usual role – a traitor… a petty bourgeois anarchist.” this is truly the real heart of these early attempts toward a socialist art – petty bourgeois anarchism.
august sander, young soldier, 1945
two leading lights of this artistic period & later are the photographer august sander,who primarily worked in the field of portrait photography, documenting the citizens of the weimar republic & beyond, & the artist john heartfield, whose work offered biting satire of the emerging nazi regime in the field of photomontage, both associated with the new objectivity movement.
john heartfield, adolf the superman: swallows gold & spits junk, 1932
when the weimar republic fell and the nazis took power, the work of such socialist minded artists was condemned as ‘degenerate art’, & many of the works were seized & destroyed & the many artists were forbidden to exhibit or paint entirely.
hannes meyer, konstruktion, 1927
if we can view the movements of berlin dada & the new objectivity as petty bourgeois anarchism, we can find an alternative – an artistic establishment genuinely in the service of the proletariat – elsewhere in germany, in the city of dessau. the bauhaus school was founded in weimar by the architect walter gropius, & was largely apolitical, & affinity towards expressionism & mysticism was common, especially in the curriculum penned by the painter johannes itten. later, the budget for the school was cut, walter gropius resigned, & the bauhaus relocated to dessau, with the swiss architect hannes meyer taking the position of director. under hannes meyer, a dedicated marxist, all tendencies of expressionism & mysticism were removed in favor of a program of radical functionalism. meyer advocated a new way to build – one that was not concerned with aesthetics, but instead on low cost & the fulfillment of social needs.
hannes meyer, erweiterung der siedlung dessau, 1930
Hannes Meyer posted:
1. sex life, 2. sleeping habits, 3. pets, 4. gardening, 5. personal hygiene, 6. weather protection, 7. hygiene in the home, 8. car maintenance, 9. cooking, 10. heating, 11. exposure to the sun, 12. services – these are the only motives when building a house. We examine the daily routine of everyone who lives in the house and this gives us the functional diagram – the functional diagram and the economic programme are the determining principles of the building project.
hannes meyer, erweiterung der siedlung dessau, 1930
here we can see hannes meyer was totally in line with principles of science & materialism that form the basis of communist philosophy. sadly, meyer & his politicization of the bauhaus were not approved of by others & he was eventually fired from his position as director & left for mexico. this position was later filled by another architect, mies van der rohe, who privatized the school & contributed designs to the nazi government.
hannes meyer, bundesschule des adgb, 1930