by David A. Powell for The Saker Blog
Part 1 of 2 parts
This essay attempts to outline why Adolf Hitler remained unsuccessful in his efforts as an old-fashioned (“old-world”) dictator to achieve total control over art. My thesis is that while the Free World had already begun to accomplish the total control of art Hitler sought to achieve, Hitler’s failure lay in not grasping the means employed by the Free World to accomplish the control which eluded him. Contrary to Hitler’s massively prohibitive methods to control art, the Free World had long already embarked on the opposite course of allowing practically everything falling under the category of “aesthetic culture” to run freely and endlessly rampant – constrained only by the subjectively / socially / culturally conditioned likes / dislikes belonging to a terminally mass / popular culture; a process in which the life supply for that part of the human being which produces art to begin with is ultimately cut off by an inverted notion of “freedom.” This inverted notion – of historical singularity and importance – was first defined in 1835 by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, Vol. I (Chapter XV titled, “Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States and Its Consequences”):
“The master no longer says: ‘You shall think as I do or you shall die’; but he says: ‘You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask for their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence worse than death.’ ”
What Hitler missed is still being missed: a different story in another universe where the “dictator” is an inverted system of “free choice” within a culture ruled largely by fear and ignorance. Of course, within such an inverted system, old-fashioned “dictators” imagined to be the latest “Hitler” can still be dangerous. Nevertheless, the real origins of our own totalitarian system are to be found elsewhere – in what the Trappist monk Thomas Merton called “The Unspeakable” – an exceedingly dark void which has yet to be faced:
“The Unspeakable. What is this? Surely, an eschatological image. It is the void that we encounter, you and I, under the announced programs, the good intentions, the unexampled and universal aspirations for the best of all possible worlds. It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said, the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. … It is the emptiness of ‘the end.’ Not necessarily the end of the world, but a theological point of no return, a climax of absolute finality in refusal, in equivocation, in disorder, in absurdity, which can be broken open again to truth only by miracle, by the coming of God.”
(From: Thomas Merton: Raids on the Unspeakable; New Directions, 1966; p. 4.)
At the beginning of her 1932 essay “Art in the Light of Conscience”, poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes:
“‘Art is holy’, ‘holy art’: however much a commonplace, this does have a certain meaning, and one in a thousand does think what he is saying and say what he is thinking.
That one in a thousand who consciously affirms the holiness of art is the person I am addressing.
What is holiness? Holiness is a condition the reverse of sin. Our contemporary age does not know sin, it replaces the concept of ‘sin’ with the concept of harm. It follows that for an atheist there can be no question of the holiness of art: he will speak of art’s usefulness or of art’s beauty. Therefore, I insist, what I say is addressed exclusively to those for whom God – sin – holiness – are.”
(From: Marina Tsvetaeva: Art in the Light of Conscience – Eight Essays on Poetry; trans. Angela Livingstone; Bloodaxe Books, 2010; p. 149. https://www.abebooks.com/9781852248642/Art-Light-Conscience-Eight-Essays-1852248645/plp)
The “commonplace” of which Tsvetaeva writes has now become nothing outside a barely visible speck of sand – transforming what has yet to be faced into an emptiness far beyond mere “politics.”
While Hitler’s rival Joseph Stalin may be viewed as a would-be poet, Hitler was what can be called a failed painter. My main focus, then, will be on Hitler. This is also due to the fact that Stalin abandoned the writing of what has been called “promising,” yet entirely conventional poetry fairly early and always published his poetry anonymously (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalin%27s_poetry). Hitler, to the contrary, continued his intense “artistic ambitions” throughout his life – albeit, in a medium other than painting – in spite of having been rejected as a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 1907 and 1908.
The specific attitude which both Hitler and Stalin did have in common regarding “serious art,” however, was of decisive importance. Both instinctively understood the central role “serious art” plays in all of life; and it is for this reason alone that my proposition remains the following: neither dictator began their murderous careers with the mindlessly superfluous pursuits of painting and poetry by accident (i.e., “superfluous,” relative to the “real world” of action, politics, and brute force). In light of the above, therefore, the following question appears to be justified: why else if not uncoincidentally did Stalin and Hitler seek to channel and exploit at every turn what they clearly saw as “the power of serious art” for their mad visions of nationhood existing under the control of a single dictator? This has little to do with whether Stalin and Hitler held this conviction unwittingly or secretly. What remains significant is that both finally agreed that:
“… only Art can make phenomena that remain absolute and constant […] In fact, Art plays an enormous role in the construction of life and leaves exclusively beautiful forms for millennia. Art has the capability, the technique, which people cannot achieve in a purely material road in the search for the prosperous land. Is it not astonishing that with brush bristles and chisel the artist can create great things, create what the technical sophistication of utilitarian mechanics cannot.”
(From: Kazimir Malevich, “Suprematism”; from: The World as Objectlessness; Kunstmuseum Basil, 2014, p. 193; written in Berlin, 1927).
The mixture of unreasoned reverence along with a no less unquestioning fear and respect regarding the “power of serious art” shared by both Hitler and Stalin together with more than a dose of “satanic envy” regarding what Tsvetaeva called “holy art” … all of this makes it very difficult for this writer to believe that either dictator exclusively viewed “serious art” in the only manner the Free World appears capable of: as a flashy means for taking one’s Profit as an artist (in whatever form it’s acquired) into an “immortality” where only a negligible number has any substantial relation to “serious art,” but where one’s famous brand name in art is permanently enshrined in the collective memory.
Given that Stalin and Hitler were as power and fame hungry as any “great dictator” one wants to mention, their “old world” universe was still very far removed from that of the Free World with all its utilitarian delusions over the supposed advantages of art (“serious” and otherwise) as a glamorous and potentially lucrative “career-choice” … a Free World where “serious art” does not even appear on the map outside of how it’s viewed through the lens of a place like Hollywood … yes, the map of our system which the two larger-than-life tyrants for all purposes ultimately failed to see in its almost unlimited power to exert a nearly total control – once and for all – over the potential for human liberation contained in “serious art.”
The two-LP set at the following link was found during the 1980’s in a remarkable second-hand store in Seattle called Shorey’s Bookstore (to see as well as listen to the complete recording: https://insignificantattempt.blogspot.com/2018/11/antonbruckner-symphony-no.html). This was during the days when one (in most cases, anyway) actually stood face-to-face with someone you personally paid for whatever you were about to take home. Sometimes, even longish conversations broke out between you and the person behind the sales desk over what you’d selected to buy. It was a very different time from the present.
As soon as he saw the name “Bruckner,” the friendly bookseller taking my money for the LP set I was buying launched into a verbal rhapsody full of detail and glowing enthusiasm going on for almost ten minutes. It was all about how every time he heard Bruckner’s music, he had the unforgettable memory of a train journey he had once made through the Austrian Alps. For this bookseller Bruckner was the breathtaking experience of the Austrian Alps – nothing more and nothing less.
History reveals that Anton Bruckner (1824-1896 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Bruckner) was also one of Hitler’s favorite composers. It may also be remembered that Bruckner wanted to dedicate his unfinished Ninth Symphony to “dem lieben Gott” (“the dear God”) … and that one of the greatest recordings of any such music whatsoever continues to be the live radio transcription of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Bruckner’s anguish-torn Ninth Symphony on October 7, 1944 with basically no one outside a single radio technician in attendance. (to see as well as listen to the complete recording: https://insignificantattempt.blogspot.com/2018/11/antonbruckner-symphony-no_9.html)
In a talk which took place within a 1992 symposium held in Troy, New York – dedicated to the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich – the late poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko correctly pointed out that “During times, very difficult times of totalitarianism, [Shostakovich] saved the great meaning of art as art.”* But what, if not the same, was Wilhelm Furtwängler doing on October 7, 1944? (by any stretch of the imagination, however, Furtwängler was not flattering Hitler). When Yevtushenko says of Shostakovich: “He was a man who was every day crucified by life”, he might as well have also had Furtwängler in mind. No other kind of artist is capable of the extreme depth of identification with human suffering – outside this composer and this conductor of this music during some of our darkest moments. *(Shostakovich Reconsidered; Allan B. Ho and Dmitri Feofanov; Toccata Press, 1998; p. 388.)
But here something needs to be clarified: just because Hitler is known to have “liked” Bruckner – this does not mean that I’m in any way suggesting that we should be wary of Nazi-like ideas lurking behind some innocent-looking notes or passages to be found in Bruckner’s music (to suggest this would be patently absurd … on the other hand, a lot of people are willing to believe such absurdities with relatively few problems).
On the other hand – unless there exists an account I’m unaware of – I find it difficult to form a concrete idea over how Hitler actually heard Bruckner. But given the music itself, why shouldn’t Bruckner have been a favorite of Hitler? Perhaps Hitler was reminded of the breathtaking grandeur of the Austrian Alps – not unlike the American bookseller who sold me the Karajan / Bruckner LPs. Austrian-looking mountains turn up more than once in Hitler’s paintings – so this is a definite possibility. (see: https://insignificantattempt.blogspot.com/2018/11/two-alpine-views-by-hitler.html)
It would therefore appear entirely reasonable to speculate that what Austrian-born Hitler possibly “heard” in the music of the Austrian composer Bruckner was what he (mis)took for literal sound representations of the Austrian Alps and valleys, etc. – purely subjective projections having nothing to do with Bruckner’s music … or, at least with the single exception of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. On the other hand, when “sound pictures” exist at all in Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, they supposedly only have to do with everyday life during the Middle Ages – and not specifically with Austrian mountains … but wait! … maybe what Hitler really heard were the heroic knights in the Fourth Symphony’s reputed extra-musical program heroically galloping out of a Medieval castle (providing that Hitler actually heard Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony; but which, incidentally, has always been Bruckner’s most popular symphony; so this, too, is a distinct possibility); and all of which might well have reminded Hitler of the heroic Germanic characters in Wagner’s music dramas he publicly praised as Models of the Heroic in Germanic Art … so one is forced to conclude that this is also a very real possibility! … even though there exists an anecdote that on one occasion Bruckner awkwardly confessed to having totally forgotten the exact “story line” of his Fourth Symphony when someone asked him about it at some point during the appearance of the work’s seven versions and revisions (that’s right: a grand total of 7 between 1874 and 1888…).
In the end, though, aside from how Hitler actually heard Bruckner, it was perfectly obvious for everyone who wanted to stay on Hitler’s good side that the cardinal sin against Germanic art was the refusal to represent the “realism”-saturated appearances of material-reality-as-it-is-and-nothing-else as the Germanic People were imagined as effortlessly seeing with their own healthy, completely clear-sighted eyes; an ultimate transgression forming the cornerstone for Hitler’s utterly ruthless attempt at the liquidation of everything falling outside the exclusively photo-representational variety of art in the Germanic World beginning with the Entartete Kunst (“Degenerate Art”) affair in 1936 and culminating with the official banning of all art considered “modern” – with “modern” translating in Hitler’s terms directly into the “sickness” of “abstract / non-representational” art. See: https://insignificantattempt.blogspot.com/2018/11/blog-post_17.html
Thus, anything running counter in Hitler’s eyes to the ” ‘Health’ of Art” was slated by Hitler to be purged forever – completely wiped out in all its forms. As Hitler very clearly tells us in the 1937 dedication speech he delivered for his Haus der deutschen Kunst (“House of German Art”):
“I have observed among the pictures submitted here, quite a few paintings which make one actually come to the conclusion that the eye shows things differently to certain human beings than the way they really are, that is, that there really are men who see the present population of our nation only as rotten cretins; who, on principle, see meadows blue, skies green, clouds sulphur yellow, and so on, or, as they say, experience them as such. I do not want to enter into an argument here about the question of whether the persons concerned really do or do not see or feel in such a way; but, in the name of the German people, I want to forbid these pitiful misfortunates who quite obviously suffer from an eye disease, to try vehemently to foist these products of their misinterpretation upon the age we live in, or even to wish to present them as ‘Art.’ No, here there are only two possibilities: Either these so-called ‘artists’ really see things this way and therefore believe in what they depict; then we would have to examine their eyesight-deformation to see if it is the product of a mechanical failure or of inheritance. In the first case, these unfortunates can only be pitied; in the second case, they would be the object of great interest to the Ministry of Interior of the Reich which would then have to take up the question of whether further inheritance of such gruesome malfunctioning of the eyes cannot at least be checked. If, on the other hand, they themselves do not believe in the reality of such impressions but try to harass the nation with this humbug for other reasons, then such an attempt falls within the jurisdiction of the penal law.
This House, in any case, has neither been planned, nor was it built for the works of this kind of incompetent or art criminal…. ” (See: http://mariabuszek.com/mariabuszek/kcai/Expressionism/Readings/HitlerGrmnArt.pdf)
Spine-chilling statements such as the one above leave absolutely no doubt in the matter: Hitler would have carried his “art crusade” against “unhealthy art” (along with the rest of his ghastly project) to as much of the globe as humanly possible had he only been granted an adequate opportunity. And along with the preceding, does anyone ever think about the following unprecedented historical twist? … namely, that Hitler’s crusade against what he damned as “unhealthy art” continues as I write this (after a change of clothes, but without ever having skipped a single beat). What Hitler envisioned with the help of his “aesthetic worldview” (once he’d rid the world of degeneracy) was in fact mass / popular culture – something much more profoundly total in its reach, penetration, and final effect than mere old-fashioned “political propaganda”; the ultimate vanguard of all that is forward-looking; one that is light-years ahead of even the most “difficult, serious” art imaginable of the present – and naturally that embarrassingly outdated variety of the past as well (… such as Bruckner, perhaps?).
As Albert Camus once reminded us:
“Barbarism is never temporary. Sufficient allowance is never made for it, and, quite naturally, from art barbarism extends to morals. Then the suffering and blood of men give birth to insignificant literatures, an ever-indulgent press, photographed portraits, and soldality plays in which hatred takes the place of religion. Art culminates thus in forced optimism, the worst of luxuries, it so happens, and the most ridiculous of lies.”
(From: “Create Dangerously”; Lecture on Dec. 14, 1957 at the University of Uppsala in Sweden.)
And, once established as the norm, barbarism also does not go gentle into that good night only because the world is relieved of a few bad guys; some laws get passed; people learn how to behave and structure their thoughts in a socially / politically prescribed manner; everyone consumes the “right” information dictated by the prevailing status quo; and the notion of “prosperity through whatever kind of materially expedient progress one can imagine” looks better than it ever did.
And the fact that barbarism never goes away once it’s let out of its cage, as it was by the First World War; and ends up being accepted as “an eternal reality, like war itself along with poverty, injustice, and all of the other ‘regrettable’ things which will unfortunately always be with us” … this turns out to be one of the lessons the German nation should have learned when its cities lay in ruin in the wake of a joy ride it was taken on by someone named Hitler. Whether it was learned or not (for the purposes of this essay, anyway) is beside the point. This lesson remains, in any event, twofold:
First, Hitler had approximately the same relation to “serious art” which people generally have in the West today – that is, practically no relation whatsoever. What Hitler did have a relation to (as already mentioned above) was mass / popular culture, something which has done nothing but grow since Hitler’s time – but especially outside of Germany.
Second, it should not be forgotten that Hitler’s so-called “taste in ‘art’ ” was not a taste for “serious art” at all – but rather a preoccupation with the exact opposite of “serious art.” For proof of this, the only thing needed is a look at what Hitler exhibited 1937 in his Haus der deutschen Kunst in order to provide examples of art considered “good” within the model of national socialism. Here, Hitler’s first choice was not Bruckner or even the Old Masters. Above all else, Hitler’s “art”-ideal amounted to a newly minted, rigidly unspontaneous, specifically German-nationalist variety of narrowly academic, strictly photo-representational painting and sculpture (i.e., what everyone can get their minds around as with all mass / popular culture regardless of whatever genre or public is involved after the mandate: “no one is allowed to go home empty-handed”; see: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1944/culture-industry.htm).
What remained the most deciding element of Hitler’s aesthetic project, however, was architecture. This project – of a vast and all-encompassing national scope – was conceived by Hitler and his planners as a kind of dynamically “new,” forward-looking “vanguard” direction – but one paradoxically embodied by a strikingly less-than-original German-nationalist architectural monumentality which relied upon sheer overproportional dimension to overwhelm the beholder. Hitler’s feverishly worked-out contrivances were particularly exemplified by his Haus der deutschen Kunst, whose architectural characteristics would forever be preserved in stone for the ages as what was termed “the new Germanic style.” (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germania_(city) and: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_of_the_Third_Reich)
Even though Hitler missed the boat as a painter, he beyond all shadow of a doubt put everything he had into going down in history as an architectural “planner of note” – not without some kind of ultimate success, it might be added. Architecture became Hitler’s means – yes, as an artist – to finally make his mark in the world with a “Total Art Work” (Gesamptkunstwerk) whose undeniable ancestors were none other than the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Even though film – such as that of Hitler’s personal film maker Leni Riefenstahl – also played a significant role in The Total National Socialistic Plan (along with all the other “sister arts”), Hitler apparently sadly underestimated what Hollywood was already in the process of achieving – and would ultimately achieve in the not-so-distant future.
The “art”-ideal of Adolf Hitler can be understood as comprising a pseudo-innovative form of Germanic-nationalist popular culture – a highly eclectic form employed in all popular culture (as well as art) then as now [note: the eclectic form is addressed in the second part of this essay]; and “popular” in that it was intended to communicate instantly to every individual within the specific group known by the National Socialists as the German Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”) in the most common, physically immediate, inescapable terms possible the power of the German nation – and in doing so underscore the illusion that this projected power originates within the Volksgemeinschaft itself. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volksgemeinschaft)
Aside from the fact that Hitler’s concept of the “Art of the People” is now almost entirely passed over by characterizing it as a historically limited, exclusively “local German phenomenon” – Hitler’s idea nevertheless continues, in reality, not only as immensely prophetic – but also profoundly influential. Hitler’s model remains as a living illustration of Camus’ “Barbarism is never temporary”; as an all-powerful force (only under a different name in a different guise) presently defining every global / cultural aspect of our world in 2018. When compared with the highly professional, technology driven, strictly representational “art” of Hollywood – a monstrous lie-and-illusion machine which is quite arguably the greatest producer of mass / popular culture in human history – it is primarily only a difference between two distinct yet continuously similar cultures (i.e., American culture / German culture), together with the respective historically-conditioned imperial reaches of both.
Yet even when it’s “really good” – the most progressive, uplifting, and-oh-so-socially-useful mass / popular culture imaginable, etc. – there exists no earthly way of getting around the fact that the archetypal mass / popular culture of a place like Hollywood (along with all the “independents” on the reverse side of the same photo-representationalist / illusionist coin) has long become the only show in town; a “Total Art Work” so total that it remains impossible for anyone to fully escape; or imagine the end of its reach, influence, or essence.
All of the above leads to the logical conclusion that Hollywood’s project may be viewed in the most literal terms possible as entirely consistent with the total social / cultural / political effect Hitler passionately imagined and strove to achieve with his monumental architectural madness – which was, as already mentioned, not intended as limited to a single art museum in Munich (while the second incarnation of Hitler’s Haus der deutschen Kunst does continue today as a “post historical” art museum – albeit under a different name); and as a visual image alone (forgetting, for a moment, the film itself) the figure of Rambo (Hollywood’s so-called “creation”) comes straight out of Hitler’s 1937 exhibit in his Haus der deutschen Kunst – and from nowhere else. (see: https://insignificantattempt.blogspot.com/2018/11/hitlers-haus-der-deutschen-kunst.html)
So, who in the world needs an old-fashioned Totalitarian Political Propaganda Ministry when you’ve got something like Hollywood? … especially when it’s allied with the boundless global culture industry of which Hollywood has merely become the now somewhat antiquated Department of Moving Pictures; but whose method has always amounted to openly allowing, in principle, everything to exist in order to clandestinely murder the spirit.
And here is another point where I should pause and make something clear: the very last thing I want to invoke by singling Hollywood out in the above remarks is the idea that what is needed is some sort of “boycott” of the endless productions of the Dream-Lie-And-Illusion-Factory in favor of more “nutritious” or “authentic” moving picture fare “created” by “aware and progressive-minded artists” who basically want to “save the world” with their films and / or videos and / or photo-representational / progressive-brand-new-narrative-making media, etc. (which is, after all, what Hollywood also wants to accomplish after a fashion). But regardless of whoever makes or uses it for whatever Purpose (“good / useful” or “bad / useless” alike), the representational image firmly remains what it has always been in essence: a matter of control and power and dominance on whatever side of the political / economic / social / cultural fence it happens to sit.
“Picturing” something functions as a means to limit, to categorize, to measure, to count, to circumscribe, to obscure and / or heighten the appearances of, to qualify, to modify, to arrange and / or rearrange, to assign value to / devalue whatever one is picturing. To the contrary, “understanding” something (“comprehension”) amounts to the complete refusal to “picture” anything due to the sheer impossibility of “picturing” without sacrificing the essence of understanding which is equal to “0” (nothing); the opposite of “picturing”:
“Science and art have no boundaries because what is comprehended infinitely is innumerable and infinity and innumerability are equal to nothing.”
(From: Kazimir Malevich, “The Suprematist Mirror”, 1923; from Essays on Art 1915-1933, trans. Xenia Glowacki-Prus; ed. Troels Andersen; Copenhagen: Borgen, 1971, p. 224. This short – but extremely important – Malevich text is here: https://insignificantattempt.blogspot.com/2018/11/malevich-suprematist-mirror-1923.html)
* * *
In 1978, the highly respected scholar of the Russian avant-garde (and French translator of the complete writings of Malevich) Jean-Claude Marcadé contributed an invaluable catalogue essay to a Malevich exhibition which took place in Cologne. This essay is called “What is Suprematism?” and is one of the rare essays this writer has encountered from Marcadé to appear in English / German translation instead of the author’s customary French or Russian (the English version of this essay is here: https://insignificantattempt.blogspot.com/2016/03/whatis-suprematism-jean-claudemarcade.html). “What is Suprematism?” goes straight to the heart of the thought of Malevich in the most concise, bull’s eye accurate manner possible; in short, Marcadé’s analysis is unparalleled in this writer’s experience within the entire Web outside Marcadé’s own site: http://www.vania-marcade.com/author/jeanclaude/ … making Jean-Claude Marcadé in this writer’s view “as good as it gets” when it comes to Malevich. To the contrary, what one finds in the Web concerning Malevich vacillates between the uncritical parroting of received orthodoxy to the highly misleading / completely fallacious. However, this amounts to a situation only to be expected in a thoroughly materialist world; specifically, a world in which absolutely everyone makes their own special, unique fingerprint “space” from whatever they find which suits their Personal and / or Wider Purpose and / or Goal in the “Freedom” section of the vast Supermarket of Ideas and do-it-yourself worldviews and “realities” which is Late Capitalist Culture.
In any event, when one reads statements such as: “[Malevich’s] art and his writing influenced … later abstract artists, such as Ad Reinhard and the Minimalists” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazimir_Malevich one can begin to have the feeling that one is at the wrong funeral because the Minimalists – including the so-called “Abstract Expressionists” – never exhibited the faintest awareness of – or interest in – Malevich’s thought (i.e., his writing) or his work; and if they were “influenced” by anything, it amounted to ideas which were in fact categorically in the opposite direction to the thought and work of Malevich.
In 1943, Adolf Gottieb and Mark Rothko (later known as members of the New York School / the Abstract Expressionists) famously issued a joint statement in which they declared: “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial. And only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with with primitive and archaic art”; i.e., the “subject-matter” is that which is represented = the material Object or Idea which is “pictured” and “communicated” as the “message”, “meaning” or the “subject” of the representation (all going, just by the way, also in the opposite direction to Malevich’s Suprematism).
Yet the work of Mark Rothko https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Rothko is often associated with Malevich’s work. In a 1947 statement, Rothko tells us that: “I think of my pictures as dramas, the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically … “; which is all very well and good – but, such an admission – along with Rothko’s 1943 statement above – is about as far removed from anything Malevich would have ever written (or thought) as anything one could possibly imagine.
Rothko’s two above statements exist for one purpose: the fabrication of a myth allowing the painter to paint to begin with; a myth which at the same time “makes sense” of what goes on around the artist on an everyday basis in historical terms. Serge Guilbaud has beautifully summarized the “program” of Abstract Expressionism – and simultaneously without intending to do so – why the Abstract Expressionists could never have had an interest or awareness of Malevich for the simple reason (once again) that Malevich’s “spiritual universe” stands as the total opposite of the “spiritual universe” inhabited by the Americans:
“Gottlieb and Rothko believed that myth and primitive art could be used to express [to represent; to picture; to communicate] contemporary anxieties (though only as a conceptual point of departure, there being little formal influence): in 1943 the source of anxiety weas the war, in 1946, it was the atomic menace. Their attitude was in itself a myth, the myth of the noble savage, of the return to the womb. They held fast to the notion that with a tabula rasa they could save Western culture, purify it, and rebuild it on new foundations. For them, as we have seen, the political situation had become hopeless in its complexity and absurdity (many who rejected the Marxist left ended up embracing what they had detested and rallying to the liberal cause). The avant-garde retained traces of political consciousness, but devoid of direction. The political content of their art had been emptied out by their use of myth. Pollock, Rothko, Gottlieb, Newman – the avant-garde painters who talked about their art – did not reject history, because it was there in all its hideous features, snapping at their throats. They did not reject the idea of some kind of action, of some kind of reaction to the social situation. They did not avoid the problems of the age but transformed them into something else: they transformed history into nature. As Roland Barthes has put it, ‘By moving from history to nature, myth gets rid of something. It does away with the complexity of human actions and bestows upon them the simplicity of essences.’ [Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)]
While using automatism, myth, and surrealistic biomorphism, the modern American painter kept intact one aspect of his political experience from the [nineteen] thirties and held on to one cherished notion: the idea that the artist can communicate with the masses, though now through a universal rather than a class-based style. Political analysis was replaced by ‘a fuzzy world whose sole inhabitant is eternal myth, who is neither proletarian nor bourgeois.’ [Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)” https://www.abebooks.com/9780809013692/Mythologies-Roland-Barthes-080901369X/plp]
(From: Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art – Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, 1983, p. 113 https://academic.oup.com/oaj/article-abstract/7/2/60/1417806)
[Note: It would be a fruitful activity to think of what Roland Barthes says in the above quote concerning the simplifying nature of “eternal myth” in connection with what Hitler wanted to achieve with his “Art of the People” along with ALL the eternal mythological simplicities of ALL mass / popular culture which we ALL derive sustenance from in 2018 … ALL of which promises to extend into a future which is too far away for any of us to imagine the end of barring some kind of decisive passionate revolt which is not in the least bit “cool” let alone “fashionable” in the eyes of those around us.]
Whatever connection Rothko’s work may have had, then, with Malevich’s work might well have also been unknown to Rothko himself. Therefore, I have the strong feeling that the quote included below from Jean-Claude Marcadé concerning the mysticism of Malevich’s Suprematism may very likely also apply to the work of a painter such as Rothko; and this resting on the evidence of Rothko’s paintings alone (Rothko’s ability to express any of this in words being another matter).
Under the heading “Is Suprematism mystical?” Marcadé writes:
“The word ‘mystical’ has been misused so often in the field of Russian art that one hesitates to apply it to the thought and works of Malevich. In this particular case, there is no question of vague and imprecise religious agendas nor theological states of the soul. [my emphasis] But if one accepts that mystical vision bypasses the intermediaries and transforms the ordinary perceptions of the five senses into a contemplation of the world in its total being, then it can be asserted that Malevichian Suprematism is mystical. This does not, however, attribute special status to Malevich since true art has always and will always be linked to this direct penetration of the total beingness of the world. The mysticism of Malevich stands out all the more because of its fundamental antagonism to the dominant postrevolutionary thought of Constructivism and materialism. There are, however, similarities in approach and in thought not only to certain aspects of Buddhism (undoubtedly through the books and articles of P. D. Uspensky) but also with the apophatic theology of the Greek Fathers and with Hesychasm. Though not wishing to overestimate these elements among so many others in Suprematism, one cannot ignore them.”
As late as 1966, painter Barnett Newman was interviewed by longtime editor of ARTnews, Thomas B. Hess. The ignorance and cultural prejudice displayed by both participants in this interview over what should have been at the time nothing outside undisputed factual information over Malevich’s Suprematism and the antagonistically opposed Russian avant-garde movement of the same period called “Constructivism” is nothing short of breathtaking:
“Hess: The constructivists, like Malevich, had abstract ideas with very complicated subject matter or equivalences to complicated subject matter like the blackness of the soul and the blackness of the square. [Hess’ sub-amateurish statement is simply wrong at every point.]
Newman: The language they spoke was mystical, but the result was very materialistic. It was a utopian notion that by manipulating areas and colors and lines and shapes and so on, you would be saying something. But actually what those men were always doing was creating a utopian world, and to that extent [what they did] was unreal. [But here, it is Newman who is doing the manipulating; while the actual “unreality” amounts to Newman’s invention of a set of “facts” which never existed outside the cultural straightjacket of Newman’s mindset.]
Hess: You think idealism is an unreal attitude for artists?
Newman: Utopian idealism, yes.”
(From: Barnett Newman – Selected Writings and Interviews; University of California Press, Berkeley; 1990; p. 275)
Ad Reinhardt’s supposed relation to Malevich is a somewhat different matter in that Reinhardt’s recorded thoughts often resemble what Marcadé calls below “negative philosophies of the ‘Nothing’ “; and these negative moments appear to echo, on the bare surface, some of Malevich’s negations. Reinhardt’s paintings of 1960-1966, we are told, were “inspired” by the “iconic” Black Quadrat(s), the fingerprint-trademark work(s) – an “inspiration,” in any event, which anyone with a functioning brain and matching eyesight can see without needing to be informed; and yes, there are two Black Quadrats not counting what appears in the lithographed pamphlet Suprematism: 34 Drawings, dated Dec. 15, 1920; and which have continued to guarantee Malevich his ticket to immortality within the Western World-dominated “art world” as the ultimate Minimalist “abstract-geometrical reduction(s)” judged to have ever been painted by anyone (the geometrically unequal sides of Malevich’s “squares,” notwithstanding) … except: these paintings were apparently not actually the first abstract paintings in history because of Kandinsky with his 1910 untitled watercolor which at a later date somehow came to be known as “Erste Abstrakte Aquarell” (“First Abstract Watercolor”); and which has been used by art historian H. H. Arnason in his History of Modern Art (1968) to prove that it was Kandinsky who won the Olympic Race to Abstraction rather than Malevich with his “Black Square of 1915”; but this “art-as-competitive-sports-story” will have to wait for another time ….
On the other hand, what has long appeared for this writer to be completely missing in Reinhardt’s “Purist” approach – in which art is adamantly divorced from life; and which Reinhardt very specifically called “art-as-art” in addition to “art for art’s sake” – is what Jean-Claude Marcadé has accurately described in Malevich’s Suprematism:
“The pictorial is for Malevich the privileged site for Suprematist revelation, but the latter is not limited to what is traditionally called the plastic [fine] arts. Suprematism reaches out to all branches of human activity. It wants to transform life in its entirety (economical, political, cultural, religious). If the perspective inherited from the Renaissance, or the inverted perspective of iconic art has been radically suppressed, this is because man’s place in the universal movement is not totally new. Suprematism is not humanist. It is not the triumph of man as the centre of the universe, the centre of converging or diverging vision, but the triumph of ‘liberated nothingness’. Man in general and the artist in particular, is the emitter and transmitter of the energies of the world which pass through him. He himself is this world. He is not the enterpreter but the prophet in the etymological sense of the word. It is by light of this new perspective that the new world must be erected. It will be built out of pain, for the figurative resists, and whenever there is resistance, there is war. Wars and revolutions are inevitable phenomena in the world march towards the liberation from the burden of the figurative, reinforced through the centuries by humanity’s anthromorphism and its need of comfort and convenience.”
(From: “What is Suprematism?” https://insignificantattempt.blogspot.com/2016/03/whatis-suprematism-jean-claudemarcade.html)