Freedom and Other Illusions – Excursions into what used to be called “high versus low culture”
(or, illusions concerning American art) With a view of art as revolt / counter-revolt / et cetera
by David A. Powell for The Saker Blog
Part 2 of 3 parts
“The counter concept to popular culture is art. Today artistic products are losing the character of spontaneity more and more and are being replaced by the phenomena of popular culture, which are nothing but a manipulated reproduction of reality as it is; and in doing so, popular culture sanctions and glorifies whatever it finds worth echoing. Schopenhauer remarked that music is ‘the world once more.’ This philosophic aphorism throws light on the unbridgeable difference between art and popular culture: it is the difference between an increase in insight through a medium possessing self-sustaining means and mere repetition of given facts with the use of borrowed tools.”
(From: Leo Löwenthal, “Historical Perspectives of Popular Culture”; Originally published in the American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 55, 1950; From Mass Culture – The Popular Arts in America, The Free Press: Glencoe, Illinois, 1957; pp. 49-50.)
Effectively replaced by a continually evolving universal mass (popular) culture of epic, world-historical proportions, things like art, along with the quote-unquote humanities, went out the window ages ago … in spite of all the attention these “timeless” things now get in The Web; attention and “information” much of which terminates in the clouding and neutralization of the potentially liberating, critical and / or independent-thought-inducing aspect of its subject by remaining within the illusion that one is “free” to think whatever one pleases no matter what … that is, as long as one’s thoughts never depart from group-think conditioned reflexes such as the Facebook “like” imperative.
Yet, in a world in which ONLY “information” which can be exploited has a home, this “disappearance of art” I refer to amounts primarily to the predictably logical fate of whatever refuses, due to its own inviolable inner nature, the tyranny of being instrumentalized for whatever cause regardless – those consisting of personal and / or social, political / economic worldviews and thought fallacies … all contained within a neatly pre-digested, gift-wrapped mindset existing for the sole purpose of reinforcing our cultural illusions … another endless circle we apparently can’t ever get enough of buying / buying into.
One crucial thing, in any event, should be remembered: only art worthy of its name disappears rather than submit to any kind of ideological exploitation; while the kind of art which submits and cannot ever find enough ways to compromise with the social order it obediently serves – along with all the personal “likes” it endlessly caters to – only proliferates endlessly, as can be presently observed with unambiguous clarity (that is, if one cares enough to observe such things to begin with).
What I mean here with the phrase “art worthy of its name” is exemplified by what is historically understood as the Romantic movement, a highly complex artistic / literary / philosophical / scientific / social / political phenomenon originating and flourishing during the late 1700’s in Germany, England and France – and lasting until the years immediately before the First World War (while having had its wings prematurely clipped as a consequence of the cataclysmic revolutions occurring in 1848 and affecting over 50 European countries).
But nothing directly resembling the Romantic movement in 19th century Europe ever happened in America (outside of one short-lived interlude to be touched upon below). The mainstream of American art essentially never had a viable relation to something like the tremendous, elemental force informing European Romantic thought and art. Certainly, there were “hot-house” American Romantics and sympathetic followers among a number of American intellectuals and artists during the 19th century as well as later. Nevertheless, the all-embracing, supremely PASSIONATE REVOLT of European Romanticism – which had a profound and lasting impact on all areas of human art, thought and endeavor – all this has remained an essentially a foreign entity in America.
In fact, the terms Romantic / Romanticism eventually acquired the status of pejoratives in America within certain ideologically-motivated “art circles.” The most degrading insult or criticism that my university painting professor could produce was the charge of “Romanticism” or the label “Romantic” … and I even heard the colorful variation, “warmed-over Romanticism”. My painting professor, by the way, was someone I got to know personally far better than I care to contemplate, and was the Director of my school’s Painting Department. This was during the 1970’s … and none of my professor’s anti-Romatic prejudices came out of nowhere.
Did my Romanticism-hating painting professor also paint? He sure did … that is, in a diametrically opposed direction to my own painting, which my professor, being the consistent authoritarian that he was, literally ordered me to stop doing. And, like every authoritarian dictator, my professor had more than his share of loyal acolytes and henchmen: a small army of devoted student teaching assistants who relished their roles of being able to terrorize their fellow painting students using my professor’s ideology – which, naturally, they all devoutly believed and shared with my professor to the utmost fanatical degree. The Painting Department at my school, therefore, had far more in common with a small country under the control of a ruthless dictator than anything having remotely to do with art – let alone any kind of independent thought or “creative activity.”
Then, there were the student Art Discussion Seminars which my professor held in his home during which all art-and-culture-related issues were covered (but closely “moderated” under my professor’s vigilantly censorious eye). The gist of what I took away from these events, however, were my professor’s amateurish attempts in the direction of what he mistook for profoundly “progressive” attitudes concerning “art and culture” … and all of which turned out to bear an uncanny likeness (as I remember realizing at the time) to the “Artistic / Cultural Statements To The Nation” which had come from another “artistically-committed leader” by the name of Adolf Hitler … and to the following statement in particular, in which Hitler proclaims:
“The proof of the endowment of a true artist is always to be found in the fact that his work of art expresses the general will of a period.”
[“expresses” being Hitler’s “refined” way of saying: “unconditionally obeys – or else“]
(From: Adolf Hitler, “House of German Art Dedication Speech”, Munich, July 18, 1937. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Art)
In “the eyes of the world,” (i.e, the myth-based worldview of American culture) my former professor is now remembered as having been entirely “successful” with his art and teaching career. His motto, which he delivered in his lectures with nothing short of missionary zeal amounted to the following: “Either one totally compromises with the ruling order or one fails miserably“; and which he liked to end with: “… and if you don’t believe me and go your own way, don’t ever come back and tell me that I didn’t warn you … so, get all of those Romantic Thoughts out of your heads!”
Therefore, it was only inevitable that my painting professor would eventually score a retrospective exhibition of his work in one of New York’s major art museums (one enjoying – then as now – universal world-wide fame). How do I know this? Because I was there – having unintentionally stumbled into the exhibition’s opening reception around a decade after my university days … you know, where everyone stands around with a drink in their hand … which included a face-to-face encounter with my former painting professor during which his nearby wife pointedly asked me: “Why don’t you congratulate [name withheld] on his exhibit?” (and I even remember feeling guilty for a couple of minutes after she completely nailed me with this question due to my shamelessly rude failure of not immediately clicking my heels and doing so … while my former professor and I only speechlessly stared at one another in total disbelief most likely because we’d been nothing outside complete pains in the ass for one another during my student days) … all occurring after I’d viewed a different exhibit in another part of the museum. But more concerning my former professor a bit later …
Of course, nothing of what I write here is intended as any sort of comprehensive account of American art as a whole – one including music, literature and visual arts, etc. But the following can, with certainty, be said of the historical origins of the American visual art scene (with specific applicability for its New York based capitol). Even though American visual artists studied extensively during the 19th century in various European academies (Europe being where first-rate art schools existed at the time in contrast to America), the work they produced upon returning home was completely tailored to fit the worldview cultivated by the elite financial class then spearheading America’s developing industrial capitalism. The identification of the American artist during this period with the members of a wealthy elite amounted, on one level, to the most expedient career move possible to insure the acquisition of maximum financial and social success within the anglo-American system (while the “have-nots” of American society were summarily regarded as low-class “losers”). Yet, in a far more important sense, this identification also firmly cemented the very notion and practice of art itself within the myth-based system of American culture as a whole – together with the ethos of a thoroughly capitalist worldview – which had already begun to assume the religious character it now possesses.
To make a very long story far shorter than it should be: within the visual arts in America, the only force to ever challenge the mythology which had already engulfed American culture was a counter-mythology pursued by the so-called “New York School of Painting” of the 1940’s–early 1960’s (a very loosely affiliated group of individual New York painters inaccurately described to this day as practitioners of the critically fabricated phenomenon now known as “Abstract Expressionism”).
But when I speak of a “counter-mythology” having been pursued by this loosely affiliated group (i.e., by a few of its members), I’m using a term employed in the writings of the painters themselves: what was called “a new myth” capable of effectively coping with the entirely New Reality which descended upon all of us along with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan (a New Reality which, at the time, was calculatedly brushed aside by both the majority of the American press and the political / intellectual power elite alike as being merely “a natural, inevitable consequence of scientific / technological progress”). The CIA’s ensuing, clandestine Cold War “weaponization” of the work of the members of the New York School of Painting during this period finally signaled, in a profoundly symbolic manner, the complete end of the only major art phenomenon in America to have ever approached the status of a neo-Romantic revolt … and fully consistent with my painting professor’s hatred of whatever he perceived as being even remotely “Romantic.”
In the words of Dwight Macdonald (appearing in Politics, September, 1945): “The Authorities have made valiant attempts to reduce the thing [the atomic bomb] to a human context, where such concepts as Justice, Reason, Progress could be employed.… The flimsiness of these justifications is apparent; any atrocious action, absolutely any one, could be excused on such grounds. For there is really only one possible answer to the problem posed by Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor: if all mankind could realize eternal and complete happiness by torturing to death a single child, would this act be morally justified?… From President Truman down, they emphasized that the Bomb has been produced in the normal, orderly course of scientific experiment, that it is thus simply the latest step in man’s long struggle to control the forces of nature, in a word that it is Progress.
The Bomb is the natural product of the kind of society we have created. It is as easy, normal and unforced an expression of the American Way of Life as electric ice-boxes, banana splits and hydromatic-drive automobiles.
Again, the effort to ‘humanize’ the Bomb by showing how it fits into our normal everyday life also cuts the other way: it reveals how inhuman our normal life has become.”
(From: Dwight Macdonald, “Memoirs of a Revolutionist” (Politics, September, 1945); quoted in: Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art – Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, 1983. https://academic.oup.com/oaj/article-abstract/7/2/60/1417806); See also the 1974 article by Eva Cockcroft, “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War” https://scrapaduq.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/modern-art-was-cia-weapon/evacockroft/ )
Comment from Serge Guilbaut: “For Macdonald, the dehumanization of society that made it possible to produce a weapon as sophisticated as the atom bomb, that made it possible for 125,000 workers to participate in a project without knowing the purpose of what they were doing, was incomprehensible. Under such conditions, he maintained, the words ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘progress,’ and ‘science’ no longer meant anything.”
Aside from being overwhelmed by the description of our own hellish reality already laid out by Macdonald in 1945, I was unexpectedly struck by his reference to “hydromatic-drive automobiles” (along with the now quaint-sounding term, “electric ice boxes” which I still heard as a kid). But who in the world remembers such formerly state-of-the-art wheels employing “hydromatic-drive”? (probably not many outside antique car fanatics). More importantly, though, these now-aging critical barbs aimed at the convenience-and-progress obsessions of The American Way of Life alerted me to some very nearby passages from Malevich’s The World as Objectlessness (which would have bitten me, had they been snakes):
“Life as social relations, like a homeless tramp, enters every form of Art and makes it its living space. And convinced, on top of that, that it was the cause of the appearance of that form of Art. After a night’s sleep, it abandons the housing as an unneeded thing, and it turns out that after life empties Art, Art becomes more valuable, it is kept in museums not as an expedient thing but as objectless Art per se, for it had never come from expedient life.
Objectless Art stands without windows or doors, like a spiritual sensation that does not seek prosperity or expeditious things or trade profit of ideas – neither prosperity nor ‘promised lands.’
The art of Moses is the path whose goal is to lead us into the ‘promised land.’ Therefore, he is still building expeditious things and railroad tracks, because the people being led are tired of walking out of ‘Egypt.’ Humanity is already tired of riding in trains, it is learning to fly and will soon soar up, but the ‘promised land’ is not in sight.
That is the reason why Moses was never interested in Art and is not interested now, for most of all he wants to find the ‘promised land.’
Therefore he banishes abstract phenomena and confirms concrete ones. Therefore his life is not in the objectless spirit but only in mathematical calculations of profit. Hence Christ did not come to confirm the expeditious laws of Moses but to annul them, saying ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within us.’ By this he said that there are no paths to promised lands, therefore there is no expeditious railroad, for no one can say that it is located here or some other place, therefore, no one can lay a road to it. Millennia have passed in mankind’s travel, but there is no ‘promised land.’
Despite this historical experience of trying to find the true road to the promised land and attempts to make an expedient object, society is still trying to find it, straining their muscles ever harder, hammering the blade and trying to break through all obstacles, but the blade merely slipped in the air, since there were no obstacles in the space, merely the hallucinations of the imagination.
The historical path shows us that only Art can make phenomena that remain absolute and constant. Everything vanishes and only monuments live for the ages. […]
Up to this point, life developed from two points of view of goodness: the first is material, the grub-economical, and the second is religious; there should have been a third – the point of view of Art, but it was regarded by the other two as an applied phenomenon, whose forms come from the first two. Economic life was not examined from the point of view of Art, because Art was not yet the sun in whose warmth the tavern grub life would flourish.
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. […]
People of the most utilitarian outlook still see the apotheosis of the day in Art – of course, the apotheosis for them is ‘Ivan Petrovich’, [i.e., a representational image / portrait of “John Everyman”] the face embodying life, but still, with the help of Art, that face became the apotheosis. Thus, pure Art is still covered by the face/mask of life, and therefore the form of life that could be unfolded from the point of view of art is not visible.
You would think that the entire mechanical utilitarian world should have a single goal – to free up time for man’s main life: making Art ‘per se,’ to limit the sense of hunger in favor of the sense of Art.
The developing tendency to build task-oriented and expeditious things that try to overcome the sensation of Art should take note of the fact that basically there are no things in the purely utilitarian form, more than ninety-five percent of things come of the plastic sensation.
There is no need to seek convenient and expedient things, for historical experience shows that people were never able to make such things: everything collected now in museums will prove that not a single thing is convenient or achieves its goal. Otherwise, it would not be in museums, so if it once seemed convenient, it only seemed so, and this is now proven by the fact that collected works are inconvenient in daily life, and our contemporary ‘expedient things’ only seem that way, tomorrow will prove that they could not have been convenient. Everything made by Art, however, is beautiful and that will be confirmed by the future: therefore, we only have Art.”
(From: Kazimir Malevich, The World as Objectlessness; Kunstmuseum Basil, 2014, p. 193.)
In ending this second part, however, I have to admit something. My inclusion of the above passages from Malevich was not only because a line about hydromatic-drive autos reminded me of the technological mind-set discussed by Malevich – one which only advances with ever more break-neck speed as I write this.
I have also included the above passages from Malevich as a demonstration of the fact that there exist vitally important things which do not to amount to what is consumed and desired above all else now: mere “information” to be absorbed at a glance only confirming largely what we already believe in; what we have already concluded that we “know”; something only to be “understood” to the extent that it conforms itself according to whatever our “current understanding” of the world happens to be in the present.
Instead of what one usually gets when one tunes into the usual “information / disinformation source” of one’s choice, Malevich gives us real thoughts in rather sharp contrast to “real” news along with the “fake” variety; thoughts which are highly independent of how the majority – regardless of whatever individual political orientation – thinks and acts in our present. In short, Malevich’s thoughts are totally free from a uniform absence of thought which now only grows by the minute in spite of how “well-meaning” and sincere (or totally mistaken) this conformity doubtless remains. Consequently, what Malevich writes above requires nothing short of a reciprocal thought-effort in return – that is, in distinction to what the choir long already knows by heart and can effortlessly sing in its sleep … along with as much time as it takes to grasp the full meaning conveyed by Malevich … together with adequate patience and perhaps some courage … but with more than anything else, an open mind.
Finally, these thoughts from Malevich are in no way “out-of-date.” To the contrary – while there is nothing really “utopian” in them – they belong among the thoughts which can be said to exist largely in a future tense … that is, if the present can somehow be overcome and relegated once and for all to a dead past having only to do with ignorance, destruction and self-limitation; a present now wearing the highly deceptive mask of “progress”; an emblem only amounting to the perpetual, exclusively fear-motivated idolatry of “results that count” … one only propelling us into a more primitive past tense than can be presently imagined by our group-think instincts, reflexes, and Material Purposes.
About the author: David A. Powell is an American artist living in Germany since 1990. In addition to having a lifelong, ongoing involvement and fascination with the most radically unpopular ideas and concepts capable of being imagined by anyone, he has a degree in art history and literature and – along a number of other occupations and activities throughout his life – has also exhibited his paintings (in Germany, at least).