Freedom and Other Illusions – Further excursions into what used to be called “high versus low culture”
(or, further illusions concerning American art & the Medium / et cetera)
With a concluding Postscript

by David A. Powell for The Saker Blog

Part 3 of 3 parts

” ‘Genius is only seen in those who are successful…’ an anonymous author announced in the [American art publication] Art Amateur (1896). This criterion conditioned the self-concept of the modern artist in the USA to the same extent that it did for the artist’s contemporaries in the economic branches. This motto, which understands success as the legitimation and ultimate proof of quality, and which advanced to a maxim for action for the artist during this time, lends Andy Warhol’s device ‘Success is a job in New York’ an art historical echo and relates to the methods of self-marketing of American art protagonists of the present like an overture. This attitude indicated that the pronounced market orientation of the American art scene, whose consume-oriented standards in the late 19th century also now dominate the European cultural situation, have ideological roots which reach considerably further back historically than the postwar period after 1945, where the art historical beginnings of the Americanization of the art world are usually located.” (my translation)

(From: Ursula Frohne, Maler und Millionäre Erfolg als Inszenierung: Der amerikanische Künstler seit dem ausgehenden 19. Jahrhundert; Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 2000. (Painters and Millionaires Success as Stage Production: The American Artist Since the Last Half of the 19th Century) *

The above proclamation, “Genius is only seen in those who are successful” could also have come – in fact, did come – albeit in the most authoritarian formulations, tones and dictatorial rants imaginable … all delivered within as well as outside his classroom lectures … straight from the mouth of my university painting professor:


(… which is very close to being a direct quote from one of my professor’s lectures because one can never forget such ignorant assaults on the spirit.)

Concerning my former professor’s painting (which – after 47 years – I have a somewhat more comprehensive idea over than before), I can say little beyond the following: my professor’s painting lies approximately within what was known as “Pattern Painting”; otherwise, it can in the best terms be described as being not much beyond the decorative. In addition to being academic, it’s the work of a painter with a middle-of-the-road talent; but one who had the luck to live in a culture which is ready to overlook almost anything (including the lack of any special talent) as long as one devotes oneself wholeheartedly to advancing that culture’s most cherished myths about itself.

Nevertheless, all of the above remains unsettling for me to think about even after all these years (especially in light of what I’ve chosen to omit here); but which, at the same time, is full of unmistakable non-accidents which inevitably bring to my mind that Adolf Hitler was a shallow, meagerly talented painter – meticulously academic but completely mediocre before he devoted himself to the career possibilities eventually making him “successful” far beyond anything he could have achieved with a brush. But this didn’t mean that Hitler entirely gave up “aesthetic matters” just because he couldn’t make it as a painter. No, beyond any doubt, Hitler eventually came to terms with what probably amounted to his “true creative calling” – and leading to what might be called (in an entirely neutral sense) his “artistic accomplishments” in the field of architectural planning … but only after he’d established himself as Leader and Chancellor of The German People and the German State.

In the beginning, though, Hitler didn’t have the kind of luck to be gained from living in the kind of culture which my former professor was born into – especially in 1907 and 1908 when he was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna where there were actually competent judges doing the judging. “The institute considered that [Hitler] had more talent in architecture than in painting. One of the instructors, sympathetic to his situation and believing he had some talent, suggested that he apply to the academy’s School of Architecture. However, that would have required returning to secondary school from which he had dropped out and which he was unwilling to do.”


Hitler’s project known as the “House of German Art” (Haus der deutschen Kunst) is considered to be one of the “leading examples” of National Socialist architecture. This museum still stands today (and very nicely restored) as the “House of Art” (Haus der Kunst) in Munich … an architectural monument communicating nothing beyond Absolute Power as conceived by National Socialism (as with the bulk of National Socialistic architecture as a whole) and bequeathed to the world by one of the greatest mass-murderers in history … a mammoth edifice of shame now magically reincarnated as a “post-modern / post-historical” cultural center for the arts (or, at least the “arts” which our world recognizes as being “arts in the service of the unchanging reality defined by our world”). Swords into Plowshares? Not quite. In a different world, Hitler’s art museum would perhaps now house something like a commemoration of every soul who perished as a result of the First and Second World Wars (and even perhaps, for good measure, one commemorating, at the same time, every irreplacable material as well as non-material thing which was destroyed due to these conflicts). But we don’t have such a world – and at our present rate of “progress” it promises to be a very long time before we do have one.


In what I’ve written about my former professor, though, I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. But bottom line is this: my former professor’s worldview – which he forcefully and tirelessly propagated – existed squarely within the time-honored tradition of promoting and advancing the American illusion of freedom I’ve attempted to describe above; that is, during the time that I knew him. My professor might possibly have changed his tune in certain ways at a later point after I knew him for all I know. But I’m far from being alone with my actual experiences of the man spanning well over 10 years (along with what I continued to learn afterward); especially through a chance encounter with another former art student at my university over 35 years after the fact; one who, a couple of years before I arrived at my school, simply dropped all of his studies and literally fled my former professor’s classes … to Germany, where he could pursue his painting studies (tuition-free) at a major art school in something far closer to “freedom” than what he’d experienced up to that point. And certainly, there were other painting students who fled my professor’s oppressive regime, as I already knew during my time in school … while for my own part, I switched my university degree from painting to art history, which I loved to a much greater degree than the officially-mandated “painting” existing within my so-called “painting school.”

Yes, it was (as it still remains) an entirely “free country”, a country living under the perennial car-bumper slogan: “America – Love It or Leave It”; or, what was told to my face on a number of occasions: “Well!WE like it … so, what’s wrong with you?”

While practically the entire European Romantic movement in art (especially during its earlier phase) revolted against the devastating effects of rising industrial capitalism, American artists of the latter half of the 19th century took the opposite course. The strategies for success developed by the 19th century American artist, needless to say, continue to be employed down to the present; except that they have now, in the meantime, been successfully exported across the globe.

To paraphrase a recent statement from a prominent, well-known political writer: “Oh, where have all the artists of earlier times gone now that we so desperately need them to speak truth to power? Why, they have all apparently either completely lost courage or sold themselves out to the system.” Yet, what has actually happened in historical terms and led to the “loss” bemoaned by the above writer lies in an altogether different direction than our writer appears to suspect.

I’m writing about a direction which has been casually tossed into the dead-letter department of effete “anachronisms” we can’t personally “dig” let alone socially identify with and therefore prefer to remain ignorant over; all the better to remain safely insulated and divorced from; a direction which the majority – but especially journalists – seem totally incapable of ever even beginning to get their oh-so-adult-and-worldly heads around … of course, unless it exclusively has to do with something like the “news-worthy” record amount shelled out for some “priceless art object” from a big-name brush-pusher out of our dead past who no one ever thinks about or has even heard of outside how much their priceless objects go for; the only burial space apparently left for the direction meant here; the one belonging to “Art ‘per se'” and best described by Kazimir Malevich, an attitude which:

“… dares to think that Art, until now at the service of formatting religious and state ideas, will be able to build a new world of sensations and format its production in the relations that will flow from this attitude toward the world.”

(my italics; From: Kazimir Malevich, The World as Objectlessness; Kunstmuseum Basil, 2014, p. 188.)

Beyond Malevich’s simple, direct statement above, the overwhelming difference in the present moment is that everything which now transpires does so within an all-embracing, all-encompassing, all-inclusive, all-dominating totalitarian form of mass (popular) culture – yes, one which includes whatever gets classified within the wholly illusory notion of an “alternative which will set us free”; our exceedingly “innovative” yet artificial and lifeless, thoroughly manufactured, pre-digested culture based exclusively upon and informed by the latest “cutting edge” technology; one which absolutely no Thing or Person is able to completely escape (let alone, nearly get enough of); that which directly opposes and undermines “Art ‘per se'”; one existing in the opposite universe relative to the origin of the following observation:

“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, The World as Objectlessness; Kunstmuseum Basil, 2014, p. 193.)

But is NOT, as the above political writer apparently wants to imagine, only a matter of “corporate / government control and propaganda” (as amply revealed in countless examples of this political writer’s essays and verbal statements) a writer who to all appearances still lives in a bygone age where old-fashioned tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini – along with latter-day descendants such as Saddam Hussein – were the last words when it came to “personified dictators.”

But how does one defeat a “dictator” who produces and supplies us with everything we know, love and draw non-material sustenance from; who we cannot put our hands on or do any sort of harm to; or challenge in any way without ripping out our own hearts at the same time; one who defines in the most basic terms our Life and Everything in it … in order that we can begin to understand our life along with “who we are” … a dictator who enslaves … only the spirit.

(“Spirit? Give me a break! Are you saying that you still believe in things like ‘the spirit’…?”

Yes, along with Karl Kraus:

The real end of the world is the destruction of the spirit; the other kind depends on the insignificant attempt to see whether after such a destruction the world can go on.“)

A further reality our above political writer seems oblivious over is virtual medial repression, one which (literally as well as in terms of “virtual reality”) calls all the shots in our world by impacting, in profoundly destructive yet unseen ways, nearly Everyone and Everything. And further still, (as if this was not enough), this destruction is even less a matter of the hoplessly old-fashioned methods employed by “propaganda” (political or otherwise). Virtual medial repression is the door to inner self-repression – the “elephant in the room” to be addressed below.

Virtual medial repression may be visualized as the primary effect our mass (popular) culture has upon us by virtue of being and remaining what amounts to “the only show in town.” It proceeds by being in the exclusive position to introduce and institutionalize (with no opposition; in fact, with universal support and approval from all quarters) the use and consumption of technology-based media in which we freely choose to overlook the fact that BY THE VERY ACT OF USING THESE MEDIA, we are radically exploited, disembodied, crippled, limited, damaged, and deformed; become fundamentally changed as humans in ways we rarely waste a single thought over.

… or, one might as well cut off one’s own legs so that one can “walk better” in the direction of the Other (the Other, who has done the same).

Inner self-repression is related to virtual medial repression in that it comes later – if only a split-second later, so to speak. Inner self-repression, the second “phase” of repression, occurs when we succumb to mass cultural repression in a personal sense by absorbing mass (popular) culture inwardly. Or, to express it in the following terms: inner self-repression begins the exact moment we begin to personally identify with and share (in a social sense) … what we otherwise have no earthly choice over; what is going to to be handed to us in any event; namely, our mass (popular) culture … whether we “like it” or not; at the expense of our inner beingand amounting to one of the most potent social sedatives (requiring no trip to one’s doctor, let alone a prescription) ever to be consumed by our species whether it was ever intended as such or not.

But perhaps it’s time to STOP … or slow down; or changes gears. I have but little doubt that what I’ve written above about being “radically exploited, disembodied, crippled, limited, damaged, and deformed; being fundamentally changed as humans” might sound a bit exaggerated to some. After all, probably a lot of us use our New Media without feeling to any special degree “disembodied, crippled, limited, damaged, and deformed.” So, what am I finally getting at?

I mean that our wonderful new digital world of the screen is based on ONE THING AND ONE THING ONLY: THE VISUAL IMAGE; the exclusively representational image which is finally as bloodlessly abstract as how it is produced in the first place.

The representational visual image (in whatever medium) is only conceivable as total abstraction in two dimensions, distilled from the appearances, forms and phenomena perceived in the world of objects and acheived through abstract means. Lines, planes, points and forms – abstractions borrowed from mathematics – are not to be found in nature. These geometrical concepts also demonstrate what should be understood as “the abstract” in terms of the visual image: a line is a series of points which define the meeting of two planes; a form is only the idea of what an object only appears on the surface to possess.

Every representational image comes about through a series of decisions over which appearance is to be included, rejected, diminished or heightened – what every visual artist knows as self-evident (including every photographer, film, and video maker). Further, this process of decision-making is thoroughly logical in nature (even when it is not fully conscious). BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT PART of what I’m describing here is the following: what results from this process of decision-making on the part of the producer is nothing beyond an abstraction which always preserves and conveys to the viewer a direct, instinctive relation to whatever object is being represented – whether the resulting image is illusionistic, abstract-minimalistic or something in between.

OK – what in the world does my obscure-sounding phrase, “a direct, instinctive relation to the object” really mean? It means that A DIRECT CONNECTION / RELATION WITH THE OBJECT IS ALWAYS MAINTAINED whenever we act according to the instinctual, primal, automatic, (survival-based) assumption that all ABSTRACT / OBJECTLESS IMAGES must always contain systems of Hidden Meaning (private or otherwise); that they must always contain Concealed Purpose(s), and / or Intent existing somewhere in the image producer’s mind – yet removed from the normal, everyday exercise of our naked vision.

In other words, it all has to do with Things which are instinctively “felt” to be Hidden, Unfamiliar, Foreign, and Potentially Harmful, etc. – and are for these reasons alone in dire need of being uncovered, decoded and “understood” as “information” in order that we can get a handle on – and bring under safe control – the elusive image. Thus, we habitually endeavor to uncover the not-so-apparent “message” contained in whatever “Abstract Representation” we are confronted with (which might as well be something coiled-up and deadly poisonous hiding under an innocent-looking picture surface dressed up as a rock for all we know).

Or, in the opposite direction, it’s what we do when we project our own, personal and personally-favored, subjective “information” into the image in the identical way that we “see representations” in cloud formations (i.e., objects such as cows, ducks, or race cars which God obviously throws in the sky for our occasional entertainment) – and all in perfect keeping with the pseudo-democratic “freedom of the viewer” (… a “freedom” which tragically defines the end of anything resembling a living relation to a thing such as liberated art – as well as the fate of liberated art itself – within a society where freedom itself is based on wholly illusory notions of freedom).

Therefore, this process of advancing human dominance over a natural world transformed into objects may be called Abstract Representation. Since man should be seen as part of the natural world, this transformation process also amounts to the domination of Abstract Representation over human thought and sense perception, thus over the human itself.

Abstract Representation liquidates – together with the awareness of reality and the ability to perceive it free from the fundamentally illusory nature of abstract-representational images – the sheer capacity to imagine anything which would escape Abstract Representation as a whole. Finally, (to borrow a sentence from T. W. Adorno) “The process is fed by the fact that men owe their life to what is being done to them.”

Ultimately, as already mentioned, Abstract Representation (the abstract) exists as the antagonistic opposite of Malevich’s World of Objectlessness. The first is only concerned with dominating a world composed of exploitable objects; the second is a world which is set free from objects; a world liberated, in this way, from the concept of dominance (repression) itself.**

And here I have to quote John Berger (1926-2017), because he has illuminated the basis of what goes on when we turn on our screens in a way that I cannot compete with even if I had the desire to:

“Today images abound everywhere. Never has so much been depicted and watched. We have glimpses at any moment of what things look like on the other side of the planet, or the other side of the moon. Appearances registered, and transmitted with lightning speed.

Yet with this something has innocently changed. They used to be called physical appearances because they belonged to solid bodies. Now appearances are volatile. Technological innovation has made it easy to separate the apparent from the existant. And this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more.

Consequently and oddly, considering the physical implications of the notion of appetite – the existant, the body, disappears. We live within a spectacle of empty clothes and unworn masks. Consider any news-reader on any television channel in any country. These speakers are the mechanical epitome of the disembodied. It took the system many years to invent them and to teach them to talk as they do.

No bodies and no Necessity – for Necessity is the condition of the existant. It is what makes reality real. And the system’s mythology requires only the not-yet-real, the virtual, the next purchase. This produces in the spectator, not, as claimed, a sense of freedom (the so-called freedom of choice) but a profound isolation.

Until recently, history, all the accounts people gave of their lives, all proverbs, fables, parables, confronted the same thing: the everlasting, fearsome, and occasionally beautiful, struggle of living with Necessity, which is the enigma of existence – that which followed from the Creation, and which subsequently has always continued to sharpen the human spirit. Necessity produces both tragedy and comedy. It is what you kiss or bang your head against.

Today, in the system’s spectacle, it exists no more. Consequently no experience is communicated. All that is left to share is the spectacle, the game that nobody plays and everybody can watch. As has never happened before, people have to try to place their own existence and their own pains single-handedly in the vast area of time and the universe.”

(From: John Berger, “Steps Toward A Small Theory of the Visible”, 2001.)

John Berger’s 1972 TV series Ways of Seeing should be seen by everyone who has not done so:

The book made from Ways of Seeing – and which should be on every bookshelf – is here:

… but in the final analysis, what Berger has written above (as well as explored in Ways of Seeing) is only the beginning of what must be considered outside of how “cool” our New Media only appear on their utililitarian and expedient surfaces.

“The Medium is the Message” – the legendary phrase coined in 1964 by Marshall McLuhan – is now universally thought to say all one needs to know when it comes to our myth of cutting edge technology … particularly embracing the area in which we’d like to think that we’re the most proficient, i.e., “communication.”

But in reality, “The Medium is the Message” is beyond all doubt one of the most misread and misused verbal phrases of the last half-century. The almost universally favored interpretation is that the Medium its own self-justification / self-advertisement; and in the end, “where all the action is”, etc. … but one actually revolving around (in the realm of wishful-thinking, at least) nothing other than the incessant mythification of the technical / technological. The Medium (The Web, digital technology, etc.; all of which McLuhan diagnosed and predicted with absolute accuracy) is imagined as possessing the magical potential to “save us” owing to the fact that it gives us such “wonderful, new possibilities we never had before.”

In any event, according to McLuhan, the belief in what the magical properties attributed to the Medium are supposed give us is not quite the case and fails to take into account how “any and all media” function (that is, if one reads what McLuhan wrote). McLuhan indeed viewed all media as “extensions of man” – but always acquired at the price of an amputation of a part of man’s being. The Medium gives while simultaneously taking away. To use McLuhan’s term, we become “intoxicated” by the sense of newly-acquired power and control the (new) Medium appears to give us. Myth, in turn, protects us from ever having to confront the realization that we’ve had anything taken away from us – least of all something which previously defined us in a human sense.

“I’ll give you everything in the world you ever wanted – and then some. All you have to do is sign this little ‘pact’ I’ve got here – but it’s nothing you need to trouble yourself over since I know that you know that you and I are the best of friends. Maybe some time we can talk about what you owe me … but in the meantime, just enjoy yourself!” (and we fall for it every time).

“In accepting an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame a few years ago, General David Sarnoff made this statement: ‘We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.’ That is the voice of the current somnambulism. Suppose we were to say, ‘Apple pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.’ Or, ‘The smallpox virus is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.’ Again, firearms are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the way in which they are used that determines their value.’ That is, if the slugs reach the right people, firearms are good.’ If the TV tube fires the right ammunition at the right people, it is good.’ I am not being perverse. There is simply nothing in the Sarnoff statement that bears scrutiny, for it ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media in the true Narcissus style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form. General Sarnoff went on to explain his attitude to the technology of print, saying that it was true that print caused much trash to circulate, but it had also disseminated the Bible and the thoughts of seers and philosophers. It has never occurred to General Sarnoff that any technology could do anything but add itself on to what we already are.”

(From: Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Chapter 1, “The Medium is the Message”, p. 11.)

Quite naturally, the old-fashioned methods of propaganda, along with sending dissidents to prison (if they’re not murdered outright), continue to exist and be used. But inner self-repression is something that we cannot ever detect on our customary screens (along with the NSA or CIA) since it was never a conscious, deliberate “method” to begin with as we usually conceive of “tools of repression.” Our present form of repression, to the contrary, has been from its beginnings the logically-consistent outcome of a new social / political / cultural reality – along with the consistent practice of never questioning our most cherished myths.

Inner self-repression, then, is the result of being immersed in a social / political / cultural system which is entirely new in historical terms – one which a “Free Country / Free World” possesses of its own nature as no other “system” has ever done … and outlined by Alexis de Tocqueville 177 years ago in an analysis which has predictably fallen on deaf ears:

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America (Part I, 1831); Chapter XV: Unlimited Power Of The Majority, And Its Consequences – Part I

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America (Part II, 1841); Book Four – Chapters VI, VII Chapter VI: What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear

And anyway … why would anyone in their right mind even want to escape what’s consumed by every last friend and / or social / political group one possesses and / or belongs to? … or indeed ever hopes to possess and / or belong to? … revealing yet another (illusion-based) sleight-of-hand trick our (alterrnative) culture just loves to play on us by allowing us to indulge ourselves with the myth that we are all free because it’s … OK, because it’s completely proven by the fact that in our “Free Country / Free World” the majority enjoys “the freedom of one’s feet to run along on the level” (yes, at least this much can be said …).

Then, to make the sleight-of-hand trick even more believable, our (alternative) culture announces that we must become even more free by learning “The Secret Truth About Our Masters” … while the real secret revolves around the fact that it is actually we who are the Masters doing the primary enslaving by never thinking outside the Group(s) we belong to and / or exist within … or ever once questioning the ways in which we only imagine that we see.

… well, because it’s damned scarey outside the Group plus highly unsafe and outright dangerous in every sense imaginable; extremely difficult to the point of impossibility; inconvenient in whatever way one wants to look at it; fundamentally unexploitable and materially inexpedient … and above everything else, very, very lonely.

… altogether a pretty convincing sleight-of-hand trick, if you ask me … one very skillfully achieved through diverting our attention away from truly independent thought by holding us over a snake pit containing at its bottom everything we fear the most in this life.

In the final analysis (and in spite of how sacrilegious it might sound), our real enemy does not amount to “The Feds” or something like Monsanto. Our real enemy is nothing less than our beloved, permissive-parental, terminally Popular-and-Positive-Purpose(ful), apple-pie, technological culture – one of the most profoundly spiritually-repressive systems in the history of our species; one in which we are being sold down the river by the very bedrock of our culture: Universal Materialism along with all of its well-meaning Leaders, Patriot-Teachers and Prophets.

Postscript on the Other

(or, the thought of Byung-Chul Han)

Both sides in the present ideological struggle (when not pursuing their respective “winning results that count”) seem to be largely – when not completely – preoccupied with two things: (1) doing away with their enemies (2) converting non-believers; the Other(s) still living outside The Light of Truth. In keeping with any war-time scenario, there remain too few within such a situation to address with a “foreign” (e.g., non-utilitarian, anti-materialist) idea and even fewer who are willing – or able – to listen to one. This naturally includes, as well, those who just don’t have enough time for anything outside of what is already on the “to do” list – precisely the same social curse Thoreau addressed in his 1863 essay, “Life Without Principle”. At any rate, if one has never heard of this essay, one can safely – for this reason – bet a nickle that it’s something worth reading (… providing, of course, that one doesn’t become uncomfortable from the sight of sacred cows being killed right in front of one’s eyes).

Something I’ve noticed during the last 15 years or so (endless repetition impairs one’s memory, so this time span might not be entirely accurate) is that whatever transpires amounts to basically the same; whatever image or face encountered looks oddly just like the previous one; every new message communicated merely passes on more or less the same content as the last. And then someone shed some additional light on what I’d been observing – together with confirming my long-standing conviction that I’ve been witnessing a slow-motion process of complete social self-destruction for longer than I care to remember.

In The Expulsion of the Other (2018), philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes:

“The time in which there was such a thing as the Other is over. The Other as a secret, the Other as a temptation, the Other as eros, the Other as desire, the Other as hell and the Other as pain disappear. The negativity of the Other now gives way to the positivity of the Same. The proliferation of the Same constitutes the pathological changes that afflict the social body. It is made sick not by denial and prohibition, but by over-communication and over-consumption; not by suppression and negation, but by permissivness and affirmation. …

Total interconnection and total communication by digital means does not facilitate encounters with Others. Rather, it serves to pass over those who are unfamiliar and other, and instead find those who are the same or like-minded, ensuring that our horizon becomes ever narrower. It draws us into an ‘autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas’.

“… not only the violence of the Other is destructive; the expulsion of the Other sets in motion an entirely different process of destruction, namely that of self-destruction. In general, the dialectic of violence applies: a system that rejects the negativity of the Other develops self-destructive traits.

In a 2012 German-language article on Byung-Chul Han, the author relates an incident at the end of one of Han’s lectures at the University of the Arts in Berlin (where Han holds a professorship in philosophy and cultural studies):

“Han’s provocations do not fire properly on this late afternoon. When he finishes his speech after a breathless hour, a listener answers. She does not think that she could find a way out of the situation Han has just described. That’s it. But Han is not disappointed. ‘Artists often give me very surprising feedback,’ he says. ‘They try to use my theoretical thinking creatively, as well as for their own work.’ The following week he wants to talk about love.”


* See: Ursula Frohne, Painters and Millionaires Success as Stage Production: The American Artist Since the Last Half of the 19th Century; Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 2000. 490 pages with extensive pictorial documentation.

Note: This highly important study by Ursula Frohne (which was extensively researched in America) is only available in the German language. To offset this fact (however slightly), I made a handful of translations from Painters and Millionaires in 2005. Some years later I got in touch with Ursula Frohne and shared with her my view that her remarkable study was badly in need of a wider audience; and that an English translation would be just the thing to do the job. She answered (I paraphrase) that a numer of others had also suggested the same to her – but who could be convinced to translate and publish it? … a daunting task by any means. I also shared with Dr. Frohne the passages I had translated from her book which – since I’m no professional translator – were made after considerable time and effort. Dr. Frohne appeared to be favorably impressed with these passages, perhaps mistaking me for a “pro” until I gave her the background for how these translations came about.

Unfortunately, I came away from my correspondence with Dr. Frohne with the impression that she had more pressing concerns than trying to produce and sell an English version of a book which deftly unmasks the materialist-capitalist ideology of the American art scene – indeed, the entire concept of art specific only to America which took root and evolved in the US together with its ongoing influence on the global art scene as well as the global understanding of art itself.

In addition to the one already quoted above, below are two further passages from Painters and Millionaires (also with the hope that they are some day read by someone who is able to facilitate, in whatever way, this valuable book’s eventual translation):

“In order not to be absorbed by the nameless population mass living on the edge of poverty in New York, the artists strove to conquer an ‘autonomous space’ for themselves, in which structures of style and life conduct were comparable to those in the spheres of the ruling class. Through the acquisition of visible status symbols, exclusivity, prestige and economic or cultural capital, the artists produced the proof of their own ‘excellence’. At the same time the artist’s fear over social exclusion rose in light of a growing population of immigrants, who numbered over 80% in New York at the end of the 19th century. H.H. Boysen, at the time a respected professor at Columbia University, complained about the possible dangers of this development in his 1888 article ‘The Problems of Civilization’, where he suggested that the immigrants as a group were mostly recruited from the lower levels of society. In addition, he argued that newcomers belonged to the least respected nationalities. ‘The Italians have more than tripled in number and the Bohemians, Poles and Hungarians have become stronger and form themselves into a daily growing army of dissatisfaction and unrest.’ Such xenophobic warnings reinforced the artists, who cut themselves off from the shady-appearing life conditions of the socially underprivileged and culturally disqualified immigrant population. By means of the visible acquisition of the socially appropriate anglo-American code, the artists signaled to the segment of potential buyers their social allegiance and cultural competence. That this legitimation was not only through stylistic conformity in painting, but also accomplished because of certain strategies of public self-display, had been clearly shown by the filling [with tenants] of the Studio Buildings and the founding of the [art] clubs in New York. In their exclusive atmosphere, as well as their close proximity to residences of the better circles, these separate spheres of artistic life decisively realized a felt and longed-for detachment from the ‘vulgar’ level of existence of the urban collection of ordinary people from numerous cultural backgrounds. The artist no longer entered the traditional role of a mediator of social utopias, since the growth of the city had long manifested itself in his consciousness as a proof of the destruction of utopia. The retreat into the interior of the studio building and the protected ambience of the art club atmosphere was the consequence of this feeling of loss, and perpetuated itself through a compensation by means of the values of tradition. In anticipation of the social privileges of his contemporaries, the artist increasingly took over the role of a professional agent for the taste of the culturally ambitious elite. He now fulfilled at the same time the functions of a cosmopolitan culture-mediator, a copyist of the admired aesthetic accomplishments, a monopolist of ideal-typical superiority. Finally, however, he also operated as a requisiteur, who lent a noble glaze to the depressive sides of the American reality.” (my translation)

” ‘The Gospel of Wealth’ or Of the Blessings of Riches

Down to the present day, wealth and social prestige have exercised a great fascination over Americans, before all else while both values under the ruling social conditions in the United States always succumbed to strong variations: paradoxically, on the one side, wealth and elevated status equally confirmed and denied the idea of social mobility; and on the other side, posited both individual ambition and egalitarian democracy as fundamentally in prospect for everyone. Regardless of profession or political persuasion, the implication of the democratic dogma was that everyone could grasp the opportunity to acquire meaning and to make out of it for themselves something which was in every respect profitable. That the American myth was based upon the country attaining its greatness and independence out of its own strength obligated everyone to this ethos of a self-made, success-rewarded existence. Virtue, diligence and integrity of character qualified for every American as the only potentially redeemable preconditions for improving oneself as a ‘self-made man’. Braudy summarized the ideological emblematic of this social myth: ‘America, an entire nation built on the assumption that God helps those who help themselves, made this attitude into a national credo, which was essentially unquestioned until after the Second World War.’

Since the end of the 18th century, the general notion connected with the word ‘fortune’ [destiny, skill, happiness / wealth, riches] increasingly shifted its semantic meaning in the direction of material success. While the beginnings of the American colonization were still directed by the understanding of a higher valuation of the individual ‘fortune’, in the sense of a fatal destiny, the immense economic growth during the 19th century opened unimagined possibilities to build up a ‘good fortune’, out of one’s own strength and business-strategic skill. ‘Fortune’ now showed itself in a more profane definition than that of the earned reward of work. The accumulation of property and money took over the role of the material realization of the immaterial and spiritual concept of democracy, as it was previously advanced by the first American presidents. The expansive striving, which the conquering of the American continent had already been based upon, thus found its continuation in a no less bold, enterprising self-confidence which defended competition, the rational exploitation of advantages, and especially the basic characteristics of the American nation – without the justification of Darwin’s theory of evolution as a vital founding principle of human nature. The resulting concept of the ‘self-made man’ made it possible to recognize economic ambition and material wealth as an appeal to the nearly spiritual meaning of these fundamental national values. At the same time, the standard of the ‘self-made man’ posited the antithesis to the privileges which appeared in Europe to be guaranteed through aristocratic descent and family connections. With clear emphasis on the ‘self’ in the designation ‘self-made’ and the semantic content of production in the word ‘made’ in the second place, the individual accomplishment experienced an almost spiritual elevation in terms of value. The wealth created out of one’s own drive and strength became the central concept of the American notion of genius. The ingeniousness of such accomplishments, however, could only be made visible – in the first place – by money.

Money advanced afterward to the spiritual vehicle of self-produced earthly success – the inscription ‘In God We Trust’ on the American dollar also referred to this meaning – through which the American fixation on wealth and material values was made explicable, as was the public identification with the most well-off and prominent – whose prominence-status was usually inseparable from being well-off. Without a doubt, the intellectuals and artists were not the real heroes after the Civil War, but rather the dominant figures in industry and the business world. Whoever finally stood at the pinnacle of the money-aristocracy only depended upon the educational level of the representatives of the money-aristocracy, as they were able to establish and multiply their wealth through certain knowledge or learned abilities. Totally in keeping with the principle of the ‘self-made man’, the majority of the most successful figures in the American economic scene had worked their way up in their respective professional areas as self-taught. As a rule, a talent for aggressive business practices constituted the key to success.” (my translation)

** The following quote is from the most outstanding book concerning the thought and work of Kazimir Malevich that the present writer knows of (a German book unlikely to make it any time soon into English translation):

“For Malevich there is a direct relationship between representationalism, representationality, deceptiveness and image cults in art – and a false consciousness, a dangerous capitulation of man to the world of objects, possession and power greed which ultimately all merge into a totalitarian cult of the leader, enslavement and war. […] The reason for the catastrophic greed for power of the ‘leaders’ and for the over-willingness of the masses to surrender to such a rule is rooted for the Russian avant-garde – as exemplified in the power and war criticism of both Chlebnikov and Malevich – in a defective perception and mindset that ultimately degenerates into a deadly ideology or ideology of death. The ‘missing link’ between false perception and false thinking is the idolatry that took place in the dictatorships of the 20th century: the fixation on images, on ideas and solutions, on a ‘world of doubles’ and voracious ‘idols’. / At the latest with the Lenin cult, which began already before 1924, Malevich sees as one of the first to become a veritable cult of rulers; he speaks literally of the ‘leader-magician,’ for whom the people call. / [Malevich writes]: ‘The leaders professed to be a good god and misused artists to dance for the entertainment of the people […] and woe to the art that will not be prepared to put the image of their leader in their mirror. This leader most of all fears that [the mirror] does not reflect him.’ (Kazimir Malevich, ‘Iskusstvo’ [‘Art’], 1924.)” (my translation)

(From: Aage A. Hansen-Löve, Kazimir Malevič – Gott ist nicht gestürzt! – Schriften zu Kunst, Kirche, Fabrik; München: Hanser Verlag, 2004 / Kazimir Malevich – God is not cast down! – Writings on Art, Church, Factory.)

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).

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