PRINT December 1975



The articles in this issue imply that certain aspects of authoritarian art are broader in scope and more effective in impact than has been supposed. Our writers here point out a chronic flaw in perception: the failure to understand the significance of most world art’s alignment with the interests of the powerful. Such a phenomenon is acknowledged by our historical literature without making the essential comparison with the realities it pointedly misrepresents. But the human problems raised by art are themselves distorted whenever it is imagined that art is socially neutral.

Two obvious questions overlap in these essays. Who were the contemporary controllers of the visual statements, and for what purposes? What has been the effect on art of specific ideological interests it has agreed, or has been made, to serve? Americans are extremely innocent about the ideological content of art except when it is alarmingly tagged as being of the extreme right or left. When these labels do not seem to apply, the sensitivity of writers to artistic propaganda miraculously erodes. Napoleonic painting may have proffered a medley of juicy romantic themes, but it is also an impressively cruel, specious, and inhumane art. Edward Steichen’s work may have been beneficial to the development of modern photography, but it also yoked itself to exploitive purposes. These are dissonant and necessary revelations.

Even from these few articles, an important theme emerges that must challenge art criticism: the degree to which “high” cultural artifacts are designed or utilized to uplift, indoctrinate, or intimidate a mass audience often rivals the extent to which a mass medium is thoroughly colonized as a technique of control and domination. Marxist historians, of course, have long insisted on this “worldliness,” which the American professorial prefers to see in a more spiritual light. But Manuela Hoelterhoff takes some of these Marxists (at the Frankfurt Kunstverein) to task for not admitting to the repressive teachings of Socialist Realism in Russia. Even to perceive ideological coloring of art within the viewer’s party lines requires, we think, a delicate balance. This balance may be easily disturbed when the viewer neglects to guard against being too estranged by, and too acculturated to, his or her own society.

Clearly we do not have any formulas to achieve such a balance. And the consciousness that would stabilize it is discouraged. For example, Picasso’s Guernica, surely the most approved political painting of the West in this century, is in stalled at the Museum of Modern Art without any disclosure of what Guernica was. That Picasso memorialized the Nazi terror bombing of a defenseless Basque town, the most systematic and brutal yet seen, before the eyes of the vacillating and frightened Europe of 1937—none of this the Modern judged pertinent enough to describe to the public. With such exemplary pedagogy, who needs amnesia?

American artists, historians and critics may not find the perspective of the following essays particularly congenial. Where the profession wants to snuff out, these writers desire to expand our insight into the political values art activates: an act of historical synthesis. Carol Dun can writes that “experiencing The Age of Revolution came very close to watching television news,” reinforcing the illusion that“ reality is fragmented, without history, unexplainable . . .” David Antin reveals how and why television itself atomizes real experience. The task these writers have faced is that of connecting phenomena which the propaganda of objectivity has kept separate. And that means to take seriously—to be called upon to judge—the role of art as an instrument reflecting material forces. There is no escape from ideology, either in the creating or the interpreting of art. What does it mean that liberal Germans were outraged by a Communist denunciation of Nazi art? If the chill orthodoxy of our great museums and art history departments continues to hold sway, we shall never know.