PRINT May 1981

Leon Golub’s Murals of Mercenaries: Aggression, “Ressentiment,” and the Artist’s Will to Power

One hardly dares speak any more of the will to power: it was different in Athens.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Notes (1880–81)

The vehement yearning for violence, so characteristic of some of the best modern or creative artists, thinkers, scholars, and craftsmen, is a natural reaction of those whom society has tried to cheat of their strength.
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

THE FIGURES ARE BRUTE, RAW, made of acidified, scraped paint. Light sinks into their harsh surface, confirming the density of their presence: they block our view, exhaust our seeing with their monstrousness. Even the field that sets them in relief is unrefined and unrelenting—monstrous. The redness that surrounds the figures has the scent of their blood, conveys the dynamic of their vulgarity, is essential to their lumpen aliveness. There is an antiesthetic in operation here, a search for ugliness—for the nerve-grating, unassimilable surface—that is the exact opposite of the esthetic that has dominated modernism: the search for a surface that, if not always soothing, is always refined, i.e., a finer surface than we could find in real life. This modernist surface was given mural potential by Jackson Pollock, and in what Clement Greenberg called “American-type (field) painting” its potential seems to have been realized. Yet the ugliness and rawness of even Clyfford Still—his explicit desire—seems simplistic and artificial next to Leon Golub’s ugliness, and the heroic scale of Still’s images seems less fully realized than Golub’s truly mural, i.e., public, scale. Only Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis stands comparison with Golub’s “Mercenaries,” 1979–81—in public scale and, more to the point, in the rendering of what Martin Heidegger called the “public interpretation of reality.”

And here we see the reversal of values that is the clue to Golub’s muralism. The thrust of Newman’s red seems subjective and idealistic, the articulation of an indwelling force given credibility by its grand scale, a scale which faces down the disbelieving public. By contrast, Golub’s red and scale are outer rather than inner events—they thrust us all the more into our outwardness, reflect our trajectory in the world, rather than lure us from our being-in-the-world to a transcendental illusion of being completely in ourselves, absolutely self-defined and self-possessed. Golub’s murals are militantly antitranscendental: they articulate our being-in-time, our confinement by our material history, the smallness of our private affairs and perceptions and destinies. They are, according to the sociologist Karl Mannheim’s distinction, ideological rather than utopian or ecstatic, and their esthetic aspect depends entirely on the assumption of the world-historical as the first cause of art. The seared, worn, battered look of Golub’s figures reflects their world-historical roles and not some preferred esthetic, still another vision of art as atemporal or eternal.

The subject matter of Golub’s imagery is aggression, potential (in the “Mercenaries”) and actual (in the “Interrogations,” 1980–81). Within his oeuvre, these images are more historically specific than the “Gigantomachies,” 1965–68, yet less so than the “Assassins,” 1972–74, which deal with Vietnam. They are less accusatory—less a matter of protest art—than the latter, while potentially as mythological as the former. They mythologize war and institutionalized aggression in a free-floating fresco, which, by reason of its starkness, transcends narrative despite an anecdotal flavor. The “Mercenaries” deal with the moments of dubious rest and recreation in the war zone; the “Interrogations” deal with the backrooms of modern violence, the rooms where the “big decisions” are made on the basis of extracted information. This generalized violence—this persistent modern expectation of violence—is compromised neither by the physiognomies of the actors nor by the disturbed character of the emotional interchange between them, with its not quite manifest racism and latent sexuality. (The two intertwine in the glance of Mercenaries III, 1980.) On the contrary, their “personal” relations and “individuality” confirm their public identities, reflecting the inescapability of their social existence: they are completely determined by their social roles in the power structure. Everything about them reflects the modern habit of violence—an incendiary sense of everyday identity. While their might does not make them seem personally right, they never seem socially wrong.

This sense of them as “marked” men leads directly to the sense of them as mythologically and impersonally given. Their abstraction on a raw, red ground confirms both their symbolic potential and inexorable existence. Their violence is programmed by myth. They are puppets in a tableau that presents violent power as the ultimate principle of social activity and human expression. Physically and psychologically they are all mismatched, and an almost formulaic sense of off-balance is the structuring principle of the pictures. This is history painting that sees history as derangement rather than arrangement. The death wish rather than the pleasure principle drives these figures—Thanatos rather than Eros commands their lives—but this appears less “willed” than might be supposed. The sense of them as involuntary figures in a drama not of their own making confirms their mythological nature, as do such telltale signs as the “flayed Marsyas” look of the naked figure in Interrogation I, 1980–81, and the Roman realist character of the figures.

The mercenary role is as universal as that of the victim, the mercenary being to the world of political causes what the unattached intellectual, as identified by Max Weber and Karl Mannheim, is to the world of intellectual causes:

Their own social position does not bind them to any cause. . . . By themselves they know nothing. But let them take up and identify themselves with someone else’s interests—they will know them better, really better, than those for whom these interests are laid down by the nature of things, by their social condition.1

The mercenaries serve; they victimize in the name of causes that they do not originate, but of which they are the indisputable master, to which they have the secret inner key—which they catalyze by their willingness to act: to go to war. And even when, as in some of these pictures, they turn smiling to their master—the “public” in whose name they fight (the spectator who blankly accepts them as “necessary”)—they have already mastered him, by their willingness to show him his own tendency to violence, his own desire for dominance and power. We are among them, not they among us. Their proximity to us (their “truncated” legs place them in our world) makes clear not only their matter-of-fact, daily involvement with us, but also their position as signs of our intention. They are signs of ourselves, written large, made blatantly public—their blatancy disguising and dignifying their urgency, the nightmarish way they loom over us, dominating and possessing our spirits—in the way Plato said that myth functions. Myth is a nightmare from which we cannot awaken, for it is the very form of our psyche. Everything that makes these images outspokenly real for us makes them signs of what is ultimately real in our existence: in this case, the will to power.

In an unpublished interview Golub said that the “mercenaries point to the irregular use of power,” and in general are “inflections of power.” More particularly, “these kinds of figures in a strange way reflect American power and confidence.” The question is, in what way do they point to, inflect and reflect power? What use do they make of it, and to what end? Power is not present, on display, simply for all its obvious coarseness and bruteness. The weapons which are its instrument and emblem are not there to show us what they look like. We already know that, and we already know the “look” of these figures, from photographs and films, some of which are among Golub’s sources, transposed and reworked for the purposes of his own will.

The very fact that Golub gives us an already-known imagery, an imagery with an authority of its own—an imagery so powerful that we can control it only with our ennui, an imagery with which we collide and that makes us feel as helpless as the events it embodies—should make it suspect. Such public imagery is never there entirely for its own sake, and however much the artist borrows its authority he means merely to establish his own authority over it. He reverses its public intention by putting it in the private space of his art. He takes a matter-of-fact public imagery, half-dead or dying because of its transience—yet sufficiently powerful to become more than momentary in our minds—and makes it obsessive and intimate, transfiguring it for his own purpose. Such imagery becomes the instrument of his self-recognition, a recognition more crucial in the last analysis than public recognition. These pictures, I believe, are finally about private, heroic survival as an artist—allegorical investigations of the meaning of being an artist in the modern world—not gratuitous demonstrations of the artist’s ability to “stretch” a canvas beyond expectations, to give us an oversized image catering to the public’s desire for “greatness.”

Since Pop art, noninvented imagery—the Minimalist gestalt and grid are also noninvented images—has dominated American art, as if to verify Robert Smithson’s idea that art achieves its universality by being unoriginal and repetitive, and in confirmation of Lawrence Alloway’s idea of the inescapability and highly fluid character of the fine art/popular culture continuum. (Repetition is the act that creates a sense of fiction—the dream state of eternal recurrence. The continuum helps us accept the fiction by assimilating it as a public event, if at a cultural pole opposite to its starting point.) Golub’s imagery is popular in origin but unpopular or unentertaining in appearance and effect, reminding us that the popular realm is not always pleasant, does not always sugarcoat the look of things, but is sometimes raw and unrefined. (That was the trouble with television coverage of the Vietnam War: we did not really expect reality in a popular medium.) It is the unconcocted quality of the really noninvented image that appeals to Golub—and his imagery is, in origin, more truly noninvented than the comic strip and advertising imagery used by Pop artists. (They can be said to spice up an old concoction.) It is this rawness in truly noninvented imagery—the power of unmediated reality—that makes it appeal to Golub’s own will to power, his own will to be real as an artist. The rawness of reality invokes and provokes the artist’s instinctive will to artistic power over it. (Such a “quality encounter” with reality is at the heart of “expressionism.”) This will is unavoidably self-reflexive: in dealing with raw reality the artist is inevitably questioning his own role in it. In “engaging” raw reality, the artist is as much in search of his own unfiltered reality as he is desperate to prevent his art from becoming simply another filter, another glamorizing lens that gives a current, stylish look to things.

For Golub, the reality of the mercenaries is ultimately the social reality they represent. Their rawness reflects the rawness in life, and in society itself. And the artist, as person and artist, can as little escape a raw social role—a raw deal—as any of us: he is both mercenary and victim in society. His will to power puts him in—and expresses itself through—a double bind. His case is almost exemplary, in fact, because his product, not always being of clear use, is abused as much as used, which is the process by which it comes to be accepted by society. Two things should be noted here: 1) The recent insistence that art is “decorative,” pure and simple, gives it a clear and obvious use, while signaling that it can be and dares be nothing else—that it is bankrupt as a critical instrument, as a “reflection,” in an uncritically democratic society; 2) For all the current lull in the martyrdom complex of art, partially due to its finding commercial favor in a time of economic hardship, the “suffering” of art remains, because art is never valued for itself by more than the critically happy, Stendhalian few.

To the extent that Golub’s art has always been a metaphor for the artist’s situation in modern society, it shares in the self-reflexive, self-critical center of modernism. We must remember that modernism derives from, and is an extension of, the old romantic myth of the heroic identity of the artist as a passionate member of the “resistance.” Many current avant-garde strategies are fresh, if convoluted and involuted, articulations of modernist resistance to society. This resistance often degenerates into an ironical stance, with modernist style at times seeming little more than gesture. (Does “punk” represent the latest ironical resistance, the latest desire to be used and abused by society, and to use and abuse in return? Martyrdom itself seems to have become a style.) In Golub’s work, this increasingly tepid if superficially vivid irony has been replaced by a new, heroic relationship to modernist criticality—by an attempt to make criticality once again heroic rather than sneaky and stylish, a fangless snake in a fake paradise of art. Golub’s criticality works with a directness that is not to the taste of the casuists of style who have reduced modernism to an “exciting look”—to the (inconsequential) criticality of relations between highly manipulable surfaces, the by now stale and traditional tension of the ambiguously positioned or ambiguously spaced.

All of Golub’s figures can be read as self-images of the artist in “critical” condition, in danger of being falsely and facilely dismissed as “romantic.” In the “Gigantomachies” the artist appears as an angry Titan, self-destructively at war with himself—his defiance spent on himself. In the “Assassins” the artist has cooled down to a guiltless criminal, guiltless because he is at one with the society he officially represents (itself implicitly criminal). In the “Mercenaries”—Golub’s most sophisticated presentation to date of the artist’s struggle with his will to power, his relentless effort to become powerful by representing and serving a powerful society—the artist has become a “hired hand,” no longer at one with any society and so better able to represent the power at stake in every society. In each case the artist is depicted as socially entrapped and coerced: he is society’s (half-willing) instrument, but also its “fool”—untrustworthy, disloyal and suspect. Thus he is at once a blind tool and blind victim of society. James Joyce’s credo of “non serviam” for the artist pales into naiveté beside Golub’s Goyaesque analysis of the artist’s complex involvement in society. In fact, Golub’s “Mercenaries” are the contemporary equivalent of Francisco Goya’s Quinta del Sordo murals, with their depiction of the nightmarishly sordid condition—mental as well as physical—of modern humanity. Golub is like the last Goya of modern art, bringing it full circle back to its romantic origins—a rebellion that borrows its authority from the unspoken will of the people but takes an aristocratic, self-glorifying, self-exploratory form. The unconscious will, critical of the world, must backtrack to itself, becoming self-conscious, to launch an effective criticism of the world. In Golub’s art, the pursuit of social criticism and self-knowledge are one and the same.

It should be clear that at the bottom of the modern artist’s will to power is a subtle form of ressentiment—in Nietzsche’s words, the “contradiction of natural values.” And an argument can be made for the idea that the “alternatives” to artistic fiction (however much it reflects the world it turns away from) and to disinterested esthetics (however much it represents the ultimate in contemplation) are indeed expressions of a subtle ressentiment against nature and all that comes to be taken as “natural” in society. In Golub’s art, ressentiment takes a paradoxical form, for the “natural value” he negates by means of his fictional, contemplative presentation of it, namely violent social power, superficially seems unnatural. And yet, of course, it is quite natural to modern society. It is quite natural in modern times that social power take violent form.

Nietzsche writes of “the counter-concepts of a noble morality and a morality of ressentiment—the latter born of the No to the former.”2 Golub’s mercenaries are the horrific inversion of the noble, an ironical presentation of the “noble” as a no to human nature. Golub’s mercenaries are the best that modern society can do by way of representing the noble. But then, in view of their pretense to nobility and our recognition of them as inhuman, we are forced to ask what the noble, a social concept, is. And we are forced to answer that it has something to do with social power, that it gives form to social power. Nobility is social power in harmony with individual strength, and thus social power with no need for violence—no need for violence to force a reconciliation between society and the individual. The jaunty, arrogant, pseudonobility of the mercenaries is the result of the collapse of the balance between social power and individual strength, leading to a falsification of human nature. It now becomes radically ugly—the ugliness that is the sign of the no to, in Nietzsche’s words, “all that is noble, gay, high-minded on earth.” Golub is in rebellion against this inescapable ugliness—resentful of but helpless before its presence, resentful of the vulgar beings who embody the modern will to power as an end in itself. Such power is violently destructive of strength, or else, when it has the look of strength, violently distorts it, as in the deranged—damaged—appearance of the mercenaries. The contrast between Golub’s mercenaries, hardly honored for all their use, and Andrea del Verrocchio’s Bartolommeo Colleoni, a mercenary who seems to epitomize nobility, shows us how far towards raw violence society has moved to maintain its power over the individual.

The artist’s rebellion is made in the name of his own noble strength. The idea of the artist as rebel is of course not new, but Golub gives it a new turn. The artist does not reject simply a society that rejects him with its indifference, but one that intends to destroy him and the ecstatic, critical awareness that is his strength. The artist rebels against power that deliberately intends to violate strength. Golub offers us, in allegorical form, the struggle between social power and individual strength, between coercion and integrity. The mercenaries superficially reconcile the two in their person—serve society with all the strength of their being. But this is a submissive reconciliation with society that makes individual strength superfluous even while revealing it. The body—conscious as well as unconscious seat of strength—is the real subject of Golub’s images, whether it be the mutilated, tortured body of the “Interrogations” or the uniformed, disciplined body of the mercenaries and torturers. The contrast between nakedness and uniform, body and weapon, makes the point succinctly—it summarizes the dialectic of strength and power, the modern struggle between individual and society that Golub’s images rather didactically articulate.

As Hannah Arendt points out, power is always social, “[it] springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse,” whereas strength is “nature’s gift to the individual which cannot be shared with others.” Strength can cope with violence “either heroically, by consenting to fight and die, or stoically, by accepting suffering and challenging all affliction through self-sufficiency and withdrawal from the world; in either case, the integrity of the individual and his strength remain intact.” But, according to Arendt, “strength can actually be ruined . . . by power,” as distinct from violence, “and is therefore always in danger from the combined force of the many. Power corrupts indeed when the weak band together in order to ruin the strong.”3 Central to Golub’s “Interrogations” is the victimized strength of the naked figure, nature victimized by the violent use and abuse of social power. The “Interrogations” are the reality which stands behind and completes the revelation of reality begun by the “Mercenaries,” the way flesh stands behind and submits to the uniform, and is revealed all the more convincingly as one strips the uniform from it.

The predicament of Golub’s murals is that we will never know whether the victim meets his fate heroically or stoically; we know only that he is ruined. We cannot read his response to the violence inflicted on him by power, although we can see that power in operation, the combined force of the many destroying the strength of the individual. Golub’s ressentiment is against the “naturalness” of this situation, the difficulty of resisting violence that has come to be accepted as routine—unoriginal and thus unintimidating violence, repeated like a refrain as a possibility in every society. Golub’s theme is the perpetual willingness of society to turn against individuals without giving them even the chance of self-explanation, but simply binding and gagging them, or reducing their voice to a scream, to the silent agony of the hanging figure.

The tarnished, noble torsos of Golub’s victimized figures—hovering between nakedness and nudity—make clear their natural strength. They are classically based figures, more so than the mercenaries, who are deliberately de-idealized to accent their contemporaneity. The tortured torsos are timeless and seem autonomous, representing the lost world of antiquity when strength and power were one, when society was based on the premise of being at one with rather than dominating nature. The partially idealized figures of the victims signal the suppression of natural nobility by arbitrarily used social power. It is a power which not only robs the individual of his strength but also makes it seem trivial in the social scheme of things, full of a rancorous yet disciplined violence that gains added power through its impersonality. The mercenaries themselves are its victims, corrupted as they are by their impersonal sense of power, signaled in part by their weapons, based on universal technology. Such technology is also an implicit theme of Golub’s murals, permitting, as it does, the easy conversion of power into violence, the detached use of power as violence. The classical basis of Golub’s tortured victims points to the presence of a potentially ennobling artistic element that is no match for the technological basis of his mercenaries, which points to the degrading, violent nature of their social power.

The artist is the unmoved mover of the scene, which is not tragic because it does not deal with inherently flawed strength, and above all because it shows a flaw in society rather than in the individual. The artist renews the strength with which he makes art by recognizing the dominance of power over strength in the modern world—by facing social facts. Such realism is the only source of art in a world where art can no longer ennoble strength. In a world in which being heroic or stoic no longer matters—a world in which the individual can no longer spiritually survive power because it has absolute violence at its command—the artist has only one means of self-preservation: the realistic appraisal of the overwhelming odds against any anonymous individual preserving strength in the face of society’s power. The artist’s will to power is embodied in realism, which is the only alternative to helplessness.

Donald B. Kuspit writes on art and philosophy and is the co-editor of Art Criticism. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg, Art Critic, University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.



1. Karl Mannheim, “Conservative Thought,” Essays on Sociology and Social Thought, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953, p. 127.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Antichrist,” The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann, New York: Viking, 1954, p. 593.

3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1959, pp. 179, 182.

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