PRINT Summer 1981

The End of the Avant-Garde? And So the End of Tradition. Notes on the Present “Kulturkampf” in West Germany

Some strange things are apt to make us ask questions.

1. WHILE I WAS PREPARING THIS article, an excellent and significant artist tried to stop me from mentioning his colleague Anselm Kiefer. He then attempted to intimidate me so I would not give more emphasis to Kiefer’s painting than to his own or that of his friends. What could explain this behavior, which unfortunately is not unique?

2. In 1980 the Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer exhibits in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale were almost universally rejected by the German critics. The true reason for their disdain could be perceived behind the veneer of “artistic” criteria: they felt that Kiefer and Baselitz were using obsolete artistic methods to promote equally obsolete German mythology. This objection is untenable. What is behind such unanimous misconception?

3. Although there has been no shortage of intelligent criticism of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler, 1977, in France, Britain and the U.S., in West Germany the film is put down because it is apparently paving the way for National-Socialist mythology.

4. When Richard Serra’s large 1977 Documenta sculpture was installed on a public site in the city of Bochum, the public and officials reacted in a manner that was reminiscent of the Nazi campaigns against “degenerate art.” Although this should no longer seem possible, such events are quite common in West Germany. There is a gradually increasing awareness that the campaigns against “degenerate art” did not cease with the end of the Third Reich, nor are they limited to obscure circles. From Henri Nannen’s criticism of the 1958 Venice Biennale to Thilo Koch’s mockery of the 1972 Documenta this attitude about “degenerate art” has, in actual fact, been kept alive.

5. Eduard Beaucamp of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently stated that “the survival of art does not depend on its avant-garde qualities. In no way does the end of avant-garde amount to an end of art.” Like many of his colleagues, Beaucamp is accepting all this talk about the end of the avant-garde, or even the end of modernism. What is it that created this curious agreement between the former champions of avant-garde and its longtime enemies?

Considering the current active, even aggressive, conflicts in West Germany, the recognition that this talk about avant-garde perpetuates the same peripheries that have existed for the past 70 years is useful, although unlikely on the part of those who are doing the talking. Do we have to accept that there have been no fundamental advances in the visual arts within the last 70 years? Since it is only now—now that the world’s economic and political problems prove the usual explanation for the 12-year “mere accident” in German history to be insufficient—that a discussion of Germany’s National-Socialist past is taking place, this debate about modernism could, in fact, be a good omen. But if it cannot be based on different and better arguments, we may soon be sharing the responsibility for another cultural disaster. We need not necessarily become war criminals again. In certain respects, says Syberberg, peace criminals are just as bad.

In many ways a world experiment is taking place in Germany, with the side-by-side existence of socialist East Germany and capitalist West Germany. Both countries share the same cultural history, the same language and the same intense internalization of the fiction of a German national character. The existence of the two Germanys and their unique experience is of immense value for present cultural debates. Though conventional world opinion sees the Prussian mind (under scrutiny this year in numerous exhibitions and studies in both East and West Berlin) as industrious, self-sacrificing and productive, its true nature is radicalness leading, of necessity, to self-destruction. In a recent essay, Rudolf Augstein, editor of Der Spiegel, has shown German history—inasmuch as it was determined chiefly by Prussia in the last 240 years—to have been a series of crazy acts of brinkmanship. Frederick the Great, Bismarck, William II, and Hitler acted with a horrendous consistency that was by no means chance coincidence. Their attitude and that of their thousands of subordinate führers can be characterized by the statement that Hitler made in April 1945, in his last will and testament, concerning the disaster he had created: “If our political and military decisions should result in a catastrophe, the German people deserve no better.”

What is the fascist element in this behavior, behavior that had prevailed long before fascism and National-Socialism were established as a political system? Heinrich Heine supplied an answer, describing the Germans as building their society and their state “in the realm of the airs,” centuries after the French and the English had succeeded in creating actual states on earth. The Germans considered and continue to consider philosophical, literary and artistic world-constructs—purely intellectual designs—to be actual realities. They read philosophy and artistic works as if they were down-to-earth operating manuals for the translation of ideas and imaginary constructs into reality, instead of using them to justify criticism of the conditions actually prevailing in a given period. Examples of this can be found in the systematic liquidation of the Jews as a disciplined sacrifice supposedly made in the name of unpleasant duty, in the widespread acceptance of censorship of intellectual activity as being necessary to demonstrate the honor and purity of true Germanness, in the public destruction of “degenerate” art and the hounding of the creators of that art. Only in Germany was it possible for a competent Nobel prize-winning scientist in experimental physics, Professor Lenard, to accuse Professor Einstein and his colleagues of advancing “un-German” physics.

“What art is, [or is not,] I will decide.”2

Even though Friedrich Schiller, whose teachings formed an indispensable part of German high-school education for a long time, held that the constructs of art were real only as “beautiful appearances,” the Germans have always had difficulty understanding the English pragmatic approach to, or the French constructs of, beautiful appearances, since recognizing the idea of beautiful appearances was tantamount to denying the real and the true. The proverbial “German profoundness” results from an inability to accept beautiful appearances—figurative ideas or mythic narratives or scientific systems of thought—as just that: mere appearances. They have always seen the relation between surface and depth, appearances and inner nature, imagination and physical reality, in terms of plan and execution. Artistic statements were judged in terms of how they could be methodically translated into reality; an autonomous sphere of esthetic appearances could not be approved. Anglo-Saxon pragmatism selected artistic and philosophic systems based on how well they would fit into the reality of everyday life. The German idealists forced their philosophical and artistic system constructs onto everyday life. That is why it seemed natural to German leaders that they should decide which philosophical and artistic thoughts could or could not be admitted. To the majority of Germans, it was quite natural that William II or Hitler should act as the supreme arbiter of art and science.

Today we are still inclined to see the absurd Third Reich ideologies in art and science as products of the stupidity of political officials. Actually, the ideology of “un-German” physics, the supposedly empirical racial doctrine, the theory of the superiority of German culture, the assertion that medieval gothic was a German invention, and the legal application given to the ancient Germanic virtues—all were made up not by party big shots, but by ordinary academic professors. Hitler himself cracked jokes about this. Hitler was not forcing his own inventions on the people; he simply literally actualized a relationship between thought and act, plan and execution, art and reality, that had gained currency long before him. The German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann had given a resounding and convincing demonstration of this when he succeeded in discovering historical Troy and Mycenae by taking the mythic fiction of Homer’s epic as a practical guide. Like Schliemann and the majority of his colleagues in science and art, Hitler proceeded in the same manner. But instead of limiting himself to constructing a new history of our culture, he applied his literal interpretation of esthetic appearances and his literal understanding of artistic and scientific mythology to his present. The results are well-enough known even though the background is rarely understood. The first years of West Germany were openly—though perhaps unwittingly—called the reconstruction period. West German ideology was determined by the same forces, by the same scientists and artists who, without much evidence of pressure, had shown themselves willing to support National-Socialism and to integrate their professional organizations with the new regime as early as 1933, long before ordinary citizens allowed themselves to be drawn into the new order.

I am bringing all this up because this field of our intellectual history is being tilled again in the present cultural conflict. We are living through a permanent iconoclastic battle, and in this age of technological production and distribution of images this could in recent years have led to radical results, as radical as in the Third Reich or the German Democratic Republic, if the constitutional courts had not been as strong as they were until now. It seems doubtful, however, that the constitutional guaranties can be maintained much longer.

The function of avant-garde.
The discussion about the end of the avant-garde has a special flavor in West Germany because the avant-garde came to an end in Germany before it ever began; the avant-garde has never been able to establish itself in Germany. Avant-garde works are those that compel us to see the seemingly familiar works within our traditions in a totally new way. The very creation of that which is new and incomprehensible is a necessary prerequisite to forming traditions. That is the function of avant-gardes. For traditions are not secure and unchanging things of the past that continue to affect the present; on the contrary, they have to be rebuilt every time from the present into the past. Traditions are the forms by which we appropriate history as an effective force in the present. All concepts of modernism and the avant-gardes insist on the creation of something new. But if something is really new, it certainly is unknown, unrecognized, not understood and not definable.

The majority of people wants to understand the new—avant-garde art—in its own terms, all by itself; and this, of course, is impossible. Artists who are prone to misrepresent their creation of the new as simply a break with the old and the preexisting, encourage such a simplistic view. But they cannot break with traditions unless they have a knowledge of unambiguous, constant and secure traditions. Panofsky, Warburg, Kubler and others have shown why this is so; why form and content can barely be communicated from one individual to another, let alone from one generation to another. The same form changes its content, the same content appears in a different form. All renaissances were de facto failures, even though the individuals involved, lacking historical knowledge, might have believed that they had succeeded in resurrecting traditions. Renaissances cannot aim at the resuscitation of traditions, but they can make sense as an attempt to create new traditions out of historical inventory.

What motivates this, what compels people again and again to create traditions anew? It is the pressure of the unknown, the incomprehensible, the unrecognized, that appears in avant-garde works. No one can remain indifferent to something new and unknown that suddenly comes into the environment. Most often it either will be destroyed or, by means of all sorts of projections, will be renamed in familiar terms. But sometimes an artist will proceed to exploit the new fact to induce a new attitude toward that which was, until then, the old and known. One can only learn about the known from the new, one can only experience the new with a new view of the old.

Thus the public for avant-gardes should trust its perception that these works are unknown, unrecognized, uncomprehended. For this implies that this public knows other works it has already recognized and understood. If someone considers a work by Joseph Beuys to be incomprehensible, he or she is bound to assert that there is a work by Rembrandt, Kaspar David Friedrich or some other artist that is known, recognized and familiar. This is of course a fallacy, since even with these artists there is no such thing as unchanging knowledge and permanent familiarity. The new avant-garde works prove themselves each time by forcing us to see and understand the same historical work once again in different terms, showing us the same Rembrandt as though we had never seen it before. Whereas the usual argument has it that the avant-garde is rejected for fear of having to reject old traditions, it seems more likely that people are afraid of the new because they are afraid to admit that they did not understand the seemingly old, known and traditional, either.

The making of a new past.
There is no point in classifying Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Jörg Immendorff, A.R. Penck, Markus Lüpertz and any of the first-rate painters of the “Mülheimer Freiheit” as neo-Expressionists or neo-Fauves, for this would suggest that these artists are part of the modern movement but reflect a long obsolescent stage in it. Ideas about artists returning to traditions are meaningless. The opinions on the substance of traditions are themselves no more than contemporary constructs. Evidence of how difficult it is to understand this can often be seen in criticism of “post-modernism.” As long as we label “post-modernism” (in the various fields) as an adversary of modernism, as long as we lump it with the perpetual enemies of all the avant-gardes, we are adding unnecessarily to the strength of these adversaries. In architecture, most critics do not even attempt to claim that “post-modernism” is related to modernism; instead, they treat it as a new eclecticism and historicism, that has turned the clock back to the days before Louis Sullivan and Adolf Loos. One of these critics, Uwe Schneede, director of the Hamburg Kunstverein, wrote in 1980:

The present leaves the artists without hope, utopia is worn and decrepit. So they are looking for a link with something old to give them a new beginning, and imperceptibly this has changed the way 20th-century avant-garde sees itself. Since the end of the 19th century, art history has been a history of the avant-garde. Avant-garde—that was the vanguard advancing into unknown territory—anticipating an uncertain future—creating the new—not afraid of shocking confrontations.

1968 saw the rise of a fundamental critique of the cult of innovation, and this has since affected the practice of young artists. They are no longer totally committed to the new that the art dealers had been demanding from them (and profiting by) in the ’60s. In those years the industrial trade fairs provided annual reassurance for the ideology of economic growth and the proliferating consumption approach to life, whereas the bustling art world found new strength in the innovation ideology at the annual art fairs. This obsessive forward pressure has waned. Today the avant-garde is no longer identical with the cult of innovation. Today’s avant-garde creates the new out of pensive retrospection.

This does not make much sense. First Schneede says that today’s avant-garde is no longer aiming to create something new, then he concludes that today’s avant-garde creates the new in pensive, searching retrospection, i.e., it does create something new. What Robert A.M. Stern has said for the current development in architecture should be repeated:

One cannot emphasize enough that today’s post-modern-ism is not a new style outside of modernism. Nor is post-modernism a revolutionary movement inside of and against modernism. It aims to correct the shortcomings of the earlier development, to restore the balance between tradition and innovation after the revolution of modernism that had been puritanical and limited to small circles.3

The critics were similarly in conflict about the latest Venice Biennale. On the one hand they said that the young artists had no new ideas; on the other hand they complained that the artists were constantly duping the public with a rapid succession of novelties that were nothing but new.

For a long time Picasso had a reputation with both laymen and experts as the epitome of the novelty-minded artist. But at the same time they were trying to prove that his novelties were not half so new. Stierlin wrote in his treatise on 11th-century Spanish book illuminations that “the treatment of an apocalyptic horse by the facundas master is already reminiscent of Picasso’s horse in Guernica.” The other way around it makes sense: it is Picasso’s disturbingly new way of seeing things in Guernica that makes us see the facundas master differently. If contemporary artists cease to produce avant-garde works, they give up their ability even to perceive the seemingly old and known, the traditional. It is the impact of the new that makes us look back at historical inventory, so we can experience the energy of the actually new in the modified view of the old.

Baselitz, Kiefer, Immendorff, Penck, Lüpertz and their colleagues are not looking back; they are not neo-Expressionists, neo-Fauves or neo-anything. Their work makes us discover aspects in the Expressionists or the Fauves that could not have been perceived before their work began to exercise its effect on us.

Which past is the present of the arts?
The achievements of 20th-century avant-garde can be compared only with those of the 5th century B.C. in Attica and those of the 15th century in Northern Italy. The criterion for the level of achievement in this century is how earlier art was reviewed, thanks to the avant-garde pressure. Cézanne compelled the art historian von Rintelen to arrive at a wholly new discovery of Giotto’s artistic achievements. Cubism proved itself to be an effective avant-garde by causing an entirely new view of the artistic manifestations of the so-called primitives (especially their sculpture). Expressionism amounted to an effective avant-garde because it did away with the prejudice of the period against El Greco (until 1908 he had been considered a mere daubster) and many other Mannerists. Architectural thought from Loos to the Bauhaus resulted in an entirely new view and reevaluation of Palladio and Brunelleschi. This series continues to the present time, where Bernhard Johannes Blume demands a new definition of art deco as a further formal canon in European art history. In the 1970s, conceptual art brought up 15th-century conceptionalism. Baselitz’ upside-down paintings create a totally new Tintoretto for us. Seventeenth-century troupe l’oeil, which had been considered mere genre painting, was revealed as epistemological painting by Spoerri’s tableaux pièges. With his materials and sculptural values Beuys compelled us to find a new attitude toward everyday waste materials that had been considered irredeemably amorphous. Penck’s painting shows how the transition from the black-figure to the red-figure style at the turn of the 5th century B.C. can become a revolutionary reorientation in present-day painting. And so forth—the achievements of the avant-garde in this century are so numerous and dense that they prove all this talk about modernism losing historical dimension to be totally off the mark. The dense representation of history in our present (as an achievement of the avant-garde) simply cannot be rejected by calling it historicism or eclecticism.

What is the meaning of modernism?
If one wants to discuss modernism as a clearly defined and historically unique period, this is the conclusion: modernism is an attempt to understand artistic problems as exclusively immanent, i.e., as purely formal problems. This has in fact been going on for 100 years, the aim being to show progress in art as progress in the mastery of formal problems. But if one asks why the artists of a given period deal as they do with formal problems, one cannot help posing questions other than those about formal problems. Nobody has yet succeeded in seeing art works purely in terms of formal problems. This is why such a concept of modernism (as a history of solutions to formal problems) is not very useful.

There are no traditions without an avant-garde.
Thus we have to assume that the responsibilities of the modern avant-gardes are not historically unique, but that they occurred in all societies, in all cultures and periods as the task of preserving the connection between the contemporarily new with history. Societies that employed dictatorial measures to stifle the creation of new things in order to protect hallowed traditions were the first to lose their traditions. The more intense the battle against the new, the faster the loss of tradition. And this is what makes the avant-garde problem in Germany do explosive. Prussian radicalism arises from the lack of tradition and control that had to result from the rejection of the new.

I am not saying that the situation in West Germany today is the same as it was in the ’30s, but I am saying that it is analogous. The diversity claimed in all artistic, scientific and political statements and constructs to exist in West Germany has an anti-avant-garde and thus antihistorical drift even in the absence of totalitarian measures. That this should be so can be understood more readily by a comparison with Frederick the Great’s Prussia. He, too, enjoyed a reputation as being tolerant and diversity-minded. Yet his account of the literature of his period mentions neither the names nor the works of Lessing, Goethe, Schiller or any of the other innovators of that time.

In Germany, an artistic, literary or scientific production immediately has a political dimension, and not only for the reasons outlined so far. The arts and sciences are greatly dependent—above all, financially—on state institutions. Though it may have been a good idea to make these fields independent of the tastes of private patrons (or of the “average public”), this has long since gone too far in the other direction. When major collectors can enlist government support to establish themselves as public institutions, this results in a cultural-political pact powerful enough to break up cultural communities and friendships between artists. And this is what is happening, as suggested in my introduction, at present in West Germany.

The avant-gardes on their way into the diaspora.
There is a popular strategy, invented in West Germany but since employed in other countries, mainly in France, which is a like-minded attack on democracy by the radical left, the radical right, the dropouts and the copouts. Recently, an American, Noam Chomsky, wrote a preface for a radical right-wing polemical publication, and he justified his attitude with the definition of this strategy. He said that the Western democracies are not real democracies since they prevented radical right-wing opinions from being published. In Germany, young people in particular are once again succumbing to the sickness of taking system constructs literally. This time it is the West German constitution they are taking literally, and that, of course, makes it very easy to denounce actual conditions as not consistent with the constitution. This is fine as long as the constitution serves as a reference and inspiration for criticizing our political and social reality. But an insistence on literal compliance with the constitution would result in totalitarian conditions even if the constitution had been drafted by Jesus Christ and all the saints.

It has always turned out that the uncompromising identical application of a system construct is bound to have inhumane and destructive effects, since the very strength of thought is always rooted in the discrepancy between plan and execution, between idea and practice. Even the most ideal artworks and the most humane policies may only be construed as “ruins.”

The radical hatred of the Jews in Germany arose principally from the permanent opposition of Jewish theology to any literal execution of a myth, a revelation, or a system of thought. This was the very substance of the German dream of the realization of the Holy German Empire. The present, increasingly explosive attempts to take scientific and artistic system constructs literally, and to enforce their exact execution, need to be watched carefully. This may explain why artists like Syberberg and Kiefer engender such widespread hostility in Germany, for their works imply an analysis of this cultural history and in the process they wreak havoc on the existing alliances.

Bazon Brock is Professor of Esthetics at the University of Wuppertal.

This article was translated from the German by Frederick J. Hosenkiel.


1. Kulturkampf or culture conflict refers to the roll-back of the influence of the Catholic Church attempted by Bismarck in 1872 and abandoned in 1887. It was largely a conflict between concept-minded Protestant idealists on the one hand, and Catholic supporters of an autonomy of esthetic appearances on the other.

2. Declared by William II in a speech, 1901, and by Adolf Hitler as described by Joachim C Fest, Das Gesicht des Dritten Reiches, in chapter “Professor NSDAP.” Munich: R. Piper,1963

3. Robert A. M. Stern, “Modernismus and Postmodernismus.” Design ist Unsichtbar, Vienna: Löcher Verlag, 198.