PRINT November 1981


The feeling of happiness produced by indulgence of a wild, untamed craving is incomparably more intense than is the satisfying of a curbed desire.
—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents

The Grandfather Principle

THIS SO-CALLED “NEW” EXPRESSIONISM currently being heralded by old media trumpets is a false Expressionism. Hilton Kramer has written in the New York Times (July 12, 1981) that “it signals a shift in the life of the culture—in the whole complex of ideas, emotions and dispositions that at any given moment governs our outlook on art and experience,” and that like “every genuine change of style” it is “a barometer of changes greater than itself.” At the other extreme—every new art must run the gamut of critical opinion to win the right to pride—Thomas Lawson, speaking in Artforum (Summer 1981, p. 91) of Julian Schnabel, who by reason of the prestige of the galleries he has exhibited at has won the right to be regarded as one of the leading American lights of the neo-Expressionism, observes the “bombast” and “numbingly self-important” character of his art. Presumably Lawson would speak this way about Susan Rothenberg as well—I would—whom Kramer lists, along with Schnabel (and Malcolm Morley) as “the outstanding figures at the moment.”

All this media melodrama, of course, when it is not a matter of hard sell, is a way of testing the new painting, putting pressure on it to measure up to high standards. If enough critical pressure is applied, if it is made sufficiently self-conscious to have something to live up to, it just might emerge into greatness. The change in sensibility it represents might indeed signal a change in attitude, a new outlook. It just might be the first world-historical art—a seemingly comprehensive, dominating style, sweeping all before it—to come along since the ’60s, when we had Pop art and Minimalism. We must remember that Abstract Expressionism, the first heroic American art of the postwar period, consolidated the gains of European modern art, went back to the roots, as it were, of modernism as such, creating a unique synthesis of modernist ideas. In this, neo-Expressionism is like Abstract Expressionism, and like Pop art—which harks back to Dadaism—and Minimalism—which harks back to Constructivism; in fact, like every significant new art, whose claim to importance at least in part rests on the importance of the past art that it is dependent on. That is just where the trouble lies in this false Expressionism. There is something wrong in the paradise of its plenty, and, more crucially, with its “reconstitution” of the past in the context of the present.

Revival in the name of new interests is always botched because new interests mean discarding the foundations of the old interests. Abstract Expressionism discards the religiosity of Wassily Kandinsky’s art from which it in part stems; Pop art is indifferent to the disgust that motivated much of Dadaism, and turns its bad humor into good humor (Andy Warhol’s business success ethos shows how little disgust there is in Pop art); and Minimalism replaces the socio-political interests of Constructivism with modernist interests in the purity or autonomy of the medium, as Robert Morris’ writing on sculpture demonstrates. Just by reason of the spiritual ineptitude of past revivals we can expect the current revival of Expressionism to abort the spirit of the old Expressionism. In every case, the American conversion or “revision” of European modern art has purged it of its spiritual dimension—or at least made that dimension much less prominent—and has replaced that spirit with a modernist aim. This is not simply a matter of reinterpretation but of seeing the underlying if unrecognized dominant interest of American art, which has historically stripped European art naked, separating style from spirit in the name of American independence.

On the basis of past experience there is no reason not to expect a similar cleansing of Expressionism. To accept this is to begin to comprehend the kind of spirit that is involved in the American neo-Expressionism. It is to begin to realize that it issues from an encounter with the American popular culture mentality—fixated on a conception of and expectations from “expression,” “self-expression,” and “feeling”—and is therefore an equivocal, bastardized, and finally neutralized, Expressionism. This Americanism—popular culture—is, along with the American idea of modernism—the absolutization of the medium—one of our “spiritual” gifts to Europe, and it dominates the young European as well as the young American mentality. In fact, popular culture everywhere seems to express “youth” because of its idea of “expression.” This is not a matter of the old authentic versus the new inauthentic Expressionism, but rather of new meanings implicit to expression uttered in different worlds, under different circumstances.

The main point is that neo-Expressionism comes to us under the auspices of the grandfather principle, which can be consciously used (by whomever needs it) to ensure “development.” By skipping a generation and going back to the generation before it for one’s “influences” or “sources,” one’s grandfather becomes the true father, and since he seems more mysterious anyway because he is more remote, he is valued as more original, and ravished for his originality. “Ravished” is perhaps too strong a word, but the sense of expropriation and exploitation is too complete, and the implicit violence that goes with being dominant is so evident in the “manhandling” of grandfather’s art—whether unintentional or intentional—that the grandson’s relationship to it in spirit and in results hardly seems anything other than malevolent, nothing but malice aforethought. Immediate predecessors are pummeled out of sight, and the artists are free to “interpret” remote relatives as they wish—free to acquire ancestors of their own choosing. There is no historical necessity, or only the historical necessity of overthrowing the immediate past—the present that no longer reverberates with “presence”—that must be replaced by a new present; and what easier place instantly to find one than in the distant, foreign past? An “adjustment” here, something exaggerated there, the original spirit overlooked everywhere—and behold! a new direction for art, an admirably new, fashionable avant-garde costume. New clothes for the Emperor—perhaps with even greater transparency, but nobody wants to say so because everybody is so eager to “prove” progress, to evolve to the next step, to go forward—even if that means going backward.

Klaus Berger wrote (in 1938) that “before we write off Expressionism and discard it completely . . . , let us examine it very closely and profoundly, and then [dialectically] surpass it honorably (in the three-fold Hegelian-Marxist sense of the word).” This is explained by a note which tells us that “the word translated [as] ‘surpass’ is aufheben in German, meaning (1) to negate, (2) to elevate, (3) to preserve.”1 It can hardly be said that neo-Expressionism self-consciously applies this principle. It may negate, but not by analytic penetration of what it was that Expressionism affirmed; it elevates and preserves only a look, keeping up the old appearances. One might say that it can’t help this, because the times are different, but then only the three-fold dialectical accomplishment of surpassing the old Expressionism could show us how the times are different. Neo-Expressionism exists largely to behead and relegate to the dustbin of history the art of the 1960s and ’70s that has up to now seemed royal. It means to crown itself the new Emperor with its own hands, after first declaring itself more authentic—and less mercenary—than its father art, which it sees as having lost purity and become “sensual.” This may be more profoundly a moral issue than the neo-Expressionists—who feel that the artists who constitute the present and who are regarded as aristocratic have gone to seed, are even corrupt—realize. In the name of a new integrity, a new honesty of “feeling” the neo-Expressionists decry what they see as Sol LeWitt’s indulgence in theater, Robert Morris’ proposed vaudevillean extravaganzas of catastrophic death, the Alice Aycock–Dennis Oppenheim heaping of profound meanings on superficial structures, the archaicism of Roy Lichtenstein in his allegiance to the period look of his comic book style, and Andy Warhol’s platitudinizing of celebrities to achieve the ideal corporate art. I should note quickly that for Clement Greenberg, apostle of the once-new faith of abstraction, awkwardness—of which we find a good deal in neo-Expressionism—is the sign of authentic feeling, if not alone the source of great art.

Faustianism versus the Folk

When National Socialism also labeled me and my art “degenerate” and “decadent,” I felt this to be a profound misunderstanding because it is just not so. My art is German, strong, austere, and sincere.
—Emil Nolde, Letter to Dr. Josef Goebbels, July 2, 1938

The heart of the issue is neo-Expressionism’s relationship to feeling—not any old feeling, but, in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s words, the feeling that is articulated “instinctively and without premeditation” because it simultaneously “expresses the spiritual life” of the artist and reveals “the inner life of what is represented.”2 Such “feeling,” wrote Kandinsky, “if permitted its voice, will sooner or later point the artist as well as the observer in the right direction.” Echoing ideas that in modern form go back at least to Charles Baudelaire, he wrote, “the artist, whose life is comparable to a child’s in many respects, frequently can reach the inner sound more easily than anyone else”—that “inner sound of objects,” that “spiritually expressive” core of reality that “rings out,” and that “without exception, every child’s drawing reveals.”3 Here we have the real definition of the “modern” in modern art: to be modern is a subjective condition rather than an objective situation—a matter of attitude or mentality rather than circumstance. Such a mentality may be a response to history, but it develops a momentum of its own: it wants to see the whole world with “unspoiled eyes,” on its own.

Neo-Expressionism is a false expressionism because it is blasé and sophisticated about what it sees, rather than childlike. It pretends to be childlike, it is pregnant with a perspective that could be considered childlike—if it weren’t the perspective of popular culture. Like a false pregnancy, this inflation is the fulfillment of a wish, an existence in a dream-state of desire, that will never give birth to an actual child. On the contrary, like Saturn, and like popular culture, it has eaten every child it has conceived. Neo-Expressionism, knowledgeable in the methods of popular culture—a demonstration of the mentality behind them—offers a grotesque version of childlikeness, rendering it self-consciously and thus making a mockery of its unconsciousness. The popular culture acts the child in a theater of boredom, which is to create that contradiction in terms, that monster, the bored child, the child that play-acts its childishness—that thinks it can predict what it is to be a child. Neo-Expressionism is the outcome of the child’s art that was predicted—the childish art that comes out of the boredom of the pseudo-child, really the boredom with being a child, but not knowing what else to be, and not capable of being anything else. Besides, it is fashionable to be a child, and especially to be half-adult and half-child, i.e., to be an adult pretending to be a child rather than, as the old Expressionist was, an adult who had the revolutionary inner life of a child, who experienced without play-acting—completely unconsciously—what it was to be as spiritual as a child.

Neo-Expressionism, like the popular culture, is a reactionary attempt to possess the child’s being, to appropriate it for ulterior motives. For the purpose of social control or management the child in us must be completely comprehended, and finally simulated, invented anew, re-created from the ground up, and thus totally mastered. We are then totally mastered, slaves to our own conception of our innocence, our unspoiled nature—we are then totally “produced.” Neo-Expressionism is another production of the forces that can make anything a popular convention, even the ultra-unconventionality of the child. Under the mistaken assumption that it is a renewal of the basic, originative, life-giving spirit that was inherent in modern art, neo-Expressionism artificially reproduces the child’s perspective and thus dissolves the spirit of modern art. Much as the Antichrist is to the Christ—looking exactly like Him, but utterly alien in spirit—so neo-Expressionism is to the old Expressionism and the childlike spirit of modern art. It is the Antichrist that appears at the Apocalypse, at the Millennium, signaling the end of an era. With this new Expressionism, modern art has cannibalized itself, has cooked up and eaten the very guts that made it what it was. With the new Expressionism, modern art has mimicked its origins, thereby dissolving them—dissipating their force, giving up the source of its sense of direction. This is a special kind of decline—decline by way of popularization. What is popularized is the condition of decline as the old Expressionists understood it—the condition of alienation, understood as a symptom of decline, has now become a cliché. Most crucially, this popular culture expression and demonstration of alienation is accompanied by what one might call “surplus emotion”—that kind of mania or fanaticism (associated with addiction to celebrity) that Greenberg once disparaged as distracting (from “art”) expressionist “excess of emotion.” But in fact, in the popular culture (and the new Expressionism), it is the only source of attraction and value. In retrospect, the old Expressionist alienation seems more a sign of advance than of decline—more a sign of the recovery of the child’s perspective than of its loss. The old Expressionist alienation was not so manic in its effect as the new Expressionist alienation—not ostentatious, however demonstrative. Feeling was not really “excessively” alienated, but in expressive proportion to alienation—cosmic, but in dialectical relation to its point of departure. Feeling did not “transcend” alienation to become popular in its own right.

The original Expressionist alienation was more a consequence of the exaggeration than of the decline of the Faustian will-to-power. The artists regarded themselves as Faustian individualists but also desired a folkish destiny. They defined themselves in terms of the Faustian will “to reign alone,” to use Oswald Spengler’s expression, but it was as much a handicap as a privilege. For it isolated as much as it invigorated—separating from the folk as well as confirming individuality. Thus Nolde’s protest to Goebbels insisting on the “Germanness” of his individuality rather than on its decadence or degeneracy, i.e., falling away from and even corruption of the will of the folk. For Nolde, the artist’s spiritual will-to-power was an expression of the folk’s spirituality, had its roots in and was no more than an externalization of their inner essence.

Paul Klee was closer to the truth when he observed, in a deceptively simple assertion that is at once the heraldic motto and epitaph of genuine Expressionism, that “no folk supports us.” The artist, with a child’s perspective, is not supported by the folk, because that perspective—however it might appear to a more “sophisticated” artist or intellectual—is not that of a child. The child’s perspective, with its spontaneous will-to-power over the world—its domination of the world through the curiosity by which it reconceives the world—is not even remotely comparable to the folk perspective, which needs no will-to-power because it is dominant to begin with. The child’s perspective is that of the unconscious, the folk perspective is cosmic. The child’s perspective may well be expressed in those “nonobjective hieroglyphs” that Kirchner thought feeling was always creating anew,4 but it is not clear that they express the cosmic point of view of the folk. Indeed, it can hardly be imagined that the true child’s flighty drawing, however much it may help us hear the inner sound of things, can reach the level of cosmic generality and feeling of permanence of the folk spirit. Volk in Klee’s usage “connoted much more than ‘folk,’ ‘people,’ or ‘nation.’ ” It “signified the union of a people in terms of a transcendental essence, something which pervades the cosmos and involved the individual’s innermost being as well as his ties to nature, history, and his fellow man.” Thus, Klee was “not complaining about a lack of popular or national patronage” but “about something infinitely more serious, the alienation of the artist from a major link with the life force and the higher meanings of the universe.”5 Drawings from the unconscious can hardly bridge the distance between artist and folk.

It is exactly the artist’s spiritual (Faustian) will-to-power that separates him or her from the spirituality of the folk. Klee may have admired Franz Marc, in whom he found both “the unredeemed” or “Faustian element” and existence as “a real member of the human race,” with that attractive “warmth” that comes of belonging to the folk,6 but Marc was the exception rather than rule among modern artists. The childlikeness of Marc did not alienate him from the folk because he was not completely given over to the spiritual will-to-power. On the contrary, his animals represent German spirituality, that like all genuine spirituality had nothing to do with the will-to-power or competitive striving. In a sense, the spiritual will-to-power is compensatory for the absence of genuine, self-certain—like an animal—spirituality. It signaled the spiritual vacuum that it filled.

In the new Expressionism we have the corruption of a spiritual will-to-power into an expressive will-to-power. Expression for the sake of expression is pursued, rather than expression to make spirituality manifest. Faustianism has outdone itself—has entered a true decline, achieved irreversible alienation—in the new Expressionism, for it is only a will-to-power over the signs of spirituality. This was incipiently present in modernism; but now its model is the popular culture. Its strategy is to dominate the signs of expressivity by popularizing or celebrating them, ostentatiously circulating them, as if that in itself could spontaneously generate spirituality. This is child’s play with signs, play that implies that the intensity of one’s feeling for them will make them sufficiently magical to create inner spiritual worlds on a cosmic scale. Instead of the spirit expressing itself in signs, the process is reversed: magically, signs are supposed to create the spirit, indeed, create the folk. But for this to happen signs must be strongly felt—this is what makes them magical. They must be given the charge of aimless feeling, have riding on them—to go to the quotation from Freud that begins this paper—“a wild, untamed craving.” Releasing or indulging this feeling charges the signs with the magical power of regenerating spirituality, the feeling of being one with the folk.

But neo-Expressionism is popular, not folk, feeling. It has the feeling of happiness that popular culture gives by claiming to indulge the wild, untamed cravings of the pure unconscious—to free our desire from the constraint that civilizes it. Popular culture claims to speak in the name of that outcast craving that civilization has banished for its tamer, less disruptive desires—claims to free us from the sublimation that in the end saps us of our instinctive strength. It claims that we need only attach ourselves to certain celebrated signs, become addicted to certain popular rituals of expression, to gain our “spiritual” freedom. Neo-Expressionism deals with this same damaged feeling of desire that thinks it is the root of spirituality, that demands expression and that thinks it has found expression when it fanatically attaches itself to certain popular signs, performs certain collective rituals. This does not achieve a cosmic sense of belonging to a folk, but addiction to the feeling of power without the will to truly realize it as an individual. Power democratized or popularized is neither the power of the folk nor the Faustian will-to-power, but the illusory sense of power that comes from the expression of craving in socially acceptable terms.

What is missing, then, in the new Expressionism, and in the popular culture, is not only the cosmic folk mentality—the sense of the transcendental—but what Spengler calls the Faustian sense of “directional energy.”7 There is an illusory sense of transcendence that comes from the proposed—but unrealized—release of instinctive desire, and an illusory sense of direction that comes from energetic commitment to the artifacts of expression, i.e., to existing, thoroughly socialized, and above all typical means of expression. (Objective rather than nonobjective hieroglyphs, consciously willed rather than unconsciously discovered hieroglyphs—hieroglyphs whose manipulators become celebrities rather than hieroglyphs whose discoverers become alienated.) This does not mean that the new Expressionism is not, as Ludwig Meidner wrote of the old Expressionism, “hung like Absalom by the hair from the branches of the Zeitgeist.” It is a different Zeitgeist from that on which the original “high-strung,” “irritable” Expressionists hung. The “dream of a diabolical palette,” the proclamation of “spleen . . . as the law of life” and “paradox” as “the highest spiritual value,” letting oneself be “driven to the breaking point by the approach of world catastrophe” as well as one’s “own wild power”8—which comes in part from one’s sense of impending apocalypse, ripping the lid off everyday consciousness so that one’s raw unconscious is exposed and erupts in rebellion—all this has a different aspect in neo-Expressionists. Spleen is no more than, in Byron’s words, that “vital scorn of all” exemplified by the application of the grandfather principle. The diabolical palette has become manipulation of the effect of frankness. Paradox has become trivialized into wit, irritability has been reduced to a sign of ambition, and the approach of world catastrophe has become a standard part of the popular culture landscape, which, indeed, thrives on alarmism. The Zeitgeist is no longer alienation, but alienation mediated by the popular culture: the sense of the decline of Western civilization is one reinforced by the popular culture, for its own exploitative, sensational ends.

This sense of the decline of the West, taken over by the popular culture, is one more way it keeps counting our pulse, telling us what is vital to our lives. But more than that, by manipulation of our sense of impending doom the popular culture manipulates our will to live—controls the flow of the life force in us. It controls our sense of the diabolical, the flow of our spleen, our sense of paradox, and above all our desire—our general sense of connectedness with and flow into life and society—for its own purposes. Control of the sense of apocalypse means control of erotic energy. There is an orgasmic overtone to the new Expressionism, the sense of arousal and release that evokes the apocalyptic, which at once becomes a metaphor for it. Reverberating on its source, the apocalyptic becomes a further erotic provocation. More pointedly, there is a sense of exaggerated—indeed, selfish—arousal, and incomplete release, further stimulating the sense of personal apocalypse. A kind of vicious autistic circle is created, in which a sense of the erotic becomes the subjective correlative for a sense of the apocalyptic, and, vice versa, a sense of imminent apocalypse becomes the objective correlative for a frustrated, even seemingly endangered, eroticism. The erotic and the apocalyptic feed into one another until they seem interchangeable, and thereby finally robbed of their meaning and charge. They are thus tamed, and as such easily assimilated by the popular culture. New Expressionism, like the popular culture in general, plays upon that sense of apocalypse for all it’s worth, so as to coercively dominate our existences and use them for society’s own authoritarian purposes.

The Energism that Ronny Cohen identified (Artforum, September 1980) as emerging in the ’80s can be connected with what Nietzsche regarded as one of art’s primary purposes—to instill and sustain our will to live. In neo-Expressionism, and in some of the preceding Energistic manifestations, art has once again been pressed into service as a stimulant for our will to live—not necessarily because we are losing it, but because our society may have a new use for it, may want to coopt it for society’s own “higher” purposes. Or it may be that the will to live is no longer subsumed by a Faustian spiritual will-to-power, which must be reinstated simply because it is the traditional mode of Western being-in-the-world. It is as though the popular culture might be trying to give shock treatment to a moribund Faustian will, for there seems to be no alternative in the West, which today understands human relationships and relations to the world in general largely in terms of power and the establishment of hierarchical dominance. Neo-Expressionism can be said to be giving shock treatment to a moribund will to art.

Neo-Expressionism does not seem to flow as effortlessly as the old Expressionism or Abstract Expressionism. There is no way it can be spontaneous in the world of popular culture, and so it tries to be spontaneous with the popular culture. The “mysticism” and the “primeval elements of art”—the “savagery” of feeling—that the old Expressionists once viewed as immanent in their personal spiritual will-to-power are now the prerogatives of the popular culture, popular signs of the will to live in the care of the popular culture. They have all been purified—stereotyped—by the popular culture, which means they have all been liquidated in terms of personal value. They now have only socially coercive value. (Purification of the medium, incidentally, is also a way of liquidating it for personal spiritual use. Here the strategies of late modernism and the popular culture come together, both showing their Americanness—their reductive materialism.) Today the popular culture dominates our lives and the life of art, gives us and our art whatever “spirituality” they have. The popular culture gives us our death imagery as well as our image of the life force—both are self-evident in neo-Expressionism—and above all gives us that sense of release from the constraints and discontents of civilization which in fact plays directly into the hands of the powers that be.

Drugs have become a nihilistic end in themselves rather than an instrument of spiritual self-exploration—an exit rather than an entrance. The religiosity of the old Expressionism is subsumed in the religiosity of popular culture, with its release into the hands of the society rather than in either a lower or higher world. Neo-Expressionism is not the return to the depths that Greenberg warned us against as having nothing to do with art—which in fact has everything to do with it—but rather an affirmation of the superficial, and superficially childlike, mentality of the popular culture, a superficiality mediated by the absoluteness of stereotypes, i.e., the new effortlessness with which worldly things are known, an altogether artificial grace, a manufactured spontaneity (or will-lessness). In fact, there is the iron will of determined social control behind the apparent spontaneity of the popular-culture look. Neo-Expressionism is the spirit of the popular culture refined and brought into high art with a greater profundity—at a deeper level—than Pop art ever imagined possible.

Role Reversal and The Ethics of Form

In the world as seen by the Faustian’s eyes, everything is motion with an aim. He himself lives only under that condition, for to him life means struggling, overcoming, winning through. The struggle for existence as ideal form of existence is implicit. . . .
—Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West9

Spengler regarded the idea that Expressionism was “a ‘phase of art-history’” to be “an unabashed farce.” It is likely that he would have regarded neo-Expressionism as a case in point of contemporary “faked painting, full of idiotic, exotic and showcard effects, that every ten years or so concocts out of the form-wealth of millennia some new ‘style’ which in fact is no style at all since everyone does as he pleases.”10 But Expressionism conceived not art historically but rather, in Gottfried Benn’s words, as “an evolution toward a new order and new historical meaning”—“an evolution subject to the most urgent inner necessity not given to other generations”—and so more a matter of “the ethics of form”11 than its esthetics, is clearly visible as a sign of what Spengler calls Western “Will-Culture,” the “Faustian soul-image.”12

In the new Expressionism there is only motion. Stripped of its aim, motion cannot reflect “struggling, overcoming, winning through.” For neo-Expressionism cannot help but reflect decades of a Zeitgeist that insisted that the only aim of art is esthetic—the esthetic “re-form” of art in the name of the autonomy of the medium. However much it may resist such estheticism in the name of a new, unknown spirituality, it is infected by it, especially since purity—with emphasis on the “literal order of effects,” to use Greenberg’s expression—has also come to dominate popular culture. Purity presumably carries the charge of fundamental desire: its emphasis on physicality corresponds to indulgence in uncivilized, unsublimated craving, and so offers an unequivocal feeling of happiness. Here the physicality that a Richard Serra is obsessed with comes together with the society’s obsession with sexuality. For art once again to acquire a spiritual aim, to be more than the display of energy as proof of autonomy, or to concentrate itself in a significant direction, i.e., to be itself by transcending itself, it must realize that every formal or stylistic move it makes is an ethical matter—a moral commitment. (To ask for this is not to ask for another reaffirmation of the continuity between art and life—we have had enough of that, in naive form, from the fine art/popular culture continuum of Pop art to the technology/autobiography continuum of video art—but rather to ask for a more selective relationship between them, a less indiscriminate sense of the inevitability of their connection. Contemporary protest art and feminist art try to achieve such a selective, moral connection between art and life, but, since much of the production so far has remained under the sway of the art ideology of autonomy, it, too, becomes transfixed on the horns of a dilemma.)

Expressionism understood that the creation of form was an ethical matter, because it understood that form was the objective expression of, in Benn’s words, “an active and organizing force in the evolution of life.”13 From this everything followed, for this was the reason it was able to articulate, in Klaus Berger’s words, “revolutionary tensions and possibilities,” the reason it was “an affront to the middle class,” and the reason it was “no style in the real sense of the word.”14 That is, it was not simply a new esthetics developed in the course of the evolution of art—developed to prove that art did evolve, that art could still be original—but a new mentality necessitated by the evolution of life, implying the urgent necessity for a reorganization of life. In contrast, neo-Expressionism is a middle-class style, bespeaking no “urgent inner necessity” other than that which demands of the bourgeois that he or she assimilate and popularize every critique of the society or organization of life, so that he or she can neutralize and, to a limited extent—without changing anything fundamental—adjust to it. And what better way to neutralize a call for moral revolution than to regard it as merely a formal matter, a new esthetic bravado, which, after all, can be tonic.

This leads directly to the socio-political point of the new Expressionism. Writing in defense of the socialist potential of the old Expressionism—defending it against the charge that it led to fascism—Berger argues that “in every revolutionary situation between 1910 and 1925 Expressionism was a good beginning for socialistic development, especially when compared to the heritage of bourgeois art.” He asserts that “Expressionism can never serve fascism because fascism seeks its ideological supports (as far as cultural heritage is concerned) in styles that antedate fully developed capitalism—in the columns of classicism (just as political reactionaries did 100 years earlier), in absolutistic and emotional Baroque modes, in the guild spirit of the old German masters.”15 In contrast, the new Expressionism develops in a reactionary situation that seeks its cultural supports in revolutionary styles. Expressionism is one of these styles. Schnabel uses Expressionism in an absolutistic, Baroque manner, turning emotion into emotionalism, and in general classicizing and stylizing what once had no definite and fixed style, and was entirely antithetical to the classical temper. To expose emotion—to exploit the expression of it as proof that one is free—is today no more than submission to the status quo, whose instrument is the popular culture, that demands intense expressivity, making it all the better and easier to manipulate one’s vitality. To be uninhibited is to conform, to submit to the social coercion that demands that one show all one’s “spirit,” so that it can be “sympathetically” understood. Revelation of desire becomes subtle repression of it, a way of controlling it not in the name of some sublime civilization, but in the name of authority. Authority alone is Faustian these days. Laconic expression, typical of the best avant-garde art, has been subverted in the name of honesty, genuineness, which is today another one of authority’s masks, just as the unconscious today has become almost a fiefdom of the popular culture. Expressivity is no longer a critique of bourgeois repression, but rather its instrument, the sign of its dominance. Intensity of feeling is no longer liberating, but enslaving.

The reversal of expectations from feeling—the recognition that in the current social situation it is reactionary rather than revolutionary to have so-called instinctive feeling—and the general acknowledgment of the absence of revolutionary tensions and possibilities that the new Expressionism suggests, is acknowledged in a “slogan popular in the alternative scene in Germany” quoted by Wolfgang Max Faust in the September 1981 issue of Artforum: “You haven’t got a chance. So use it!”16 This goes hand in hand with a fresh assertion of the “now generation” mentality: “We demand everything. And now!” (The clubbiness of the “now” concept is worth noting—it is generational rather than individualized, a sign of regression to the species, as it were. As such, it shows a kind of reinstatement of the guild mentality, with its enforced life-style as well as art-style—but with none of the discipline of the will demanded by the Faustian spirit. And of course, what need is there for will in the “now”?) The pathos behind these slogans indicates the lack of urgent inner necessity for revolt. In its place is urgent outer necessity—cultivated by the outer, popular culture, which promises everything—for immediate personal gratification. This, as has been noted, conforms to late capitalist ideas—to the bourgeois mentality that wants its rewards now, rather than in heaven. This, of course, used to be a proletarian desire, but it is now the bourgeois carrot. Or shall we say whip?

Commenting on these slogans, Wolfgang Faust writes “This sort of anarchism, asking for an immediate change (a someplace else in the here and now) rejects the previous crusades for social change and the sacrificing of individuality for a cause.” But this anarchism is in fact conformity, acceptance of the status quo—a kind of peace with it. As Faust writes: “‘Style’ (to the artists I am discussing) means adaptation, a conforming drive that mirrors the forces at work in their society.” He continues: “If you want to be ‘somewhere else,’ their reasoning goes, you have no use for a static point of view. You have to change continually; to keep moving you have to be ‘here’ and yet keep your lines of escape open.” Faust calls this a subversive point of view, but it is far from that: it is a bourgeois formulation of the (other) Faustian spirit—an ultra-bourgeois formulation of will at work. It is a description of venture capitalism—capitalism taking risks, and so demonstrating the continued dynamics of the system. “Anarchism” is now part of the system, another symptom of being tamed by it, of being “civilized.” Also, art historically, it demonstrates the continued pursuit of novelty, which alone can generate a feeling of urgent inner necessity today—whether in art or in bourgeois society at large. There is no longer anything critical in being anarchistic, uninhibited, expressive. It is just another indication that one is tyrannized over by what Benn called the “Absolute, the antiliberal function of spirit,”17 i.e., by authority.

The Children’s Crusade at the End of the Millennium

Children are not worried about conventional and practical meanings, since they look at the world with unspoiled eyes and are able to experience things as they are, effortlessly. Conventional and practical meanings are slowly learned later, after many and often unhappy experiences.
—Wassily Kandinsky21

Using certain “contemporary European thinkers, particularly in France,” to describe “a move toward a type of experience which accords to wishes (le désir) a revolutionary meaning,” Wolfgang Faust writes: “This present-oriented ‘becoming revolutionary,’ is not directed at finding a new unity, or a new truth, but at rendering visible and tangible human wishes and desires, even if these desires should include ‘regressive,’ ‘bourgeois,’ or ‘non-revolutionary’ elements.” Let us remember that to be revolutionary used to mean to expect a future—to not expect from the present the fulfillment only the future can bring. There is clearly no longer any patience (or time) to make a revolution, no longer any careful or serious planning for it. One wants only the fulfillment it promises, not its reality. In general, to be revolutionary meant to deny the existence of a timeless, unchanging present—of that “eternal present” of which the work of art is a minor example, a small reminder. Clearly, the timeless present that the new Expressionists promise us is far from revolutionary. Indeed, it is an altogether reactionary throwback to an eternal expressivity—a supposedly eternal or ahistorical passion. Only the child lives in an ahistorical—more properly, prehistorical—state, a state in which “presences” are constant, in which the world is constantly charged with presentness, to the roots of its physicality. Wolfgang Faust, in unwitting but ironically good dialectical fashion, comes to say almost the opposite of what he means: the “alternative” is no longer revolutionary—it is to be a bourgeois child in the service of the bourgeois ego that wants to believe the world is still, after all this time, fresh and dynamic. This is a last ditch Faustianism, the Faustianism of the point of view—the Faustianism whose aim is no longer to change the objective world but to dominate inner life. There is no longer (or for the time being) anything new to will in the world—but one can will a point of view, a perspective that will show the world as still colored by a Faustian spirit, if no longer really Faustian. The will to be a child can always be satisfied—it is the popular culture’s job to satisfy it—while the will to be master of the world can be thwarted.

Neo-Expressionism signals the bourgeois discovery, implemented through the popular culture, that modern life has no forbidden desires. It has, Wolfgang Faust reports, implicit trust in spontaneity and improvisation as the instruments for the discovery of desire, and its display. This is childish, and misses one crucial thing: the representation of the desire is not its satisfaction. In life, desire looks different than in art—obvious enough, but something overlooked by both the popular culture and the new Expressionism. Unless the feeling of childlikeness, however aborted or misconceived by the popular culture, is complemented by an adult willingness to indeed live as if nothing is forbidden, the promise the revolution of being childlike offers remains unrealized. It may signal the felt need for a new active and organizing principle in the evolution of life, but nothing new will evolve until childishness, is transcended. Art—popular or high—here blocks the revolution it leads us to expect. If, as Hans Sedlmayr argues, art has no voice of its own but amplifies other voices, then here we see art amplifying the bourgeois voice, full of hope but really wanting nothing to change. This is indeed a child’s attitude, de rigeur in the popular bourgeois culture.

A forced childlikeness is characteristic in all the manifestations of the new Expressionism. Getting down to cases, one sees repeated and implicit allegiance to children’s drawing as the basis and ideal for art, as in the old Expressionists. Only now such drawing is calculated in its spontaneity, more inventive than improvised, and full of undiscriminating feeling that does less to give direction than to inhibit any search for direction—it is exactly the inhibition of direction that is achieved by the exhibition of energy. All those signs of energy are no longer signs of aim, but a distraction from soul-searching—from the plunge into the depths for a sign of direction, of inner necessity. The painting of the Americans pales beside the work of the German progenitors of the neo-Expressionism, (such as A. R. Penck) and beside the powerful painterly drawing—for that is what it really is, in the best Expressionist spirit—of the younger German artists. Their work may not be indicative—at least not at first glance—of the “fresh young, unknown German spirituality” that Emil Nolde expected to develop out of the “pain” of the Second World War, “out of the deepest depths” disclosed in its aftermath.18 But it is certainly less of an example, in Ezra Pound’s words, of an art “made to sell and sell quickly” rather than “to endure or to live with”19 than the painting of Schnabel. (And this is true even when we recognize that the new Expressionism at its best is a European attempt to take the sceptre of advanced art back, even to the extent of wanting to produce a spiritually significant not simply esthetically or stylistically original art.) However, we see this calculatedly childlike drawing in the simplistic handling of Jörg Immendorff as well as in the bullheadedness of Schnabel, in Anselm Kiefer’s rhapsodic landscapes that work like Wagnerian tone poems in their mix of a few visual motifs and even in Penck’s stick figures with their graffiti quirkiness and seeming quickness of execution, and even in the beatific bawdiness of Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente, with their “spiritualizing” of the body and its functions. There is a slight sense of spiritual direction in their handling and imagery, but it does not seem sufficiently worked at. The spirit does not come for the asking; only suffering, with its dialectical work against the world, can give one a glimmering of it, but cannot guarantee it. There is little true suffering in any of this work (although its presence is not absolutely excluded), unlike in the old Expressionists, where expression itself, with its difficulties, was suffering.

Drawing, as Kirchner insisted, shows “the vital power of the will,” although it may finally be understood to do no more than supply “the formal language” of more ambitious works.20 Drawing is in this sense the most direct, elemental means—the means by which an art finds its own voice. For Kandinsky, “academic training” is “guaranteed to ruin a child’s creative power,” which shows itself most directly in drawings that, as we have already noted, “without exception . . . reveal the inner sound of objects,” “separated from conventional practical meanings” and thus “intensified.”

The new Expressionists offer us a variety of drawings that claim to dispense with conventional and practical meanings and instead record the world with unspoiled eyes and experience things as they are. The drawings have an aura of effortlessness, a quality of naiveté that extends to the slogans and titles they sometimes incorporate in their texture. This same quality extends to the casualness with which they are exhibited, not simply in alternative spaces done up as nicely as possible, but rather laid out irregularly and, often, tacked to the wall in an unframed state, much as a child might exhibit its “quick sketches” in a kindergarten, for the comments of its peers (rather than for the edification and appropriative pride of its elders). The gallery becomes a kind of playpen in which things can be tried out, abandoned in various stages of articulateness or inarticulateness, an altogether “unpretentious” space in which unpretentious drawings can be exhibited, not to prove any point but to see what the artist has come up with. But the childishness is pretentious, in itself and in the current context of art events, and because of what it means for the child’s perspective in modern art, which, like all spirituality, is not easily the subject of a revival. The child’s perspective is already transformed by its appropriation as the essence of the popular culture, and the new Expressionism’s childishness, while less callously cute and coy than that of the popular culture, does nothing to change the fact of popular appropriation; indeed, confirms it, as a final exploitive socialization of the child in all of us. We are far from Walt Disney in the new Expressionism, but we have not undone him. He abides in the fact that the neo-Expressionists have a preconception of what it is to be a child, and thus cannot really have an unblemished childlike attitude.

There are, of course, certain seeming exceptions, but they tend to prove the rule that to be a child means to venture forth without spiritual preconceptions or preconditions, and without any predetermined vocabulary and rules of expression. Baudelaire wrote:

genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will—a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it has involuntarily accumulated. It is by this deep and joyful curiosity that we may explain the fixed and animally ecstatic gaze of a child confronted with something new.22

But the genius of the new Expressionists seems compromised by certain facts. The child, for Baudelaire, “sees everything in a state of newness” because the child is “always drunk,” and has “in the highest degree . . . the faculty of keenly interesting himself in things, be they apparently of the most trivial.” But most neo-Expressionists work with raw material that has been voluntarily rather than involuntarily accumulated, and that can hardly be said to be subjected to a power of analysis. Much of this material derives from what can only be called the voluntary experiences of adult life rather than the involuntary experiences of childhood. Sexuality is especially a subject matter—sexuality treated as an involuntary matter, but in fact quite voluntary. Werner Büttner’s Selbstbildnis im Kino onanierend (Self-Portrait [Masturbating in the Movies]), 1980, seems to me typical of this attitude, as does Thomas Wachweger’s masturbating figurine on a mountain peak, impregnating the clouds as it were. Masturbation may indeed be cosmic in import, a mythical regeneration of self and cosmos, sign of a will to limitless potency and the domination of the “cosmos” that presumably comes with it. But it is also one more pseudo-taboo voluntary activity, treated here as a will to power but in fact demonstrating the spiritual impotence of that Faustian will. There is no analysis here. There is a jaded, one might say applied, childlikeness, but it does nothing to confirm the rawness or involuntary—they are correlate—character of the subject matter. It is really not so raw, in this world in which the elemental has become the popular, and in which nothing sexual has any durable charge to it anymore. Büttner and Wachweger mean to describe spiritual states, but they do so in an archly childish way. The same holds for the work of Michael Bauch, Albert Oehlen, and Elvira Werschke, which I respect for its impassioned childishness, but which childishness seems to me less a condition for self-expression than for popular culture ideas of what might be expressively significant.

This sense of applied childishness, leading to self-consciously foolish images, with a popular-culture aura, is perhaps most exemplified by the numerous new Expressionist works that combine drawing and photography, or use photography as a kind of drawing, and even photographic collage as a kind of drawing. Also, it should be noted that the titles of new Expressionist exhibitions sometimes have this air of ironical childishness, as in the case of the Berlin exhibition “Zum Thema der Zeit: Elend” (On the Theme of the Times: Misery) and the Hamburg “Aktion Pisskrücke” (Action Pisspot), both 1980. There is an overfamiliarity, derived from popular-culture sources, with scatological and spiritually scabrous themes, which are thus less shocking than might be expected. Both thematically and formally, nothing, indeed, is shocking about the new Expressionists, especially if one knows anything about the popular culture, which is as willing to be gamey and tacky in its interests and its means as the new Expressionists—who are also not adverse to the slickness that popular culture once exclusively meant.

The problem of the forced childlikeness of neo-Expressionism seems to me to come to a head in two of the ancestors or forerunners as well as active leading lights of the new Expressionism (they were both featured in “Westkunst”) Penck and Immendorff. In their work the ulterior motive becomes as explicit as it ever will be: it is a political gesture, signaling the helplessness of the individual in the face of social forces beyond his control. Simultaneously, it is a way of resisting this feeling of helplessness—childlikeness is a kind of ostrich hole in which ones takes cover. In Standart, 1970–72, Penck shows the sticklike figurines we are to one another, the stripped-down figure quickly and easily digested—dispensed with. This is the figure of statistics—it is repeated relatively unchanged, if against a slightly changed background—and similar devices of social control. It is the appearance we all make in the inner eye of society, where we are all interchangeable and reduced to our most elementary outline to facilitate interchangeability. This is our social form, ephemeral yet firmly pressed against the wall of the world, the quick sketch of a toylike robot, a shadow of a person, almost like the Hiroshima shadow. That event foreshadowed the shadows to which we would all be reduced, shadows finally quickly drawn by a graffiti expert. Immendorff gives us an ominous-sounding yet fairly innocuous slogan: “When the first bombs fall the easels will shake,” as if that was the first thing to think about when the first bombs fall. But of course art’s irresponsibility, its moral inadequacy in the face of such sociopolitical events as falling bombs, is implied. Art is childish in the face of such events—and yet perhaps its childishness can be prophetic. Thus Immendorff gives us painting-drawings whose titles are incorporated in them, carefully yet clumsily printed in childlike block letters: Hört auf zu malen (Stop Painting), 1965; teine tunst mache (Make no art), 1965—reflecting the inaccuracy of a child’s pronunciation—and Eisbären kommen (Polar Bears Are Coming), 1968. The first seems a command to himself in the face of events—and seems to imply that the rudimentary abstraction presented is in fact already a stopping of serious painting. The third seems a consequence of the apocalypse—after the world is destroyed, the polar bears are sure to come, in the new Ice Age.

Penck and Immendorff offer political statements: they correlate a failed or inverted Faustianism, with its overtones of hopelessness and helplessness, with the primitivism and simplicity, of the child’s mentality. They state this failure of will in child’s terms. Being reduced to a child is a consequence of the sociopolitical situation. We are all reduced to children, but the artist perhaps suffers most, since he or she wants to be responsible to a folk, to a people as a transcendental whole. In any case, the artist can still be prophetic and describe what is seen with the mind’s eye. Childlikeness may be the objective correlative of a feeling of impotence, but it also gives the artist an advantage, permitting insight into events. It shows the artist to be a realist: unlike us, who think we are adults in control of events, the artist knows he or she is dominated by events. Penck and Immendorff combine the adult’s feeling of impotence with the child’s feeling of omnipotence to give us possession of our inner life in the face of potentially devastating external events.

For me the connection between the childlike personal and the catastrophic socio-political comes off in the art of Immendorff and Penck, which describes a situation of the decline of Western man, of his loss of Faustian will. This is a hurt, defensive art, somewhat Cassandra-like in its pretensions, and yet, after all, not inappropriate to the times. It is an art beyond alienation, more quixotic than that of the Expressionists, less urgent in its inner necessity, more self-conscious and coy in its attitudes, and perhaps finally more melodramatic than dramatic. It describes a situation not of revolutionary potential and active despair but of acceptance and reappraisal. While it is an art that gives us no moral alternatives in our life, it perhaps is the only truly alternative art there is today, i.e., the one art at least attempting to take a moral stance—tempted by the ethical possibilities of art. It is an art that tries to remind us, in a very intimate way, that art also is responsible for the state of the world.

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. Victor H. Miesel, ed., Voices of German Expressionism, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970, p. 206.

2. Miesel, pp. 23–4.

3. Miesel, pp. 52, 59–60.

4. Miesel, p. 23.

5. Miesel, p. 6.

6. Miesel, pp. 82–3.

7. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, New York, 1926, p. 311.

8. Miesel, p. 182.

9. Spengler, p. 343.

10. Spengler, p. 294.

11. Miesel, p. 199.

12. Spengler. p. 308.

13. Miesel, pp. 201–2.

14. Miesel, pp. 204–5.

15. Miesel, pp. 204–206.

16. Wolfgang Max Faust, “‘Du hast Keine Chance. Nutze Sie!’ With It and Against It: Tendencies in Recent German Art,” Artforum, September 1981.

17. Miesel, pp. 196–7.

18. Miesel, p. 211.

19. Ezra Pound, Canto XLV, lines 11–12.

20. Miesel, p. 24.

21. Miesel, pp. 59–60.

22. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. Jonathan Mayne, London, 1964, pp. 7–8.