PRINT September 1982

The Night Mind

THE IDEA OF NATIONALISM, ambiguously defined though it may be, is periodically revived in most areas of human enterprise; it appears probably least of all, though, in science, where it would most obviously be absurd. Then why should it not also seem absurd for radical art? And why, in art’s current situation, does it seem less absurd than ever? Never mind that there is an intermingling of national traits and that it is hard to isolate a national trait without reducing one’s sense of the nation. Nationalism, like religion, is a crowdpleaser. A nationalist revival is not unlike a religious one; it is a way of sublimating otherwise potentially destructive subjective forces—of creating out of a dubious, insecure sense of personal individuality a rabid sense of identity. To identify oneself as belonging to this or that nation—or religion—is to have to worry no longer about one’s individuality. An art that is defined as national automatically has meaning and value—a socially acceptable identity. Whatever its novelty or lack of novelty, and however much it may resemble other art, once identified as national it automatically has significance. It signifies a part of the world.

Comparing the Olympic Games and Documenta at the beginning of her Documenta 7 catalogue essay, Coosje van Bruggen, one of the exhibition’s artistic-committee members, writes that “The Olympics depend on national self-interest. Documenta 7 is also affected by nationalism, the steady increase of which is apparent in those artistic expressions reflecting the prevailing mood of the times.” The implicit guiding principle of Documenta 7 is nationalist; the dice are loaded so that most of the art presents itself first of all as symptomatic of a national attitude. The exhibition’s organizers mean to disclose a truth that has presumably been hidden from us all these years—the existence of national art; the recognition that all art is national at its root. But this truistic idée fixe remains vacuous unless it can be shown to have a content; it is not bedrock but a disguise—there is an ulterior motive behind the use of the cliché of nationalism, and this ulterior motive is in fact its meaning. The nationalism advocated by Documenta 7 is a flag behind which a strange ideological force gathers—a flag which is a declaration of independence, but for a reactionary force, not without a touch of the farcical and pathetic in it.

One of the things one notices at Documenta 7 is that much of the new Italian, German, and American painting has a strong family resemblance—if not in detail of execution, where individuality emerges, then certainly in style and characteristic story line. There is a level of generality in each which summarizes the tradition of the new: the hyperactivated, almost chaotically spontaneous, yet ultimately directed touch; the conceptual use of collage; and the idea of discontinuous narrative, whether issuing from a sense of a work’s fragility and potential fragmentation or from that of a narrative’s enigma. There is, in other words, a weary recognition of the history of Modern art, a weary sophistication about the making of art—an awareness of the wide variety of materials and concepts available for its making. In the face of this weariness there is also a continuing drive and need to make art; but a weariness with the results, a recognition of how they “fit in,” of their place in history, society, and even in the artist’s development, is clear. It is as though all were predetermined; the sense of the speeding up of the cycle of creation and appropriation, of repossession and re-cognition, leaves both artist and audience with a blankness underneath their surface intensity of involvement. There is an impasse here, a feeling of hollowness, in which it becomes less urgent to differentiate general style from individual artist. All is dissolved in a flux of generalized artistic events which become finely calibrated and highly attuned to one another—art is viewed as a “scene” signifying nothing more than itself. Into this impasse comes nationalism—what Cyril Connolly in The Unquiet Grave calls a “womb-symbol,” a surrogate for the absolute security and belonging one had in the womb—which reunites society and art.

This grand reconciliation is secretly longed for by both Society and the institution of Art. To put it into effect any obstacle to it must be swept away. And the principal obstacle is internationalism or cosmopolitanism—the idea of a trans-national art that is truly universal and cross-culturally significant. (Conceptualism is the contemporary example of such an art, an art which appeals to the reason before it appeals to the senses—which it does not neglect as much as is often supposed.) The “official” representative of internationalism in art these days is the United States. Van Bruggen’s reference to nationalism is inseparable from artistic-committee-member Gerhard Storck’s assertion, in his catalogue essay, that “During the fifties, the Americans started dividing up modern art into a European and an American sector. Of course, for them it was not a question of dialects—they were only interested in supremacy.” Presumably this gets the Americans out of the way—they become just another “dialect,” and a supremacist one at that. The placement of Jonathan Borofsky’s flattened silhouettes of robotlike figures, with tools coming down, above Victorian marble figures of European countries perhaps epitomizes the European sense of the American threat in this exhibition. Despite the large number of American artists present (the largest of any nation) a more or less pervasive hyper-consciousness of Americanism—some have said anti-Americanism—is suggested by Documenta 7’s installation. Is this merely a way of equalizing the nations, finding a new equilibrium between them? Is every nation represented denied “supremacy”? I don’t think so. The Germans are given clear intellectual supremacy in the catalogue, as well as a certain supremacy in the installation. It is not just nationalism that this exhibition is proclaiming as the new dogma of artistic understanding, but German nationalism—a constellation of ideas usually associated with German culture. The catalogue is pervaded by a sanctimonious odor of obeisance to great “safe” 19th-century Germans—safe in that they can in no way be associated with fascism and brutality.

So we go back to the fathers in order to redeem the sons—to give them a fresh lease on artistic life by reminding them of their great cultural past. Thus the catalogue’s first volume gives us a little essay by Goethe, on granite, and a letter by Friedrich Hölderlin on a visit to France; in the second volume Storck refers extensively to a letter by Philipp Otto Runge. These are all “good Germans.” There is some question whether or not Friedrich Nietzsche, whom artistic-committee-member Johannes Gachnang hesitantly finds himself in search of at the end of his catalogue essay, is one; but the point is that all these figures are in one way or another—although not as indiscriminately as the catalogue writers would have us believe—Northern Romantics. Their presence justifies, in a loosely associative way, what Storck perceives as an insistence upon a “right to Romanticism” in “many young artists”—the same artists van Bruggen finds “affected by nationalism.”

In Documenta 7, nationalism and romanticism are inseparable. The Expressionist basis for the new German romantic style goes unmentioned in the catalogue—perhaps because, erroneously, it has been regarded as proto-fascist in attitude and therefore too dangerous to discuss—but there is a clear attempt to establish a continuity between 19th-century Romanticism and such neo-Expressionist romanticism as we find in Anselm Kiefer’s work, which according to van Bruggen uses “a subjective iconography derived from remnants of German history in order to interpret issues of his own time.” The key word here is “subjective”; it is more fundamental to the art than German history or nationalism. For it is not really that the new German art is nationalist in a strictly political sense, but rather that it is asserting what is quintessentially, romantically German: a privileged relationship to the subjective, a unique spirituality which is almost a German private preserve and is resorted to in moments of crisis. And Germany has been in a prolonged political crisis since its re-origination after the war as a divided nation. The world, too, has been in such crisis since the Cold War divided it into Western and Eastern camps; but Germany experiences that crisis, that lack of integration, immediately. Perhaps it is just because it is divided in two that it reaches for spiritual depths through its artists. The new German romanticism is implicitly the model for the emerging national romanticisms of other countries—so goes the implicit argument of Documenta 7.

But while the sense of agitated spirit is topical, it tends to be conceived right now decoratively, in timeless terms. It is as though the conditions of historical crisis have afforded an opportunity to transcend history, to escape political events. The purely spiritual subject becomes anti-intellectual, a weapon in a fanatical war against Enlightenment reason. Thus Gachnang asserts that “In the course of time and with the means of physics and mechanics we did, in fact, achieve some astonishingly successful results; but at the same time we let our psyche more or less wretchedly wither away and go to ruin, and thus obstruct other possible means of access to the deeper strata of human existence lying within us.”

But this is all dogma, Romantic gospel. To be subjective and spiritual is really the last aristocratic way of having worldly power. The only thing that stands in the way of such power is the reason that recognizes it as the regressive abstraction that it is—which is why it attacks reason as such. It is no accident that Storck links what he regards as Joseph Beuys’ hope of “pushing through (pushing out?!) two hundred years of inherited Reason that has long since lost its impetus” with Runge’s assertion, with reference to revolutionary France, that “a land where they have a Goddess of Reason will be a wretched place for art.” Reason is the enemy, not only because it is inherently skeptical of “vision” and purely subjective revelation, but because it exposes the irrationality of pure spirit.

This marriage of nationalism and romanticism has as its offspring very particular attitudes to the artist and art. Cyril Connolly has written that

in these days it is important for an artist to grasp that the logical exploratory voyage of reason is the finest process of the mind. Every other activity is a form of regression . . . Thus the much vaunted “night-mind,” the subconscious world of myth and nostalgia, of child-imagination and instinctual drives, though richer, stranger and more powerful than the world of reason . . . nevertheless owes its strength to our falling back on all that is primitive and infantile; it is an act of cowardice to the God in Man.1

Such regression inevitably brings with it regressive reactionary attitudes toward the artist and art. Thus Rudi Fuchs, the director of Documenta 7, mystifies the artist into “one of the last practitioners of distinct individuality,” and as quoted by van Bruggen, he asserts that contemporary art “should be handled with dignity and with respect,” and should no longer be shown “in makeshift spaces, converted factories and so on.” This attitude concentrates all power of exhibition—and thereby to a great extent determination of values—in the hands of the museum director/curator (Fuchs is director of the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Holland). But alternative spaces did not develop simply to question the authority of establishment exhibition spaces, but out of a reasonable recognition that much significant art was never displayed there. Fuchs’ irrational attempt to trivialize the alternative spaces goes hand in hand with the turn to irrational, night-mind art.

Documenta 7, then, shows art at a crossroads, confronting a choice between art designed to further reason (currently Minimalist/Conceptualist) and art designed to evoke the night-mind (the new nationalist romanticism). While there are some artists here who are unequivocally on one side or the other, there are those who are stuck on the horns of the dilemma and who, from that unstable, anxious position, recognize a further problem, in fact the prevailing problem of the exhibition—the problem of traditionalism.

Tradition is the true “womb with a view” that Connolly speaks of as the regressive consolation Modern art secretly longs for. It is an answer—a temporary, tentative answer—to a basic problem of contemporary art: the search for a clear and distinct Modern artistic identity. Art no longer finds itself speculative in the old way. Its options now shut down almost as soon as they are recognized, for they are already recognized as used—as being part of a tradition of the “new and experimental.” The pressure for innovation remains strong, if an increasingly impossible, unrealistic basis for artistic production. And the myth of self-determination through art (revived indirectly by Fuchs’ obsolete, naive notion of the artist’s individuality) goes hand in hand with that pressure; both falsify the real possibilities of art and the artist’s identity. Both presume art and the selfhood the artist might attain a terra incognita—but, when that pressure becomes a tradition, innovation is just another terra firma. There is no longer any soft ground for art to stand on and imagine itself taking risks.

The international situation in art today is this: the artist finds him- or herself under continuing pressure to be Modern, but discovers that to be Modern is to be traditional. This contradiction is the source of the identity crisis plaguing contemporary production, and of the new interest in the national identity of art—a short-term, shortsighted, and premature solution to the problem, which is a Gordian knot not easily cut by so dull (from overuse) a sword as nationalism. In fact, nationalism falls into the trap of the same contradiction: it presents itself as the new Modernism, but it is really a very traditional idea.

The best artists in Documenta 7—among them Kiefer, Giuseppe Penone, Sigmar Polke, and Cindy Sherman—accept this situation of contradiction. They explore traditional “artistic” identities artfully, finding new art in them—a peculiarly introverted approach to extroverted material. Indeed, the introversion of traditional modes of art and identity—an introversion which in and of itself implies a critical relation to them—becomes the method of artistic operation. “Subjectivity” in this art is not a romantic method for reaching absolute spirit but a strategy for destabilizing what seems dogmatically given. With Modern traditionalism comes the recognition that contradiction, not revolution, is fated; dialectical ambiguity is identity and destiny.

The printing of excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in the Documenta 7 catalogue signals that traditionalism is the basic underlying theme of the exhibition. Nationalism is only its superficial symptom. Traditionalism had already surfaced with Postmodernism, which Harold Rosenberg identified with the abundance of styles, and the lack of priority among them, that had become available to artists through the information explosion. Postmodernism, in fact, can be regarded as transitional from Modernism to traditionalism. In contrast to Postmodernists, traditionalists do not saturate themselves in an eclectic variety of styles, but rather stay with one tradition of operation. This is not the same as the romantic re-origination or rebirth of spirit that the new nationalists demand. Modern traditionalist artists make no “spiritual commitment” to the tradition of style and meaning, text and identity they utilize. Rather, keeping cool, they walk their tradition as a tightrope, testing its strengths and weaknesses. Anxiety about the emptiness of existence is transformed into anxiety about the sturdiness of one’s tradition, its ability to carry one across one’s existence with some dignity. Wise to the ways of tradition, one can forget the essential lack of identity of one’s existence. But this traditionalism consumes traditions in the very act of appropriating them. In Modern traditionalism there is never any surrender to tradition, but rather a negation of it in the very act of affirming it. For in it tradition remains a quotation, a bracketed identity existing to be studied abstractly for its ideational topography.

Modernist traditionalism, then, is not a reversal of the familiar Modernist antitraditionalism, but rather an extension of the Modernist interest in the conventions and structures that permit us to speak of having an artistic identity and style—any identity and style at all. It partakes of the same refreshing skepticism, is as speculative and critical, as “primary Modernism.” It is a secondary Modernism, a new stage of evolution of Modernism, perhaps even a mutant Modernism, that no longer uses traditions as straw men (as the first Modernists did), but rather recognizes them as time capsules in which are stored the residues of an identity which was once “authentic.”

To end with the nationalism with which I began, it is worth noting that the paradigms of the Documenta 7 catalogue were in fact as skeptical of the romantic as they were of the nationalistic. Goethe in particular wrote of “the shallow dilettantism of the age which seeks a false foundation in antiquarianism and fatherlandishness.”2 And Nietzsche, regarding nationalism as dangerous, advocated intermarriage between different nations and hoped for a mixed race, that of European man. The “good European” rather than the good nationalist—good German—was his ideal; and his observation about the relationship of culture and the nation is worth citing: “Culture and state,” he wrote, “ . . . are antagonists . . . One lives off the other. All great ages of culture are ages of political decline: what is great culturally has always been unpolitical, even anti-political. . . . At the same moment when Germany comes up as a great power, France gains a new importance as a cultural power.”3 Is it that, with Germany in political decline—handicapped because of its division—it is in the process of gaining new importance as a cultural power? But how self-contradictory that it should offer its new artistic culture to us as first and foremost a national culture, playing down its international ties. Do nationalist artists want to be American, French, German, or Italian before being anything else? The evidence is not clearly in yet, although one has a sense that Documenta 7, like the Sibyl’s leaves before blowing away, has a message in its ordering of work which remains to be deciphered, and will be memorable.

Donald Kuspit reviews exhibitions regularly for Artforum.



1. Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, New York: Harper & Row. 1973, p. 122.

2. Quoted in Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974, p. 379; letter to Karl Friedrich Zeller, August 24, 1823.

3. Quoted in Kaufmann, p. 298; from The Twilight of the Idols.