PRINT May 1988

Crowding The Picture: Notes on American Activist Art Today

Revolt today has no more content than buying a bus ticket. Any genuine attack on society today must occur on the level of abstraction. . . . The only true wrestle is with abstraction: the credo, the slogan, the symbol.

—Harold Rosenberg, “Themes”

Politics in the United States consists of the struggle between those whose change has been arrested by success or failure, on one side, and those who are still engaged in changing themselves, on the other.

—Harold Rosenberg, “Themes”

Along this rocky road to the actual it is only possible to go Indian file, one at a time, so that “art” means “breaking up the crowd”—not “reflecting” its experience.

—Harold Rosenberg, “The Herd of Independent Minds”

THIS SEEMS A GOOD TIME to analyze activist art—art that claims to be a kind of action rather than a kind of reflection. In the last decades, many American artists have joined the ranks of what was once an underdog troop. In this palace revolution that seeks to overthrow the ruling elite of formalism, even “revisions” of artistic language—experimental manipulations of the concepts and terms of high art—are considered valuable only if they serve the “higher” purpose of social change. And so where formalism offers art a certain hermetic integrity, activism promises it worldly influence and power.

But what if the proverbial choice between an art of the vita contemplativa and an art of the vita activa is no longer a valid one? What if the integrity proposed by the esthetic position is insufficient, and the kind of change demanded by the activist approach is disingenuously inhumane? The old bifurcation of life into sectors of being and doing now seems obsolete. The traditional notion of a singular heroic identity no longer does justice to the complexity of our social relationships, nor to the subtleties of our moral situation. Today, one needs the Solomon’s wisdom and stamina to create an art that synthesizes the esthetic and activist impulses—one that addresses our humanness with depth and fullness, one that rearticulates a humanness that we feel has been obscured, even obliterated by society. A number of European artists (particularly in Germany and Italy) have risen to this challenge. In America, however, too many of our artists are settling for less, perhaps because they have not adequately recognized the rigorous demands of this enterprise.

America is above all a pluralistic society, a highly differentiated yet consummately interdependent organism. In our society, which has come to be termed the administered society, the psychopolitical tensions of class struggle, while far from irrelevant, are not all-relevant. The situation “of the ‘lonely crowd,’ or of isolation in the mass,”1 as Jacques Ellul points out, is the basic social situation today.2 The “lonely man” is the essential man, “and the larger the crowd in which he lives, the more isolated he is.”3 This is pluralism in action, ingeniously nondisruptive for all its discontinuities. For whenever a member of this lonely crowd tries to understand, articulate, or assert his or her individual loneliness, he or she comes up against the overwhelming evidence of togetherness with all others in the crowd, and personal loneliness seems a fantasy. (Or a neurosis.) And whenever, conversely, the individual tries to give himself or herself over completely to the crowd’s trends and passions, he or she finds this untenable too, for the individual only reexperiences isolation within the crowd. Loneliness, then, even as it may be regarded as a sign of individuality, of separate and special selfhood, and/or resistance to the crowd, is in fact only the experience that confirms the inextricable interdependence that characterizes the crowd. Loneliness is the umbilical bond to the crowd. One cannot think of mass man without thinking of the loneliness that is innate to him. To be of the lonely crowd is to feel both an irreducible isolation and an irresistible belonging.

This is why the American lonely crowd assumes an eternally melioristic society, with a perhaps nominally utopian outlook: why should the crowd work for revolution when the world, however lonely, seems to be getting better and better — or at least getting to be a better place in which to negotiate loneliness, to hide from oneself? The lonely crowd fetishizes its slack “live and let live” philosophy (be lonely and let others be lonely), believing it to be—and this is no doubt correct—preferable to the authoritarian “live and think and be like me or be destroyed by me” philosophy. But of course neither philosophy helps one realize life fully or tells why one should continue to live; and each is as full of grievances against life as the other, if more obviously so in the latter.

This is the lonely world that contemporary activist art enters into, speaks to. And such art is designed to confront rather than to console. Is the lonely crowd capable of accepting such artistic and activist urgency? Can it find the art contagious, be roused to action in the name of its cause? Can it throw off the chains of loneliness to create a community rather than a crowd?

It seems unlikely. For to inspire such response, this art must “penetrate through the common experience to the actual situation,” must grasp social reality creatively, that is, “from the inside . . . as a situation with a human being in it,”4 must wed insights to “the potency of form” that goes “beyond mere talk.”5^ However, much of today’s activist art plays to the common—crowd—experience, and thereby reinforces the very structures it seeks to undermine. We can look back at the social realism of the ’30s as a forerunner of this. In the history-splashed panoramic murals of Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera or the delineations of social suffering in the works of Philip Evergood and Ben Shahn, for example, the misery or nobility of the individual is posited as the reflection of a collective condition. Or, to put it in the terms of the lonely crowd, the individual simply echoes the voice of the crowd. A number of artists today believe they, too, are demythologizing reality, pulling back the curtain for us for a clear look at the social conditions that enslave us, define us. But just as the social realists of the ’30s implicitly appropriated the big-screen techniques of the most formidable crowd-pleaser of their time—the movies—many of today’s American artists mimic or employ techniques from advertising and TV. They believe this is the best way to reach the crowd—and perhaps they’re right. But is it, in Rosenberg’s words, the best way to “break up the crowd”? Is it the best way to move the individual to take the risk of autonomy,6 to begin the struggle of transforming his or her own identity, a process essential to genuine social transformation?

In fact, much of today’s activist art does send a message, but not the one its makers intend. Often, this art’s call for social change and/or social unity relies on familiar codes, with just enough overlay of allusion to some topical situation or event to suggest political urgency. And so even viewers who may be only nominally interested in the revolutionary implications of the struggle in Nicaragua referred to in Leon Golub’s paintings, for example, can feel secure in believing that in their viewing of these works they have had a political experience. The paintings’ larger-than-life size, their agitated surfaces, the theatrical grandeur of their figures, who make war not love (even those who are on the same side seem to make war, perhaps in order not to have to make love), all resuggest the idea of the Hero, in whatever grotesque form. Such an idea caters to the lonely crowd, which, if it looks for salvation, looks for it in the miracle of the Great Man, be he tender or tyrannical.

Similarly, Martha Rosler’s documentaries, with their apparently gritty, reportorial directness, use predetermined scenarios of misery. Rosler’s intensity of focus is admirable, and she does meet a certain social reality. Her art’s “factographic character,” as it has been called by Benjamin Buchloh, is liberating—to a point. There’s a problem, however, with her synecdochic expression of that reality. By representing a person’s life with “the facts,” Rosler shaves away the interior life, and the individual is flattened, once again, into cliché: “the abused women,” “the working woman,” etc.

Truly creative critical art, on the other hand, can go beyond, to question not just one stereotype, or the predominant stereotype, but all stereotypes. In this way, the very notion of common or uniform experience—the underpinning for lonely crowd passivity—would begin to crumble. Such an art does not require a retreat from social reality, but a deeper engagement with it. Rosenberg, using war as an example, suggests the power and potential of such a deeper engagement:

the moment an artist, ignoring the war as an external fact known to all, approaches it as a possibility that must be endured in the imagination by anyone who would genuinely experience it, he . . . arouse[s] not only hostility on the part of officials who have a stake in the perpetuation of some agreed-upon version of the war, but also a general distrust and uneasiness. For the work of art takes away from its audience its sense of knowing where it stands . . . suggests to the audience that its situation might be quite different than it has suspected, that the situation is jammed with elements not yet perceived and lies open to the unknown, even though the event has already taken place.7

A number of our artists today do not thoroughly scrutinize mass conceptions of political reality, but unwittingly submit to them. And more problematically, they implicitly conform to stock notions of the way social change and/or social solidarity can be achieved. The work of Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, and Alexis Smith is to the point here. All rely on more or less familiar, easily readable images and language in a more or less tense state of juxtaposition. But after an initial surge, their art is victimized by its own media, sinks back into its sources, and what is left is the message that we can trust common experience to point the way to social transformations.

As suggested, the problem shared by many of our activist artists today lies in the way they understand—one might say in the credit they give—their viewer. At issue is whether the works of these artists engage the isolated individual within the lonely crowd in order to encourage self-awareness, independence, thoughtful examination, and action, or whether these works serve as propaganda for a myth (even though an alternative one). It’s a slippery question, as Ellul understands, for propaganda for an alternative myth often seems to do both:

just because men are in a group, and therefore weakened, receptive, and in a state of psychological regression, they pretend all the more to be “strong individuals.” The mass man . . . is more suggestible, but insists he is more forceful, he is more unstable, but thinks he is firm in his convictions. If one openly treats the mass as a mass, the individuals who form it will feel themselves belittled and will refuse to participate. . . . On the contrary, each one must feel individualized, each must have the impression that he is being looked at, that he is being addressed personally. Only then will he respond and cease to be anonymous (although in reality remaining anonymous). Thus all modern propaganda profits from the structure of the mass, but exploits the individual’s need for self-affirmation; and the two actions must be conducted jointly, simultaneously.8

What’s more, Ellul makes a useful distinction between the propaganda of agitation and the propaganda of integration.9 The propaganda of agitation

has the stamp of opposition. It is led by a party seeking to destroy the government or the established order. [It] tries to stretch energies to the utmost, obtain substantial sacrifices, and induce the individual to bear heavy ordeals. It takes him out of his everyday life, his normal framework, and plunges him into enthusiasm and adventure; it opens to him hitherto unsuspected possibilities, and suggests extraordinary goals that nevertheless seem to him completely within reach. Propaganda of agitation thus unleashes an explosive movement; it operates inside a crisis or actually provokes the crisis itself.10

I would argue that much of today’s direct-action art lends itself to or is a species of the propaganda of agitation. It enjoys seeing all of social reality—the status quo on all fronts—as forever and completely “in crisis.” As Ellul points out, the propaganda of agitation generally “can obtain only effects of relatively short duration.”11 But the “agitated” look and intention remain. What counts most, what one remembers most, about Jenny Holzer’s flashing sentences on electronic message boards, for example, is their seemingly irrational relationship to one another, the digitalized fragmentation of the words themselves, their rapid movement past the eye. Disruption, structurally as well as conceptually, is the aim of Holzer’s art (as it is with a number of others’). Disruption becomes an end in itself—it is the revolution. (And an old one at that.)

It is possible to interpret such agitational art as at once an anxious response to and rejection of what seems fated. More specifically, it may be a manic defense against oppressive fears of “death, chaos, and mystery.”12 This is not unrelated to José Ortega y Gasset’s notion that the “universal pirouetting” of the modern artist can be seen as “an attempt to instill youthfulness into an ancient world.”13 But unfortunately, this universal pirouetting may be only spinning us back to the artist, not to the world.

There is another strain of activist art today that falls into the category of what Ellul calls the propaganda for integration. This art “aims at stabilizing the social body, at unifying and reinforcing it.”14 It accomplishes this by offering

a complete system for explaining the world, and [providing] immediate incentives to action. We are here in the presence of an organized myth that tries to take hold of the entire person. Through the myth it creates, propaganda imposes a complete range of intuitive knowledge, susceptible of only one interpretation, unique and one-sided, and precluding any divergence. This myth becomes so powerful that it invades every area of consciousness, leaving no faculty or motivation intact.15

In short, this type of art calls for a new status quo—a new myth or conformity. This is what I take the work of Judy Chicago, and some of the works of May Stevens, for example, to offer. The decadent, oppressive capitalism, these works suggest, should be replaced by the wholesome new other-ism. But this is really the same old lonely crowd in new ideological clothing. The social harmony that such integration propaganda aims at can be as ruthlessly exclusive and as oppressive as the marginalizing structures it seeks to overthrow. It corresponds to the modern need

to create and hear fables. . . . It also responds to man’s intellectual sloth and desire for security.16

It also becomes a solution to the problem of passivity.

The individual becomes less and less capable of acting by himself; he needs the collective signals which integrate his actions into the complete mechanism. Modern life induces us to wait until we are told to act. Here again propaganda comes to the rescue.17

But it is the individual struggling for autonomy18 within the crowd that art must try to reach, cultivate, encourage, support, draw out. Goya remains an examplar for such nonpropagandistic activist art. I am speaking, particularly, of the Goya of “Los Desastres de la Guerra,” the “pinturas negras” of the Quinta del Sordo, and the “Disparates,” all conceived between 1810 and 1820. With every touch, every gesture, every choice, Goya reminds us of Romanticism’s discovery that life “is not a reality which encounters a greater or lesser number of problems, but that it consists exclusively in the problem of itself.”19 Goya’s sensitivity to nuance, his transfigurations of light and dark, his leap away from the symbolic distortions of his earlier works, all make it possible for the viewer to experience horrific human catastrophes from the inside. In Goya, we are beyond figures of good and evil in any conventional sense: both the soldiers and their victims are miserable. The sociopolitical reality of war becomes, in these works, the vehicle for an unfolding of what human beings are capable of, what individuals are capable of. Without forsaking reportorial witnessing of the actual event, and yet without advocating any myth of man, society, or state, these works allow for freedom of insight as well as freedom of sight.

IT WAS IN A 1919 Berlin exhibition that the slogan “DADA stands on the side of the revolutionary Proletariat” was first posted.20 And it was George Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde, John Heart field’s younger brother, who wrote:

The pending revolution brought gradual understanding of this [social] system. There were no more laughing matters, there were more important problems than those of art; if art was still to have a meaning, it had to submit to those problems.21

But the anticipated revolution did not happen in Germany. That is no doubt why, 40 years later, Hannah Höch would describe the German Dadaists’ relationship with the communists as “innocent and truly unpolitical.”22 Asked whether “Dada had been, in a way, a kind of parody of a typically German Reformbewegung,”23 Höch acknowledged that it had. Nonetheless, she did point out, Dada shocked people into realizing “that things could also be done differently, and that many of our unconventional ways of thinking, dressing, or reckoning are no less arbitrary than others which are generally accepted.”24

Germany’s Neue Sachlichkeit (New objectivity), Bernard S. Myers points out, was “another form of protest against the times . . . a bitter but dry and hard realism that is strongly emotional in character and social in content.”25 Neue Sachlichkeit was informed by a subliminal romantic yearning for social intimacy—“brotherhood” or “sisterhood”—as an alternative to the compulsory alienation of contractual, capitalist society. This yearning took the form of identification with one’s fellow sufferer, the implicit assumption being that through such communion a new society might be forged.

In fact, both these endeavors were premised on ressentiment,26 intensified by the promises of imminent revolution. This ressentiment has deep Romantic roots, going back at least to Shelley’s assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,”27 and is a manifestation of what Abraham Maslow has called “the arrogance of creativeness.”28

Now, with a revolution permanently pending and never arriving, a revolution permanently on hold, the seeds of German Romanticism and revolt, transplanted, have brought forth, paradoxically, a naive American “media-ated” realism. And so here, the desire to shock is what remains of German Dadaism. The major message is that everything can be done differently, which is a parody of the idea of revolution—a loss of any sense of purpose or direction. The problem is that this polymorphously perverse carnival of a world upside down, the sense of the chance character of all our engagements, becomes an enchantment in itself.

Artists like Ronnie Cutrone, Richard Hambleton, Keith Haring, Mike Kelley, Kenny Scharf, and Julie Wachtel, just to name a few, revel in their abilities to shock the viewer with supposedly “unexpected” comparisons and contrasts. But who is really shocked? As I suggested earlier, though it’s true that such works provide an initial ironical spark, that spark is no greater than that provided by these artists’ sources—in this case, the funny papers, Saturday-morning cartoons, ’50s situation comedies and detective series. In fact, the modern viewer has grown accustomed to being momentarily “jarred.” So these artists, rather than effectively commenting on or critiquing this state of affairs, satisfy what has become an addiction for the lonely crowd.

Similarly, what was for Neue Sachlichkeit a visionary possibility now runs the risk of becoming an insidious invitation to the “one society” of the neo-Neue Sachlichkeit. This art, rather than suggesting how individuals might identify their real inner needs and condition, enforces common experience, crowd mentality. Much of it shows little of the emotional sensitivity to the other—little of the fellow feeling—that informed Neue Sachlichkeit.

Among American activist artists today, Leon Golub seems the one with the most complex yearning for community, and with the most acute awareness of its aborted character in modern society. But, as Theodor Adorno suggested, one always has to wonder whether “the artistic attitude of howling and crudeness”29 truly denounces, or instead identifies with, the forces of social oppression. The problem with Golub’s work is that it implies that there is no socially feasible alternative to the all-powerful, totalitarian figure. In his earlier paintings from the “Mercenaries” and “Gigantomachies” series, Golub seems to be struggling imaginatively with his human figures as they act out their deadly games of dominance and submission: their bodies become raw tendons of paint. But the blacks of his more recent South Africa paintings—torturers and tortured—are flattened out. Through their clothes and limbs, the surface of the canvas appears, reiterating their status as social signifiers. Rather than urgent physical presences, they become emblems of the inevitable and inescapable evil of the crowd.

Similarly, Jenny Holzer’s installation for the “Skulptur Projekte in Münster 1987” exhibition mocks that city’s memorial to the fallen German dead of World War I by amplifying the notion of the soldier as an inhuman violator. But this stereotype does not cancel out the martyr stereotype, it only tightens the stranglehold that stereotypes have on us. Holzer militantly refuses to see man from the inside, and thus forecloses on that possibility for the viewer as well. Let Holzer manipulate a war memorial in her own world, the one at Fifth Avenue and Sixty-Fifth Street in New York, for example, and perhaps she would be obliged to examine issues of war—and man—with more complexity, to imagine and present the “human” aspects of inhumanity.

May Stevens’ work is an important example of the propaganda of feminist integration. In Mysteries and Politics, 1978, or her “Ordinary/Extraordinary” series, beginning in 1980, the artist has achieved something valuable. In these works, Stevens brings female characters from radically different worlds into dialogue with one another. Stevens and her viewers are surely entitled to this feminist fantasy as an ideal to strive for. But when she in effect presents femaleness as exhaustive of humanness, Stevens seems to be suggesting that only one sex should be permitted admission to this Garden of Eden. (It is incidentally worth noting that the conception of woman as the eternally enigmatic and mysterious has contributed to male inability to see woman as fully human. There is little evidence that Stevens has adequately explored the implications of this problem.)

Hans Haacke’s protests of the corporate world’s appropriations of culture rely on an elegant editorial selection and presentation of images to score their points, to tell us that high culture is as politically naive as business is politically clever. Haacke stands foremost among the very few artists who have had the courage to remind us of the socially oppressive realities that art enters into; his interventionary works represent an important contribution. But in his dependence on the same “distorting” techniques as those employed by corporate public relations, by choosing some “facts” and omitting others, he manipulates the viewer into accepting his version of reality. Unfortunately, however, that version of reality strips art of its multifaceted complex nature and manifestations, so that Haacke’s work can be seen as social realism raised to a higher level of abstraction—with culture taking the place of the undifferentiated individual.

Many more examples of today’s activist art could be presented. My point remains that a significant amount of it, so full of ressentiment, runs the risk of symbolizing society’s arrested metamorphosis, and, simultaneously, society’s lonely-crowd way of looking at things, experiencing things, (mis)understanding things. As a result, it can end up serving the purposes of what I would call “gallery leftism”—the establishment of a political identity in the art world that has an ambiguous significance in the larger world. Just as the gallery estheticism of formalist art may have served as an attempt to “prove” that art is more likely to afford a genuine, memorable—purer—experience than nature or life, so the gallery leftism of agitation or integration serves to prove that radicalism and social criticism are purer in the art world than in the lifeworld. But is this the vision, the goal, for which so many of our activist artists are reaching? I think not. In fact, the pretentiousness and self-privileging of either position—esthetic or activist—is self-defeating, a betrayal of the real needs of the individual members of the lonely crowd, and a betrayal of the potential of art to meet those needs.

But we can look to the best works of the artists I have discussed in this essay, as well as to the works of a number of other artists today, to see that activist art has not reached a dead end in America. Sue Coe’s renderings of social atrocities, whether grand or intimate, violent or grieving, speak from the inside of life in order to give voice to the many oppressed and miserable. With his gorgeously frightening drawings from the “Firestorm” series, 1982, Robert Morris approaches a “known” catastrophe with enormous imagination. Nancy Spero’s Torture of Women, 1976, in its outspoken rage, in its range of gestures from delicate to savage, presents images of women in pain, but simultaneously in action. Twisted and pulled, but also buoyantly leaping and determinedly striding, they affirm multiple possibilities while acknowledging the devastating effects of oppression. Vito Acconci and Bill Viola have both used mass-media tools to promote a more complex understanding and experience of the individual human being in the social world. In Acconci’s Sub-Urb at Artpark, 1983, the viewer/participant’s intense isolation in underground “rooms,” coupled with the experience of collective address as evoked by the printed, posterlike words on the walls, serves to acknowledge both the tension and the relationship between the realms of public and private. Viola produces a kind of internal Sensurround in his Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, 1982, dedicated to a worker injured by a blow to the head. While the viewer faces, up close, a videotape of Viola, and while Viola swallows, breathes, while his heart beats, the earphones the viewer is wearing amplify those sounds, and one seems to be entering the body of the man who suffered that pain. And the exuberant yet elegant work of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. asks its audience to go beyond questions of formalist eloquence to arrive at a larger definition of what constitutes effective activist art-making.

Finally, we can also look again to the past, to David’s The Death of Marat, 1793, as a beacon for the rich possibilities of creative activist art. David has risked a very special kind of displacement here: he has taken the fiery orator out of his familiar “crowd” context. The viewer finds Marat in the most intimate setting possible, his bath. And Marat is rendered in all his vulnerable humanness: his head, relaxed in death, bears the traces of both pain and peace; his limp hand, dropped to the floor, still clings to, but can no longer clutch, the pen. Body is not abstract here, but defined, palpable. David has stripped the scene of all the conventional codes and symbols of political struggle, the viewer and Marat “meet” one another one-to-one, yet we know we are in the presence of a powerful political picture. Intimate identification, rather than aggressive assertion, The Death of Marat suggests, is the mode by which one can achieve significant change, both personal and social. It is true that the activist that the artist shows us is dead. But Marat’s existence, his political efforts, are all the more present as a subject for contemplation. Our hushed dialogue with David’s Marat—a single, naked, dead human being—is the most radical and resonant example I know of for suggesting the human and political potential of activist art.

Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the editor of Art Criticism . He contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (first published in France, as Propagandes, 1962), New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972, pp. 8–9. 27.

2. See also David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973. The notion of the “lonely crowd” derives from Gustave le Bon’s idea of the crowd, which was utilized by Freud and carried forward by Riesman and Ellul. It also involves Nietzsche’s concept of “the [human] herd.”

3. Ellul, p. 147.

4. Harold Rosenberg, Discovering the Present: Three Decades in Art, Culture, and Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973, p. 19.

5. Ibid., p. 53.

6. I am using “autonomy” in a modified Freudian sense, as the ability to withstand trauma from exterior as well as interior sources. David Shapiro, in his Autonomy and Rigid Character, New York: Basic Books, 1981, p. 16, describes autonomy as “a new kind of self-regulation . . . in the form of increasingly articulated conscious aims, and . . . a new kind of behavior, intentional, planful action—self-directed action in the proper sense.” On pp. 17–18 he says that “the human sense of autonomy” derives from “active mastery of the environment.” It involves an “advance, in the Marxist phrase, ’from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.’”

7. Rosenberg, p. 19.

8. Ellul, p. 8. Lucy R. Lippard’s “Some Propaganda for Propaganda,” in Get the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984, pp. 114–23, totally ignores these issues. Her notion of “good propaganda” (p. 116) is a contradiction in terms.

9. Ellul acknowledges that this distinction echoes Lenin’s well-known distinction between agitation and propaganda proper, and the equally well-known distinction between the “propaganda of subversion” and the “propaganda of collaboration” (p. 71).

10. Ibid., pp. 71–72.

11. Ibid.

12. D. W. Winnicott, “The Manic Defence,” Collected Papers, London: Tavistock Publications, 1958, p. 132.

13. José Ortega y Gasset, “The Dehumanization of Art,” The Dehumanization of Art and Other Writings on Art and Culture, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1956, pp. 46–47.

14. Ellul, p. 75.

15. Ibid., p. II.

16. Ibid., p. 148.

17. Ibid. Ellul is describing what has come to be called the “diffusion of responsibility” that occurs in the lonely crowd. There is an inability to decide to take personal responsibility for anything that occurs. See C. Mynatt and S. J. Sherman, “Responsibility Attribution in Groups and Individuals: A Direct Test of the Diffusion of Responsibility Hypothesis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32, 1975, pp. 1111–18. See also B. Latane and J. M. Darley, The Unresponsive Bystander, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970.

18.This returns us to Shapiro, who connects the “fixed purposiveness of the rigid person” (p. 75) with his or her continued emulation and identification with images of superior authority derived from the child’s image of the superior authority of the adult“ (p. 74). Shapiro thinks this a ”miscarriage“ of the development of ”volitional direction and control,“ not its ”overdevelopment.“ ”Flexibility—not rigidity—of behavior stands at the opposite pole from the immediacy and passivity of reaction of early childhood. Flexibility-not rigidity- reflects an active self-direction. Furthermore, flexibility—not rigidity—reflects a genuinely objective attitude toward the world“ (pp. 74–75). Truly creative critical art participates in the individual’s autonomy. Propaganda (and the media) encourages the emulation and identification with superior authority. Ellul’s discussion (p. 149) of the way the individual in the lonely crowd ”feels himself diminished“ is also worth noting in this context. ”He gets the feeling that he is under constant supervision and can never exercise his independent initiative . . . he thinks he is always being pushed down to a lower level. He is a minor in that he can never act with full authority." This strongly resembles Shapiro’s discussion of the difference between the rigid character and autonomy, and suggests a social rationale for it.

19. Ortega y Gasset, “In Search of Goethe from Within,” The Dehumanization of Art, pp. 136–37.

20. Hannah Hoch, quoted in Lucy R. Lippard, ed., Dadas on Art, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971, p. 72.

21. Quoted in ibid., p. 81.

22. Quoted in ibid., p. 71.

23. Quoted in ibid., p. 77. Lippard, In “Dada in Berlin: Unfortunately Still Timely,” Get the Message?, pp. 67–73, sidesteps this critical recognition. She notes that the German art of the time can be distinguished from other European art “by the depth of its bitterness,” then goes on to add that, ironically, “Berlin Dada art, for all its disorientation, appears more hopeful and positive” (p. 72). Thus Lippard avoids considering how the varying degrees of frustration that underlay the art of the time may nevertheless have implied an unconscious awareness of the impossibility of social revolution in the Germany of the day, as well as an unconscious recognition of the necessity of profound personal revolution as a precondition for social revolution.

24. Quoted in ibid.

25. Bernard S. Myers, The German Expressionists: A Generation in Revolt, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966, p. 227.

26. Max Scheler, in his Ressentiment, New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1%1, pp. 45-46, describes ressentiment as “a self-poisoning of the mind . . . a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, arc normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.” None of these feelings, writes Scheler, necessarily leads to ressentiment. It develops “only if there occurs neither a moral self-conquest...nor an act or some other adequate expression of emotion . . . and if this restraint is caused by a pronounced awareness of impotence. . . . Through its very origin, ressentiment is therefore chiefly confined to those who serve and are dominated at the moment, who fruitlessly resent the sting of authority . . . the spiritual venom of ressentiment is extremely contagious” (p. 48).

27. This is the last line of Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, 1821. For an account of Shelley’s revolutionary interests see Kenneth Neill Cameron, The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical, New York: Crowell-Collier, Collier Books, 1962.

28. Abraham H. Maslow, “Neurosis as a Failure of Personal Growth,” The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York: Penguin Books, 1976, p. 39.

29. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, p. 327.