distorting mirrors: freaks of mechanical reincarnation

Was Otto Dix first and foremost a critic of capitalism? A critic through the bias of the industrial/military/cultural complex that was the beast carrying the burden of material comfort for the lambs. He made sermons without preaching and an artistic expressionism without a baggage of romanticism so dear in the literary world to a Hemingway or Faulkner. Dix was not a let-me-show-you-the-hair-on-my chest type.  This is not Billy Bishop marking up another kill. There are no good war good war stories to tell, and hopefully traumatize the children with; no band of brothers bonding in the trenches. No smoke signals from the Vatican that this time its different.

Dix. Lady with Mink and Veil. 1920. Mark Vallen:In one of his recently published articles, Beauty and Desecration, Scruton wrote that “Modern artists like Otto Dix too often wallow in the base and the loveless.” That observation reveals much about Scruton, and how the two of us have divergent concepts of what is beautiful. Dix lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of German history. He fought in the trenches of World War I where he saw humanity ripped to shreds in the world’s first mechanized war. At war’s end he became politicized, and through his art expressed disdain for militarism and Germany’s ruling class. He witnessed the fall of the German monarchy, the rise of the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi seizure of power. In their brutal repression of the arts, the Nazis removed Dix from the Prussian Academy and his professorship at the Dresden Art Academy - his dismissal letter declaring that his art “threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves.” read more: http://art-for-a-change.com/blog/2010/01/why-beauty-matters.html

Donald Kuspit: Any art that contradicts it by showing its contradictions — the unresolvable tensions that make it erratically tic(k) — must be contradicted: debunked as a distortion — erratic in itself — and with a worse, and more incurable, tic(k) than society’s. More particularly, any art that highlights capitalist society’s dirty underside of perpetual war, emotional terror and traumatic ugliness, and the desperate pursuit of pleasure that seeks relief from them — that dares to function as a social conscience, that places blame where blame must be conspicuously placed, that dares to tell truth to power, that accepts responsibility for its crimes against humanity when power will not accept them — must be prettified into inconsequence, treated as a kind of misplaced glamorization of society. Any art that fearlessly exposes its inherent barbarism — with an uncompromising, vehement realism more than equal to its own uncompromising, toxic character — is its enemy, and must be defeated by being re-made as a silly joke, a fatuous burlesque, a media caricature of itself, an artistic folly rather than an exposure of its own folly. Read More: http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/otto-dix3-24-10.asp a

Dix spared no one. He portrays a friend, a lawyer named Fritz Glaser, as a ratlike Wandering Jew in front of a bombed-out wall, as if deliberately baiting the anti-Semitism that Hitler would exploit so successfully. read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/24/arts/design/24germ.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1

Regardless of style, the Verists were hardly objective. They were prejudiced and bitter,marginalized and denied:  more interested in peeling away surfaces than in representing them. The main question seems to have been: How many ways can the truth be twisted and be made truer still? Nearly every artist has a different answer, and often more than one. But much of it turned on the axiom, the hinge that equated democracy with capitalism,the endless ecstasy of the bourgeois that animated Disney; and the commodification of all aspects of life, with Germany given the role of the bad cop and the fall guy in this war of villains and heroes:

…During this time, leading political writer Walter Lippman spearheaded the idea that if, as Freud suggested, human beings were driven by irrational forces, then perhaps it was necessary to rethink democracy. What was needed, he said, was a new elite to manage “the bewildered herd.” This would be done through psychological techniques that would control the unconscious feelings of the masses. In Propaganda (1928), Bernays argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy:

Dix. Grossstadt. detail. Kuspit: By turning it into facile, cheap entertainment, society took its revenge on Dix’s art, as it did on Toulouse-Lautrec’s art in Moulin Rouge and various films about his life. He also tells the emotional truth about bourgeois society, with equally unsparing accuracy -- holds a revengeful mirror up to it, a distorting mirror that discredits it by telling it is not the fair society it thinks it is -- that it is more freakish and inhumane than any human freaks art is capable of imagining. It has a distorting effect on human beings because it is distorted in itself. Neither Dix nor Toulouse-Lautrec invent anything -- indeed, they have been understood as conservative artists, representationalists and social observers when abstraction and self-observation were becoming the preferred, self-styled “advanced” mode of art -- but rather describe what they see, in all its innocent grotesqueness: for them, reality is stranger than artistic fiction. read more: http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/otto-dix3-24-10.asp

…“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” Read More: http://taicarmen.wordpress.com/tag/edward-bernays/

Meanwhile, back in Germany, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproductionwas probably  the most influential of Walter Benjamin’s essays, in which he sensed and saw the shift in the status and role  of traditional art as technical means of reproduction:  photography and film begin to dominate the imagination of a mass public. Benjamin defined the characteristic of manual production of the traditional artwork as a historical process unique to the original object, manifest in the object as its “aura,” later disputed by Koestler;  the subsequent proliferations of technical reproductions of a traditional artwork bear only an “imagistic” similitude to the original, lacking an “aura” and therefore any relation to the actual historical dimension according to Benjamin.

Otto Dix. Venus with gloves. 1932. read more: http://lizacorbett.blogspot.com/2010/06/otto-dix.html

The real issue was the dumbing down of culture, a pop reification and repackaging in diluted form to a wider and less sensitized audience; defended as democracy, but really the hegemonic process of large commercial enterprises. The fast developing preference of technical media by the public- Mr and Mrs. John Q Public-  signified for Benjamin  a radical shift in the arts to the political in the Marxist sense, although, it may have been more of a political desentization, a numbing based on object fetish; though Benjamin is probably correct is claiming it  allows aesthetic contempl

n to become dissociated from the properly lived experience of the autonomous individual.

The viewer of art,according to Benjamin, from the detached, dissociated position of the technical media itself, becomes a disinterested critic, evaluating a reproduced object merely in terms of its aesthetics. Hence, Benjamin notes the various attempts by political parties, namely the Fascists whom Benjamin feared and despised, to aestheticize politics, or as he put it: “All efforts to render politics aesthetic leads to one thing: war.”  There have been variations on this theme since, but none really undermine the idea of the “spectacular” as well as the now obvious  totalizing, and all-absorbing  nature of media mass culture:from Adorno, to Guy Debord, to Gilles Deleuze, Mcluhan and others, there is the inescapable link of the Edward Bernays theory of fusing culture/commerce and propaganda into a many headed beast.

"There is romance in Dix's world, but it is always in bed with death. In Vanitas, a blooming young woman stands next to the skeletal figure of her own death/old age. The face of Youth manages to be both beautiful and also somehow overripe and narcissistic. Dix got so, so much into his faces. They glow with soul. And, as with so many of these Neue shows, you get a kind of communal portrait of a group of friends living and thinking through difficult times. These were people who took life and art seriously. It makes me want to take things more seriously, too. But not too seriously..." read more: http://sarahdeming.typepad.com/spiralstaircase/art/

Michael Brenson: Dix served in the German Army from 1914 to 1918. He was trained as an artilleryman and a machine gunner. In the trenches, with all the dead time between apocalyptic explosions, he made several hundred drawings. In 1922, clearly sensing that he could exorcise his demons only in a graphic medium, he moved from Dresden to Dusseldorf to learn printmaking. ”The War” was published in 1924 as a portfolio: the etchings were meant to be as intimate as a book.

Dix. Hans Koch.1921. Vallen: Dix was forbidden to exhibit by the Nazis, they removed his artworks from museums and had them destroyed. They included his paintings in their infamous 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit, meant to condemn modern art as the work of Bolsheviks, “Jews,” and the insane. Dix was forcibly conscripted into the fascist home guard in 1945 at the age of 53, captured and later released by the French army at the close of the war. Given that chronicle, it is shocking that Scruton would accuse Dix of wallowing in the “loveless.” What type of art would Scruton have preferred to see Dix paint during that despairing period - inoffensive still lifes? Considering the barbarity that was all around him, it is remarkable that Dix painted anything at all, but even the most distorted of his expressionist grotesqueries contained more truth, and yes, beauty - than all the realistic classical nudes and respectable portraits commissioned by the German bourgeoisie of the period. Dix’s creations were beautiful, simply by virtue of the truths they told. read more: http://art-for-a-change.com/blog/2010/01/why-beauty-matters.html image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kraftgenie/4647617340/

There is neither relief nor redemption here. Even when it is daylight, it is night. When soldiers are carousing, they are throwing up. When eyes are open, they do not see. When soldiers are on leave, survival of the fittest is still law. The land, like the body, is wounded. The earth is clearly female for Dix, and from its unending violation by men in war, it is a short step to his postwar scenes of grotesque sexual violence. This is a world that has lost its soul.Read More: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/03/31/arts/review-art-otto-dix-s-one-sided-view-of-war.html a

Dix. Portrait of Anita Berber. 1925. Kuspit:They were sharp-eyed social observers who used whatever was artistically at hand, including modern innovations -- Impressionism for Toulouse-Lautrec, Dadaism and Surrealism for Dix -- to make their critical point. Society’s critical, self-conflicted, disturbed state in modernity -- more overt in Dix than in Toulouse-Lautrec -- was of greater concern to them than the critical, self-conflicted, disturbed state of art in modernity, however obliquely they acknowledged it, and, in Dix’s case, railed against the abstraction that divided art against itself, and distanced it from the society around it, whose barbaric indifference to human life it expressed, however peculiarly, that is, abstractly. read more: http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/otto-dix3-24-10.asp image: http://www.mess.net/galleria/dix/berber.html


By stimulating people’s inner desires and then sating them with consumer products, Bernays argued, he was creating a new way to manage the irrational force of the masses. This way the masses remained docile, while the economy remained stimulated. Bernays called this marketing strategy,“The engineering of consent.” …If that term doesn’t give you the willies, the following quote by leading wall street banker, Paul Maizer, ought to do it:

“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

These words were spoken the better half of a century ago in the 1930′s, and it appears the manifesto has become prophesy. Read More: http://taicarmen.wordpress.com/tag/edward-bernays/



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