degenerate art : fear of the everyday hucksters

Signs of pretense. Pretend art where the sentiments are an elaborate fake far removed from genuine emotion. Something like what Freud called the joke in art in his study of Michelangelo’s Moses but now on a grand, industrial scale of pretense. As art drips into the general culture there is an unwavering complicity to build civilization on a foundation of pretense where corporate values and artistic values merge in complete collusion. Art as advertisement and propaganda that reinforces the system and reduces art to exchange value; essentially a Ponzi scheme of the intrinsically valueless.

Corporatism and kitsch is a complicity of interests, a reflection of the psychotic state of society and the almost suffocating dominance of publicity as ideology representing the complete attitude to life. Art as the pacifier of masses:— avoiding the cost of a higher life by being  pressured by the omnipresent mass culture into pretending that they possess it. Kitsch  is the inevitable result of the  attempt to have the life of the spirit on the buy now pay later if at all basis. Ninja junk mortgage level of cultural aptitude.

---Self-knowledge and self-realization have become meaningless in the society of the spectacle, for there is no self to know and realize -- or rather one can only realize and know oneself by becoming part of the spectacle. Finding oneself reflected in the mirror of the spectacle, one becomes a spectator of one’s reified appearance, completing the realization of oneself as an image-object. Read More:

But the link between corporatism, fascism and kitsch has always been there in plain view; the dynamic of being dominated or dominating and a societal phenomenon aimed at repression instead of compassion, competition rather than interdependence. The drama of the state of fear in the Society of the Spectacle.Maybe it is what amounts to a “banality of evil” as Arendt expressed it in this context in comparison to a radical evil. She wrote to Gershom Scholem: “It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical,’ that it is only extreme.”…Thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated.” There is nothing in evil for thought to grab onto and destroy is probably what Arendt perceived by the banality of evil; this amorphous presence of shape-shifting fear, the fear of death and helplessness that stunts and kills under the pretense of happily ever after. It’s a realization that Arendt arrived at that extreme evil has no meaning that the human mind can reveal,sucking out our spontaneity and humanity as integral to the structure of society as the guillotine in France was in the Reign of Terror. That evil is not only senseless in its own terms but meaningless in any terms, is evident today in our War on Terror, fear as societal default position. Kitsch and the corporate/art world collusion are just part of this dynamic, the pretense of freedom, radical liberty, where celebrity deities and martyrs like Warhol and Princess Diana are sacrificed to the world of advertising with a narrative appealing to our baser instincts of foolish pride, war and vengeance; the pretense of our deepest dignities.

WWI saw the emergence  of patriotic kitsch, and the great crimes of the Nazis and Lenin and Stalin and Mao occurring  behind a thick coat of kitsch: revolting sentimentality,  and the  pretense of a fulfilled and noble existence as simple as putting on a uniform and adopting an identity. As the Milgram experiments pointed out, we are not always who we seem to believe we are, but what is not so understandable is whether the pathologies induced by fear are redeemable and curable rather than merely exploitable:

Diane Thodos: …I have an important question. Do you see any parallels between what is happening now and the circumstances that created the “Degenerate Art” exhibit in Germany in 1937 – that is – the individual vs. the doctrinal? If so is there a kind of covert censorship going on as to what art gets shown and what does not?

Donald Kuspit: Oh yes.

---The avant-garde commodity appropriates and subsumes modernist estheticism, reminding us of its connection to capitalist innovation -- the capitalist invention of novel commodities. Thus Yves St. Laurent’s Mondrian dresses and rainboots obscure and even shed their commodity identity by their use of Mondrian’s pure abstract art as decorative design, raising their exchange value as well as that of Mondrian’s purity, thus reifying abstraction as a marketable commodity. Read More: image:

DT: Can you relate this somehow to what is meant by the individualistic vs. the doctrinal regarding the “Degenerate Art” show? To put this issue another way I read a wall text written by Jay A. Clarke from the recent exhibit “Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth” at the Chicago Art Institute that exhibited from February 14 – April 26, 2009. Here are the critical parts of it:

The Edvard Munch of popular imagination – a tortured bohemian rebel who seemed almost a living version of the famous figure in “The Scream” – was in fact a myth, carefully constructed during Munch’s lifetime by critics, historians, and the artist himself….The Norwegian art critic suggested that he suffered from the psychological condition known as neurasthenia…otherwise known as nervous exhaustion…Adopted and adapted by social commentators, the disorder was connected with decadence and degeneration and applied to the visual arts….Munch deliberately embraced disturbing subject matter and the personality of the sick, socially aberrant artist…[he] adjusted his emotional pitch at precise moments in order to achieve the outcomes he desired. Munch’s self portraits, such as the brooding blue hued “Self Portrait in Moonlight” and “Self Portrait with Cigarette”, offer a rich opportunity to explore this persona in the act of construction, reminding us of the artist’s central role in the process of his own mythmaking and reputation building.

---As Adorno and others have pointed out, the development of avant-garde art, with its creative freedom -- some would say nihilistic license -- is directly correlate with the development of capitalism. Schumpter argues that capitalism is "creative destruction"; the same has been said of avant-garde art. Art, like capital, arouses curi

y, which is the beginning of consciousness, and can lead to self-consciousness -- consciousness of the creativity of the self, often in response to its everyday suffering.---Bruce Nauman art. Read More: ;

I feel this writing reflects a historical “revision” of Munch’s work that intends to desublimate the power of his work by making him into an everyday huckster.

DK: Like contemporary artists – like the Jeff Koons of his day. That absolutely fascinates me – what the curator did, why the curator did it, what’s the argument behind it, what’s the proof?

DT: This brings me to the question – do we have historical revisionism today that’s working as a means of not merely avoiding the presence of emotion in art, but being destructive of the importance of emotional sublimation in art? Does this revisionism assert itself as a means of supporting a postmodern/postart agenda that keeps the emotions out of art?

DK: What you say is exactly right.

DT: Do you feel it is like, in a sense, the way the Germans with the “Degenerate Art” show degraded Expressionist/Modernist art and displaced it with their own doctrinal kitsch that was the official art?

DK: What I would say has happened is the avant-garde – avant gardism – has become institutionalized. It has become a tyranny. It’s become a dogma, and for all the art world’s talk about diversity – echoing the social diversity – it’s not diverse. It’s an inertial system. So we go to a Whitney Biennale and we do not see the range.

---The artist becomes what Erich Fromm calls a marketing personality publicizing himself in order to sell his art as an enduring and indispensable commodity -- first and foremost as a socially unique commodity, and secondarily as eternal art able to afford a transcendental esthetic and intimate emotional experience -- even though the more it is presented as a commodity the less likely it is to function esthetically and existentially. It is the commodity art of the capitalist elite -- who are usually also the political and social and even religious elite -- that survives in museums and textbooks. It then becomes a fully realized appearance, and thus sufficient unto itself -- transcends the conditions of its making, commodification and reproduction. The greatest power the capitalist elite has is the power to create, control and own the future -- to bring works of art into the establishment and pantheon called Posterity. --- Read More: image:

DT: You see the opposite – a very narrow path.

DK: Exactly. The mandate of The Whitney Biennale is to show the range so you see different things.

DT: But it is not the case.

DK: It’s not. It’s a party line. It’s Fascist.

DT: I was just getting to that. Fascist is an interesting word because when we speak of the “Degenerate Art” show we are speaking of the condemnation of Modern art by this doctrine.

DK: But there is something else going on. Let’s go back to the “Degenerate Art” show. I have this theory which I have written about. I argue that the Nazis were perceptive; they saw something that was there in the art; but what they did not understand what was there in the art was in the society. The artists were talking about – if you want – the degeneracy in the society: the savage etc. So the Nazis – in their corrupted notion of purity or Aryanism – felt threatened. They did not like the underside showing. They did not like their own underside showing – their own aggression, their barbarism. But there it was in the art, so they called it “degenerate” because it was threatening. It was threatening because it touched them on the inside. The fascinating thing about the Nazis is that they had a passion for art. Do you know the book “The Rape of Europa” [Lynn H. Nicholas 1995]?

---Back in Norway by the spring of 1892, Munch had already begun the process of analyzing the most effective marketing techniques for his work, part of which included the creation of his own image as a decadent, unstable and tortured artist. Munch's diaries, which have often provided psychological and personal explanations of his imagery, turn out to have been largely created for just this purpose. Curator Clarke comments that the diaries were written "…with an eye to publication as literary works and are marked by a keen desire to shape his posthumous reputation.--- Read More:

DT: Yes. Göhering stole a lot of art.

DK: Hitler wanted to turn Linz his hometown and Berlin into big art centers. Speer assimilated a lot of Modernist ideas to make his art. He tried to subsume it, or dialectically sublate it – and some of the structures are still interesting like the Olympic stadium.

DT: He was part of the Modernist movement even though he was complicit in horrible atrocities.

…DK: I don’t think he knew there was a difference. I think Hitler knew there was a difference, I think the major anti-Semites knew there was a difference. I think he believed in the cause, he believed in Hitler, he believed Hitler was fine for Germany. He began to realize it was all going to hell, and he was one of the first to perceive it. There’s a fantastic book by Gitta Sereny – a thick book some 700 pages [Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth 1996]. It’s interviews she did with Speer after his imprisonment. He just had no perception. He was just like; organization – let’s do it…

DT: Do you think it is because in the culture there is structure before there is emotion?

DK: They are obedient. The Germans are obedient.

DT: But was it structure before feeling, structure before perception? Was there a structural element that was built into the culture that made Speer that way?

DK: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think there are Nazis and there are Nazis. They weren’t all uniform. A lot of them were military men.

DT: Prussian.

DK: Prussian. A certain notion of honor – that’s why they turned against Hitler.

DT: Yes. I have heard about these things too. But the interest I have is also that there was enough of a presence in the culture that had a strong structural element.

DK: Their obedience. Mitscherlich writes about that. “Gehorsamkeit.“ Put them in a line and they just keep going. They are brought up that way.

DT: In the Leni Riefenstahl film “Triumph of the Will” it is interesting how rigidly the soldiers march in tight box formations.

DK: “The Authoritarian Personality of Adorno” [first published in 1950]. Part of the new Germany is to go against that authoritarianism. Transparency of government – that’s why the Reichstag has a glass dome. The young people are very different. Now the Nazis were not unperceptive about Modern art – it’s just that they did not like what they saw because it was really a split off part of themselves.

DT: Yes – it had power because it was.

DK: Yes, exactly. Unless it had that power they would not have responded to it so negatively.

DT: And they would not have wanted to destroy so much of the art. That’s why people hid the art both during and after the war, which is why a lot of this art did not surface at auctions for so long. Right after the war people kept the art hidden because they were afraid it would end up being destroyed again…. But getting back to my original question – do you feel that when we speak about the relationship between Fascism and the “Degenerate Art” show that this has a parallel with the contemporary postmodern censorship that seems to enforce itself against the validity of an emotional relationship to art… For example the way emotional or expressionist art is downgraded; how this text from the Edvard Munch exhibition focused on casting his art in the light of a marketeering strategist. This was profoundly distorting and in my opinion shameful.

DK: I’m really curious. I’ve never seen anything like that before.

DT: This is the creepy part of my question: It’s no longer about just the ignoring of expression, but trying to marginalize and degrade it. It is a different program.

---Duchamp’s nude makes an abstract spectacle of herself, suggesting that she symbolizes the unrealistic society of the modern spectacle. Duchamp realized that art had to become part of and serve the society of the spectacle if it was to survive in modernity. From the Nude Descending the Staircase through the Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even to the raped and murdered nude in the Étants Donnés, Duchamp turned the nude, and with her art, into a spectacle, maliciously dissecting and debunking the beauty she symbolized and embodied in traditional art.--- Read More:

DK: It’s saying Munch is inauthentic. It’s just an act.

DT: And that he’s a hustler, that we are all the same, and that this is an everyday kind of thing.

DK: And we all understand it because we are all the same – exactly. Unbeleivable. Read More:
…. Roger Scruton: In art, there comes a point where a style, a form, an idiom, or a vocabulary can no longer be used without producing cliché. Fear of this debasement led to the routinization of the avant-garde. By posing as avant-garde, the artist gives an easily perceivable sign of his authenticity. But the result, I have suggested, is kitsch of another kind and a loss of genuine public interest. Patronage keeps the avant-garde in business; but patronage lacks the power to sustain the avant-garde’s position as the censor of modern culture.

This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise, which some call “postmodernism” but which might better be described as “preemptive kitsch.” Having recognized that modernist severity is no longer acceptable—for modernism begins to seem like the same old thing and therefore not modern at all—artists began not to shun kitsch but to embrace it, in the manner of Andy Warhol, Alan Jones, and Jeff Koons. The worst thing is to be unwittingly guilty of producing kitsch; far better to produce kitsch deliberately, for then it is not kitsch at all but a kind of sophisticated parody. (The intention to produce real kitsch is an impossible intention, like the intention to act unintentionally.) Preemptive kitsch sets quotation marks around actual kitsch and hopes thereby to save its artistic credentials. The dilemma is not: kitsch or avant-garde, but: kitsch or “kitsch.” The quotation marks function like the forceps with which a pathologist lifts some odoriferous specimen from its jar.

And so modernist severity has given way to a kind of institutionalized flippancy. Public galleries and big collections fill up with the predigested clutter of modern life, obsolete the moment it goes on permanent display. Such is the “art” of Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili (winner of this year’s Turner Prize), Gilbert and George, and all the other poseurs who dominate the British art scene. Art as we knew it required knowledge, competence, discipline, and study. Preemptive kitsch, by contrast, delights in the tacky, the ready-made, and the cut-out, using forms, colors, and images that both legitimize ignorance and also laugh at it, effectively silencing the adult voice—as in Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons. Such art eschews subtlety, allusion, and implication, and in place of imagined ideals in gilded frames it offers real junk in quotation marks. It is indistinguishable in the end from advertising—with the sole qualification that it has no product to sell except itself. ( Roger Scruton )

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