failures of empathy:aesthetics of doubt

The basic problem that Walter Benjamin was uncovering was the relation between law and justice as it leaned on violence.The struggle of the divine power with mythological violence.  His “Critique on Violence” addressed the question of whether violence in the social and political realms could somehow be justified as pure means in itself, independent of whether it was applied to just or unjustified ends. Written in 1921, Benjamin’s essay clearly took aim at the aftermath of the First World War and the militarism and racism that helped trigger it.  Benjamin articulated a poetics of violence as a counterweight to the poetics of shock.

Jacob Epstein. The Rock Drill. 1914. "Epstein achieved instant fame with his Vorticist Rock Drill (1913-15), and Toorop grew up with the Symbolism of her famous father, Jan Toorop -- but both came into their own as "moral realists." For both avant-garde art was more a matter of art for the sake of art than art for the sake of life, thus upsetting the moral balance between them necessary for humanly as well as esthetically convincing art. Epstein once said that just because a work of art is deemed avant-garde doesn’t mean it’s inherently good, by which he meant that all the artistic cleverness in the world -- let alone formal purity -- could not "express. . . the great primal facts of man and woman."---Read More:

A shock based on his  conviction that the political institutions, ostensibly democratic,  had not met the minimal  expectations with which they had been established. Importantly, he also integrated a well founded concern, anxiety,  that the logical extension  of the use of force by the state within a law-keeping function, a civil society based on the iron fist, velvet glove model would facilitate  a rise to power in Germany of  far right reactionism that would take the form  of a pure, undiluted violence that would tumble out of the cauldron  as the final solution of the Holocaust. Hard to disagree.

Dix. Seven Deadly Sins. 1933. "Dix came back from the war to become its angry witness, while many of his comrades-in-arms did not, which left him with a residue of unconscious guilt, masked by his self-consciously fierce, gruesome face. Guilt seems hidden behind the gruesomeness of his prostitutes and his aggressive, even overtly hostile treatment of many of his bourgeois sitters." Read More:

Dix depicted a Germany that had been economically and socially broken on the rack of World War I — a country that seemed perpetually at risk of coming apart and collapsing, a Germany forced back and imploding on itself because it had lost credibility and respect, and had been labeled barbarian, as it was in antiquity. And perhaps above all, as the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut emphasizes in his discussion of the anger, demoralization, resentment, and violence epidemic in Weimar Germany (and in Dix’s work), because of the world’s lack of empathy for it (and the down and out — losers — in general). Paradoxically, this failure of empathy is reflected in Dix’s lack of empathy for his bourgeois sitters — just as the bourgeois had no empathy for the proletariat, so the proletariat had no empathy for the bourgeois  — and, more unexpectedly, for the soldiers he served with and depicted, in death as well as in action, in his war pictures. Dix was the first significant activist/protest artist of the 20th century. Read More: a

One of the most famous images of the New Objectivity movement or Neue Sachlichkeit is The portrait of Sylvia von Harden painted by Otto Dix. Read More:

Benjamin shared a few common inclinations with the Weimar artists. Such as the  the rejection of Utopianism.  Benjamin was pretty firm in his support  for the idea of—revolutionary violence by the proletariat, not only from walk outs and pickets , but in a broader class war that was to bring down the entire liberal bourgeoisie structure and the apparatus of the state.It was an ideology of violence nonetheless, a form of his cherished divine violence. Principally, he did not reject political violence, but analyzed its status and its foundations within a pessimistic context that was very familiar to an Otto Dix or George Grosz.

"Kirchner found military service very distressing and, suffering a nervous breakdown, was admitted to a sanatorium at Königstein im Taunus. He would return here twice more over the next year as his condition failed to improve. In September 1916, Kirchner wrote to Gustav Schiefler: "I am half dead from mental and physical torments, and have placed myself in the care of a neurologist here, since I am unable to do anything but work." His torments of that time can be seen in his terrifying work Self-Portrait as a Soldier (below). Here, Kirchner imagines himself in military uniform with his hand severed, unable to paint. The work is often understood as being closely modelled on Van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear of 1889,..." Read More:

Accordingly, Benjamin’s thesis held that the struggle between the divine and the mythical served as the centerpiece for the political struggle which by necessity would  collide with the law. The law,the upholding of the existing order,was not seen as justice, but rather  represented the violence which instituted the law in the first place. However, Benjamin, to his credit, implicitly abandoned the naive revolutionary demand for justice, which is satisfied simply by replacing the present laws with others conceived as being more just. Such a demand appears as an imaginary, fantastical, violent contention, opposing the divine one, but his frank politicization of art was misguided, or wishful, which in the case of Dix was rooted in a classical tradition.

Dix. Lustmord.1922. "In her book Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany, Maria Tater investigates the gender politics of cultural production in Germany during the pre- World War II era, specifically as it operated through the artistic representations of sexual murder or lustmord made popular by George Grosz and Otto Dix. This period has been referred to as one of a modernist movement in art that aestheticized violence and was funded by a transgressive energy that marks the avant- garde." Read More:

Kuspit: he ( Otto Dix) proudly told me that he had learned the techniques of the Old Masters: his pictures would last as long as theirs — at least 500 years, he said. Along with Soutine and Jacob Epstein, among others, he turned to “museum art,” losing credibility — a credibility he never had among the avant-gardists, and that social realism — especially his kind of existential German social realism — never had. Soutine is played down as a predecessor of de Kooning in Arnason’s textbook , and was sacrificed on the a

of purity by Greenberg, who finally found him too emotional for the good of art….

"Paradoxically, Soutine is as much a visionary as he is a traditionalist: he was quite indifferent to one of the greatest achievements of modernism, the freedom of subject matter; he maintained an unwavering, lifelong devotion to the triad of still life, landscape and portrait. There is, in fact, not a single subject in Soutine’s art for which one could not find a 17th-century model. It almost seems as if art historically sanctioned genres afforded him the security that he needed in order to venture into uncharted territory as a painter." Read More:

Epstein is not even mentioned in the prestigious textbook, suggesting that not even his radically innovative Rock Drill, the first sculpture to incorporate a machine (a pneumatic drill) — after World War I Epstein realized that the drill was a weapon, and took it away from the figure, in effect castrating him and symbolizing all the soldiers castrated by the war (among them Kirchner, as his famous self-portrait with his painting hand cut off suggests) — is not even worthy of avant-garde mention. Three of Dix’s paintings — the Trench, a work showing grotesquely crippled veterans playing cards, and a portrait owned by the Museum of Modern Art — are reproduced in Arnason. There is no mention of his extraordinary “War” prints and nudes — certainly not the sexy big-breasted one who serves as his muse in a 1924 self-portrait, nor the horrific prostitutes, nor the sex murder images, nor such allegories of life and death as Vanitas (Youth and Old Age) (1932). All three artists were déclassé because they rejected modernism.Read More:


Most central to Benjamin’s project is the critique of allegory, understood as a real religious position. In a surrealistic manner his position is close to the Cabalistic, lacking a positive religious faith. His pessimism discloses the presence of violent conflict between two tendencies: a positive optimistic utopian tendency and a pessimistic – the latter culminating in a negative utopianism and merging into the tradition of thought of Jewish redemption. His pessimism discloses the presence of violence within the continuity of “the whole time everything is the same” as a cosmic fate, a fate grounded in mystic necessity. He regards reality as essentially tragic, jet not as a partial historical stage or as an accident, but as normality itself. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’, in which we live is not an exception, but a rule.”…

Dix. Vanitas. Youth and Old Age. 1932. "The military-industrial-entertainment complex controls consciousness, and it is determined to control -- by treating as comic farce, ridiculing as absurd mischief -- any consciousness that threatens it by reminding it of its tragic flaws and its own absurdity. " Read More:

The fact that “everything continues as usual” is the eternal “catastrophe,” which according to Benjamin discloses the boundless dominance of the mythical. This is the basis of the “Kafka-like situation,” which determines the subject as described in the article “Franz Kafka.” The “original sin” makes itself present at each moment in history, and according to Benjamin it turns out to be a reaction to the subject’s being a victim of cosmic injustice permanently directed against him. ….Even though one ought not examine Horkheimer’s and Benjamin’s positions separately, I think that Horkheimer’s theological position is firmer in its relevancy to the thought of Judaism and to the critique of Zionism today. First, he deserted positive utopianism and rejected totally the principle of revolution – violence acting on behalf of the “good” contrary to Benjamin who remained faithful to this conception despite all….(28)Read More:
Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system. Read More:

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