pledging alleigance to the hollow man

It was to address the decline of individuality. In the new technological world, the individual had meaning and value only to the extent it was in the service of this new instrumentality. Artistically, though artists generally targeted their work into the heart of things, the institutional gatekeepers were able  managers of the political dimension in art; the result, a deadening of the artistic spirit, a de-fanging of the bite into the la-la land of universal spoutings of humanistic ideals and the expression of the individual. Boredom. The cul-de-sac of mass societal critique. Virtually all challenging art world initiatives such as Dada, Abstract-Expressionism and others, were destined for the fate of reinterpretation into the mass market consumption discourse. Obsolescence, ridicule and death. re-hashed until it succumbs to generic pneumonia.

Raoul Hausmann. The Art Critic. 1919. Read More:

Initially, these movement actually felt they were impacting the world in a positive manner. To help the individual survive and understand their world through an elevation of spontaneity that was felt to be dormant and equating it with spirituality. Spontaneity was also double edged, since it also meant it had to prevail over and supplant logic. Also it was subject to nonsense and being contrived and artificial; a goal in itself to be disruptive, transgressive and confrontational and not a consequence of a deeper process. Tristan Tzara said, ” we want shit in different colors to adorn the zoo of art.”

The theory was to realize art that was radically subjective reaching within the deepest recesses of the individual psyche. Remember, Andre Breton went to see Freud who refused to speak to him. The implication was that  radically subjective  individual  would be better prepared to withstand the shocks of the hard technological social world and retain a sense of humanity. In a sense, it was a rearguard action, a white flag in the face of social processes and a focus on the personal revolution which would morph into self-help spirituality, personal betterment and the kind of comic nonsense we see from potential presidential candidates like Herman Cain; an ass wiggler and bongo beater straight out of the Cabaret Voltaire. Today, the moral and social rebellion aspects are exalted but only within the context of consumer culture and without the realistic acknowledgment of oppressive anti-life forces in Western society.

Donald Kuspit: It is premature to say so, but it is worth noting that when abstract art migrated to New York after the second world war, particularly in the person of Piet Mondrian — it had its American practitioners before, but they were not taken seriously — it was slowly but surely stripped of its spiritual import. It became dogmatically empirical, materialistic and “objective” — a technocratic manipulation of the “formal facts” of art, to use the critic Clement Greenberg’s term. That is, abstract art lost its subjective raison d’etre — although the wish to be subjectively indifferent, that is, to make formally objective, expressively neutral art, is itself a subjective stance….

Max Ernst. The Hatmaker. Adorno & Horkheimer:What Dadaists and Expressionists called the untruth of style as such triumphs today in the sung jargon of a crooner, in the carefully contrived elegance of a film star, and even in the admirable expertise of a photograph of a peasant’s squalid hut. Style represents a promise in every work of art. That which is expressed is subsumed through style into the dominant forms of generality, into the language of music, painting, or words, in the hope that it will be reconciled thus with the idea of true generality. This promise held out by the work of art that it will create truth by lending new shape to the conventional social forms is as necessary as it is hypocritical. It unconditionally posits the real forms of life as it is by suggesting that fulfilment lies in their aesthetic derivatives. To this extent the claim of art is always ideology too. Read More: image:

…Similarly, when Dadaism arrived shortly afterwards, via Pop art — Duchamp, who lived in New York, gave it a rationale (the proto-Pop artist Jasper Johns wrote an appreciation of his art) — it was no longer a moral revolution, but an artistic ploy. It was artistic combat, rather than combat with society. It retained a certain emotional vigor, but lost its moral rigor. Dadaism was no longer a moral reaction to a destructive society, but became a kind of tongue-in-cheek cleverness — a facile knowingness — about its signs and symbols. Pop art was a tame travesty of Dadaism: Cheekiness replaced nihilism.

Cattelan. Trophy Wife. ---Adorno, Horkheimer:In the culture industry this imitation finally becomes absolute. Having ceased to be anything but style, it reveals the latter’s secret: obedience to the social hierarchy. Today aesthetic barbarity completes what has threatened the creations of the spirit since they were gathered together as culture and neutralised. To speak of culture was always contrary to culture. Culture as a common denominator already contains in embryo that schematisation and process of cataloguing and classification which bring culture within the sphere of administration. And it is precisely the industrialised, the consequent, subsumption which entirely accords with this notion of culture. By subordinating in the same way and to the same end all areas of intellectual creation, by occupying men’s senses from the time they leave the factory in the evening to the time they clock in again the next morning with matter that bears the impress of the labor process they themselves have to sustain throughout the day, this subsumption mockingly satisfies the concept of a unified culture which the philosophers of personality contrasted with mass culture. Read More: image:

In the United States, the moral and spiritual nonconformity of Dadaism and abstraction dissipated into ironic social conformity — Horkheimer notes that “abstract pictures are now simply one element in a purposive arrangement,” that is, “pure wall decoration” with no mystery to them — even as their methods became more refined. The overt destructiveness of world war bypassed the United States, but the subtle destructiveness of materialism remained alive and well in it. There was no Kandinsky to protest it — although there were artists, such as Mark Rothko, who withdrew from it into the hermetic cocoon of their abstraction. He, along with Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, can be regarded as the majestic climax of spiritualist abstraction — Newman’s abstract encapsulation of the suffering of the Stations of the Cross (1958) makes the point decisively — even as they indicate the cul de sac it has worked itself into, and prefigure empirical-materialistic abstraction, that is, the de-subjectification and radical objectification of abstract art into a purely formal endeavor. Their work has been understood in strictly formal-esthetic terms — the next step after Abstract Expressionism — but also as sublime and transcendental. As one critic said, it is hard to tell whether Rothko is simply a brilliant technician of color or an authentic mystic — a painter of color fields or a painter moved by great faith in the mystery residing in the beyond….

Kurt Schwitters. ---Just after the exhibition of Degenerate Art was organized, Nazis undertook another exhibition, which would declare what “German true art” was, as opposed to the art that was “degenerated” at the hand of the modernists. The exhibition was called “Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung”, “Great German Art Exhibition”. Strikingly, Degenerate Art exhibition attracted over two million visitors, which is three and a half times of the number of people who saw the Great German Art exhibition--- Read More: image:

…The irony of Pop art, which is inherently anti-subjective, seems to reinforce American materialism. For Pop art was largely a play on commercial images, especially those that represented people as commodities — and commodities (Coca Cola bottles, Campbell soup cans, Brillo boxes) as personages — stereotyping them into a consumer culture spectacle. Andy Warhol’s work is the case par excellence. Its irony amounts to an endorsement of the consumer culture it seems to criticize. It may be a hollow construction, as Warhol’s images suggest, but there is no alternative to hollowness. Its demonstration — the hollowing out of all appearances, indicating that they are socially manufactured myths, valueless in themselves, rather

refining them to suggest that there is something real and humanly valuable within and behind them — became the be-all and end-all of Warhol’s cynical art. There seems to a critical consciousness in this, but the relentless harping on hollowness suggests the unconscious terror of annihilation through the social process that Horkheimer spoke of….

Barnett Newman. 18 Cantos. ---The crisis of war and its aftermath are key to understanding the concerns of the Abstract Expressionists. These young artists, troubled by man's dark side and anxiously aware of human irrationality and vulnerability, wanted to express their concerns in a new art of meaning and substance. Direct contact with European artists increased as a result of World War II, which caused so many—including Dalí, Ernst, Masson, Breton, Mondrian, and Léger—to seek refuge in the U.S. The Surrealists opened up new possibilities with their emphasis on tapping the unconscious. One Surrealist device for breaking free of the conscious mind was psychic automatism—in which automatic gesture and improvisation gain free rein. --- Read More: image:

…Warhol’s own dramatically superficial self-portraits say it all: There is no self behind his appearance, he stated, suggesting that he realized he was a hollow man. Like empirical-materialistic abstract painting, Warhol’s self-negating work exalts “the collectivity over the person,” to use Horkheimer’s words, rather than the person over the collectivity, as both Dadaism and abstraction once did. Read More:

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Wherever modern art criticises the processes of commodity society in its very form – rather than hypocritically mouthing ‘protests’ that sell very well, thank you – you find Adorno’s formulations echoed, whether consciously or not. Guy Debord is supposed to have derived his ideas from Hegel, Marx, Gyorgy Lukacs and Henri Lefebvre (though the cartoonist and T-shirt manufacturer Biff has made some of his techniques rather more familiar than those thinkers):

Ideology tries to integrate even the most radical acts:

Man in suit: How right you are to steal books! Culture is everybody’s birth right

Girl in dress: CULTURE? Ugh! The ideal commodity – the one which helps sell all the others! No wonder you want us to go for it! … Maybe you can get the hippies, baby, but you can’t get us … (Situationist wall poster which International Times once ran as its front page, reprinted in Christopher Gray Leaving the 20th Century: the Incomplete Work of the Situationist International, Brussels: Free Fall, 1974, p. 16)

Twenty years before, Adorno was writing about the great fuss made when Toscanini conducted a symphony on the radio uninterrupted by sponsors’ advertisements. He pointed out how patronisingly the powers-that-be gloried in their ‘generosity’ (you got the same thing happening when Pavarotti’s record company, having made millions of pounds out of his fans, staged a ‘free’ gig in Hyde Park). Adorno said:

The cinema makes propaganda for the culture combine as a whole (Dialectic of Enlightenment p. 156)

This is almost exactly the same point as that made by the Situationists. It points out that gratitude for the ‘culture’ handed down to us by the authorities merely paves the way to manipulation. Adorno’s hatred for that kind of patronism is very like the sneers punk reserved for ‘beautiful music’. And, contrary to the postmodern portrait of Adorno as an elitist, he refuses to let high art off the hook either:

Pure works of art which deny the commodity society by the very fact that they obey their own law were always wares all the same. (Dialectic of Enlightenment p. 157)

So even works of art which insist on their own laws, their own integrity, which oppose commercialism, end up as commodities on the market too. There is no safe place to rest – Adorno’s sole solution is more vigilance, more enlightenment. He appreciates the working-over of economic realities in authentic art. Far from recalling some never-never land of classicism in the manner of Tory critics like Kenneth Clarke or Brian Sewell, Adorno writes about Beethoven in a way that could be applied to the Sex Pistols or Jeff Koons:

Those who succumb to the ideology [that art 'transcends' economics] are precisely those who cover up the contradiction, instead of taking it into the consciousness of their own production as Beethoven did. (Dialectic of Enlightenment p. 157)

By relating to its commodity-role, by drawing attention to it rather than mystifying us with claims to transcendence, artworks can get near the truth. Despite the fact that Adorno railed against pop music, his ideas explain what was so valuable about Punk. In the face of a record industry that pretended that Pink Floyd and Yes and Led Zeppelin gave us a taste of higher realm, punk brought discussion of record contracts and money and manipulation into pop music. Postmodernism tries to celebrate every facet of commercial music, and in doing so patronises us just as much as those events when the industry hands itself awards. Far from being ivory-tower, Adorno’s ideas can help explain why a band like the Sex Pistols were so effective. Read More:

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