On Modern Art
The political truth of Europe at this time was that democracy, faint and pale, panted for its life on the fringes of the continent. Meanwhile, two tyrannosaurs conjured by a common revolutionary spirit that had recently destroyed and discarded entire empires, had been set against each other in the historical arena. In this extraordinary situation the even more extraordinary happens: Art, hitherto blowing petrol on every existing revolutionary fire in Europe and elsewhere, ecstatically watching every vestige of old Europe going
up in flames, suddenly declares itself innocent. And as though that weren’t even enough, it is now: The Victim!
The paintings of German expressionists — which to Thomas Mann had seemed such dark foreboding of a fascism on the march — were now interpreted as being mere internal landscapes, the objectified agony as it were of the artist having to face the reality, as opposed to the fantasy, of revolution and war. In no way should they be regarded as the very stimulus to the same. Among futurists it was not acknowledged that the adulation of the machine as the incarnation of the zeitgeist was in itself a declaration of war, paving the way for men of action with precisely this in mind. Nowhere was there a sense among artists of having been in the least unfair in their visceral criticism of the bourgeois society. Nor were their unabashed provocations and openly expressed rebuttal of capitalism and liberal republican values seen as instrumental in the rise of European totalitarianism. No, the artists up to this point had remained true to the calling of art by involuntarily turning into the human seismographs registering the subterranean tremors announcing the full-scale arrival of state sponsored political, social, and cultural terror.
Luckily for them, Germanic expressionists — whether an Emil Nolde, an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, or a James Ensor — were exonerated from the task of carrying on their work in the service of either Nazis or Bolsheviks. Their work was famously dubbed ‘formalist’ by Soviet commissaries of art, and ‘degenerate’ by Nazi experts on eugenics. Likewise the Italian futurists were considered too crazy even by Mussolini to be seriously considered for propagandist purposes. Interestingly, Mussolini held the sound opinion that art and politics were and should be two separate things, never to be combined, and that the state therefore ought not to meddle in the business of art, as art should refrain from getting involved in politics. This might be an important reason why the frozen postures of social realism and propaganda art never became quite the same hit in fascist Italy as in Germany and Russia, where the revolutionary actors were incessantly idolised in this manner. Russian futurists in the Stalin era had little choice but to conform to the nationalistic pathos and its predefined aesthetic standards.
Since both Nazism and Soviet communism have since gone defunct, contemporary democratic consensus takes for granted that there cannot be a grain of historical truth in the critique of art these two systems generated internally. Since fascism and communism obviously didn’t work out, everything found within them must be considered an error and only be interesting insofar as it maps out an historical dead end. It is, on the other hand, assumed that there is no higher truth to be discovered in the realm of aesthetics than the one guaranteeing the artist absolute freedom to do whatever pleases him. More: That only the artist enjoying the highest degree of freedom is capable of producing eternally modern and yet, paradoxically, timeless art. It has thereby also been taken for granted that the artist himself is not going to abuse this unconditional freedom by behaving irresponsibly in his art — as opposed to in his personal life were transgression of bourgeois decorum is almost considered de rigueur.
John D Rockefeller Jr., founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, began to systematically buy up avant-garde art in the 1920s. Over time this resulted in a vast collection of contemporary works, at the time still waiting to acquire political maturity. By the end of the Second World War it was clear that Nazism had been permanently defeated while no more than an uneasy truce had been obtained with Marxist Russia. The fate of precious modernism again seemed uncertain. European modernism certainly had made its mark on the general public. With a once again free and liberal Paris there were hopes of a return of modernism to its most fertile soil. But since the 1920s things had changed. The United States, during its own phase of state autocracy, personified by presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, had seemed to lag behind in artistic awareness, having little more than its own brand of social realism and middle class sentimentality to offer a discerning art world, eager for the new, shocking and surprising. However, with America’s second intervention in European affairs, which decidedly tipped the balance in favour of the Allies, the time had come for the United States to not only demonstrate its political and economic hegemony in the world, but also to become the cutting edge in artistic modernism.