YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 4, 2009

modernity and mass death

Outsider Art

[Added 1-5-11: the "N" word is to be deleted from an upcoming edition of Huckleberry Finn. The best context for this decision is not merely political correctness, but the fantasy that words, by themselves, not only create reality, but that propaganda, by itself,  is the engine of history. Propaganda is very important, and this website is devoted to it, but I would never make the claims that the academics reported below have done.]

[Added 2/24/10: I have just read a novel by Stephen Benatar, Wish Her Safe At Home, (1982), touted recently by the New York Review of Books and the NYT. It is told entirely from the p.o.v. of a psychotic woman, whose delusions seem to have been instilled by mass culture and the atomization of the individual in the modern world (see the numerous books on “the culture industry” that many postmodernists imagine to be protofascist). Some comments from readers were delighted by the “unreliable narrator,” whereas I found the novel to be tedious and yet another unhelpful voyeuristic depiction of mental illness, this one inflected with a strong misogynist bias. So I am reviving my Pacifica radio talk on “Outsider Art.”  [Added later: Benatar is a former professor of English who started writing novels in middle-age. He is also gay. I wonder if there is some unconscious self-loathing or at least doubts about his own sanity as he let his imagination rove and display itself in all its unmanly costumes. Please excuse the lapse from New Critical method: this author is very much alive and perhaps working out his own pain and self-doubt. For me it is less a book than what used to be called "clinical material.")]

Here is an episode in my KPFK series “How Do We Know When We Are Not Fascists?” They show what was possible to present on a Pacifica radio station before its descent into near-oblivion. My “radicalism” consisted primarily in defending autodidacts and decoding propaganda.

KPFK, 12/3/92. THE BIG LIE.
Frame: I am responding to two significant cultural events: the conference on Censorship in the Arts, UCLA, 11/92, and the exhibition Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art at Los Angeles County Museum of Art through January 3, 1993.

Purpose of this episode. To clarify a powerful social psychological concept that has ruled postwar American radical ideas about politics: the concept of mass society and mass politics. The idea of mass politics does not refer to bad taste or working-class politics as such; rather the catastrophically mediocre and irrational political culture produced by the rise of the technocrat, the arrogant specialist to be found in any class, who does not defer to traditional authority; its source is European élite theory, for instance in the fulminations of Jose Ortega y Gasset, Revolt of the Masses (1930), explicated in William Kornhauser’s The Politics of Mass Society (1959), and demonstrated in the recent Gothic tale set in mid-18th century France, Perfume, The Story of a Murderer (1986), by the German writer Patrick Süskind. Such thinkers identified with the aristocrats threatened with dispossession ever since the English Civil War of the seventeenth century; their nightmare specter was the artisan radical, an autodidact developing the craft and sophistication to meet the needs of a consumer, market society, and newly confident of his/her capacity to participate in the decisions that determined the work process and the structure of all social institutions.

In Süskind’s Perfume, the monstrous artisan over-reacher is named Grenouille; for élite social pathologists, the frogs were self-fashioners who had turned themselves into princes, all the while unaware that they were merely idiot savants, sociopaths, and vampires; experts, yes, but narrow, wishing only to dominate and drain the all too willing sensualist, libertine moneyed classes, and ridiculously aspiring to massive social improvements and other utopian transformations. What would happen to level-headed experienced élites with their gentle holistic views of society, their heartfelt, communal concepts of management, dripping with the milk of human kindness?

Instead of viewing the improved material and political conditions that ensued after the Industrial Revolution as an emancipation from superstition, perpetual feudal violence, and early death, the displaced élites churned out mountains of propaganda, characterizing the rising bourgeoisie as the agents of totalitarian rule, their states and bodies iron cages of repressive bureaucracy, their false notions of Progress the big lie (or the melting pot that jammed Durkheim’s mechanical solidarities too close to vermischt secular Jews and radical protestants). The twentieth century spokesmen for aristocratic radicalism (sometimes called radical conservatism) are such thinkers as Werner Sombart, Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, the Frankfurt School of critical theorists, and Michel Foucault; these antimoderns and their followers seem to spurn antiseptic wastelands for the delightfully messy, spontaneous, carefree, passionate, above all, organic life said to have existed in the Middle Ages before the dull, dark days of “middle-class hegemony.”

The relations of the aristocratic radicals to the romantic anticapitalism of the counter-culture and the New Left should be obvious; for instance in the poetry and criticism of the anti-imperialist Charles Olson, father of postmodernism, specifically his turn toward mysticism, Eastern religions and the archaic. Olson and others draw upon blood-and-soil völkisch ideas of group identity based in the counter-Enlightenment ideas of J.G. Herder or later, Carl Jung; some New Left notions of participatory democracy are not incompatible with this decentered, localist, communitarian ethos, blissfully rid of its freethinking cosmopolitan Freudian/Marxist Jews. After the war (and earlier, 1939-41?) the Stalinist Left adopted this identical organicist anti-Western, anti-Americanism; genocidal America was characterized as the land of Indian killers; Hitler’s deadly propaganda was said to have been inspired by American advertising (Lukács, 1952). Amazingly, and despite the supposed philo-semitism that reigned after the war, such American savagery was linked with that of the Hebrew prophets. Nazis, radical protestants and Romantic artists (instances of Cain, Prometheus, Faust, the Wandering Jew) were now similarly Bad Jews. In Ernest Tuveson’s opinion, America was the redeemer Nation intent on its destructive Woodrow Wilson-style millenarianism. The field of American Studies is built on this staggering claim. Stalinists, Christian Socialists, and Ivy League professors of American literature connected to the CIA walked hand in hand.

Some of these intellectuals asserted that Hitler, like other materialists, was contemptuously, cynically swindling the German masses and admitted this in his autobiography Mein Kampf; as T.W. Adorno, Paul Massing and Leo Lowenthal put it in 1946, Hitler was the confidence-man puppeteer that the kitsch-loving masses preferred.* The foil to Hitler’s manipulativeness was obviously themselves: rational, socially responsible and sincere aristocratic radical leadership (often speaking in the name of Kant, Marx and Freud, the bearers and protectors of high culture and social scientific demystification!). In this aristocratic radical interpretation, Hitler was the culmination of iconoclastic Western civilization, the apex of Enlightenment hubris and over-reaching. Like other Enlightenment mad scientists, Hitler’s typical gesture was the murderous dissection that endless ripped the social fabric in its misguided search for perfection, the grasp of first principles and the hidden essence of things. Thus, the Holocaust has come to be seen as the distillation, the rotten perfume of modernity itself; the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, a follower of Max Weber and Hannah Arendt, has written a book Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell U.P., 1989) to warn his colleagues that social theory must be purged of its genocidal Enlightenment underpinnings.

One panel at the UCLA Censorship in the Arts conference (organized by the UCLA administration) dealt with art as aggression; deftly assuming the premise that art is dangerous, the program and panelists asked, how can we defend ourself against misogynist and racist art? As the talk proceeded, UCLA English professor Vincent Pecora reminded us that the censored French writer Flaubert was a cynical fraud, and 20th century modernism (Wyndham Lewis, Yeats, Pound, Eliot) could be fascist in sympathy; the claim was made that Hitler’s Mein Kampf was a major factor in the transformation of sane Germans into crazy Nazis (by Nation art critic Arthur Danto, no less, inspired by Pecora: MK was an epidemic eating through the body politic to make Nazis; Pecora did not distance himself from this remark until I objected to it from the floor). Similarly, the feminist lawyer Christine Littleton (recounting numerous episodes of male violence) had stated that “propaganda works”; i.e., propaganda kills.

The pattern should be clear: the recently reconstructed Nazi Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937 at LACMA made the same point: Artists and other image-makers are the source of evil, forget the abuse of class power as the villain in the piece. Forget history, in the case of Germany, economic crisis after 1928, the schemes of frightened conservative nationalists responding to rising communist votes in 1932, the tactical errors and sectarianism of the Communists throughout the 1920s and 1930s. For the LA County Museum and the conservative scholars who advised them (including George Mosse), Hitler, the failed artist, the little man with too much power in the modern world, lured the German masses with kitsch spectacles and propaganda; this achievement (added to the disastrously unfair Versailles Treaty, the Hitler line! and the inflation of 1923) fully accounts for Hitler’s rise to power: bad art led straight to the ovens at the death camps: propaganda kills. There could have been no rational reasons to kill the Jews, no material advantages to be gained by the expropriation of Jewish property and/or the removal of professional rivals, Marxist troublemakers and other cosmopolitan internationalists; rather, the Holocaust was cold-blooded mass politics as usual, prefigured by Robespierre and Marat in the French Revolution, the normal machinations of a heartless bureaucracy in Zygmunt Bauman’s view.

I was equally stupefied by the narrow focus of the recent symposium held at the LACMA to discuss issues arising from the controversial exhibition of Outsider Art, curated by Maurice Tuchman and others, to make the startling art historical point that much of modern art (specifically the Symbolist, Surrealist, Expressionist, and Art Brut tendencies) was ripped-off or inspired by the art of psychotics and other “compulsive visionaries.” Although several of the journalists present had strong criticisms of the exhibition, no one complained that whatever genetic inheritance, or family/political history caused the crazies to make their powerful, disturbed and disturbing images was noticeably absent (perhaps because the necessary research was hampered by lack of records, but also possibly by a lack of historical imagination). While elevating the crazies’ outpourings to the status of “art” (a multi-cultural move which brought the marginal, excluded loony to stage-center) their crazy-making painful life experience had been reduced to rubble. In other words, the 18th century entertainment of the visit to Bedlam had been revived; pain had become spectacle; “aesthetic” considerations had silenced Dionysus: the artists’ voices (unheard as historical artifacts) were stilled. Similarly, at the UCLA event, I have been told (by an insider) that artists were not permitted to participate in the program (except of course from the margins, the floor, so reminiscent of the circumscribed public space Franklin Murphy told us he had permitted for criticism of the Vietnam war during the late 1960s at UCLA. Such are the strategies of “civility” in our free society).

To tie these two cultural events together: I have been appalled at the systematic removal of materialist history from our public life since the 1930s; pain, suffering, and mass death have been rendered absurdly mysterious and elusive. UCLA and the LA County Museum are not uniquely culpable; neither the Left nor the New Left, nor the counter-culture has created an alternative popular education to analyze and change the inhumane pseudo-conservatism which it constantly deplores. What should we be doing? We begin with the accurate reading of texts and the reconstruction of all the relevant conflicts in which key texts are situated; this is a task requiring sometimes strenous efforts at empathy with historical actors, laborious archival research and a sociologically informed understanding of institutional structures. It is possible to do that with Hitler’s Mein Kampf; however, as I argue below, an accurate reading of Hitler’s autobiography may collapse or blur the careful distinctions that conservatives have drawn since 1945, distinctions between American Progressives and Nazis, good fathers like FDR and bad fathers like Hitler, democratic pluralism versus fascism/communism: the latter twins held to be the sources of all tyranny, violence, swindling, and intolerance. Upon closer scrutiny, we may find that no society has yet been willing to institutionalize fully the process of independent critical thought, accurately to read its institutions and relationships, to identify double-binds in families and universities (impossible reconciliations between truth and order, independence and loyalty, cosmopolitanism and narrow ethnic identification, science and religion); that such cultural freedom as we have enjoyed has been a bone thrown to appease the mob, as my research has shown, often explicitly intended to disguise the shallowness of our cultural life, but mostly to sharpen the distinction between free West and slave East ever since 1917. For contemporary artists and writers, no greater task for our generation has emerged than the rescue of the radical Enlightenment; that is, the rehabilitation of the creative, dissenting individual willing to separate from illegitimate authority, like Herman Melville as Ahab, Pierre, Isabel, Bartleby, and Margoth, to walk away from the big lie. [Added 12-14-09: the painting is not Outsider Art, but a painting made by my daughter Rachel in her childhood. Also, I am not slyly defending the Soviet Union: it was indeed a slave society, but that did not mean that the West was off the hot seat where cultural freedom is concerned. Nor do I discount the importance of propaganda and/or culture; I am quite obsessed with propaganda and culture as influences on what we take to be real. It is the neglect of material factors such as economic history and conflicts of interest that I object to when academics give all the weight to propaganda in the mobilization of mass movements such as Nazism.]

*  See T.W. Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, and Paul W. Massing, “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda,” Antisemitism: A Social Disease, ed. Ernst Simmel with a Preface by Gordon Allport (N.Y.: International Universities Press, 1946): 132: “…it is a deceptive idea, that the so-called common people have an unfailing flair for the genuine and sincere, and disparage fake.  Hitler was liked, not in spite of his cheap antics, but just because of them, because of his false tones and his clowning.  They are observed as such, and appreciated….The sentimentality of the common people is by no means primitive, unreflecting emotion.  On the contrary, it is pretense, a fictitious, shabby imitation of real feeling often self-conscious and slightly contemptuous of itself.  This fictitiousness is the life element of the fascist propagandist performances.”  See also Hannah Arendt, “The Concentration Camps,” Partisan Review, July 1948, 745: “Hitler circulated millions of copies of his book in which he stated that to be successful, a lie must be enormous–which did not prevent people from believing him….”  This claim, the center of her irrationalist argument, is not footnoted; in any case, she implies that Hitler was boasting about his own successful lying in attaining the support of the German people.  Arendt argues that Nazis were philistines, relativists/nihilists, not pseudo-aristocrats defending “individuality” in terms similar to her own (for Arendt: “the uniqueness shaped in equal parts by nature, will, and destiny,” 758).  Note the refusal of former critical tools: “An insight into the nature of totalitarian rule, directed by our fear of the concentration camp, might serve to devaluate all outmoded political shadings from right to left and, beside and above them, to introduce the most essential political criterion of our time: Will it lead to totalitarian rule or will it not? (747).”

See Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (London: The Merlin Press, 1980): 721-726 for the claim that Hitler learned his demagogical techniques from American advertising (imperialist Americans were the new Nazis in 1950s Stalinist propaganda). Citing Rauschning as his source, Lukács wrote, “In their speeches and writing, the fascist leaders poured out with a nauseating show of emotion their national and social demagogie, whose public second names were honour, loyalty, faith and sacrifice, etc. But when they came together in private, they spoke with the most cynical, knowing smiles of their own messages and manifestoes” (721).  It was of course English wartime propaganda that Hitler credited in Mein Kampf and he disavowed manipulativeness, see below; Cf. Jim Fyrth, Britain, Fascism, and the Popular Front (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1985): 10: “…fascism posed as a form of socialism and its anti-capitalist rhetoric was directed at the working class and lower-middle class.” The Tory/Stalinist characterization of Americans as the new Nazis persists in anti-imperialist movements today; see for instance, Alexander Cockburn’s ill-timed insinuation in The Nation, 8/17-24/92, 163 that Jews (in the persons of Edward Alexander and the Jews who publish him) selfishly and callously minimize the suffering of other oppressed groups (American Indians and Southern slaves) by resisting [ahistoric] attempts to equate “the Holocaust” with other forms of mass death.  Cf. The New Masses during the 1930s which defended the revolutionary bourgeoisie and its development of the productive forces in the same progressive America that would be treated as a country of Bad Jews after the war.

Also see Joachim Fest, Hitler (Harcourt Brace, 1973): Fest presents a bouquet of diagnoses in “the manic simple-mindedness with which he traced all the anxieties he had ever felt back to a single source.” (101-102); “[Hitler learned everything from Marxism and its idea of the vanguard.]  He also went much further than his model.  In his nature there was an infantile fondness for the grand, surpassing gesture, a craving to impress.  He dreamed of superlatives and was bent on having the most radical ideology, just as later he was bent on having the biggest building or the heaviest tank.” (126) i.e., both Marxism and Hitler are crazy.

Although E. Jäckel criticized the Hermann Rauschning tendency, such arguments appeared before Rauschning’s book.  See for instance, George Sylvester Viereck, 1923 (his self-published journal, with the “explosive” Hitler as Byron, vagina dentata, Jewish intellectual, and Gorgon); also Johannes Steel, Hitler as Frankenstein, with a preface by Harold Laski (London: Wishart, 1933): 7.  Describing Mein Kampf: “Eight hundred pages full of curses against Pacifists, Jews, Marxists, Internationalists, and Capitalists without a single productive idea.  His political faith as proclaimed in this book is, that everybody is wrong and only he is right.  A curious book…in which he never speaks about himself, his family, his life, or even his program for the future, but only about generalities.  Metaphysical theories on the necessity of the purification of the German race, of which he is not a member, and in addition to that, nothing but hate and again hate…. (7).  At the end of his speech he registered a child-like happy self-satisfaction” (9).  Hitler is drawn as a Henry Ford-type, not a corporatist liberal: “[Henry Ford] like himself, was a bourgeois, did not like Jews, Socialists, Communists or Revolutionaries, or government interference with private business.” (33).  On Jew-hatred, Steel writes of  “black-haired Jews who seemed to have such an easy life, just trading, arguing and talking and yet getting on and on more rapidly than he, or anyone around him” (3).  The Hitler-Robespierre-syndicalist connection was explicit in Hendrik Willem Van Loon, Our Battle (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1938): 68 ff, 77.

On 7/17/92 Los Angeles public television broadcast a British film, Führer: Seduction of a Nation, advised by Lord Bullock, which carried these themes, depicting Hitler as an inflamed narcissist, “a face from the crowd” taking in the masses with a line that “sounded democratic”; the grandiose Hitler was too close to his mother, the father was described as “authoritarian” and perhaps half-Jewish.

For other works by conservatives that promulgate the Big Lie theory of Nazi propaganda/Nazi narcissism see the Fireside Discussion Group of The Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith, Hitler’s Communism Unmasked (Chicago, 1938); Louis W. Bondy, Racketeers of Hatred: Julius Streicher and the Jew-Baiters International (London: Newman Wolsey, 1946); Adolf Leschnitzer, The Magic Background of Modern Anti-Semitism (N.Y.: International Universities Press, 1956): 142-143; Stanley G. Payne, Fascism: Comparison and Definition (Madison: U.of Wisconsin Press, 1980): 7.  In his typology of social movements, Payne describes Nazi style and organization as “Emphasis on esthetic structure of meetings, symbols, and political choreography, stressing romantic and mystical aspects”; David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema 1933-1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983): 44-45; Ian Kershaw, The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986): 3, 147, 259-62; Martin Broszat, “A Plea for the Historicization of National Socialism,” Reworking the Past, ed. Peter Baldwin, op.cit., the (populist) Nazis [not Plato et al] invented the idea of the Big Lie! (84).

A somewhat differing impression of Nazi propaganda is carried in Leonard W. Doob, “Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda,” Public Opinion Quarterly, vol.14 (Fall 1950): 419-442.  Doob believes Goebbels defended the “truth” of his propaganda, but “credibility” was sought in the spirit of Machiavellian expediency, not morality.  But, according to Richard Crossman (British M.P.), this was (also?) the Allies’ position!  See his “Supplementary Essay” to Daniel Lerner, Sykewar (N.Y.: George Stewart, 1949): 334-335.  For Crossman, the “arch propagandist” Goebbels was sincerely deluded in his Big Lie (then described as necessarily duplicitous): “Where the Germans differed from us was not in their means, but in their ends.  The Nazis really believed that the Germans were a Herrenvolk, with the right to dominate the world; that democracy was an expression of decaying capitalism, and civil liberty a relic of a decadent bourgeois civilization; that the Soviet Union was simply a Mongolian despotism, and Communism a disease; that the Slavs were natural slaves and the Jews vermin, fit only for extirpation.  The real lie of which Goebbels was guilty was the attempt to conceal from the rest of Europe the implications of his Herrenvolk idea…. (334)  Earlier, he claimed that Nazis “took over and vastly refined Bolshevik techniques of mass persuasion (323).”  (Compare Hitler’s admiration in Mein Kampf of British war propaganda for its clarity regarding guilt and innocence; in the Crossman essay, he states that the same propaganda was solely dedicated to urging the Germans to overthrow the Kaiser and establish democracy.)

In Doob’s account, Goebbels himself did not evolve criteria for measuring the effectiveness of differing media, so tried everything to catch his fish.  As often happens, mind-managers have less confidence in their tactics than their critics.  But see Weinreich, “The Jew As A Demon” (Hitler’s Professors, 1946) for evidence of hypocrisy among Goebbels’ disciples.  In my essay, I make no further claim than the absence of Hitler’s bragging about manipulating the masses (against their interests) in either Mein Kampf or Table Talk.

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7 Comments »

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  2. [...] http://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/ Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Leave a Comment [...]

    Pingback by Index to blogs on hate speech « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 27, 2012 @ 7:39 pm | Reply

  3. [...] What could I possibly add to this discussion now, I wonder? In the past, I argued that cultural radicalism was not only wrong-headed, but a distraction from other questions that were not focused solely on sex and violence or political correctness.  I had insisted that the idea that words and images created reality for readers and viewers was in itself deeply ideological. But I did not dismiss the power of propaganda, but rather pointed out that popular explanations for the rise of Hitler among allies to the Roosevelt administration had blamed mass culture as the primary explanation for the bond of Hitler with the German people, thus discarding political errors, economics, and diplomacy. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/.) [...]

    Pingback by Censorship, bohemia, and the Big Sleep « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 31, 2012 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

  4. [...] position about how we fight, or, the rules of engagement in public space. (For a longer essay see http://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/, one of my first blogs, that will be of special interest to artists and writers.) During the rise [...]

    Pingback by Limbaugh v. Fluke « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 5, 2012 @ 9:30 pm | Reply

  5. [...] citizens. Your tax dollars are paying for this charade, boys and girls. (For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/.) Leave a [...]

    Pingback by Foucault Follies Redux « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 15, 2010 @ 8:18 pm | Reply


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