Walter Benjamin, Fascist Art and Doubt

Why create art?  Walter Benjamin wrote that it is only when the artist politicizes his art that he solves this most fundamental problem of art-making.

The question unsettles the modern mind; it would have offended the Renaissance soul and the Enlightened heart.  Until the modern era of reproducible art making there was a objective reason to create art, one that had conventional sanction behind its very existence: art served a pedagogical purpose where the artist was called in to marshal the public herd into a cult of ritual.   Though there existed other reasons to create art, they were all internal reasons, objective reason supported only one of those reasons, that of mutual advantage commercial exchange for expression and public salvation.  The buyer-critic allowed the seller-artist to bid up the price of the work only to the point of the natural constraint: neither party to the transaction could leech off the other for fear of assignation to a circle of hell.

With the reproducibility of art the deal was broken; the aura of authenticity and truth was left in tatters.  Neither the artist nor the buyer needed any one particular piece of art to stand for something eternal, and neither needed the other inelastically.  The buyer no longer ruled over his ant hill; the artist could no longer say something true since the concept of truth was run through with doubt.  Nothing specific could stand for something general.  In the modern era, this move to specificity has meant that, in and out of principle, nothing can refer to anything else without some argument.  It is the argument that is doing the work.  It is the choice to import meaning into the work ex poste facto that makes a caption, or an inscription the thing that aestheticizes politics.  A certain drawing of a hooded man can stand for anything at all, including a miserly member of the KKK, as well as a victim of torture in Abu Ghraib.  To make that choice ex ante, is to politicizes the work, and, for Benjamin, a move that, finally, naturally sorts craftsmanship from blind, and therefore manipulable, creed.

For Benjamin, then, being a Marxist art is tantamount to creating art for a social purpose, one that forces the artist to make aesthetic choices that are consistent with his prior beliefs on social justice and the plight– and flight– of modern man.

I want to say that this is a purely pragmatic move by Benjamin.  He admits that all artists are unbound and that pure expressionism is a choice as much as any other aesthetic choice.  However, he argues that expressionism that is given only to itself can be coralled by a autocrat to fit the populist purposes that lie underneath the surface of the artist’s expressionism.  He is afraid that, like the Futurists Boccioni and Marinetti, supposing art qua art a superior expression of one’s life over all other concerns is a step removed from thinking that adherence to any other action that takes that expression seriously, a worthwhile pursuit.  Hence, if an autocrat were to seek to show war as pure experience and that experience could unchain the artist in fits of pure expression, then war could be thought of as beautiful.  As the Futurists thought, movement and material could be placed at the feet of the war machine; the world, cleansed of all other order, would begin anew and this pure expression, where art was thought itself, would, at the limit approach the Platonic Ideal.

For Walter Benjamin, Marxism and its foundational base of political economic equality of welfare would under cut all that.  Marxist art would keep Fascist art at bay.  Nevertheless, I think there remains some doubt whether choosing to politicize art in this manner serves to do something greater than to only short circuit a move toward Fascist art.  Walter Benjamin demonstrated how a drawing in signs does a different thing than a painting in marks; how the way in which we conceive of a work determines the manner of its consumption.  He intimated the ways in which painting and photography that dealt with the real problems and real spaces in which contemporary men lived their hard fought lives was superior to action art that fed the inner genius.  Nevertheless, once the artist settles upon his politicized art, he find himself one step removed from the fundamental problem: though he has an answer to the question, why create art, he is still undone by the question of how to create art?  This question cannot be answered by relying on some deterministic concept of politicized aesthetics.

In a forthcoming piece, I’ll examine the ways in which two of my favorite artists of the 19th Century, Jacques Louis David and Francisco Goya dealt with this problem.  In answering this question, I’ll reach back to the fundamental question of why create art in the first place.  I’ll want to say that there remains sufficient doubt that the artist can determine ways to create art that somehow follows from Benjamin’s politicized Marxist aesthetic.  Hence, I’ll find both sets of answers to the questions wanting.  I will say, however that one of the two artist’s seems to be more compelling as a creator of objects that even now, sometimes, haunts my uneasy nightmares.

~ by Faheem Haider on November 17, 2009.

4 Responses to “Walter Benjamin, Fascist Art and Doubt”

  1. […] More: https://blackandwhiteandthings.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/walter-benjamin-fascism-and-doubt/ About This Post Posted by Dave on Feb 25th, 2011 and filed under Art […]

  2. […] For Walter Benjamin, Marxism and its foundational base of political economic equality of welfare would under cut all that. Marxist art would keep Fascist art at bay. Nevertheless, I think there remains some doubt whether choosing to politicize art in this manner serves to do something greater than to only short circuit a move toward Fascist art. Walter Benjamin demonstrated how a drawing in signs does a different thing than a painting in marks; how the way in which we conceive of a work determines the manner of its consumption. He intimated the ways in which painting and photography that dealt with the real problems and real spaces in which contemporary men lived their hard fought lives was superior to action art that fed the inner genius. Nevertheless, once the artist settles upon his politicized art, he find himself one step removed from the fundamental problem: though he has an answer to the question, why create art, he is still undone by the question of how to create art? This question cannot be answered by relying on some deterministic concept of politicized aesthetics. Read More:https://blackandwhiteandthings.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/walter-benjamin-fascism-and-doubt/ […]

  3. […] where art was thought itself, would, at the limit approach the Platonic Ideal. Read More:https://blackandwhiteandthings.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/walter-benjamin-fascism-and-doubt/ —————————————— […]

  4. […] Read More:https://blackandwhiteandthings.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/walter-benjamin-fascism-and-doubt/ […]

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