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Art with an Agenda
Politics, Persuasion, Illustration and Decoration

April 10, 2001 to June 16, 2001

Modernism, though sometimes studied from a strictly formalist perspective, encompassed a wide range of political, commercial, literary and utilitarian agendas. During the first decades of the twentieth century, avant-garde artists, fired up with utopian idealism, sought to rescue the masses from drudgery and bad taste by investing art and artifacts with revolutionary purpose. Not all these artists were specifically political, but almost all the early modernists felt that art served some higher, transformative goal, be it spiritual, personal or social. Europe at the time was in a state of upheaval. Industrialization had overturned the socio-economic structure of the entire continent, undermining the aristocratic order and empowering the working class in ways that could be perceived as either frightening or exciting, depending on one's own class allegiances. Technology, too, was frightening to some, but many others were invigorated by the prospect of a "brave new world." At the outset modernity entailed a push--pull between danger and promise, and this dualism was in turn reflected in the art of the period.

Whether they fled civilization's demoralizing advance, as did Paul Gauguin, or welcomed the apparently imminent demise of a stultifying regime, as did the Italian Futurists, forward-thinking artists were united in their rejection of the status quo and their quest for a more vital alternative. Expressionists, Cubists and their slightly younger cousins, the Surrealists, all shared a distaste for the artificial and a reverence for the authentic, which they manifested through a repudiation of the academy and bourgeois culture. These artists rent asunder, once and for all, nineteenth-century standards of taste and approved subject matter, substituting for them a very personal vocabulary of form and color. The political significance of this transformation should not be underestimated, for the old styles were associated with the old regime, just as the new ones presaged a hoped-for new age of individual freedom. The scandals provoked by modern art in the first decades of the twentieth century--which would reach their climax with the Nazi attacks on "degenerate" art--are indicative of the tangible threat that conventional society perceived in such work.

The socio-economic ramifications of modernity were addressed most directly within the field of the applied arts, which naturally was also most immediately affected by industrialization. Here art and social issues were overtly fused. In the mid-nineteenth century, proponents of the British Arts and Crafts revival, curiously melding progressive and reactionary ideas, had sought to create a socialist workers' paradise by resurrecting the medieval workshop, which was held to foster community alongside craftsmanship. When the workshop principle was transplanted to Austria in the early twentieth century, however, the political agenda was largely jettisoned, while the artistic mandate was considerably expanded. Artists and artisans of the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), founded in 1903 by Josef Hoffmann (checklist nos. 31-34) and Koloman Moser (checklist nos. 61 and 62), joined forces in pursuit of the Gesamtkunstwerk--the total artwork--combining everything from architecture (checklist nos. 35, 37, 38, 73 and 74) and painting to fashion design (checklist nos. 57, 58, 80, 81 and 83). The Werkstätte's goal was to counter industrialization with handicraft, in the process elevating the taste of the masses and infusing all of life with aesthetic value. Far from espousing a socialist, much less a democratic doctrine, the Austrian avant garde favored what might best be described as a benevolent artistic dictatorship. Those with taste would rule by acclamation; artists would be supported by a cadre of like-minded patrons; and the cultural benefits would trickle down from the enlightened few to the many.

The idea of the "total artwork," coupled with the anti-elitist desire to level the “high” and “low” arts, fostered the belief that a true artist should be able to do everything. At the Wiener Werkstätte, artists designed utilitarian objects, creating some that were extraordinarily innovative and others that defied practical use or manufacture. Painters such as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka (checklist nos. 41-43) and Egon Schiele (checklist nos. 70-72) enthusiastically pitched in, contributing wall decor, postcards, posters and the like. Schiele and Kokoschka also dabbled in literature, as did Ernst Barlach (checklist no. 14), Max Beckmann (checklist no. 15), Wassily Kandinsky, Alfred Kubin (checklist nos. 53-55), Ludwig Meidner (checklist nos. 59 and 60) and other artists associated with the Expressionist movement. Many produced illustrations for writings by themselves and others, or cycles of interrelated images. Taking off from the exquisitely crafted periodicals of the Art-Nouveau period, the concept of the artist's publication assumed unprecedented dimensions. Portfolios containing original graphics reflected the new aesthetic importance accorded printmaking and also helped to disseminate and promote the work. Publications like the Blauer Reiter Almanac and the Futurist Manifesto served as artistic polemics in which form and content were integrally connected.

Most members of the early twentieth-century avant garde initially welcomed the First World War, perceiving it as a cleansing action that would at last sweep away the remnants of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture. In a sense, the war accomplished this goal, helping to topple aristocratic regimes in Russia, Germany and Austria. And while progressive artists ultimately recoiled from the carnage wrought by the global conflict, they heralded the role of art in contributing to the social transformation now at hand. Particularly in countries that had been touched by revolution, the avant garde felt compelled to side with the masses. Even in remote America, Stuart Davis could characterize his artist colleagues as exploited laborers who had more in common with the working class than they did with their bourgeois patrons. Figures as diverse as the French Surrealist André Breton and the Russian Communist Leon Trotsky believed that socialism would free the artist from the hostile commercial forces that hampered creative expression under capitalism. Artists were seen--and saw themselves--as the natural allies of revolution.

The revolutionary artists who came of age in the period between the two world wars were quick to recognize that technology was a logical adjunct to their efforts. Its dehumanizing downside momentarily forgotten, technology was hailed as the handmaiden of progress, guarantor of a better life for all. Embraced as an artistic tool, technology provided a perfect way to reach the masses by permitting the production of vast quantities of imagery at low cost. Furthermore, mechanical reproduction effaced the touch of the artist's hand, which carried the taint of bourgeois preciousness. Painting was, for the moment, "out." Photomontage--as practiced by John Heartfield (checklist nos. 27-30) and others in Germany, and by Constructivists like Gustav Klutsis in Russia (checklist nos. 39 and 40)--struck just the right note: cool, mechanistic and exuding a sense of newness.

Artists renounced the cult of individualism that had frequently characterized the earlier avant garde, while retaining such stylistic innovations as the use of abstract form and expressive color. The German artist Gerd Arntz created a complex vocabulary of symbolic shapes in order to strip his social commentaries of personal associations (checklist nos. 5-13). Seeking to outrage the bourgeoisie, Dadaists and Surrealists joyously cribbed from "low" culture, appropriating an intentionally irritating hodgepodge of commercial type and symbols. Constructivists, working under the collectivist mantle of the new Soviet state, refined these chaotic experiments into a coherent formal language that combined clean typography, bright, attention-getting color and elemental abstraction.

These aesthetic innovations were predicated on the notion that new times demanded new forms of expression. Linear perspective, it was said, reinforced the oppressive logic of capitalism. Realism implied a passive acceptance of the status quo, whereas the disjointed design found in photomontage assumed a reordering of reality. However, as it turned out, the masses were slow to accept this new art that had been so lovingly developed for them. Just because the Dadaists mimicked commercial design did not make their work automatically accessible to a large public. People saw cynical self-promotion in an art that looked commercial but in fact was not selling anything except, perhaps, the artists themselves. Constructivist typography was hard to read, abstract imagery hard to comprehend. The public found these works confusing and even insulting.

As the revolution foundered in Germany and Stalinism took hold in the Soviet Union, artists reverted to a realist orientation. Trotsky had written that all representational art is essentially political: either affirming the existing order or critiquing it. German artists such as George Grosz and Käthe Kollwitz took the latter approach. Grosz used satire and caricature to raise awareness of the corruption endemic to the Weimar regime (checklists nos. 18-26), while Kollwitz, through her compassionate portrayals of the downtrodden (checklists nos. 45-52), hoped to provoke meaningful social reform. The Russians, who had once been allied with the German left-wing, now damned its art as too negative. The philosophy of Socialist Realism demanded uncritical praise of Soviet industry and agriculture. A virtually identical doctrine would be instituted in Nazi Germany, where all the advanced artists who had flourished during the Weimar era were banned.

Their temporary obliteration by the politics of Communism and fascism notwithstanding, avant-garde artists of the inter-war period ironically bequeathed a substantial legacy to commercial design. The public gradually grew accustomed to quirky typography and abstraction, which came to replace the what-you-see-is-what-you-get realism of prior advertisements. Rather than simply depicting merchandise, modern design imparted the aura of style and novelty that was necessary to distinguish products in the vast consumer marketplace. Letters were manipulated to convey ideas, color to evoke emotion (checklist nos. 16, 75 and 76). Abstract stylization transformed images into essential objects: the ur-auto, or -ship or -stick of gum. By compelling viewers to use their imaginations to complete and interpret such stylized representations, advertisers engaged customers in a participatory game that snagged their attention if not their loyalty. Thus the best-laid plans of socialist artists came to serve the great capitalist machine.

The unprecedented growth of consumer capitalism after World War II, plus the pressure of Cold-War politics, gave a peculiar spin to the art-world's agenda. In the 1950s, many intellectuals recoiled at the prospect of a mass culture, which they feared would annihilate all standards of taste and quality. Thus the belief developed that high culture could only survive if it was cocooned, kept in isolation from the corrupting hordes. This belief, which persists among some art critics to the present day, found its most cogent expression in the writings of Clement Greenberg, who decreed that art should disdain all social ties and strive for the purity exemplified by abstraction. "Content," he wrote, "is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art . . . cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself."

As against the moralistic totalitarianism of Socialist Realism, Greenberg et. al. offered an aesthetic totalitarianism of absolute abstraction. Although the American public in the 1950s largely disdained abstract art, the U.S. government was gradually won over by the art establishment, which championed the Abstract Expressionists as models of democratic freedom. Through a series of international exhibitions organized by the CIA’s front organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, and later by the State Department, Abstract Expressionism was in effect employed as propaganda to counter the rigidity of Soviet cultural doctrine. Ignoring the messy and mixed agendas of early modernism, Cold-War era critics traced a pristine formalist trajectory from Europe to the United States and anointed America's abstract artists as the logical successors to the pre-war avant-garde. Homegrown modernism was promoted to establish the United States as an art-world superpower, a status deemed commensurate with the nation's post-war economic and military might.

The political use that was made of Abstract Expressionism demonstrates that all art has an agenda--even, or perhaps most especially, when its defenders are loudly denying any such ulterior motive. That is to say, all art has a social context, which artists can choose to embrace or deny. The push--pull between engagement and distancing was in a sense hard-wired into the modernist mandate. While some artists wanted to remake the world, others retreated into the production of “art for art’s sake.” Indeed, these two goals were often intimately related, for many felt that in rejecting contact with a tainted world, art might yet offer redemption. Their socialist pretensions notwithstanding, few members of the early twentieth-century avant garde were authentic egalitarians. Clinging to their elitist status, artists expected that the masses would just naturally follow their example. If artists cannot escape the political implications of their work, neither do they always identify them correctly.

Modernism and the various ideologies that helped shape it are presently fading into history. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that, while things did not always turn out as hoped, many dire predictions proved inaccurate. “Consumer culture” is not a complete oxymoron. Certainly industrialization generated more than its share of kitsch, but it also succeeded in making a huge variety of tasteful products available to the masses at affordable prices. For better or for worse, culture has been truly democratized. People crowd our museums, buying Van Gogh bookmarks and Picasso mugs. By validating the work of such artists as Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell, contemporary critics recognize that originality and quality are not determined by or limited to elitist modes of creative expression. Several generations of artists have now been reared on film, television and comic books, and contemporary “high” art is infused with traditions derived from the “low.” While prejudice against representational art--particularly work with obvious illustrative or political content--lingers, the formalist dogma of Clement Greenberg and his colleagues has been largely discredited.

It remains to be seen how the anti-elitist thrust of contemporary culture will affect the art-world’s agenda. Like most situations, the present one has negative as well as positive aspects. On the one hand, the demise of any serious socialist alternative has encouraged the all-out pursuit of wealth by every segment of the art community. On the other hand, the democratizing of culture means that the art world must be genuinely responsive to the needs of the masses. Those who support the old elitist model of artistic patronage see only debasement in the resulting “blockbuster” mentality. However, as neither artists nor museum directors any longer hold themselves aloof from the general public, it is to be hoped that the art-world's future agenda will be not merely to make money, but to address, boldly and passionately, the human concerns that lie at the heart of all great art.

We would like to covey our warmest thanks to Merrill Berman, a pioneering collector of this material, for his generous loans. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for all other works.