© 2022 All rights reserved.

does art make a difference or doesn’t it?

About the Dialectics of Art and Society in Times of Globalization

Montemor, September 2012

Ludo Abicht

In one of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-fascist plays, a worker is called up to testify at a trial. When asked to take an oath on the Bible, he refuses:

“Are you a Catholic?” the surprised judge asks him.


“A Protestant then?”


“Perhaps a Jew, a Muslim or a Buddhist?”


“What on earth are you then?”

“I am Unemployed.”

Let us imagine an artist, confronted with similar questions: are you a Modernist, a Postmodernist, a Minimalist, a Conceptualist or a Traditionalist, to name just of few of the long list of possible qualifications and/or labels? Just as religion or the rejection of it and the artistic form are important indeed for the individual worker and artist, the answer transcends all of these divisions, as it opens up a social and political dimension: we live in a world in which it might be true that “man does not just live on bread”, but without this bread he would not live at all. For the worker, and that was of course the historical context of Brecht’s play, the answer is, as Brecht put it, “rather simple, but very difficult to achieve”: together with his fellow workers he should organize and replace a system that generates unemployment and misery in the service of private profit and greed by a social and political system in which, I quote, “the full development of each human being is the precondition for the full development of society” (Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto). In other words, a system in which all citizens would be associates (socius) instead of bosses and servants, “socialism” in the original sense of the term. For Marx and Engels, this entailed a redistribution of both the means and the products of production which should be held in common (communis) by all of us, hence the term “communism” also in its most original and uncontaminated sense.

Today, most people in our industrialized world, and that includes conservatives as well as progressives, would agree with the demand for a more balanced distribution of the fruits of labor, but only a minority remains convinced that this will not be possible on a global scale without a fundamental change of the entire system. The bad news is that several states and regimes that called themselves socialist did, in the recent past, attempt to install such an alternative system or at least claimed that they did and failed rather miserably. Miserably, not because they were defeated by the outside forces of Capitalism which, not surprisingly, did everything they could to destroy them, but because their own populations rejected them and they lost all credibility. The good news, however is, that we may be able to learn from their mistakes and start afresh, both in theory and practice.

In order to understand this, and to locate the place art can and should play in this quest toward a more just society, we have to go back in history and retrace what I would call the slowly unfolding story of democracy, a development that is so fragile that it can be halted or reversed at any time, e. g. when one of the components of democracy is neglected, just as it happened in the socialist states where political democracy, including the freedom of thought and expression, was wrongly considered to be “bourgeois” and hence dispensable.

At school we were taught that democracy started in the ancient Greek city states, especially in Athens, but most of our teachers did not know or ignored the simple fact that we were talking about the social equality and political responsibility of a tiny fragment of society, composed entirely of wealthy or influential male citizens, surrounded and indeed served by a vast majority of women and slaves. In other schools, run by the Christian churches, we were told that the brotherly and sisterly love was the main contribution of the message of Christ, but until the end of feudalism in the fifteenth and sixteenth century the ruling Christian religious and secular leaders accepted the coexistence of Christianity with slavery, serfdom and the subjugation of women as natural and in fact God-given. Later on they defended the violent and murderous colonial conquest of most of the non-white world and, in the twentieth century, even such inhuman regimes as Hitler’s National-Socialism and the fascist regimes of Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, Horthy and, recently, Pinochet and other dictators.

All of this is common knowledge. Thus religion and the religious institutions could easily be rejected as sheer hypocrisy combined with popular ignorance, but for the fact that rebels and dissidents, utopian dreamers and religious heretics throughout the centuries used the incomplete example of both the Greek civilization and the Gospels to remind us of the promises humanity once gave itself.

These promises were elaborated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from John Locke to Diderot and Condorcet, and culminated in the first Universal Declaration of the Rights of Men in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789. The fact that we felt obliged to reiterate those rights in 1948, after the catastrophes of World War II, the Holocaust and the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a sad reminder of the fragility of freedom and democracy I was talking about.

From Athens in the fifth century b.c.e., Galilee in the first century, the revolt of the German peasants in the sixteenth century, the Glorious English Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution with its wonderful and powerful Declaration of Independence in 1776, the siege of the Bastille in 1789 and the various revolutions and anti-colonial struggles in the twentieth century we have come to the conclusion that political democracy with its defense of the freedom of thought and expression and its protection of the rights of the individual is incomplete without economic democracy, the right of every human being to an adequate education and a decent income. Meanwhile the failures of the regimes that tried to implement this economic democracy while neglecting the political and intellectual freedom of their citizens have demonstrated that we have still a long way to go.

Political and social scientists, economists, sociologists, social philosophers and activists have in the course of the centuries adequately expanded and deepened our understanding of these issues, so that we are able to analyze the present condition of the world. We know that capitalist globalization is a logical outcome of the search for the maximization of profit through the accumulation of the highest amount of surplus value as possible. Thus, instead of morally blaming the “evil owners and managers of transnational capital” we understand, without accepting it, that the present system has not much of a choice but to globalize, as it was forced by its own internal dynamics to conquer and colonize the Third World in order to survive. We also learned from history that those who possess power and wealth are not about to give up their privileges willingly, so that in fact most gains in democracy and welfare were due to pressure from below or at least to the fear of social unrest that might easily take much more away than the privileged are ready to share. The problem is that we are gradually reaching the limits of the existing economic system, which will no longer be able to guarantee the basic income, health care and education the people need. Just think of the tension between ecological preservation and economic growth, of the appalling fact that more and more people may well become unemployed, that is to say no longer needed in pure economic terms and, as a result, of the increasing skepticism regarding their own future and that of their children and grandchildren.

This disillusionment explains partly the return of the irrational, as exemplified by the growth of fundamentalism inside and outside of the established religions, of search for wellness, magical shortcuts to happiness and the impatience with political leaders who cannot deliver the goods they so solemnly promised the citizens. But without the confidence, the trust and the active cooperation of the ordinary people no democracy stands a chance. As a result, the democratic crises of the twentieth century, after the inhabitants of the Berghof had fled the sterile and in fact lethal security of the Magic Mountain in order to experience the exciting adventure of the World War that lasted from 1914 until 1945, as Eric Hobsbawm proved, and that in fact has never totally stopped, those crises might turn out to be a general rehearsal for even worse calamities. Sure, we still have the energy to feel indignant and the strength to express this indignation, as the recent upheavals from Greece and Washington to many Arab states have shown, but we need something akin to a “long and enduring anger” that will enable us to effectively resist the ongoing trend.

Here is the pivotal place where art and artists may play a crucial role.

Art not as a defense and illustration of the religious, political or economic powers-that-be: art has always been used to reinforce and celebrate these powers, from the pyramids and temples to the palaces and cathedrals and the high rise towers of today’s corporations. Pharaohs and popes, party leaders and presidents, you name it, all of them correctly understood the use they could make of art to enhance their power and position. It is impossible to deny the apologetic, subservient role art has played in nearly all cultures and is still playing today. However, when we try to reduce art to its economic or even fiscal value we miss the point: yes, we know that art can be and often is treated as a mere commodity, something you try to buy as cheaply as possible in order to sell it at the highest possible price, and we are familiar with remarkable expressions such as “the art business”, but even when the acquisition is not economically wise, people in power have been known to go ahead, just think of Randolph Hearst, the model for the movie Citizen Kane, and his legendary castle in San Simeon, California. He might be exemplary, but he surely is not the only establishment figure in history who tried to enhance his social position through the possession of art objects. On the other hand, the Marxist cultural philosopher Fredric Jameson warns us, not to reject the art of Michelangelo because it was used to glorify the ambitions of a corrupt pope, or to frown at the plays of Molière, because he basically served the interests of the waning so-called noblesse d’ epée the old nobility in its struggle against the upcoming new class of the bourgeois and the noblesse de robe. Jameson claims, on the contrary, that great art, even though it was inevitably sponsored and to a large extent controlled by the ruling classes, always contained a utopian kernel, a kind of preview, what Ernst Bloch called a Vorschein, of a different and better society. Since utopia and utopian have been getting a bad press ever since the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the advent of postmodern theory, it may be useful to remind ourselves of the crucial distinction between abstract and concrete utopia. Abstract utopia is the escapist illusion of a better life and world, for instance the existence of a Nowhere land, a non-place (ou-topos), where people would always be young, beautiful, healthy, happy and friendly, the kind of dream of ancient Golden Islands of the Greeks or, in the bible, the Garden of Eden. For those of you who like contemporary examples, try the initial concept of the Club Méditerranée, a place of leisure, physical beauty and gourmet food, of course only available if you are willing to pay the price. There exists an entire library of utopian texts, ever since the ancient Greeks and Romans, even though the specific name of Utopia is due to the story of Thomas Morus, who actually wanted to criticize his own society by describing a world turned upside down. Clever rulers allowed their subjects to dream on of a better life, mostly in heaven, but some of them even encouraged their subjects to enact their phantasies in carnival celebrations, where ordinary people were granted the illusion to be kings and queens for a day or two, until harsh reality was once again imposed upon them. The opposite of abstract utopia is the concrete utopia Bloch and Jameson are talking about, that is a view of a new and better society that could indeed be realized. Let us turn once again to a text by Bertolt Brecht, The Tailor of Ulm. In this poem an ambitious yet somewhat crazy tailor of the medieval city of Ulm in Southern Germany dreams of flying like the birds and decides to sew large wings, climb to the pinnacle of the cathedral tower, at that time the highest in Germany, and fly. In the name of faith the bishop of Ulm condemns his behavior, as God wanted the fish to swim, the other animals to run, slither and creep and human beings to walk. He also predicted that the poor idiot would fall to his death. In the last stanza of the poem the tailor jumps and crashes on the pavement, whereupon the bishop comments with satisfaction: “see, I was right. Men shall never fly.”. End of the poem, but meanwhile we know that the bishop was fundamentally wrong. We have learned how to fly, women have gained access to higher education and political office, gay people are slowly realizing their utopian dram of total acceptance as equal citizens and, yes, we have been able to conceive and even establish an advanced form of social security in a significant number of countries across the world.

All of these dreams were for the longest time considered to be abstract utopias that would never be realized. One more example from South Africa: when Nelson Mandela was liberated and became the first black president of the country, many of his followers urged him to finally take revenge upon the white supremacists and racists of the Apartheid regime. He countered their understandable thirst for retribution by referring to the African utopian concept of Ubuntu, that can be summarized as “as long as one person is unjustly imprisoned, nobody is really free and if we stoop to the level of our former bosses and torturers, we’ll become like them.” We know that this concrete utopian dream was partially realized through Bishop Tutu’s unprecedented and still astounding Commissions on Truth and Reconciliation, something almost nobody could have predicted a few years before. It is this kind of promesse de bonheur that Frederic Jameson discovers in all great works of art. It is not enough to depict reality as brutal as it in fact can be (realism and naturalism) if we are not able to provide a glance of an alternative.

The opposite of art as a means to glorify and reinforce th established powers is art as revolutionary propaganda. During the heydays of the Russian Revolution of 1917 many artists considered it their political and proletarian duty to produce works of art as AgitProp, in other words as a means of Agitation ad Propaganda. While their intentions were good and while some of them did produce genuine works of art, think of Majakowski and Malevich, most of their productions were not artistically convincing. That did not bother Lenin or, in a later period, Mao-Tse-Tung or the leaders of the German Democratic Republic, but it was fiercely condemned by Trotsky, who was at that time still a potential heir to Lenin. In a number of polemical articles he argued that there was no such a thing as bourgeois or proletarian culture (ProletKullt), but good and bad art. In that sense he developed affinities with the Dadaists in Zürich, and later on with the Surrealists around André Breton. The quality of the art itself would have a progressive, at times even revolutionary effect. The problem with art as propaganda is exactly that: it takes on the function and artistic level of propaganda and/or advertising and quickly loses its intended purpose. Ask any teenager at a beach wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, with or without the inscription “Hasta la victoria siempre!.” Or just pick out the word revolutionary in ads for anything from kitchen utensils to push-up bras, you’ll soon discover that it only means new, improved or daring, separated from any social or political context. Art as propaganda is in the first place propaganda, an instrument designed to propagate certain opinions or ideological beliefs.

A third and much more insidious way to define art was created at the end of the nineteenth century, after the European elites had discarded traditional religion as an intellectual error, an opiate for people in need of consolation, a means of sexual terror and control (see Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality) or, at best, an infantile disease, as Freud called it. They had replaced religion by such new absolute, almost sacred values as the Nation, later even the Race, the idealized Romantic Past and, more than anything else, Science. Hence the explicit use of the term Positivism, a knowledge guided by Reason that was discovering the eternal laws of nature in the hard sciences (the adjective is not a coincidence). The first to challenge this new faith were the artists. They did not believe that science would or even could solve all our individual and collective problems. They sensed the danger of a world ruled by mere science ad technology, guided by an insatiable longing for progress at the cost of anything else. After all, those were the halcyon days of modern colonialism and spectacular industrialization of the so-called mother countries. As the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal put it in a poem entitled The Ballad of External Life we had discovered the emptiness of religion, the vanity of material wealth and even the contradictions of supposedly reliable science. The only reality that remained was the beauty of a word, a sound or a shape. In his final work, the Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke, probably the most influential German and European poet of the turn of the century, had expressed similar insights. That was the atmosphere in which the audacious theory of Art for art’s sake would be elaborated. In a way, this was a misnomer, for here art replaced all other absolute values, as it was the last and only refuge of a world that had grown tired of its own hectic pace and that was about to destroy itself in the terrible wars, crimes against humanity and mass destructions of the twentieth century. When we realize how genuinely tragic Ancient Greek life under the total domination of the unpredictable and indifferent Moira was and how they too sought refuge in a perfect form of art we may be able to better understand the attraction of this new movement for the creative people of what we now call the pre-WW I generation.

Remarkably, this belief in the strength of authentic art survived the catastrophe of the world war, as witnessed by among others the founding of the Weimar Bauhaus. In order to secure lasting peace and democratic institutions it was of the utmost importance to provide people, especially ordinary people, with an environment that was at once healthy, efficient, communal and aesthetically designed. These new communities would become the breeding ground for the open, free and socialist society of tomorrow. In hindsight, it looks as if only a handful of leftist visionaries and their fascist opponents truly grasped the real intentions of this new and daring Cathedral of Humanity, as the painter Lyonel Feininger called his painting, celebrating the spirit of the Bauhaus. The Nazis succeeded in chasing the Bauhaus from Weimar in conservative Saxony, so that they were forced to start over in Dessau in a more receptive environment. With the victory of the Nazis in 1933 the Bauhaus dream was shattered once again and the Movement itself lost its explicitly social and political (utopian) dimension, to the extent that design, the aesthetic dimension, could more or less merge with the Art Deco that had certainly not been conceived as a means to foster the revolutionary consciousness of the working class, to put it mildly. (Such a change of direction is not unique: think of the frugality of the original Shaker furniture compared to its contemporary value on the antiques market.). Instead of bemoaning the demise of the historical Bauhaus movement it might be useful to investigate the reasons why it failed as a synthesis of art and social engagement and, more importantly, if and under which circumstances this heritage can still be a source of inspiration in the twenty-first century.

But what about art as mere decoration? In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle describes the perfect gentleman as a wealthy man with good taste “who surrounds himself with beautiful and useless objects”. It sounds like the dream of the successful executive who doesn’t need to prove himself anymore to anybody, but takes his comfortable position in life for granted and is willing to spend some of his surplus money on nice objects, a well chosen collection of music recordings and the occasional evening at the opera or the theatre just because he enjoys it. It is all too easy to dismiss this attitude as superficial, since it betrays some enduring human craving for beauty beyond the bare necessities of life. During the Balkan wars a number of my theater students at the Antwerp academy wanted to do something concrete for the poor refugees. They collected blankets and foodstuff and drove in a truck filled with all these useful things to the various camps in former Yugoslavia. Of course the refugees appreciated their help, but when they talked about returning a few weeks later, the women told them that they really “needed” lipstick, perfume and other beauty products that were sadly lacking in the refugee camps. I started out by claiming that people need bread in the first place, but it might be time to acknowledge that bread alone is simply not enough to provide for a decent human life. In this sense we should agree that “decoration” is maybe not as ludicrous or superfluous as it sounds.

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno would of course disagree. According to him, today’s reality is so negative and inhuman, so unjust and cruel, that only a negative philosophy and an art form that exposes this ugly reality is acceptable. Those artists who insisted upon painting the world in pink were simply collaborating with the powers that exploited and subjugated the people, somewhat the same as the way the American TV audience was given a rosy picture of the horrible McCarthy period in the serial Happy Days, or like the scene in the musical The Fantasticks, when the tourists land in India and are issued rose-colored glasses so that they would not see the starving and dying people on the streets: “Oh look, all these people! I just love people. Hello!”. Adorno and his fellow philosophers at the so-called Frankfurter Schule, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, accepted the common division between High and Popular Culture and resolutely opted for modernist high culture such as the Atonal Music of the Vienna School (Schoenberg, Berg, Eisler etc.) as the proper form to save art and culture from commercialization and what they called “instrumentalization.” In that sense, they stood much closer to their political opponent Martin Heidegger than they would care to admit. For Heidegger, art had to “reveal” (offenbaren) what he called “the inner truth of being”. this is neither the time nor the place to delve into his existentialist “fundamental Ontology”, however intriguing this may be, but to show that the defense of High Culture as a last rampart of resistance against the ongoing massification was shared by philosophers of various political shades. As a result of my own education and indoctrination from the late nineteen fifties until the early seventies I shared these opinions and was in fact appalled by the lighthearted way the postmodernist thinkers and artists embraced the pop culture and the “kitsch” (camp) from Las Vegas to your local Hot Dog stand. Only lately I began to realize that this defense of High Culture once again widened the gap between ordinary people and the elite.

Does this mean that we have to abandon experimental art and return to art as entertainment? Or that we simply stop pretending that we are on the side of the people, so that from now on we can concentrate on what we really want to do? Already in the fourteenth century, the Franciscan monk and philosopher William Occam was confronted with this gap between, on the one hand, Reason and Science and, on the other hand, Faith and Belief. He cleverly built a firewall between these two competing components of his personality: in his office he was a pure scientist, but in church he was a true believer. We know that his solution did not hold for very long and that the struggle between Reason and Faith was vigorously resumed during the Renaissance and especially the Enlightenment.

Similarly, regarding the role of contemporary art, we cannot defend the solution of Occam, that is to say that we make a sharp distinction between our experimental art and our leftist commitment. It does not work that way,

Neither can we return to the so-called Bitterfelder Weg (1959 – 1964) in the German Democratic Republic, in which authors and artists volunteered to work in the factories in order to gain a real life experience of proletarian work, while workers were encouraged to attend literary and artistic workshops and were encouraged to attend classical opera performances (High Culture), another example of a well intentioned educational program to elevate the workers to the level of the intellectuals, as neither side was ready for this exchange.

When we call the theory and practice of today’s advanced art with its ongoing search for new insights and forms of expression a thesis, and the attempt to educate ordinary people to become art lovers and creators the antithesis, then the question remains, how a possible synthesis between those two could look like. It is not sufficient to tackle the globalization and the current social crisis at the Festivals of Avignon or at Alcantara, if we keep performing for the same “enlightened” audiences. It is not sufficient to invite a Marxist professor to talk about the Dialectics of Contemporary Art and Society – imagine such a topic at the counter of any regular bar in almost any city – if you haven’t figured out how to link both groups in a common movement. During the Apartheid regime in South Africa, some concert halls performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with only whites in the audience listening to the Hymn of Human Brotherhood. Nowadays, it happens that theatres stage Lessing’s wonderful play Nathan der Weise, in which Christian Crusaders, Muslim rulers and a Jewish scholar talk to one another and even become friends, but the audience consists almost exclusively of well meaning Christians or Secular Humanists.

Since we are good at experimentation and creativity, we ought to continue our search for new ways to bring all these groups together, as we’ll have to deal with them in a common struggle. The beauty of a genuine synthesis is the preservation of the most valuable cores of both the thesis and the antithesis. The German term “aufheben” contains this ambiguity, as it both means “to dissolve” and “to conserve.” In our case it indicates that we are never to give up artistic quality, not for approval by the king or the party secretary, not for commercial gain and not even for some noble political goal. At the same time it tells us that artists have the delicate task to keep the concrete utopian perspective open, even and especially in a period of history in which almost everything else, from politics and science to education, water, entertainment, leisure, health and ideology seems to be for sale. For this is the ultimate logic of the ruling system. Maybe this is what we should bear in mind when we talk about “artistic freedom”: not just freedom for the individual artist or the artistic company, but for roughly seven billion human beings?