Discussing Expressionism – Ernst Bloch

What material does Lukacs . . . use to expound his view of the Expressionists? He takes prefaces or postscripts to anthologies, ‘introductions 1 . . . newspaper articles . . . and other items of the same sort. So he does not get to the core of the matter, the imaginative works which make a. concrete impression in time and space, a reality which the observer may re-experience for himself. His material is second-hand from the outset; it is literature on Expressionism, which he then proceeds to use as a basis for literary, theoretical and critical judgements. No doubt Lukacs’s purpose is to explore ‘the social base of the movement and the ideological premisses arising from that base’. But it thereby suffers from the methodological limitation that it produces only a concept of concepts, an essay on essays and even lesser pieces. […]

[…] none of this even touches the actual creative works of Expressionism, which alone are of interest to us. […] there is surely no need to labour the point that in the emotional outbursts of the art of the period, with their semi-archaic, semi-utopian hypostases, which remain today as enigmatic as they were then, there is to be found far more than the ‘USPD ideology’ to which Lukacs would like to reduce Expressionism. No doubt these emotional outbursts were even more dubious than enigmatic when they had no object outside themselves. But to describe them as the expression of ‘the forlorn perplexity of the petty-bourgeois 1 is scarcely adequate. Their substance was different; it was composed partly of archaic images, but partly too of revolutionary fantasies which were critical and often quite specific. Anyone who had ears to hear could hardly have missed the revolutionary element their cries contained, even if i t was undisciplined and uncontrolled, and ‘dissipated’ a considerable amount of the ‘classical heritage’ – or what was then more accurately ‘classical lumber 1 . Permanent Neo-, or the conviction that anything produced since Homer and Goethe is not worth considering unless it is produced in their image or as an abstraction from them, is no vantage-point from which to keep one’s eye on the last avant-garde movement but one, or to pass judgement on it.

Given such an attitude, what recent artistic experiments can possibly avoid being censured? They must all be summarily condemned as aspects of the decay of capitalism – not just in part, which might not be unreasonable, but wholesale, one hundred per cent. The result is that there can be no such thing as an avant-garde within late capitalist society; anticipatory movements in the superstructure are disqualified from possessing any truth. That is the logic of an approach which paints everything in black and white – one hardly likely to do justice to reality, indeed even to answer the needs of propaganda. Almost all forms of opposition to the ruling class which are not communist from the outset are lumped together with the ruling class itself. This holds good even when, as Lukacs illogically concedes in the case of Expressionism, the opposition was subjectively well-intentioned and its adherents felt, painted and wrote as adversaries of the Fascism that was to come. In the age of the Popular Front, to cling to such a black-and-white approach seems less appropriate than ever; it is mechanical, not dialectical. All these recriminations and condemnations have their source in the idea that ever since the philosophical line that descends from Hegel through Feuerbach to Marx came to an end, the bourgeoisie has nothing more to teach us, except in technology and perhaps the natural sciences; everything else is at best of ‘sociological’ interest. It is this conception which convicts such a singular and unprecedented phenomenon as Expressionism of being pseudo-revolutionary from the very beginning. It allows, indeed forces, the Expressionists to figure as forerunners of the Nazis. […]

[…] This is not the occasion for a detailed discussion of an issue so crucial that only the most thorough analysis can do it justice: for it involves all the problems of the dialectical-materialist theory of reflection (Abbildlehre). I will make only one point. Lukacs’s thought takes for granted a closed and integrated reality that does indeed exclude the subjectivity of idealism, but not the seamless ‘totality’ which has always thriven best in idealist systems, including those of classical German philosophy. Whether such a totality in fact constitutes reality, is open to question. If it does, then Expressionist experiments with disruptive and interpolative techniques are but an empty jeu d ‘esprit, as are the more recent experiments with montage and other devices of discontinuity. But what if Lukacs’s reality – a coherent, infinitely mediated totality – is not so objective after all? What if his conception of reality has failed to liberate itself completely from Classical systems? What if authentic reality is also discontinuity? Since Lukacs operates with a closed, objectivistic conception of reality, when he comes to examine Expressionism he resolutely rejects any attempt on the part of artists to shatter any image of the world, even that of capitalism. Any art which strives to exploit the real fissures in surface inter-relations and to discover the new in their crevices, appears in his eyes merely as a wilful act of . He thereby equates experiment in demolition with a condition of decadence.

At this point, even his ingenuity finally flags. It is undoubtedly the case that the Expressionists utilized, and even exacerbated, the decadence of late bourgeois civilization. Lukacs resents their ‘collusion in the ideological decay of the imperialist bourgeoisie, without offering either criticism or resistance, acting indeed on occasion as its vanguard’. But in the first place there is very little truth in the crude idea of ‘collusion’; Lukacs himself acknowledges that Expressionism ‘was ideologically a not insignificant component of the anti-war movement’. Secondly, so far as ‘collusion’ in an active sense goes, the actual furtherance of cultural decline, one must ask: are there not dialectical links between growth and decay? Are confusion, immaturity and incomprehensibility always and in every case to be categorized as bourgeois decadence? Might they not equally – in contrast with this simplistic and surely unrevolutionary view -be part of the transition from the old world to the new? Or at least be part of the struggle leading to that transition? This is an issue which can only be resolved by concrete examination of the works themselves; it cannot be settled by omniscient parti-pris judgements. So the Expressionists were the ‘vanguard’ of decadence. Should they instead have aspired to play doctor at the sick-bed of capitalism? Should they have tried to plaster over the surface of reality, in the spirit, say, of the Neo-classicists or the representatives of Neo-objectivity [Neue Sachlichkeit], instead of persisting in their efforts of demolition? […]

[…] No-one maintains that Expressionism should be taken as a model or regarded as a ‘precursor’. But neither is there any justification for refurbishing interest in Neo- by renewing outmoded battles with an Expressionism long since devalued. Even if an artistic movement is not a ‘precursor’ of anything, it may for that very reason seem closer to young artists than [a third-hand which calls itself ‘socialist realism’ and is administered as such. Superimposed on the architecture, painting and writing of the Revolution, it is stifling them.] […]

[…] There is surely no denying that formalism was the least of the defects of Expressionist art (which must not be confused with Cubism). On the contrary, it suffered far more from a neglect of form, from a plethora of expressions crudely, wildly or chaotically ejaculated; its stigma was amorphousness. It more than made up for this, however, by its closeness to the people, its use of folklore. [. . .] It is enough, of course, that fake art [kitsch] is itself popular, in the bad sense. The countryman in the 19th century exchanged his painted wardrobe for a factory-made display cabinet, his old, brightly-painted glass for a coloured print and thought himself at the height of fashion. But it is unlikely that anyone will be misled into confusing these poisoned fruits of capitalism with genuine expressions of the people; they can be shown to have flowered in a very different soil, one with which they will disappear.

Neo- is, however, by no means such a sure antidote to kitsch; nor does it contain an authentically popular element. It is itself much too ‘highbrow’ and the pedestal on which it stands renders it far too artificial. By contrast, as we have already noted, the Expressionists really did go back to popular art, loved and respected folklore – indeed, so far as painting was concerned, were the first to discover it. [. . . ] The heritage of Expressionism has not yet ceased to exist, because we have not yet even started to consider it.

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