Instead of a Biography

The art of today depends on the bourgeoisie and will die with it. The painter, even if unaware of it, is a cash factory, a machine for producing profit, who is used by wealthy exploiters and aesthetic jackasses so they may invest their money more or less profitably and be called, therefore, patrons of the arts. Art is, to many, a kind of flight away from this ‘vulgar’ world into a shining sphere where they may fantasize about a paradise free and clear of civil strife and factionalism.

The Voice of the People
George Grosz

The cult of individuality and personality, which promotes painters and poets only to promote itself, is really a business. The greater the ‘genius’ of the personage, the greater the profit, How can an artist reach such heights among the bourgeoisie? Through swindle. Most artists start out in proletarian circumstances, in shabby studios, yet have an amazing, if unconscious, adaptability when it comes to finding a way out. Before long the artist finds some influential bigwig to ‘sponsor’ him, which means: paving his way to the marketplace. Occasionally a patron comes along and gives him 100 marks a month in exchange for handling his entire artistic production; or he becomes the property of an art dealer whose job is to convince bourgeois collectors that they need these artworks. With an eye to what’s fashionable, the artist does exactly what the market demands – to that end, all the old props of sacred and divine fraud, as well as the cosmic and metaphysical ones, are paraded out, heralded by heavenly trumpets. Behind the scenes, one can spot the cynical manipulation of insiders. This contrasts with the outward show of cultural advancement. This is what’s called ‘the star system.’ It’s what the system demands, and what the business thrives on. The artists themselves, whether super sophisticated or still rough around the edges – artists whose exalted status arose from their discontent with the world – are mostly brainwashed, and fall in line behind the reactionary fraud called art criticism, a criticism that is utterly subjective and eclectic. They think themselves ‘creators’ who, at the very least, tower above the average philistine who laughs at the ‘deeper meanings’ in a painting by Picasso or Derain. Yet their ‘creations’ are entirely in accord with the so-called spirit of art: they are thoughtless, hostile to reality, and removed from struggle. Just go to art exhibits and see what radiates from the walls! The present is so idyllic, dreamlike, so ready to accommodate some sacred Gothic cult, or primitive beauty, or red circles, blue squares, any farcical inspiration: “Reality, argh! it’s ugly. The turmoil disturbs our inner equilibrium, it distracts the soul.”

Or look at those with more contemporary diseases – how tense they are, how afflicted with their own grandiose visions. We really need such a marasmus, don’t we … undigestible chunks of Gothic and ancient Greek, and don’t forget Egyptian! Just look at the great Grünewald, or Cezanne, so proud of his honors – or Henri Rousseau, that dear, old, ignorant customs official intoxicated with his own blessed innocence. Today all that seems so desolate, cold, empty. And the current revolution is so straitlaced, so mute and listless. The only struggle is the struggle for more money, but that’s neither real nor saintly. Men have utterly forgotten that they are ‘descended from God.’

It’s a mistake to think it necessary for a small circle of artists to paint cubes or a profoundly tangled mass, even if such painting is in opposition to Makart. Sure he’s a bourgeois painter. He paints bourgeois passions, values, bourgeois history. But what about you? What are you but a pathetic satellite of the bourgeoisie? Your snobbish ideas, your bizarre thoughts, where did you get them? Are you going to work for the proletariat, the bearer of the coming culture? Are you taking the trouble to experience and understand the ideas of the proletariat – to form, together with the exploited and oppressed, an opposition? Ask yourself if it isn’t time, finally, to be done with your precious awards. You pretend to be timeless, to stand above party and faction, you in your ivory tower. You claim to paint for the people. Where are the people!? What is your cultivated indifference, your abstract nonsense about timelessness, but ridiculous, sense- less speculation about eternity. Your brushes and pens, which should be weapons, are nothing but slips of straw.

George Grosz

Come out of your studios, even if it’s hard on you. Stop being individualistic and defensive. Give yourself over to the ideas of the proletariat. Help them in the struggle against this rotten society. ‘A human being is nothing, a beast.’ Actually, men have created a vicious system, one with a top and a bottom. A few earn millions while thousands upon thousands lack the bare necessities of life. In South America trains are powered by corn distillates while in Russia millions die of hunger. Yet we speak of culture and discuss art. But perhaps the well-set table, the handsome limousine, the stage and the furnished parlor, the library and the gallery, all that the rich screw manufacturer treats himself to at the expense of his slaves, perhaps, just perhaps, this is not really culture at all?

But what does all that have to do with art? Precisely this, that many painters and writers continue to tolerate this state of affairs without taking a clear stand against it. Today, when all this needs to be flushed away, they continue to stand aloof, cynical as ever – today, when there’s a need to lead the way in opposing all this pettiness, this cultural hypocrisy, this damned callousness.

Now the prevailing belief is in self-satisfying private initiative. The purpose of my work is to shake this belief, to show the oppressed the true face of their oppressor.

It is the duty of revolutionary artists to propagandize in two ways. To purge our worldview of the supernatural powers, of superstition: of God and angels. To open men’s eyes that they may see their actual relationship to their environment. The traditional symbols and mystical transports of the stupidest religious frauds still clutter today’s artworks. What should we do about this? The demands of life are too pressing to allow this painted nonsense to go on.

Ich Liebe Dich
George Grosz

Go to meetings of the proletariat. Sit and listen how the people, people like you, discuss how to make the smallest improvements in their lives. Understand, these are the masses working toward a world organization. No, you are not. But you can build this organization with them. You can help, if you have the desire to do so. In your artworks take the time, trouble yourself, to formulate the revolutionary concepts of the workers.

I’m trying to be understood by everyone. I renounce those profound depths which no one can ever get to without a diving-suit pumped full of cabalistic mumbo jumbo and academic metaphysics.

There has got to be an end to expressionistic anarchism. Today, painters indulge in it. Because being out of touch with the workers, they are ignorant. Yet the time is coming when artists will no longer be overblown bohemian anarchists but bright, healthy workers in a collectivist society. As long as the goal of the working masses still lies in the future, the intelligentsia will continue to waver this way and that, riddled with doubt and cynicism.

I write this instead of the expected, more popular biography. To me it seems more important to speak of my perceptions – and what are, I believe, valid judgments based on my experience – than to enumerate the stupid, superficial, accidental events of my life, such as birthday, family background, schooling, first pair of long pants, the artist’s travels from cradle to grave, creative impulses and inspirations, first success, etc. etc.

All that self promotion is utterly beside the point.

Translation copyright 1987 Paul Gorrell