Art as Obscenity

Kiefer, Man under a pyramid 1996

[Image: Anselm Kiefer, Man under a Pyramid, 1996]

Art as Obscenity

Frankfurt School philosopher T.W. Adorno’s notorious dictum about poetry no longer being possible after Auschwitz has been much puzzled over and/or misunderstood, especially within the Anglo-American cultural context.

This context is of course historically explicable. Anglo-Americans won the war. The losers tend to have a different perspective. For them, the victors, drunk with victory, tend to take longer to grow up. They lack seriousness. Even as they say how terrible war is, they continue to think that wars can solve issues. Even as they say they are peaceniks who hate war, they continue to encourage their children to wave flags, march, believe in war mythologies (e.g. Gallipoli) and idolize the military. Their war museums are hallowed shrines rather than democratic institutions of education about the masters that declare wars and the economic and imperial interests they usually serve.

Adorno was a German Jew. He felt a certain survivor guilt for having emigrated and not been sent to the death camps. In one lecture on metaphysics he gave at Frankfurt University in the sixties he even radicalised his after-Auschwitz question: he asked whether not only poetry but life itself was really possible after Auschwitz. He was also a musician-composer and had studied under Alban Berg in Vienna. He knew a lot about art. And about capitalism and its ugly offspring, fascism. In that same lecture he confessed that he often felt as if he were no longer the self of old but only the mouthpiece for those who had been murdered in the camps.

As a bilingual person who grew up in Australia but spent his twenties and thirties in his birthplace of Germany, I thoroughly sympathise with Adorno’s perspective on art. I continue to enjoy art and write poetry, but often with a concurrently re-surfacing ‘Adornite’ sense of unease, at times even dissonance. I now think this is a necessary contradiction or creative conflict I cannot individually solve but must live with. On the collective level, however, I continue to most unfashionably believe it could be solved by the abolition of a now globally lethal capitalism and imperialism and the building of a rational society based not on profit and power but on the direct-democratic determination of the common good.

Perhaps the simplest way of quickly understanding Adorno’s dictum may be by considering the official ‘role’ of art in Nazi concentration camps.

Nazi Concentration Camp Art

When new transports of victims arrived for liquidation at Auschwitz the camp band played the old German folk song of spring ‘All the Birds Have Already Come’ (‘Alle Vögelein sind schon da’).

I would like to repeat that sentence.

When new transports of victims arrived for liquidation at Auschwitz the camp band played the old German folk song of spring ‘All the Birds Have Already Come’ (‘Alle Vögelein sind schon da’).

Or, take the relation between the requiem genre and Adolf Eichmann.

After rehearsing Verdi’s Requiem, the choir of 150 prisoners at Theresienstadt concentration camp was twice sent to the gas chambers. In the end, the requiem was performed with only fifty singers. At the premiere of this sacred music, Adolf Eichmann was a guest of honour.

Mass murderers may certainly have artistic feelings too. We remember that Hitler was a failed artist. Often, they love high art for its sentimental value. In the welcome cultural breaks they take from torture and murder they can be reduced to tears. No doubt this is very therapeutic. Perhaps Hitler went straight from the Wannsee conference to one of his favourite Wagner performances to take his mind off touchy things like industrialised genocide.

According to the observations of musician Fania Fénelon, the Auschwitz camp commandant Josef Kramer always shed tears when the Auschwitz Girl Orchestra played Schumann’s ‘Träumerei’.

Sometimes even the relation between high art and outright torture is an intimate one:
if the SS so desired, rehearsals were public and merciless ‒ up to 20 hours a day, which resulted in a corresponding death rate, especially among the particularly stressed brass players. Sometimes hundreds of prisoners were ordered to hop through the camp like frogs to the tune of a waltz. In the Mauthausen concentration camp inmates were strapped to the notorious triangle and made to sing the chorale ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’ (‘O Head filled with blood and wounds’) as they were whipped by the guards.

Such unspeakable cynicism and evil are not restricted to Nazis. Strange as it may seem, even progressive, well-meaning artists can provide opportunities for high art obscenity.

Hiroshima Culture

In the early fifties German philosopher and social critic (and ex-husband of Hannah Arendt) Günther Anders wrote a seminal work on the qualitatively new stage of civilisation reached with the invention of the atom bomb and the advent of television (Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen: The Obsolescence of Man). One of the means of officially minimising the suicidal threat of nuclear weapons was by what he called ‘solemnisation’: i.e. making the terrible physical effects of the atomic bomb something solemn, grandiose, beautiful, sublime and thus providing aesthetic or even spiritual interest. The main means of this psycho-social strategy was ‘serious’ or ‘high’ art. In his opinion, the seriousness of so-called serious or high art could and should not be taken seriously when compared to the seriousness of life, death and mass annihilation.

As if to support this argument, in 1962 Alain Resnais’ art-house film ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ appeared to widespread acclaim, especially among the left-leaning artistic intelligentsia.

Anders commented as follows.

The collocation of those two words in the film’s title is already obscene (except for ears that, as Psalm 111 notes, cannot hear). Nevertheless, or perhaps for that very reason, i.e. because of the supposedly surrealistic effect of this collocation of words, this film in which the most beautiful, delicate and passionate naked bodies are presented against a backdrop of atomic ruins, gained worldwide acclamation that has still not subsided today. This acclamation has arisen not only among the unsubtle and vulgar – this is not so-called hard core pornography – but especially among those who like see themselves as members of the artistic avant-garde in America and Europe, an avant-garde which is morally so backward that it does not feel how cynical its aesthetic enthusiasm actually is.”

Then on the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing in 1985 Leonard Bernstein conducted his symphony ‘Kaddish’ in that city.

Anders commented as follows.

This playing down of the most terrible [in the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, PL-N] had only happened in effigie, as a film or TV image. Today we are of course well beyond that stage. Now the ceremonialisation of the horror will take place at the very place where it happened, in the famous city which was destroyed forty years ago. Its obliteration is to be obliterated again, as it were, the killing of hundreds of thousands to be itself killed. The seriousness of what really happened then and also the seriousness of what again really threatens us today, both are to be neutralised by their translation into ‘serious music’. There is nothing less serious than serious, high art. On the fortieth anniversary of the most famous, superfluous, murderous and idiotic event in recent history, at the illustrious place over which the illustrious first bomb exploded, an illustrious American orchestra under the illustrious baton of Leonard Bernstein will perform an illustrious symphony. It couldn’t get more illustrious than that.

This hellish place as a place for a concert, the historical hour of hell as an hour of ceremonious pleasure, to play violins and blow brass in honour of those who ran in fear of death or who no longer had the strength to run: that is obscenity.”

National Gallery Canberra

On a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art in Canberra I again noticed my fluctuating sense of alienation from mainstream Anglo-Australian culture, from my perspective often one dominated by a fearful keep-smiling, stay positive, don’t-make-waves, she’ll-be-right-mate attitude that quite often seems downright phobic about stronger emotions like grief or anger.

In one room an explanatory note on the wall maintained that the anti-art movement known as Dada (1916-1919) wished to ‘celebrate life’ vis-à-vis the horrors of the First World War. This is a quite astounding statement.

Dadaists certainly had no wish to either make ‘art’ or ‘celebrate life’. Dada’s core impulse was to reject ALL art because it was an obscenity in a world defined by the industrialised mass slaughter of modern war, imperialism, capitalism and conformity. Many of them defined themselves as social revolutionaries. What Auschwitz later was for Adorno, Verdun and the Somme had already been for the Dadaists: a threshold moment at which western civilisation and its purported values collapsed. High art, culture, were a core part of these values. To continue uncritically creating harmonious and affirmative works of art after this threshold breakdown was either naïve or collusive with state terror, war and barbarism. The Dadaists certainly had no wish to ‘celebrate’ or ‘affirm’ anything called ‘life’ because this life had broken down, literally and symbolically. The planned, industrialised destruction of life in the trenches or concentration camps cannot leave art untouched.

If it does leave art untouched, we end up with Verdi and Schumann in the concentration camps, Bernstein at Hiroshima, popular film ‘comedies’ about Auschwitz (e.g. ‘Life is Good’) that get an Oscar and purport to show the ‘triumph of the human spirit’. What next? ‘Auschwitz the Musical’, perhaps?

I think that is what Adorno meant by his provocative statement about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz. An artist like Samuel Beckett, not coincidentally one of Adorno’s most admired writers, understood the conundrum well, historically aware that art and poetry cannot simply proceed as if nothing had happened, nor can they proceed as if the planet’s and humanity’s future were not in grave jeopardy. On the other hand, however, they also cannot proceed with these overwhelming facts within their constant field of global and historical consciousness. Poetry, at least, is the art of the particular, intimate, private, the un-bounded imagination. That is its conundrum, and that of all historically conscious art today.

It is probably only within the tensions, ironies, ambiguities and paradoxes of these impossibilities that all truly contemporary art and poetry are made.

[Note: Much of the material for this essay is based on two articles in German: ‘Voll Blut und Wunden’ in Der Spiegel No. 47/1991, pp. 300-302, and Günther Anders, ‘Obszönität, in Die Zeit No. 32, 2 August 1985. All the translations from these articles are my own.]


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on February 5, 2014.

15 Responses to “Art as Obscenity”

  1. I certainly don’t want creativity bound up in pain. In remembrance always. On guard. I want it unbounded. I even prefer it accidentally. Away from prying eyes and informed critique. Fuck that. I feel like my heads been lassoed by shit and I can’t shake it loose and that’s bad enough. Music is becoming a distant thing for me. Over there somewhere and I can hardly see it. I’ve been drained by the nothingness of existence, I reckon. Placed here by some sadistic deity with a warped sense of humour or I’m just an accident, wondering why nothing wasn’t preferred over something.

    No, music, if I can retrieve sometime, time being the operative word, is mine, alone. I’ll do with it what I want and try desperately to leave all the dark bullshit revolving in my head out of it.

    Yep, that’s right, that’s my territory, and all that dark historical,modern, post-modern and contemporary angst and pain can get the fuck out!

  2. provocative as usual. I spent four years in W Germany, at a politically formative stage in my life. Dodging the draft here in the US. I was a typical hippie, raised on obscene TV shows valorizing war and conquest but now rejecting “mainstream” culture in a mostly unformed, reflexive rebellion. I visited Dachau and read Arendt and tried to figure out what I was witnessing (1970), how the “losers” as you put it, were coping. I wondered if they could watch The Producers and laugh at Mel Brooks (talk about Springtime!)

    My dad, who flew a B52 in the Pacific theater, never wanted to talk about atom bombs, even when we did bomb drills at school during the Cuban missile crisis. Hiding under our desks. Knowing God was dead.I believe our whole generation is traumatized, psychically scarred in ways we have yet to understand. We had Japanese-American neighbors we played “war” with! Despite the fact that there has been constant war since, we have not seen a World War or nuclear exchange, which is interesting.

    I am bored to tears by 98% of the “art” that is produced, especially the stuff that wants to be transcendent, True and Beautiful, or that, like some cat in its litter box, hopes to unearth some buried nugget about the intimate, private, Human Soul. I think art should mess with people, rattle their cages, be ideological, political and historically conscious. At least till we get our shit together as a species. Then it can go back to being Beautiful. I know I’m the only person who thinks this but I believe art has a duty.

    • ‘Hiding under our desks. Knowing God was dead’. Nice image Dave, experiential Nietzsche in primary school, as it were. Like you I’m bored by 98% of art too. But that leaves 2%, right? Art with ‘a duty’? Hmm. (Self-conscious) art is in a quandary: the ivory tower wank is as useless and boring, as predictable, as art-as-propaganda. Neither nor. Difficult. Art is inherently useless and that’s precisely what makes it useful, i.e. subversive of capitalism’s total utilitarianism and commodification. The most radical, subversive art is often the most seemingly divorced from society, even hermetic at times, outside the commodity form. The subversiveness of art is in its anti-bourgeois non-utilitarian FORM not in its content. Adorno’s (our) dilemma: no art is really possible after Auschwitz-Hiroshima, yet no art would mean capitalism has finally won and the human has abdicated to the commodity. This to me the vital tension, the needed paradox, within great modern art/poetry/music.

  3. Reblogged this on nickweechblog's Blog and commented:
    powerful and thought provoking stuff Peter, as we all hurtle towards whatever crises are next for the human race, mostly blithely unaware…

  4. this brings me back to a comment an artist friend made 30 years ago…we were in university art classes…and he was struggling with the idea of “prostituting his art”…i took it to mean, if he made art with the primary intention of selling it…or to “make it” on the big new york stage…he was violating his inner/moral artistic intentions…
    but rulers/capitalists have always co-opted the arts and turned it into something other than what the artist intended…(except for those lowest of the low artists who knowingly/willingly comply with the oppressors)…the arts are the universal language rulers use for propaganda, or for investment purposes…artificially creating outrageous value in the capitalist art market and sucking out all original intent and redefining it for those sycophant “members of the artistic avant-garde”…
    seems to me, most art is used to reinforce the ruling elites’ agenda…leaving those creative types to either compromise their values, or do something else and create on the side…
    so, like you say peter, i too “continue to most unfashionably believe it could be solved by the abolition of a now globally lethal capitalism and imperialism and the building of a rational society based not on profit and power but on the direct-democratic determination of the common good.”

    it’s why i like teaching art to middle school kids…even tho it’s still swimming against the tide, they’re at that age where you just might reach some of them…plant some of those seeds…those that haven’t been irreparably conditioned with the “punished by rewards” system…
    i know i sound like a broken record…but i think it’s back to the right-brain/left-brain thing…and healthy whole brain development being thwarted by pushing the left brain into rote learning too soon…effectively hindering thoughtful/balanced learning…compulsory schooling takes away all natural curiosity and makes learning uninteresting and rote…children are raised in artificial, institutional environments that make them very compliant…with the unruly children being drugged or tossed into schools for the delinquents…the school to prison pipeline…it’s a very effective tool for those in charge…
    the arts are the way humans express…what’s right, or wrong or beautiful or horrible…and we can’t do that if our brains are conditioned and controlled…
    we certainly have our work cut out for us in promoting participatory concepts to minds that are otherwise conditioned so early….

    • Plant those seeds, Kristi, so important so important… always struck by how many artists or creative scientists found their calling very early in their lives, maybe in the first 10 years or so…a visit to a concert or a theatre performance (in my case was a film of a female Indian dance troupe at age six or seven, so later studied both literature and did a lot of theatre), or maybe a grandfather who showed stuff to a small grandson in a garden, maybe early butterfly or tadpole collecting… within the crap school system which is functionally as you describe, IMO there are also the other important aspects: the big peer group learning dynamics, that special teacher person with that special something or enthusiasm for his/her subject, the benefits of boredom for creativity and the learning benefits of meeting up with the more neurotic characters in peers or in power and learning to deal with them or define oneself against them… Wouldn’t underestimate all that too… May you long have the strength to swim against that tide, Kristi.

  5. Thank you very much for bringing back Günther Anders in the debate, who often is nearly forgotten in the debates. A very personal impact on Adorno offers the intimate correspondence between Adorno and his parents.

    • Pleasure. Glad someone else has heard of Anders, a radical philosopher who needs some bringing back into the discourse methinks. ‘Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen’ so ahead of its time. And thanks for the link to the Adorno letters too.

  6. It is an interesting exercise to try to isolate those early experiences and influences which fomented critical (and/or artistic) thinking and creativity. Imagination! Whole brain development! In search of lost time.

  7. yeah…what i also find interesting is how little is written/published in the educational field about whole brain development anymore…the pavlov’s dog, rote, repetitive, competitive, one right answer, kind of conditioning…verses the balanced, thoughtful, comprehensive kind of learning, humans are naturally capable of…
    how the “education experts” always talk about critical thinking, analysis, etc…but then break a child’s education up into pieces and “scaffold” it and test it and make it something only educators can teach…when just by facilitating a child’s interest, you don’t need to teach any of that…it develops fine all my itself…no tampering required…leaving their curiosity, imagination and desire to learn, intact…
    again…sorry for being a one trick pony here…probably my ocd….but it would be a lot easier to plant those seeds if the majority of the minds weren’t already closed…

  8. 98% of a very small proportion of what’s actually out there. That makes the 2% almost insignificant.

    For every thousand Adornos out there, there are a thousand others who believe that poetry is even more necessary post Auschwitz. But it really is irrelevant, what Adorno or others think. The creative impulse just happens. It can’t not. It is the only thing there really is. Art is just one offshoot. I’m not even certain what ‘art’ is, though I know people create stuff and I know some are good at their craft and others not so. But again irrelevant.

    The thing that inhibits or prohibits creativity are the institutional structures that direct our lives. So while we all would like to see a more just, ecologically balanced and equitable world, what would be the point of it if people didn’t pursue creative possibilities?

    These possibilities exist in all sorts of ways. Blogs for one. Open source whatever for another. Sitting down and contemplating the Liars paradox and realising, “this statement is false” may appear to be a paradox but it is really just incoherent. Or realising that “all humans always lie” is something that no human could actually say, out there in the real contextualised world of social relations, with any REAL seriousness. A cognitive impossibility. Thereby rendering the above formulations of a so called paradox merely a game. A game for logicians choosing to ignore context and the way language is actually used. Entertainment. In other words a creative pursuit. Maths, science, cataloguing, watching ants, drawing assholes in the dirt with a stick. Reading is a creative pursuit stimulating imaginations of all sorts. Shit, “art” is just one of many creative possibilities. Who gives a shit if it is good or not. It has to get done first and then considered before any judgement can be made. Cooking, talking, thinking. Sex. Jokes. Surfing. Permaculture. Being a dickhead.

    Duty? For some. Absolutely not for others. Irrelevant anyway. People will do stuff regardless of rules or whether anyone likes it. Because they have to. Can’t not. Paradoxes and tensions as the drivers? Maybe. Who knows. I do know that, or at least feel that, writing a comment to a blog, a blog itself, a piece of music, or contemplating the Liars paradox is all coming from the same creative place. There is an itch and it needs scratching because nihilism is just round the corner.

    Absurdity can be entertaining, even humorous, something stimulating, something that craves a smile, a laugh, while pointlessness is born, eats, sleeps, shits and then dies.

    Paradoxes point to absurdity. Ridiculousness. Death. Sets that belong to themselves, incompleteness theorems, odd number infinityvs all natural number infinity, and even the idea that it may be possible to actually know, what our limitations and capacities to knowing actually are! The absurdity of something over nothing. The shortness of life and the possibility that it all may just start again, and even in a completely unconnected way to the previous existence. As Voltaire once said “It is not more surprising to be born twice than once;”. What the fuck for? What did you look like before your parents were born? Have you found that other hand to complete the clap?

    Whole brain, half brain, balanced brain, lopsided brain, half-wit, whole-wit, who knows, who cares. The reductionist materialist analytical logician is using all brain and being just as creative as anyone unless there’s a lesion, a biological problem, a medical issue. Am using my whole brain now? It’s lack of time, survival, life circumstances that drive people, prohibited from creative pursuits, to despair, anxiety and depression.

    Creativity is all there is. Art is merely a small aspect of it. The denial of creativity is the denial of life itself. The institutional structures that prevail over most of the world inhibit, constrict and prohibit so much creativity. They deny so many the ability to pursue creative possibilities, a need no less necessary than oxygen, that a blanket of existential fatigue hinders us from maintaining, or even wanting to, the very thing that sustains us.

    Creativity never dies, even embedded within capitalism or ghastly and horrific tragedy. It is always there. Amazing things are always going on, but far too many never get a real taste for it. Never get the chance. No tickets to the creativity fair.

    The pursuit of creative possibilities, is the only reason we need, to pursue the creative possibilities for a more just, ecologically balanced and equitable world. As far as my brain goes, it’ll do what it does!

    Get your shoes and socks on people, nihilism’s right around the corner!

  9. Lots of things stirred up here and by this whole issue.
    It may be the timing specifically but as far as appreciating “Art” and “Humanity” I noticed the PoW and His son talking about the poaching issue, thousands of creatures being slaughtered vaingloriously… and two of the P’s were off to Spain tp slaughter some boars. I suddenly realised how immense the suffering of all these billions of worldwide farmed creatures being kept merely as foodstuff, apart from them on “Estates” of the Wealthy to be shot (deer, grouse, boar,etc) and the their own of course…

    I’d not been struck by the disparity between appreciating the variety and the beauty of Life on this poor benighted planet until I realised how much of all that modern humans do is bound up with satisfying their seemingly limitless variety of appetites… not even needs anymore sheer utter waste of limited resources- and I wondered, do any of these creatures have any awareness of their being exploited by “Our” system for containment/Farming? If so morally we should be campaigning for a New World Order without such widespread and wholesale inhumane treatment of sentient beings. Even bees I wonder in their hives…

  10. […] Peter Lach-Newinsky offers thoughtful insights on an old question. […]

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