John Willett begins his Art and Politics in the Weimar Period, with an inscription in a book that haunts him. It reads “Memento of an afternoon spent in Stuttgart in Mart Stam’s house, to music by Kurt Weill. 13 Aug. 1938” (Willet, p. 8). He then asks “What was so apposite…about playing Kurt Weill records in a [house built by] Mart Stam?...What again might link a Dutch Communist architect to a Left Socialist Berlin Jewish composer whom he apparently never met?” (Willet, p. 10). Clearly, both were a part of a leftist subculture seeking unconventional, innovative answers to political problems and unconventional, innovative ways to express themselves. But Willet is not as concerned with this group’s cultural history as he is with its artistic concepts and techniques. He focuses upon its expression of “a particular constructive vision…a new realism that sought methods of dealing both with real subjects and with real human needs, a sharply critical view of existing society and individuals and a determination to master new media and discover new collective approaches to the communication of artistic concepts” (Willet, p. 11).
The book is set-up chronologically. It begins with the First World War and the changing political order between 1914-20. Here, Willet examines how war’s devastation, the transformation from imperial to Socialist government, Germany’s failed communist uprising, and artistic developments in neighboring countries, affected the artists of Germany. The war, the leftward politics and changing technologies, give rise to a number of innovative approaches in the arts: Dada performance art, Constructivist & Bauhaus architecture, mechanized music and anti-war Expressionism to name a few.
The next section explores Weimar’s somewhat economically stabilized years of 1924-8. It introduces the Neue Sachlichkeit (loosely translatable as New Objectivity) art movement, which was “a neutral, sober, matter-of-fact approach, thus coming to embrace functionalism, utility, absence of decorative frills” (Willet, p. 112). The author illustrates other currents of this time: Impersonal painting, interior design, the rising importance of photography, developments in theater and new musical composers with more machine sounds. It is a bright period of innovation, with less cultural conservatism, between the fall of the Kaiser and the rise of Hitler.
The book then records German cultural descent, beginning with economic collapse in 1929-30, followed by the “triumph of the Nazis and total suppression of the modern movement” (Willet, p. 213). In the end, we return to that tender, lost starting point: “Mart Stam’s houses and Kurt Weill’s music did indeed hang together, and this was ultimately because they reflected the same assumptions: an openness to new technologies and media, an economy of resources, a sense that art should have a function, and a reluctance to work only for a social-cultural elite” (Willet, p.124).
But while the author has reached this conclusion, he has not brought his audience along with him. This is largely because the artists are taken out of the context of their subculture. He presents the artists; he describes the movements; he talks about the politics; but he has not shown the development of a living milieu composed of people who held leftist views and appreciated avant-garde art. One discerns fragments of this culture: Bauhaus artists working together in Dessau, Berlin Constructivists visiting Moscow to meet their counterparts, Kurt Weill collaborating with Bertolt Brecht, but these are disconnected scenes. The book needed a full portrait revealing the interconnections and functioning of this community. To contrast, John Strausbaugh’s history of Greenwich Village reveals the complexity of a thriving community. He shows artists and fellow travelers drinking together, arguing together, sleeping together and protesting together. They gather in the same bars, bookstores, cafes and living rooms. Strausbaugh discusses the many relationships and conversations that resulted in political and artistic collaboration. He describes organizations and salons which helped mold this community. He clarifies what draws them together. Even if two artists in Greenwich Village never met, they would have been influenced by the same social, artistic and political factors. By the end, if Strausbaugh had depicted someone listening to a Bob Dylan album, under a Jackson Pollack painting, while making a poster for a women’s rights rally, the reader would have understood the connections. Without a similar portrait of the Weimar subculture which valued both Stam and Weill, Willett has left out evidence that would have revealed why Stam and Weill were in the same environment.
Art and Politics in the Weimar Period is successful in its portrayal of the era’s art. Additionally, it shows how the changing political landscape first inspired, then silenced the creativity of German artists. It is an important example of how liberal, democratic, political structures nurture individual creativity; and how conservative, autocratic political structures control art. Willett ends with a warning that applies to any age: “If there is a lesson for our own time, it is not just that art can benefit from a greater integration with hopeful socio-political causes. Above all it is that those causes had better not be lost” (Willet, p. 229).
Willett, John. Art and Politics in the Weimar Period. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.
Strausbaugh, John. The Village. 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.
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