20 September 2008

Walker Evans or Leni Riefenstahl?

Torn Movie Poster, 1931 © Walker Evans Archive,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As if the economic implications of the coming swindle are not enough to make you want to spit, think about politics and art. In his assessment of the incipient bailout William Greider suggests:
"If this deal succeeds, I predict it will become a transforming event in American politics - exposing the deep deformities in our democracy and launching a tidal wave of righteous anger and popular rebellion. As I have been saying for several months, this crisis has the potential to bring down one or both political parties, take your choice."
Although I am a fan of neither of our two parties, the problem is that there surely is no guarantee that should one or both collapse as a result of our current fiasco we will get something better. It would take work and luck to generate anything resembling a progressive replacement. In particular creating an alternative would require the ability to articulate and promote new political possibilities. That task, in my view, is one that in significant measure falls to the arts. While thinking about that scenario I came across this dreary missive at The Guardian:
"How could the economic crisis affect art?
If we enter another 1930s-type Depression, art may more likely swing to the Right than the Left
Jonathan Jones

If the economic crisis does become this century's Great Depression, how will art be changed? That seems hard to answer without also considering politics. In the 1930s art was divided between Left and Right, as well as between modernist and realist. It mattered more where you stood than how you painted. Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and other American socialists were influenced by realism and pictorialism and the mural tradition of revolutionary Mexico, but ended up finding their own voices as abstract artists. The realism of Walker Evans's photographs of rural poverty, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, or in this country George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier makes us think of Depression-era culture as serious, truthful, shorn of illusions - and many might like it if we got more art of that kind now. But hang on.

The Depression was also the era of Salvador Dali's kitsch surrealism and, more seriously, of fascism and its cultural excesses. The Nazis had their own answer to economic catastrophe. In Leni Riefenstahl's film
Triumph of the Will formerly unemployed Germans march with the shovels they've been given to work on autobahn-building. With the Nazis' corporate solution came art like Riefenstahl's - irrational, fantastic, disturbingly powerful.

Of course in the 1930s there was another alternative - the USSR. The Communist alternative has however been crushed by history, and is not coming back. Those on the Left who see opportunity here will soon be disabused. Instead, the terror of capitalism in crisis without the alternative of Marxism is that irrational alternatives will flourish. We are more likely to get a new Riefenstahl than a new Walker Evans."
This assessment seems to me to be too stark and too bleak and too alarmist by a considerable stretch. For starters, communism is not (and historically has not been) the sole institutional alternative to unfettered markets of the Thatcher-Reagan-Bush variety. So, its demise, may well be a blessing insofar as it clears away one bad alternative. Moreover, the Nazis were not the only ones who put the unemployed to work on large scale public works projects. The Democrats in the U.S. did so too. Finally, while Riefenstahl was playing movie maker to the Führer, Mr. Jones seems to forget that Evans was photographing for a government agency too. And the photographers working for that agency - Evans and his colleagues at the FSA/OWI - were not nearly so tame politically (see, e.g., this essay) as we often are led to believe.



Blogger Lennart Maschmeyer said...

greetings, interesting blog, I just stumbled over it looking for some examples for leni riefenstahls photography.

I agree with your critique, but I see the problematic more in the simplistic comparing of the great depression with the situation today and the dichotomy between left an right. Politics and the world today is a great deal different to the world of the 1930s and considering fascism and communism failed more or less spectacularly, why would one conclude a return to the aesthetics of these anachronistic ideologies?

04 November, 2008 12:52  

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