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JOHN HEARTFIELD AND MONTAGE
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"How to philosophize with a hammer" is the subtitle of Nietzsche's late philosophical masterpiece The Twilight of the Idols, but the activity it describes turns out to be wittier and less Teutonic than it sounds. Nietzsche slyly identifies the hammer with the kind used by piano tuners, and the image he conveys is that of an iconoclast who does not so much smash idols as tap them, in order to evoke the flatulent noises that reveal their inner corruption. I can imagine an autobiography for the great political artist of Weimar and the years of the Third Reich, John Heartfield, with a chapter titled "How One Wages War With a Scissors." An apt illustration might be the clever photomontage of 1929, in which Heartfield shows himself snipping off the head of the Police Commissioner, Zörgiebel, the artist peering out at the viewer beneath a fierce scowl, which is rendered comic by the bloodless decapitation. What he has achieved is a marvelously self-referential image in which a photograph of him holding a large pair of scissors is pasted next to a photograph of the jowly bureaucrat's bald head, already partly sheared off. Zörgiebel looks almost beatific and half-asleep, as if anesthetized for purposes of the operation, while the artist holds the head with his fingers, the way he would hold a piece of paper—which is what he in fact does hold.
It is a brilliant image in part because it exploits and in part because it would beimpossible without the medium of the photomontage. Just imagine a painting of one man cutting off the head of another with a pair of scissors: Though of course it might be possible to paint someone cutting the head off a painting of a man, such a work would be puzzling, and in any case could not refer to its own processes, as the 1929 photomontage refers to the practice of snipping, arranging, and pasting photographic images in evocative juxtaposition. And in any case, what would be the point of such a painting, or, as the manifesto for the First International Dada exhibition of 1920 (of which Heartfield was one of the organizers) suggested, of painting anything, when photographs of things lie ready to hand and in great abundance? The task is no longer to represent the world but to rearrange it. So the use of photographic images in the montage of Heartfield cutting off the head of Zörgiebel, like a latter-day Judith with the head of Holofernes, was not to make an end run around painting. It had to be palpable that the artist is only cutting up a photograph, and indeed, in this work, the Commissioner's head is appropriately presented as flat, with all the flatness of the photograph. And what Heartfield is saying, in effect, is that with cut-and-rearranged photographs art is to be a means for rearranging the political order.
It is customary in traditional logic to identify the extension of a term with the class of things the term in question designates. Thus the extension of the term "dog" is the class of dogs, as the class of birds is the extension of "bird." The philosopher Nelson Goodman, for reasons too abstruse to canvass here, at one point introduced the concept of secondary extensions, which consist in pictures or images of things: So the secondary extension of "dog" would be paintings and photographs and effigies of dogs. Since "dog" can now mean either the primary or secondary extension of the term, it becomes ambiguous whether it designates a dog or merely a picture of one. But this accords well enough with the practice of using the same word to name the pictures of things as the things themselves: No one demands that a child who says "doggy" in pointing to a picture of a dog in an alphabet book should say "picture" instead. And it accords well with the fact that we do not need to undergo a further piece of learning to find out what to call a picture of something, once we know what it is called. Finally, I think, it helps account for the somewhat uncanny relationship we intuitively feel holds between things and their pictures—spooky in the case of Dorian Gray, magical in the case of voodoo effigies, emotional as when we kiss the photograph of someone we love, erotic when we get aroused by pictures of what we get aroused by in life.
And secondary extensions underlie certain wry pictorial jokes, as when we propose to show someone a photograph of a man having his head cut off by another man, and what we show is not after all a shot of gore and violence but a photomontage in which a picture of a man wielding scissors is pasted next to the picture of a man whose likeness is cut where head joins body. Or when I say that someone turned a man into a monkey, when what I have in mind is a photomontage in which John Heartfield has pasted onto an ape's body the head of Adolf Hitler—and pasted a helmet such as Siegfried wore on top of Hitler's head, and has pasted the whole monstrosity on top of the spinning world, as if to say, "What goes around comes around." Because secondary extensions include the photographic images of things, and because photographs inevitably refer us to the realities they depict, juxtaposing items from the secondary extensions of two distinct terms—like "Hitler" and "monkey"—seems to elicit some deep affinity between them, which the montage (and only the montage) can make manifest. The montage becomes a pictorial metaphor with all the strength and energy metaphoric truths carry: They show that Hitler is a monkey, that the terrifying Police Commissioner Zörgiebel has no more substance than a piece of paper—a "paper policeman," like a paper tiger.
The manifesto of the 1920 Dada show lists John Heartfield as the "Monteurdada," and indeed monteur is what he preferred to be called, rather than "artist." (The placards for that show proclaim the death of art and derivatively the death of artists; but they hail Maschinenkunst—or "machine-art"—which of course photographic reproduction, being mechanical, exemplifies.) Montieren means "to arrange," and the art of photomontage is precisely the art of arranging photographs in such a way as to elicit the deep surprising affinities of which great metaphors are capable, and which require the kind of genius Aristotle had in mind when he said it requires genius to make good metaphors. It is widely appreciated that the photomontage was the main artistic contribution of the Berlin Dada movement, and not surprisingly, almost every one of the members of that movement claimed to have been its inventor. Raoul Hausmann (listed on the announcement for the show as "Dadasoph") claimed to have invented it in collaboration with his companion, the great monteuse Hannah Höch. And Heartfield claims to have invented it in collaboration with his artistic sidekick, George Grosz. Little matter, I think, for clearly photomontage lent itself to the spirit of high jinks and iconoclasm that defined the advanced art of the Weimar era. One can see many now-famous montages displayed in the old snapshots of the Dada show, including Höch's masterpiece, "A Slice With the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer-Belly of Weimar Culture," in which an epic composition is made of cut-up photographs, showing the Dadaists as the good guys and the capitalists and politicians of Weimar as the forces of darkness. (You can get a vivid sense of Höch's art in a spirited study of her work by Maud Lavin, Cut With a Kitchen Knife, published by Yale.) And some of Heartfield's montages, which were in the Berlin show, may be seen in the fascinating exhibition of his work currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But the bulk of the exhibit is of montages that were not intended to be exhibited, and whose natural locus is not the gallery wall. They were intended, rather, for the pages of periodicals of mass circulation, and especially for the left-wing AIZ—the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, or "Workers' Illustrated Times"—in which they appeared monthly.
The Berlin Dadaists were by nature revolutionaries, and Karl Marx's image appears on the side of good in Höch's "A Slice (etc.)." But it was Heartfield who appropriated the form and bite of the photomontage to the ends of political agitation, and he saw art, and certainly his art, more and more as an arm not merely of the Communist movement but of the campaign against Nazism—so that cutting someone up with a pair of scissors became less an allusion to the penetration of primary by secondary extensions and more a way of entering the political process directly by means of savage imagery. In the process, a pair of scissors gets to be a weapon of political change. But it becomes that just because Heartfield took the montage out of the rarefied precincts of the exhibition hall (not that the Dadaists did not get into hot water with that show, specifically for its disrespect for the German Army, since Grosz and Heartfield displayed a pig-headed dummy in an officer's uniform, named it "Prussian Archangel" and hung it from the ceiling). He had his montages photographed and then reproduced by means of photogravure in the sepia tones of that period's popular illustrated periodicals. Heartfield was to the AIZ what Daumier was to Le Charivari, or Aubrey Beardsley to The Yellow Book and The Savoy, or what David Levine is to The New York Review of Books. Perhaps, indeed, the closest we have had to Heartfield's art would have been Levine's caricatures of Johnson and Nixon in the years of the war in Vietnam. The difference of course was in the kinds of risks that Heartfield and Daumier ran. In 1933 and the beginning of dictatorship in Germany, the AIZ and Heartfield were obliged to flee to Prague.
Seeing those montages framed and annotated along museum walls cannot but be felt as incongruous, given their vitriolic intentions. Of course the enemies have long since been vanquished, and we can now ponder Heartfield's graphic ingenuity and his aesthetic means, even if it requires a degree of specialized scholarship to understand exactly what was being targeted, and a command of German slang to get all the jokes. Despite the incapacities of most viewers (myself included), it is striking how the work survives as art when the objects of its fierce aggressions are no longer available for artistic injury. Yet it is no less striking to set Heartfield's work side by side with so much of what passes as political art today, such as so much of what turned up in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. The difference is that while contemporary political art expresses the political sentiments of its makers, they show no serious intention of changing political reality through that art. That is because they continue to think of the museum as the primary venue within which art is to be experienced, and hence aesthetic appreciation as the primary avenue through which the art is to have its impact. But that makes the museum audience the primary and indeed only target, since no one else is going to see it. Yet the museum audience is typically already fairly likely to subscribe to the artists' attitudes and values, and while museumgoers may not be quite as "correct" as artists would like them to be, by contrast with the surrounding population they are a fairly enlightened group, likely to experience the art as hectoring, since it is preaching to the converted. We clearly expect something more from political art than that it express the views of the artist. To be seriously interested in politics is to be seriously interested in political change, and that means as a first step taking the art out of the museum and into life.
Heartfield of course at times did a certain amount of hectoring in endeavoring to get the readers of AIZ to vote a certain way or to protest what was happening in Germany. So in part he was expressing his views and those of his readers. But he was also and mainly using his art to attack and discredit the extremely powerful enemies he and his readers feared and shared. Heartfield appreciated, as great artistic polemicists always have, that in order to be politically effective art has to be public, which means that the museum is just the wrong place for it. (Though of course museums too are natural targets for their policies: Projecting Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs onto the facade of the Corcoran in Washington was a marvelous and intuitive form of protest against that museum's cancellation of the show of those works in 1988.) Basically, the art has to be in the world where the changes are wanted, the way the lithographs of Le Charivari or the wood engravings of Harper's Weekly circulated in the real world, or, today, the way television images enter the general mind. The proper venues for public art are the billboard, the poster, the newspaper cartoon, the broadside, the leaflet, the videotape. And its audience cannot be restricted to the artistically literate, whose members pay their admissions fees and wear the metal badges. The images have to go past the defenses of consciousness and strike into the souls of those who vote or demonstrate or fight.
And that is what Heartfield's montages did in their basic capacity as visual metaphors. The metaphor is among the favored tropes of the rhetorician, whose charge is to move minds and change or arouse feelings by means of figures of speech, encouraging connections of the kind only rhetoric—or art—is capable of. The abrupt, at times irrational juxtapositions of the photomontage inevitably found application in advertising, which is the modern figuration of rhetoric, and whose strategies artists must master if they aspire to political effectiveness. And because in Heartfield's case the enemy saw how his viewers viewed him, the art had to be suppressed and the artist hounded out of the country, so that the enemy could claim the minds of Heartfield's erstwhile viewers for its own rhetoric. Luckily, the emblems of health and military virtue favored by Hitler as the artistic embodiment of the Third Reich were no match for Heartfield's images on cheap paper, which flooded the collective mind in monthly intervals. Unluckily, Hitler had other rhetorical devices.
Heartfield exhibited in a show of caricature in Prague in 1934, which caused sufficient friction with Germany that the Czech authorities found it prudent to have the more offensive works removed. Heartfield's response was a masterful montage in AIZ that depicts the exhibition, in which a good many of his most biting images are shown, while, in the blank spaces left by the removed ones, the viewer sees the walls of a prison and a man with head wounds lying bleeding in the street. The caption reads, "The more pictures they remove, the more visible reality becomes," which might, just as a slogan, play a role in the polemics of censorship today. In 1938, Heartfield fled to England, as it were to be reunited with his name, but where, ironically, he was interned as an enemy alien. And when he finally sought to return to what was then East Germany, he was regarded with suspicion by the authorities and accused of having treasonous connections with the West. He was grudgingly reinstated after the death of Stalin, but his art, so far as I can tell, did not keep its edge. A great political artist requires a serious political enemy.
The present show is the first major exhibition of his work in this country, and one now can look at the marvelous caricatures of Hitler, of his henchmen, the scary image of the dove of peace spitted on a bayonet in front of the League of Nations building in Geneva, and all the sarcastic readings of the Nazis' speeches and slogans. There are among the prints a number of mockups, but it is important to recognize that these do not stand to the prints in the relationship of original to reproduction but rather that of means to end. And this merits some comment. A few years ago, I asked the artist Arakawa to design the jacket for a book of mine. And I hoped I would be able to prevail on his generosity further by requesting the "original," for I admired his work and would have been glad to have a piece of it. There really was, however, no "original." Arakawa presented the designer of the book with three or four transparent sheets on which he had drawn some arrows, or mounted a photograph. The image was only on the jacket. So one could say that the jacket was the original, since there was nothing anterior to it that it integrally reproduced. The reproduction, if you like, was the work, and in virtue of that anyone who purchased the book got an original Arakawa thrown in. David Hockney once did something like that for a magazine, which advertised on its cover that it contained "an original work by David Hockney." And Hockney in fact exhibited the magazine page in his show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
All of Heartfield's AIZ montages were originals, in this sense. And I cannot suppress the thought that each of the proletarian purchasers of the AIZ got not merely a piece of propaganda for the money but an original work of art by one of Germany's best living artists. In his early, sparky days, before politics made him become serious, Heartfield started a magazine with George Grosz featuring a montage of a soccer ball with a man's legs, arms, and head. The title of the magazine was Jedermann sein eigner Fussball— "Every man his own soccer ball," which I am told had the kind of sense "A chicken in every pot" has. The implicit slogan for the AIZ montages was "Every man his own art collector." That is what it seems to me "the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" comes to—a way of overcoming the difference between original and reproduction. But it is nice to think, too, that these original works of art were mechanically reproduced in as many numbers as the AIZ printed, and that each was a mass instrument in the war against dictatorship. The show reminds us what art is capable of when it becomes a secondary extension to life itself.
—June 28, 1993
|Art and Meaning||xvii|
|John Heartfield and Montage||3|
|Robert Zakanitch's Big Bungalow Suite||39|
|Robert Morris: Body and Mind||48|
|James Coleman, Slide Artist||77|
|Willem de Kooning||95|
|Japanese Avant-garde Art||105|
|R. B. Kitaj||123|
|The Whitney Biennial, 1995||142|
|TV and Video||160|
|Meyer Schapiro, 1904-1996||202|
|Letter from Vienna||213|
|Picasso and the Portrait||220|
|Nan Goldin's World||228|
|Tiepolo at 300||250|
|The 1997 Whitney Biennial||258|
|Yasmina Reza's ART||304|
|"Art Into Life": Rodchenko||320|
|The Late Works of Delacroix||328|
|Rothko and Beauty||335|
|Pollock and the Drip||343|
|Degas in Vegas||351|
|The American Century||368|
|Warhol and the Politics of Prints||376|
|The Bride & the Bottle Rack||385|
|"Sensation" in Brooklyn||393|
|Shiran Neshat's Rapture||401|
|The American Century: Part II||408|
|The Work of Art and the Historical Future||416|