Erwin Panofsky and Iconography, Part Three


Part Three: Icon, Iconography and Iconology

As has often been pointed out, the exodus of Jewish scholars from Germany was one of the greatest brain drains of talent of the 20th or any other century. “Hitler shakes the trees, and I pick up the apples.” This famous quote is attributed to Walter Cook who founded the Fine Arts Department of New York University ( now the Institute of Fine Arts, also known as “The Institute) and moved his scholars to a brownstone next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to Harry Bober in “The Gothic Tower and the Stork Club,” Panofsky was “one of the more resplendent golden apples, joining the department in 1931. The ideas of Erwin Panofsky and how they were employed or not have depended upon trends in art history. When Panofsky became part of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University (called “The Institute” by those in the know) in 1933, his iconographical system found a permanent home . The discipline of art history in America was greatly enriched by his intellectual and philosophical approach and put what was still a relatively new field of study in his new country on a sounder footing.

Because many of its scholars were Jewish, art history was hunted from Europe by the Nazis. They fled to America, bringing with them concepts based upon European philosophy that were ill-understood by their new students. Traditionally, the American version of his signature idea: iconography, was greatly simplified into a clunky game of matching symbols (icon) to symbolism (iconography), while neglecting the cultural basis for the meanings (iconology). That said, when Panofsky arrived at Princeton with his Kantian-inspired system, he met with opposition from another branch of Kantian thought–formalist art history and yet another bastion of artistic thought, Marxism. For art historians, Marxist thought or the assertion of Karl Marx that the economy was the “secret engine” of society, was a fruitful way of examining a work of art, for a Marxist analysis would remove the “veil” of the “natural” and reveal the economic basis of the work itself. Formalist art historians, however, preferred to look directly at the work itself and not at the society that produced it. Rather than thinking of these two methods as complementing each other or as adding to a fuller picture of the art, the discipline tended to place Formalism and Marxism as polar (and political) opposites.

When Panofsky arrived in America, the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin’s approach to “style” and the materialism of Marxism had become the leading modes of art historical and art critical thinking. The Marxist approach, exemplified by the writings of Meyer Schapiro (1914-1996), was on full view in Schapiro’s famous battle with Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of MoMA. Barr’s famous 1936 “Chart” of avant-garde movements in his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art removed art from any historical or cultural context and presented the movements as independent of social forces. In comparison to Barr’s art-for-art’s sake approach, Schapiro was a life-long Marxist who had more in common with Walter Benjamin than with the more orthodox Marxist art historian, Arnold Hauser. Before and after the Second World War, Formalism and Marxism, softened semantically to the “social” approach to art history, were the dominant modes of art history methodology, but, due to its political connections, Marxism waned and Panofsky’s iconography moved to the fore. But when Marxism made a comeback during the sixties and seventies, the symbolic meaning of art receded until the late 1980s and early 1990s with the books of Michael Podro’s The Critical Historians of Art and his student, Michael Ann Holly’s Panofsky’ and the Foundations of Art History. Panofsky’s methods were seen as part of The New Art History or a more modern way of looking at art in historical context, one of Panofsky’s basic tenets.

As Holly’s book outlines, Panofsky’s intellectual antecedents were complex. As an art historian, he felt that his primary task was to make sure that his studies of works of art rested on a firm foundation or to establish an epistemology of art history. In his opinion, the Formalist methodology of Heinrich Wölfflin was founded on a particular judgment or a personal interpretation of the stylistic elements of any given work of art, and that, therefore, the observations of Wölfflin or any other formalist art historian did not have the necessary epistemological depth. What Panosksy wanted to do was to provide art history with a Kantian a priori, to fix art historical methods in the realms of a universal or necessary judgment. It would take Panofsky two decades to work out his approach and he would deploy his intellectual heritage from pre-war Germany to do so.

For the early art historians, the most important fields of study, indeed the founding fields of the discipline, were the art of Antique, Medieval and Renaissance periods. It is this sweep of Western civilization, told as a series of recurrences of the classical culture and as the struggle to find and retain the powers of reason. Panofsky was the student of Aby Warburg who was fascinated with the recurrence of persistent motifs in art and literature, stretching from ancient times to the Renaissance. Panofsky’s early writings reflect Warburg’s interest in the motifs of Renaissance art, but, as Michael Podro pointed out, Warburg combined Georg Hegel’s dialectic of conflict: thesis and anti-thesis with Sigmund Freud’s belief that society was forced to repress primal instincts and desires of human beings in order to govern its members. Warburg noted the tensions (dialectic) in Renaissance art, the tensions of psychological repressions, and the struggle of the artists and writers to overcome the “superstitions” of the medieval Church.

Panofsky gently swerved away from his mentor’s Freudian or psychological method and turned to the more secure neo-Kantian approach of philosopher Ernst Cassirer and that of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. As Michael Podro pointed out,

What then could provide an absolute viewpoint form which we might elucidate a painting or a building? Panofsky takes as a model for the kind of interpretation he wants the Kantian conception of what makes a judgment scientific. What makes a judgment about the world a scientific judgment, as opposed to a merely personal report, is its causal character, and this causal character or structure is not, in Kant’s view, derived empirically but is injected into experience by the mind…What was important for Panofsky was that it was assumed to be a concept we did not derive from experience but one which we brought to experience in order to give it its intelligibility.

The central problem that faces any historian is that of anachronism—-of looking at history from the standpoint of the present and for Panofsky the way to solve this inherent difficulty was to remain firmly fixed in the culture of the work of art itself, not the culture of the present time. The problem of anachronism was also the problem of Formalism, i.e. that observation had to have a causal component beyond the thing observed and reported upon. It was not until 1939 that Panofsky published a series of articles/lectures that certainly stemmed from his work as a professor at the Institute, Studies in Iconology. To study “iconology” is to study the meaning of a work of art: the meaning that was embedded in the culture, the meaning that was in the mind of the artist, consciously or not as a kind of “collective unconscious.” In the introduction of this book, the art historian establishes his methodology: what he was opposed to and how he resolved the problems of meaning and interpretation of works of art. Panofsky began his Studies with this statement:

Iconography is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form. Let us, then, try to define the distinction between subject matter or meaning on the one hand and form on the other…The meaning thus discovered may be called intrinsic meaning or content; it is essential where the two other kinds of meaning, the primary or natural and the secondary or conventional, are phenomenal. It may defined as a unifying principle which underlies and explains both the visible event and its intelligible significance, and which determines even the form in which the visible event takes shape. This intrinsic meaning or content is, of course, as much above the sphere of conscious volitions as the expressional meaning is beneath this sphere.

Panofksy established a layered or step-by-step method that was slow and deliberate, requiring an extensive education on not just the work of art but also of its culture of origin. The tripartite iconographical method of layered meanings or strata, has its basis not just in the Warburgian notion of motif but also in the ideas of Saussure. If, for the linguist Saussure, words were signs that were signifiers for the thing signified, than for Panofsky, the work of art could be understood as a visual language in terms of the sign, signifier and the signified or icon, iconography, and iconology. Panofsky continued his opposition to formalism by stating that the “pre-iconographical description” was a “pseudo-formal analysis,” but that this first take was a “practical experience” that was “controlled” by the history of style. Moving up from the bottom to the next layer or level of meaning, Panofsky introduced the “secondary” or “iconographical analysis” that required “knowledge of literary sources that concerned historical themes or concepts.” It is with the last or highest level of interpretation that Panofsky acknowledged Ernst Cassirer: iconology is the “intrinsic meaning,” that is, the “iconological interpretation” is the history of “cultural symptoms” or the “essential tendencies of the human mind.”

Although subsequently in American art history, Panofsky’s Hegelian methods have often stalled at the iconographical level with few art historians being willing to look for the “symbolic forms” or “symptoms” in works of art. Part of the reason for the impoverished use of Panofsky is the inevitable loss of intellectual background when the art historian emigrated to America, and another reason for the loss of the philosophical background was the division of universities and colleges into distinct departments, dividing disciplines, like history, art history and philosophy, which were in actuality part of one another into artificially separated entities. As Holly pointed out,

Art historians not acquainted with the background of many of Panofsky’s ideas frequently see in his later work merely a practical program for the deciphering of specific and not-so-hidden symbols in visual images. Iconology, despite Panofsky’s emphasis on semantics, is still understood as only a slightly more refined and sophisticated version of iconography.

Just as the three layers of meaning combine Saussure and Cassirer, Panofsky’s famous concept of “disguised symbolism,” developed in his 1953 essay Early Netherlandish Painting, reveals his neo-Kantian insistence on finding the epistemology for a work of art and in establishing the epistemology for art history. Art is embedded in a épistémè that is clearly visible in Netherlandish painting of Jan van Eyck, but in Panofsky’s account of late Medieval art in Northern Europe, we find echoes of Warburg. Here is an artist, van Eyck, who is part of a “superstitious” spiritual culture but who is also living in a new world of reason and science. “A way had to be found to reconcile the new naturalism with a thousand years of Christian tradition,” Panofsky wrote and noted that “The more the painters rejoiced in the discovery and reproduction of the visible world, the more intensely did they feeel the need to saturate all its elements with meaning.” To miss this mind set, this struggle between faith and science is to miss, not just Panofsky’s epistemology of art history but also to miss the meaning of the work of art itself.

The first post in the series discussed Panofsky’s intellectual background with the second post explaining the idea of symbolic form.

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Erwin Panofsky: Art History and Philosophy

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part One: The Antecedents of Iconography

To be an art historian in Germany or Austria, the sites where the study of the discipline was both founded and developed, was to be a member of an intellectual elite. The study of art in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century was based as much on private art collections, and the ability to gain access to these homes, as upon the study of art in museums. Born into the family of wealthy business people, Erwin Panofsky, who was taken to museums as a child, moved among these privileged intellectuals in those brilliant years of the Weimar Republic before its tragic end. Like many German intellectuals, Panofsky moved his career to America, taking with him the scholarly method of studying art in terms of meaning to Princeton University, where he spent the rest of his life. All too often the American understanding of this art historian is somewhat stripped down and remembered as a process of interpretation: icon, iconography and iconology, meaning that the icon or image was the symbol for a certain concept, such as the Cross was symbolic of the Crucifixion. All too often Americans tended to neglect the basis of Panofsky’s thought: iconology or the placement of art in culture. But for Panofsky, art history was an extension of the philosophical thought of Germany in the early twentieth century.

The nearly century long pride of place that Erwin Panofsky holds in art history is demonstrated by the recent excitement at the finding of his long lost Habilitation thesis that was found in June of 2012. The German publishing house De Gruyter will publish Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels in 2014. There is no doubt that his thesis will be marked by traces of the state of German philosophy of the early twentieth century. The best way, indeed, the only way, to discuss the art historical writings of Erwin Panofsky is to place the historian in the rich and complex intellectual context of his time. His art historical methodology was firmly grounded in German philosophy—specifically that of the philosopher, his colleague, Ernst Cassirer (1984-1945). Cassirer, a professor of philosophy at Hamburg, whose cousin Paul Cassirer was an art dealer, stated that, “Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man’s cultural life in all their richness and variety. But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbolicum.” A neo-Kantian from the Marburg school, Cassirer’s contention that people thought symbolically would profoundly shape Panofsky’s ideas on how people read or understood “icons” or images.

In his 2006 study of Cassirer, Edward Skidelsky introduces his book, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, by making the point that, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Cassirer has been reconstructed by German historians as one of the few intellectuals who emerged post 1989 as something of a hero who famously debated (and probably lost the debate) the future Nazi, Martin Heidegger in 1929. In the “Debate on Kant,” Cassirer asserted that Kant must be understood, no metaphysically, but functionally in the various forms of neo-Kantianism which, “..enquire into the possibility of philosophy as a sciencewith the intention of formulating its conditions..” For Cassirer the form is the function of philosophy, and the path to the symbolic form is Kant’s concept of “schema”, defined in the abstract as “phenomenon,” but reinterpreted by Cassirer as “symbol.”

During his years as a philosopher of the Weimar Republic, Cassirer’s works were published by his cousin Bruno and one of his earlier works was on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, published in 1921 and translated in English as early as 1923, signaling that Cassirer was first of all a philosopher of science. Indeed, Kant was understood in Marburg from the standpoint of science, but when Cassirer published The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in three volumes between 1923 and 1929, he showed that he had moved into the arena of culture. As Donald Philips Verene points out in The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer (2011), myth is not just the origin of culture but also of language itself: “Linguistic symbolism is representational symbolism. All natural languages are structures of representation…” Taking Kant as his starting point, Cassirer proposed a “critique of culture.”

The first Jew to serve as the rector of the new university at Hamburg, Cassirer was also among the first to leave Germany in 1933 and after nearly a decade of lecturing in England and Sweden, he ended his career at Yale and Columbia universities. As Sebastian Luft pointed out in Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Between Reason and Relativism; a Critical Appraisal, that Cassirer wrote his last two important works, The Myth of the State (1946) and An Essay on Man (1944), were written in English. The “functional concept” proposed by Cassirer ordered his symbolic forms according to a principle of “serial arrangement” in which certain elements obtain meaning only within that particular system. In other words, Cassirer was positing a universal model for language that could incorporate the particular under the functional concept. The combination of the particular that acquires meaning within a universal system is not dissimilar to the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure and his networks which make meaning possible. For Cassirer symbolic forms—myth, religion, language, art history and science—were understood contextually as “inner forms” unique to each culture.

The three volumes have very specific subtitles which almost certainly can be explained by his association with Warburg: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume One: Language (1923), The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Two: Mythical Thought (1925), and The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Three: The Phenomenology of Knowledge (1929). The fourth volume on the metaphysics of symbolic forms was in progress when the philosopher died suddenly of a heart attack the day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his years in Germany, Cassirer was in contact with the other seminal figure that helped Panofsky form his approach to art was one of the founders of the field, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), who was the eldest son of one of Germany’s premier banking families. Warburg gave up his position as heir to his younger brother Max who would helm the family business. An art historian, specializing in the Renaissance, Warburg asked in return only that his brother support his life long desire to amass a library on art and culture. It is this library and the mode of its arrangement that would prove to be the foundation not just for Panofsky’s methods of study but also for the contextual approach to the visual arts.

In counter distinction to the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin, Warburg insisted that works of art were more than a mere collection of shapes and colors. While it should be noted that Wölfflin was somewhat in concert with Cassirer in that he thought that each era had a “period eye,” or a particular way of seeing or making forms, Warburg had “a downright disgust for aestheticzing art history.” In other words, he resisted the notion that a work of art was presented for pleasurable appreciation rather than for its deep psychological meaning across time. Warburg was fascinated with the Renaissance, not as a “rebirth,” but as rebirth redefined as “survival,” or the continuous reappearance of a motif or an idea that moved through time, leaving its traces on art and literature. And, also in contrast to received wisdom, Warburg did not regard the Renaissance as a return to classical reason but as the continuation of the struggle between the forces of rational thinking, as personified by the figure of Apollo, and the power of the irrational, as symbolized by the god Dionysus.

This human struggle between the rational and the irrational was part of a collective (un)consciousness that had as its origin in the body, manifested in art as an empathetic expressiveness. These primal experiences of suffering or traumas became for Warburg, “pathos formulae.” Warburg worked as an archaeologist of culture, excavating these ancient wounds which could be found, as antique echoes, in the works of the Renaissance, which contained the marks of the primitive nature of what the classical artists had grappled with—the dialectic between the animal in the human. These traces or tracks could be discerned in a variety of sources, not just visual but also textual, and Warburg assembled his books, building a cohort of sources or references around lingering ideas. These books would be grouped together in sections in what would become one of the most famous intellectual libraries of the twentieth century.

Mark A. Russell noted that the establishment of this collection followed Warburg’s move to Hamburg. According to Russell, in Between Tradition and Modernity: Aby Warburg and the Public Purposes of Art (2007), the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg or the Warburg Institute had acquired 15,000 volumes by 1911 and by 1926, when the library became a research institute with Fritz Saxl as Warburg’s assistant, there were 46,000 books. By this time, as Russell recounts, Warburg had suffered from his own mental illness and during his absence, the library had been moved from the private home and became a public library with the books, arranged by Saxl, placed on the shelves in accordance to scholarly expectations. Upon the fragile recovery of his mental health, Warburg continued his scholarship on memory and pictorial representation until his death in 1929. Saxl carried on his legacy but when Hitler came into power, it became clear that a library, founded by a Jewish family could not survive under the Nazis. Saxl and the Warburg family made arrangements to transfer the entire library, now some 66, 000 books, to London where it became the Warburg Institute in 1933. The library never returned to Germany.

Although Warburg actually visited America and made the acquaintance of the anthropologist Franz Boaz, his archaeological/psychological/anthropological focus remained on Florence during the Renaissance and he was fascinated with the lingering spell of pagan expressions on modern thought. But the scholar, who published his works almost entirely in articles, did not see history as evolving in a progressive form over temporal periods; instead,Warburg thought of history in terms of psychic time. When the Great War broke out, Warburg watched in horror as Europe descended into once again into savage barbarism. Although Warburg supported his nation, as any good patriot, he suffered great psychological anguish during this period and it can be argued that the balance of his mind never quite recovered from the darkness of the War. Warburg did not live to see the rise of Hitler, much less the destructive power of unleashed irrational primitive thinking by the Nazis, but he would have been transfixed to witness the return of a psychic trauma that would cause history to shudder with the new primal wound it would inflict.

If Cassirer’s thinking sought to be transcendent, the method of Warburg was concrete, based on the image as metaphors which progress or transform over time. To this end, Warburg collected a disparate array of images which formed an Atlas of recurring symptoms of humanity’s ongoing trauma/s. The Mnemosyne collection, also known as “Mnemosyne, A Picture Series Examining the Function of Preconditioned Antiquity-Related Expressive Values for the Presentation of Eventful Life in the Art of the European Renaissance,” began in 1924 after Warburg had recovered from his mental collapse and could have been part of his attempt to understand the War and the world’s regression into a primitive state. The “Atlas” was never completed and remains frozen in time, surviving as old photographs of groupings of clippings, reproductions, photographs and other images arranged according to Warburg’s intuition.

This Atlas of Images or Bilderatlas consisted of over sixty or seventy screens (depending on which reference you read), or wooden frames covered with black fabric, where an array of images could be pinned and clustered as visual aids to Warburg’s thought processes. Warburg, who used these screens as illustrations to his lectures, took photographs of these screens, showing his collection of reproductions which traced motifs over time. These photos are all that is left of this vast memory project. It should be noted that Warburg did not differentiate between high or low art nor did he hesitate to cross disciplines. Not only did he pioneer in interdisciplinary research, he also established the mode of lecturing in art history—comparing and contrasting images. According to Sarah Blacker in “Institutional Purlieus and Archival Collapse: Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas”, the “Atlas” was disassembled and is thought to have not survived the move to London except as boxes of images. Warburg had intended for his homage to the goddess of Memory to become the basis for the organization of his library and its images, but art historian Rudolf Wittkower in London used iconography as the system for the Warburg Institute.

The other seminal influence on Panofsky’s thought was Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a founder of modern linguistics. If Cassirer thought of humans as symbol-making beings, Saussure defined the human as a language-maker and elaborated upon a system of semiotics or semiology, a science of signs. The philosophical conclusions of these two thinkers were intertwined: both posited a system or a structure through which people communicate, either through symbols (which are a type of word) or words (which are a type of symbol). Both insisted that these symbols/words can be interpreted only within a cultural network that determines how language is understood and interpreted. Saussure’s Course on General Linguistics was not translated into English until 1959 and while a more definitive version came out in 1986, the original and complete text finally emerged in 2006.

Saussure distinguished between language (langue) and speech (parole): one is formal and is a system which is structured—language which is to be studied by the philosopher, unlike causal speech acts. Language is a system of rules which makes performing speech possible. Language is a system or network of relations among elements, none of which can be understood outside the system, which is synchronic or outside time. Language is a system of signs which operate within a structure that the user has incorporated unconsciously. It is that structure of set of rules that govern usage and allow the subject to communicate. To the extent that Saussure can be considered a Structuralist, the Swiss philosopher was also connected to the French anthropologist, also a Structuralist, Claude Lévi Strauss, who asserted that culture had a language that could be de-coded.

Saussure’s “sign, signifier, signified” would be re-interpreted by Panofsky as “icon, iconography, iconology” with a work of art (icon) as a work of culture or a cultural activity (iconography) that must be interpreted in a historical context (iconology). The sign is the icon which resembles the thing, just as a portrait resembles the person depicted. The index is another form of a sign is the “index,” in which smoke, for example is an index of “fire.” In Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975), Jonathan Culler noted that indexes are problematic and uses the example of Lévi-Strauss who suggested that an ax could be used as an “index” of a certain level of culture. But most signs are arbitrary in their (dis)connection between the word (sign) and the thing. The arbitrary nature of the sign, or the fact that there is no “natural” connection between the object and the sign, is the seminal insight of Saussure. The sign has significance or meaning and is further elaborated by that which is signified or what the sign means within the culture and why it has acquired this meaning at this point in time. On one hand, the significance of the sign is always incomplete and always escapes total interpretation, but on the other hand, it is this signifé that creates the meaning, however unfinished, of the sign. For Panofsky, as shall be seen in Part Two, the iconology of the icon is embedded in the culture itself.

Part two of this series discusses the idea of symbolic form and three of this series will discuss Panofsky’s famous iconographical method.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Podcast 66: Marketing Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe, Part One

The career of Georgia O’Keeffe was a paradox: on one hand, she was dependent upon the patronage of her husband, photographer and art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz; on the other hand, she always had an independent vision. The podcast, the first of four parts, focuses on her first mature phase: the flowers and how she broke away from gendered art writing.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 59: Pablo Picasso and the Making of the Art Market

Pablo Picasso, Part One

Although we accept Picasso as one of the great artists of the twentieth century, he was not born a famous artist, he was “made.” This podcast discusses the role of the Great War and the creation of the post-war market in buying and selling avant-garde art. In order to be successful, Picasso had to be polished as an artist and Cubism had to be tamed as an art market suitable for collectors.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

The Making of the New York School


In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]





“The Origin of German Tragic Drama,” 1925, by Walter Benjamin


(The Origin of German Tragic Drama), 1925

by Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s Ursprung des deutschenTrauerspiels utilized a thought floated by Marx, that all art would become “allegorical” as a result of commodification and of its transformation into a fetishistic object. In this notoriously difficult book, Benjamin foregrounded allegory as the structural underpinning of the Baroque épistemé. Originally intended as his Habilitationsschrift, or an academic manuscript, submitted to the faculty of a German university as the necessary prelude for being accepted as a Privatdozent. Once accepted into the university fold, the Privatdozent has the right to lecture on whatever topic s/he desires. On the surface, the submission was exemplary. Benjamin had made all the right moves: he found a long neglected area of culture to investigate—German Baroque tragic drama—-and analyzed this obscure topic with exemplary and labyrinthine thoroughness.

However, after being passed among departments, this complex tome was summarily rejected by the traditional academics at the university in Frankfurt. The Ursprung was an uneasy but innovative work—ahead of its time in its willingness to combine exacting research with poetical interpretation. The major complaint against this book from its main reader was that it is impossible to study the spirit of an age, but forty years later, Michel Foucault would do just that in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) when he studied the notion that each era had its own system or theory of knowledge.

But beyond the question of how or whether “knowledge” was a social construct, there were larger problems with the Ursprung. In resurrecting an almost forgotten art form, Benjamin actually challenged the prevailing belief that the “Classical” was superior to the “Baroque.” It seems clear that he had read or was familiar with the work of the art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin: Renaissance und Barock (Renaissance and Baroque) (1888), and Die klassische Kunst (Classic Art) (1898, and Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Principles of Art History) (1915). Wölfflin treated the Baroque as a co-equal of Classical, as simply another style and not as a “decline” from the Classical. However, as the prompt rejection of Benjamin’s thought experiment on the Baroque would suggest, the ideas of Wölfflin were still not accepted among those favoring classicism as the epitome of any form of art.

For a century, Germans had preferred the “classical”, that which the poet Göethe had called “healthy” to the Baroque or the early version of the Romantic which was therefore “unhealthy.” The Baroque had long been considered to be a decadent version of the pure Classical and its obscure manifestations in Germany were of little interest to anyone, but Benjamin, who revisited this manifestation for his Habilitationsschrift. In a time when academics worked within disciplinary confines that were strictly limited and patrolled, Benjamin was writing an interdisciplinary work, crashing through the room divides between studies of German culture, art history and aesthetics. The writer looked through a prism that incorporated Jewish mysticism from the Kabbalah.

Of course art history is in many ways a Jewish discipline, a life-long Yeshiva school, where art is endlessly rewritten and debated. However, art history, like any other religion or belief system, has its rules and its areas of conventional wisdom. In his excellent introduction to the Ursprung, George Steiner noted that Benjamin’s manuscript found its way into the hands of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), author of Studies in Iconology in 1939. According to Steiner, Panofsky did not view Benjamin’s work favorably. Steiner posited that Benjamin could have found a home with the group of scholars in Hamburg, Panofsky and Ernst Cassirer, Neo-Kantians, and Aby Warburg, the cultural historian in what became the Warburg Institute.

But Benjamin was probably too eclectic in his methodology even for this group and the moment passed and Warburg was dead by 1929 and Panofsky in America by 1933. Benjamin gave up on academics and spent the rest of his life as a free lance writer and radio broadcaster. Here, in short articles and lectures on the radio, Benjamin could roam free, indulging his wide range of interests as a literary and cultural critic. “Criticism,” he said, “should do nothing else than uncover the secret predisposition of the work itself, complete its hidden intentions…”

For Benjamin, the power of interpretation was the power of the idea and he sought a synthesis between philosophical abstraction and aesthetic concreteness. Using the idea of the dialectic, he thought that the universal would be revealed through that which was particular or in comparing the overall structure to the insignificant detail. Benjamin sought the detail, an element thought unworthy of intellectual effort. In contrasting the Classical to the Baroque, Benjamin is able to isolate certain defining characteristics: the symbol is the characteristic property of the Classical mind and the allegory is the characteristic property of the Baroque way of thinking.

Allegory, like the Baroque, had been considered a decadent form of symbolism. Symbolism, in its purity, idealized and subdues the material object, totalizes its meaning and signification. The allegory, in contrast, is a sheer hemorrhage of significations that disrupt meaning and coherence. This surplus of signification called “écriture” by later French writers, contrasted the purity of speech (the Classical) to the impurity of writing (the Baroque).

For the modern reader The Origin of German Tragic Drama is a difficult slog and the best advice one can give to skip over the obscure theatrical productions that languish (deservedly) in obscurity and to seek the fragments of insight from Benjamin. The writer contrasted the Classical Hero in Greek tragedy who is silent in his suffering, in his tragic and unspeakable fate. In his inability of speak, this hero become superior to the gods and thus transcends not just the deities but also history itself. But the Baroque hero is mired in history that is natural and not timeless. This hero must be noble so that his fall will be from a high place, suggesting that his suffering is more of a social humiliation than a preordained tragedy from a fatal flaw. The Classical tragic hero wrestles with the inextricable workings of Fate but the Baroque hero is but one character amid a larger cast who—not gods—are his fellow actors.

Therefore, according to Benjamin, “tragic drama” is not “tragedy.” Tragedy is about mourning. Tragic drama is about melancholy. as Like Sigmund Freud in a paper, On Mourning and Melancholia, which had been delivered in 1917, Benjamin separated “mourning”—classical tragedy form “melancholia”—tragic drama. Indeed, Benjamin identified Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, as melancholy. If the Classical is that which is timeless and transcendent, then its eternal life must be contrasted to the historicism and decay of the Baroque. If the Classical is that which is whole, complete, and self-sufficient, the Baroque is a mere collection of those left-behind details, fragments of a melancholy cult of decay. Benjamin forces the reader to examine these fragments, these “found objects” of the Baroque allegory.

Although Benjamin used the Hegelian notion of the dialectic to study an obscure and devalued topic, Baroque theater in Germany, Benjamin’s thinking was greatly influenced by Surrealist strategies for discovering the “marvelous.” The marvelous was a mental state that resulted from the isolation of the object, resulting in defamiliarization and the shock of defamiliarity on the part of the now-dazzled viewer. The frozen object is estranged from context and is freed to take on new meanings.

Like the Marvelous, the allegorical discourse is characterized by doubleness; the object is expressionless and yet possesses unbridled expression. The object is purged of mystified immanence and is capable of multiple uses. In its plurality, the frozen object can contain and radiate a bricoulage of elements, and because the allegory lays bare its devices (demystifies), the visual figure defeats symbolism. Symbolism, by its very nature, “disguises,” as Erwin Panofsky would say, but Allegory ostentatiously displays its construction. But its meaning is de-centered and refuses to submit to the totality of structure.

Benjamin connected allegory to the death of symbol and to the decline of aura in commodity production. He linked the atomizing of the objects to Baudelaire’s observation of commodity culture where objects become abstracted and acquire an arbitrary status. The commodity exists as fragment, ambiguous and ephemeral, and becomes fetish. The object become overwritten, a palimpsest bearing unconscious traces of its aura and authenticity, neither of which exist, except as trace. The object is reinvented as an emblem by Renaissance scholars and became the stylistic principle of Baroque art. Rather than symbol, the emblem is code, pictorial codes or “thing pictures” (dingbilder) or a rebus, as Freud would have expressed it. The allegorical form, however, is capable of capturing historical experience, which is why Postmodern Critical Theory would be so interested in Allegory.

Art, for the Critical Theorist, must be grounded in history. Aesthetics attempts to turn an object into radiance and to transform exaltation into transcendence. This process of aestheticizing the object idealizes the work but in a negative fashion, for the memory or history of the object is transfigured into a “sentimental glow”. Allegory, in contrast, is not radiant and extinguishes, along with light, the false glow of totality. Allegory admits that history is ruins and acknowledges the transitory nature of things. The allegory, lodged in history, is beyond (idealized) beauty. The allegorical form is petrified and frozen in the landscape of history, destroying aesthetics. The governing law of aesthetics is not totality but antinomy and the dialectic is used as a mechanism of reversal of extremes.

Allegory depends upon conventions, which may be cheapened and degraded. Allegory is a gathering, a collection of things, a combination of references that are assembled through a law that combines scatteredness and collectedness. The arrangement of these collections is slack. The most important allegorical figure is the fragment, which is imaged by an architectural ruin, ravaged by time. For Benjamin, it was important to acknowledge that history was a ruin, in a state of decay, for history could be appropriated and idealized or aestheticized.

The Origin of German Tragic Drama brings together a number of tendencies in Germany at the early stages of the Twentieth Century. Benjamin noted that Göethe, the Classicist, rejected allegory. In his epic essay, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, German poet, Friedrich Schiller was correct in understanding his friend, Göethe, as being “naïve” in that the older poet was immune from history and created art from an internal force. The “sentimental” artist, however, is more akin to Benjamin’s allegorical maker, who makes it very clear that an allegorical object is being put together through an act of bricolage.

It is important to note that the mechanics of the allegory are not concealed or, as Brecht would have it, “naturalized”. The assemblage that is allegory is always grounded in the truth. Schiller’s sentimental artist may have mourned the loss of innocence and may have suffered from alienation but this artist is deeply connected to the history of his/her period. Karl Marx pointed out that in an era of commodification, it would be the fate of art to become allegory. That is, art, in becoming commodified would loose its “halo” and in its unsacred condition could be appropriated and turned into a fetish.

Art as allegory is alienated art. The allegorist is thus both elegiac and satirical, but Benjamin foregrounds the condition of mourning and melancholy, pictured in ruins. And yet, like Charles Baudelaire, Benjamin is torn. He mourns the loss of the Old Paris, but like a Baudelarian flâneur, strolls through time and collects fragments or “remnants” and recombines them into an excess of writing. Benjamin’s writings were very metaphorical, as though he turned to the past to express the future. He understood Baudelaire’s metropolis as a manifestation of space within which new technologies were displayed as spectacle.

In an age of secular spectacle, fashion would be king and anything could be fashion, which is the ultimate form of “false consciousness” and cultural distraction. Benjamin is fascinated with death and that which is dead, the corpse. Once the object becomes a fetish and is alienated from social production and social use, it becomes fashion and is worshiped as a commodity. The fetish is inorganic as opposed the corpse, which is organic.

Feeling that European culture was in a condition of crisis, Benjamin’s gaze is Janus-like. He understood the past could only exist as ruins and that its fragments would only be displaced into the present as fetishes. The future was even more bleak and marked by a mourning for the past. The future could never be authentic; art could only be allegorical; and Baudelaire as the quintessential poet-critic exemplified the only stance of the artist that of an observer of the spectacle, alienated and enlivened only by cynical commentary. Although we can read his literary action as allegorist in The Arcades Project, the work of Benjamin was re-read by postmodern critics and philosophers as portents of Postmodernism.

The arbitrary and nostalgic piling on of historical traces torn from the fabric of time, decontextualized and overwritten by the present, while retaining the trace of the past would be the prime strategy of postmodernism. The Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, who survived Benjamin, would complete the setting of the stage for Postmodernism. Critical Theory would be developed in its contemporary form after the Second World War, in the wake of the Holocaust. “There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin prophetically remarked in his essay On the Concept of History of 1937.

Benjamin’s insight that a dislocated history could be nostalgically fetishized for the Nazi cause, that art would become allegory and could be fetishized as propaganda seemed both prophetic and tragic. All that he feared came true. Towards the end of what would turn out to be his only book, Walter Benjamin wrote,

Allegory goes away empty-handed. Evil as such, which it cherished as enduring profundity, exists only in allegory, is nothing other than allegory, and means something different from what it is. It means precisely the non-existence of what it presents. The absolute vices, as exemplified by tyrants and intriguers, are allegories. They are not real and that which they represent, they possess only in the subjective view of melancholy; they are this view, which is destroyed by its own offspring because they only signify its blindness.

And then he concluded,

In the ruins of great buildings the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings…Others may shine resplendently as on the first day; this form preserves the image of beauty to the very last.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


“The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936, Part Two

Re-reading “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

by Walter Benjamin

Part Two

“What is aura actually? A strange weave of space and time:

the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.

Decades after the death of Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in its Age of Technological Reproducibility was often mis-read and misunderstood, but in its own time, this essay had a profound impact upon the thinking of Benjamin’s friend Theodor Adorno. Benjamin essentially raised the issues of both the (re)definition of art in an age of mass media and of the impact of art once it could be dispersed over the vastness of time and space. While Benjamin lived, art teetered on the precipice of a precipitous fall into popular culture, where it would be engulfed: simply an image among other images. Benjamin apparently realized—quite keenly—that the traditional work of art existed as “art” by virtue of its uniqueness and specificity and its sense of place and history.

Almost a decade after the death of his colleague, Adorno, working with Max Horkheimer, examined “The Culture Industry” in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Adorno and Horkheimer were alerted by Benjamin of the unholy alliance between politics and art, but Benjamin’s larger project in his “Work of Art” essay was more subtle. Benjamin was interested in the new mode of perception ushered in by modern mechanical reproduction. In other words, his essay recalls the anxieties of the Ninth Century Iconoclasts that the image might replace the authenticity of the Divine with a simulacra and anticipates the predictions of Jean Baudrillard that the simulacra will be substituted for the real. The central question of the “Work of Art” essay is how do we see and how to we think now that we are exposed to reproductions which are inherently and definitionally not real but are simulacra?

Of singular importance to this question is the association between Benjamin and the Weimar film writer, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). Kracauer, like Benjamin, had a Neo-Kantian background and was one of the intellectual pioneers in formulating a theory for film, a new art form and a new form of mass media. The Benjamin essay, therefore, needs to be understood from a dual perspective. First, Benjamin examined the idea of the substitution of the object for its reproduction and second, he was concerned with the new mode of cognition wrought by this new “Age.” As Kantians, both film writers, Kracauer and Benjamin, would have been concerned about the impact of a mechanical apparatus mediating reality—a mass social experience that Kant could not have anticipated when he posited his “Copernican Revolution.” The means of delivery had the potential of superceding content, a phenomenon best stated by Marshall McLuhan as “the medium is the message.”

Almost a hundred years ago, at the dawn of mass media, Benjamin was concerned with the idea of “origin” or authenticity in relation to “the work of art.” If the origin of art can be located or known, then authenticity can be assured. Authenticity is deeply connected with Benjamin’s ephemeral but powerful notion of “aura.” “Aura” in turn can be traced back to the remote origins of art embedded in objects deemed sacred by the tribe. “Aura” refers to that “quality” which defined “art”—its inaccessibility, its remoteness, its distance from the observer/worshiper. Art—or that special object set aside from normal social life—was always a cult object, viewed but never approached, venerated but never touched. However, reproductive technology was in the process of dispelling “aura” by making a cult object visible and available through an endless reproduction. As Benjamin wrote, “By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique experience.”

Instead of taking a pilgrimage to view a sacred relic, the “pilgrim” of Benjamin’s time had only to turn the page of an art magazine to view a work of art. The reproduction provided a substitute for the “real thing” and gave the audience a sense, however fleeting, of accessibility if not ownership. Benjamin thought that the masses wanted to get closer to the object in their “concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness.” The precise “thing” that gave art its “aura” must be assimilated into a mass experience. Benjamin understood that in the age of “mechanical reproduction” “art” needed to be understood from another point of view, one that did not depend upon the inaccessibility or cult status of the object. He also understood that the entire apparatus of mass media reproduction, especially film, had a profound impact upon how people would perceive the world—through the mediating actions of images. These images would be ubiquitous and would bear messages of all kinds. Unlike the work of art, these images would be partial, fragmented, un-whole, and conveyed via montage, which sliced through time and space, deploying incomplete impressions. Nevertheless, such images could be powerful and impactful.

For wholeness and authenticity and completeness and, ultimately, “aura,” “technological reproduction” of an image must suffice and substitute for the human’s mysterious need for images. These notions of origin and authenticity and the vanishing point of aura also refer to the bourgeois ego, also on the point of vanishing into the commodity spell of capitalism. Since the time of “high capitalism,” the ego or one’s sense of individuality or uniqueness or one’s “aura,” if you will had become more and more of an illusion. Individuality had to be processed or expressed through commodities which substituted for uniqueness. The moment of the writing of this essay—1936 in Paris—was a time of crisis for the work of art and for the intellectual freedom of the consumer, perpetually under the spell of an increasingly technological society fueled by commodities. Thanks to technological reproducibility, art could be dislodged from its site of origin and from its place in history and could be magically transported into the present where it could be possessed or repossessed, used or misused. Under such a system, aura would wither and decline.

“Aura” was an odd topic for this most Jewish of Jewish writers to take up, for traditional Judaism forbad “graven images.” Art and its aura was a manifestly Christian tradition, but Benjamin understood art as having its origins in the rituals of the (prehistoric) cult—an object of veneration upon which human feelings of awe was projected. He defined “aura” as that which is generated by and from the work of art when it functioned as a cult object within ritual due to the distance between the relic and the worshiper. The psychological and physical space between the spectator and the relic created an aura that could be completely dispelled when the distance vanished. Mechanical Reproduction had the capability to bring that worshiped object down to earth, as it were, and place in within visual reach of the viewer.

“Auratic perception” could be defined as an atmosphere enveloping the object. The subject’s position is one of contemplation or repose, a mental absorption in the object, an “intent attentiveness.” But with the possibilities of reproductive technology, art was displaced from its position of distance and and could be captured and owned through mechanical reproduction. The gaze becomes a quick and casual look. Satisfaction comes, not from deep immersion in the “aura,” but in the acquisition of another commodity. In other words, the antique “attentiveness” was, in modern times, disrupted by the effects of mass reproduction of images, requiring little more than a passing glance.

Whereas both Karl Marx and Charles Baudelaire discussed the loss of the halo worn by those who had once made “art,” Max Weber used the term Entzauberung or “demystification,” or the loss of enchantment, in the world to explain the loss of “aura.” As Baudelaire wrote in his famous Petits poèmes en prose (1869):

Just now, as I was crossing the boulevard, and hopping in the mud, in quite a hurry, through the shifting chaos where death comes galloping from all sides at once, my halo slipped off my head, in one abrupt movement, into the mire of the macadam. I didn’t have the guts to pick it up. I considered it less disagreeable to lose my insignia than to break my bones. And anyways, I said to myself, misfortune is good for something. Now I can walk about incognito, commit foul acts, and indulge in debauchery like ordinary mortals. So here I am, just like you, as you can see!

Acutely aware that Baudelaire had previously written of art’s “decay,” Benjamin examined the possible role of the art object in a secularized and modernized culture. As Rob Halpern wrote in Modernist Cultures in 2009,

Rather than protest or mourn his loss, however, Baudelaire’s angel accepts his fallen condition “into the mire of the macadam.” By resigning himself in this way, the poem registers an awareness that the traditional artwork or poem could no longer claim a unique value, and that aesthetic authenticity – in this case, the elevated status of lyric poetry – had become incompatible with modern experience, whose transformation, Benjamin argues, was inseparable from the domination of life by the commodity, and the disfiguration of social relations by the dynamics of capitalist production.

Clearly, there is a line of thinking from Charles Baudelaire to Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno connecting capitalism and mass reproduction with the loss of the “halo” or “aura.” Some twenty years later, André Malraux would take up the idea of reproducing works of art in his book, Museum Without Walls. By then, art history books and reproduction of works of art was commonplace, but, in the Thirties, when this use of reproductive technology was in its infancy, and Benjamin was concerned about the fate of art. Indeed, it is possible to become sidetracked over the questions of reproduction and it is important to remember that Benjamin’s concerns were aesthetic—in a modern era, what is art?

Can art exist without “aura?” The question for Benjamin is where and when did the status of auratic art begin to decay? The atavistic, sacred, and mythic character of the cult object was transformed in the Renaissance, a period of secularization, as European societies increasing became less spiritual and more material. “Art” was displaced from ritual and replaced into a cult of beauty and thus became profaned by what was (the wrong kind of) a new kind of appreciation. In other words, the frescoes of Michelangelo might be admired for their sheer artistic beauty which could override the sacred message. In fact this clear threat could have been the cause for the aggressive censorship of The Last Judgment. The result for aesthetics was contradictory—on one hand, art was emancipated from its dependence upon ritual, but on the other hand, the work of art became a fetish with mystifying character due to its former role as a cult object. Benjamin asserted that, “mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.” But to be clear, Benjamin was not referring to “art-for-art’s-sake” but to the severance of the connection between art and distance. This “decay,” as it were, was a new condition for sacred objects (art).

For Benjamin the reproduction of works of art, which are unique, part of ritual and sacred practices, destroys the authority of art. Loss of authenticity or aura destroys the very “rootedness” of art. This “aura” Benjamin discusses is the result of distance which is decayed by the desire of the masses to bring things closer both in human and in spatial terms. This loss of distance between the viewer and the work of art and the replacement of aura with familiarity lead to the universal equality of things, or what Benjamin called the “cult of similarity.” On this point, his friend in the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, will not only agree but will also appropriate some of his colleague’s insights. For Adorno, equality will lead to “identity thinking” and he will recommend the philosophical position of “negative dialectics” to counteract the deadly and totalitarian effects of demanding totalization of thinking.

Once the apparatus of mechanical reproduction is established, then art is produced for reproduction, fundamentally changing the character of art, which was once unique and original. Without uniqueness and originality and authenticity, art has no aura. Art is displaced from the cult and its cult value is replaced by its exhibitionary value. Once art is on film (reproduced) or is film (photography or movies) its aura “shrivels” and ”withers” to the extent that the distance is diminished. But Benjamin was concerned with the difference between the “first technology” or the desire to master nature and the “second technology,” or film, of which he said, ” The function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.”

Benjamin, however, had hope for mechanical reproduction. Like his colleague, Bertold Brecht, he hoped that cinema, as a mass media, could, and would be an instrument to awaken the masses. Film inherently tended to dissipate “aura” but Benjamin balanced losses against gains and the possibility of positive results. There is the possibility of a catharsis, of a clean slate, which starts by admitting the modern poverty of experience in a disenchanted world. New technology, used properly, could change the world. The Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, had hoped that montage or editing would emancipate the thinking of his audience.

Benjamin understood that montage could work in another fashion: that editing and constructing a film role could build up an actor’s “aura,” an effect clearly seen in Triumph of Will—the “star power” of Hitler, who was framed in such a fashion to make him look like a god. Plainly, Benjamin understood the danger of the “close up” to produce another kind of aura—a more dangerous cult could arise. But he also had faith in the possibility that mass audiences could organize their own responses to film and thus, perhaps, emancipate themselves by using avenues of resistance and expression that “art” does not provide. He stated,

“Not only does the cult of the movie star which it fosters preserve the magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its commodity character, but its counterpart the cult of the audience, reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses.”

For Benjamin, the loss of aura was deeply tied to a more profound crisis, and the loss of the aura of art was but a symptom of this crisis. Borrowing from Marx and combining these insights with those of Freud, Benjamin dated the crisis from the end of the Great War to the end of the Weimer Republic, culminating in the seizure of power by the Nazis. This crisis was the shattering of tradition, a tradition that had guaranteed coherence, communicability and the transmissibility of experience—the accumulation of unconscious data called “memory.”

Erfahfung”, that assimilation of sensations, information, and events into an integrated experience had given way to “Erlebnis” or (modern) experience reduced to a series of atomized and unarticulated moments merely lived through. Baudelaire understood modern experience, and Benjamin who wrote extensively on Baudelaire, while he was in exile in Paris, oscillated between celebrating this new culture and mourning the loss of traditional culture. He was horrified by the new political barbarism he saw and was pained by the new poverty of experience, mediated by mass culture.

Indeed, in the early years of the Frankfurt School, the scholars did empirical studies which revealed that the masses were inherently passive and uninterested in rising up politically to help themselves through political revolution. Benjamin watched while the forces of fascism took hold of the passivity of the masses and mobilized them to the cause of keeping property relations unchanged. In other words, fascism gave the proletarian mobs the illusion of participating in shaping their own destiny while they remained powerless.

The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction is often reprinted in a truncated form and was, in effect, intellectually and anachronistically “rewritten” for the purposes of re-contextualizing the work of Benjamin in the contemporary context of the art world. Art historians who rediscovered Benjamin in the 1980s depoliticized his thinking. However, this essay was very much concerned with politics, particular the rise of fascism, which manipulates the masses through art forms. Benjamin begins this essay by stating that under the “present conditions of production” (mechanical), “outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” can be used by Fascism, or they can be used for “the formulation of revolutionary demands of the politics of art.”

Benjamin understood that Fascism, like the Roman Empire before it, would attempt to provide bread and circuses to distract the masses. He also saw the danger that aesthetics and politics could be linked to war:

Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, which Fascism, with its Fuehrer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus, which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war…Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.

The “self-alienation” of society, Benjamin continues, “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics, which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”


Thus ends one of the most significant essays for the Postmodern Condition. However, the historical context of this essay was lost, as, when the work was finally translated, it was released in America during the high verses low culture debate. Certainly, Benjamin understood that once art was displaced from its auratic function, art could float from high to low, but his interest was more in what would later be termed “appropriation” or in what Clement Greenberg clearly saw was “kitsch” or the appearance or semblance of “art,” watered down for mass consumption. After the emergence of Pop Art in the 1960s, the work of Benjamin was recontextualized and distorted to fit into Pop’s use of ready-made imagery.

In part one of this section on the “Work of Art” essay, the question was asked if this meditation on that which has been lost by Walter Benjamin has any value today, one hundred years later. In the twenty-first century, we enjoy the fruits of mechanical reproduction and “technological reproducibility.” We are inundated with images, bombarded by media, from twenty-four hour cable to radio stations that never go off the air to the faux intimacy of the Internet. All “information” gets the same weight and accountability to the “facts” is often absent. Media has become a commodity which needs to be bought and sold, meaning that intellectuals and ideas, as Marx foretold, are part of capitalist transactions.

Most people know “art” only from mechanical reproductions, augmented by occasional visits to a museum or gallery. Television flattens the intellectual landscape by giving equal value to reality shows and Masterpiece Theater. The movie industry produces entertainment for the lowest common denominator (the teenage boy) and news “papers” are becoming extinct and morphing into apps. One wonders what Benjamin would have thought. It is possible he would have delighted in the openness of the World Wide Web and would have been thrilled at the emergence of the “Arab Spring” via cell phone and blogging, but he would have grieved at television being appropriated by corporate interests, which use the concept of “news” to manipulate and dominate the masses.

When his essays were translated into English in the 1980s and made available for a wider readership, the cultural context of his essay made it clear that the writer was struggling between what he could clearly see as a misuse of “culture” and the great liberating possibilities of bringing images and people together. Here is this benign field of entertainment the dominant ideology can be challenged and perhaps changed. Years later, greatly indebted to Benjamin’s ideas, Theodor Adorno would write of a dominate “culture industry” that served to support the prevailing belief system. Benjamin would not live to see how this culture industry came to dominate and shape “reality” or how the internet allowed the people to lay their hands on “the media.” If he were alive today, Benjamin would probably be on the internet, blogging away.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin, Part Two

WALTER BENJAMIN (1892 -1940)

Life and Work: Part Two

Working for German publications, Walter Benjamin earned enough money to spend some months in Paris where, in 1927, he began his famous and unfinished Arcades Project. As one would imagine, he and his wife Dora divorced and in 1930 Benjamin published his Habilitation and a new essay, dedicated to his lover, Asja Lacis, One Way Street, in 1928. This essay is a montage about Paris after Baudelaire. Here Benjamin showed his knowledge of Russian films, which excelled in the use of modern editing techniques and we see the beginnings of his intuition that film was created a disembodied eye and a new way of perceiving. The short snippets of his impressions of Paris are laced with cryptic observations such as, “All disgust is originally disgust at touching” and “Warmth is ebbing from things.”

Benjamin’s heightened sense of the overlooked, the passed by, the trace made him open to the ideas of Surrealism. In an essay of the same year entitled Surrealism. The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, he wrote,

The Surrealists’ Paris, too, is a “little universe”. That is to say, in the larger one, the cosmos, things look no different. There, too, are crossroads where ghostly signals flash from the traffic, and inconceivable analogies and connections between events are the order of the day. It is the region from which the lyric poetry of Surrealism reports. And this must be noted if only to counter the obligatory misunderstanding of l’art pour l’art. For art’s sake was scarcely ever to be taken literally; it was almost always a flag under which sailed a cargo that could not be declared because it still lacked a name. This is the moment to embark on a work that would illuminate as has no other the crisis of the arts that we are witnessing: a history of esoteric poetry. Nor is it by any means fortuitous that no such work yet exists. For written as it demands to be written—that is, not as a collection to which particular “specialists” all contribute “what is most worth knowing” from their fields, but as the deeply grounded composition of an individual who, from inner compulsion, portrays less a historical evolution than a constantly renewed, primal upsurge of esoteric poetry— written in such a way it would be one of those scholarly confessions that can be counted in every century. The last page would have to show an X-ray picture of Surrealism.

During the 1920s, Benjamin considered on two different occasions the possibility of emigrating to Palestine but rejected the idea. One can only imagine “what if” he had gone to this safe place. He would have lived, yes, but what would he have written about, cut off from the cities that nourished him, Berlin and Paris? Benjamin remained in Europe and traveled back and forth between Berlin and Paris and made the transition from mysticism to materialism. As would be indicated by the variegated influences upon the writer, Benjamin was never an orthodox Marxist and shied away from the use of the dialectic. By the end of the decade, he was adrift as an home de lettres, a polite phrase for a literary career marked by written fragments and short reviews. It could be said that he did not find his true voice until he completed his decade of apprenticeship and entered into the 1930s.

The beginning of the decade of the Thirties was the end of the old and the beginning of the new for Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s mature materialist work during the early 1930s was greatly impacted by Bertolt Brecht’s Marxist ideas of intervention with bourgeois complacency. His friends in the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno, were not happy with the impact of the “crude Marxism” of Brecht on Benjamin’s thinking. Benjamin wrote favorably of Brecht (who was not impressed with Benjamin) and elucidated the producer’s ideas in What is Epic Theater? (two versions) 1939. In addition, published after his death were Brecht’s “Threepenny Novel” and Conversations with Brecht. Written in Paris in 1934 (but never published in his lifetime), The Author as Producer is perhaps his most Brechtian expression of the role and function of the writer in modern times.

Benjamin was dedicated to writing an engaged form of cultural criticism that responded to the every shifting environment of Berlin and then Paris and was, therefore, more attuned to modern times than professors in the ivory tower. He was sensitive to the moods of his times and could veer easily among them, writing of smoking Hashish in Marsailles, 1932 and of The Destructive Character, 1931. The latter work is precinct: “The character knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.” Benjamin’s earlier writing, Critique of Violence, was related to his interests in Kant’s moral imperatives—morality had to be universal and logical and disinterested. He wrote in 1921 of legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence but a decade later, Benjamin notes the youthful unthinking destructiveness alive in his nation, a destructiveness that is all instinct and completely without moral foundation.

Benjamin was now acutely watchful of the political direction in Germany. He was aware that the rise of the Nazis would mean trouble for all intellectuals, especially Jews. Benjamin wasted no time in leaving Germany after Hitler came into power and went to his second home, Paris. Paris was very different city from Berlin; Berlin was one of the centers of modernity in mass media and mass culture, from film to advertising to radio, while Paris was a place more connected to the past—at least in terms of how Benjamin would later write of it. Although Paris, in its own way, was also modern, Benjamin seemed to have been sensitive to the history that haunted the City of Light, its streets, its structures, its arcades. Benjamin assumed the mantel of the poet Baudelaire and became a flâneur, roaming the city’s past. But it was here in this city that the writer was able to combine the rise of mass media and the resulting development of a new consciousness in Berlin with his sensitivity to the ghosts of Paris.

While in Paris, Benjamin wrote A Short History of Photography where his habitual way of thinking in terms of mysticism reemerges and he developed the famous concept of “aura,” which would reappear five years later in the 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction. The “Artwork” essay is, like the essay on photography, almost epistemological, forays into the nature of photography and mass media in modern life. Aura is used in two very different fashions. For the “Artwork” article, aura is about the loss of “art” as it was once understood as a cult object, and in the “Photography” history, aura is about haunting. The ghost of Paris that inspired the idea of aura was the photographer Eugène Atget who had recently died. Like Baudelaire and like Benjamin, Atget had wandered the streets in Paris, capturing its unexpected corners and details with his big viewfinder camera. With Atget Paris seemed eternal and unchanging and uninhabited except for that which has passed and left its traces.

And then this refuge became a place of danger. From 1935, the Frankfurt School in exile in New York had been financially supporting Benjamin, who was loath to leave Europe. But time ran out and Hitler began the war longed for by the German people and the Wermacht rolled east. At first, it was the French who, at the outbreak of the War, indiscriminately rounded up all Germans and Austrians on September 3, 1939, and Benjamin was swept up and placed in the Internment Camp at Nevers. It seems clear that from that point on Benjamin lost his moorings and was emotionally shattered by this sudden turn to his fortunes. Once again, he had lost his place

In a brief 1988 essay, Walter Benjamin in the Internment Camp, Hans Sahl wrote movingly of the frail and fragile philosopher suddenly thrown into the “notorious Stade Colombe.” The two men waited on the stone steps and Benjamin, as Sahl reported, like a good Marxist tried to unmask the reality but his gift for seeing the whole through detail did not allow him to grasp “reality as a façade.” When they arrived in Nevers they became part of a remarkable temporary society described by Sahl. “Orderly” Germans organized groups and remade working society, complete with Benjamin, watched over by a young disciple, teaching an “advanced class” to devotees. Finally, the French PEN club arranged for the release of Benjamin but now he had only six weeks left before the Germans invaded France.

With France under the heel of the Germans, all Jews in France, refugees or natives, were now targets of an extermination machine. After being in Paris for only a few months, in the summer of 1940, the Nazis seized his prized library. For Benjamin, the quintessential wandering Jew, his books were his home. One of his loveliest essays is Unpacking My Library. A Talk about Book Collecting, in 1931. He begins, “I am unpacking my library. Yes I am.” He describes himself as a “collector” and ends with

“…a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.”

At the time of the seizure there were probably over 2000 volumes in his possession. All of Benjamin’s books were gone. For someone who was so deeply identified with his books, to be stripped of his library was the equivalent of his being stripped of his soul. The swift seizure of libraries and, indeed, all personal property of the Jews, was the beginning of stripping Jews, first of their social place, their jobs, and then of their private possessions. This process of isolation and dispossession and hopelessness, which overwhelmed the Jews would culminate in the Final Solution and the near extermination of a people.

The stolen possessions of Jews, most of whom perished long ago in concentration camps, continue to this day to surface as stolen property, masquerading as “works of art” in museums who are loathe to give up their possessions. Entire libraries were appropriated and dispersed, never to be recovered. For Walter Benjamin, a write and a thinker, the loss of his literary possessions was a crushing blow. When the Gestapo emptied his Paris apartment of his books, they only took away a small part of his collection. Half of the books had already been smuggled out of Paris, and most of the remaining collection was given to the Bibliotéque Nationale by Surrealist writer, Georges Bataille, to whom it was entrusted.

After Benjamin was interned in a French holding camp at Nevers, he was returned to the Nazis by the collaborationist Vichy government. He managed to obtain an emergency visa and joined a party of refugees, taking an unguarded road over the Pyrenees towards the Spanish border. Like many of the other refugees seeking asylum, Benjamin walked on foot from France to Spain…a latter day pilgrim. This and other routes had been taken to freedom by well-known cultural dissidents, but on the day Benjamin arrived, the Spanish decided to close the border. Although Spain was a fascist nation, Franco ensured that the country remain neutral during the Second World War.

Switzerland used its neutrality to become the banker to the fascists and to become the keepers of Jewish wealth, but Spain became a conduit to freedom for refugees, opening and closing the border capriciously. Seasoned refugees knew to sit and wait. Benjamin was sensitive and highly-strung and dislocated from his home, his work, and his library. Unlike his colleagues and friends, he did not want to go to America and had no great will to survive. He had carried with him fifteen tablets of morphine (enough to kill several people) and when turned away at Port-Bou, Spain took them all. He refused to have his stomach pumped out and died in agony September 26, 1940. Horrified at such a gruesome suicide, the Spanish government.

Benjamin had long been planning to kill himself. His death was simply a question of when. In 1931, he stayed on the island of Ibiza for three months writing a chronicle on his relationship to Berlin or a journey through his childhood. Benjamin’s book was a summation of his life, a preparation for death. It was here on this island that he began to plan his suicide. Even though he lived a few more years, it was clear that his time as a writer in Berlin was coming to a close and that his writing had reached a kind of apogee. In a touching letter to Gershom Scholem, an old and dear friend and colleague, he wrote of “the deep tiredness” he felt as he watched the slow seizure of power by the Nazis. Opportunities for intellectuals were vanishing, as was the way of life that had sparked his writing. Ironically, it was in the last years of his life, while he waited for death, that his most influential work was written on the nature of “auratic” art. It is possible that he could have survived yet another displacement to New York, but Benjamin was not as tough as his colleagues and, when Spain closed its gate, there seemed no compelling reason to resist his longing for death.

The Frankfurt School was horrified and depressed at the loss of their eccentric colleague. After Benjamin’s death, it was Theodor Adorno who struggled to preserve his friend’s works and insisted on keeping his reputation alive. Along with Hannah Arendt, another intellectual refugee in New York, he labored to collect and publish Benjamin’s writings. As early as 1942, publication of his works in German began. English translation of his works was to take four decades. Some important essays by Benjamin were published in Reflections and Illuminations, including Critique of Violence, 1921, The Arcades or Passagenbeit, The Author as Producer, 1934 and The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, and A Short History of Photography, What is Epic Theater? 1939, and Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 1939. Of these essays, the “Artwork” essay is the most famous today and this writing will be discussed in the next post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin, Part One

WALTER BENJAMIN (1892 -1940)

Life and Work: Part One

Like many Jewish intellectuals in Germany, Walter Benjamin considered himself “German”. His family was privileged and fully assimilated into the larger German society. It would be this stratum of German society that would be the most unguarded and the most threatened by the Nazis. Intellectuals thought of Hitler as a passing moment in the struggle of a desperate people to recover from and devastating and humiliating war and stood aside and let the masses have their say. All too soon, those who could have formulated intelligent dissent found themselves faced with impossible choices: dissent and go to a death camp, remain silent and become complicit, slip quietly into exile before it was too late. One way or the other, they would all be silenced.

As an intellectual and a Jew, Benjamin was doubly in danger. Assimilated and privileged Jews assumed that they were “Germans” first and Jews second. Indeed many Jews had converted or simply downplayed their religious identity. It was a shock when they learned that “German” had been redefined, not as a nationality, but as a “race” and that “race” was Aryan. The Nazis descended immediately upon the artists, the writers, the thinkers, and the Jews. The cream of German intellectuals left for other nations, becoming nomads and displaced persons. Most of these scholars and artists survived and even thrived in their new surroundings. Billy Wilder, film director, Erwin Panofsky, art historian, Marlena Dietrich, actor, Alfred Einstein, scientist—all contributed to American and world culture—and all would have died under Hitler.

Gentiles and dangerous literary figures, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, migrated from Germany and became unemployed writers in Hollywood. Brecht felt stranded in this sunny land of capitalism, while Mann was much more comfortable in his new home. As writers, both were separated from their native language and from the culture that had nurtured their creativity, as were all the refugees. The State Department of America, a bastion of anti-Semitism, was willing to grant refuge to only a handful of certain Jews of privilege, such as Theodor Adorno, who was half-Jewish. Head of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer, arranged for Benjamin to get out of German-occupied France and obtained a visa to America for him. But Walter Benjamin was a reluctant exile.

Unexpectedly, an entire generation of German intellectuals would become refugees and their work would be suddenly be divided into segments of before and after their displacement. The oeuvre of Walter Benjamin is a case in point. Although there are continuities in his ideas and preoccupations, the writer’s output can be divided into three sections: his youthful post-student work, aimed at getting him a post in a German university, his free-lance literary writings as a cultural critic in Berlin and finally the work of his exile years in Paris.

When Benjamin was born, Germany was barely twenty years old, a very new and very young modern nation. That said, the new country acted in an anachronistic way, starting an imperialistic war on its neighbors. The cultural mindset that dragged a modern nation into an old fashioned war was discredited, and after the Great War, Germany was forced to look forward into the future. The result was the remarkable efflorescence of Weimar Germany. Benjamin was a student during the War and came of age in city of the edge of trying everything new and daring, a city plunging into modernity. For astute observers, Paris was displaced as the center of avant-garde innovation and Berlin took the lead in artistic experimentation.

Benjamin spent the years of the War translating Charles Baudelaire and studying German Romantic poets at the universities of Berlin and Munich. He received his doctoral degree for his work on German Romanticism. During his studies, he married and had a child and the young family returned to Berlin. In the immediate post-war years, Berlin was awash with the casualties of the War, from prostituted war widows to crippled veterans to the psychologically maimed. Although he was opposed to the Great War, Benjamin explored the nature of violence in one of his earliest works, A Critique of Violence, 1921. Benjamin’s later work would always be poetic, concerned with metaphor, and was deeply allusive and often elliptical in its references.

After the Institute for Social Research was founded in 1923, Benjamin made the acquaintance of Theodor Adorno. On one hand, he began reading Georg Lukács and on the other hand, Benjamin was publishing work on Baudelaire. However complex his intellectual interests, Benjamin was intent on becoming a university professor and continued his rather disjointed self-education by reading Lukács’ Marxist theories while writing the Trauerspeil on the Island of Capri in 1924. Although Benjamin is often associated with the Frankfurt School, which was distinctly Marxist at that time, he was not a professional scholar, teaching at a university. That said Benjamin shared with these philosophers an understanding of contemporary thought through a combination of neo-Kantianism from the Marburg School and Marxism.

In a recent book, 2011, The Messianic Reduction. Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time, Peter Fenves fully discusses Benjamin’s philosophical roots and quotes the writer’s own words, “In particular and in ever-repeated reading, during my time as a student, I concerned myself with Plato and Kant, in connection with Husserl’s philosophy and the Marburg school.” However, the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, while also deeply steeped in Kant, were rigorously Marxist and more fully conversant with Marxist theories. In contrast, Benjamin’s more casual and personal “take” on Marxism was mediated through Kant’s concepts on morality and with Jewish mysticism, especially on the Kabbalah. Benjamin’s Marxism was personal and idiosyncratic and unorthodox.

During the first years of his literary career, in post-war Germany, Benjamin was not political but engaged in what he called “redemptive criticism.” When he turned to Marxism, it was because he approached Communism as a moral imperative that demanded certain political forms of action. But he was not systematically trained in Marxist though and arrived at his ideas through readings of his own selection. Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, written in 1923 in the wake of the post-war political upheavals commented,

Capitalism, by contrast, is a revolutionary form par excellence. The fact that it must necessarily remain in ignorance of the objective economic limitations of its own system expresses itself as an internal, dialectical contradiction in its class consciousness. This means that formally the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie is geared to economic consciousness. And indeed the highest degree of unconsciousness, the crassest, form of ‘false consciousness’ always manifests itself when the conscious mastery of economic phenomena appears to be at its greatest.

From the point of view of the relation of consciousness to society this contradiction is expressed as the irreconcilable antagonism between ideology and economic base. Its dialectics are grounded in the irreconcilable antagonism between the (capitalist) individual, i.e. the stereotyped individual of capitalism, and the ‘natural’ and inevitable process of development, i.e. the process not subject to consciousness. In consequence theory and practice are brought into irreconcilable opposition to each other. But the resulting dualism is anything but stable; in fact it constantly strives to harmonize principles that have been wrenched apart and thenceforth oscillate between a new ‘false’ synthesis and its subsequent cataclysmic disruption.

This internal dialectical contradiction in the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie is further aggravated by the fact that the objective limits of capitalism do not remain purely negative. That is to say that capitalism does not merely set ‘natural’ laws in motion that provoke crises which it cannot comprehend. On the contrary, those limits acquire a historical embodiment with its own consciousness and its own actions: the proletariat.

Despite his erudition and sincerity, this book came under harsh criticism from Lenin and Lukács was forced to denounce his own work. But Benjamin’s politicization can be dated from his reading of this book by Lukács in 1924, and his work took a new direction. By the mid-twenties 1920s, Benjamin had shifted his literary ground. He had broken with his family, and due to the financial crisis of the Republic, lost their financial support, and was adrift and living, as most commentators express it, “hand to mouth,” writing reviews on the cultural life in Berlin. Suddenly thrust out of the middle class, Benjamin became aware of class distinctions and political issues. He might have found the work of the Hungarian Marxist congenial because Lukács also came from a neo-Kantian background. Although they had acquaintances inn common, Lukács and Benjamin may not have met, despite the fact that the Hungarian was a refugee in Berlin from 1931 to 1933.

After his failed attempt in 1926 to find a place in the university system with his rejected thesis, or Habilitationsschrift, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama or “mourning play”),Benjamin became a free-lance journalist and translator. In pursuit of a woman with whom he had fallen in love, Asja Lacis, Benjamin took a trip to Moscow during the winter of 1926-17. The writer, an acute observer, combined an abject doomed unrequited love affair with an investigation of the workings of Communism. Like many such pilgrims to the Soviet Union, he was shorn of any illusions he may have harbored and seems to have been able to separate the totalitarian regime of Moscow from the theories of Marx in his later works.

In Part Two of this brief study of Walter Benjamin, I shall discuss his works of the 1930s, the last decade of his life.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The Surrealist Object



Surrealism was initially practiced in written form as textual production, as a means of freeing the literary mind from “writerly” conventions. Just as Sigmund Freud took dictation, so to speak, writing down what his patients told him, the Surrealists would write down the contents of their minds. If only they could awaken that deep level where the subconscious thoughts dwelled. At first, Surrealists resisted the visual in favor of language. Pierre Naville, who aspired to leadership with André Breton, said bluntly,

“Masters, master-crooks, smear your canvases. Everyone knows there is no surrealist painting. Neither the mark of a pencil abandoned to the accident of gesture, nor the image retracing the form of the dream…”

Naville, who edited the first three issues of La Revolution Surrealiste with Benjamin Peret, was eventually purged from the Surrealist group in 1933. With Breton firmly in charge of the journal and of the membership, Surrealism welcomed the visual artists to the ranks, usually by a kind of verbal anointing by the Pope. He gave the nod to such retrospective “Surrealists,” like de Chirico or selected the reluctant Magritte and included the surprised Kahlo. After Breton issued what turned out to be the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 he added his essay, Le Surrealism et la peinture in 1926, to his growing collection of writings on this new art movement. In the Surrealist Manifesto, Breton wrote of the importance of the dream,

“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.” He continued, “It is in quest of this surreality that I am going, certain not to find it but too unmindful of my death not to calculate to some slight degree the joys of its possession.”

It is here within the surreal fusion between dream and reality that the Surrealist object evolved. Certainly there is a connection between the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp and the Surrealist object, but Duchamp was always concerned with the discourse on the nature of art. Surrealism had other ideas about the object. On the occasion of the Exhibition of Surrealist Objects at the Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris in 1937, Breton wrote an essay on “The Crisis of the Object.” The installation provocatively showed Surrealist objects and so-called mathematical objects from the Institut Poincaré in glass cabinets, like ethnographic or more precisely, scientific specimens. Photographs of the exhitit show that “primitive” masks, Duchamp’s Bottle Rack and Why not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy were encased along with Alberto Giacometti’s Suspended Object and Oppenheim’s Luncheon in Fur.

Breton understood that the object had been in a state of “crisis” from, as he stated, about 1830 when scientific studies and poetic and artistic experimentations began to develop along parallel courses. On one hand, science studies objects as material things, and on the other hand, the arts manipulated objects for aesthetic purposes. Braque and Picasso actually dissolved the object into its own logical infinitude, thus making clear how acute the crisis had become. Surrealism, in contrast to many of the other avant-garde art movements, was not abstract; instead, Surrealism was a return to the concrete. Breton, a keen student of the French poetic tradition, was aware of the dream of Rimbaud to return to a kind of primitivistic or primal vision that would be free of conventions and the challenge was to link the untutored vision with the imagination.

Surrealist theory sought to re-enchant the universe and thought that the crisis of the object could be overcome if the thing in all its strangeness could be seen as if anew. The strategy was not to make Surreal objects for the sake of shocking the middle class public but to make objects “surreal” by dépayesment or estrangement. The goal was not so much the choice but the hunt and the displacement of the object, removing it from its expected context, which would defamilarize it. Once the object was stranded outside of its normal place, it could be seen without the veil of cultural conventions. L’Objet Insolite’is different from Breton’s dream object, which emerged out of the subconscious and must be created. In his book, Nadja, Breton wandered the side streets of Paris, a city, which, to him was a city haunted with strange never-before seen objects. Wandering with Giacometti, he would haunt the marché aux puces or flea markets, hoping for an encounter with the “Marvelous” which would assuage Breton’s taste for the bizarre.

The Surrealist object was closely related to Freud’s concept of the “fetish.” The ordinary object becomes a fetish because we project our desire upon it, because we look at it and look again until we cannot stop looking. The selection of this object, like any Dada object, is random. And like the Surrealist object, the choice is not as significant as the meaning the human psychology gives to it. The fetish is always a substitute for something else and always has a sexual content, is always a substation for sexual satisfaction. Although not explicitly mentioned, Marx’s commodity fetish not only predates Freud’s sexual fetish but also shares the same cognitive mechanism.

For Marx, the commodity becomes a fetish when it can be exchanged for something else, or acquires a monetary value through its symbolic meaning, which is the “something else” outside and beyond the object itself. In other words, certain objects become commodities because we, the consumer, are willing and able to invest something of emotional selves into the object. Marx was intrigued at how such fetishized objects are exchanged when a concept we translate as “value” becomes monetized. Marx and Freud agreed that whether symbolic commodity or sexual substitution, the fetishized object is never itself and is always the “symptom” for something else. That projection of subconscious desire for an absent entity is what characterizes the Surrealist object. The definition of the object is never a scientific or an objective or a conventional meaning. The symbolic value (meaning) is always personal and subjective to the possessor.

While Breton, the writer and poet, may have played the role of the flâneur searching for the unexpected, visual artists created their own poetic objects and imposed them upon modern art, in competition with traditional sculpture—the Readymade, and with Picasso’s logical assemblages were new conceptual constructions. The Readymades were about language and were frequently visual-verbal puns, such as Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (play on French Window). Picasso’s constructions were physical manifestations of intellectual concepts, such as The Guitar. Surrealism approaches objects in an entirely different manner, irrational rather than rational, poetic rather than intellectual. Duchamp and Picasso play with what is, but the Surrealists evoke the unnamable unspoken.

The fetishization of an otherwise ordinary thing led to a cult of objects without aesthetic or artistic intentions. These Surrealist objects fell into many categories. The Surrealist found object could be a flea market find, an object that had survived long after the knowledge of its use was lost and it had become strange to itself and others. In contrast, the natural object was just that—natural, such as a stone, while the “interpreted” found object was useful utensil converted into bizarre object, such as Man Ray’s Cadeau. Ray’s simple iron was studded with tacks, points out, giving the triangular flat bottom the menacing look of the dreaded “vagina dentate.” And the useful iron becomes useless and strange.

The readymade or the modern mass produced object dragged from contextand becomes thing of the mind. The Surrealist assemblage, such as those created by Joan Miró, who stacked up disparate objects, from a fish to a bowler hat, functioned like a cadaver exquise, forcing the viewer to re-imagine the possible meanings. The incorporated object can be in Max Ernst’s Two Children Frightened by a Nightengale where a hyperreal painting sprouts wooden parts, a miniature gate and a painted knob. The phantom object is merely suggested by a gesture of the hands—a feint seen in Giacometti’s Hands Holding the Void (1934).

Perhaps the most familiar Surrealist object and the most famous object of desire is the Dream object invented by Meret Oppenheim, Luncheon in Fur (1934). Humble and familiar, the dream object is given sumptuous appearance by caprice or desire. Oppenheim appropriated a simple set of crockery made for café au lait, meaning that the object is not fine china or dainty high-class specimens of fine porcelain. Large in scale, as is necessary for café au lait, the cup, saucer and spoon sprout the fur of the rabbit, an equally humble animal. Not only have the crockery set become useless, it has become sexually suggestive. Oppenheim created a disjuncture between tea and fur and the hairy object metamorphosized into a metaphor, “fur for lunch.” For Freud, fur and velvet had sexual connotations, claiming that “the sight of pubic hair” triggered desire, based on the longing to see “the female member.” This male fixation is based on the visual, which is given a position or primacy and this fixation becomes a fetish.

There are many other categories for the Surrealist object, such as the box, seen in the work of Joseph Cornell, the optical machine creating an optical illusion, such as Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, the poème-objet, made by Breton himself. Writing on the occasion of the exhibition of Surrealist objects, Breton stated,

“The objects that form part of the Surrealist exhibition of May 1936 are of a kind calculated primarily to raise the interdict resulting from the stultifying proliferation of those objects that impinge on our senses every day and attempt to pursue us that anything might exist independently of these mundane objects must be illusionary…”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]