Pornography, simile and surrealism in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash

WARNING: This review contains quotations and images of an extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit nature.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is packed with deviant sexual activity, described with a cold clinical detachment, and Crash (1973) is notorious for being one of the most pornographic ‘serious’ novels of the post-war period, not just pornographic but deliberately and studiedly perverse, in that the story is about how the lead characters – both men and women – become fixated on the erotic potential of car crashes.

All this can easily appear gratuitous, designed purely to shock, or to generate publicity and sales.

But apart from all the external arguments we can invoke to defend Ballard, there are arguments in the works themselves which go some way to explaining their extremity.

In particular, one of the recurring characters in The Atrocity Exhibition, the psychiatrist Dr Nathan, is given several speeches where he explains the reason behind the lead character’s obsession with sex – and with extreme, fetishistic sex of the kind Ballard describes in these two books. These two or three speeches explain Ballard’s motivation, contain interesting insights about modern society, and unwittingly shed light on Ballard’s broader approach and technique.

1. Perverse sex resists the trivialisation & commercialisation of sexuality

During the 1960s sex came out of the closet and into all forms of art and media, advertising, music and movies, the mini-skirt, the pill. Ballard’s shock novels both became possible because of this swift liberalisation of social attitudes, but they are also in some measure a reaction against the modern ubiquity of sex:

‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions. Talbert’s library of cheap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.’

The argument is that, as the imagery of sex becomes more ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture, our personal enactments of it unavoidably repeat images, positions, postures, maybe even words and phrases, which we have all seen in the tide of increasingly ‘liberated’ movies and TV dramas. So how can we escape from the sense of simply going through motions done much better on the silver screen by glamorous movie stars, or detailed in a thousand ‘How To Have Better Sex’ books and magazine articles, or in the highly sexualised fiction that we can now read? How can we escape from the nagging feeling that our sex lives have been colonised and occupied by the mass media?

By doing things ‘normal people’ would never dream of.

Thus, at a basic level – level 1 – the characters’ obsession with perverse sex is to some extent justifiable as a rejection of the safe, tame, commercially packaged and sanitised sex lives which are increasingly pushed on us from all directions.

(The irony of David Cronenberg making a glossy movie out of Crash was that he was incorporating into film a glaring example of a work which was trying to rebel against being incorporated into film. Hollywood eats everything. Turns everything into two-hour glamorisation and trivialisation, converts the weird and uncanny into a tried and trusted set of gestural and facial clichés. Which is why I loathe film as a medium.)

2. Car crashes are sexually liberating

But not only is extreme fetishistic sex a way of escaping the stifling ‘norms’ of how-to guides in magazines and on daytime TV – Dr Nathan goes on to assert that there is something specifically exciting and arousing about car crashes.

‘Talbot’s belief – and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario – is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy – mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President.’

Think how vital car crashes are to Hollywood movies, both comedies and catastrophes. Think of the orgasmic pleasure it gave hundreds of millions of cinema-goers to watch the whole world blow up in an orgy of crashing cars, airplanes and tube trains in the blockbuster Armageddon movie 2012, and all the many others like it.

Disaster movies are just a shallow, celluloid re-enactment of something much darker and fiercer in human nature: that we revel in destruction. Ballard is just taking this meme – embedded in countless examples of the most popular popular culture – and pushing it to one absolute limit.

The notion that witnessing car crashes allows the release of sexual energy among onlookers lies behind the semi-satirical ‘survey’s which make up the last sections of The Atrocity Exhibition. These assure us, in the po-faced language of questionnaires and social science, that witnesses of car crashes experience a sharp increase in their libido and report marked increases of sexual activity with their partners in the weeks that follow. Car crashes are hot!

3. Car crash sex is one way into a new form of sexuality

If you combine the two ideas above – 1. that fetishistic sex is a way of avoiding the commercialisation of our own sex lives, and 2. that car crashes are exciting – then you move towards a conclusion, a third idea: that car crash sexual fetishisation may be the gateway into a brand new form of human sexuality.

The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.

This view is repeated again and again in Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, that humans are evolving new relationships with their brutal built environment and with each other, and that the combination of the two – of concrete motorways and shopping precincts and multi-story car parks – is creating a new, dissociated, alienated psychology which is giving rise to a new, hard-edge psychology of sex.

4. Car crashes are telling us something

But then there is a fourth level of meaning: beneath the (normally forbidden and repressed) sexual elements which are liberated (in Ballard’s view) by car crashes, there is another, much deeper level of significance. For while we consciously deplore the loss of life etc, we are nonetheless attracted, compulsively attracted, to the scene of car crashes and to re-enact them over and over again. Why?

For Ballard, the assassination of President Kennedy forms a kind of religious apotheosis of the theme: and God knows American culture, from Oliver Stone to Don DeLillo, has been compelled to replay that moment in Dealey Plaza over and over again, picking at the scar, endlessly hoping the psychological devastation of that one fateful moment can be forced to reveal its true secret, to unfold the real conspiracy which led to the president’s death.

The fruitless investigations and countless personal obsessions with the Kennedy assassination are all trying to do the same thing – to get to the bottom, to find the truth about the world. For it all to make sense.

This is a fourth way of interpreting the meaning of car crashes: they are a weird and perverse emblem of humanity’s obsessive need to make sense of the world.

Dr Nathan, in The Atrocity Exhibition, describes one of the other characters as attempting to restage the Kennedy assassination but this time ‘so it makes sense’, and in the annotations he later wrote for the book, Ballard is (as usual) totally candid about the importance of the JFK assassination to the entire book.

Kennedy’s assassination presides over The Atrocity Exhibition, and in many ways the book is directly inspired by his death, and represents a desperate attempt to make sense of the tragedy, with its huge hidden agenda. The mass media created the Kennedy we know, and his death represented a tectonic shift in the communications landscape, sending fissures deep into the popular psyche that have not yet closed.

For all the characters in Crash, the crashes they’ve been involved and the systems of scars and scar tissue left woven into their bodies are telling them something, are codes whose code books have been lost, ciphers of some meaning trembling just beyond reach.

If you think this sounds eccentric or exaggerated, just cast your mind back to the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death in a car crash: it was epic, it was awesome, the entire nation came to a halt, vast crowds gathered outside Kensington Palace and queued for days to sign the book of condolence. And then her funeral. Every commentator at the time highlighted the sense of excess, that the nation seemed to be traumatised far more than the facts of the matter seemed to justify. My own interpretation was that it was us we were grieving for, for all our lost illusions, dreams and hopes which this fairytale princess had come to symbolise.

And then consider the conspiracy theories about the role of the driver, and the pursuing cars, and the role of MI6 or the Royal Family in ‘assassinating’ her, or was it the Russians or… or… Anything, no matter how far-fetched, in order to give meaning, purpose, shape and coherence to what was, in fact, just a stupid pointless car crash, like so many hundreds of thousands of others.

Well, it is the same forlorn, doomed quest for the elusive meaning at the heart of the violent confrontation between man and machine, for the sense of any meaning at the heart of our lives, which the characters of Crash are condemned to pursue, right up to the book’s logical and senseless climax.

5. Car crashes are examples of Ballard’s obsession with junctures and juxtapositions

But these four interpretations of car crash sex – the sexual and the psychological and the ontological  – themselves overlay an even deeper level of meaning: for in The Atrocity Exhibition in particular we come to realise that the protagonist’s obsession with sex is in fact a sub-set of a much deeper obsession – an obsession with the way things are put together – with the modern world of junctions and conjunctions.

Seen from this perspective, sex is just the most garish and compelling avatar of a far deeper and more abstract structure which exists throughout the world as we know it, which is the joining together of disparate parts.

The Primary Act. As they entered the cinema, Dr Nathan confided to Captain Webster, ‘Talbert has accepted in absolute terms the logic of the sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings, are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space. In the multiplied body of the film actress – one of the few valid landscapes of our age – he finds what seems to be a neutral ground. For the most part the phenomenology of the world is a nightmarish excrescence. Our bodies, for example, are for him monstrous extensions of puffy tissue he can barely tolerate. The inventory of the young woman is in reality a death kit.’ Webster watched the images of the young woman on the screen, sections of her body intercut with pieces of modern architecture. All these buildings. What did Talbert want to do – sodomize the Festival Hall?

This passage explains in a flash the bizarre linkage of sex and architecture which runs throughout The Atrocity Exhibition and recurs in Crash, in its fetishisation of concrete motorways and multi-story car parks.

Modern brutalist architecture reveals the junctions of floors and ceilings, uprights and flats, struts and pillars, with crushing candour – and it is not altogether irrational to see the brutal slotting of concrete floors into concrete stanchions, stark geometric arrangements of prefabricated parts slotted together to create complicated cantilevered structures – with even the most basic sexual positions; even the missionary position, seen from outside, is quite an unwieldy network of limbs arranged in funny and strikingly geometric angles, four arms, four legs, bearing weights or bent at strange angles – all to arrange for the slotting of a vertical member into an oval orifice.

Seen – just seen – actually observed with no moral or sentimental framework whatsoever – sex is a complicated assemblage of moving parts for dubious ends.

Above all, the interest in angles, angles of entry or penetration, the rectilinear arrangements and poses of the human body, can be quite easily made to seem half-abstract.

The identification of splayed human bodies with the splayed metal plates of cars which have been in catastrophic crashes is not, in the end, that far-fetched.


Modern art and angles

This fetishistic approach seems less exceptional when taken out of the context of novels and literature altogether, and placed in the tradition of modern art.

Remember Ballard was very interested indeed in modern art, confessed in interviews to wanting to have been an artist, and litters his stories with art references. In these respects – exploring sexual perversion, and the geometric aspect of the human body – art was waaaaay ahead of written literature, having discovered the geometry beneath the skin of human beings fifty years before Ballard was writing his rude books.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Indeed, Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase is directly referenced in The Atrocity Exhibition, in The Great American Nude chapter:

Koester parked the car outside the empty production offices. They walked through into the stage. An enormous geometric construction filled the hangar-like building, a maze of white plastic convolutions. Two painters were spraying pink lacquer over the bulbous curves. ‘What is this?’ Koester asked with irritation. ‘A model of A/ 3 1 ?’ Dr Nathan hummed to himself. ‘Almost,’ he replied coolly. ‘In fact, you’re looking at a famous face and body, an extension of Miss Taylor into a private dimension. The most tender act of love will take place in this bridal suite, the celebration of a unique nuptial occasion. And why not? Duchamp’s nude shivered her way downstairs, far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus, and for good reason.’

‘Far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus’? Discuss.

Bellmer and fetish dolls

Ballard was particularly attracted by the Surrealists, and The Atrocity Exhibition references a dozen or so Surrealist paintings and artists, and the idea of bodies regarded as weird fragments, taken to pieces and reassembled to make bizarre new biologies, was one of Surrealism’s basic strategies.

This is most crudely obvious in the obscene and disturbing mannequins made by the German Surrealist artist and photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). Bellmer made his first recombined ‘dolls’ in 1933, was forced to flee to the Nazis, was welcomed to France by the Surrealists, and after the war continued to produce a stream of erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings and prints, often – the transgressive little tinker – of pubescent girls.

Plate from La Poupée (1936) by Hans Bellmer

This is not just like Ballard, it virtually is the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in which men fetishise parts of the female body, pose women in awkward and anti-romantic positions, imagine women’s bodies as multiple fragments or as specific zones blown up to the size of billboard hoardings.

Bellmer explained his thinking thus:

What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.

This could be Ballard talking.

Or take the surprise final work by Marcel Duchamp, the notorious (for the tiny number of people who have heard of it) Étant donnés, which Duchamp laboured over (allegedly) from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio, and which was only discovered after his death.

It consists of a common-or-garden wooden door which contains a peephole through which you see a brutal photo of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, and one hand holding a gas lamp against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) by Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)

Shocked? You’re meant to be. Puzzled? Ditto.

Ballard and the French tradition of épatant la bourgeoisie

In fact, the more you think about it, the more ‘traditional’ Ballard’s two extreme books seem – just not in the well-mannered English tradition.

The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash have nothing in common with the polite and subtle novels about upper-middle-class life of an Anthony Powell from this period, or the works of the so-called Angry Young Men (Osborne, Amis), or the kitchen-sink dramas which came in in the early 60s (Saturday Night and Sunday morning et al).

But they are entirely in the tradition, the very long tradition, of French literary attempts to ‘épater la bourgeoisie’ or shock the middle classes.

This French tradition goes back at least as far as the self-consciously decadent poets and writers of the 1890s, or further back to Arthur Rimbaud writing in the 1870s or further back to Baudelaire’s poems about hashish and prostitutes, Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, or maybe all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and works like The Hundred Days of Sodom (1785) which set out to scientifically catalogue every kind of sexual position and perversion conceivable to the mind of man.

By 1924 when André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto France had had seventy years or so of ‘radical’ artists determined to use sex and obscenity to disrupt what they saw as the placid banality of bourgeois life.

Courbet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his Realism, Flaubert with the ‘immorality’ of Madame Bovary. Monet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his naked women at a picnic, the Impressionists with their shapeless ‘daubs’. Zola scandalised the bourgeoisie with his blunt Naturalism and frank depictions of Paris prostitutes (in Nana). The Decadents scandalised the bourgeoisie with their over-ripe dreams of drugs and unmentionable perversions. The Cubists scandalised the bourgeoisie with their collages and geometric shapes. The Surrealists shocked the bourgeoisie with their revelation of the sexual perversions lurking just beneath the surface of human consciousness. And so on…

In other words, in France, there is a very well-established and totally assimilated tradition of artists, novelists and playwrights doing their best to shock the bourgeoisie. Seen from this perspective Ballard is hardly a pioneer, more of a late-comer which, I think, sometimes explains the rather bloodless and placid feel of even his most ‘scandalous’ novels. Even when I first read them in the 1970s I had the sense that I’d somehow already read them and now, 40 years later, I think that’s because he was in fact channelling well-established tropes and notions (albeit from the Continental tradition) and simply updating them for the age of helicopters, napalm and multi-story car parks.

Surrealism, the art of juxtaposition and Ballard

At the core of Surrealist practice was the idea of the jarring juxtaposition of completely disparate elements.

It was while reading Les Chants de Maldoror, published in 1869 by Isidore-Lucien Ducasse under the pseudonym the Comte de Lautréamont, that the godfather of the French surrealists, André Breton, discovered the phrase that became foundational to the surrealist doctrine of objective chance:

as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.

Striking juxtapositions are a core element of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Thus when Ballard makes systematic, obsessive and repeated comparisons between the splayed bodies of naked women and a) the hard angles of brutalist concrete architecture, and b) the splayed metal and shattered windscreens of car crashes, he is following the Surrealist aesthetic to a T.

Although our imaginations are bombarded with adverts, films and novels encouraging us to think of sex as a smooth and sensual affair, not very different from eating a Cadburys Flake, anybody who’s actually had sex knows that it can also be quite energetic and brutal, that it contains elements of aggression and domination, compliance and submission which are hovering on the brink of possibility, waiting to be isolated and encouraged.

Since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling novel of all time, we as a culture have become much more open about aspects of bondage or BDSM as it is now known and marketed in High Street sex shops, leading to a great deal more sexual experimentation of the kind Ballard describes in his books.

The identification of sex with car crashes was deeply shocking in the repressed 1960s, and upsets the simple-minded to this day, but both visually and conceptually, I am persuaded by Ballard that it is born of a deep, latent similarity between the two events.

Similes and Surreal juxtapositions

This gesture, the idea of the unexpected linking together of disparate elements, echoes some of the points I made in my essay about the importance of similes in Ballard’s writing.

Ballard uses similes a lot. So do other writers, but from his earliest novels Ballard as a writer is notable for the striking and outré comparisons he makes: a woman’s eyes are like dragonflies, wrecked cars look like Saurian lizards, high rise buildings tower overhead like glass coffins.

Ballard’s mind is always making comparisons and correlations, moving from the real concrete thing being described to often wild and unlikely analogies so that when you read a Ballard text you are not only reading about things themselves but are continually projected or flung into the full flood of his uncanny imaginarium.

This is another way to understand the obsession with geometry, planes and angles in The Atrocity Exhibition. It is like the technique of simile but converted into the language of geometry. You can think of all the references to angles and geometry as like being structural containers for similes, but without the actual content. Lines from the draft of a painting waiting to be filled in.

Looked at from this point of view, the linkage of porno sex to car crashes, and the various angles and shapes made by women’s bodies to the architectural shapes of concrete flyovers or modernist hotels, is in a sense only taking the metaphor-making tendency intrinsic in all Ballard’s fiction to extremes.

Ballard himself acknowledges the weirdness and extremity of some of his analogies at various points in the text:

This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor.

Extremes of disgust, in some critics’ minds; but extremes of delirious insight and extraordinary beauty, in my opinion. I am particularly haunted by his obsessive use of the idea that human faces contain implicit lines and planes which project outwards, forming complex three-dimensional geometries.

His eyes stared at Travis, their focus sustained only by a continuous effort. For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension

The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.

The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.

For English readers in 1970 this was weird and revolutionary stuff and it still has the power to stun and disorient today. But deep down, is it anything more than a putting into words of the visual effects created by about ten thousand cubist portraits from fifty years earlier?

Young Man in a Gray Sweater (1914) by Diego Rivera

Ballard’s fundamental strategy in these two shattering books is to contrast the soft and (for most people) precious and sentimental idea of the human body, especially its most sensitive, erogenous and private zones – breast and pubis, penis and vulva – and juxtapose them with the most public, hard-edged, angular and manufactured objects of the modern world – cars, roads, brutalist buildings.

Although the books contain hundreds of individually brilliant similes and metaphors, I couldn’t help thinking that underlying most of them and the deeper structures of the books’ themes and ideas, were the profoundly disruptive and innovative strategies of early 20th century Modernist art.


Reviews of J.G. Ballard’s books

Novels

Short story collections

Surrealism reviews

Exhibitions

Books

The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33 by John Willett (1978)

Willett was born in 1917. He attended Winchester public school and then Christ Church, Oxford (the grandest and poshest of all the Oxford colleges). He was just beginning a career in set design when the Second World War came along. He served in British Intelligence. After the war he worked at the Manchester Guardian, before becoming assistant to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, writing scores of reviews and articles, until he went freelance in 1967.

He had travelled to Germany just before the war and become fascinated by its culture. He met and befriended Bertolt Brecht whose plays he later translated into English. As a freelance writer Willett authored two books about the Weimar period. This is the first of the pair, published by the well-known art publisher Thames and Hudson. Like most T&H art books it has the advantage of lots of illustrations (216 in this case) and the disadvantage that most of them (in this case, all of them) are in black and white.

The New Sobriety is divided into 22 shortish chapters, followed by a 30-page-long, highly detailed Chronological Table, and a shorter bibliography. There’s also a couple of stylish one-page diagrams showing the interconnection of all the arts across Europe during the period.

Several points:

  • Though it has ‘Weimar’ in the title, the text is only partly about the Weimar Republic. It also contains lots about art in revolutionary Russia, as well as Switzerland and France. At this point you realise that the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as starting in 1917, but that’s not strictly true: the early chapters start with Expressionism and Fauvism and Futurism which were all established before 1910, followed by a section dealing with the original Swiss Dada, which started around 1915.

Cool and left wing

The real point to make about this book is that it reflects Willett’s own interest in the avant-garde movements all across Europe of the period, and especially in the politically committed ones. At several points he claims that all the different trends come together into a kind of Gestalt, to form the promise of a new ‘civilisation’.

It was during the second half of the 1920s that the threads which we have followed were drawn together to form something very like a new civilisation… (p.95)

The core of the book is a fantastically detailed account of the cross-fertilisation of trends in fine art, theatre, photography, graphic design, film and architecture between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany.

In the introduction Willett confesses that he would love to see a really thorough study which related the arts to the main political and philosophical and cultural ideas of the era, but that he personally is not capable of it (p.11). Instead, his book will be:

a largely personal attempt to make sense of those mid-European works of art, in many fields and media, which came into being between the end of the First War and the start of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. It is neither an art-historical study of movements and artistic innovations, nor a general cultural history of the Weimar Republic, but a more selective account which picks up on those aspects of the period which the writer feels to be at once the most original and the most clearly interrelated, and tries to see how and why they came about. (p.10)

‘Selective’ and ‘interrelated’ – they’re the key ideas.

When I was a student I loved this book because it opened my eyes to the extraordinary range of new avant-garde movements of the period: Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and then the burst of new ideas in theatre, graphic design, magazines, poetry and architecture which are still influential to this day.

Although Willett doesn’t come across as particularly left wing himself, the focus on the ‘radical’ innovations of Brecht and Piscator in Germany, or of Proletkult and Agitprop in Soviet Russia, give the whole book a fashionable, cool, left-wing vibe. And if you don’t know much about the period it is an eye-opening experience.

But now, as a middle-aged man, I have all kinds of reservations.

1. Willett’s account is biased and partial

As long as you remember that it is a ‘personal’ view, deliberately bringing together the most avant-garde artists of the time and showing the extraordinary interconnectedness (directors, playwrights, film-makers travelling back and forth between Germany and Russia, bringing with them new books, new magazines, new ideas) it is fine. But it isn’t the whole story. I’m glad I read Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture just before this, because Laqueur’s account is much more complete and more balanced.

For example, Laqueur’s book included a lot about the right-wing thought of the period. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to those beliefs, but that otherwise the rise of Hitler seems inexplicable, like a tsunami coming out of nowhere. Laqueur’s book makes it very clear that all kinds of cultural and intellectual strongholds never ceased to be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and anti-the Weimar Republic.

Laqueur’s book also plays to my middle-aged and realistic (or tired and jaundiced) opinion that all these fancy left-wing experiments in theatre (in particular), the arty provocations by Dada, the experimental films and so on, were in fact only ever seen by a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and most of them were (ironically) wealthy and bourgeois enough to afford theatre tickets or know about avant-garde art exhibitions.

Laqueur makes the common-sense point that a lot of the books, plays and films which really characterise the period were the popular, accessible works which sold well at the time but have mostly sunk into oblivion. It’s only in retrospect and fired up by the political radicalism of the 1960s, that latterday academics and historians select from the wide range of intellectual and artistic activity of the period those strands which appeal to them in a more modern context.

2. Willett’s modernism versus Art Deco and Surrealism

You realise how selective and partial his point of view is on the rare occasions when the wider world intrudes. Because of Willett’s compelling enthusiasm for ‘the impersonal utilitarian design’ of the Bauhaus or Russian collectivism, because of his praise of Gropius or Le Corbusier, it is easy to forget that all these ideas were in a notable minority during the period.

Thus it came as a genuine shock to me when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d almost forgotten they existed during this period, so narrow is his focus.

It is amusing, and significant, how much he despises both of them. The chapter (18) is called ‘Retrograde symptoms: modishness in France’ and goes on to describe the ‘capitulation and compromise’ of the French avant-garde in the mid-1920s. 1925 in particular was ‘a year of retreat all down the line’, epitomised by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes exhibition which gave its name to the style of applied arts of the period, Art Deco.

Willett is disgusted that dressmakers sat on the selecting committees ‘alongside obscure establishment architects and rubbishy artists like Jean-Gabriel Domergue’. Not a single German artist or designer was featured (it was a patriotic French affair after all) and Theo van Doesberg’s avant-garde movement, de Stijl, was not even represented in the Dutch stand.

Willet hates all this soft luxury Frenchy stuff, this ‘wishy-washy extremely mondain setting’ which was the milieu of gifted amateurs and dilettantes. It was a hateful commercialisation of cubism and fauvism, it was skin-deep modernism.

What took place here was a diffusing of the modern movement for the benefit not of the less well-off but of the luxury consumer. (p.170)

It’s only because I happen to have recently read Andrew Duncan’s encyclopedic book about Art Deco that I know that there was a vast, a truly huge world of visual arts completely separate from the avant-garde Willett is championing – a world of architects, designers and craftsmen who built buildings, designed the interiors of shops and homes, created fixtures and fittings, lamps and tables and chairs and beds and curtains and wallpapers, all in the luxury, colourful style we now refer to as Art Deco.

Thousands of people bought the stylish originals and millions of people bought the affordable copies of all kinds of objects in this style.

So who is right?

When I was a student I also was on the side of the radical left, excited by Willett’s portrait of a world of hard-headed, functional design in homes and household goods, of agit-prop theatre and experimental film, all designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow the ruling classes and create a perfect world. Indeed the same chapter which dismisses French culture and opens with photos of elegantly-titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, you see, that’s real commitment for you!

But therein lies the rub. The radical, anti-traditionalist, anti-bourgeois, up-the-workers movement in architecture, design, film and theatre which Willett loves did not usher in a new workers’ paradise, a new age of peace and equality – the exact opposite.

The sustained left-wing attacks on the status quo in Germany had the net effect of helping to undermine the Weimar Republic and making the advent of Hitler easier. All the funky film innovations of Eisenstein and the theatrical novelties of Meyerhold failed to create an educated, informed and critical working class in Russia, failed to establish new standards of political and social discourse – instead the extreme cliquishness of its exponents made it all the easier to round them up and control (or just execute) them, as Stalin slowly accumulated power from 1928 onwards.

Older and a bit less naive than I used to be, I am also more relaxed about political ‘commitment’. I have learned what I consider to be the big lesson in life which is that – There are a lot of people in the world. Which means a lot of people who disagree – profoundly and completely disagree – with your own beliefs, ideas and convictions. Disagree with everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And that they have as much right to live and think and talk and meet and discuss their stuff, as you do. And so democracy is the permanently messy, impure task of creating a public, political, cultural and artistic space in which all kinds of beliefs and ideas can rub along.

Willett exemplifies what I take to be the central idea of Modernism: that there is only one narrative, one avant-garde, one movement: you have to be on the bus. He identifies his Weimar Germany-Soviet Russia axis as the movement. The French weren’t signed up to it. So he despises the French.

But we now, in 2018, live in a thoroughly post-Modernist world and the best explanation I’ve heard of the difference between modernism and post-modernism is that, in the latter, we no longer believe there is only one narrative, One Movement which you simply must, must, must belong to. There are thousands of movements. There are all types of music, looks, fashions and lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (wishy-washy, degenerate French fashion) itself seems part of the problem. It’s the same insistence on binary extremes which underlay the mentality of a Hitler or a Stalin (either you are for the Great Leader or against him). And it was the same need to push political opinions and movements to extremes which undermined the centre and led to dictatorship.

By contrast the fashionably arty French world (let alone the philistine, public school world of English culture) was simply more relaxed, less extreme. They had more shopping in them. The Art Deco world which Willett despises was the world of visual and applied art which most people, most shoppers, and most of the rich and the aspiring middle classes would have known about. (And I learned from Duncan’s book that Art Deco really was about shops, about Tiffany’s and Liberty’s and Lalique’s and the design and the shop windows of these top boutiques.)

On the evidence of Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture and Duncan’s account of the Art Deco world, I now see Willett’s world of Bauhaus and Constructivism – which I once considered the be-all and end-all of 1920s art – as only one strand, just one part of a much bigger artistic and decorative universe.

Same goes for Willett’s couple of pages about Surrealism. Boy, he despises those guys. Again it was a bit of a shock to snap out of Willett’s wonderworld of Bauhaus-Constructivism to remember that there was this whole separate and different art movement afoot. Reading Ruth Brandon’s book, Surreal Lives would lead you to believe that it, Surrealism, was the big anti-bourgeois artistic movement of the day. Yet, from Willett’s point of view, focused on the Germany-Russia axis, Surrealism comes over as pitifully superficial froggy play acting.

He says it was unclear throughout the 1920s whether Surrealism even existed outside a handful of books made with ‘automatic writing’. When Hans Arp or Max Ernst went over to the Surrealist camp their work had nothing to tell the German avant-garde. They were German, so it was more a case of the German avant-garde coming to the rescue of a pitifully under-resourced French movement.

There was in fact something slightly factitious about the very idea of Surrealist painting right up to the point when Dali arrived with his distinctively creepy academicism. (p.172)

Surrealism’s moving force, the dominating poet André Breton, is contrasted with Willett’s heroes.

Breton’s romantic irrationalism, his belief in mysterious forces and the quasi-mediumistic use of the imagination could scarcely have been more opposed to the open-eyed utilitarianism of the younger Germans, with their respect for objective facts. (p.172)

I was pleased to read that Willett, like me, finds the Surrealists ‘anti-bourgeois’ antics simply stupid schoolboy posturing.

As for his group’s aggressive public gestures, like Georges Sadoul’s insulting postcard to a Saint-Cyr colonel or the wanton breaking-up of a nightclub that dared to call itself after Les Chants de Maldoror, one of their cult books, these were bound to seem trivial to anyone who had experienced serious political violence. (p.172)

Although the Surrealists bandied around the term ‘revolution’ they didn’t know what it meant, they had no idea what it was like to live through the revolutionary turmoil of Soviet Russia or the troubled years 1918 to 1923 in post-war Germany which saw repeated attempts at communist coups in Munich and Berlin, accompanied by savage street fighting between left and right.

Although the Surrealists pretentiously incorporated the world ‘revolution’ into the title of their magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, none of them knew what a revolution really entailed, and

Breton, Aragon and Eluard remained none the less bourgeois in their life styles and their concern with bella figura. (p.172)

There were no massacres in the streets of comfortable Paris, and certainly nothing to disturb the salon of the Princess Edmond de Polignac, who subsidised the first performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or to upset the Comtesse de Noailles, who commissioned Léger to decorate her villa at Hyères and later underwrote the ‘daring’ Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Age d’Or (1930).

In this, as in so many other things, French intellectuals come across as stylish poseurs performing for impeccably aristocratic patrons.

3. Willett’s account is clotted and cluttered

The text is clotted with names, absolutely stuffed. To give two symptoms, each chapter begins with a paragraph-long summary of its content, which is itself often quite exhausting to read; and then the text itself suffers from being rammed full of as many names as Willett can squeeze in.

Almost every sentence has at least one if not more subordinate clauses which add in details about the subject’s other activities, or another organisation they were part of, or a list of other people they were connected to, or examples of other artists doing the same kind of thing.

Here’s a typical chapter summary, of ‘Chapter 16 Theatre for the machine age: Piscator, Brecht, the Bauhaus, agitprop‘:

Middlebrow entertainment and the revaluation of the classics. The challenge of cinema. Piscator’s first political productions and his development of documentary theatre; splitting of the Volksbühne and formation of his own company; his historic productions of 1927-8 with their use of machinery and film. The new dramaturgy and the problem of suitable plays. Brecht’s reflection of technology, notably in Mann ist Mann; his collaboration with Kurt Weill and the success of the Threepenny Opera; epic theatre and the collective approach. Boom of ‘the theatre of the times’ in 1928-9. Experiments at the Bauhaus: Schlemmer, Moholy, Nagy, Gropius’s ‘Totaltheater’ etc;. The Communist agitprop movement. Parallel developments in Russia: Meyerhold, TRAM, Tretiakoff.

Quite tiring to read, isn’t it? And that’s before you get to the actual text itself.

So Eisenstein could legitimately adopt circus techniques, just as Grosz and Mehring could appear in cabaret and Brecht before leaving Munich worked on the stage and film sketches of that great comic Karl Valentin. In 1925 a certain Walter von Hollander proposed what he called ‘education by revue’, the recruiting of writers like Mehring, Tucholsky and Weinert to ‘fill the marvellous revue form with the wit and vigour of our time’. This form was itself a kind of montage, and Reinhardt seems to have planned a ‘Revue for the Ruhr’ to which Brecht would contribute – ‘A workers’ revue’ was the critic Herbert Ihering’s description – while Piscator too hoped to open his first season with his own company in 1927 by a revue drawing on the mixed talents of his new ‘dramaturgical collective’. This scheme came to nothing, though Piscator’s earlier ‘red Revue’ – the Revue roter Rummel of 1924 – became important for the travelling agit-prop groups which various communist bodies now began forming on the model of the Soviet ‘Blue Blouses’. (p.110)

Breathless long sentences packed with names and works ranging across places and people and theatres and countries, all about everything. This is because Willett is at pains to convey his one big idea – the astonishing interconnectedness of the world of the 1920s European avant-garde – at every possible opportunity, and so embodies it in the chapter summaries, in his diagrams of interconnectedness, extending it even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by another key aspect of the subject matter which was the proliferation of acronyms and initialisms. For example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, especially in Russia where, as revolutionary excitement slowly morphed into totalitarian bureaucracy, there was no stopping the endless setting up of organisations and departments.

Becher, Anor Gabór and the Young Communist functionary Alfred Kurella, who that autumn [of 1927] were part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary celebrations [of the October Revolution] in Moscow, also attended the IBRL’s foundation meeting and undertook to form a German section of the body. Simultaneously some of the surviving adherents of the earlier Red Group decided to set up a sister organisation which would correspond to the Association of Artists of the Russian Revolution, an essentially academic body now posing as Proletarian. Both plans materialised in the following year, when the new German Revolutionary Artists Association (or ARBKD) was founded in March and the Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers’ League (BPRS) in October. (p.173)

Every paragraph is like that.

4. Very historical

Willett’s approach is very historical. As a student I found it thrilling the way he relates the evolving ideas of his galaxy of avant-garde writers, artists and architects – Grosz and Dix, Gropius and Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy and Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Eistenstein, Piscator and Brecht – to the fast-changing political situations in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, which, being equally ignorant of, I also found a revelation.

Now, more familiar with this sorry history, I found the book a little obviously chronological. Thus:

  • Chapter six – Revolution and the arts: Germany 1918-20, from Arbeitsrat to Dada
  • Chapter seven – Paris postwar: Dada, Les Six, the Swedish ballet, Le Corbusier
  • Chapter eight – The crucial period 1921-3; international relations and development of the media; Lenin and the New Economic Policy; Stresemann and German stabilisation

It proceeds with very much the straightforward chronology of a school textbook.

5. Not very analytical

The helter-skelter of fraught political developments in both countries – the long lists of names, their interconnections emphasised at every opportunity – these give a tremendous sense of excitement to his account, a sense that scores of exciting artists were involved in all these fast-moving and radically experimental movements.

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t come away with any new ideas or sense of enlightenment. All the avant-garde artists he describes were responding to two basic impulses:

  1. The advent of the Machine Age (meaning gramophone, cars, airplanes, cruise ships, portable cameras, film) which prompted experiments in all the new media and the sense that all previous art was redundant.
  2. The Bolshevik Revolution – which inspired far-left opinions among the artists he deals with and inspired, most obviously, the agitprop experiments in Russia and Piscator and Brecht’s experiments in Germany – theatre in the round, with few if any props, the projection onto the walls of moving pictures or graphs or newspaper headlines – all designed to make the audience think (i.e. agree with the playwright and the director’s communist views).

But we sort of know about these already. From Peter Gay’s book, and then even more so Walter Laqueur’s book, I came away with a strong sense of the achievement and importance of particular individuals, and their distinctive ideas. Thomas Mann emerges as the representative novelist of the period and Laqueur’s book gives you a sense of the development of his political or social thought (the way he slowly came round to support the Republic) and of his works, especially the complex of currents found in his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain.

Willett just doesn’t give himself the space or time to do that. In the relentless blizzard of lists and connections only relatively superficial aspects of the countless works referenced are ever mentioned. Thus Piscator’s main theatrical innovation was to project moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops of the stage, accompanying or counter-pointing the action. That’s it. We nowhere get a sense of the specific images or facts used in any one production, rather a quick list of the productions, of the involvement of Brecht or whoever in the writing, of Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Always he is hurrying off to make comparisons and links.

Thus there is:

6. Very little analysis of specific works

I think the book would have benefited from slowing down and studying half a dozen key works in a little more detail. Given the funky design of the book into pages with double columns of text, with each chapter introduced by a functionalist summary in bold black type, it wouldn’t have been going much further to insert page-long special features on, say, The Threepenny Opera (1928) or Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate housing in Stuttgart (1927).

Just some concrete examples of what the style was about, how it worked, and what kind of legacy it left would have significantly lifted the book and left the reader with concrete, specific instances. As it is the blizzard of names, acronyms and historical events is overwhelming and, ultimately, numbing.

The Wall Street Crash leads to the end of the Weimar experiment

In the last chapters Willett, as per his basic chronological structure, deals with the end of the Weimar Republic.

America started it, by having the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. American banks were plunged into crisis and clawed back all their outstanding loans in order to stay solvent. Businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had also been the main lender to the German government during the reconstruction years after the War.

It had been an American, Charles G. Dawes, who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan of 1924. This arranged for loans to be made to the German government, which it would invest to boost industry, which would increase the tax revenue, which it would then use to pay off the punishing reparations which France demanded at the end of the war. And these reparations France would use to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

It was the guarantee of American money which stabilised the German currency after the hyper-inflation crisis of 1923, and enabled the five years of economic and social stability which followed, 1924-29, the high point for Willett of the Republic’s artistic and cultural output. All funded, let it be remembered, by capitalist America’s money.

The Wall Street Crash ended that. American banks demanded their loans back. German industry collapsed. Unemployment shot up from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler took power. Six million! People voted, logically enough, for the man who promised economic and national salvation.

In this respect, the failure of American capitalism, which the crash represented, directly led to the rise of Hitler, to the Second World War, to the invasion of Russia, the partition of Europe and the Cold War. No Wall Street Crash, none of that would have happened.

A closed worldview leads to failure

Anyway, given that all this is relatively well known (it was all taught to my kids for their history GCSEs) what Willett’s account brings out is the short-sighted stupidity of the Communist Party of Germany and their Soviet masters.

Right up till the end of the Weimar Republic, the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD) in forming a government, and often campaigned against them. Willett quotes a contemporary communist paper saying an SPD government and a disunited working class would be a vastly worse evil than a fascist government and a unified working class. Well, they got the fascist government they hoped for.

In fact, the communists wanted a Big Crisis to come because they were convinced that it would bring about the German Revolution (which would itself trigger revolution across Europe and the triumph of communism).

How could they have been so stupid?

Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming views. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select the news media, journalism and art and movies and so on, which reinforce their views and convince them that everyone thinks like them.

To some extent the extreme unreality of this attitude, with its deceptive aura of do-or-die militancy, sprang from the old left-wing tendency to underrate the non-urban population, which is where the Nazis had so much of their strength. At the same time it reflects a certain social and cultural isolation which sprang from the KPD’s own successes. For the German Communists lived in a world of their own, where the party catered for every interest. Once committed to the movement you not only read AIZ and the party political press: your literary tastes were catered for by the Büchergilde Gutenberg and the Malik-Verlag and corrected by Die Linkskurve; your entertainment was provided by Piscator’s and other collectives, by the agitprop groups, the Soviet cinema, the Lehrstück and the music of Eisler and Weill; your ideology was formed by Radványi’s MASch or Marxist Workers’ School; your visual standards by Grosz and Kollwitz and the CIAM; your view of Russia by the IAH. If you were a photographer, you joined a Workers-Photographers’ group; if a sportsman, some kind of Workers’ Sports Association; whatever your special interests Münzenberg [the German communist publisher and propagandist] had a journal for you. You followed the same issues, you lobbied for the same causes. (p.204)

And you failed. Your cause failed and everyone you knew was arrested, murdered or fled abroad.

A worldview which is based on a self-confirming bubble of like-minded information is proto-totalitarian, inevitably seeks to ban or suppress any opposing points of view, and is doomed to fail in an ever-changing world where people with views unlike yours outnumber you.

A democratic culture is one where people acknowledge the utter difference of other people’s views, no matter how vile and distasteful, and commit to argument, debate and so on, but also to conceding the point where the opponents are, quite simply, in the majority. You can’t always win, no matter how God-given you think your views of the world. But you can’t even hope to win unless you concede that your opponents are people, too, with deeply held views. Just calling them ‘social-fascists’ (as the KPD called the SPD) or ‘racists’ or ‘sexists’ (as bienpensant liberals call anyone who opposes them today) won’t change anything. You don’t stand a chance of prevailing unless you listen to, learn from, and sympathise with, the beliefs of people you profoundly oppose.

A third of the German population voted for Hitler in 1932 and the majority switched to Führer worship once he came to power. The avant-garde artists Willett catalogues in such mind-numbing profusion pioneered techniques of design and architecture, theatre production and photography, which still seem astonishingly modern to us today. But theirs was an entirely urban movement created among a hard core of like-minded bohemians. They didn’t even reach out to university students (as Laqueur’s chapter on universities makes abundantly clear), let alone the majority of Germany’s population, which didn’t live in fashionable cities.

Over the three days it took to read this book, I’ve also read newspapers packed with stories about Donald Trump and listened to radio features about Trump’s first year in office, so it’s been difficult not to draw the obvious comparisons between Willett’s right-thinking urban artists who failed to stop Hitler and the American urban liberals who failed to stop Trump.

American liberals – middle class, mainly confined to the big cities, convinced of the rightness of their virtuous views on sexism and racism – snobbishly dismissing Trump as a flashy businessman with a weird haircut who never got a degree, throwing up their hands in horror at his racist, sexist remarks. And utterly failing to realise that these were all precisely the tokens which made him appeal to non-urban, non-university-educated, non-middle class, and economically suffering, small-town populations.

Also, as in Weimar, the left devoted so much energy to tearing itself apart – Hillary versus Sanders – that it only woke up to the threat from the right-wing contender too late.

Ditto Brexit in Britain. The liberal elite (Guardian, BBC) based in London just couldn’t believe it could happen, led as it was by obvious buffoons like Farage and Johnson, people who make ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ comments and so, therefore, obviously didn’t count and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count or matter.

Well, they were proved wrong. In a democracy everyone’s vote counts as precisely ‘1’, no matter whether they’re a professor of gender studies at Cambridge (which had the highest Remain vote) or a drug dealer in Middlesborough (which had the highest Leave vote).

Dismissing Farage and Johnson as idiots, and anyone who voted Leave as a racist, was simply a way of avoiding looking into and trying to address the profound social and economic issues which drove the vote.

Well, the extremely clever sophisticates of Berlin also thought Hitler was a provincial bumpkin, a ludicrous loudmouth spouting absurd opinions about Jews which no sensible person could believe, who didn’t stand a chance of gaining power. And by focusing on the (ridiculous little) man they consistently failed to address the vast economic and social crisis which underpinned his support and brought him to power. Ditto Trump. Ditto Brexit.

Some optimists believe the reason for studying history is so we can learn from it. But my impression is that the key lesson of history is that – people never learn from history.


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