Tuesday, November 01, 2016


"To live is to war with trolls."    -- Ibsen

Congressman George A. Dondero (Republican from Michigan) was convinced that art is a communist plot.   In his impassioned 1949 speech to Congress he explained how art undermines the morals of America:  
As I have previously stated, art is considered a weapon of communism.... It is a weapon in the hands of a soldier in the revolution against our form of government.... The evidence of evil design is everywhere....  The question is, what have we, the plain American people, done to deserve this sore affliction that has been visited upon us so direly; who has brought down this curse upon us; who has let into our homeland this horde of germ-carrying art vermin?...
 (From the Congressional Record, First Session, 81st Congress, Tuesday, 16 August 1949.)

Dondero spent a lot of time carefully analyzing how each school of modern art contributes to the destruction of America:
1.  Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder.
2.  Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth
3.  Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule.
4.  Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and insane.
5.  Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms.
6.  Surrealism aims to destroy by denial of reason.  
Dondero and his fellow patriots were particularly agitated about immigrant artists (or "germ carrying art vermin") coming into the United States:  "Legér and Duchamp are now in the United States to aid in the destruction of our standards and traditions.  The former has been a contributor to the Communist cause in America; the latter is now fancied by the neurotics as a surrealist...." 

Other Congressmen on the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 were similarly concerned about immigrant art vermin, such as artist Arthur Szyk.  Szyk had escaped from Hitler in 1939 and came to the United States, where he became a relentless propagandist against the Nazis.

His cartoons infuriated Hitler, who put a price on Szyk's head. Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed him as a "one man army."   Szyk adored his adopted land and did many drawings and paintings praising its freedom:

However, after the war ended certain Congressmen became suspicious that anti-fascist immigrants might also harbor Communist sympathies.  They launched an investigation of Szyk in April 1951. Although Szyk denied any affiliation with communism, the old and frail artist died of a heart attack four months into his investigation, on September 13, 1951.

It's ironic that while Congressman Dondero was fulminating about threats to the country from modern art, the CIA was secretly subsidizing abstract expressionism as part of the cold war against the Soviet Union.   Spies on the front lines were spending substantial sums weaponizing modern art by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko as part of a culture war, while Dondero and his fellow patriots were defusing the CIA's work.  

Stalin, sounding very much like Congressman Dondero, was equally paranoid about the impact of modern art, which he called "ideological sabotage against our country and especially against our youth...." Stalin complained that
attempts are being made against socialist realism in art and literature.... In these so-called abstract paintings there is no real face of those people, whom people would like to imitate in the fight for their peoples’ happiness, for communism and for the path on which they want progress. This portrayal is substituted by the abstract mysticism clouding the issue of socialist struggle against capitalism.


chris bennett said...

I think that type of agenda-driven tub-thumping is why a great many people have voluntarily muzzled themselves when it comes to publically expressing their views about Post Modernism. The Post Modernist belief is that Art is a relativist process played within the subjective standpoints of individuals in a given society. And saying this mantra is an insidious cancer that has been eating away at our culture to a point where nihilism has become almost a consensus will solicit an accusing finger from its apologists pointing right back to history's hysterical anti-art Nazis and claiming it to be the same point of view. But someone who understands meaningfulness to be a fairground carousel witnessed by its riders... well, they would think that wouldn't they?

Kristopher Battles said...

"Special Election Edition"

Am I right in my understanding of you post, that you are pointing out the dangers and evils of certain Congress folk 60 years ago... I assume in order to warn us against certain people in today's political world?

Perhaps it's to warn against those who'd control people's right to freely assemble or freely associate, or freely give to campaigns of their choice? Perhaps to warn against those who wish to control the internet? Or use the power of their office to target their political opponents?

I assume you're warning of the evils of BOTH sides of the political aisle this election year?

I'd remind you of Senator McCarren, Democrat, who was just as McCarthyistic as his colleague Sen McCarthy.

I'd also point you to this link on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was quite bi-partisan throughout its history, even after WWII during the height of "McCarthyism."

kev ferrara said...

First, kill all the artists.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- I'm not sure which way the relativist trend in the arts cut here-- would we have more or fewer autocrats trying to dictate and censor art if art was accepted as something individual and subjective, or if art was widely held to agreed upon standards? Both sides here-- Dondero on the right and Stalin on the left-- seemed quite willing to treat art as a weapon for their own purposes and to fear its use as a weapon against them.

Kristopher Battles-- I thought it was pretty interesting that both the left (Stalin) and the right (Dondero) shared ridiculous views about art and both were so enraged and intemperate that they were willing to justify any means to achieve their ends. They were a lot closer than they knew. If there is a message in this for today's electorate. I suppose it's "beware of angry, perpetually indignant blockheads. Pick someone who believes in empiricism."

As for your point about HUAC, it wouldn't surprise me in the least. For several decades in the 20th century, the conservative southern base returned Democrats to office, election after election.

Kev Ferrara-- I like your improvement on Shakespeare but I'm not sure I get the attachment.

Anonymous said...

Your all missing the point that only a crazy person says what Dondero said. He was a congressman and he was fucking nuts. Trump is fucking nuts too. Who votes for these assholes?


kev ferrara said...

Howard Pyle once said that illustration is "teaching under an aesthetic guise." And it seems to me this assertion can be extended to all Art. None of us here, at least, seem to doubt the power of Art to influence people, whether philosophically, politically, spiritually, temperamentally, morally, or ethically. (After all, how could art possibly influence without teaching?)

Thus we all must agree that modernism and postmodernism, in all their guises, influence in many or all those ways listed above: morally, spiritually, etc. And, I dare say, in each iteration of modernism and postmodernism, as in sects of any ideology, there might be slight differences in the teaching. So even if Dondero got the specifics wrong, even absurdly wrong, who can say his entire project of ascribing teachings to modernist sects was utterly without basis?

The question then remains; what does modernism teach in its various facets, and what does postmodernism teach? What are these forms against, or what do they seek to subvert?

These are not idle questions. And, as Chris points out, it is a gross injustice to the arts (and therefore to our society) to make such inquiries politically radioactive. I think the world has seen quite enough conversations about bad art , that end with histrionic cries of Nazism.

Totalitarians and other overly-ambitious educators know exactly what they are doing when they go full Maoist, and demand the arts be used to advocate only their pet positions and disparage only their pet enemies.

kev ferrara said...

On the (god help me) politics...

Senator McCarren was a Democrat from Nevada. I've known quite a few bigoted Democrats, none of them from the south. They vote democrat for the money. I also know people who detest Trump and think him utterly unqualified for office, yet who are voting for him, simply because their hatred of the Clintons (and others like them) is that strong.

By the way, I don't know if you were deliberately equating the crimes of Stalin with the chest thumping of Dondero (or any other McCarthyite idiot, for that matter), but such an assertion would be dangerously out of perspective, no? Like comparing a murderer and a jay-walker. Stalin ordered or presided over the abject slaughter of millions upon millions of people as the putative leader of worldwide communism. The estimates sometimes run about 60 million souls, ten times the holocaust. Given such horror, such blood-soaked ideological insanity, now that anybody can peruse the findings of the Venona project or the Mitrokhin archives or the many testimonials now available about Soviet infiltration of the west's institutions, including its art institutions, I think it behooves the teaching class to be a little more careful about where they direct their historical hysteria.

On a related note, although it was true shame that such a great champion of human rights and freedom as Szyk was in any way made uncomfortable or unwelcome in our society, people might be misled by your post into thinking McCarthyites/anti-communism killed him. But the truth is Szyk was a lifelong smoker who had dire heart troubles and had lived under constant stress for decades. He had already suffered two recent heart attacks before his name was listed as part of several "subversive" groups to be investigated. If you've ever read the actuarial tables about recent heart attacks versus future ones, you would appreciate that Szyk's imminent death was already a lock. Especially then, when no medical interventions were available.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous / JSL-- A lot of your fellow citizens, apparently.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "None of us here, at least, seem to doubt the power of Art to influence people"

Agreed, but I'll bet there's a difference of opinion about whether the content of that influence is relevant to the value of the art. How about you? Does morally reprehensible content ruin a visually brilliant work?

"Even if Dondero got the specifics wrong, even absurdly wrong, who can say his entire project of ascribing teachings to modernist sects was utterly without basis?"

I believe in keeping an open mind, but these are the paranoid ravings of a lunatic. Today you can hear them insisting that the moon landing was faked, that 9/11 was a US government operation, and that the current Paul McCartney is an imposter substituted after the real Paul died in a car crash. I'm amused that an observer such as yourself, who instinctively rebels against the standardless subjectivity of postmodern art, is willing to jettison standards and legitimize the subjective ravings of someone like Dondero on the rationale, "who can say?" While you're at it, who can say that Jeff Koons isn't a modern Michelangelo?

I apparently have less patience than you for leaders who go around sowing mistrust and anxiety among their less educated constituents with lines like, "evil design is everywhere." My reaction is, "put up or shut up." Your reaction is apparently, "Who can say?"

I agree with you that "modernism and postmodernism, in all their guises, influence us" in at least subtle ways. But would you agree that non-referential (and even incomprehensible) modern art is far less likely than narrative art to influence us in ways that are pertinent to politics? If Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock influences us, it is far more likely to be in the general sense of opening our minds or affecting our moods with colors and shapes, not the way that George Grosz or Goya or Philipp Rupprecht influence people. If you were worried about the political impact of artistic influence, wouldn't Rothko be the last place you start?

Finally, with respect to Arthur Szyk, neither of us can say what caused his fatal heart attack, and whether smoking would have killed him sooner or later. But I can say definitively that I regret he had his heart broken at the end of his life by the country that he loved so dearly and to which he proved himself many times over. This country was glad Szyk was affiliated with the "Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee" back when we were fighting fascists. After that battle was won and a new group of government bullies began turning on him, it must have felt like pre-war Poland all over again.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara also wrote "On the (god help me) politics..."

"I also know people who detest Trump and think him utterly unqualified for office, yet who are voting for him, simply because their hatred of the Clintons (and others like them) is that strong."

Alas, I know such people too. They are willing to sacrifice the core principles of conservatism-- strong defense, free trade, personal character, fiscal responsibility, religious piety -- in order to hang onto that hatred which it turns out is their most important principle of all. They're willing to swallow all the odious personal values they'd find unacceptable in a Democrat-- licentious behavior, sexual misconduct, draft dodging, slander of the military, "New York values"-- because it allows them to hang onto their most cherished personal value, hatred. Some of them fought a good fight and resisted at the beginning, but a daunting number of them have weighed their values and found that hatred is more important than all that personal conduct stuff that seemed so important when they were impeaching Bill.

kev ferrara said...

Agreed, but I'll bet there's a difference of opinion about whether the content of that influence is relevant to the value of the art. How about you? Does morally reprehensible content ruin a visually brilliant work?

Value is a problematic word to use here, because people can and do value the most superficial things about a work of art.

I believe there's a distinction to be drawn here between what art says overtly and what it says aesthetically, or covertly. The former is just statement, the latter suggestion. The suggestion is always the power of the work (I have a proof for this but I can't fit it in the margins). And it is this suggestive force that is the real measure of the work. A frazetta painting where a bunch of people beat the crap out of each other has no moral value whatsoever to its surface content. Yet, I've seen people cry in front of it at his museum. They weren't crying because of the barbarism. They were crying because, despite the barbarism, the beauty of the piece caused some kind of epiphany or emotional catharsis in them which they were powerless to resist.

Some of berni fuchs' picture have utterly vacuous content on the surface... some banal street scene, midday, taken from a stiff photo. But then he transforms it aesthetically so it becomes a vibrating jewel like image of another world.

I've seen some pretty good paintings of Stalin and Hitler, but I wouldn't want to put them up for display. I guess that's where I draw the line. It would be a hell of a challenge to make paintings of Stalin and Hitler that are so beautiful that they transcend the subject matter and become moral wholly on an aesthetic basis. I think it can be done.

You misread my point about Dondero. You seem to be loaded for bear. The point was not that he got anything correct, but that the project itself of figuring out the meanings of different aesthetic efforts can yield interesting answers which may have validity. Art has a lot of mysteries attending its power. Symbolism and suggestion are very deep topics. Such should not be compared with rank paranoia and miseducation.

Regarding your last point about the Clintons, two of the people I know voting for trump are longtime Nation readers, if you can imagine such a thing. Their issue with the Clintons is more to do with how the late Christopher Hitchens saw them, as cultish, entitled grifters who use political connections and influence to create tremendous wealth for themselves, always skirting just within the limits of the law. In other words, they see the Clintons as corrupting the institutions of government, which they consider sacrosact. Meanwhile they see Trump as a typically corrupt business man in a corrupt capitalist marketplace. Entitled in his own right, but not somebody who will use government to enrich himself. Of course, I can't image Hitchens ever sanctioning a vote for Trump either. But boy do I wish he were still alive to discuss this mess.

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff: I'm not sure which way the relativist trend in the arts cut here-- would we have more or fewer autocrats trying to dictate and censor art if art was accepted as something individual and subjective, or if art was widely held to agreed upon standards?

If we can agree that autocrats will use anything to further their agenda, then it follows that such a thing as a healthy consensus about the fundamentally sensual grammar of the arts would not be immune. However, censorship of the principles of art per se would have little obvious political currency. Their attention would be, in the age old tradition of such matters, focused on subject, their political crosswire seeking out subjects perceived to be contradicting their beliefs.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

David I'm surprised of your position on this. More than half of your blog is devoted to exposing the fallacy of modern art, but you still haven't caught up with what's going on with modern art?

I mean surely Dondero was an airhead, but a being a politician, that's not very surprising is it.

That doesn't change the fact the debasing of art was a deliberate, and very profitable scheme. It's really quite simple: instead of having some random people become skilled through effort and get wealthy through it, declare that art is subjective, and you have in your hands a currency that's easily produced since it has no inherent value, easily moved around/transferred, and not taxable to boot. Now isn't that lovely.

So it's not surprising to see people calling out BS when they see it, however each does it to the best of their abilities...

Anonymous said...

Also, about the paranoid ravings ... I used to think that way too, up until very recently. Precisely I started believing when I saw the emails in wikileaks (which are encrypted, and confirmed to be the real thing from Podesta).

Care to try to rationalize why on earth the would talk about "sacrificing a chicken to moloch"? (note:"chicken lover" is an euphemism for child lover in pedophile circles. Moloch is an ancient deity of child sacrifice, basically a big metallic bull where children were cooked alive)

But let's keep the topic in art. Incidentally, The Podesta brothers love modern art! You can see videos of youtube where they personally show their collection. It's sort of an "acquired taste".
One of their favorite artist is biljana djurdjevic, look her up in google images. Lovely work.

Anonymous said...

Wikileaks mail ID is 14333 by the way.

kev ferrara said...

Dear anonymous,

The chicken line in the hacked email is obviously meant as a joke in the context of an email about some very elaborate and tricky bit of diplomacy in the works by State. Thus, when reading at the end of the description of the diplomacy "fingers crossed, pulling a rabbit's foot out of the box in the attic, sacrificing a chicken to moloch" is about hoping like hell for a bit of luck in the matter. So, it's a joke. It isn't some revelation about satanic rituals or some pedo ring.

Regarding "spirit cooking", you are dealing with an atrociously bad performance artist looking for a little cultural zing by pressing the buttons of Christians. As with "piss christ" and chris olfili's mother mary with elephant dung which come from other bad artist's of that ilk and era. There is no evidence that John Podesta attended anything to do with a dumb-ass "spirit cooking" performance even though he was invited. And there is absolutely no evidence linking said invitation to the clintons.

What this whole satanic/voodoo thing is about is scaring the bejesus out of the evangelical community who don't care for trump to get them to come out and at least vote against clinton. That's all.

Every thinking person, left or right, is embarrassed by the knaves and fools promoting these kind of 11th hour scare stories. There is more than enough actually scandalous revelations in wikileaks that if someone wanted to be horrified by Democrat and Democratic media corruption, they could dine until dawn.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kev! Nice to actually speak with you, I always read your comments here but never post, only lurk ... but this thing has me really spooked.

Your explanation makes kind of sense, and in a way I reaaaally hope it's like that, because I'm not looking forward to a world dominated but a satanic cult. However it strikes me as something really odd to say as a joke. I'm not american so I can't be completely sure, but I don't think referencing to some obscure deity is a normal joke.

But let's say you are right. How about mail number 39999. In an email about #GlobalGoals Podesta attaches an image of himself, with 14 painted in one hand, and a fish on the other (from the cult of Osiris:"Enraged, he tore the body into fourteen pieces and scattered them throughout the land. Isis gathered up all the parts of the body, except the penis which had been eaten by a fish)
I would call that a very unique sense of humor.

And what about Clinton and convicted pedophile Epstein? Have you seen the photos of the temple in epstein's island? Unique architecture don't you think.

kev ferrara said...

Dear Anonymous,

Direct quote from the actual email where podesta attaches a picture of himself with the #14 on one hand and a fish on the other: "My favorite of the #GlobalGoals? No. 14— we must protect our oceans and life below water #SDGs."

This was an email sent in the context of a climate initiative. The 14th point of the initiative was about protecting oceans and fish. So Podesta, who seems like a bit of a kook, draws a 14 on one hand and a fish on the other with a sharpie and then takes a selfie and attaches it to the email about that initiative. The end.

This took me literally two minutes to figure out. So why didn't you figure it out too?

My guess is that somebody or some group, or some website, has you completely freaked out. Whatever sources you are reading. STOP. Stop reading whatever sources you are reading. They are making you insane with stupid, suggestive, paranoid bullshit. Read instead "Language in thought and action" by S.I. Hayakawa. It's a book that teaches human beings how to think. The internet is rife with mental poison and the only antidote is to learn to be a critical reader.

On your last point, I don't know how the Clintons end up involved with scumbags like Epstein or Weiner. But they do, and it is a national embarrassment. Apparently Trump was also on familiar terms with Epstein. Why am I not surprised?

This is why I keep saying that politics is redolent with everything that is bad about human beings. I am against politics, period. Beware of piety, it seeks power. Power corrupts. Money is power. Concentrating power with government concentrates the corruption there. People who are the most self-righteous in public are often the most degraded in private. Etc, etc, etc.

Anonymous said...

Hmm maybe you are right. It's funny because the feeling I have is pretty much that of being poisoned. The thought of people capable of doing such degenerate things is literally keeping me up at night. But yes, whether it turns out to be real or not, I don't think I'm judging things objectively. I still think it's some amazing coincidences, at the very least.

I will have a look into Hayakawa's book, I hope it's a lighter reading than the tractatus.

Thanks for your reply kev, and good luck today, whatever the results might bring.

Tom said...

Podesta, ( a big collector of modern-post modern art), the occult and performance art,

"John Podesta's Nonsensical Spirit Cooking Crap"


David Apatoff said...

Tom (and others)-- I've avoided this topic in the aftermath of the election, as I've had very little of a constructive nature to contribute. This is not a legal or political web site, and right now it's difficult for me to keep law and politics from creeping into my thoughts.

I will say, on a broader philosophical level, that a republic founded on a belief in enlightenment principles goes horribly awry when its population no longer has the patience for empiricism or the tolerance for constitutional democracy. On a different day, I might've had fun engaging on the pathos of occultists and evangelicals who became obsessed with John Podesta's "spirit cooking" while the Supreme Court of the United States went adrift. Today, however, there is no sport in it for me.

Robert Cook said...

"I thought it was pretty interesting that both the left (Stalin) and the right (Dondero) shared ridiculous views about art and both were so enraged and intemperate that they were willing to justify any means to achieve their ends."

They both understood, consciously or unconsciously, that art that loosens or severs ties to traditional "illustration" and accepted subject matter stimulates receptive viewers' imaginations, and might inevitablylead the rabble to move from enjoying artistically heretical ideas (in the musical and literary arts, as well), to social and political heresies, as well. Understandably, they feared this, as a populace with imagination and a tolerance (even appetite) for unusual ideas is a dangerous populace, a thinking populace, a populace that won't happily submit to a social order or social dogma imposed from above.

Ironically...the repression of unorthodox ideas and modes of expression fertilizes their growth and feeds the hunger for them.