Art on Trial
A squeaky noise interrupted Adrien’s slumber. He wondered where he was because the environment was unfamiliar. He stood up in a cold room and groped toward a blind store in the dark. After moving slats aside to see out, he discerned a deep inner courtyard that echoed the stridency.
Intrigued to discern what was happening, he pulled the control chain to examine the quadrangle’s bottom, where something was in slow motion. He detected a poor creature pushing an overloaded rolling garbage bin painstakingly in the dim light of a basement door left ajar.
A sad feeling started brooding because the sketch disturbed the fresh-of-the-boat. The newcomer surmised in one go, “Welcome to Metropolis, where underground workers toil to operate the great machines that power it.” The venturesome analogy popped up while he scratched the itchy skin fold between the chin and the throat caused by the five o’clock shadow.
Perhaps tellingly, a sense of confinement inherent in the janitor’s condition conjured up with the urban dystopia ingrained in the eponymous book by Thea von Harbou. The glamour German-speaking couple – Harbou was of German nationality, but Lang carried an Austrian passport – had a peerless partnership based on an aesthetic vision and an exacting work ethic.
Since the pioneer science fiction film challenged the production means, Lang hired the architect, Eugen Schüfftan, to build a miniature city. Beyond this, the consultant played a key role while placing actors into shots of miniatures of skyscrapers. The cinematographer used a mirror placed at a forty-five-degree angle between the camera and the toy buildings. Thus, he tricked the spectator’s eye into seeing actors surrounded by convincing tall edifices.
From one angle, there was nothing new in all of this. Schüfftan’s process applied to the nascent seventh art, an illusion technique pioneered by British scientist John Pepper and long before by Neapolitan Giambattista della Porta for stage entertainment in the 16th century.
After the waste transporter disappeared into the earth’s bowels, the somewhat jaundiced view of the traveler was mellowed by an artistic stance. Contrary to the filmmaking, the viewer needed no artifice to visualize the inner courtyard’s profundity. Besides a stabile shaft of light from the ajar door, a scattershot chiaroscuro of lustrous and matte grey shades dotted inky black walls flanking the cul-de-sac. It conveyed a feeling of vertiginous space, which kept the viewer at bay. The loner stared at it with his forehead glued onto the icy window panel.
In his wistful mood, the courtyard was representative of Cubist geometric forms fitting the exactness of photography. Naturally came to mind Precisionism, an indigenous modern art celebrating the purity of lines of the new urban landscape in the Roaring Twenties.
“America is the country of the art of the future. Look at the skyscrapers! Has Europe anything to show more beautiful than this?” wondered the dithyrambic Marcel Duchamp. Notwithstanding that the French artist was more catholic than the pope, Gotham played the role of the tree that hid the forest.
An unrelenting optimism reigned in the country from coast to coast. Visitors to the United States were amazed by the everlasting buoyancy of its people. The domestic drug poured through the brain and whitewashed any somber thought. The cool-headed French diplomat, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed that Americans considered their nation as an entity of inexorable progress.
However, this sunny optimism was a simplistic and reductive vision of American society. Besides a candid enchantment in amaranthine betterment, the desire to assert an American identity grew among a snuffy artistic community.
The photographer Alfred Stieglitz was at the vanguard of secession with the old continent’s stuffy academic art. He denounced an unbearable tutelage, “The domestic challenge is establishing a movement representing America without that damned French flavor!” Ironically, Stieglitz’s Americanism had a flashy and tainted note since his patronymic was the name of a distinctive and inspirational bird. A Stiegliz is a goldfinch (carduelis) in the language of Goethe.
After a bloody trench war involving American Expeditionary Forces, the time was ripe for cutting the umbilical cord with the old continent. To give one’s life to defend the country was one thing, but sacrificing it for an overseas crusade was a different kettle of fish.
Since a warmonger’s hysteria gripped the nation, German soldiers were called “Huns” to conjure up images of a bestial foe. More specifically, the execution of British nurse Edith Cavell by a German firing squad in Brussels, Belgium, stirred widespread outrage and fueled an anti-German feeling in the United States.
Issued shortly after Cavell’s death, a stamp stated that she had been murdered. Not to be outdone, American painter George Bellows produced a work entitled “The Murder of Edith Cavell.”
The oil on canvass was worth a thousand words for illustrating how the nurse became a martyr in public opinion. The statuesque and pure Cavell was dressed in a shining white gown. She held onto a staircase’s railing with her commiserating face turned sideways to a group of wounded prisoners-of-war lying on stretchers in a somber hall of a jail. The condemned woman bade farewell to her former patients. Seized by a strong emotion of abandoning them in their plight, she had brought her left hand to her neck. At the bottom of the stairs, a jailer holding a lantern had his head turned back to a German officer. He reported that the angel of mercy had said her final goodbyes. With his back turned to the public, the subaltern officer held a sword. The firing squad presented arms in a dark tunnel leading to the prison’s gate.
The reality was pretty remote from the forcible and dramatic depiction rendered by the artist. The core of the issue was a profound misinterpretation of Cadwell’s activities. The propaganda attributed her aura to patriotism and bravery, not subversion and scheming.
During her trial, Cavell did not attempt to defend herself against the charge of channeling some two hundred wounded prisoners of war to the Dutch border. The angelic nurse confessed that many escape prisoners wrote her thank-you notes after returning home. She believed her action should prevail over German martial law. Cavell was an “activist” before the wording was coined.
The Geneva Convention guaranteed the protection of medical personnel, but that immunity was stripped off if used as cover for any bellicose action. The German military code stated that in time of war, anyone aiding a hostile power should be punished with the death penalty for war treason, including foreigners present in the war zone.
The German government wanted to make an example. Had Cavell not been executed, a surge in the number of women participating in the war against Germany would have increased tenfold. Such was his interpretation.
Based on those factors of exemplarity and deterrence, a parallel could be drawn with the fate of Margaretha Zelle, better known by her stage name, Mata Hari. The Dutch exotic dancer was a celebrity across Europe. Though she was portrayed as a femme fatale who used her sex appeal to manipulate men, French and British intelligence could not produce tangible evidence of her culpability. Zelle defended herself in an outspoken dissent, “A harlot? Yes, but a traitor, never!” Mata Hari was not a born spy. The polyglot prima donna did not mind having a pillow talk with a Dutch banker, a French Secretary of Defense, a Russian fighter pilot, or a German Corvette captain, to name a few of her conquests.
Zelle’s trial occurred within the worst period of the war. France was on the brink of collapse after the disastrous Nivelle counteroffensive and subsequent mutinies in the infantry, known as cannon fodder. Widespread defeatism stirred up talk of white peace. The Dutch woman was a convenient scapegoat for the new French government led by George Clemenceau, who wanted to restore public confidence.
At the crack of dawn, Zelle was brought to a military firing squad after being convicted of espionage for Germany. She bravely faced death while refusing to be blindfolded and tied to the stake in a pit of Vincennes castle. As the twelve Zouaves pointed their guns at her, Mata Hari exclaimed her last words: “What a strange custom of the French to execute people at dawn!” How could it be otherwise, given her nightlife style? Zelle’s execution did not fuel anti-French feelings in the United States.
Cavell and Zelle’s storylines were torqued to suit the propaganda. People longed for symbols of evil and good spirits. One was legally guilty, the other morally condemned. One was sanctified, the other vilified. Both women chose a reckless path in wartime and paid for it with their life. Mata Hari traveled on her own across Europe, and no man owned her. She was an outcast in a patriarchal society. Her execution was a clear message to homemakers: “Stay at your place!”
The nation with Manifest Destiny walked a fine line between self-confidence and cockiness. Convinced that it was a just cause, the recruits left for a fresh and joyful war across the pond. Though American soldiers had incredible logistic support that was the envy of friends and foes alike, they lacked survival skills in an unforgiving environment. German veterans killed many greenhorns who underwent their baptism of fire.
Caught in the war fever, Willa Cather labeled volunteers God’s soldiers, no less. Her war novel, One of Ours, triggered unease and resentment because it did not match the readership’s expectations. The literary critic, Henry Mencken, instantiated this frame of mind. He said Cather’s setting was not in French trenches but, somewhere, in a Hollywood movie lot during the shooting of Birth of a Nation.
Cather could not bridge the gap between her romanticized setting and the macabre life in the muddy trenches infested with rodents and vermin, the pestilence of human flesh morsels rotting in nearby bomb craters, or even the cries of pain from soldiers in death agony in an unreachable no-man’s-land zone.
Though Cather lacked bluntness in showing a war of attrition, she divulged a plight ignored by her detractors. Spanish influenza was a great reaper on jam-packed vessels carrying American soldiers. For that point, she relied on a factual doctor’s diary on board the British passenger ship Anchises.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was centered on Claude Wheeler’s life. The Nebraska native enlisted in the Army after a failed marriage with a childhood friend. He fulfilled his idealist urge on the battlefields in France. The main character was modeled on Cather’s cousin, Grosvenor, who was killed in action at the Battle of Cantigny, France, on the first significant engagement by American Expeditionary Forces.
Adrien vicariously walked through the life of Wheeler when the latter attended a European historical class at Lincoln state university and befriended the Ehrlich clan. The family of German origin was passionate about music and free talk. The widowed mother, Augusta, smote Wheeler when she sang a German ballad.
Oddly enough, this happy chapter in Wheeler’s life resurrected a paramour in Adrien’s unconsciousness. Reading was a quiescent healing therapy that illustrated the power of the unspoken in literature.
For the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, a vast reservoir of repressed feelings and faded memories formed the unconscious level immersed in the depths of the human soul. Since the conscious part used a tiny fraction of the brain’s processing power, the unconscious was unrestrained to metabolize any dormant flight of fancy. More often than not, unconscious rather than conscious steered people’s life.
Unlike Futurism in Italy or Dadaism in Germany, Precisionism had neither a leader nor a manifesto to sell it to the American public. No matter how uncoordinated the movement was, American artists shared a common interest in celebrating the dynamism of modern industrial America.
At first glance, Precisionism was puzzling because hardly anyone could be fascinated by silos, water towers, barns, drawbridges, or factories, to name a few. Nevertheless, avant-garde artists, such as Charles Scheeler or Charles Demuth, transformed those mundane objects into subjects worthy of worship. Was it not what art should be at heart when a talented painter outshined a prosaic reality? The two artists shared more than a first name. They were born the same year in Pennsylvania, the hub of American steel production.
The larger-than-life French artist, Marcel Duchamp, derailed and negated this conventional wisdom with readymade objects for better or worse. A found object became art by simply titling and signing it. André Breton and Paul Eluard defined readymade in their surrealist dictionary when an ordinary object could become a work of art by an artist’s sheer strength of will.
The impact of Duchamp’s Fountain dramatically changed the way people perceived art. It all started when the artist purchased a standard urinal and reoriented it 90 degrees from its intended position for women’s hygiene. He wrote on the piece of porcelain, “R. Mutt 1917,” an altered name of the sanitary equipment manufacturer.
A jury rejected the flash work from the catalog of The Society of Independent Artists that held an exhibition in New York City. The refusal was motivated on two grounds: immorality and plagiarism of a commercial piece of plumbing.
The matter might have rested if not for an intractable controversy when Alfred Stieglitz came to the rescue of the French iconoclast. He heaped praise on the urinal, “It has an oriental look. It is a cross between a Buddha and a veiled woman.”
Against all odds, the preposterous tirade should mark a milestone in art history. Since the far-fetched quarrel kept making waves, it had lasting consequences. In a baffling inversion of values, transgression became the new paradigm for evaluating a piece of art. A panel of five-hundred art world professionals voted Duchamp’s Fountain the most influential artwork of the 20th century, ahead of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych. Thus, Modern art thrived on shocking the public.
In the same vein, a panel of literary critics under the stewardship of Modern Library ranked Ulysses by James Joyce as number one of the twentieth century’s 100 greatest English-language novels. In Paris, the hype surrounding its publication by the American-born Nancy Beach was unfathomable.
Virginia Woolf sang from an entirely different songbook. Because she considered the book diffuse, brackish, and pretentious, it was an annoying distraction from her reading, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust, also published in Paris the same year (1922).
The French writer was the master of Atticism and subjunctive mood for expressing the recollection of a vanishing past. He was considered the prototype of the disengaged writer, exclusively attentive to his work. However, the last volume, Time Regained, was also a great book on the First World War. He reflected on the role that literature had to play in the era of propaganda. He did not share the hatred spreading in the national press. Nobody should stop admiring Beethoven and Wagner, a position he lent to his character Saint-Loup. British writer David Herbert Lawrence also stroke a discording note in the chorus of praise. He confessed that he was unable to read Ulysses.
The deep chasm between the perception of the anointed and the people was incomprehensible. Placed at the bottom of the heap, the hardworking Adrien got lost in Joyce’s recondite and incoherent world. In unpolished words, he could make neither head nor tail of it.
The French poet, Nicolas Boileau, had highlighted the crux of the issue in two verses of L’Art Poétique in 1674.
“What is well understood is clearly stated,
and the words to say it come easily.”
Nonetheless, Joyceans made a point of reading Ulysses to the very end. That intellectual masturbation was a prerequisite to entering a small circle of those in the know. This coterie included a neurologist invited to express his view in the New York Times. He claimed to have learned more about psychology and psychiatry through that reading than in ten years of practice. He also boasted that he was probably the only person who had ever read it twice from beginning to end, aside from the author. He was more credible when he admitted that there were other angles at which the contentious book could be viewed profitably, but they were not so many. Since he was unspecific about those other facets, his idolatry was built on sand.
Duchamp and Joyce endeavored to discredit any set form. Their determination to discombobulate the old order was tedious. There was nothing new under the sun. The clear-sighted Boileau provided evidence of causality in one verse: “The fall of the arts follows the loss of morals.”
Was modern art a parenthesis in art’s history? Nothing was certain because art fell lower in disgrace in the 21st century.
The Dirty Corner, an exhibit by British artist Anish Kapoor, was a colossal rusty work exposed in the garden of the Palace of Versailles. Dubbed the “Vagina of the Queen,” it was a shameful allusion to Queen Marie Antoinette’s private anatomy. The poor woman was bleeding from uterus cancer during her imprisonment in the tower of the Temple. Aware of her health deterioration, Robespierre accelerated the legal procedure to sentence her to death in a mocking trial. Even though her health was hanging by a thread, the Revolutionary Tribunal accused her of incest with her ten-year-old son Louis XVII. After the hateful sculpture was vandalized, the provocative artist did not put himself in question. He blamed France’s right-wing intolerance.
Before transgression metastasized in modern society, art had been the quest for an esthetic ideal. It fell in line with golden ratios determining perfect proportions. Mathematics and art have lived in harmony since Ancient Greece.
More, the taste was the capacity of an individual to take pleasure in works with a remarkable discernment. The insight shined through considerable personal investment.
For progressives, art was no more a retinal taste but a cerebral one, no more an individual taste but a collective adhesion through public education. They stepped onto a slippery ground because the separation between education and indoctrination was flimsy. It was a short step, which some did not hesitate to take. The public was forced to believe their model without questioning its authenticity, based on the principle of refutability introduced by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper.
Indoctrination went hand in hand with Modern art. Sadly, it concurred with Wladimir Lenin’s quote: “Give me four years to teach the children, and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.”
About the Author
Bernard Martoïa is a retired French diplomat (1980 - 2017).