‘George Grosz: Artist-Communist’ by Hi Simons from The Liberation. Vol. 5 No. 7. July, 1922.
IT was Camille Desmoulins, journalist, poet, who mounted the table in the tennis court, in Paris in 1789, and hailed the people to arm for the revolution. Do you remember Hugo’s description of the revolution of 1830, in “Les Miserables”? Again, poets, artists, were in the pitch of the barricade-conflict. In all the rebellions throughout Europe, from 1830 to 1850, almost as many artists were leaders as politicians.
The colossal body of literary art of Russia grew, in the main, from the revolutionary impulse and necessity. Europe is accustomed to the tradition of revolutionary art, the idea of the essential solidarity of the artist demanding, needing freedom, and the worker, needing it as intensely, demanding it more forcefully because more unremittingly… America? Yes. Walt Whitman, certainly. Old Horace Traubel, somewhat. Voltarine de Cleyre. Jack London. Joe Hill. Upton Sinclair. Charles Erskine Scott Wood, others, a few, on the Pacific Coast. Maurice Becker, Charles Peter Larson, Roderick Seidenberg, down in the “D.B.”–,-military prison- during the war. Surely, Ralph Chaplin down at Leavenworth now. Yes, a few. But, aside from that incomparable crew that has been identified, long years, with The Masses and The Liberator- John Reed, Bob Minor, Max Eastman, Boardman Robinson, Arturo Giovannitti, Art Young and the others–,-(splendid figures, these; artists, revolutionaries, both!)-how insignificantly has the revolutionary movement in America been lighted, endeavoured by art, how feebly has the art-impulse been invigorated! by genuine revolutionary direction and intent!
But in contemporary Europe this tradition has not grown senile. Kandinsky, author of “The Art of Spiritual Harmony,” who before the war was in Munich carrying painting to its extreme abstraction as a musical conveyance of pure emotion, is in Russia now, Commissar of Industrial Art Education. Hans Sachs, organizer, instructor of the Munich Expressionist Workshops, was one of the signers of the decrees of the Munich soviet in 1918. Almost as many artists as workmen were leaders in the Bavarian Soviet Republic. And before, during and since the war George Grosz, painter, lithographer, cartoonist, poet, editor, vaudeville monologist, dancer, singer, agitator, has been jabbing the hide of the monarchistic, militaristic White with a pen of art inked with an acid satire that has stung and soaked in and festered. Grosz, Expressionist painter, Dada sketcher and poet, is recognized in Germany, Russia and France as a conspicuous example of the artist-revolutionist. His attitude and his work are a challenge to bourgeois artists everywhere who, with the obsequious genuflections of the sycophant, seek the patronage of the middle class.
His career I sketched in Musterbook I, the first publication in America of Grosz’ work, as follows:
“He is a Dresdener, thirty-four years old. A decade ago he was a ‘headline-single’ in the metropolitan music-halls of Germany; his ‘act’ included singing, eccentric dancing, instrumental music and satirical monologue. Then he appeared in the humorous and artistic-literary magazines of Berlin and Munich as a poet and caricaturist, venting a shrill sarcastic laughter upon the foibles of American tourists, the filth of brothels and cafes and the hypocritical roguery of German burghers and bureaucrats. Here he was a distinctive original, an irritatingly unclassifiable modern; his poetry was the forerunner of what has turned out to be ‘dada.’
“During the war he never ceased his attacks, sometimes indirect and subtle, again frankly full of odium, upon the imperial autocracy and the docile acceptance of it by the German middle class. His drawings, lithographs and watercolors were reproduced by various radical and artistic periodicals. In Munich, in 1917, he established the monthly Neue Jugend and was its editor until, on publication of a lithograph representing the person of the crown as corrupt, an imperial warrant for his arrest was issued and he was forced into hiding as a political refugee. Again, in the same year, he was similarly noticed by the Government. The occasion was the exhibition that first revealed him as a painter in oils. Early in 1918 a collection of his lithographs dealing with the same subjects was reproduced in a portfolio entitled Gott Mit Uns. The edition was sold out almost over-night; a second issue was confiscated by the military; and again the artist disappeared underground. Since the revolution two other Grosz-Mappen have been published.”
Recently he has illustrated numerous radical books, among which are Wieland Herzefeld’s Tragigrotesken Der Nacht, Was Peterchens Freunde Erzahlen and Klabund’s new translation of “Tartarian of Tarascon,” to which his subtly infantile style of caricature is inevitably adapted. Drawings for these books and for the recent publications, Der Gegner and Der Deutschen Montagszeitung have been collected into a book, Das Gesicht Der Herrschenden Klasse (The Face of the Ruling Class), from which reproductions in The Liberator have been used.
That is Grosz’ record. His ideas cannot be conveyed better than in his own words. A brochure in the famous series Junge Kunst was devoted to his art. It opened with a critical article by Willi Wolfradt. This was intended to be followed by a sketch of the artist’s life. The publisher asked Grosz to write it. He responded with an essay entitled “Statt Einer Biographie” (Instead of a Biography). From this writing, translated by Roger P. Heller, I take the following:
“The art of to-day is dependent upon the bourgeois class and dies with it! The painter, perhaps even without wanting to be, is a banknote-factory and a stock-certificate machine, of which the rich profiteer and aesthetic dilettante make use so as to stand out in their own esteem and in that of the community as advancers of culture-which is just about accordingly advanced. To many also Art is a kind of flight out of this ‘plebian’ world into a lovelier starrealm, a moon-land of fantasy, a cleaner paradise, free from party-wars and class-struggles. The individuality – and personality cult, which is carried on by painters and poets…is an intimate business concern of the art-market. The more ‘genius’-like the personality the greater the profit.
“How does the artist nowadays climb high into bourgeois society? Through swindle, chicanery, fakery! For the most part, beginning in a proletarian existence, housed in a city studio, straining with unaccountable and wonder-worthy adaptability to environment toward ‘the top,’ he eventually finds an ‘angel’ who ‘makes’ him, that is, smoothes his way onto the capital-market. Perchance there crosses his path a pimp who gives him a hundred marks a month and steals his whole production in return. Behind the scenes a cynical business-drive; toward the outside world, priestly gestures of culture-furtherance. That’s what the system requires-and business flourishes.
“The artists themselves, inflated or spoiled, attributing their favored positions to their indispensability to life, are, for the most part, stupefied and caught in the dragnet of this great reactionary spiritual deception. They regard themselves as ‘creators,’ towering high above the ordinary outsider, the average man-in-the-street…But their ‘creations’ are empty of thought, opposed to the world of facts and estranged from the struggle for existence. Actuality -ach! that is so hateful! It’s din and racket disturb the delicate organisms of our harmonic souls!..
“How do you get that way? Do you ever work at all for the proletariat, which will be the bearer of the coming culture? Do you ever bother yourselves to fathom and to live in the world-of-ideas of the proletarian, and to set yourselves against the profiteers and oppressors? Which, after all, is still always possible for you! Do you not ask yourselves whether it is not at last about time to quit your mother-of-pearl decorations? You isolate yourselves, to be independent of time and space, and to stand above all parties, ye keepers of the ‘ivory tower’ within yourselves. You. isolate yourselves to labor for the welfare of man. Where is this man? What is your creator-like indifference and your abstract drivel about timelessness, other than a laughable, worthless speculation upon eternity? Your brushes and pens, which should be weapons, are mere empty straw-stalks. Get out of your cubicles, even if it seems to you a hard job; lift the veil of your private seclusion; let yourselves grow into the ideas of the working people; help them in the battle against the rotted-out social order.”
After the passionately earnest revolutionary Grosz has spoken thus, the suavely cynic Grosz of droll and damning sarcasm adjusts his monocle and concludes:
“This I write in place of the adored, the eternally desired biographical notice. This is to me more essential-to give observed facts and generally applicable demands out of the experiences of my career than to count up all the stupid external happenings of my lifetime, such as birthday, family traditions, scholastic pursuits, first pair of pants, the artist’s earthly pilgrimage from the cradle to the grave, surging impulse and transport of labor, initial success and so on and more of it.
“The tooting of horns about the individual Ego is altogether irrelevant.”
As, indeed, it always has been to the artist who stands where he belongs, struggling for freedom, a part of the Revolution.
The Liberator was published monthly from 1918, first established by Max Eastman and his sister Crystal Eastman continuing The Masses, was shut down by the US Government during World War One. Like The Masses, The Liberator contained some of the best radical journalism of its, or any, day. It combined political coverage with the arts, culture, and a commitment to revolutionary politics. Increasingly, The Liberator oriented to the Communist movement and by late 1922 was a de facto publication of the Party. In 1924, The Liberator merged with Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial into Workers Monthly. An essential magazine of the US left.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/1922/07/v5n07-w52-jul-1922-liberator-hr.pdf