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American Imago 60.1 (2003) 122-130

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Interpreting Propaganda:
Successors to Warburg and Freud in Wartime

Louis Rose
Department of History
Otterbein College
Westerville, OH 43081

First I want to thank Peter Rudnytsky, Jack Spector, and Gilbert Rose for making the book into an opportunity for dialogue. It is welcome to respond to the commentators.

In concluding his discussion of the followers of Warburg and Freud, Jack Spector succinctly and cogently evaluates the ability of the classical tradition to comprehend contemporary political and cultural upheavals. As his essay explains, the possible limitations on that ability can be found not only in modernist critiques of classicist perspectives but also in the fascist abuse of classicism in the twentieth century. Analysis of Nazi propaganda, mentioned in the book and in Spector's essay, became one intellectual and political endeavor by classically trained scholars to expose and confront that abuse, an endeavor that entered into their scholarship and the war effort. My remarks here will further address how propaganda analysis directed itself against the deceptive and dangerous classical façade of fascism.

During the Second World War, émigré scholars from several disciplines-including art history, psychoanalysis, and film studies-began to interpret propaganda. Without the archival records, laboratory conditions, or focus groups available to scholars today, they in part adapted interpretive tools and concepts from their classical training. In my current research, I have begun to explore how they reapplied tools and concepts originally directed to the ancient world. 1 Here I will consider how Ernst Kris employed the dramaturgic perspective within classicism to analyze propagandistic techniques and aims, and how his studies of propaganda shared elements with those of two cultural scientists from the Frankfurt School, who also worked in applied psychoanalysis, Siegfried Kracauer and Theodor Adorno.

As an art historian, Ernst Kris showed the influence not only of Sigmund Freud but also of Aby Warburg. Fritz Saxl—Warburg's successor as director of the Warburg Library—described Warburg's principle of art historical interpretation as follows: "that images with a meaning peculiar to their own [End Page 122] time and place, once created, have a magnetic power to attract other ideas into their sphere; that they can suddenly be forgotten and remembered again after centuries of oblivion" (1957, 2). Warburg concentrated on how Renaissance paintings revived visual fragments of ancient Dionysian passion, violence, and suffering—fragments that had belonged to pagan rituals of self-abandonment or to ancient experiences of loss of selfhood. Not only images but magic and astrology as well possessed an afterlife. For Warburg, at their moments of highest accomplishment and understanding, the Renaissance artist and audience incorporated mentally the primal experience of images without losing their own autonomous sense of self or identity.

Warburg's conception reflected in part a dramaturgic view of the world, one born within the classical amphitheater, where both actor and spectator sought to balance their psychological, and nearly magical, identification with the dramatic action on stage against their own self-awareness and attachment to the non-stage world. The distance between the audience and performance circle protected that uneasy, even painful, psychological balance, a tragic model that gradually replaced that of Dionysian ritual. Both actor and spectator reproduced that physical distance inwardly, preserving mentally what Warburg described as Denkraum—a space for reflection, a distance from which to control instinctive reactions and emotive identifications.

Before the Second World War, Kris combined Warburgian and Freudian approaches both in his career and in his studies of art. During the prewar period he served as curator of applied art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, as a training analyst in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, and on Sigmund Freud's recommendation, as an editor of Imago: Journal for the Application of Psychoanalysis to the Cultural Sciences. In the 1930s, before the Austrian Anschluss with Germany, he secured positions for his museum assistants, Otto Kurz and Ernst Gombrich, with Saxl at the Warburg Library in London, allowing Kurz and Gombrich to escape Austria's anti-Semitism and authoritarian regime.

Kris wrote his studies of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt'...


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