- Proletarian Modernism and the Politics of Emotion: On Franz Wilhelm Seiwert and John Heartfield
An art form that relates to a particular social class does not exist, and if it did, it would be entirely irrelevant to life.
We ask those who want to create proletarian art: “What is proletarian art?” Is it an art created by the proletarians themselves? Or an art only in the service of the proletariat? Or an art intended to arouse proletarian (revolutionary) instincts? There exists no art created by proletarians because a proletarian who creates art no longer remains a proletarian but becomes an artist.—Theo van Doesburg, “Manifesto of Proletarian Art” (1923)
The spirited defense of autonomous art by Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp, and Kurt Schwitters and their denunciation of “proletarian” as a symptom of everything wrong with politically engaged art attest to the deep divides that haunted the culture and society of the Weimar Republic.1 Their manifesto presented formal innovation as the conduit to aesthetic autonomy and celebrated modern art as liberation from social determinations, national differences, and historical influences. According to van Doesburg, one of the founders of the De Stijl movement, a worker transcended his class origins when he became an artist. But could an artist also stand with the working class? Most Weimar artists associated with the KPD (Communist Party of Germany)—from Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Käthe Kollwitz to lesser-known ones such as Otto Nagel, Curt Querner, Oskar [End Page 735] Nerlinger, and Alice Lex-Nerlinger—would have answered with an enthusiastic “yes,” including those who, unlike Nagel and Querner, did not come from working-class backgrounds.
Known for their realist, expressionist, constructivist, and new objectivist styles, all of these artists experimented with new media and techniques to uncover the structures of class society and support the struggle for revolutionary change. Modernist strategies such as typization and abstraction played a key role in the process—a connection first recognized in the late nineteenth-century Social Democratic debates on modern literature and working-class culture and revisited during the early 1930s in the famous Marxist debates on modernism involving Georg Lukács, Bertolt Brecht, and Theodor W. Adorno. What has not yet been considered in greater detail is in what ways the question of workers’ representation in the artistic and political sense is inextricably linked to the process of emotional mobilization—that is, of envisioning and prefiguring collective bodies in the name of the revolutionary working class. Here the notion of proletarian modernism provides a useful critical tool for reconstructing the elusive configurations of politics and emotion that, under the influence of the October Revolution, brought together the political and artistic avant-gardes and redefined the complicated relationship between modernism and communism.2
For Franz Wilhelm Seiwert and John Heartfield, in particular, advancing the goals of proletarian art was inseparable from developing alternatives to the institutions and practices of bourgeois high culture. This included addressing the difficult position of the modern artist between classes. As Heartfield’s brother Wieland Herzfelde explained: “The artist [i.e., in capitalist society] is a worker and, like others, exploited. Nonetheless, he is no proletarian. . . . He has no comrades but only rivals and competitors; his existence is bourgeois.”3 Working through these contradictions for Seiwert and Heartfield meant to become active in artists’ groups—the Cologne Progressives and Berlin Dada, respectively—and to equate artistic innovation with political intervention. It meant showing their work in group exhibitions and nontraditional venues and publishing in new art journals and party newspapers. Last but not least, foregrounding the emotional qualities of political art meant drawing on elements of folk culture and religious culture and appropriating their didactic and rhetorical qualities for class-based interventions.
In this article, the usefulness of political emotions as a critical category in the study of proletarian modernism will be tested on two specific works of art: Seiwert’s painting Demonstration (1925) and Heartfield’s photomontage Fünf Finger hat die Hand (Five Fingers Has the Hand, 1928). Seiwert and Heartfield are uniquely suited for such an exercise—firstly because of their self-identification as communist artists and secondly because of their use of political...