Ernő Kállai’s “Art and the General Public” (1929)
Translated from the German by David Britt. From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of
Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
You seldom comprehended me, ’tis true,
And I as seldom comprehended you;
We reached an understanding when we found
That Kitsch it was that gave us common ground.
(Freely after Heine)
One of the many arguments used today to demonstrate the general uselessness and asocial nature of personality in art, literature, and philosophy is this: that such values have nothing to say to the masses. And indeed the most profound and responsible creative talents must suffer most from such isolation. But the incomprehension and ignorance of the crowd proves nothing — in any argument. Above all, one thing is undeniable: that even the crowd has its artistic needs. Otherwise why are the movies, the music cafés, and the radio doing so well? Why do the weeklies and magazines publish in editions of millions of copies? And, in the last resort, what is this mass trade there for, but to purvey art, literature, and practical philosophy with a hint of the ideal? In suitably popular forms, of course: that is, as a watered-down version of what were originally “exclusive” and “socially unacceptable” works of genius. Pseudo-art and pseudo-philosophy are the more or less grubby small change that endlessly circulates from hand to hand, while the gold reserves of the great spiritual enterprise lie locked up in exalted creative masterworks, inaccessible except to the few.
This state of affairs can to some extent be explained in terms of the wedge driven by the technological and economic revolution between the bare necessities of survival and the leisure required for mental pursuits. Much of the mindless claptrap that the masses of the so-called middle-class public and of the proletariat unresistingly accept is the fault of our wonderful [industrial] civilization, which has turned man into an abject, harassed slave of work, a defrauded fraudster, an oppressed oppressor of his neighbor. There is no predicting how far this situation can be radically remedied by a revolution that brings purely economic and social benefits to the proletariat; perhaps the remedy is more likely to come from technological improvements still to come, and from the longed-for “comfortable surplus” for everyone. Nevertheless, even the total fulfillment of the most extravagant technological fantasies cannot eliminate one obstacle that will continue to stand between the public at large and the supreme achievements of the human mind. This is the necessity of winning access to a mental world through empathy, creative work, devotion, and rigorous concentration. It may well be that in earlier cultures the capacity or the passion that affords such depth of vicarious mental experience was common property and, as it were, a gift of nature. Perhaps we are moving toward a new age in which even supreme creative achievements will be self-evidently accessible to all. Perhaps the divide between mind and reality will disappear again, and — after paradise — man will experience a second transformation of his earthly life: a technological one. For the time being, these are utopian prospects. The present day knows no paths to the Center other than those of specialized aptitude, talent, and commitment. This observation does not spring from any sectarian obsession; nor does it stand for high-flown hero-worship or pedigree dandyism. It is objectively based, no more and no less. It acknowledges the obstacles that prevent creativity from gaining undistorted access to a wider collective consciousness, and treats the isolation of creativity behind such high walls as anything but a privileged position. Rather as an unwanted burden that is both morally and materially hard to bear.
Times have changed. Where is the much-maligned arrogance of the artist now? Even talented individuals are now losing courage and turning petty and ugly. Only recently, a Berliner Tageblatt survey of leading writers and poets revealed a surprising number of inferiority complexes. Rightly, Béla Balázs in Die Weltbühne lectured them for their pusillanimity and denounced such slogans as Objectivity [Sachlichkeit] and Functionalism as capitalist crimes against humanity and against the human spirit. As with writers, so with artists. There is no arrogance in artists nowadays; at best, there is a dour, defiant defensiveness. Understandably so, for the Philistinism of the good old days, which dismissed any artist who went his own way as a fool and a wastrel, now has a host of new allies in the shape of clever-clever technomaniacs, snobbish America-worshipers, and utilitarian fanatics. Not to speak of the apostles of Proletkult and the oafs of ideological art. These are the circles in which arrogance is to be found, and among them there are quite a few Modernist architects and architectural aesthetes.
At best, the art-hating, horribly patronizing attitudes of such people rest on a social superstition: the argument quoted at the beginning of this article. This is that the masses have no time for the highly personal, “eccentric” creations of art and philosophy. These hostile intellectual critics fail to acknowledge the sources from which the — undeniable artistic — needs of the masses are ultimately supplied. If it were not for the thinkers and artists of genius, whose creations represent the utmost concentration of their vital energies and the revelation of ultimate realities, then one fine day the whole popular trade in spiritual surrogates would dry up. The countless makers of art and literature, and the more or less shallow popular philosophers, would have no sources from which to derive the specialties that now reach them in mangled form at the end of a long, intermediate supply chain. The closure of the great powerhouses of the mind would lead, at lengthening intervals, to the extinction of all the lights that draw power from them. The mass production and mass consumption of contemporary culture surrogates would be in the same plight as contemporary European folk art. This, too, was never anything but an adaptation of the art of the upper classes; it can no longer receive any stimulus from those sources, now that machine technology and capitalist production have made all art bourgeois and proletarian. This process has already worked its way through the system and is supplanting peasant art, in countries like Hungary and Russia, with utterly cretinous offshoots of “urban fashion.”
In the beginning, Impressionist painting was of course an exclusive and individualistic phenomenon, even for the academicians. Now, kitsch derivatives of that same Impressionism can be seen in hundreds of thousands of dirt-cheap color prints in every petty-bourgeois parlor and barbershop. Even the mass production of art is “progressive” in its own way. Especially in Germany, where machines extrude thousands of kilometers of wallpaper like monstrous tapeworms, with ornamental appliqués in the “Expressionist” or “Neoplasticist” style. A few days ago, a wallpaper manufacturer suggested to the Bauhaus that its students should make designs for new wallpaper patterns. To the credit of the Bauhäusler, be it said that they showed no great inclination for this kind of arty-crafty formal stereotyping. Of course, the linoleum manufacturers have their own up-to-the-minute stylistic ambitions, and now they give their products not only the semblance of Persian carpets but also a décor of brightly colored squares. The triumphal progress of Bauhaus geometry, with its Dutch and Suprematist antecedents, has now reached as far as the nightwear of the “modern lady of taste” —  presented for our inspection by a Viennese women’s magazine. The painters Malevich and Mondrian, a whole international school of architects, and the Viennese lingerie industry, can all join hands in the sign of the Square. If that isn’t popular…
A word on the popularity of motion pictures. If we ignore for a moment the overwhelming preponderance of kitsch products, there are still many films that appeal equally to the most jaded intellectual and the most naive movie-going audience. Even in such cases of universal popularity, however, reactions differ widely. An example: for the ordinary man in the audience, Chaplin is only an amusing joker. For the person of greater insight, he is infinitely more than that. An eternal icon of humanity, a hero with a tragicomic destiny, as profound, even in his wildest grotesques, as any quixotic creation of the human imagination.
The experience of true art is a matter of mental passion: it is both ecstasy and supreme insight. It cannot lie around on every street corner, to be picked up by any rubberneck who happens to come along (no class distinction intended).
Every nation has the government — and the art — that it deserves.
[Originally published as “Kunst und großes Publikum,” in Der Kunstnarr (April 1929)]