“New Jerusalem” in Ruins: Romanticism, Nihilism & Art

A couple years ago there was a debate on Red Wedge about romanticism. I am reposting here my contributions to that debate. Unfortunately, I don't have access to the other contributions. In addition I think it is important to note the likelihood that all of us might now disagree with what we wrote a few years ago in the early days of Red Wedge.

There is undoubtedly a major element of nihilism in contemporary culture—not just in horror movies but also in science fiction, the visual arts, literature and even prime time television.

The twin factors of imperial decline and the mushrooming crisis facing the working-class majority has produced a population—across the political spectrum—that is more than eager to unwind after a hard day and watch people trudge through an apocalyptic wasteland populated by hostile militias, aliens or zombies.

Things have gone so far awry that dystopian futures are no longer just cautionary tales but can actually be seen as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. Now, with the end of all the old crap, a progressive or reactionary “New Jerusalem”—to borrow from William Blake—might built on top of the ruins of our failing civilization.

One of the most important iteration of expressionism in 21st century European art has probably been the eponymous documentary—by Sophie Fiennes—of the work of Anselm Kiefer, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.

Sophie Fiennes, still from Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, showing sculptures by Anselm Kiefer

Brit Schulte and J. Matthew Camp have rightly identified this nihilistic streak—bound up in dialectic with contemporary capitalism and its brutal history.

In the recent Red Wedge article, “Bloodlines II: The Rise of Modern Horror,” they rightfully argue:

“How horror is organized via the popular imagination leads to an examination of alienation and exploitation, both hallmarks of capitalist production, and how these fixtures translate into the fictive realm of horror. This leads us to the zombification of wage slaves: labor and the undead. Just as the rapid proleterianization and industrialization of the European economy fueled Mary Shelley’s drafting of her creature, so too does the loss of autonomy and dead time as universally experienced themes under capitalism provide a tractive force driving contemporary horror. In capturing these themes in the capitalist world, zombies and vampires reign supreme.”

Schulte and Camp are right to connect the current cultural nihilism—and preferred monsters—to the attenuation of capitalism. They are also correct to connect the birth of horror to the Romantic cultural tradition in Mary Shelley’s Frankestein.

At the same time Schulte and Camp’s examination of the evolution of Romanticism is too narrow. By reducing this examination to the two figures of Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft—although their reading of these two figures is excellent—a central dynamic of capitalist culture is flattened. In this reading nihilism—which is one of many possible features of Romanticism—becomes a central feature of Romanticism. Historically, and not just at its inception, Romanticism has been an exceptionally diverse phenomenon.

Romanticism as phenomenon

While Romanticism was a late 18th and 19th century artistic and literary movement—centered around figures as diverse as Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, Mary Shelley, the Romantic landscape painters, as well as reactionaries like Edmund Burke, etc.—Romanticism was (and is) more phenomenon than movement.

Romanticism is characterized most of all by a rejection of the quantification of life—a quantification that came hand in hand with the rise of capitalism. It is also identified with the longing for more meaningful, often “spiritual,” interactions between human beings and between human beings and their environment (both natural and cultural). This longing is often expressed in nostalgia (either total or partial) for (real or imagined) pre-capitalist or pre-class social and cultural forms.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who borrowed much from early Romantic social critics, carried this aspect of Romanticism into scientific socialism with their analysis (and popularization) of the concept and phenomenon of primitive communism.

Romanticism continues to this day.

It was expressed in 20th century art movements such as expressionism, Dada, surrealism, aspects of abstract expressionism, Fluxus, Arte Povera, the work of Joseph Beuys, the films of Luis Buñuel, and the sculptures of Eva Hesse and Doris Salcedo.

The Romantic was initially a byproduct of the pressures put on the pre-capitalist (or early capitalist) intelligentsia by the industrial revolution.

Artists, writers, actors, theologians, monks, priests and poets who were conditioned to see the aesthetic and moral world in qualitative terms chaffed at the transition to quantitative (exchange) value and capitalism’s utilitarian view of people and the natural world.

Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974. Performance/Installation.

Some looked back to an idealized medieval life. Some looked with hope on the revolutionary waves that swept Europe beginning with the French Revolution. Some looked to an idealized nature (as was the case with many of the Romantic painters). Many looked to all the above.

At the same time Romanticism can’t be reduced to a particular moment in social history. It is not merely a product of a crisis in agency—when capitalism’s ills had become clear but the modern working-class was not yet coherently formed.

Because capitalism continued to need an intelligentsia—and an artificially created “art world” that serves in part as a lab of signification, in part as business—the social basis for Romanticism continued. This intelligentsia, much like the family, is both maintained and constantly attacked by capital. The initial conditions that gave rise to Romanticism are therefore recreated on a continual basis.

All art movements are—by definition—petit-bourgeois. Most artists (within capitalism) occupy a space in between capital and labor. Working-class artists who are successful become, by virtue of their success, petit-bourgeois. The proletarianized culture workers (to borrow from Adorno and Benjamin) have little control over content and meaning. Filmmakers quite clearly—except in the rarest of circumstances—exist squeezed between capital and labor.

rt is largely a product of the petit-bourgeois. This explains its tendency toward rebellion (both far right and far left rebellion) as well as its inability to offer a solution to its own crises.

Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962)

At the same time art is not a product of the middle-class as a class but of a particular segment with particular characteristics. The most important of these is the continued structural fidelity (of some kind) to qualitative value.

Likewise, Romanticism is not an expression of the petit-bourgeois generally but of a particular layer of the middle-class—artists and certain elements of the threatened intelligentsia.

It can be reactionary or progressive, nihilistic or revolutionary.

It is not a coherent ideology or movement. It is a phenomenon of capitalist culture.

Romanticism Left and Right

At each moment of its existence Romanticism has produced left and right wings. The domination of one wing or the other often has more to do with the general political trajectory, balance of class forces and consciousness.

Therefore early Romanticism produces progressives like Mary Shelley and William Blake as well as arch-reactionary Edmund Burke. The early 20th century gives us the racist reactionary H.P. Lovecraft and the revolutionary surrealist André Breton.

Lovecraft is not the reactionary cap on the history of the Romantic. Both progressive and reactionary Romanticisms continue throughout the 19th and 20th century—in both popular and “avant-garde” culture.

Romanticism takes on left-wing political colors most of all at certain moments of mass struggles—often just before an explosion of struggle, during periods of liberal or social-democratic “class peace.”

The influence of Romantic conceptual artist and sculptor—and founder of the Green Party—Joseph Beuys grew throughout the economic boom of 1960s Germany. His critique of both West German capitalism and East German “socialism” resonated with artists who chaffed under the de facto and de jour censorship on either side of the “iron curtain.” Beuys argued that the problem with both sides was their ruthless rationality. Obviously this differs from a clear Marxist analysis of state capitalism. Nevertheless Beuys’ Romantic framework—which can’t be discussed fully here—were central to the artistic breakthroughs he made elaborating on the contributions of Marcel Duchamp.

Many of the artists of the 1960s Italian movement Arte Povera—Poor Art—combined a thoroughly Romantic approach to art with radical support for striking Fiat workers during the Hot Autumn of 1969. Some supported the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War and even protested the occupation of Palestine after the 1968 war.

Following the disaster of left-wing terrorism in Italy in the 1970s these artists retreated to a more apolitical Romanticism—albeit one that was far from nihilistic. The key factor here, however, was not simply the characteristics of Romanticism, but the dynamics of class struggle.

Similarly, the politics of horror movies can differ wildly even as they might formally resemble one another. The zombie movies of George Romero—initially forged in the crucible of the 1960s rebellions—are quite different than a Friday the 13th slasher film. Everyone might die—but how the horror unfolds says a great deal about the political and social orientation of the directors, writers or producers.

Arte Povera: Michelangelo Pistoletto, Venus of Rags, 1967. Pistoleto contrasts the common rags of the poor with a recreation of a classical Venus statue

Romanticism is a large contradictory cultural phenomenon. It can’t be easily reduced either conceptually or historically. It is produced by the tensions within capital itself. Of course, the general argument in universities is that the Romantic was a counter-Enlightenment philosophy and was usually nationalistic.

Michel Lowy and Robert Sayre refute this extensively in their book Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity.  As Schulte and Camp argue, many of the initial Romantics were Enlightenment figures. Many of the earliest German Romantics were even internationalists.

Romanticism and the French Revolution

The relationship of the Romantics to revolution was also complicated.

Romantics (running the gamut from Blake to Beethoven) often embraced the early French Revolution (reactionaries like Edmund Burke aside).

Most of these Romantics—William Blake most notably—grew disillusioned following Thermidor—the internal counter-revolution known by its month in the revolutionary French calendar.

Some embraced Napoleon turning in horror from the mass executions.

Many, however, (especially outside of England and France) came to hate Napoleon due to the Napoleonic wars that decimated pats of Europe.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823

Beethoven initially supported Napoleon and dedicated his Third Symphony to him. After Napoleon declared himself Emperor he angrily withdrew that dedication.

The painter Goya made some of his best paintings—many of them in a Romantic mode—as a protest against the memory of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.

Regardless, the Romantic reaction to Napoleon was complex and its contradictoriness was bound up with the blood of Thermidor—not merely a philosophically idealist dedication to the realization of the “unbound cosmic-self.”

here is a tension in the Romantic between action and utopianism. The Romantic aims to see the realization of paradise but tends to recoil at the blood that might need to be shed to achieve it. This is because Romanticism is not a political movement. It is the expression of artistic temperament in conflict with capital.

Blake wrote many poems celebrating the irrational—or more accurately condemning the rational—out of his disillusionment with the French Revolution. Illya Kabakov—the expat Russian artist—made amazing installation pieces using the remnants of official Soviet culture that he shaped into magical realist environments.

Both proletarian success and failure feeds the different wings of the Romantic.

“The unbound cosmic-self”

My largest point of clarification with Schulte and Camp’s otherwise excellent article is on the question of the “spiritual” aspect of Romanticism. Schulte and Camp seem to mistake a common Romantic idea—that there is a “spiritual” cosmology of some kind—for its particular iteration in Goethe’s Faust.

Goethe’s Faust is an examination of the realization of the “unbound self.” Faust’s pursuit of mystical knowledge (in his “Faustian bargain with the devil”) fails to lead to his damnation (as it did in the classical versions of the story).

The Romantic poetry of William Blake, however, presents a very different cosmological view. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell human beings can’t master the mysteries of the universe. Angels can’t even master them.

Casper David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809. Far from dominating the mysteries of the universe the monk is dwarfed by them

A central Romantic idea in 19th century landscape painting—taken from Immanuel Kant and the otherwise worthless Edmund Burke—was the idea of the sublime: the attempt in art to depict the fantastic and profound moments or images that could not be depicted and understood. In this case the self is actually prostrated before the cosmos instead of the cosmos being mastered by the unbound self.

his act was connected—in German and American Romantic painting—to opposition to the industrial revolution’s impact on the natural world. This was a project in aesthetic and cosmic humility—the opposite of a Faustian “will to power.”

Most Romantics believed there was a spiritual cosmology—but only some Romantics believed this cosmology could be mastered.

It is interesting to note that this, too, is contradictory. H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmology, as noted in “Bloodlines” was entirely nihilistic whereas Goethe’s was not—although it was largely reactionary.

Andre Breton did not believe the “spiritual” could be mastered, but he believed it could be more fully experienced, through the interactions between the conscious and sub-conscious mind. He believed this realization of the spiritual self was undermined by capitalism.

Art of the Future

Andre Breton in 1930. Photograph by Man Ray

If we flatten the differences within Romanticism we fail to recognize the differences within its children—like the modern horror genre—the substantial political and social differences between Friday the 13th and Night of the Living Dead, between Saw and 28 Days Later or between Zombie Honeymoon and The Exorcist.

These films differ in their conception of horror itself. Some stand in a reactionary tradition that sees human nature—or supernatural evil—as the enemy. Others see social constructions as the primary problem. It is not all one homogenous bloodbath.

The propensity for imagination and creating entire worlds—of horror or wonder—is a central aspect of the Romantic. It is an aspect of the Romantic that can be traced to the beginning of what we know can art—a phenomenon that began tens of thousands of years before social classes even existed.

It began with an impulse—a spiritual impulse—before there was a “political”—to connect the material world with that which was (and often still is) beyond our full understanding (love, death, birth, etc.).

Human beings painted on rocks and carved from stone and molded with clay the fetishes and familiars and totems that connected them and their material concerns to the vast and mysterious unknown.

Today that unknown is more often than not full of monsters. The reason it is full of monsters is because real life is full of monsters. Only struggle—and eventually revolution—will rebalance the magical worlds created by art.

The goal of revolution (in terms of art) is be to return art to the state of its origins: A democratic-cosmological state in which art belongs to all—a state in which art is able once again to explore the “magic” of existence itself.

The desire for “magic” and enchantment in art and life is at the core of Romanticism—not Lovecraftian cosmology per se, which is simply the reactionary wing of a diverse phenomenon. Romanticism is a wildly contradictory worldview that runs the gamut from far right to far left.

Romanticism often expresses a desire for magic and poetry in a world in which capital has destroyed the sense of poetry and magic we felt as children (see Breton) or imagine once existed on the Earth (see Blake).

The day the revolution is complete will be the day these aspects of the Romantic will be vindicated and redeemed.

"Evicted Art Blog" is Red Wedge editor Adam Turl's investigation of potential strategies for contemporary anti-capitalist studio art.