Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Martyn Everett: Art as a Weapon -- Frans Seiwert and the Cologne Progressives

'Art as a Weapon: Frans Seiwert and the Cologne Progressives'
by Martyn Everett
Garage Collections

Art has a long history of use as a propaganda weapon by the powerful, who have patronised particular forms of art and particular artists as a means of enhancing or glorifying their own position. The icon-like portraits of Queen Elizabeth I provide an obvious example, as artists were forbidden to paint other than an officially approved likeness. More recently, the harnessing of art to commodity production - to sell products and create a particular, favourable image of the multi-national corporation is a phenomenon we are all familiar with. Occasionally, however, attempts have been made to transform art into a political weapon; to use it as a means of overthrowing a cruel and unjust social system.

In order to achieve this, artists have had to periodically rethink the whole nature and language of art so that they could challenge the state and the dominant cultural values that underpin both state and economy. This is why new cultural avant-gardes have frequently been linked to anarchism or socialism, their radical politics informing their radical artistic stance. The post-Impressionists and the Surrealists provide ready examples. Attempts to construct a politically engaged art have usually been most successful during times of political ferment, when the culture of the ruling class is already under siege, as during the post First World War Weimar Republic (1918-1933) when Germany was deeply divided and torn by armed conflict.

Art historians have tended to focus mainly on the Expressionist movement and Dada during this period, overlooking the work of the political constructivists, the `Cologne Progressives', a movement which grew out of Expressionism and Dada, and was a contemporary of both. As with Expressionism and Dada the Cologne Progressives were heavily influenced by anarchism, and many of the political constructivists contributed to a range of anarchist and socialist publications.

The Cologne Progressives were a loose grouping of artists initially centred on Cologne and Dusseldorf, which for the last years of its existence produced the radical art magazine A bis Z (1929-1933). Its aims and ideals were, however, shared by artists from elsewhere, and the group eventually included members in Prague, Moscow, Vienna, Amsterdam and Paris. The members of the Progressives all saw their primary purpose as developing visual weapons for the political and social struggle of an oppressed working class against the rich and powerful. They sought to express complex political ideas in simple visual terms, exposing not the nature of the capitalist system, but its causes, and suggesting revolutionary solutions.

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