THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Stephen F. Eisenman and Sue Coe
When in May 1930 John Heartfield created for the German workers magazine AIZ (Die Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung), Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes blind and deaf, he didn’t care about Constructivism, Productivism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Socialist Realism or montage theory. What Heartfield cared about that Spring was the fact that the National Socialist (Nazi) Party just landed a ministry in the state of Thuringia and gained electoral strength in Saxony. Later that year, the Nazis became the second leading vote getter in federal elections.
We know what followed: In 1933, Hitler assumed national, dictatorial power, at which time Heartfield fled the country, literally jumping out of a widow to escape from Nazi clutches. In August 1934, Hitler became “Führer” and undertook a series of extrajudicial executions to further consolidate his power. Those are the things Heartfield cared about during the excruciating years from 1930-38 when he was creating his annihilating photos and montages for AIZ and its successor VI.
To be clear, Heartfield’s works were not the product of mere intuition. Far from it. Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers was probably inspired by Francisco Goya’s etching and aquatint Los Chinchillas from the album Los Caprichos (1799). Both described the idea that the rich and powerful feed the unwary with prejudice, rendering them blind and deaf to the truth.
Left: John Heartfield, Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers, . Colection of the author. Right: Francisco Goya, Los Chinchillas, 1799. Etching. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Heartfield’s famous photomontage, The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little Man Asks for Big Gifts (October 1932) was also built upon a solid, art historical foundation. His first inspiration was the caricaturist Honoré Daumier to whom every politically engaged artist must pay homage. Daumier’s lithograph titled Gargantua (1831) shows French King Louis-Phillippe as Rabelais’ character sitting on a giant toilet. Fed by the weak and destitute at the lower right, Gargantua/Louis Phillippe shits out favors for the wealthy and well-connected at bottom left. (Publication of the print earned its creator a six-month prison sentence.)
Left: John Heartfield, The Meaning of the Hitler Salute: Little Man Asks for Big Gifts, October 1932. Photomontage. Collection of the author. Middle: Honoré Daumier, Gargantua, 1831. Lithograph. Right: Edgar Degas, Portraits at the Stock Exchange, 1879. Oil on canvas. Musé d'Orsay, Paris.
Heartfield inverted the relationship of scale in Daumier’s print. In his version, the political leader is diminutive, and his financial backers are gigantic. The second likely source was Edgar Degas’ painting Portraits at the Stock Exchange (1879, Paris, Orsay Museum)—Heartfield would have seen it at the Louvre—which shows the prominent banker Ernest May standing on the floor of the Bourse, receiving a stock tip conveyed by a shoulder tap and a whisper. As with Heartfield’s photomontage, it suggests the corruption engendered by finance capital.
Like all great artists, Heartfield learned from other artists. But his purpose in creating The Meaning of the Hitler Salute wasn’t to manifest his own genius by standing on the shoulders of giants. It wasn’t even the “alienation-effect”—his friend Brecht’s name for the process of making the familiar seems strange in order to awaken political consciousness. It was to expose Hitler’s viciousness and corruption and forcefully argue that there was nothing socialist about the party of National Socialism. The artist himself described his purpose: “If it is my task to provide a jacket for a book or a brochure for our Front [the Communist Party of Germany], then I try to organise it so that it has the greatest attraction for the broadest mass, so that it guarantees the widest circulation of revolutionary ideas, best represents the content, and beyond that, is an independent page that serves our purposes.” You might quarrel with Heartfield’s supreme confidence in the German Communist Party (and the Soviet Comintern), but it was at the time the most focused and powerful anti-fascist party.
Other artists in the 1930s, including many in the U.S., confronted fascism and its enablers in just as direct and compelling a manner as Heartfield. Hugo Gellert was a Hungarian-born American painter and graphic artist, as well as a communist organizer. His book, Karl Marx Capital in Lithographs was an attempt to abridge and illustrate a complex opus so that everyone could understand it. His illustration for the page “Origin of the Industrial Capitalist” shows John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Company and the richest man in the country. He has a stock ticker tape wrapped around his neck and his hands are clasped in prayer. He was a devout Northern Baptist, but his real faith, Gellert suggests, was capital. Rockefeller was also a major investor in I.G. Farben, the German chemical giant that helped bankroll Hitler’s rise.
Ollie Harrington was a cartoonist and illustrator for a number of chiefly African-American newspapers and magazines, and his work confronted lynching, Jim Crow and systematic discrimination in housing, education, transportation, and health care. His illustration, titled The American Crackerocracy and the Polish Ghetto for the Harlem-based The People’s Voice (February 28, 1942), graphically linked the lynching of African Americans to the fight against fascism.
Oliver Harrington, The American Crackerocracy and the Polish Ghetto, From The People's Voice, February 28, 1942.
In the left panel, a Jewish woman lies slumped against a wall, the apparent victim of a firing squad. Bullet holes pockmark the wall, and the swastika names the perpetrators. In the right panel, a Black man is slumped at the base of a road marker that reads Sikeston MO. U.S.A.. A noose around his neck reveals the means of his death and the reason: racism. The actual lynching of Cleo Wright occurred about a month earlier, followed by threats to dozens of other black men in the community. In response, the U.S. Department of Justice opened its first ever review of a lynching. No one, however, was ever indicted. Later, Harrington wrote an exposé titled “Terror in Tennessee” about illegal arrests and racial violence in the city of Columbia, Tennessee. In 1951, he went into exile in Paris, where he became friends with Richard Wright. Fearing reprisals by the CIA, Harrington in 1961 settled in East Berlin.
Heartfield, Gellert and Harrington were just a few of the artists who, during a period of crisis, had their priorities straight; it was to fight fascism. Others who did the same include William Gropper and Ben Shahn in the U.S. and George Grosz in Germany. (Grosz emigrated to the U.S. in 1933.) And in an era of neo-fascism, political art and commentary must again “[represent] the content” of our time and try to persuade the “broadest mass” to fight fascism. That’s the purpose of It Can Happen Here.
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 took almost everybody by surprise: an aging, real estate conman, funded by inherited wealth and TV celebrity, ascended to the presidency on a wave of racist vitriol and vulgar machismo. He then proceeded to flout the gravitas of the office by using it for financial gain and staffing it with corporate shills and right-wing ideologues. The list of the former is long and includes Steve Mnuchin (Treasury), Wilbur Ross (Commerce), Scott Pruitt (Environment, replaced by Andrew Wheeler), and Betsy DeVos (Education). The latter group includes Steve Bannon (fired for taking up too much airtime) and Steven Miller, who advises on immigration and quietly provides the president entree to the blogs, chatrooms and slogans of the racist and neo-Nazi alt-right.
Trump has torn up previously agreed treaties (the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran de-nuclearization framework, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement with Russia), reduced Muslim and Latin American refugee immigration to a trickle; gutted environmental and workplace protections; slashed taxes for corporations and the rich; handed the courts over to unqualified or corrupt jurists; and attempted to blackmail a foreign leader to undercut the political prospects of his rival. He was thwarted in the last by a whistleblower and impeachment, but his apologists in the Senate enthusiastically formed a protective backstop. (Only Mitt Romney voted for conviction.) And why shouldn’t Republicans have fallen in line? Nearly all the president’s initiatives and policies (tariffs excepted) were theirs too!
Even Trump’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic is consistent with Republican goals: By limiting the duration of support for the unemployed and strictly controlling the availability of testing and protective equipment, the administration and its congressional allies further weaken the working class, especially its most vulnerable Black and brown sections. [COE, THE DIM REAPER, 2020]
The clear intention is to ensure the highest possible, post-pandemic rate of profit for banks, investment firms, extractive industries, technology companies, entertainment conglomerates, real estate businesses, transportation, and tourism. Already, the CARES Act passed by Congress, combined with resources from the Federal Reserve, has distributed almost $4.6 trillion to many of the nation’s biggest and richest companies. Admittedly, passage of the relief bill was bipartisan, but the strongest emphasis on corporate relief—along with limits on accountability—came from Republicans.
So, is Trump a radical outlier in American politics, or simply the boorish expression of one of the two main political parties? Given the harmony of viewpoint between the Republican Party and its leader in the White House, the answer appears to be the latter. But as Trump’s grip on his office tightened in the wake of his acquittal in the Senate, as his control of the courts and bureaucracies deepened under the guidance of Bill Barr and Mike Pompeo, as his racism and vindictiveness was further exposed in the wake of national protests over the killing of George Floyd and the toppling of Confederate memorials, and after his dispatch of Homeland Security and ICE shock troops to Portland to assault and detain protesters, a new consensus has emerged: that he is a fascist enabled by ideologically pliant members of Congress, agency heads and judges. To evaluate the claim, it’s necessary to go back and briefly review the origins and development of European and American fascism and Nazism, before returning to the current crisis.
The origins of European fascism are found in the political rubble left by the First World War (1914-18). The conflict killed more than 20 million people, but when it ended in 1918, little was settled. National struggles for control of resources and markets resumed, industrial capacity remained bloated, and social inequality—exacerbated by postwar recession and unemployment—created a dynamic and volatile class struggle.
The successful Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, plus a string of failed insurrections in Germany, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere in the early 1920s, cleaved Europe in two. On the one side were progressive forces (mostly socialist and communist) that favored parliamentary elections and equality, and on the other, conservative groups who upheld traditional hierarchy and endorsed the continued reign of private over communal property. The latter were sometimes Social Democrats (what we’d today call liberals), and more ominously, fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany. The Italians were led by Benito Mussolini (Il Duce) following his appointment as prime minister in 1922; and the Germans by Adolph Hitler (Der Führer), after his appointment as chancellor in January 1933. Both of them soon secured nearly complete authoritarian control. That was when John Heartfield in Germany, as well as a legion of other German artists, musicians, and intellectuals, fled the country.
Sue Coe, Execution of a Resistance Fighter, 2019. Linocut. Image courtesy of the artist.
Fascist and Nazi leaders were ruthless. At first, they employed thugs, often former soldiers, to intimidate and even murder the leaders of leftist organizations and independent unions. Later, they maintained their own corps of shock troops to undertake larger scale intimidation and violence. Their stated goals often sounded mythic: to purify the social body, restore a plundered national glory (making Germany great again), and establish a global empire that would last millennia. In addition, they perpetuated the lie that humanity was composed of biologically distinct races, with some innately superior to others; and they celebrated war and violence as purifying. But they were also pragmatic when they needed to be. Soon after gaining power, Mussolini and Hitler passed laws to suppress wages and subsidize big business. To succeed, they needed the cooperation and financial support of industrial and agricultural leaders such as I.G. Farben, Friedrich Thyssen and Alfred Krupp as well as hereditary elites, and for the most part, they got it.
The drive for national and racial glory was thus also a drive for capitalist profit. Rearmament in particular functioned as a huge economic stimulus, especially needed after the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Depression. In fact, it was the economic growth stimulated by war preparations that earned the Fascists and Nazis the support they enjoyed among the lower middle and middle classes. (Industrial workers were more suspicious of far-right parties in the interwar period.) Majorities in Italy and German were willing to accept constraints upon the rights of speech, assembly, and political participation in exchange for economic security. They even sanctioned, for the most part, the moral outrages and crimes of the 1930s and ‘40s, including the harassment, arrest, imprisonment and execution of Communists, Jews, Homosexuals, Roma, Slavs and others. By the end of World War II in 1945, and the defeat of the fascists and Nazis, the death toll of soldiers and civilians was about 80 million, four times greater than World War I.
Historians have described the measures taken by fascist and Nazi regimes to consolidate power and advance their aims. They may be taken to be diagnostic of fascism in general. They include:
1. Bringing independent units of government to heel.
2. Using violence and subversion to cripple opposition parties and bias elections.
3. Intimidating and then controlling the press and other media.
4. Sponsoring mass rallies and military parades and militarizing society.
5. Upholding the leadership principle (Der Führer; Il Duce).
6. Mocking justice, while offering unlimited legal protection to financial elites.
7. Rescinding women’s political, reproductive, and property rights.
8. Denying the expression of any non-reproductive sexuality.
9. Denigrating science and promoting lies (what Hitler called “the big lie”).
10. Endorsing white “Aryan” supremacy and making it the basis of foreign and domestic policy.
The imposition of these measures differed in the various European fascist regimes, with Germany being the most consistent and relentless, and the Hungarian and Romanian governments being the most zealous imitators.
Detailed discussion of these fascist principles and postures is unnecessary here. What’s important now is to consider their current revival. The forced resignation of career officials at the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and Justice Department, and their replacement by Republican political appointees, is part of the effort to bring independent units of government into conformity with Trump’s will. The establishment of Fox News as a quasi-official state news service (a marriage lately frayed), and attacks upon information from other sources as “fake news,” exemplifies the fascist desire to intimidate and control the press.
Trump’s insistence that he has the right to interpret laws however he wants or simply ignore them and to grant pardons to his criminal cronies mocks the rule of law. His denial of the facts of human-caused climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic are examples of the “big lie.” And of course, Trump’s repeated racist and antisemitic canards, including calling countries with majority Black populations “shitholes”; telling Black and brown legislators to “go back where they came from;” and saying that Jews are greedy (“brutal killers”) and disloyal to Israel if they vote against him, are open expressions of a racism and antisemitism that recalls earlier generations of American fascism: the state-sanctioned terror of the Ku Klux Klan from about 1915 to 1925; the popular antisemitic and pro-fascist radio broadcasts by Father Charles Coughlin from 1936-1939; and the isolationist and antisemitic America First Committee, formed in 1940 and famously endorsed by aviator Charles Lindbergh. (The onset of war with Germany and Japan in 1941 destroyed the reputations of Coughlin, Lindbergh, and the America Firsters.) Trump has been at pains to revive the once reviled slogan, “America First.”
History never repeats itself. Setting statements and policies from the Nazi past beside contemporary ones and then claiming equivalence, is an act of selective memory and shaky history. What about the many earlier utterances and events for which no contemporary parallel may be found? And what about current policies for which no historical precedent may be identified? Nevertheless, the actual impact of current programs and policies that recall fascism and Nazism are visible to all. We know very well what happens when asylum applicants are forcibly returned to their home (they are often killed); when immigrant children are housed in cages (they experience emotional and educational deprivation); when the facts of climate science are denied (the planet continues to warm); when racists are described or accepted as good people (some of them are emboldened to violently enact their hatreds); when casual sexism and sexual abuse is tolerated (it grows); when the rule of law is denied (injustice and impunity reign); when free and fair elections are undermined (the public loses faith in representative democracy); and when the press is routinely denigrated as an “enemy of the people” (they are no longer trusted).
Sue Coe, American Concentration Creche, 2018. Linocut. Image courtesy of the artist.
The purpose of political art now must be inoculation and clear warning. It’s to alert individuals and communities that something dangerous is happening and that actions must be taken to stop it. Anti-fascist resistance might include mass protests and rallies, like those still underway across the country against racism and police violence. It also includes the simple act of voting in November for Joe Biden. That Trump can still be voted out of office is a sign that the dictatorship he and his supporters aim to create has not yet been established. (After fascists attain power, elections are the first things to go.) However, if Trump is re-elected, a democratic solution to the crisis caused by the new, American fascism may no longer be available, and the art that aimed to stop it will appear to future generations, like the photomontages of John Heartfield, poignant relics of a failed resistance.
That Trump may fairly be called fascist doesn’t mean that elements of fascism were not present in U.S. politics and society in the years before his presidency—and among Democrats and Republicans alike. Indeed, fascism in its broadest definition has been with us from the start. The slave society that existed prior to emancipation and the system of racial segregation following Reconstruction were both built upon white (Aryan) supremacy and racial violence. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps. A decade later, leftists and queers in government, education and other professions were targeted for abuse and dismissal. And of course, U.S. militarism and intervention, especially since 1945, may be seen as expressions of what the Nazis called “Lebensraum.” But until recently, most Americans believed that disturbing history was receding from sight, not rapidly advancing.
British-born American artist Sue Coe has from the start of her career explored the strong, recessive trait of U.S. fascism. It’s there in her disturbing explorations of male sexual violence, her examination of the criminally inadequate response to pandemics (AIDS and now COVID-19), and especially violence against animals. In her print, Auschwitz Begins When Someone Looks at a Slaughterhouse and Thinks They are Only Animals (the quote is from Theodor Adorno), she highlights a form of cruelty–meat consumption–that most people participate in with hardly any thought. The idea here is not only that cruelty toward animals preconditions humans to violence toward each other, but that Auschwitz is present in every slaughterhouse.
In Language of the Dictator (They Are Just Animals) from It Can Happen Here, Coe abbreviates the Adorno line, allowing the viewer to remember how often the U.S. president has referred to immigrants as “animals.” (At the now infamous Tulsa rally, it was his surrogate Eric Trump who described BLM protesters as animals.) The print shows men with nightsticks beating down hundreds of animals. One of the men wears a badge recalling the SS. These animals might be human protestors in the dozens of U.S. cities where police and national guard troops used violence to prevent the exercise of protected constitutional rights. Or they might be animals in a slaughterhouse subject to same cruel fate—actually, much worse—than BLM protesters. The composition and figural exaggerations recall Northern Gothic art as it was re-interpreted by the German Expressionists.
Coe’s work has more in common with early Max Beckmann and George Grosz than it does with Hugo Gellert. She appreciates their complexity and dialectics, as is apparent in The Language of the Dictator. But she often just wants to hit hard, without much ambiguity. No dialectics required —just a punch to the gut. The prints included in It Can Happen Here (and many more not included) are mostly of the second type. Maybe when the fascist in the White House is gone there will be more room for theory.
Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007) and The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) among other books. Eisenman is also a curator, critic, activist and co-founder of the non-profit, Anthropocene Alliance. He has collaborated with Sue Coe, from time to time, since about 2000.
Sue Coe, It Can Happen Here, 2016.
Linocut. Image courtesy of the artist.
Hugo Gellert: Primary Accumulation 16, 1933. Lithograph. National Portrait Gallery. © Estate of Hugo Gellert.
Above: Sue Coe, IMPOTUS, 2020. Linocut. Image courtesy of the artist.
Below: Sue Coe, The Dim Reaper, 2020. Linocut. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sue Coe, Language of the Dictator, 2019. Linocut. Image courtesy of the artist.
Above: Sue Coe, Enemy of the People, 2019. Linocut. Image courtesy of the artist.
Below: Sue Coe, Inciter in Chief, 2020. Linocut, Image courtesy of the artist.
Above: Sue Coe, The Total Eclipse of Rationality, 2017. Linocut. Image courtesy of the artist.
Below: Sue Coe, United Front Against Fascism/Trumpism: VOTE, 2020. Linocut, Image courtesy of the artist.
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