Brechtian Persistence


by Terry Atkinson




For Adorno any resistance to reification can only be discerned in certain privileged forms of art, and this position maintains the notion of the artist as a special kind of high priest, innocent of any sort of didactic purpose.[i]




One part among many that will go to make up the content of the exhibition will be the distribution of the text and the performance of Brecht’s Messingkauf Dialogues. Obviously this constitutes the use of a reference, of the kind used consistently by artists to imply that there is some correlation between our output and Brecht’s …[ii]




In the 1930s and 1940s both Theodor Adorno and György Lukács, arguing from different perspectives, dismissed Bertolt Brecht’s and Walter Benjamin’s belief that the then new technologies, especially film and photography, would contribute significantly to shaping new resources that would produce a less reified subject (both art producer and art consumer). In respect of this faith in technology both Adorno and Lukács proved to be correct. Now, in 2013, over seventy years later, it is clearly implausible to argue that technology has produced a less reified producer and consumer. To the contrary, it is clear that the developments of these technologies, not least the electronic technologies which have now risen to such a dominating position in many cultures this past thirty or so years, have vastly increased the propensity of both art producers and art consumers to indulge in behaviour that is more and more reified. Brecht and Benjamin envisaged the new production systems of the 1920s and 1930s as offering a means of resisting the gathering pace of the institutionalization of the auratic artistic subject, especially the much heralded avant-garde model of the artistic subject (hereafter the AGMOAS). They were wrong – but Adorno’s theory of resistance fares no better, nor does the theory advanced by Lukács. Since both of the latter insist, in different ways, on what they conceive as the enlightened form of the bourgeois subject as being the carrier of social progress.


For Adorno, what he claims to be the enlightened subject he also claims to be a kind of inviolable sub-strata; he claims it to persist in the sense that it is a form of the subject (a condition of the subject) which reification cannot reach. He argues that it is a sub-strata culturally revealed or invented and then further constructed and refined during the previous two centuries by bourgeois culture in its most emancipatory mode.[iii] Framing the matter in Adorno’s own terms, that of his prescient prediction of the increasing onset of what he calls the fully administered society, according to him, this is a model of the subject that is most resistant to administration. Whilst Adorno’s concept of the fully administered society has a strong resonance in respect of the models of the artistic subject in place in today’s art relations of production (not least the AGMOAS) and the reception of that subject’s productions by consumers, his view of the enlightened bourgeois resistant subject is plainly wrong. In the art world of post-Warhol and post-Beuys practices and the patterns of distribution and reception accordingly developed, reification of the subject is par for the course. The subject is pretty well fully administered, artists themselves being willing and significant contributors to this administration. Thus in short, whilst Adorno was correct in rejecting Brecht and Benjamin’s optimistic bet that the new technologies of the early part of the twentieth century would fulfil a radical function in developing a more critical model of the subject, he was wrong in predicting that the emancipated bourgeois model of the subject is itself resistant to reification.


The dispute between Brecht and Lukács is equally revealing. Lukács considered Brecht’s later work to be superior to his early work. It is a long and attenuated argument that Lukács maintains in reaching this judgement, and I do not intend to recount its detail here. Perhaps it is best summarised by recounting Brecht’s rejection of Lukács’s argument. Brecht argues that Lukács, in embracing the bourgeois writer in what Lukács claims to be its most enlightened form, still tethers the proletariat to a retrogressive structure of representation. In rejecting Lukács’s evaluation of his work Brecht presciently anticipates the increasing grip which finance capital will exert on western culture, and especially on the concept of the avant-garde during the procession of the twentieth century. What Lukács held to be the enlightened form of bourgeois cultural work has turned out to be as susceptible to branding and marketing, and therefore to reified consumership, as any of what Lukács held to be its less enlightened forms. The customary reverie accorded to what bourgeois culture (today read finance capital) claims to be avant-garde artists is explicitly demonstrated to be marketable at, for example, the big global auction houses such as Sotheby’s.


I am not convinced by the distinction Elizabeth Wright draws between Brecht’s earlier plays as performative and his later plays as denotative (p.97).[iv] All Brecht’s work seems to me to be interventionist - whether or not it is successful he always intends his work to intervene and not be susceptible to neutral, and what is alleged to be innocent contemplation. If contemplation is to take place then Brecht aims it to be the contemplation of active and critical knowledge assimilation. And the intervention is without exception on behalf of the achievement of a socialist state. His techniques of theatre presentation and setting are important, but in my view the overriding impact is made by his text and dialogue. Much the same can be argued for Harold Pinter’s work. It is the words that most articulate the content of the intervention and decide the context of it. In the exhibition at Coventry in February 2014 JCHP intend to use the text and a performance of Brecht’s The Messingkauf Dialogues as a part of this exhibition. This work of Brecht’s is amongst the most lucid in demonstrating the importance of text/dialogue in his work. The four protagonists of The Messingkauf Dialogues are a philosopher, a dramaturge, an actor and an actress. They comprise a discussion group probing the possibilities of realizing a new art of the theatre. Elizabeth Wright writes the following concerning Brecht’s views as she holds them to be expressed through The Messingkauf Dialogues.


“Brecht proposes that the ritualistic elements of the theatre be played down, allowing the focus to be on experimentation: the theatre is to test out the unspecified laws of society. Art is to play its part in a general transformation of society and cease to be treated as an autonomous realm.”[v]


There is much to be questioned in The Messingkauf Dialogues. A critical review of the entire set of ideas is required. It is something I would be interested in writing at some future date, but I do not intend to write such a critique here. In respect of a blunt summary of the Adorno/ Lukács versus Brecht/Benjamin competition my support would always be for the Brecht/Benjamin arguments, but that is not to say that I do not find a lot of the ideas and proposals made by the latter to be proven today as implausible. The purpose of these remarks is to comment upon JCHP’s use of The Messingkauf Dialogues in their forthcoming exhibition in Coventry. In the quote from the JCHP document used at the start of these remarks JCHP imply that there is some correlation between their work and that of Brecht. A few lines below the above quote JCHP go on to state that:


“Brecht as with other things seems to function for us as a tool, that we are edified by the substance of the reference seems to justify the use. Reading Brecht’s The Messingkauf Dialogues helps to initiate ideas of how to pursue the distribution of our work in the form of an exhibition in the face of the deep contradictions that are engendered by exhibiting. Reading the text offers potential reactions to loosely comparable circumstances. Though what is produced because of reading the text isn’t clear, therefore reading it, then allowing it to infiltrate the practice in the studio by osmosis, is not going to prove productive. But offering the text to the audience by publication or performance might prove useful to an audience in conjunction with everything else that goes to make up the exhibition.”[vi]


In the first part of this set of remarks on JCHP’s text I made the observation that there is a problem with what I there called exhibitionism. But the passage quoted above from JCHP’s text seems to beg several questions. First, ‘potential reactions’ needs to be more fully described, not least in the sense of the range of reactions, and, equally, more detail about the specific reactions constituting that range. These two, the range and the specific character of the reactions may be the same thing. In what sense are potential reactions not realized reactions? In what sense do they remain potential? Is it that these reactions can somehow not lead to further action? Presumably, if they can be described they are no longer potential, but already realized. And then maybe something more should be more precisely stated about the character of ‘the loosely comparable circumstances’. At present the chunk of quoted text above seems to imply that whilst JCHP read the text the reactions are potential but not realized, but as soon as this text is offered to an audience, either through the audience reading the text or listening to the text being read to them (by whoever), the reactions are (somehow) realized and therefore no longer potential. The term ‘potential’ here seems to be a misnomer and misleading – as if potential can describe some state which is not a reaction. The full sense of ‘to read something’ or ‘to hear something’ is a reaction. I guess this asks the question as to whether if someone reads something then s/he also understands it. Or to put this question another way, can a person be said to have read something if s/he has not understood it? There does seem to be a paradox emerging here in the sense that it appears that even when a person has misunderstood something s/he has understood it since a meaning has been drawn from the given material whether it is read or heard – it is simply according to another interpreter (either the writer/speaker herself or himself, or some other interpreter of the text/speech). I can see how using The Messingkauf Dialogues as an offering to the audience can be argued to be consistent with Brecht’s view of intervening in attempting to have an active audience, but JCHP will have to be careful here, since equally this may appear to cast JCHP in a too prostrate role in front of the audience and therefore contravene Brecht’s use in The Messingkauf Dialogues of the drawing of a distinction between the artist expressing herself or himself and the artist producing herself or himself.[vii] Another way of stating the problem is to argue that JCHP here may be producing themselves too passively, too much by accident.


In more general terms, in using text in the way JCHP seem to intend to use The Messingkauf Dialogues the issue of the legitimacy of the boundary between what can be called ‘visual’ material and what can be called ‘textual’ material may be raised by the staunchest defenders of the notion of art as the domain of only some such as the ‘purely visual’. Although such conservatism may seem a bit limp in the second decade of the twenty first century in the wake of the expanded and distended practices which have emerged and claimed to be art since, say, the 1960s, it may be worth examining this kind of notion a little further, keeping in mind the historical context of Brechtian expansiveness in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s in the theatre. ‘Performance Art’ has been a fairly well established art practice category since the late sixties, but a significant part of the character of it being established is that its boundaries remain fuzzy. The pursuit of many of the kinds of practices that have characterized the category has embraced forms of behaviour that can be comfortably housed within a very general notion of theatre.[viii] Since the boundaries are fuzzy, a converse feature is that some of what might be termed ‘theatre’ has frequently butted into the category art practice. The word ‘performance’ anyway is familiarly used in a term such as ‘theatrical performance’. Moves and positions within Performance Art often match Brechtian strategies, ‘estrangement’ for example, which he used throughout his work. In using The Messingkauf Dialogues during their coming exhibition at Coventry JCHP may be attempting to estrange the act of exhibiting, trying to alienate what I have, earlier in these remarks, called ‘exhibitionism’. Since the sixties there have been many successful (what we might call) Performance Art careers.[ix] It does seem to me, in reading their organum Critical Décor: What Works, that The Messingkauf Dialogues are being marshalled by JCHP as part of an attempt to find an antidote to exhibitionism. As Brecht might have said ‘Go for it!’ But staging an exhibition is a tempting and lascivious target for career ambition as JCHP know well. Thus, I think it is just as likely that exhibitionism can absorb Brechtian-like strategies equally to, perhaps more than, the way Brechtian-like strategies might critically manipulate exhibitionism. It is a difficult position and I can offer little more than a suggestion that, in respect of JCHP both putting out an audio performance of The Messingkauf Dialogues and distributing a text of the work, that text may trump voice. Voice, even a disembodied voice, does, obviously when considered in the context of today’s career-centred art practice, give a more person-centred delivery than the distribution of a text. It is a practical outcome of the difference between speaking and writing. It is paradoxical in respect of Brecht, who largely wrote for the speaking voice. As I have got older I have come to much prefer distributing my views through writing as opposed to speaking publicly (say at a conference), to the extent these days that I hardly ever speak publicly. A main instrument of my teaching, again obviously, was the exchange of ideas through speaking. My teaching used text alot but it used voice more, and this characteristic meant that from the early eighties onwards my view of my own teaching was never completely free from a kind of niggling unease concerning the projective features of voice – not least since I held teaching to be a considerable part of my practice. In the eight or nine years before I retired from teaching in 2005 this matter of writing versus speaking increasingly preoccupied me. To write for the theatre, as Brecht did, and not write for the speaking voice seems absurd - the theatre turns on the performance of the projective speaking voice. But to use the speaking voice in context of protesting exhibitionism warrants some careful thought on the matter of how to achieve a coherent critique of exhibitionism. I guess, in respect of JCHP using The Messingkauf Dialogues, then debating the matter of voice versus text may turn out to be a consequential part of the paradox of criticising exhibitionism through the staging of an exhibition.









[i] Elizabeth Wright, Postmodern Brecht: A Re-Presentation, Routledge, London and New York, 1989, p. 85.


[ii] Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock [hereafter JCHP], Critical Décor: What Works, 2013, p. 8.


[iii] I use the disjunctive term ‘revealed or invented’ to indicate the presence of the nature/culture distinction here. In Adorno I have never been completely convinced that he is consistent on this distinction. He sometimes writes as if the inviolable enlightened bourgeois subject is a condition endowed by nature (the term ‘revealed’) on the given and in Adorno’s argument exceptional individuals in every generation, and then at other junctures in his work, as if the condition has been fashioned and developed according to cultural input (the term ‘invented’), that is, emerging at a certain point in cultural development.


[iv] Wright, p. 97.


[v] Wright, p. 39.


[vi] JCHP, p. 8.


[vii] Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, translated by John Willett, Methuen, London, Reprinted 1985, p. 95. The passage is spoken by The Dramaturge, “There’s a good phrase for that in German: ‘der Kunstler produziertsich’ – in other words, the artist doesn’t just express himself but produces himself.” The distinction drawn here between the expressing self and the producing self is not without some engaging problems. In expressing her/him self is it not the case that a person is also producing her/himself. Willett first translated The Messingkauf Dialogues in 1965. Then in the art world, and presumably also the theatre world, the notion of the self was comfortably ensconced as a mixture of the natural and the cultural with neither constituent in any way clearly distinguished, thus the amalgam was seriously under-analysed. I do not read German, and there may be a nuance of German that allows the expressing of the self to be clearly demarcated from falling under the notion of producing the self. After consulting some competent German speakers it seems they are not familiar with a linguistic condition of the language in which the concept of expression of the self does not fall under the concept of producing the self. Brecht puts the words (in German) in The Messingkauf Dialogues into the mouth of the philosopher. It seems that this philosopher has a relatively serene view of the concept of the self. Much like the common or garden view of the concept of the self I came across endlessly throughout my time in art schools (1958-2005), and still embraced to a large extent throughout the art schools today.


[viii] I was at Barnsley Art School in 1959 when I first came across notices and reproductions of Allan Kaprow’s Happening events. It was my first encounter with art practice’s boundary with a kind of ‘theatre set’ sector. The reproduction of the event I particularly remember is a photograph of a room (exhibition space presumably) full of tyres. It was a shock since I was safely anchored in painting and drawing at that time, but I remember it was a shock to which I gave a wary welcome insofar as it was an early provocation engaging my curiosity about what might be called the characteristics of art practice, its limits, conventions and contraventions. At the time I was attempting to gain more knowledge of Bertolt Brecht’s work about which, at that juncture in the late fifties, information was relatively hard to find – at least in the Barnsley area. I had heard of Brecht throughout the mid-fifties and was interested in his work since I knew he had lived in East Berlin. But I became further interested in Brecht through tracing the provenance of Bobby Darin’s hit in the USA at that time of Mack the Knife, which led me to someone I was already to some limited extent familiar with - Kurt Weill and his Hollywood connection, not least with Brecht himself. Kurt Weill I think I first knew of and became interested in when I noted (largely on radio – at that time Radio Luxembourg) some of the exchanges around the event of and began to perceive the history of the song Mack the Knife when Louis Armstrong had, as I recall, a minor hit with his rendering of the song in the mid-fifties. From this I had steadily sought out information about Weill’s stay in Hollywood through snippets of information, much of which, again if I recall at all accurately, was scarcely more than newspaper gossip. At any rate at the close of 1959 through these encounters I was beginning to make an association of Brechtian theatre (what little I knew of it then) with Kaprow and the then emerging phenomenon of Happenings, and I suppose had a rudimentary conception of aspects of art practice as laying on a boundary with theatre. Brecht’s anchorage in East Berlin at the time of his death in 1956, interested me a lot at that time. I was intrigued by the fact that an artist considered in the West to be to some extent progressive appeared to work from the other side of the Iron Curtain. I was reminded of this when reading Wright’s book (see the note 1 above) when, on p. 9, she discusses what she calls  ‘English Brecht reception’ and quotes a couple of notes, one by Timothy Garton Ash and one by Martin Esslin. The Garton Ash article she mentions I had read at the time of its publication (in the Times Literary Supplement, 9 December 1983) and so was familiar with it, the general tenor of Esslin’s view of Brecht I was also aware of. At any rate the quote from the Garton Ash article Wright uses is worth re-quoting here since it, kind of paradoxically, does perhaps give a hint as to why Brecht was, at the height of the Cold War in the late fifties, an intriguing art practice figure. The quote Wright frames in the following way:


“Another tendency of English Brecht reception is to introduce an ad hominem assessment, on the basis of the contradictions between his [Brecht’s] life and his art, as in a review by Timothy Garton Ash, which asserts correctly that Brecht was a ‘great exploiter: plundering books, friends and women’ and was finally ‘enthroned in East Berlin, with a West German publisher, Austrian passport and a Swiss bank account.’ Of course the review ends with the all too predictable sentiment: ‘The poet Brecht is superbly subversive of every orthodoxy – including his own’, or, as Esslin put it in 1959, ‘… a truly creative writer will have to break out of the narrow limits of the creed to which he has committed himself, namely, by following his own intuition’ . . .”


Esslin’s fallback position is that old chestnut, the artist’s intuition, a favourite evasive procrastinatory item of art school guff about some such as the much-vaunted ‘creative process’. Behind Garton Ash’s remarks there seems to be a covert if repressed wish, perhaps even a requirement, that artists be as consistent and virtuous as Mother Theresa. I was nudged, in re-reading during this past few weeks Wright’s quote of Garton Ash’s remarks, to speculate how Garton Ash might view Brecht’s contradictions in the light of turbo-capitalism’s carefree indenturing and plundering of one of their own sacred figures – the emerging budding entrepreneur (not least this very week, when news broke of RBS’s fraudulent pillaging of quite a number of small businesses).


[ix] Marina Abramovic’s career I have followed from time to time with some astonishment. The crass mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-harm are symptoms of a manic self–preoccupation worthy of Beuys himself. (Rhythm 0 and Rhythm 7 for example – was she surprised after elaborately setting out those objects as instruments that might be used on her body - feather, honey, etc. – that someone should point a gun at her? As for the accidental approaching death condition she effected in Rhythm 7 then one of her statements afterward beggared epistemological belief – I quote: “I was very angry because I understood there is a physical limit: when you lose consciousness you can’t be present; you can’t perform”- you can say that again Marina! Much of the guff written about her by her commentators also displays this kind of epistemological and ontological doltishness.


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