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Stefan Heymann, "Cosmopolitanism and Formalism" (December 1, 1949)

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The Role of the Clients

Every creatively active person, regardless of the field in which he is working, creates his works not for his own satisfaction, but rather to achieve certain effects. In the process, he imagines – consciously or unconsciously – the people he is seeking to reach. Therein lies the first fundamental difference between literature and music, on the one hand, and the visual arts, on the other. Writers and composers are always creating for a large group of readers and listeners. To have an effect, therefore, they must not only be familiar with the life of the people, but must also find forms of expression that will forge a path to their fellow human beings. The reference to the princely clients of our composers during the age of Absolutism is no counterargument, since these works, too, were more or less intended for public performances.

By contrast, the visual artist creates – at least since the period of developed capitalism – for a private client. A public commission is the rare exception. No wonder, then, that this attitude invariably gave rise to alienation from the people, alienation that continually grew as the contrast between the monopolistic client and one’s own people deepened.

That is why the cultural decay in the age of imperialism assumed in no other field forms as crass as those in the visual arts. Here, it would be going too far to want to analyze in detail the personal belief of many artists that they are accomplishing a revolutionary act against a musty tradition by developing a new “ism.” Already the fact that none of these attempts arose from a popular movement but were (and unfortunately often still are) nebulous studio creations proves that in no case was this a genuinely revolutionary renewal of the visual arts. The profound decay of the visual arts is closely related to the commissioning clients among the propertied bourgeoisie.

The Classical National Tradition

The 1949 Goethe Bicentennial contributed substantially to making the classical national tradition of German literature popular among our people. Our writers became aware of the progressive traditions of German literature, and they are now able to appropriate and reshape those traditions in accordance with the new tasks.

A similarly clear situation, if not yet quite so evident, prevails in the field of music. The great classical masters of composition, Händel, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (to name only a few), are uncontested and still remain the great models for our progressive composers today.

But what about the progressive national tradition in the visual arts? Do we already have the same fixed principles of classicism as in literature and music? Does the classical tradition of German painting and sculpture begin and end with the great artists of the age of the Reformation? Are Dürer, Grünewald, Holbein, Cranach, Riemenschneider, and their great contemporaries the only representatives of classical perfection in Germany’s visual arts? One need only recall the checkered, indeed, contradictory attitude toward one of the greatest German painters, Matthias Grünewald, that emerged within German art history during the last few decades to realize immediately that there are hardly any fixed notions left.

But how do we intend to develop a progressive German art, if it is unable to connect to the progressive tradition of our people and develop it further? It is therefore undoubtedly one of the most important tasks of all progressive artists and art historians to bring the great classical national traditions in the visual arts to the consciousness of the entire people in the same way that they have already been brought to the people in music and literature. The appropriation and further development of classical progressive traditions in the visual arts is an indispensable precondition for the development of a truly national, progressive art.

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