The aesthetic of the ugly
The solution to the difficult problems is made completely difficult by the fact that we do too little to counter an attitude that regards realistic art as old hat, looks down disdainfully upon the “crummy taste” of the masses, shrugs at the notion of “traditions,” and in the end becomes demagogically rude if someone speaks of German traditions. I think we can speak of growing discrimination against cultural values. Restoring them and developing them further at a higher level is something we as Socialists, as the representatives of the working class and its culture, are called upon and obligated to do, after the bourgeois practically trampled underfoot and theoretically dissolved and “refuted” them. Among the educated, in certain strata of our public opinion, a whole series of snobby things are taken for granted: a painting on which there is something is not a painting. Anyone who considers that a painting knows nothing about art. Melody? Harmony? Fixed compositional forms? – that was back then, modern music has conquered other means. The beautiful as the guiding idea of art? – old hat. The aesthetics of the ugly trumps all.
We have demonstrated that we are by no means the destroyers of traditional order that our opponents have made us out to be. We can lay claim to the old saying: “I have not come to overthrow the law, but to fulfill it,” and we are the ones who, as Thomas Mann says, are “contributing something” that among humanity there be established the kind of order that would once again prepare a ground on which beautiful work can live and have a proper place to fit in. But instead of emphasizing this positive core of our Socialist cultural policy and boldly putting it forward, we have recently been showing far too much willingness to make concessions to the troublesome disciples of decadence among us, and have been granting them positions. Our society contains nothing (except for a few manifestations of decay in genuinely déclassé strata) that would urge our youth in this direction. It has very different needs. Only we are unable to combine the readiness that exists here with our ideal, with the great, strong content of our new life. However, the cause behind this inability lies in part in the fact that all too many who, as artists or as propagandists, could fulfill that mission are infected with snobbishness, are fearful of being seen as conservative, old-fashioned, and unmodern, and who, above all, also have too little confidence in our own strength and know too little about the real, new forces of our reality. It is imperative to point to the danger of growing, decadent influences.
Source: Sonntag, no. 29, July 21, 1957.
Translation: Thomas Dunlap