Academic journal article Afterimage

The "Brecht Effect": Politics and American Postwar Art

Academic journal article Afterimage

The "Brecht Effect": Politics and American Postwar Art

Article excerpt

In the mid-to late-1960s, the New Left grew increasingly critical of the passive consumerism and individualist complacency that defined the liberalist climate of postwar America. Activists and intellectuals aimed to bring about a culture of participation and direct action. As the artists of the New Left sought to politicize art and make politics a public and cultural matter, Bertolt Brecht's theory of art as social practice and an articulation of political awareness regained currency. Brecht's dialectics of modernist aesthetics and revolutionary politics served as a model for a number of artists and provided an alternative to the introverted formalist exercises of the advanced American arts. This essay is part of a larger project aiming to examine the "Brecht effect" on the visual arts. (1) It is not an attempt to trace the presence of Brecht as a person in the United States, though his presence left its own distinct marks on the cultural and political scene. Rather, it is concerned with what Lee Baxandall has called the "Americanization of Bertolt Brecht": how his work has been received, "how it has come across," how it has been variously appropriated and applied by the artists of the Old Left and the New Left and by those who abandoned the left, disenchanted with its seemingly failed utopian promises. (2) It is concerned with what is considered "Brechtian" at specific moments in the history of American art and with the rearticulation of that history from a perspective of political engagement.

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The American postwar or neo-avant-garde was familiar with Brecht's work. The anti-illusionism of his "epic theater" and his strategy of "estrangement," of jolting the complacent spectator into a self-conscious state of perception, are referred to in the writings of artists from Andy Warhol to Dan Graham, Hans Haacke to Martha Rosler. Brecht also found his way into the central discourses and texts of the postwar years. His poetry and theater are discussed by Roland Barthes, Michael Fried, Clement Greenberg, and Herbert Marcuse, among others. Yet this reception is varied and highly selective, depending in each case on the specific historical climate. Brecht's first real encounter with the American left ended in the playwright being thrown out of rehearsals and a lot of bad press. The Theater Union's 1935 production of The Mother in New York City--for which Brecht was shipped in from his exile in Denmark (Brecht spent time in Denmark while exiled from Germany before he came to the U.S.)--had been streamlined by its translators in anticipation of the intellectual limitations of its proletarian audience. This Lehrstuck, or "play for learning," with its purposely fragmented and shockingly contradictory format, was simplified into a more palatable play that the press dismissed as "didactic" and "pretentious," "amateurish" and "affected," "an entertainment for children, for it is a simple kindergarten for Communist tots." (3)

In the climate of Popular Front alliances and the economic successes of the New Deal, the "Brecht effect" was a divorce of tendency and technique. Rather than retaining the dialectic interplay of the commitment to social change and the cognitive-aesthetic politics of form, the reception of Brecht's work was often marked by either the rejection of its revolutionary content as "communist infantilism" or the dismissal of its anti-illusionist dramaturgy and prose as elitist and over-intellectualized. Aware of this split reception, Brecht tailored his next two plays to be explicitly anti-fascist in message and (as he later admitted to a friend) with an American middle-class audience in mind. Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (first performed in 1938 but written in 1935-36 while Brecht was in Denmark), translated, published in part by New Directions, and performed in the 1940s under the title of The Private Life of the Master Race, received favorable reviews, recasting Brecht as a pacifist playwright rather than one of class struggle. …

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