The Barbaric Arts - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The Barbaric Arts

The Barbaric Arts

Published March 16, 2010

The philosopher Theodor Adorno famously stated in 1949 that writing a poem after Auschwitz was barbaric. He proceeded: “And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today”.

With some simplification poetry may be understood as an art of beauty, and indeed that is how poetry has been perceived in most times and most places. Anyone not in poetry’s “in-crowd” is sure to start thinking of flowers, waterfalls, nationalism, high-end emotion and heartbreak when presented with the word “poetry”. Poetry, in this sense, is a bit like water-colouring, somehow—standing between being purely decoratory and an expression of something private, almost lavatorial in the sense that even though your poetry springs from a natural (in some sense beautiful) need, maybe you should refrain from doing it in public.

Properly executed ‘tis the finest of arts, all oohs and ahs with exclamation marks making you shiver with its allusive and powerful imagery, its nearly divine rhetoric and its authoritarian voice. In short, it’s everything a Nazi would want to read at night to secure himself a good night’s sleep, a haven from the horrors of his day-to-day activities. Reading it makes you feel cultured in the same way that systematically killing people makes you feel not so cultured at all. And maybe they’re not so much opposites as they are partners-in-crime.

When WWII came to an end the Allies found more than concentration camps in the Reich—they found homes, tunnels, secluded castles, salt mines, caves, trains and other hideouts stuffed with the finest European artworks, paintings, sculptures and artefacts. Top Nazi Hermann Göring filled his country home with some of the most beautiful and famous works of art in the history of man. Hitler was planning on building the greatest art collection ever, the Führermuseum, designed by Albert Speer. It was to be erected in Linz, Austria and filled with stolen and bought art from all over the world—the best money can buy and muscle procure. Included in the plan, of course, was a library with 250.000 books.

Nazi Germany thought of itself as the height of civilization—a refined world order—creating a structured, civilized beauty out of mayhem, chaos and degeneration, through the violent application of a stern ideology. Although their methods were not always applied in a systematic and organised fashion—not everyone died in the machine-like gas-chambers; children were also beat against rocks to save bullets—their ideal was to be “efficient,” “civilized” and not least “beautiful.”

I’m not sure what Adorno meant by his famous words, and apparently that goes for most people. To add insult to injury, Adorno (reportedly after reading the works of Paul Celan) took most of it back, saying maybe it’s so and maybe not—God knows! (I’m paraphrasing). Perhaps he took offence to beauty in the face of horror. Perhaps trying to get to the heart of humanity was worthless if humanity was so tainted. And perhaps he felt that if fine arts could also be enjoyed by Nazis, fine arts had themselves become reactionary.

Poem by Adolf Hitler (1915)
I often go on bitter nights
To Wotan’s oak in the quiet glade
With dark powers to weave a union—
The runic letters the moon makes with its magic spell
And all who are full of impudence during the day
Are made small by the magic formula!
They draw shining steel—but instead of going into combat
They solidify into stalagmites.
So the false ones part from the real ones—
I reach into a nest of words
And then give to the good and just
With my formula blessings and prosperity.

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