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

In the GDR, the state and the party put art and literature in the service of building up Socialism. Art and literature were to reflect the reality of the new society. At the end of 1949, the head of the Division for Culture and Education in the Central Committee of the SED, Stefan Heymann, criticized recent East German art as “cosmopolitan” and ideologically lacking. He accused artists of failing to break away from the framework of bourgeois art production, and he recommended that they engage in an intensive dialogue with Soviet artists in order to learn from their example.

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At the festivities surrounding the awarding of the 1949 National Prizes in Weimar, Paul Wandel lamented the fact that there was not a single painter and only one sculptor among the prize-winning artists. In doing so, he touched a raw nerve. Unfortunately, his observation that no work of art of the past few years met the requirements of the National Prize was all too true. The German Art Exhibition in Dresden has made this clear once again. Here, we are talking exclusively about the ideological side of the visual arts, because in formal terms most works of art created since 1945 are of notable quality.

The essential deficiency that has been identified in the visual arts, time and again, is the complete lack of a genuine connection to the life of our people. Not even the large, collectively painted murals at the Dresden Art Exhibition can disguise this fact. These paintings are undoubtedly earnest attempts to capture the life of the worker, the farmer, and the working youth from an outside perspective. But these are, alongside a small number of other pictures, exceptions.

The Dresden Art Exhibition, in particular, has revealed with frightening clarity that the spiritual content of nearly all paintings and sculptures is cosmopolitan, that is, without national roots. Of course, I am speaking only of the works and not of the artists. Everyone knows just how bravely many artists in the National Front are fighting for Germany’s unity and a just peace. The courageous conduct of Professor Ehmsen is exemplary for all circles of intellectuals. We definitely distinguish between the artist, who is a progressive person, and those works in which he has not yet liberated himself from the past.

In no other area of art is cosmopolitanism as pronounced as in the fields of painting and sculpture. It is a falsely understood internationalism – advocated even by many progressive artists – if one slavishly imitates the art of other peoples. That does not mean, on the other hand, that there should and cannot be mutual inspiration – on the contrary. There is, however, a big difference between reciprocal artistic relationships and the mostly uncritical adoption of some kind of “ism.”

Can one continue to observe the state of the visual arts without doing anything, or is it not high time to finally get out of this dead end? Is it not the duty of progressive artists to recognize the reasons behind the current state of the visual arts, and to draw the correct conclusions from this insight? Is it not the task of the progressive artist to chart new paths with determination and boldness, just as our entire people is charting a new path today?

The following discussion will try to uncover some of the causes that have led to this particular state in the visual arts.

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