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Alfred Kurella on "The Influence of Decadence" (July 1957)

In 1957, the writer and SED cultural functionary Alfred Kurella criticized the fact that Socialist artists had still not made a sufficient break with the theories and forms of the modern visual arts, which he characterized as decadent and marked by decay. As a result, they were failing in their task of creating new, truly Socialist works of art for the culturally interested masses in the GDR.

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The Influence of Decadence

[Discussion by Alfred Kurella at the debate evening of the Culture Association in Leipzig, July 1957. Text from the excerpt published in Sonntag.]

It has become fashionable in certain circles of art theorists and artists of the German Democratic Republic to deny decadence outright, or at least dispute that it is a negative, culture-destroying trend. There are already entire chains of arguments that constitute an apologia, a fundamental justification of decadence and of the artistic and cultural phenomena it has produced. These arguments often sound plausible. It is in fact true that at least into the 1920s, great talents of late-bourgeois society, if they found themselves in some kind of opposition to bourgeois society, resorted to the expressive forms furnished by contemporary decadence. In this way, the impression could arise that we were dealing here with a necessary development, that the “new” of our time was to be looked for here. Such attempts to use artistic accomplishments in which a genuine effort at something new employed decadent expressive forms to justify decadence as a whole can only be countered if one makes clear once again what decadence really is. Needless to say, that can only be hinted at here.

The lost ‘meaning of life’

Decadence is for us a phenomenon of late-bourgeois development. It describes a spontaneous, anarchic dissolution of the cultural values previously achieved, a dissolution that takes hold of all cultural life as capitalism enters into its imperialist phase. The ruling class of the large capitalist countries is becoming more and more parasitic, whereby a great many of the persons who work merely to serve it are also being seized by this parasitic way of life. The working class sees the onset of a process of intellectual and moral immiseration, in which the dehumanizing effects of capitalist wage labor noted by Marx take on new forms. Both processes are increasingly darkening the human content of life, allowing the animalistic elements of human existence to come to the fore. Everything taken together makes life seem more and more meaningless. The lost “meaning of life” cannot be recovered by way of the old, classical humanism. Only the twist that Marx gave to humanism, the full depth of which is unfortunately not fully understood even by us, allows for a new, forward-pointing perspective on all areas of culture and art.

The impoverishment and emptying of practical life in the imperialistic development is accompanied by a dissolution of forms not only in all the arts, but also in the relationships of people to each other. To justify this entire process of decay, a whole army of theorists is striving to dissolve the classic image of man, to move the “nocturnal sides,” the animalistic in human nature into focus, to glorify degeneracy and sickness, indeed, to declare them the source of all great achievements, especially in art. Experiments with new forms of art that were originally a protest against the flattening of the art of the satiated bourgeoisie and analytical efforts to recover great forms of art that had been lost became increasingly the expressive forms for a decadent, depressing notion of man as a degenerate, fear-driven creature doomed to failure.

This, in broad strokes, is the phenomenon of late-bourgeois decadence in its expression in the realm of art. That in this very complicated process positive achievements also come about, that sometimes something truly new is created, something that belongs in the column of cultural progress and not decay, does not alter the fact that in decadence we are dealing on the whole with a destructive process hostile to culture, with decay. It is the task of Socialist culture to save the social, intellectual, and cultural life of the nation in question from this destruction, and to restore and carry on the national culture out of the great, unbroken tradition, in the interest of the new social order.

The strata of people who take this decadent art seriously is tiny, if we include all of those who, be they artists or connoisseurs, embrace it because it is “fashionable” and part of the right thing to do. Still, in the large capitalist countries a decisive strata of artists has been taken hold of by decadence, and this has quite dangerous repercussions.

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