Otto Karl Werckmeister 1934-2023

by Andrew Hemingway

Otto Karl Werckmeister

“Marx’s theory of society and history was obviously not devised in order to provide a more adequate understanding of culture. It was meant to be an instrument of political practice.” (1982)

With the death of Otto Karl Werckmeister on 7 June, the art history of the New Left has lost one of its most prodigious intellects and imposing personalities. Born in Berlin in 1934, Karl knew Nazism firsthand, witnessed the conquest of the city by the Red Army and had direct experience of de-Nazification as he sometimes reminded his friends. This likely explains his impatience with “committed” colleagues who claimed to conduct their struggles in the library. For Karl, Marxism was quintessentially the philosophy of praxis. It had to speak to the wider world outside the seminar room and engage with what was happening in the streets and workplaces.

Karl studied art history, philosophy, and modern literature at the Freie Universität Berlin in the 1950s, at a time when the FU was the epicenter of the increasingly militant West German student movement. He received his doctorate in 1958 for a dissertation on Romanesque manuscript illumination. Romanesque would remain an abiding interest, but he would also write extensively on aspects of twentieth-century art and mass culture. Part of Karl’s ’s Marxism was an insistent engagement with whatever seemed especially symptomatic of the balance of forces in contemporary culture.

For German Marxists of Karl’s generation, the key challenge was inevitably the Frankfurt School. Over his life, Karl wrote on most of the main figures in the group. One of his earliest publications was an essay on Adorno’s aesthetic theory, which he published in Fischer Verlag’s venerable literary journal Die neue Rundschau in 1962. This was reprinted in the volumeEnde der Ästhetik. Essays über Adorno, Bloch, das gelbe Unterseeboot und der eindimensionale Mensch, (1971) – which, amongst other things, announced Karl’s longstanding fascination with comics, graphic novels, animated film, and music. A second volume of reprinted pieces was equally wide-raging and imaginative, and included the seminal essay “Ideologie und Kunst bei Marx” – which was partly directed against Marcuse and had already appeared in English translation the year before. These texts laid out a position from which he would deviate little. Drawing particularly onThe German Ideology and other early texts by Marx and Engels, he argued that, while Marx originally had a conception of art as an object “by implication free of any social purpose, an object of contemplation and enjoyment”, he came to see this as an ideal that had only been realised in ancient Greek society. In his later writings, he distinguished between this ideal and the actual conditions of “art production” in different societies. Art along with “morals, religion, metaphysics” he subsumed under the category of ideology – intellectual products that apparently had the semblance of autonomy but were, in actuality, only appearances generated by the material life processes. For Marx – at least as Karl read him – aesthetics was another illusory mental product. As the revolutionary hopes of 1968 were disappointed and European and North American politics moved to the right in the late 1970s and 1980s, Karl challenged the forms of critical theory that pervaded the academy and embraced Marx and Engels’s dictum: “We know only a single science, the science of history.” Against philosophy, they counterposed “empirical observation.” The empirical historical and political critique of the ideological mystification of art defined what Karl called, in a short but important article of 1982, “radical art history”.

The interpretative force of this classic version of the base-superstructure model was well illustrated in what became a famous article: “The Political Ideology of the Bayeux Tapestry” (Studi Medievali, series 3, 17, 1976). Karl dismissed theoretical refinement of the concept as a misguided search for transcendent philosophical validity. Rather, “ideology” should be conceived as a “tool” that critical intellectuals used differently according to changing historical circumstances . The base-superstructure metaphor later came to seem a “deadweight” belied by the complexities empirical research revealed. Marxist art historians needed to take into account the advances made by Marxists working in philosophy, sociology and political theory; they needed to engage with the broader currents of Marxist thought and stop looking inwards in “competitive refinements of [their] own limited literature.”

That “ideology” was the key category of cultural critique for the New Left was confirmed by the German oppositional art historians who in 1968 broke with the conservative Verband Deutscher Kunsthistoriker and founded the Ulmer Verein für Kunst und Kunstwissenschaften, which launched its own journal, Kritische Berichte, six years later. These developments had parallels in Britain, France, and the United States and in the 1970s art historians of the New Left formed a loose international network that included figures such as Martin Warnke, Horst Bredekamp, Klaus Herding, Jutta Held, Nicos Hadjinicolaou, T.J. Clark, David Kunzle, Adrian Rifkin, and Carol Duncan.

Karl taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1965 and was appointed as a professor there in 1971. In 1976, together with T.J. Clark and David Kunzle who were also at UCLA, he organised a session on Marxism and Art History at the annual meeting of the College Art Association in Chicago. In the aftermath, a group of self-declared Marxists organised a Marxist Caucus as an affiliate organisation which ran sessions at the CAA’s annual meetings from 1977-1980. The Caucus foundered for a number of reasons, the most important being that it simply did not have sufficient members to fill sessions or produce a publication beyond the record of its proceedings. But, in any case, Karl felt that from 1975-76, “the aggressive thrust of the new Marxist art history was becoming blunted and stalled”. Most of its practitioners abandoned “the critical confrontation with established art history towards a competitive confidence in the superiority of their own theoretical models”, which were often hybrids with structuralism and semiotics; some would eventually shift from Marx to Warburg. Such moves led to academic success but distanced them from an engagement with actual politics and social change. He indexed this to the conservative shift of politics in the United States and West Germany.

In 1984, Karl became Mary Jane Crowe Distinguished Professor in Art History at Northwestern University at Evanston, IL, the position he would hold until his retirement in 2002 when he relocated to Berlin, which he referred to as “my hometown”.

The modern artist to whom Karl gave most sustained attention was the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee, a figure with a significantly more recognition in what was then West Germany than in Britain and the United States. In 1981 he published a collection of essays and reviews under the title Versuche über Paul Klee. When he came to publish his Klee studies in English translation in 1989, he changed the title toThe Making of Paul Klee’s career, 1914-1920 and thoroughly revised the content to integrate advances in Klee scholarship and the contributions of younger scholars, making it effectively a different book. The growth of archival resources and their ready access through digital technologies much concerned him in the latter part of his career. Logically so with a scholar who placed such weight on empirical research and who was so dismissive of theory spinning with minimal attention to historical facts – “the theoretical overdetermination of art-historical studies” which was very much in vogue in the postmodern moment.The Making of Paul Klee’s Career was an object lesson in materialist art history, which painstakingly charted the artist’s responses to economic and political circumstances at a critical phase of his career and German history.

In a semi-autobiographical piece tellingly titled “From a Better History to a Better Politics” published in the College Art Association’s Art Bulletin in 1995, Karl confessed that he had planned to followThe Making of Paul Klee’s Career with a second volume that would apply the same method to the artist’s career from his emigration to Switzerland in 1933 to his death in 1940 . But he was taken aback by the seeming indifference of his students to the momentous political events of the previous decade and the structural crisis of the world economy. In the face of the atmosphere of “dehistoricized dissent” and the appeal of “introspective, sexually overdetermined, emotionally charged-up single-issue micropolitics” linked with a disavowal of the ideal of “objective historical knowledge”, he came to the conclusion that a political history of art in the twentieth century required “a comparative historical clarification of key political concepts – and of political democracy first and foremost” .

This problematic defined Karl’s central art-historical project for 36 years, culminating in the 486 pp. volume The Political Confrontation of the Arts in Europe from the Great Depression to the Second World War (, 2020). (It is only proper to acknowledge that this was realised through the assistance of Wolfgang F. Kersten of the Kunsthistorisches Institut, Universität Zürich who edited a Festschrift in his honor published in 1997:Radical Art History. Internationale Anthologie. Subject: O.K. Werckmeister)The Political Confrontation of the Arts is like no other study of twentieth-century art in its attempt to chart the implications of the ideological competition between communism, fascism and democracy for state art policies across the Soviet Union, Europe and the United States in the Depression decade. The book is a formidable achievement, but less theory-averse Marxists may wonder if Karl’s model of relations between the state, capital and class power is adequate to the task. ‘Hegemony’ is a concept notably absent from his lexicon.

In its insistence on the primacy of the political over the cultural and the corollary that modern art’s political value was determined by its relations with academic and other forms of naturalistic art that merited analysis with the same level of care and attention, Karl took a position that was openly at odds with that broad current of art history which found in modernist art an inherent political criticality encapsulated in the term “avant-garde”. The pre-eminent exponent of this construction was Karl’s’s former colleague from UCLA, T.J. Clark — one of the few art historians who approached the status of a public intellectual. Karl published a withering review of Clark’s essay collection Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999), a book that in its rhetorical displays and subjective mix of cultural history and authorial value judgments is like the antithesis of Karl’s sober striving for scientificity. At a time of the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in the USSR and its satellite states as well as the withering of social-democratic parties in the bourgeois democracies, the Left was “engaged in the overdue recovery of democracy for the practice of socialist politics.” Set against this project, Clark’s book was an anarchist side show.

The other side to Karl’s dogged empiricism in his art-historical studies was his wide-ranging reflections on contemporary politics and culture sometimes without notes or scholarly apparatus which appeared as three essay collections in addition to articles and essays printed in the FAZ andDie Zeit:Citadel Culture (1989, 1991); Icons of the Left: Benjamin and Eisenstein, Picasso and Kafka after the Fall of Communism (1997; 1999); andDer Medusa Effekt. Politische Bildstrategien seit dem 11. September 2001 (2005). The first two were published in German before they appeared in English; the last has not been translated. The most impressive of these books – and the most personal in tone – isCitadel Culture, a swingeing critique of poststructuralism and postmodernism. The metaphor of the “citadel” provides a way of charting the transition from the “argumentative” culture of the 1970s which openly engaged with issues across the political spectrum and the politically directionless culture of massively armed societies defined by the US Strategic Defense Initiative in their outward relations and internally in the lavishly funded “spectacular” culture of a surveillance state in which political dissent was simultaneously welcome and neutered. As he put it: “democracy has come to be the political order of a society armed to the teeth”. The essays range across Umberto Eco’sName of the Rose and its filmic derivative, Enki Bilal’s graphic novels, James Stirling’s New State Art Gallery in Stuttgart and the retrospective exhibition of Francis Bacon held there, the music of Kraftwerk and Pierre Boulez, George Lucas’sStar Wars trilogy and the paintings of Robert Morris.

The key to the volume is an essay devoted to the shifting interface between the development of Jürgen Habermas’s political theory and the historical circumstances of political dissent in capitalist society. Karl may have been dismissive of theory as a quasi-autonomous practice, but this does not mean he was uninformed about, or ungifted at theory. He just wanted it to be related to real life circumstances. It might appear that in his seemingly random selection of cultural motifs in Citadel Culture, Karl was offering some kind ofWeltanschauung argument; it is hard to imagine that he would wittingly adopt that romantic concept, but the category of totality remains unarticulated and unspecified in his writings. He was suspicious of claims to total history.

Karl believed in democratic socialism; he thought Leninism was discredited by historical experience. (For this reason, he wanted no interchange with art historians in the GDR.) He was also completely unsentimental about the relics of international communist culture and its anti-Stalinist opponents. The collapse of the USSR finally sealed their irrelevance. In Icons of the Left he set out to show that three of these – Eisenstein’sBattleship Potemkin, Benjamin’s reading of Klee’sAngelus Novus, and Picasso’sGuernica – had become quite detached from their original historical meanings and were politically misconstrued. To “advance the Marxist challenge to capitalism” their iconic status needed to be exposed by historical diagnosis and nostalgia had to be replaced by a clear-eyed policy for present day needs. This argument is adumbrated through chapters on Pierre Christin’s and Enki Bilal’s graphic novelThe Hunting Party (1983) and Stephen Soderbergh’s filmKafka. The chapter on Benjamin, in particular, is atour de force.Karl was the staunchest critics of the wave of Benjamin adulation that poured on the philosopher’s work from thinly informed art historians but, at the same time, returned again and again to the problems of history, politics, and art articulated in Benjamin’s major essays. He found in Benjamin a worthy colleague to work through in the search for a more material and politically critical art history.

Like Citadel Culture,Der Medusa-Effekt offers a general thesis about the character of contemporary history, more in the form of a series of empirical reflections and interpretations of cultural artefacts than in the form of a developed theoretical scheme. Its thesis takes the form of a metaphor for understanding the contemporary world situation, in particular “the increasing exchange-relationship between image production and social process”. This claim is supported through analysis of the war photographer James Nachtwey in Baghdad, photography of the attacks on the World Trade Center, and Mamoru Oshii’s animated filmGhost in the Shell among other things. Karl acknowledges the “uncertainty” of the Medusa metaphor, which lies in the fact that “it anticipates a consistent historical concept formation, that yet remains to be accomplished. It transposes a mythical image of seeing as a performative physical relationship, of which the historical solution through rational thought remains to be done.” As the sustained attention he gave toGhost in the Shell and other films, cartoons and comics indicates, Karl was impatient with the endless maunderings of high art about its own conditions of practice and saw mass art as the place where the really interesting reflections on contemporary realities were being made. Ontological debates about and philosophical treatises on photography were effectively irrelevant, he asserted, in the face of the “operative image sphere” employed by the state.

One of Karl’s longstanding friends going back to the UCLA days has remarked that visiting with him was like a team member reporting to the coach. He had no time for small talk. How had one contributed to the Marxist cause in the meantime, he wanted to know? When one’s efforts failed to live up to his standards, he let you know it. Karl had hoped that liberated from the oppressive legacy of the USSR and soviet communism, Marxist art history in the bourgeois democracies could raise “the historical definition of art as part of the social process” into “an open progress of research”, confident in the materialist premise that “lack of knowledge can be resolved through empirical work”. But he was absolutely clear that such a programme could only claim validity through collective work, a demand that the competitive structures of academic scholarship in capitalist society militated against. He was not put off by being identified with minority or unfashionable positions.

Karl could be a fearsome protagonist in debate and daunting presence at the seminar table, but he also earned the loyalty and affection of numerous colleagues and graduate students, whose talents he nurtured and whose thinking, projects, and careers he helped shape. He relished English language idioms and was famous for idiosyncratic phrases. Once, after some peremptory judgment, he remarked: “Well you know I’m a Prussian, really.” In addition to the weighty legacy of his published writings, he leaves us with the memory of a Marxist intellectual of exceptional insight and integrity, whose agonistic stance was matched by a capacity for warm friendship and personal kindness.

In 1965, Karl married the Spanish literary critic and medievalist Eukene Lacarra Lanz (1944-2023); they were divorced in 1983. They are survived by three children whose activities and achievements in painting, music, technology, and business Karl often mentioned proudly in conversation with friends and colleagues.

Andrew Hemingway, with inputs from Stephen Eisenman, Paul Jaskot, Barbara McCloskey, and James van Dyke.