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The Cult of Anti-Life

ISSUE:  Spring 1970


Until recently both the inner and outer disorders of megatechnic civilization were successfully covered by its massive constructive achievements. Despite two world-enveloping wars, despite the virtually total devastation of scores of big cities, the evidences of breakdown have up to now been so speedily repaired that within half a generation they soon became invisible and almost forgotten, like a bad dream––even by eye-witnesses to the terror and torture, the destruction and death.

Outwardly this capacity to recover so swiftly from a series of shattering blows would seem to indicate a state of bounding social health. But the quick reappearance of solid structures and familiar routines, which momentarily quieted anxiety, has only contributed to further disintegration on an even greater scale, for it has delayed the public reaction to the swift, relentless expansion of the power complex, whose destructive potentialities increased in direct proportion to its technological inventiveness and financial profitability.

Now the place where such a collective disintegration is first recorded is in deeper levels of the mind. Yet any attempt to make a quantitative estimate of the deterioration that has taken place here by compiling current statistics of crime, mental illness, drug addiction, homicide, and suicide can give but a partial and superficial account of what is actually happening, even to the extent of roughly estimating its volume. Only one fact is clear: the area of violence and irrationality, both private and institutionalized, has steadily widened during the last half century. The fact that these imponderables cannot be weighed does not mean they have no weight.

Who can describe the massive collective impact of two world wars, with their orgies of hate, sadism, wanton extermination? Who shall appraise the damage already done by nuclear bombs, not only those actually dropped on Japan or exploded in military tests, but even more those bombs of greater violence that have been exploded in the mind, leading to legally sanctioned experiments in nuclear, bacterial, and chemical genocide, protected from critical attack by secrecy, systematic misinformation, and insolent official falsifications?

Yet the millions of inmates of asylums and prisons offer an insignificant threat to mankind compared with the official terrorists whose costly plans for total collective extermination are still lavishly subsidized by national governments, and passively approved as a guarantee of stability and “peace” by their citizens. These projects for extermination are not less fantasies because they have materialized under precise official direction; nor are they less demented because they have broken out from the dream world and taken possession of scientific laboratories, military headquarters, and government offices.

None of these pathological data can be adequately handled in quantitative terms, except in the gross count of the number of past or prospective victims incapacitated by illness, injury, or death. If we wish to examine the disintegrations and regressions that now threaten to undermine the existence of mankind, making mock of our genuine technological advances, we must interpret purely qualitative evidence, best drawn from the world of art; for it is first of all in the graphic and plastic arts, literature, and music that distant tremors in the psyche are faintly recorded, as in a seismograph, often a whole century before they become visible and tangible.

After the Russian nihilists, the first definite indication of the present cult of anti-life came from the Italian futurists, headed by Marinetti, reacting passionately––and not without reason––against Italy’s entombment under its ancient traditions, which turned its inhabitants into mere museum curators and guards. Characteristically, as with Turgenev’s nihilist hero, Bazarov, this total rejection of the past was combined with a naïvely uncritical and over-enthusiastic response to technology, its power and dynamism, which Marinetti coupled with physical violence in every form: with “strife” and “aggressiveness,” with war, militarism, incendiarism, with “the blow on the ear, the fisticuff,” as if to combine the most primitive manifestations of power with the most sophisticated.

Symptomatically, this “Futurist Manifesto” was not only a celebration of new mechanical potentialities but a paean to unrestrained violence in every form. Marinetti intuitively grasped the ultimate destination of the megamachine.

Marinetti’s proclamation of 1909 served as the advance notice of the more than half century of war, Fascism, barbarism, and extermination that actually followed. Admittedly, there was a positive side to this movement, as there is to megatechnics itself. Futurism was part of a general movement of thought between 1890 and 1915 which included Art Nouveau, and the subsequent manifestations of Cubism, all of which welcomed the machine as an active ingredient in modern culture and a new source of form.

For a while modern artists carried through consciously, with a kind of puritanic severity, a program that had already been embodied in the work of engineers like Rennie, Paxton, and Eiffel, and had been given earlier intellectual expression in the writings of Horatio Greenough and Louis Sullivan. This esthetic espousal of technics was in fact an effort to widen the range of human responses. If at times the artist might be tempted to exaggerate the functions of science and the “machine,” or to assign value exclusively to their abstract derivatives, the general effect nevertheless was to raise the human potential.

Such positive responses to technics must not, let me emphasize, be confused with Marinetti’s sentimental dynamism and violence; and still less with a whole series of assaults on historic culture, even in its most beneficent and vital forms, which began with Dadaism and has sunk into an ultimate pit of vacuous imbecility in Pop Art.

Anyone who examined the new images of Dadaism in the nineteen twenties would have had a first glimpse of the world today. Beginning among the Dadaists with mock art, this movement would soon turn into anti-art, and before long become the underlayer of a more general cult of anti-life. If the observer had likewise noted the lavatory wall obscenities and chamber-pot sculpture of the early Dadaists, he would have been equally prepared for the characteristic hallmarks of “avant garde” infantilism. Not without irony, this movement, which began with a total rejection of the past, has been content to live within its own strictly limited segment of the past, that of the last half century. So it still clings pathetically to once “advanced” experiments that have in fact become academicisms––already as moribund as those mediocre sentimental images which the more robust artists of the nineteenth century reacted against.

At first Dadaism with its sometimes imaginative surprises seemed only a hilarious mockery of the Establishment, deflating the pompous platitudes of “patriotism,” “glory,” and “service,” that had covered over the stubborn ineptitudes and insensate human sacrifices of the 1914 War: that war which no government had the intelligence to prevent, the moral courage to withdraw from, or the magnanimity to bring to an end until all sides were hopelessly exhausted. Like a loud fart in a polite salon, Dadaism called the attention of its contemporaries to the sordid human condition. Even before the Fascist-Communist dictatorships, before the economic depression of the thirties, before the Second World War, with its aerial genocide, before the Stalinist and Nazi extermination camps, these coming events were prefigured in the blasted landscapes and deformed images of the Dadaists and the Surrealists. From 1930 on, the inner world of art and the outer world of technics and government alternated in oscillations of mounting violence and compulsive destruction. With every fresh increment of megatechnic order and regimentation came a subjective counterblast of rejection and rebellion.

To give anything like a detailed description of this subjective defacement would unfortunately require an encyclopedic volume in itself. So out of a vast welter of evidence I shall select a scattering of contemporary samples: mere reminders of a much huger mass of purposeful irrationality, paranoid inflation, cultivated idiocy, and mindless destruction. The order in which the evidence is presented is as random as the events.

Exhibit A. An orchestral concert, held in a hall where music is usually performed. The members of the orchestra take their seats. One of them begins to saw a violin in two. Others follow suit with axes. Loud noises, electronically produced, accompany this performance. In the end nothing is left. The audience that has tolerated these insults has allegedly participated in the “new music,” while those who have indignantly left the hall have, by their justifiable anger or contempt, testified to the success of the anti-musicians.

Exhibit B. Performance of 4’33” composed by John Cage. A human dummy is seated at a piano on a concert hall stage. For four minutes and thirty-three seconds no sound is made. The non-composition is finished.

Exhibit C. Explanation by a contemporary music critic. “When composer John Cage wrote 4’33’ he opened a door to the new music. This work…was first performed in 1952. The ‘music’ consisted of the coughs and creaks that arose from the audience during the ‘performance.’ Thus Cage endowed unintentional noise with the status of intentionally produced music and broke the last connection with traditional definitions of musical structure….Today, the composer considers the piece archaic because of its pre-arranged, or determinate length.”

Exhibit D. A Happening. A group of women build a nest. A group of men erect a tower. Then each destroys the other’s work. At the end, the actors surround an automobile covered with strawberry jam and lick it off. This performance takes place at an American university.

Exhibit E. Newspaper clipping reporting a new seminar at the University of Oregon (an educational institution): “The students in Morris Yarowsky’s class destroyed everything they could get their hands on recently. It was part of a seminar on ‘destruction as a process in art’ in a visual semantics class….One girl lathered herself with red soap and shaved off an eyebrow, and a man put a goldfish in a mixing bowl and poured some table salt into the bowl. A student stood on a chair and threw a cake at the ground, a sledge hammer was slammed into a television set and a man donned a crash helmet and jumped on clay sculpture.”

Exhibit F. An assistant to the New York Administrator of Recreation and Cultural Affairs presides over a “sculptural” happening. Two gravediggers, hired at union rates (fifty dollars a day), dig a “grave” in Central Park. After a lunchtime break, they shovel the dirt back into the hole. Oldenbourg, the conceiver of this imbecile performance is known for his “happenings” and pop art, such as a huge plaster hamburger and a towering phallic lipstick. The city’s consultant on sculpture with due solemnity supports his hoax. “Everything is art if it is chosen by the artist to be art.”

Where is the laughter? where the indignant demands that the municipal authorities involved apologize publicly for this insult to their citizens’ intelligence and this misuse of public funds? Only respectful silence follows. These solemn monkeyshines have become the mass substitute for genuine esthetic creativity. Anti-art has become in fact the new Establishment, evoking glib encomiums from art critics, grave rationalization from art historians, favored exhibition space and effusive catalogs from “important” museum directors. The reasons for this success should be obvious. Both non-art and anti-art meet the exact specifications of the Power Complex: unrestricted productivity, instant achievement, large profits, immense fashionable prestige, blatant self-advertisement. Under this banner regression and demoralization become authentic marks of “progress.”

Psychiatrists, a generation ago, discovered that painting was one of the many manual crafts through which patients could work their way back to reality. Fashionable non-art and anti-art now perform precisely the opposite function: they are methods of inducing large numbers of educated people to loosen their already weak grip on reality and abandon themselves freely to added subjectivity––or at least to express their current preference for “going with” the forces of disintegration by joining the licensed madmen in their antics.

This cultural nihilism, which began as a reaction against regimentation, has become in turn a mode of counter-regimentation, with its ritualized destruction and its denial of all the cultural processes that have sublimated man’s irrational impulses and released his creative energies. Anti-art offers total extermination as the “final solution” for an over-organized civilization.

Historically speaking, the program for anti-art was given a classic formulation by Louis Aragon at the beginning of the 1920’s, in his famous declaration of Dada.

No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians, no more sculptors, no more religious, no more republicans, no more royalists, no more imperialists, no more anarchists, no more socialists, no more bolsheviks, no more politicians, no more proletarians, no more democrats, no more bourgeois, no more aristocrats, no more armies, no more police, no more fatherlands; enough of all these imbecilities: no more of anything, nothing at all: NOTHING, NOTHING NOTHING.

Only one thing was curiously lacking in this total denial: NO MORE DADA. Dada refused to obey its own original credo––”All true Dada’s are anti-Dada.” Just the opposite happened: Dada now claims to be All.

In every country today a large part of the population, literate or sub-literate, indoctrinated by the mass media, reinforced by the more fashionable leaders in schools, colleges, and museums, accepts this madhouse “art,” not only as a valid expression of our meaningless and purposeless life––as in one sense it actually is––but as the only acceptable existential approach to reality. Unfortunately, the effect of this publicity and indoctrination is to intensify the underlying irrationality of the power system, by eliminating every possible reminder of those cumulative human traditions which, energetically recultivated and renewed, are still needed to transform it.

The mark of authentic experience, accordingly, is the systematic elimination of the good, the true, the beautiful, in both their past and possible future forms. Along with this goes an aggressive attack on whatever is healthy, balanced, sane, rational, disciplined, purposeful. In this world of inverted values, evil becomes the supreme good, and the capacity to make moral discriminations and personal choices, to inhibit destructive or murderous impulses, to pursue distant ends for humane purposes, becomes an offense against the rehabilitated god of lawlessness and disorder, anciently called Satan, or The Destroyer: the God of Anti-life.

In all its modes, then, from sculptured junk to junkie delirium, from the ear-shattering thump of rock music to the cagey emptiness of accidental noises trapped in a concert hall, from the studious vacancy of blank canvases to the anesthesia of drug-clouded minds, anti-art draws its financial and its technological resources from the very agencies it professedly defies. The means used by those who seek to “drop out” from megatechnics demonstrates this close affiliation: heroin, lysergic acid, stroboscopic lights, electronic amplifiers, “speed” in both its chemical and mechanical forms, are all tied to scientific discovery and profit motivation. What seems like a withdrawal is only another form of active participation and submergence in the Power System. Ironically, even hippie costumes have offered a new market for mass production.

What perhaps accounts for this eager espousal of anti-art is precisely the fact that it performs a dual contradictory rôle. Professedly it is a revolt against our over-mechanized, over-regimented megatechnic culture. But as it turns out, anti-art also serves equally to justify the power-system’s end products: it acclimates modern man to the habitat that megatechnics is bringing into existence: an environment degraded by garbage dumps, auto cemeteries, slag heaps, nuclear piles, and architectural conglomerates––all destined to be homogenized in a planetary “Megalopolis.”

By making the subjective annihilation threatened by the megamachine his own object, the anti-artist gains the illusion of overcoming that fate through an act of personal choice. In the moment of defying the power complex and negating its orderly routines, anti-art accepts its programmed outcome.

Consider the meaning of junk sculpture. What the fabricators of this “sculpture” are perhaps telling us is that, even after a nuclear holocaust, life at some abysmal subhuman level might go on, and that artists, foraging for materials in the ruins, might still be able to simulate, with the aid of rusted engines, cracked toilet bowls, twisted pipes and wires, broken crockery, disemboweled alarm clocks, something that, however wryly deformed, would still express a residue of the creative will. If this be indeed the unconscious motive that underlies anti-art, one can understand it and with severe reservations honor it as a prophetic warning against a future that must be circumvented.

In this light society owes a debt to the anti-art of our period; for it revealed, more than a generation before our scientific instruments of destruction had proliferated and escalated, the irrational promptings and the sterile goals that now characterize Western civilization. If the prophetic nature of this art had been widely understood, it might, taken in sufficiently diluted doses, have served as a timely inoculation to protect us against the disease that is now taking hold of the entire social organism.


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