Once the door had been opened onto the phenomena of the chronically unemployed, it appeared there was no closing it. Which is to say, even though the intervening period—at least between 1945 and 1979—was characterized by something wildly different than rank unemployment, nothing about this fact altered the vision of revolutionary progress centered on the figure of the precariat. It would be fairer to say exactly the opposite. The “affluent society,” as Kenneth Galbraith described it in 1958, was the source of endless lament on the Left (the Right’s attitude toward the growing equality in wealth is another, but related, story).
Nonsite brings you a special dossier of new translations of Brecht on painting and art including On Painting and the Painter, Critique of Empathy, The Blue Horses, The Worker Who is a Painter, On Chinese Painting, and the Prospectus of the Diderot Society.
If it’s true that many of our contemporaries and immediate predecessors – and particularly poets — haven’t been interested in Brecht, it isn’t quite right to say that it must be because Brecht’s work is “too didactic or too plain in its political motivations” (or, we could say, too committed). Rather, if Brecht has held little interest, with respect to aesthetics and politics alike, it’s because aesthetics and politics alike have been “strictly personal,” transformed into a matter of “talking about oneself” – of expressing one’s attitudes and “special feelings” — instead of what they were for Brecht: impersonal, a matter of accuracy and normative judgment.
As critics have ceaselessly argued, the core problem with Brecht’s art and theory is his didacticism. Brecht undoubtedly saw art in moral and political terms. Moreover, he thought that morality was a consequence of his works. He described all works of art as “necessarily…bound to release emotional effects.” The only difference between his moralism and the moralism of “bourgeois” art was that he believed his effects could fail. Even though all works produce emotional effects, the job of the (non-bourgeois) artist was to defeat the free play of affect. Brecht’s art continually thematizes open-ended affect as the thing to be overcome, or to show how it had not been overcome by his characters, making that failure a problem to be resolved outside the theater.
We are concerned with the problem of securing meaning against the ideological horizon of a fully market-saturated society. Meanings circulate or fail to circulate, compel or fail to compel. Success in the former, which is easily quantifiable, does not guarantee success in the latter, which is not.
The Threepenny Novel is not just a book about capital. It is also a book about Kapital. Brecht’s commentators have amply documented The Threepenny Novel’s numerous borrowings from Marx’s opus, such as the passage describing the death of Mary Ann Walkley, which Brecht quotes virtually verbatim from Marx. But, beyond the content and imagery, correspondences between the two works can also be found at a deeper structural level. Indeed, far more intriguing for our inquiry are certain parallels in the construction that raise questions about the aesthetic strategies Brecht borrowed from Marx to represent capital.