Siegfried Kracauer: Critical Observations on the Discreet Charm of the Metropolis
The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels … The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other, are they not all human beings with the same qualities and powers, and with the same interest in being happy? And have they not, in the end, to seek happiness in the same way, by the same means? And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposite streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest becomes even more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city (Friedrich Engels in Harrison, Wood and Gainger (eds) 1998: 295).
Siegfried Kracauer (1889–1966) is best known for his writings on the cinema. And the moot question asked about the ‘arts of the camera’ initially comprising photography and the moving image, invented during the nineteenth century was in which category were they to be included? Were they ‘mechanical device’ or were they ‘art’? The argument in favour of the latter found a formidable supporter in André Malraux, who described the cinema as ‘the furthermost evolution to-date of plastic realism, the beginnings of which were first manifest at the Renaissance and which found its completest experience in baroque painting’ (Bazin in Alperson 1992: 277).
Kracauer’s reputation continues to rest on his contribution to the philosophy and aesthetics of film. In his seminal book Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, first published in 1960, he argued in favour of a realist theory of film, whose roots he located in philosophy, exemplified by the documentary approach to filmmaking pioneered by the Lumière Brothers, which constituted one of the two main directions cinema followed, the other being George Méliès’s phantasmagoric productions, firmly rooted in the theatrical tradition.
The reason why Kracauer regarded the realist approach exemplified by the Lumiére brothers by now iconic first reels, such as Sortie des usines Lumière
(Lunch hour at the Lumière Factory) or L’Arrivée d’un train
(Arrival of the Train), where they captured everyday folk going about their business, unaware of being observed and recorded by the lens of the camera, was their ‘cinematic’ quality. Thus Kracauer contributed a new aesthetic category to film studies, by which he meant the distinct characteristic which separated cinema from other forms of art or mechanical reproduction: ‘In strict analogy to the term “photographic approach”, the filmmaker’s approach is called “cinematic”, it acknowledges the basic aesthetic principle’ (Kracauer in Alperson 1992: 311). This particular aesthetic category is not compatible with the concept of art Kracauer argues, which ‘cannot cover truly “cinematic” films – films that is, which incorporate aspects of physical reality with a view to making us experience them’ (Kracauer in Alperson 1992: 312).
What is less well known is that Siegfried Kracauer was a prolific writer, long before he turned his attention to the cinema with his psychological study: German Cinema: From Caligari to Hitler first published by Princeton in 1947 which brought him for the first time recognition in the English speaking academic world and it may well be that one of the reasons has something to do with his biography which split his life and therefore his literary, journalistic and academic input into two halves, in two languages, published in two continents.
Siegfried Kracauer was born to a Jewish family in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1889 and after studying architecture and obtaining a doctorate in engineering in 1914 he began to practice as an architect, first in Munich and then Berlin. Between 1922–1933 he worked as a film and literature editor for Frankfurter Zeitung where he met – among others – Walter Benjamin and Ernest Bloch.
His interest in the everyday; mass media, popular culture; advertising – everything that came to be associated with capitalist consumerism emerged at this point in his career with the publication of an analysis of the detective novel Der Detektiv Roman (The Detective Novel) written between 1923–1925. But the two works which comprise his seminal contribution to the, everyday, are Ornament der Masse (The Mass Ornament) and Die Angestellten (The Salaried Masses) published in 1927 and 1930 respectively.
With the rise of the National Socialist Party to power, which culminated with Adolf Hitler’s election in 1933 to the chancellorship of Germany, its intelligentsia were forced to rethink their future and many decided to flee Nazi Germany. The situation was even more acute in the case of the Jews, because it was not only their ideological position but their very lives they had to protect and thus a veritable exodus began which including – among others – the entire School of Frankfurt
which relocated lock, stock and barrel to the US. Neither Siegfried Kracauer nor Walter Benjamin were considered members; rather they were regarded as associates, both decided to head for Paris, the latter also attracted by his research interests focusing on his hero Charles Baudelaire. Their French sejour
however was short lived, because in June 1940 the Nazis occupied Paris. In August 1940 ‘two German Jewish cultural critics: Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer gathered
in Marseilles in the hope to cross to the US by boat. Their friends Theodor Adorno, Meyer Schapiro, Max Horkheimer, Richard Krautheimer had arranged for them visas and employment in the US’. At this point however, their paths separated with tragic consequences for Walter Benjamin who fearing for his life committed suicide. Less well known, also fortunately less tragic, was the story of Kracauer and his wife Lili, who managed in the end to cross Spain and reach Lisbon from where they embarked on a boat for the US (Levin 1995: 1–32).
Walter Benjamin in fact left us a perceptive if rather misanthropic portrait of his fellow traveller:
A loner. A discontent, not a leader … A rag-picker early in the dawn, who with his stick spikes the snatches of speeches and scraps of conversation in order to throw them into his cart, sullenly and obstinately, a little tipsy, but not without now and then scornfully letting one or other of these discarded cotton rags – ‘humanity’, ‘inwardness’, ‘depth’ – flutter in the morning breeze. A rag-picker, early in the dawn of the day of the revolution (Quoted in Frisby 1988: 109).
The ‘rag-picker’ and the ‘flâneur’: both Kracauer and Benjamin wrote about the big city, emphasizing the solitary existence of the life of the modern city dweller but they were both preceded by Friedrich Engels, who was quick to notice this situation as early as the 1840s and whose pessimistic comments perceptively underlined the painful isolation of the city dweller. Baudelaire’s flâneur is melancholic and solitary wrote Benjamin:
Baudelaire’s genius, which is nourished on melancholy, is an allegorical genius. For the first time, with Baudelaire, Paris becomes the subject of lyric poetry. This poetry is no hymn to the homeland; rather the gaze of our allegorist, as it falls on the city, the gaze of the alienated man. It is the gaze of the flâneur, whose way of life still conceals behind a mitigating nimbus the coming desolation of the big-city dweller (Benjamin 1999: 10).
Baudelaire himself talks about this observer of human life from whom ‘the crowd is his domain’ and for whom ‘his passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd’. This observer depicted in the seminal essay entitled The Painter of Modern Life, happened to be Constantin Guys, whom Baudelaire transforms into the paradigm of the flâneur ‘this solitary mortal endowed with an active imagination, always roaming the great desert of man’ but his seemingly aimless wanderings in fact have a telos; a final cause which is ‘that indefinable something we may be allowed to call “modernity” for want of a better term to express the idea in question’ (Baudelaire 1972: 390–431).
Thus Baudelaire invented ‘modernity’, which he goes on to define as ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half art, the other being the eternal and the immovable’ (Baudelaire 1972: 403). The true impact of Baudelaire’s definition of ‘modernity’ will only become apparent during the twentieth century
when it will be placed centre stage both by Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer in their own writings.
Kracauer’s early journalistic and essayistic career started in 1921 when he was employed by Frankfurter Zeitung as a journalist and where he worked until 1929 when he moved to Berlin but continued to work for them as their cultural correspondent. This was however a short lived period and by 1931, as a consequence of a law-suit to do with severance pay, he lost his job and this event marked ‘the beginning of his life-long exile’ (Levin 1995: 1–32).
Kracauer’s prolific journalistic career started with reportage but after being appointed as editor, he was able to choose his own topics, mostly informed by his personal interests in philosophy and sociology. Between 1921–1931 he wrote the majority of the articles and essays later published in two volumes: Das Ornament der Masse: Weimar Essays (The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays), already referred to and a second: Strassen in Berlin und anderswo (Streets in Berlin and Elsewhere), already referred to, both edited by Kracauer himself and first published in 1963.
The subject of this essay will be to provide a critical analysis of these writings, concentrating on the ones incorporated in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, which today remains less well known, a fact which has not passed unnoticed and to that effect we find comments in almost everyone of the few existing contribution to the sparse existing Kracauer bibliographical list. This is less than helpful to the readers who wish to acquaint themselves with Kracauer’s Frankfurt and Berlin years, before he embarked on the second half of his writing career when he switched to the English language and proceeded to write about the cinema. Thus David Frisby (1988) comments: ‘If Simmel’s contribution to a theory of modernity has until recently, largely been neglected, then that of Kracauer has along with his other contributions to social theory been almost totally ignored’ (Frisby 1988: 5). More recently, Paul A. Taylor and Jan Ll. Harris comment:
Although less well known than Benjamin in media and cultural studies, Kracauer played a formative role (he had been Adorno’s tutor and regularly corresponded with Benjamin) in the analysis of culture and media carried out by various members of the Frankfurt School to the extent that Benjamin and Adorno’s accounts of the mass media can be seen as direct response to Kracauer’s path (Taylor and Harris 2008: 39).
If we accept Baudelaire’s definition of modernity as the major premise in the subsequent debate, Kracauer’s contribution has been aptly summed up as concentrating: ‘Upon the media of popular culture: the cinema, streets, advertisements and the circus. The unifying feature from the early to the late works is the intention of deciphering social tendencies immediately out of ephemeral cultural phenomena’ (Karl Witte in Frisby 1985: 110).
Growing interest in the everyday and the understanding of how it continues to inform our understanding of the twin contributions of the nineteenth century, of inventing the concept of ‘modernity’ and creating ‘urbanity’ are at the
forefront of what came to be defined as ‘the post-modern condition’, and this is confirmed by a recent addition to an already impressive bibliographical list such as Michael Sheringham’s book entitled Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present
(2006). Focus is specifically on four French writers: Henri Lefevre, Roland Barthes, Michel de Certeau and Georges Perec and the period between 1960 and 1980 characterized – the author argues – by ‘an explosion of interest in the everyday’ whose origins however are traced back to the Surrealist movement (Sheringham 2006: 14). Moreover, he argues that Lefevre’s book Critique de la vie quotidienne
, written in 1945 draws on wider sources about ‘the everyday at large’ such as ‘Marx, Freud, Lukács, Heidegger, Surrealism, Bataille, Leiris, Queneau and Benjamin’ (Sheringham 2006: 4). A cursory glance through Kracauer’s own writings reveals not only his formidable erudition but, more importantly, a commonality of inspiration, although he seems to display, not surprisingly, a noticeable preference for German, rather than French bibliographical sources.
Kracauer amassed 24 of his articles and essays contributed for Frankfurter Zeitung in the volume entitled: The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Hitherto focus has been on the sociological, and to a lesser extent philosophical aspects of his writings, exemplified in the scholarly contributions of Thomas Y. Levin, David Frisby and more recently Paul A. Taylor and Jan Ll. Harris, and for that reason I would attempt a different angle of approach that will link him to modern art, more specifically to the European artistic avant-garde which emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as to popular culture, whilst exploring the recent new interest about its contribution to the development of ‘high’ art.
As already mentioned, both Kracauer and Benjamin were affiliated but never belonged to the elite Frankfurt School, although they both had close links with its members, and in the case of the former, especially with Theodor Adorno to whom he dedicated the volume under discussion.
An interesting question to be asked however is regarding the nature of Kracauer’s relationship with some of the finest art historians and theoreticians of art such as Meyer Schapiro and Richard Krautheimer, who are listed as being among the friends who had arranged visas and work for him and Benjamin, and were awaiting their arrival in New York in 1940.
Richard Krautheimer (1897–1994) the distinguished Byzantine scholar was born and educated in Germany, but like Kracauer being Jewish had to flee Germany during the Nazi period and in 1935 he left for the US where he lived until 1971 when he settled in Rome, which became his adopted home until his death in 1994. In 1940, he was working as a lecturer at New York University where he taught until 1971 and during this time his seminal work in two volumes on Lorenzo Ghiberti, published in 1956 and 1971 respectively by Princeton University Press was published.
Meyer Schapiro (1904–1996) arrived in the US through a different route and at a different time. He was born in Lithuania and in 1907 his family emigrated to the US where he studied art history and completed a PhD at Columbia University where he began his academic teaching career. By 1952 he became a full professor
and well-known writer on modern art. His most enduring contribution however was art theory; specifically he was the first to introduce Marxism as a methodology in art history.
Thomas Crow in a study of the relationship between European avant-garde and consumer culture analyses what he calls ‘this extraordinary theoretical moment of the later 1930s’ (Crow 1998: 16) and he singled out as its main contributors the formidable trio of intellectuals: Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg and Walter Benjamin. But there is a fourth contributor to the debate regarding avant-garde movements and mass culture, he regards the most important among them: Theodor Adorno, whom he regards as ‘the only one able to preserve its original range of reference and intent’ and for that reason Benjamin, Greenberg and Schapiro were used to ‘lend historical and sociological substance to Adorno’s stance as it pertains to the visual arts’ (Crow 1998: 28).
The avant-garde movement was not only informed but directly influenced by consumer society Schapiro himself traced back to the Impressionists and this constitutes the main tenet of the argument put forward by Crow’s ‘trio of intellectuals’, Schapiro, Benjamin and Greenberg. It was however Clement Greenberg’s much quoted essay ‘Avant-garde’ and Kitsch, first published in 1939 in the Partisan Review in which he famously introduced the concept of kitsch (borrowing the word from German) as a new aesthetic category which has since been predicated of all that is bad taste, trash and vulgar. Greenberg’s, somewhat dialectical approach postulates the necessity of a rearguard obviously an analogy with the Hegelian anti-thesis:
Where there is an avant-garde generally we also find a rearguard. True enough – simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second new cultural phenomenon appeared in the industrial West: that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tim Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc., etc. For some reason this gigantic apparition has always been taken for granted. It is time we looked into its whys and wherefores. Kitsch is the product of the industrial revolution which urbanised the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy (Clement Greenberg in Francina 1985: 21–33).
Greenberg’s criticism of this new form of ‘low’ culture he labelled with the pejorative term of kitsch has been interpreted to reflect his preoccupation with a ‘material and social crisis which threatened the traditional form of nineteenth century culture with extinction’, whose cause was ‘the economic pressure of an industry devoted to the simulation of art in the form of reproducible cultural commodities, that is to say, the industry of mass culture’ (Crow 1998: 9).
The third contributor of the ‘intellectual trio’ Walter Benjamin and he introduced this link in his study of Charles Baudelaire in which he discusses the
privileged bourgeoisie, to which Baudelaire himself belonged, and their mode of finding enjoyment whereby the enjoyment on offer could only be enhanced by empathizing with commodities: ‘The enjoyment promised to be less limited if this class found enjoyment of this society possible. If it wanted to achieve virtuosity in this kind of enjoyment it could not spurn empathizing with commodities’ (Benjamin in Crow 1998: 16). The famous aesthetic category of ‘l’art pour l’art’ championed by Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) and Baudelaire himself who proclaimed the purity of an art that had to detach itself from any additional narratives, such as morality, pedagogic or propagandistic or any other role encumbered upon it in its history, was applied to literature but, Crow argues, this applies even better to the visual arts:
the avant-garde left behind the older concerns...