Siegfried Kracauer’s idea of ‘Mass Ornament’

Mass society as its own ornament was how the German social critic Siegfried Kracauer understood the street life of the dying years of the Weimar Republic. You can find this clever idea which brings us right to the present day set out in his 1927 essay ‘The Ornament of the Masses’. Not published in book form until 1963 it is now easily available in German, English and other languages and well worth a read by anyone interested in public art and the effects of the production line on everything from ideas of beauty to the condition of the university.

Kracauer’s flight from Hitler’s Germany in 1933 to an exile’s life in the United States was one reason for the delay in publication. Another, suggests his leading interpreter, the late film critic Karsten Witte, was that probably Kracauer was in no hurry to dig up his one-time independent Marxist inclinations, close to the Frankfurt School, in McCarthy’s fervently anti-Communist America post-war. it’s his critique of capitalist effects on cultural life that assures his continuing relevance.

Kracauer is another of those materialist critics of the 1930s, who seem best able to tell us where we’ve arrived three-quarters of a century later. His remit was the undoing of the old divisions between high and low culture, from a critical standpoint wary of the manipulations of business and the state. We might, as now be persuaded that education was the goal, access to it above all, but essentially at stake were profit and civic order respectively. Walter Benjamin is the best-known analyst in the often quirky journalistic- philosophical vein to which the Germans of the New Materialism (Neue Sachlichkeit) belong. Benjamin and Kracauer, literary journalists and powerful intellects, shared a fascination with street life, new technologies (radio, film), political demagoguery and mass behaviour, As they wondered where the elite into which they were educated was headed, they cast a fascinated eye over shops and meeting-places, newspapers, posters, best-seller lists, cinemas, hotels, trams and tourism. ‘Kitchen-sink realism’, a term of the British 1950s applied to drama, was part of the spirit of Neue Sachlichkeit, but because of the political instability of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism, and the presence of a number of radically avant-garde painters and writers its remit went much deeper and wider.

Actually my feeling is Heidegger should be there too, for he too was fascinated, albeit also frightened, by new technology and the new materialism (grown out of disenchantment with cultural idealism in the wake of the First World War and the lessening hold of religion). Even though Heidegger retreated almost entirely to a life in the mountains and the forest, he too was busy undoing high culture’s claim to define what art was and to speak only to educated individuals in sure possession of a soul. For every great painting seen in a gallery, Heidegger set beside it the kind of meaningful moment the simple life on the land afforded. What Kracauer and Benjamin were discovering about the urban working class you might say Heidegger was discovering, for philosophy, about the rural lives of the peasantry he was born into. The materialism of the German 1930s is sometimes difficult for me personally, a born idealist, to accept; but I work with it because I find it both life-enhancing and historically true. It is, courtesy of the Frankfurt School, a modern political cradle, albeit one these days where not many other people seem to have been nursed.

My most recent book, A Shoe Story, set Heidegger in this context. Here’s a quote from the third chapter.  ‘What linked the cult of the worker and the slogan the Nazis wove over the entrance to Auschwitz, Work Makes You Free, was the real moral catastrophe that has made this period so difficult to think about. The Holocaust, far more than the war itself, is the reason for the unqualified condemnation of the German 1930s…But the Holocaust is not the whole story of the 1930s, artistically or philosophically, no more than [in Russia] the Gulag (the labour camp) was the outcome of a 150-year pursuit of the truth in labour…If you want to understand [those times, and their relation to us now]…you have to loosen a little the ideological connections that were forged in steel to re-establish the free world after 1945.’ (p. 48) I spend the rest of the book loosening those connections and trying to forge new ones, not least with the public art of our time. Now, the reason we don’t hear about Heidegger in this context because of the witch-hunt against him (yet again, a witch-hunt against the national enemy!) in the north American universities, for his having been a member of the Nazi Party. Not a badge of virtue indeed, but as the historian late Tony Judt observed, Heidegger as a well-known figure was made a scapegoat for millions.

To understand Heidegger in the context of Benjamin and Kracauer , we have to see him as a particular kind of materialist, trying to compensate for a loss of spiritual culture. Confronted with a vanishing peasant culture, he rediscovered the work of art as a ‘happening’ for the pious rural soul. This is where for instance his experience of van Gogh’s Pair of Shoes (1886) led him. That painting made meaning of the hard-working life close to the weather and the soil spring alive.

Meanwhile, moving from the extreme Right to the Marxist Left, to understand Benjamin and Kracauer, we have to recall what was happening peacefully to society in Stalinist Russia as well as Nazi Berlin, and from there to compare similar developments in Britain and America. Collectivism was the new shape of politics, which was ominous given the rise of Hitler and Mussolini; but collectivism was also the name of a new age of leisure. The great dictators staged their mass parades in Berlin and Rome and Moscow. Labour camps in the Soviet Union were places of punishment, but in theory with a positive aim: those dispatched there were required to relearn their collective duties to society. In Britain in the interwar decades the British working-class started spending its time off in holiday camps. These were factories of diversion where workers paid to have their holiday free time organized in quasi military fashion, all together. They bypassed issues of individual taste and forged new forms of collective enjoyment. In all of these aspects of life across the West, reaching right to its edge in the Soviet Far East, the idea of the conveyor-belt, and the production line, and the efficient factory, was bringing about huge innovations in the technicalities of managing a mass society. When Heidegger made his equation of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews and the development of collective farming in the USSR therefore – and his erstwhile Jewish pupil Hans Jonas also made the comparison – he was not wrong, only crass, foolish and deeply insensitive.

Kracauer was disturbed by a new form of mass aesthetic entertainment. Fitness enthusiasts danced in mass formation, creating  geometric figures out of their thousands of synchronized movements. It seemed to be a new art form. What Benjamin would a few years later theorize as the aestheticization of politics under fascism, Kracauer was already grasping in ‘The Ornament of the the Masses’ when he compared the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg (already in 1923 and 1927) with the Tiller Girls. The Tiller Girls were the rows of well-drilled girlie dancers who filled British and American tv screens from the birth of the medium to well into my postwar childhood, as the nastiness of totalitarian mass manipulation became the anodyne output of the mass entertainment industry. The very concept of ‘the mass’  and the perceived need to order mass life in new ways, was changing culture, and philosophy, and changing our cities and our engagement with nature, and the physicality of our own bodies.

Kracauer wrote in an unpublished 1936 essay (see Karsten Witte’s Afterword to the 1963 German edition of Das Ornament der Masse, available in English in New German Critique No 5 Spring 1975 pp. 59-66) that, first, ‘The mass is forced to contemplate itself (mass meetings, mass demonstrations). The mass is always present to itself and often in the aesthetically seductive form of an ornament or an emotionally moving image.’ Second, ‘with the help of the wireless the living room becomes a public place’. Third, ‘With the intention of underlining to the mass the meaning of the mass, all the mythical powers possible that can be hammered out of it are drawn out. So it can seem to many people as if they are lifted beyond themselves in the mass.’ What Kracauer meant was that people saw some vaguely transcendent meaning in mass participation and mass belonging, and for that they were prepared to sacrifice their individuality, effectively without noticing. He talked of an age in which reason (Vernunft) was dimmed, although life was full of mathematical calculation (ratio), exemplified in concerns with cost and productivity and profit, on the surface. People who didn’t overvalue their privacy, who didn’t notice how it was disappearing, were caught up in a new myth-making that seemed to them the essence of reason. The mass life could be perfectly organized. Society could function like a well-oiled machine, and all the citizens well-drilled, and ready to combine and collaborate, under a system of industrial production called capitalism the scale of which had never known it before. Benjamin had noted in Moscow in 1927 that ‘Bolshevism has abolished private life…friendship, private space and time and the very “bourgeois” idea of privacy.’ So this was also what, as a by-product also of collectivism in the freer West, what Kracauer was writing about.

It’s not that freedom-loving political democracies of the West today are malign in the 1930s mould. But culturally? Big Brother, anyone? (In Britain the inventor of that programme is now head of the Arts Council, the chief state funding body for the arts.)  You can’t read his 1927 essay without noticing that what was then a fascist transformation of popular culture to serve political ends has since become intrusive popular culture and that people actually volunteer to play fascistic games to entertain others. They accept and even find somehow ethically right the idea that nothing in the free (?) world goes unseen, because the camera  and now the I-phone are everywhere, and that is somehow right.What Kracauer noted even then as the  ‘decency, watchfulness and humanity’ ( see the Witte essay cited above) needed to keep an eye on the new collectivism is also the least we need now, to watch over its twenty-first century counterpart.

What the far-seeing Kracauer saw happening in the 1920s was the creation of an illusion whereby the mass of people would see themselves as integrated into the ‘system’. They would feel ‘included’ without being picked out as individuals. From the ‘bohemian bourgeois’ of the Clinton era in the US, to the cool, culture-lite decades of New Labour in the UK, that’s exactly what’s been happening to us almost a century later. Our version of ‘dimmed reason’ has been mercifully to destroy fascism and to do everything politically to prevent its return; but at the same time it has asked us to welcome the creation of the mass as its own aesthetic spectacle. Corresponding public art has come into being, with works like Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, Anish Kapoor’s Orbital Tower for the the London 2012 Olympic Games and the immensely successful Poppies at the Tower of London in autumn 2014. Such works, as the critic Julian Stallabrass put it in his Contemporary Art (2004) ‘mix the barest elements of a conceptual framework with large quantities of emotion, spirituality or humanism to warrant the production of epic works’ (p.104) Kapoor’s work is more conceptual and less emotional, but almost its entire conceptual nature is directly to reference the ratio of the 1920s by which society was to be transformed. So the 2012 Olympic Games in London ended up staging a faint echo, as a tourist attraction, of the the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games filmed as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl in her notorious film The Triumph of the Will. The link was Tatlin’s Constructionist tower for the Communist International and what Benjamin made of the new mass-society aesthetic in Moscow and Berlin. All this was in the spirit of ratio. (Riefenstahl herself had endorsed Kracauer’s and Benjamin’s insights.)

What Kracauer added was that such pattern-making actually fed unreason. It had the power to create new myths, and thus supply the needs of an essentially irrational public, and thus, for better for worse, one might say, depending on the historical epoch, fulfil a basic emotional human need to belong to a collective and celebrate that belonging.

In Britain the culture-everywhere-for-everyone approach of the 1990s and the 2000s was supposed to reconcile the little folk, an increasingly economically squeezed you and me, to the real power of global corporate wealth. It’s how we live today, with an ideology of accessibility and outreach in which ‘the mass’ is invited to understand itself, while the big corporations atone for what, because of global business, society has lost in terms of communal cohesion. They sponsor blockbuster art shows. They operate with a criterion of accessibility based on the profit of high numbers attending. None of this, as Kracauer had already seen, concerned the true emancipation of individuals into a world of artistic discrimination; and he had similar, devastating things to say about the universities too, and the subordination of their values to corporate efficiency and profit.

It’s too late to panic, but we have to see the larger historical picture and be wary. We are, culturally, most terribly manipulated.  Kracauer began his essay by observing that you can understand an era better by looking at its superficial ways of self-expression than by examining its considered judgements upon itself (which have a tendency to elevate and justify). So The Poppies aestheticized the most devastating moment in twentieth-century British history, after which society changed unrecognizably. So The Angel of the North presides over a northeast of England where communities have been ripped part by a the post-industrial global economic order. The state loves works like this, which foster social cohesion, and so do consumers who are made to feel vaguely better by their existence.  Kracauer didn’t, but I would extend the term ‘mass ornament’ to describe such public art as has come into being since his day, and to place these ornaments ajascent to reality tv and social media, as the now plural forms in which the mass can contemplate itself as a spectacle. Kracauer help me at least understand the materialisms and collectivisms of the relatively new century.

Here’s a link to a post on YouTube well-worth watching, made to illustrate Krakauer’s points in music and dance:


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