(Reaktion Books, 2014)
“People can sense the truth. Truth has an ontological superiority over lies.”
—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot
during her 2012 trial in Moscow
“Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear.”
—“Mack the Knife,” The Threepenny Opera
Philip Glahn informs us at the very start of this scholarly, readable volume that he has no intention of writing one more candid exposé of Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright, poet, and intellectual who is conceivably the most influential theorist-practitioner of politically engaged art of the past century. Instead, Glahn sets out to reveal the contemporary relevance of his subject using Brecht’s own historically infused methods as a guide. Through skillful integration of biographical details and conceptual framing, Glahn succeeds in constructing a complex picture of Brecht that is neither adulatory nor condemning but situated within a specific historical reality. In the process, Brecht’s ghost is given a chance to compete in contemporary iterations of debates he was once central to. What is the appropriate aesthetic approach to political art? Where does the boundary lie between art and activism?
In one instance, Glahn pits his resuscitated Brecht against Jacques Rancière, the current heavyweight champion on all issues art and political. Like a cunning coach, Glahn first acknowledges that Brecht was fond of now-unfashionable binaries: active versus passive; knowledgeable versus ignorant viewership; good communist collectivism versus bad fascist collectivism. Glahn also admits that Rancière has quite the lead given his disavowal of class struggle in favor of an “equality of intelligences,” a gambit well suited to the contemporary, post-Cold War zeitgeist. But then Glahn’s spectral boxer suddenly jabs back with a surprising left hook: “Brecht’s stipulation of an inequality of knowledge distinguishes between those who know and those who have not been given the chance to know.” We are reminded of the 99% and the way asymmetrical power relations permeate the allegedly horizontal flexibility of capitalism 2.0.
Ghost Brecht reminds us that inequality does not vanish simply because the majority of people wish to believe they are middle class, any more than drowning in debt means that you hold anything more than a shaky title to “real” property. So too is it with most artists who, notwithstanding a surfeit of education, can barely piece together a lower “middle class” existence through multiple underpaid forms of employment. It’s a situation that may explain why affinities between artists and workers have tended to develop over and over again throughout decades, just as they did for Brecht in his day. Still, such misapprehensions about class relations continue to influence even an occasionally astute observer like critic Ben Davis, who sees politically engaged artists as essentially slumming entrepreneurs. Brecht would certainly have countered, perchance citing his own 1938 poem “Driven Out for Good Reason”:
I did not like the people of my own class
Nor giving orders, nor being waited on
And I left my own class and joined
The low people
Brecht’s concept of the “low people” was doubtless filled with his own middle-class biases, but what if this misreading was itself vital to the development of certain progressive avant-garde art forms? Without explicitly stating as much, Glahn’s book implies that errors, contradictions, and misinterpretations were as important to Brecht’s narrative as was his search for “the truth.” This is where Glahn’s book stands apart from so many others. Adeptly contrasting the playwright’s evolving theories of art with precise historical situations, the reader is left to weigh, evaluate, and interpret “the truth” of Brecht in all his paradoxes. By doing so the reader engages in a decidedly “Brechtian” process that requires having, as Brecht once wrote:
the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.
Prior to reading Glahn, I never imagined that the playwright’s fascination with boxing could be seen as laying the foundation for his famed alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt) or estrangement effect. Boxing disavows passive spectatorship, dissolving its mostly male, proletarian viewers into a flurry of amateur critique and vociferous refereeing as they analyze the pros and cons of this or that contender. What if theater could be like this? Instead of genteel spectators consuming this or that fictitious narrative, what if the audience was encouraged to debate, arbitrate, and engage in self-reflection? What kind of political subject would this produce? For Brecht, it was someone capable of moving closer to the truth, but also better equipped to decipher it and put it to use. Knowledge for its own sake is the same as art for art’s sake, a meaningless waste of time and energy. This is, of course, the precise point where the avant-garde abandons conventional notions of aesthetic contemplation, and yet, was Brecht’s linking of “low” working class sensibilities (as he understood them) with techniques drawn from experimental, abstract art also not determined by historical circumstances involving his commitment to anti-fascist communism? If so, it was an urgency that no doubt also affected his friends Walter Benjamin, George Grosz, and John Heartfield. (And curiously, as Glahn notes, both Grosz and Heartfield took up boxing in the late 1920s to mingle with the heroes of the sports ring.)
Glahn bears down on these sometime bewildering ties between avant-garde art and proletarian politics by spending several pages discussing Brecht’s contentious drama The Measures Taken. The play centers on the trial of four young Communist agitators who are restaging the thoughts and actions that led up to the death of a fifth comrade by their own hands. Its 1930 premier included Ernst Busch, a mechanic-turned-actor, and Alexander Granach, a former baker, and throughout the evening the dramatic flow of the piece was constantly being interrupted by three workers’ choirs commenting on the proceedings as if from offstage. Meanwhile, the entire performance took place on top of what looked like a smashup between a constructivist platform and a boxing ring. Describing his inclusion of both professional and amateur actors, Brecht stated that The Measures Taken was written for those who “neither pay nor get paid for art but who want to make art.”
Still, with its denaturalized dramaturgy and laying-bare of the theatrical apparatus, Brecht’s notion of epic theater often confounded the workers he hoped to reach, and fellow German intellectuals Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer accused him of political and artistic naïveté. Nor did he ultimately fair all that well during his exile in the United States between 1941 and 1947. Though Brecht staged one of his most successful works, Life of Galileo, in Los Angeles, Glahn writes that Brecht perceived America as “constructed, living its own precarious promise along with all the contradictions that make it possible and that it enables.” Ultimately, Brecht was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in part because of the apparent pro-communist message of The Measures Taken. Famously, he managed to elude imprisonment without “squealing” on fellow radicals such as Hanns Eisler.
Brecht’s move back to what had by then become the Communist German Democratic Republic was equally unfulfilling, as cautious bureaucrats and leftist critics complained that his work was artsy and elitist. Privately, Brecht criticized the East German government’s lack of human rights, but publicly, he was more conciliatory. This leads Glahn to conclude that Brecht saw himself as a “co-driver on the wagon of history—maybe holding a map, but dependent on the drivers and the material forces that moved it forward.” Like a miniature epic novel, Glahn’s book casts Brecht’s artistic development against such dramatic life-determining episodes as exile, relocation, and the rise of Fascism, as well as two hot wars and one cold one. He then leaves us to interpret the kind of mapping tactics we might require today in order to transform “truth” into a weapon for change. In doing so, Glahn receives abundant assistance from his phantom boxer.