„All culture after Auschwitz,
Including its urgent critique, is garbage”

Theodor W. Adorno, Negative dialectics

The writing of this text was inspired by the title of the latest Obieg – “Beauty at the Gates” – through analogy to a Hollywood film title (not fitting the subject here, though) it reminds me of the tragedy that befell on Stalingrad during its siege. And yet, we are at war of cultures, as proven by the previous issue of said quarterly journal. On such a front, beauty becomes a powerful weapon. Careful observers of cultural encounters must realise how serious these days is an allegation of “aestheticising”, using outmoded categories and attempting to view the reality within harmonious and ordered structures. In order to understand the gravity of the problem and its anchoring in the present-day (post)humanistic reflection, I propose a quick journey through the 20th century political and sociological ideas whilst recalling some names that have had a substantial influence on the shape of the present culture. At this point, I would like to emphasise that it is impossible to delve into the topic and exhaust it within the boundaries set by a short article. The goal here is to outline the problem, spark discussion, and, in the best case scenario, encourage readers to conduct their own search on the topic.


A sculpture exhibition in Ujazdowski Castle, Centre for Contemporary Art by Ludwika Ogorzelec “I’m Looking for a Moment of Equilibrium” resulted in a review published on the internet portal of SZUM Magazine[1]. It is a text that I recommend to all adepts of artistic criticism. The author outlines how to write a text that deserves publication in a leading portal for modern art. Here is a short summary of the most important procedures utilised by the reviewer:

  1. hurling accusations of “formalism” and “reactionism” worthy of most active socialist realism,
  2. throwing magically respected and acknowledged names, whose summoning constitutes an argument on its own and a nobilitation for the author at the same time: “as if Ogorzelec was a first-in-the-history reader of Merleau-Ponty, while Judd, Morris and Eva Hesse would have never existed” [translated by Jakub Bujno],
  3. sarcasm aimed ad personam, depreciative of the creator’s specific works: “an extensive biography in the folder of Centre for Contemporary Art exhibition gives succour to every male and female spectator as it compulsively enumerate institutions where Ogorzelec exhibited her sculptures along with names of important international magazines mentioning said expositions” [translated by Jakub Bujno],
  4. everything is dipped in a sticky sauce of somewhat ritualistic attack on the director of the institution. Piotr Bernatowicz’s name occurring in the text persistently, in a refrain-like fashion, rises suspicion whether Ogorzelec works are truly the subject matter here…

In my opinion, the most important part comes at the end of the review. Dealing with the exhibition, the author writes: “Truth, beauty and good are lurking around the corner, pacing impatiently”. For a careless reader, not following changes in the modern culture – who treats consecutive instances of art that is unsightly, lacking elementary sense of good taste or is stupid, as accident at work or a trigger to raise controversy – such a sentence appears irrelevant or hilarious. However, the point of view presented by the critic constitutes a leading strand of contemporary discourse in art. What instantly comes to my mind is the exhibition “Truth, beauty, good” from Zachęta collection, where creators suggested ironic reflection on the eponymous terms. Another example is Polish-Israeli project called “Aesthetics and Bias”. In the catalogue summarising multiannual programme, Marek Wasilewski describes influence of aesthetics on shaping of twentieth-century totalitarianisms: “aesthetic practice vigorously built walls of prejudices with the help of categories like truth, order and the sublime”[2]. It is an important clue and an indication where the idea of deprecating beauty came from – the very beauty associated with art throughout ages of its development.


Let us go back in time to the thirties of 20th century. From the very beginning of Nazi’s reign, they were fully aware how valuable is propaganda for art and culture. In as early as 1933, the Reich Chamber of Culture was established and its purpose was to introduce the “Arian art” ideal – a pompous form of classicism, referring to chauvinistic Blut und Boden ideology and superiority of “the master race”. In overwhelmingly huge number of cases, the art promoted by the Nazis was exemplified by toneless landscapes showing idyllic life of “the Thousand Year Reich” society. National socialism apologetics’ work was immensely close to then official Soviet works whose realism merely camouflaged clumsy propaganda.

At the time when the Reich Chamber of Culture was promoting “the new art”, under a watchful eye of Joseph Goebbels, avant-garde artists were repressed. One of the most significant events connected with Nazi activity was Munich exhibition of “degenerated art” (ger. Entartete Kunst)[3] opened in 1937, presenting mainly works of abstractionists, surrealists, cubists and expressionists. The intention of German authorities was to discredit modern art directions, divided by organisers of the show into thematic groups under illustrious titles, such as: “Disfunction of form and colour” , “Mental degeneration” or “Utter madness”[4]. After exhibition ended, avant-garde works were destroyed or sold abroad to fuel the budget for upcoming war. One of the exhibition organisers, Adolf Ziegler, the Chamber of the Reich chairman in charge of Fine Arts, being a painter himself, in explicit way he encapsulated national socialists’ attitude towards avant-garde:

Works of art that are not understandable per se but require a pompous manual, so that finally someone utterly confused is found who patiently approves of this idiotic and arrogant nonsense, from this moment on, have no access to German nation.[5]

And also:

My comrades, I cannot spare the time, to present you with all the transgressions against German art that those boys working by order of international German Jewry allow themselves for. Things that were of utmost mediocracy and foulness was granted the highest value. The most sophisticated hideousness has become the ideal of beauty.[6]

Nazi dignitaries’ opinions kept in a similar tone proved how primitive was the Third Reich authorities’ approach towards art which developed to be fodder for intellectual’s responsible for settling Nazis post-war. German totalitarianism art has become a reference point for art using classical patterns.


After the fall of the Third Reich, Germans were required to commence the process of denazification. To solve this nagging problem, thinkers cantered around the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt upon river Men, founded in 1923, were appointed: Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse or Erich Fromm. They focused on adapting Marxism to the existing socio-political situation – the Stalin’s face of Soviet communism, fiasco of Western revolution, increase of nationalistic sentiment and the birth of fascism. When Nazis came to power in Germany, the Institute was closed and its activists (mostly of Jewish descend) were forced to emigrate. After settling in the United States they continued their study until 1950 when they finally came back to Germany, becoming a leading intellectual group of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The primary tool used by the members of the Frankfurt School was, established by Max Horkheimer, critical theory that in the spirit of Marxism was developing Cartesian paradigm about subject and object relationality, impossible to separate when interpreting the reality[7]. In practice, this kind of thinking led Frankfurters to the criticism of rationality[8]. The Enlightenment ideals, such as an attempt to arrange the world in a way that is in agreement with reason, were supposed to be the genesis for holocaust madness with its mechanisation of mass extermination process that entire groups of people were subjected to. The development of critical theory after war did a service to Federal Republic of Germany authorities as well as western public opinion in the matter of settling Nazi heritage. Scholars focused around scientific community prosecuted by Nazis were an ideal leavening agent for ideas shaping post-war atmosphere of Western Europe to grow. Significant financial boosts for intellectuals working on “new morality” of Germans and wash off them the disgracing label of people responsible for hecatomb of war proved to be helpful as well[9].

The explanation for national socialism ideology seduction enticed another representative of the Institute for Social Research, Theodor W. Adorno along with his team, to publish “The Authoritarian Personality”[10]. On the pages of the publication researches devised the “F scale” whose purpose is to describe factors responsible for representing tendencies towards fascist ideas[11]. Aside from doubtful question of credibility that statistical analysis had, Adorno with his team – heavily inspired by Freudianism – established that there is a correlation between fascist tendencies and a way one was raised. As “risk factors” they pointed to features customarily ascribed to conservatists or religious believers[12]. In a nutshell, the results were as follows: the researchers determined that it is possible to anticipate harmful social behaviour and through skilfully oriented education – needless to say: in the spirit of critical theory – be wary of raising future “fascists”[13].

For a reader following my thoughts, the direction where they lead to may seem surprising. Starting with indication of the term “beauty” being a subject of animosity among contemporary critics, we arrived at intellectual background for denazification. Scholars associated with the Frankfurt School – even if they dealt with art, as Adorno did – very seldom, or never at all, reflected on the question of beauty. None of the publications fundamental for the shape of post-war intellectual ferment written by researchers related to or associated with the heritage of the Institute for Social Research contained a lecture on the theory of beauty. However, I must insist that the Enlightenment rationalism criticism entailed rejection of other traditional definitions. In the field of aesthetics, neo-Marxism could not be attained by any other means than disrespecting elements of order, harmony and relations between parts of an artwork defined by reason. These categories were subsequently tied to bourgeoise style of life, soulless modernism and murderous fascism.


In order to understand accusations against the beauty from people shaping the face of the modern culture, it is worth examining ideas of Zygmunt Bauman, a father of postmodernism as well as intellectual heir to members of Frankfurt School. The author of “Modernity and the Holocaust”[14] wrote about the subject of the latter in a fashion directly alluding to arrangements by Horkheimer and Adorno. Let us quote his own illustrious words spoken in a discussion devoted to his publication:

In both cases [i.e. in German camps as well as Soviet gulags, author’s note] Holocaust, one might say, was an aesthetical stroke, a deletion of a flaw that disrupted the painting’s composition. The vision of the ideal world, a fairy-tale garden of final beauty and complete harmony, necessitated eradication of everything that upset the order. Plants that are not part of garden’s project are considered weeds; and weeds are a type of plants that should be cut out or unroot. Every gardener knows, that to care about the garden is to be at relentless war with weeds for most of the time[15].

Mentioning the metaphor of a painting and a garden places savage oppressors in roles of crazy artists that considered achieving harmony and beauty as the highest values, regardless of the cost. We can see a directly expressed thought that previously fell into perspective as a consequence of arrangements made by Horkheimer, Adorno and others. Post-modern man, disillusioned with modernistic optimism of making “heaven on earth” – understanding that implications are cattle wagons and chimneys of crematories – withdraws from any claims against objective truth in exchange for multitude of narrations, claims against beauty are changed for relativism, and finally, beauty is substituted with a cult of plainness and mediocrity. All this is being done in order to reject the idea of striving for perfection that implies threat of exclusion and indicating “the Other”. In this way, according to apologists of melting in post-modernistic magma, fascism is born.


A similar way of thinking, in case of Bauman being the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” aftermath, we can find in works of yet another liberal left guru, György Lukács. The Hungarian philosopher, whose works mainly focused on Marxist literature criticism, have inspired contemporary researchers revealing “true intentions” of feministic, psychoanalytic, post-humanistic or gender studies creators. Lukács maliciously traced expressions of “bourgeoise decadence” in German literature and philosophy, indicating their reactionism, modernism or the fascistic character[16].

Regardless of established values, Bauman’s texts are characterised by the attractive literary style whereas writing of the Hungarian Marxist is a propaganda wild ride, similar in style to aforementioned Ogorzelec’s exhibition review. The best way to question the might of Lukács’s words is to invite him to speak:

Along with Malthus […] the decay of romantic capitalism critique occurs very early and it does that in the worst, the most repulsive of forms – as an ideological expression of most reactionary part of English bourgeoise. The following crisis led one of the most skilled and prestigious capitalism opponents, Tom Carlyle, to be in the state of a decadent cripple, a false apologist of the very same capitalism […].[17]

Nothing new under the sun. Our contemporary admirers of freedom, equality and fraternity (sisterhood?) tread revolutionary way marked by old-trodden paths. The wisdom of the stage and class enemies change, but the invective-driven argumentation stands. The admirers of the fight for progress place it in a simple, dichotomic world – us and them, proletariat and bourgeoise, people who are open and Catholic devotees, democrats and fascists. It is said that at war, truth dies first. Right afterwards, under the pressure of a revolutionary march, falls beauty.


Presenting Lukács’s rhetoric we come back to the beginning. As I was trying to impart, beauty lies in wait at the gates of a neo-Marxist fortress whose residents are programmatically deaf to rational arguments. It is connected with the influence of revolutionary intellectual trends, in large extend shaping the order of the post-war world. As recommended in arrangements prepared by the Frankfurt School scholars, raising a new human, not burdened by fascism, can only take place in the spirit of critical theory. A specifically profiled education, focused on “liberating” from shackles of tradition is bound to serve this purpose. One of the tools used in the process of forming man understood in such a way is art. A huge margin of freedom that public opinion grants artistic activity results in galleries and various cultural institutions becoming laboratories where new forms of shaping reality are tested. In this context, the true meaning behind the review of “I’m Looking for a Moment of Equilibrium” exhibition is revealed: writing about art is not a criticism anymore, it becomes a weapon.

Drawing: Ignacy Czwartos

English translation by J. Bujno.

Marcel Skierski

Polski historyk sztuki, krytyk i kurator. Doktor nauk humanistycznych w zakresie historii sztuki. Zastępca Dyrektora ds. Programu w Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski w Warszawie.

[1] Piotr Policht, Prawicowe dzielenie postrzegalnego. Ludwika Ogorzelec w CSW Zamek Ujazdowski, https://magazynszum.pl/prawicowe-dzielenie-postrzegalnego-ludwika-ogorzelec-w-csw-zamek-ujazdowski/, access for May 10, 2021.

[2] Marek Wasilewski, Estetyka uprzedzeń i uprzedzenia estetyki, „Estetyka i uprzedzenia / Aesthetics and Bias”, eds. Adina Bar-On, Marek Wasilewski, Poznań 2020, p. 32. Translated by Jakub Bujno.

[3] The exhibition in the capitol city of Bavaria was not a standalone event of such kind organised by the Nazis, yet, because of the scale – presenting 730 works of more than a hundred artists – it became a symbol of an avant-garde witch-hunt inspired by Goebbels.

[4] Dariusz Kacprzak, Ze studiów nad „sztuką zwyrodniałą” dwadzieścia lat po Konferencji Waszyngtońskiej. Przypadek Szczecina (Museum der Stadt Stettin), „Muzealnictwo” 60/2019, p. 131.

[5] Ibidem, p. 130. Translated by Jakub Bujno.

[6] Ibidem, p. 129-130. Translated by Jakub Bujno.

[7] Marcin Hylewski, Tomasz Burdzik, Teoria krytyczna szkoły frankfurckiej jako krytyka kultury masowej, Kultura — Historia — Globalizacja, (15), p. 117.

[8] As the most important publication that addresses said issues one should consider “Dialectic of Enlightenment” cf. Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer: Dialektyka oświecenia. Fragmenty filozoficzne, transl. Małgorzata Łukasiewicz, Warsaw 1994.

[9] Roger Scruton, Myśliciele Nowej Lewicy, (English title: Thinkers of the New Left), Komorów 2011, p. 282-284.

[10] Theodor W. Adorno, Osobowość Autorytarna (English title: The Authoritarian Personality), transl. Maciej Pańków, Warsaw 2010.

[11] I would like to draw attention to the use of the term fascism that is not identical to German national socialism, out of necessity being a starting point for judging the crimes of the Third Reich.

[12] Agnieszka Wrońska, Refleksje po lekturze książki „Autorytaryzm a brzytwa Ockhama”, http://uwm.edu.pl/mkks/wp-content/uploads/07-Wronska_A_recenzja.pdf, (access for May 10, 2021).

[13] A confirmation for the topicality of my reflections is last year’s Polish edition of Adorno’s lecture „Nowy prawicowy radykalizm”, in which the author directly addresses the problems pointed out by me, cf. Theodor W. Adorno, Nowy prawicowy radykalizm. Wykład o kilku jego aspektach, (original German title: Aspekte des neuen Rechtsradikalismus. Ein Vortrag. Mit einem Nachwort von Volker Weiß) transl. Mikołaj Ratajczak, Cracow 2020.

[14] Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, Cracow 2009.

[15] Idem, O nowoczesności TEJ Zagłady - raz jeszcze, https://www.nck.pl/upload/archiwum_kw_files/artykuly/17._zygmun_bauman_-_o_nowoczesnosci_tej_zaglady.pdf, (access: 10 May 2021), translated by Jakub Bujno.

[16] The rhetorics from “The Destruction of Reason” should be pointed out here, cf. György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, transl. Peter Palmer, Atlantic Highlands 1981.

[17] Roger Scruton, op. cit., p. 383-384. Translated by Jakub Bujno.

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