Art and Genocide: The Führer who Loved Only Buildings

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In this blog post, I want to attack the idea that art (including fiction) and religion are inherently good or noble.  I don’t think they’re inherently bad or evil, but I’d like to try thinking about them in evolutionary terms.

I also want to attack the idea that the concepts of racism, greed, impiety, or evil have explanatory power, though that’s only a secondary focus.

Art and religion are sometimes said to be things that distinguish us from animals, the things that make us human.  Leaving aside the aesthetic taste of bowerbirds, it would be at least as accurate to say that art and religion are the things that make us inhuman.  That word is only ever applied to humans, to describe cruelty or violence taken to levels and scales not found in non-human species.  This violence is often motivated by differences over art and religion.

SIDEBAR: Why am I grouping art and religion together?

Artistic taste and religion are both mysterious, complex systems that give us preferences or values we can’t explain.  Today, we think of religions as elaborate systems of ethical beliefs, like Christianity or Buddhism, and of art as aesthetic systems.  Values and aesthetics seem, to most people other than Nietzsche and me, to be different things.

But if we go back far enough in time, art, magic, and religion may have a common ancestor.  (Webster 1939) traces the history of how the ancient Greeks thought about art.  The oldest word for sculpture, from before Homer, is kolossos, ‘a substitute’, indicating the sculpture has a magical connection with a specific person, possibly denoting sacrifice or the deflection of supernatural attention.  The next word is agalma, which first meant ‘a source of joy’, then ‘a source of joy to a god’ or ‘an offering’, and then came to mean ‘a statue’.  This suggests statues were still ritualistic objects, but the relationship of man to god had shifted from fearful appeasement or deception to an attempt to give pleasure.  In the 5th century B.C., the time of Socrates and of the most-famous Athenian playwrights, they began using the words eikon (‘a likeness’: a statue is an object that looks like something else) and xoanon (‘something carved’: a statue is a created object).  This suggests that that was when people began making statues not only to please gods, but also to please humans.

AFAIK, every known culture has or had an artistic tradition and a religion.  Many people have argued that religion is necessary to make us good. But the hypothesis that religion makes people act morally cannot be reliably demonstrated, experimentally or historically.

The hypothesis that religion is needed make a civilization act immorally, however, has never been tested.  In evolutionary terms, genocide is often the best possible thing for us to do, as long as we’re the ones committing the genocide.  We just need to get those irksome morals out of the way when it comes to people who aren’t part of our genetic in-group.  Art and religion are good at that. [1]

If that hypothesis contains some truth, it would mean that art and religion are systems that evolved to shut down or bypass our moral reasoning.  That would require us to be unconscious of what we’re doing when we’re being artsy or religious.  It might even mean that one of the primary functions of art and religion is to sabotage our insight into the operation of art and religion.  So we might have mental blocks or short-circuits that, when it comes to art and religion, direct our attention away from obvious but uncomfortable conclusions.

Let’s talk about—

 

Art and the Nazis

The Daily Beast, Nov. 30 2014: Top Nazis And Their Complicated Relationship With Artists

[a review of Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany (Petropoulos 2014)]

In the stories shared by Petropoulos, what really stands out, however, is the shocking level of personal involvement by the top leaders of Germany in minute decisions about the lives of artists. While Hitler’s interest in art as a failed artist is well known, one would think that his top lieutenants like Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and others would have more than enough on their hands to worry about the latest music from Strauss. …
While issues of art sometimes bubble to the surface in the American political conversation—Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989 for his homoerotic images or the trashing on Capitol Hill that Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial proposal has received—it is hard to imagine President Obama or any of the former 20th-century presidents, or any of their top military and political advisors focusing so much of their time on whether dissonant sounds in music are acceptable, or how realistic painting should be.

The Daily Beast, Feb. 7 2014: Inside Hitler’s Fantasy Museum

When Monuments Men Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein walked into the white-washed cottage in the German forest that housed Hermann Bunjes, the Harvard-educated one-time SS officer and art advisor to Herman Goring, they learned of an elaborate plan involving the wholesale looting of Europe’s art treasures.. Bunjes… told these fellow art historians about the ERR—the Nazi art theft unit—and about Hitler’s plan to create a city-wide museum in his boyhood town of Linz, Austria: a “super museum” that would contain every important artwork in the world, including a wing of “degenerate art,” a sort of chamber of horrors to demonstrate from what monstrosities the Nazis had saved the world. …  The Monuments Men had heard rumors of art theft and looting throughout the war, but had no idea of the scale (some estimate that around 5 million cultural objects were looted, lost, or mishandled during the war), the advanced level of organization (scores of Nazi officers and hundreds of soldiers were assigned exclusively to the confiscation, transport, and maintenance of looted art and archival material), and the ultimate destination of the choicest pieces—the Führermuseum. …
Hitler’s plan for his museum been on his mind for more than a decade, at least since 1934—for Hitler had long stewed upon the idea of capturing The Ghent Altarpiece for Germany, and had even dispatched a Nazi art detective (and Hitler lookalike), Heinrich Köhn, to find the Righteous Judges panel, one of the twelve that comprises The Ghent Altarpiece, which was stolen from St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent in 1934, and has never been recovered. … An estimated 36 kilometers of galleries were included in the plan—to put that in perspective, the enormous and labyrinthine V&A Museum in London has about 8 kilometers of galleries, to display some 27,000 objects.

Consider that for a moment:  The Nazi’s first act of international aggression was to steal a 500 year-old painting from Belgium.

Why was art so important to the Nazis?

Art, literature, religion, and politics have always been closely connected.  The classical view was that reason determined art, politics, and economics.  Christians give religion priority.  Marxists gave economics priority.  No philosophical tradition that I know of takes art seriously as a driving force of social change, though it inspires people much more than reason does.

Maybe the evolutionary purpose of culture is less to give you something to love about your people than to give you something to hate about other people, and maybe this means it would be awkward to admit the role art plays in this.  You can prioritize reason and say they’re wrong, prioritize religion and say they’re evil, or prioritize economics and say they’re oppressive.  But after you’ve slaughtered your enemies, raped their women, taken their stuff, and salted their land, it would sound lame to say you did it because their art was bad.

 

Racism is Not an Explanation

The standard explanation for the Jewish Holocaust is that the Nazis were racists.  Well, yeah, the Nazis were racists.  That doesn’t explain the Holocaust any more than Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 boxing record is explained by saying that he was a really good boxer.  Thinkers today pride themselves on not being taken in by “God of the gaps” arguments that do nothing but stop somebody from asking questions, e.g., “the sky is blue because God made it blue”.  But saying “the Nazis were racist” is exactly that kind of useless question-stopping.  Why were they racist?

For Adolf Hitler, and possibly for some of his inner circle, a big part of the reason was art.

 

The Two Things that Were Most Important to Adolf Hitler

1. He hated Jews.

2. He loved architecture.

Lapham’s Quarterly. Oct. 4 2010: The Master Architect

“Hitler was an astonishing walking encyclopedia of architecture. He carried in his head the detailed plans of most of the important buildings in Europe. Look at these sketches he gave me. This is the Pantheon in Paris and Les Invalides drawn by him from his memory of plans he studied before he’d ever seen them. And here is an outsized triumphal arch and domed hall he sketched in 1925 when even he believed his political dreams were over. ‘I wish I’d been an architect!’ he often used to say. … To him, architecture was a magic word. It was his hobby and his passion.” … He disappeared into the house, reappearing moments later with a pile of paper and a few big tomes. It seemed rehearsed almost, and I guessed he’d done this before. “See here. These are architectural drawings Hitler made in his beer-hall days in Munich when he’d never been anywhere. He gave them to me: detailed drawings, models, plans. Such things he found spellbinding.”
… As he walked me to my car, he asked whether I knew what the very last photograph ever taken of Hitler was. “The very last one—the final image of the Führer—was taken in the bunker,” he said. “It shows him intently examining a model of his beloved Linz. He intended to rebuild the little city on the Danube where he’d been a boy and turn it into the culture capital of the whole of Germany. What he was staring at were Hermann Giessler’s plans, with great museums and theaters and the like. Now, with Russian shells exploding forty feet above his concrete reinforced head, and Berlin in flames, it was of course nothing but a pathetic dream. Yet there he is, like Wagner’s Rienzi, bitterly imagining what might have been.”
—Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect

We drove directly to the opera, Charles Garnier’s great neobaroque building. A white-haired attendant accompanied our small group through the deserted building. Hitler had actually studied the plans of the Paris opera house with great care. Near the proscenium box he found a salon missing, remarked on it, and turned out to be right. The attendant said that this room had been eliminated in renovations many years ago.
—Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich

The Guardian, Nov. 29 2002: Mies and the Nazis

And, of course, there was Hitler’s special commission, the complete rebuilding of Berlin, followed by every other major German city.  Hitler so adored Speer’s vast detailed model of a Berlin reborn, complete with ambitious domes and giant’s avenues, that he would gaze lovingly at what might have been while burrowed deep in his bunker in 1945, with the allies at the door.

This war will set us back many years in our building programme. It is a tragedy. I did not become Chancellor of the Greater German Reich to fight wars.
—Adolf Hitler, to his friend August Kubizek, quoted in (Wikipedia: August  Kubizek)

Art historian Birgit Schwarz said in 2009 that historians have consistently underplayed the importance of Hitler’s love of art.  But even Schwarz sees this as important only for making Hitler arrogant.  Oddly, hardly anyone says that Hitler’s decisions were in some way affected by his beliefs about the one thing in life that he seemed to care about most.

Let’s consult a seldom-cited expert on Hitler: Hitler.  Turn with me now to volume 1, chapter 2 in your copies of Mein Kampf.

 

Was Hitler always a racist?

He said no.

p. 52-53:
To-day it is hard and almost impossible for me to say when the word ‘Jew’ first began to raise any particular thought in my mind. I do not remember even having heard the word at home during my father’s lifetime. If this name were mentioned in a derogatory sense I think the old gentleman would just have considered those who used it in this way as being uneducated reactionaries. In the course of his career he had come to be more or less a cosmopolitan, with strong views on nationalism, which had its effect on me as well. In school, too, I found no reason to alter the picture of things I had formed at home. At the Realschule I knew one Jewish boy. We were all on our guard in our relations with him, but only because his reticence and certain actions of his warned us to be discreet. Beyond that my companions and myself formed no particular opinions in regard to him.
It was not until I was fourteen or fifteen years old that I frequently ran up against the word ‘Jew’, partly in connection with political controversies. These references aroused a slight aversion in me, and I could not avoid an uncomfortable feeling which always came over me when I had to listen to religious disputes. But at that time I had no other feelings about the Jewish question.
There were very few Jews in Linz… As I thought that they were persecuted on account of their Faith my aversion to hearing remarks against them grew almost into a feeling of abhorrence. I did not in the least suspect that there could be such a thing as a systematic anti-Semitism.
Then I came to Vienna. [This was in 1908. 92% of Austria’s Jews lived in Vienna in 1934, comprising 10% of Vienna’s population.]

In the Jew I still saw only a man who was of a different religion, and therefore, on grounds of human tolerance, I was against the idea that he should be attacked because he had a different faith. And so I considered that the tone adopted by the anti-Semitic Press in Vienna was unworthy of the cultural traditions of a great people. The memory of certain events which happened in the middle ages came into my mind, and I felt that I should not like to see them repeated. Generally speaking,these anti-Semitic newspapers did not belong to the first rank – but I did not then understand the reason of this – and so I regarded them more as the products of jealousy and envy rather than the expression of a sincere, though wrong-headed, feeling.

Why did Hitler become a racist?

Hitler made 7 claims that he said made him hate the Jews. I’ll spare you the quotations and summarize them:

p. 55: All Jews are secretly Zionists. (I don’t understand why Hitler would have cared.)

p. 56: They created “hideous” art, literature, and drama.

p. 57: They controlled the liberal press.

p. 57: They controlled prostitution and the “whiteslave traffic” [?].

p. 58: They controlled & manipulated the Social Democrats (SDs), whom Hitler hated.

p. 59-60: The SDs use language deceptively and debate dishonestly.

p. 61: Marx was Jewish, and Marxism would end human life on Earth [not sure if this was hyperbole or madness].

He said nothing about bankers.  This is an eccentric list of reasons to hate Jews.  The ones that seemed to be primary, and to upset him the most, were his claims that they made bad art, and that they controlled the SDs.

In my eyes the charge against Judaism became a grave one the moment I discovered the Jewish activities in the Press, in art, in literature and the theatre. All unctuous protests were now more or less futile. One needed only to look at the posters announcing the hideous productions of the cinema and theatre, and study the names of the authors who were highly lauded there in order to become permanently adamant on Jewish questions. Here was a pestilence, a moral pestilence, with which the public was being infected. It was worse than the Black Plague of long ago. … The fact that nine-tenths of all the smutty literature, artistic tripe and theatrical banalities, had to be charged to the account of people who formed scarcely one per cent of the nation—that fact could not be gainsaid.
—p. 56

His charge regarding the SDs is part of his hatred of Marxism.  This seems to have begun earlier, perhaps in 1908, though it’s hard to determine the chronology, as Hitler jumps forward and backward in time in the narrative here without giving dates.  He began a new job and was told he had to join a union.  He refused, indignant at being told what to do.  Over the next few months, the union men, who were social democrats, talked politics during the lunch hour.

But all that I heard had the effect of arousing the strongest antagonism in me. Everything was disparaged – the nation, because it was held to be an invention of the ‘capitalist’ class (how often I had to listen to that phrase!); the Fatherland, because it was held to be an instrument in the hands of the bourgeoisie for the exploitation of’ the working masses; the authority of the law, because that was a means of holding down the proletariat; religion, as a means of doping the people, so as to exploit them afterwards; morality, as a badge of stupid and sheepish docility. There was nothing that they did not drag in the mud.
—p. 43 (volume 1, chapter 1)

He began to argue with them, and they began to argue back, and eventually “ordered me to leave the building or else get flung down from the scaffolding.”  So he quit his job.

He did not say that any of these men were Jews!

There is a long discussion—too long for me to read—of the SDs and the Jews in (Jacobs 1993) chapter 4, “Austrian Social Democrats and the Jews: A Study in Ambivalence”, p. 86-117.  It begins:

The SDAP[Oe] was far less influenced by anti-Semitism than any of its major competitors and was the most important opponent of anti-Semitic political movements.  The SDAP[Oe], moreover, allowed a large number of individuals of Jewish origin to take highly visible roles within the party itself.  It ought also to be noted that the SDAP[Oe] provided both material and moral support for those East European Jewish refugees who continued to live in Vienna during the later years of the First Republic.  These facts notwithstanding, the party publicly claimed that so-called philo-Semitism was every bit as noxious to social democrats as was anti-Semitism, declined opportunities to defend individuals who had been the victims of anti-Semitic attack, and used anti-Semitic stereotypes in its publications…

… and ends…

By the final years of the First Republic, the SDs were receiving approximate ¾ of the Viennese Jewish vote.  But precisely because the SDs understood that they could count on the Jewish vote, the Austrian SD party did not engage in strenuous efforts to solicit Jewish support…  By accepting the premise that Jewish origin was a burden to the party, by allowing unflattering stereotypes to be used in socialist literature, and by refusing to defend Jews per se, Austrian SDs allowed themselves to be put on the defensive.  Precisely because there were so many Jews prominent in Austrian socialist ranks, the defensive policy on the Jewish question followed by the party ultimately tended to undercut the party itself.
—p. 117

Their founder, Victor Adler, had been Jewish, but had converted to Christianity.  And Marx, of course, was genetically Jewish.  But the SDs were not a Jewish party, and would not associate either with Poland’s Jewish Social Democratic Party or with Socialist Zionism.  The chapter says that the SDs were anti-Zionist, because their Jewish members were pro-assimilation and so against Jewish nationalism.  According to Jacobs, they were not so much pro-Jewish as they were less anti-Semitic than everyone else.  But this made them the party of choice for Vienna’s Jews, which was sufficient for Hitler.

 

What did Hitler do and think about in Vienna while he was becoming a racist?

Hitler was orphaned at age 16, and left for Vienna a few months after, in 1908.

I went to Vienna to take the entrance examination for the Academy of Fine Arts…. I felt convinced that I should pass the examination quite easily. At the Realschule I was by far the best student in the drawing class, and since that time I had made more than ordinary progress in the practice of drawing….
But there was one misgiving: It seemed to me that I was better qualified for drawing than for painting, especially in the various branches of architectural drawing. At the same time my interest in architecture was constantly increasing…. I went to the Hof Museum to study the paintings in the art gallery there; but the building itself captured almost all my interest, from early morning until late at night I spent all my time visiting the various public buildings. And it was the buildings themselves that were always the principal attraction for me. For hours and hours I could stand in wonderment before the Opera and the Parliament. The whole Ring Strasse had a magic effect upon me, as if it were a scene from the Thousand-and-one-Nights.

I went to see the Rector and asked him to explain the reasons why they refused to accept me as a student in the general School of Painting… He said that the sketches which I had brought with me unquestionably showed that painting was not what I was suited for but that the same sketches gave clear indications of my aptitude for architectural designing… Within a few days I myself also knew that I ought to become an architect.
—p. 28-29

During the years when he came to hate Jews, Hitler was occupied with art all day, every day, for work, study, and all leisure outside of books.

These were years when well-off Jews in Vienna were a major clientele for modernist designers and architects such as the Wiener Werkstätte and Adolf Loos (BedoireShapira 2016Wikipedia).  Many upper-class Viennese Jews wanted to distance themselves from Zionism and their Jewish heritage and show they were becoming culturally Viennese, and did this by prominently supporting the latest German artistic movements  (Shapira 2006).  Ironically, it was this attempt to assimilate into German culture that led Hitler to hate them—for Hitler hated those artistic movements.

Jews built, or had built for them, structures like this:


The Steiner House, by Adolf Loos, 1910

and this…


The Fagus Factory, by Adolf Meyer, 1913

Hitler was not wrong to associate Jews with the SDs, but he was wrong to identify the Jews among the SDs with the Jews who funded modern art and theatre.  The former were radical Marxists; the latter were the rich bourgeois parents they were rebelling against.

Hitler wrote that, meanwhile, he spent his spare time adoring these classical and Beaux-Arts buildings:


The Hof Museum


The State Opera


The Parliament

Lapham’s Quarterly. Oct. 4 2010: The Master Architect

“In my opinion,” Speer told me as we watched the long slow twilight settle in over the Palatine hills, “Hitler’s true architectural tastes never really progressed beyond the style of the Viennese Ringstrasse which he first set eyes on in 1907 as an impressionable eighteen year old. He arrived from provincial Linz to sit the entrance exam of the visual arts academy, and was bowled over by Null’s opera house and the other grand buildings in the center. Yes, he pretended to embrace a kind of neoclassicism later on and used it to dramatic effect. But deeper down, all his tastes, all his ideas—artistic, architectural, and political—came from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century world of his youth.”

Hitler was obsessed with art and architecture before he was obsessed with Jews.  Jews were a minority among the SDs and among modern artists.  I propose it was only because he was angry about Marxism and art at the same time that he hit on blaming it on the Jews.

 

Art and Genocide

Many of Hitler’s inner circle, notably Goebbels and Goering, were also obsessed with art and architecture.  Hitler even made his architect, Albert Speer, his Minister of Armaments and War Production, apparently so he could talk to him more often about architecture.

Did their hatred of modern art fuel their racism more than their racism fuel their hatred of modern art? [2]  I suspect so.  There was plenty of anti-Semitism in Europe at that time, but as far as I know, it wasn’t usually directed at modern art outside of the Nazi party.  Correct me if I’m wrong.

I eventually found one book that emphasized the importance of art to the Nazis: Michaud & Lloyd’s 2004 The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany.

The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany presents a new interpretation of National Socialism, arguing that art in the Third Reich was not simply an instrument of the regime, but actually became a source of the racist politics upon which its ideology was founded. Through the myth of the “Aryan race,” a race pronounced superior because it alone creates culture, Nazism asserted art as the sole raison d’être of a regime defined by Hitler as the “dictatorship of genius.” Michaud shows the important link between the religious nature of Nazi art and the political movement, revealing that in Nazi Germany art was considered to be less a witness of history than a force capable of producing future, the actor capable of accelerating the coming of a reality immanent to art itself.
—from the jacket cover

Hitler himself wrote (p. 223) that “the struggle between the various species does not arise from a feeling of mutual antipathy but rather from hunger and love.”  There is no doubt he was thinking of his own “struggle” against the Jews, and that was his way of saying that he struggled not because he hated Jews, but because he loved… well, who or what did he love?

He spoke about hypothetical other people being motivated by love of their families, yet he himself apparently loved no one.  He wrote endlessly about loving Germany and Germans in the abstract, but the only named people or things he mentioned having strong positive feelings for were certain buildings in Vienna; the city of Munich, particularly its art; and his father and his mother, who were both dead.

Hitler uses the word “friend” or its inflections 30 times in Mein Kampf: sarcastically on pages 29, 51, 54, 110, 121, 189, 223, 237, 245, 286, and 432; comically on page 71; to refer to political allies on pages 68, 89, 133, 144, 165, 276, 472, 475, 477, 483, and 521; as a very bad way of describing German demands for “Lebensraum” on p. 118; to refer to other people’s friends on p. 281; to talk about worthless friends on p. 284; to describe Destiny on p. 310; and to talk about military comrades, though only in general, on p. 144, 164, 426-427, 513.  It appears he did not, at any time between 1907 and 1924, have a friend.  He had, in fact, had just one friend, for two or more years, August Kubizek (Waite p. 41), but Hitler cut off contact with him in 1908 (Wikipedia: August  Kubizek).

Even when designing cities, he forgot the people.

He had no real interest in the rest of the plan, in residential districts, traffic plans, parks. Obviously I had to deal with those things behind his back. You can’t just have monuments. There must be an organic urban scheme as well. I can hear him now when I showed the other districts of the city I was working on. ‘But where are the plans for the Grand Avenue, Speer? …’ To him it was one gigantic operatic stage.
The Master Architect

In short, Hitler was able to hate so powerfully because he was so passionate about art and architecture.  The only possessions he mentioned in his will, written the day before he shot himself, were his art collection.  In his last minutes, he was not thinking of all the people who had died for him, but of art and of the buildings that would not be born.  One of the last things he said was, “Ah, what an artist dies in me!” (Waite 1977 p. 64) He was a monster to people because he only cared about paintings and buildings.


[1] I use “morals” to mean “values and behavior that benefit the in-group more than the individual.”

[2] The notion that all Nazis hated modern art, or that Hitler and his associates hated all modern art, is incorrect.  In the early
Thirties, there was an internal Nazi debate on the subject, with one group led by Alfred Rosenberg, the party’s ideologue on racial
matters, denouncing all Modernism as “degenerate”. But another, led by the Berlin League of National Socialist Students, argued that
Expressionism had “Nordic roots” and was an integral part of the Nazi revolution” (The Telegraph).  See also  Top Nazis And Their Complicated Relationship With Artists.


References

Fredric Bedoire & Robert Tanner 2004. The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture, 1830-1930. Ktav Pub.

Adolf Hitler 1926. Mein Kampf, volumes 1 and 2. Translated 1939 by James Murphy. London: Hurst & Blackett.  I’m using a differently-formatted version of this edition, which has an additional Epilogue and a different pagination, running to 525 pages.  You could probably download it from your friendly neighborhood white supremacist website, but they use huge fonts and never have page numbers.

Jack Jacobs 1993. On Socialists and “the Jewish Question” After Marx. NYC, NY: NYU Press.

Eric Michaud & Janet Lloyd 2004. The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Jonathan Petropoulos 2014. Artists Under Hitler: Collaboration and Survival in Nazi Germany. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Elana Shapira 2006.  “Modernism and Jewish Identity in Early Twentieth-Century Vienna: Fritz Waerndorfer and His House for an Art Lover.” Studies in the Decorative Arts Vol. 13, No. 2 (SPRING-SUMMER 2006), p. 52-92.

Elana Shapira 2016.  Style and Seduction: Jewish Patrons, Architecture, and Design in Fin de Siècle Vienna. Brandeis.

Albert Speer.  Inside the Third Reich. MacMillan.

T. B. L. Webster 1939. Greek Theories of Art and Literature down to 400 B. C.. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 3/4 (Jul. – Oct., 1939), pp. 166-179.

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The Principal Dimensions of English

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I want to talk about the principal dimensions of theories of art, but to do that, I must explain what I mean by “principal dimensions”. Besides, you should learn this stuff anyway.

How to Recommend Stories if you’re a computer

Suppose you want to decide, after reading the first thousand words of a story on your kindle, whether to recommend that Bob read it. Also suppose you’re a computer, so you must summarize the story in numbers. You can list some numbers for each story: its number of words, if it’s a series whether it’s complete (1) or incomplete (0), whether it listed in the romance genre, the action/adventure genre, etc., how good the style is on a scale from 0 to 10, and how often the words “kiss”, “snuggle”, “sesquipedalian”, and “bloody” appear.

You end up with tens of thousands of numbers about the story. What do you do with them?

First, you make up terminology. Let N  be the number of numbers (say, 23724). Call each of the things being counted a “dimension”, and the whole set of N numbers a “point” in “N-dimensional space”. (Don’t worry that you can’t picture N-dimensional space. Nobody can.)

Next, you need to get similar sets of N numbers for a bunch of other stories. Then, you need to know which of those stories Bob likes. Then, you recommend Bob read the story if its values for those numbers are similar to those for the stories Bob likes.

But you might only know 100 stories that Bob likes. Hardly enough to determine exactly how he feels about the word “sesquipedalian”.

What you could do is look at the other stories, and group counted things together that seem to go together most of the time. So, you might notice stories that use the word “snuggle” a lot also use “kiss” more than the others, but use “wart” and “angst” less often. So you make a single new, fake dimension, which for the benefit of any humans reading this I will call Kissiness, like this:

Kissiness = 30*Romance – 10*Dark + 3*count(kiss) + 3*count(cuddle) + count(close) + count(smooth) … – count(angst) – 2*count(wart)

You make some other fake dimensions that group together words that seem more or less likely to be found together:

Sexiness = 30*Sex + 10*Mature – 300*Everyone + count(grope) + count(hard) + count(soft) + 3*count(erect) + …

Violence = 10*Gore + 5*Mature + 3*count(bloody) + 5*count(battle) + count(hard) – count(soft) – count(fuzzy)

Second_Person = 10*count(you) + 5*count(your) – 10*count(I)

Superheroics = 5*count(power) + 2*count(mighty) + 3*count(evil) + count(cape) + 3*count(costume) + 2*count(mask)

Obscenity = count(@$!) + 5*count(@#$@#$) – count(fudge) – count(hay)

Bigwordiness = count(assiduous) + count(voracious) + count(punctilious) + …

(I’ve listed several words each, but more realistically there would be hundreds making up each fake dimension.)

Then you can build categories using just the fake dimensions.  In fact, I think this is very similar to what your brain does for you.

Principle Component Analysis (PCA)

There’s a signal processing technique called Principle Component Analysis (PCA) which is one of the Deep Insights into Everything that philosophy students should study instead of Plato’s forms. It does all this for you automatically, optimally, for any category of things described by points in an N-dimensional space. It looks at a whole bunch of such things, then figures out the one single best fake dimension that gives the data the widest spread [0]. Then it removes that dimension from the data, and does the same thing again, figuring out the second-best summary dimension. Do that 10 times, and you get 10 summary dimensions. Compute the values along those 10 dimensions for all the points in your N-dimensional space, throw away the original points, and you’ll still have most of the information that was in the original N dimensions. [1]

Then, predict that the probability that Bob will like a story is the probability that he likes other stories near it in 10-space.

This is the technique that won over all other approaches in the $1,000,000 Netflix contest, which was probably the biggest experiment in predicting ratings ever. The key innovation in the contest was using a fast way to approximate PCA [2]–a way which, incidentally, can be done by neurons.

Plus, once you’ve got the things you’re dealing with down to 10 dimensions or so, you can use logic or computation on them. You can have complex rules like, “If each line of the story has a similar repeated pattern of stresses, it’s probably poetry” if your analysis has discovered dimensions corresponding to “trochee” and “spondee” [3]. (Which it might, if your training stories had a lot of poetry in them.)

A lot of what cultures do, and what your brain does, is basically PCA followed by categorization and then thinking with those categories. All this crazy high-dimensional stuff happens, and people try to come up with concepts to simplify and explain it. The intermediate-level concepts produced, like “pretty”, “harmonious”, and “cruel”, are not real things. They are fake summary dimensions, each a sum (or function) of lots of real dimensions, that capture a lot of the differences between real things.

Then people build more concepts out of that smaller number of intermediate concepts. Because there are fewer of them, they can use more-powerful ways to combine them, like logical rules or lambda functions, to say whether something is “just”, “virtuous”, “beautiful”, or “sublime”. [4]]

Finding Data Points in the Real World

If you don’t have the N-dimensional data for all your objects, don’t worry. You don’t need it. If you can take any 2 objects and say how similar or different they are, or even just whether they’re similar or different, you can jump straight to the lower-dimensional space that PCA would produce. Call it M-dimensional space, M << N. Here’s how:

Compare a bunch of object pairs.  Say for instance difference(kind, compassionate) = 1, difference(kind, hurtful) = 6. Then use the differences between them as distances in a low-dimensional space. Start each of the objects at a random point in M-dimensional space (a popular choice is to distribute them on the surface of an M-1 dimensional sphere around the origin), then repeatedly push pairs apart if they’re too close, and pull them nearer each other if they’re too far (keeping them on the surface of that sphere if you’re doing it that way), until most pairs are about as far apart in your M-dimensional space as the distance says they should be.

(How do you choose M? You make it up. Everything left over gets mashed together in the Mth dimension, so if you want 10 meaningful dimensions, set M = 11.)

The principal dimensions of English

In fact, we can just do this with the English language, using lists of synonyms and antonyms, and see what our M summary dimensions are. In fact, somebody already did. Given some reasonable assumptions and one particular thesaurus, the 10 most-important dimensions of the English language are, roughly:

1. Good/increase vs. bad/diminish

2. Easy vs. hard

3. Start/open/free vs. finish/close/constrain

4.  Peripheral vs. central

5.  Essential vs. extra

6. Pull vs. push (sort of)

7. Above vs. below

8. Old vs. young

9. Normal vs. strange

10. Specific vs. general

I call these the principal dimensions. If we were doing PCA, we’d call them the principal components. Same thing. [5]

By contrast, if you do the same thing for French with a French thesaurus, these are the first 3 dimensions:

1. Good/increase vs. bad/diminish

2. Easy vs. hard

3. Start/open vs. finish/close

Whoops! Did I say by contrast? They’re the same. Because the dimensions that fall out of this analysis aren’t accidents of language. Languages develop to express how humans think. And that’s how humans think, at least Western Europeans. [6, 7, 8]

…but you said this had something to do with art

Here’s how all this is relevant to art: I want to claim I’ve discovered the first principal dimension of theories of art. I’m going to show (hopefully) that the position of different cultures on this dimension predicts something important about what type of art they value. But you need to understand what I mean by their position on this dimension, and what I mean by a type of art.

A type of art is like a mental disease. You diagnose it by noting that it contains, say, any 5 out of a list of 12 symptoms. The art type, or disease type, is a category. Its “symptoms” are measurements on summary (principal) dimensions. The actual data for a culture are going to be things like the degree to which power and wealth are centralized, the level of external threats, the heterogeneity of social roles, and the education level. [9] The principal dimension I’m going to talk about is not a real thing-in-the-world, though it is real. It’s determined by a statistical correlation between actual things in the world.


[0] Technically, the largest variance.

[1] There are many ways of doing PCA, and many related dimension-reduction techniques like “non-linear PCA” and factor analysis. Backpropagation neural networks are doing non-orthogonal PCA, though this wasn’t realized for many years after their invention.

[2] Except that they didn’t technically do PCA because they didn’t have the N-dimensional points. They assumed that each movie was described by an N-dimensional point, and that each user had an N-dimensional preference vector saying how much he liked high values on each dimension, and that their ratings were the dot products of these two vectors. Then they used singular value decomposition (SVD) to construct low-dimensional approximations to both kinds of vectors. So they ended up with the low-dimensional points without ever knowing the “real” original N-dimensional points. If anyone understands how to do this with PCA, please tell me.

[3] If all you want to do is recommend stories to Bob, it turns out it isn’t helpful for a computer program to construct the final genre categories.  It’s already got the point in N-space for a story; saying which genre that point lies within just throws away information. Just do your PCA and predict whether Bob likes that point in N-space. (Reference: The Netflix contest winners and losers.) But if you want to use logic to reason about genres (say, what themes are common in which genres), then you’ll have to categorize them.

[4] Many of the supposed proofs that meaning cannot be compositional (compositional: a term can be defined without reference to the entire dictionary) stem from the fact that philosophers don’t understand that first-order logic is strictly weaker than a Turing machine (lambda functions). “Logic” is a weak form of reason compared to computation.

[5] The fact that you can reconstruct these dimensions, and will get the same answer every time even with significant changes in the data, refutes the cornerstone of post-modern philosophy, which is that scientific theories, social structures, and especially language, are underdetermined by the world. That is, they claim that any one of an approximately infinite number of other ways of doing things, or categorizing things, or thinking about things, would work equally well, and the real world underlying the things we say can never be known. But in fact, casual experimentation proves that language is astronomically overdetermined. (The number of constraints we get from how linguistic terms relate to each other and to sense data is much larger than the number of degrees of freedom in the system.)

[6] Contrary to what Ferdinand de Saussure said, and post-modern philosophers after him assented to, thought came first, language, second. We can excuse him for making this mistake, because he was writing before Darwin’s theories were well-known, except oops no he wasn’t.

[7] Some “synonyms” are words that are opposite on one dimension, and the same on all the others, allowing people to invert a particular dimension. Examples: challenge / obstacle, abundant / gratuitous (differ on good/bad), tug / yank (on easy/hard, funny / peculiar (on normal/strange).

[8] If you feed the algorithm radically different data, you’ll come up with different dimensions after the first few dimensions, as I suppose they did for French in that study.

So what happens if two people had different life experiences, and their brains came up with different principal dimensions?

It turns out we have a word for this, an old word that predates the math needed to understand it this way: we say they have different paradigms. They classify things in the world using a different set of dimensions. When they think about things, they come up with different answers. When they talk to each other, they each think the other is stupid. This is why political debates rarely change anyone’s mind; the people on opposite sites literally cannot understand each other. Their brains automatically compress their opponents’ statements into dimensions in which the distinctions they’re making are lost.

This is, I think, the correct interpretation of Thomas Kuhn’s observation that scientists using different paradigms can’t seem to communicate with each other.  It doesn’t mean that the choice of paradigm is arbitrary. Different paradigms are better at making distinctions in different data sets. Someone who’s grown up with one data set can’t easily switch to a different one; she would have to re-learn everything. But, given agreement on what the data to explain is, paradigms can be compared objectively.

[9] Yes, it turns out I’m a literary Marxist. Sorry.

The annihilation of art

Standard

Here’s some music for you to listen to while reading this blog:

A little while ago someone I know made a few insightful observations about poetry. I’m not anti-poetry, and I don’t think he is either, but he makes a good point: Poetry has for decades been caught in a vicious cycle of self-isolation. An elite chooses experimental, inaccessible poems and fills the journals and anthologies with them. Readers drift away from poetry, deriding it as pretentious. The elite learns to associate inaccessibility with quality, and criticism with amateurism, and produces more and more inaccessible works, which it is capable only of praising, never of criticizing. Their tastes drift farther away from the mainstream, casting more and more readers out. Poetry that does not meet their criterion for obscurantism is not published; poetry that does, is not read.

I’m going to paraphrase my friend here:

You mention that to many people you know, poetry is “too difficult, too vague, or too subjective.” I would argue that in many cases, this seems a very accurate description.… And likewise, poetry is often allowed to succeed where other forms of art would not. Many poems are so highly impressionistic that listeners and readers are left struggling to find meaning in the words….

With music or prose or artwork, we can point to something exact and have our opinions judged fairly. I dislike the singing; the characters are bland; the colors are mismatched and give me a headache. All valid criticisms. But when you approach poetry, criticism from the uneducated is treated as such….

For poetry to escape the taint of elitist disdain, it needs to rid itself of the shell that is formed around it. Is this a condemnation of all poetry or even most poets? No, not at all. But the popular conceptualization that poetry is a pastime for a small group of intellectuals, as unfair as it might seem, is grounded in a subjective grain of truth. For the people looking in from outside, poetry is often not some beautiful song waiting to be digested, but a pretentious chunk of purple imagery that revels in its own depth and inaccessibility. Which is, I think we can both agree, a sad state of affairs that harms those on either side of the window.

… We’ve all heard people say they dislike rap, or country, or dubstep; the most common response amongst those respective genres is to attempt to convert the doubter with “good” examples from that genre…. In my personal existence, poetry was never handled the same way.

This isn’t isolated to poetry. Orchestral music has taken exactly the same march into isolation and cultural irrelevance since about 1920. Jazz followed later, starting maybe around 1960. Literature started down that path with Ulysses, and Joyce kept going down it for the rest of his career.

The visual arts, meanwhile, went in a similar but weirdly opposite direction, taking the quickest and easiest route to driving away the common folk. By the 1930s, the goal in architecture, sculpture, and painting was to make everything as simple, boring, and ugly as possible. This 1938 building in Brooklyn wasn’t a slapdash cost-saving construction project; it was a celebrated design by a famous modernist architect. Notice how its color perfectly matches the mixture of dead grass and mud on the ground in front of it.

Brooklyn project William Lescaze 1938

And it wasn’t long ago that if you walked into a modern art museum, all you’d find would be a hundred variations on this:

cubist_sculpture

and this:

That YouTube video at the top? That’s a composition by Brian Ferneyhough. My renter is a composer. He’s trying to earn enough money to go back to grad school in music composition, and Ferneyhough, he says, is considered by many composers to be the greatest living composer. That piece isn’t modern at all—he composed it in 1966. 48 years ago. It represents the pinnacle of the past eighty years of orchestral composition.

To get accepted to grad school, my renter has to write something like it. He has seven folios full of his attempts.

I asked him if it bothered him that he’s spending his whole life struggling to make a kind of music that, if he succeeds, no one outside of academia will want to hear. It will never be played on the radio; it will never appear in a physical music store; it will probably never be played in a concert hall outside of western Europe. He says that this is only to be expected; few people have the intelligence to understand the greatest works in any art form.

An art form that is completely detached from culture. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Is it art, or is it a cult?

I asked him if it was an arbitrary social convention, or else if it was the next logical stage in music—if you rewound the clock and played the 20th century over again, slightly differently, would it inevitably lead to that kind of music, like geometry inevitably led to topology? He said he believes so; that Ferneyhough is not just different than Beethoven, but superior to him.

During the 1930s, the entire European artistic landscape seemed determined to drive people away from art. I think this made nationalism and fascism possible. People outside the elite sensed that culture had deliberately rejected and ejected them, and so they united to destroy it.

It’s seldom a good sign to find yourself in agreement with Hitler. But if Ferneyhough is great, I don’t want to be that great.

The march to self-isolation always starts with great works by a great artist—Picasso, Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot,  Miles Davis, Joyce. People imitate them, and try to take it further. Then it goes too far, and no one can admit it’s gone too far because by that time everybody in the elite power structure of that art has gone on record praising it.

Is this a uniquely 20th-century event? Has it happened before in history that the leaders of an entire art form deliberately isolated it from the masses? As far as I know, it hasn’t.

I think this couldn’t happen before the 19th century because art was funded by patrons, and the artists had to please the patrons. The patrons didn’t have careers in art, so they didn’t have to always find something new and weird to try to stay ahead of the crowd. There were professors of art and of music, but their opinions didn’t matter much.

It bothers me a lot. Orchestral music was, to me, humanity’s greatest achievement, and now we have annihilated it, and many other art forms, and no one understands why.

How and why did a single generation of artists destroy half of the West’s artistic heritage? Is modernism really the single cause behind 20th-century elitism in music, poetry, sculpture, art, and literature? Why didn’t it succeed in literature? How can we make sure it never does? I really wish I had answers.

And I really want to know whether the stuff is actually good, and I’m just too dumb to see it. But I don’t see any way of ever knowing that, even in principle. If the only way people ever come to appreciate Ferneyhough’s music is to be told they can never understand music unless they appreciate it, and to listen to it over and over trying to appreciate it, how can they know whether they appreciate it because it’s good, or because they’ve gotten used to it?