Theses Doctoral

The Dialectical Object: John Heartfield 1915 - 1933

Bush, Diana M.

In 1933, after the election of the National Socialists in Germany, John Heartfield fled Berlin for Prague, leaving behind the significant intervention in contemporary cultural and social discourses that his photomontages for the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung comprised. While this body of work, produced from 1930, has been understood as Heartfield's master work, it has also often been understood as straightforward "popular front" propaganda and the accomplished embodiment of the "dialectical" method that were significant aspects of the cultural policy of the official left. There have been few attempts to work through the formally innovative aspects of Heartfield's particular "dialectical" method, and more broadly speaking, little critical consideration of the complex engagement of social realism that characterizes the A-I Z photomontages. Taking as a point of departure Heartfield's presence in institutional and scholarly discourses, and adopting an approach that is thematic rather than chronologically exhaustive, this dissertation investigates his collaborative engagements of performance, theatrical production, film, and the newly-emergent "photo book" to argue for a more nuanced treatment of the A-I Z photomontages than has been the case. Critical writing focused on the decade between Heartfield's Berlin Dadaist affiliations and his work for the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung has been conspicuously absent, and his work with film and theater have not been considered in relation to his photomontage practice of the later 1920s. Drawing on the theorizations of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze regarding subjectivity and aesthetic engagement, the formation of cultural collectives, and processes of meaning production, this dissertation will argue that Heartfield's involvement in specifically performative cultural formations is central to understanding the advanced photomontage practice he developed, even as this orientation also rendered his intervention in the modes and institutions of cultural production incomprehensible to the various historical paradigms, left and otherwise, of modern art. In my conclusion, I draw Heartfield back into the present to consider the import and resonance of his interventions for contemporary interests and practices. Bringing recent theorizations of the public sphere in relationship to investigations of subversive subjectivities and models of meaning production formed around the "event," my dissertation argues for an expanded notion of aesthetic reception, critical realism, and "political" art.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Alberro, Alexander
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 19, 2013