How Could We Be So Stupid?
Willy Fick is hardly a household name, not even in the art world, despite his role as a regional affiliate of the Dada movement. He had filed as a conscientious objector during the First World War, serving as a non-combatant driver. Afterward he worked in the city of Cologne’s Transportation Department. Decades later he also designed hospitals for the city. Fick sustained his art practice for over 50 years, even though it never provided him with a livelihood, nor was he independently wealthy. He was one of those artists who brushed up against history without ever entering fully into its mainstream.
Along with his sister (Angelika, who sadly died of tuberculosis at age 23) and a circle of young artist friends he founded the Stupid circle in 1919. Which leads me to what I’ve been wrestling with in light of multiple recent events; and for decades really. Fick and his circle were shaped by a similar wonderment over the sheer fecklessness of the European (hardly limited to the German) masses that enthusiastically marched off to the meat grinder that was the Great War. Stupid circle members were not trying to make dumb art. Riffing off of the tactics of absurdity that their Dada colleagues cultivated, they were posing the question: How could we have been so. . .?
Willy Fick, “Abstract Flowers,” oil painting.
Courtesy of Fick-Eggert Collection
I’m admittedly very upset with the leadership of the Democratic Party following the voting rights disaster. It was they who failed to win over two Senators despite a well-conceived and civilly executed (goodness, no death threats) national grass roots campaign over the course of nearly a full year. It deployed the digital tools and political campaign organizing methods developed over the last two decades for the purpose of a citizen lobbying effort that produced a heretofore unknown level of participation. This was a pressure campaign directed at two Senators, no doubt, but it never turned nasty. Voters relied on scripts that stuck to the subject.
Angelika Hoerle, “Man with Eye Removed,” pencil on paper, 12 1/2 x 10 5/8”. Fick-Eggert Collection, ©2002 Art Gallery of Ontario
Meanwhile the President and Senate leadership showered political gifts and concessions on both. The second infrastructure bill was trimmed in half. The Senate version of the House-passed voting rights act was greatly reduced in scope. And more. In return they asked the recalcitrant Senators for two gifts in return: vote to support and pass both infrastructure bills together; and vote for some form of filibuster reform without discarding the Senate rule altogether. In the end all the President and leadership did was negotiate against themselves, never, despite hopeful assurances to the contrary, securing the Senators’ guarantee for, well, anything. And in the end neither accepted the gifts they received with victory parades and votes that would have elevated them to the status of national heroes.
How could all of these parties been so stupid?
Willy Fick would understand. He and his Stupid circle of artists produced images that worry this question like a loose tooth, having watched about 40 million die in one war; and going on to witness another 70 million perish in a second conflict. Thus far we have not been so unlucky, in good part because for all of the Stupid, today’s world is full of Smart and Ethical compared to a century ago.
Yet Stupid today appears to hold the upper hand. Thank you, Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema, not only for your insidious votes, but — in all likelihood, barring as yet unforeseen developments over the next ten months — spilling the blood of Democratic Congressional majorities along with American democracy itself. Cancel the parades. Instead Sinema has already been censured by her own state party, not for an ethics violation to be sure, but for political apostasy. One can argue that these two will be run out of office in 2024; but, more crucially, they have strangled retention of free and fair elections along with their party’s majorities, in the crib. How could these two Senators be so stupid?
What sets this single factor apart from others that will ultimately determine the 2022 mid-terms is the large number of Democratic Party activists whose energy and labor have been mocked for being ignored, and negated by votes cast shorn of principle. The sound of air escaping an assiduously inflated balloon is nothing if not disheartening. Forget the chortling of the other side: these feelings are real, measurable in polling, and they are visible in people’s demeanor. The Democratic leadership is reduced to delivering halftime inspirational speeches. “Let’s get back out there! We can still do this! Don’t forget, not one Republican got on the right side of history.” Forgive my skepticism.
What has not been negated but given fresh oxygen is the Republican project to replace free and fair elections and the give and take of honest, informed pubic debate with a system of pre-determined outcomes and fabricated narratives. The false accusation of Democratically rigged elections is nothing but a tactic to provide cover for … rigging elections. The roster of methods is well known, rather lengthy, and geared towards succeeding not through stealth but through brazenness. That is the pointL the so-called Republican base is not embarrassed but thrilled. Not in spite of but as a result of that very brazenness.
On that side of the political equation the driving force is not an ideology but a will to vengeance — revenge for imagined harm to be exacted in a storybook future. The more damage done to the imagined perpetrators of this nearly completed fantasy socialist dystopia project, the greater the virtue. They regard the topics of healthy and legitimate democratic debate and the competition of ideas to be existential threats. In so doing they become the very existential threat they fear.
Heinrich Hoerle, “Denkmal der unbekannten Prothesen,” 1930, oil on cardboard, 27 1/2 x 33 1/2”. Courtesy of Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal
Formerly good Christians are now explicitly instructed to brush aside the ancient Sermon on the Mount to become the barbarians at the gates. “The Cruelty is the Point,” as Adam Serwer titled his recent book on the subject of Trump’s America. The fleeced barbarian acolytes have no concept of the damage they have already caused to themselves as cannon fodder being used to wreak carnage on the so-called administrative state.
How the heck can they be so stupid? I do not get it in 2022 any more than Willy Fick did in 1919.
Max Ernst, “Europe After the Rain II,” 1940-42, oil on canvas, 21 9/16 x 58 3/16”
When the Dadaists and their regional allies such as the Stupid circle poked at their national beast they succeeded in revealing it for what it was. They neither provoked nor wounded that beast sufficiently to cause or prevent the atrocities that followed. But they enhanced the stark historical record with something invaluable: proof that a slice of German society understood the process of public brainwashing that was occurring. They made the point that aesthetic irony and absurdity is not nearly as ironic and absurd as what happened socially and politically back then … and what is in the process of happening now. Call it an aesthetic road map. In the name of German greatness: two wars, 110 million dead. How could they have been so stupid? How, with all of our layered infrastructure, information and travel technologies, our vaunted social stability and progress, can we be reverting to similar stupidity?
The worst is not quite yet inevitable. Many do still stand in the way of this reversion to barbarism. Even lacking a couple of Senators.
Photo of Angelika, Richard and Willy Fick, ca. 1916. Courtesy of Fick-Eggert Collection