The Peoples Art: Bauhaus School of Architecture and Paul Robeson

By Serafina Harris.

Culture for the Fullness of a Beloved Community 

The goal of this article is to compile a moral set of values that have freed the hearts of people, that promise a future, and give a straighter back to Men. This article will discuss the rise and fall of the German Bauhaus school of Architecture in the context of the world, and Paul Robeson. It is to define a positive and constructive civilization whose basis is not rooted in, or grown through, the interests of imperialism, war, and slavery; but on and for people who deserve democracy, peace, and justice. 

Freedom can be achieved; our current counter-revolutionary moment can be reversed, because of the right and wrong sides of history showcasing the actionable transformation of people upon meeting a Great Cause. Further, morals, ethics, philosophy and art run long and deep in history, so the analysis and enactment of all forms of art are meaningful. This article will speak to what inspires people for great change, through the equal balance that the means of living would assert its ends.

A Liveable, Transformative Culture

The notion of Progress comes with the continuous inflection of betterment. The workings of such development can be seen with the vast new speeds of technology and the height of corporate business buildings. Propagandist media thrives on the never ending mighty power of the United States. Progress in this society is based on a disconnection of systems and tools that otherwise would have created fullness in human social life. Why does labour work to feed themselves, instead of labour being able to eat, to then be able to work towards a better society? What really does life mean if power equivocates to violence and growth to domination? 

Martin Luther King States in his essay “How should A Christian View Communism?”,

“The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cut throat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. It can make men so I-centered that they no longer are Thou-centered. Are we not too prone to judge success by the index of our salaries and the size of the wheel base on our automobiles, not by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity? Capitalism may lead to a practical materialism that is as pernicious as the theoretical materialism taught by Communism. We must honestly recognize that truth is not to be found either in traditional capitalism or in Marxism. Each represents a partial truth. Historically, capitalism failed to discern the truth in collective enterprise and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise.”

Within constraints, even Marxism, although positive for the ideological search for freedom, is still confined within the rigid and cold logical way of being. The question becomes to the Western world; can there be a creative spirit within an imperialist state?  

 The Crisis of the West poses a self conscious and psychological question of sufficiency. Is it enough to dominate the world by might, technology and science, alone? What happens to the people who want to live within a society not dealing with its social pitfalls; living as if things are good when they are not, or when power hungry elites do not confront the moral crisis that splits this country? It is as if racism involves the ignorance of, rather than an active change of human behavior — in addition to profit motivating choices of government leaders instead of good will.  

This crisis of Western Civilization is the internal and pubescent suicide that cannot barge through the world in affirmation of success, and cannot be saved by the divisions of interest that wrestles to take charge within itself. The Western Elite are within a closed circuit, ignoring the answers that solve the problems of people, the issues that divide this country, and not recognizing that there are human beings behind the numbers collected by financiers. We turn to the civilizations of Africa and Asia because this current Crisis cannot be solved by the West itself. The foundations of the West cannot stand upon the backs of slaves, war, nor debt of its own making.  

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois states in the World and Africa,

“Not only the making of cloth, the fashioning of garments, and the welding of iron reached a high development but there grew up also an art, primitive but exceptional power, which has influenced the modern world and deserves to be called one of the three or four original art forms of this earth. Agriculture and fishing, manufacturing and pottery, the welding and processing of metal, the development of painting and art, characterize this Negro Culture”

in reference to the Congo. He continues to describe that

“Love and appreciation of what is artistic and beautiful are attributes which cannot be said to be the prerogative of all of us. In Ashanti however, such traits seem to be possessed by what we should call the ‘uneducated masses’. There is hardly any object capable of artistic treatment which is not made the medium for some ornamental design which gives aesthetic delight to the African’s mind and eye, such as stools, spoons,combs,wooden plates, calabashes, doors, sticks,staves of office, canoes, wari boards, knives, mortars, drums, ivory tusks, pots, pipes, weights and scales, metal work of every description, walls of temples and dwellings and textiles of every kind.”

This hints that culture is not only for the sale of a decorative item, and it is not only the “high-minded” who can create art. But the ideal, the beautiful, drives the use of an art as a tool to reach a better society based on a higher morality.

 What then is beautiful? Is it merely an aesthetic, or is it a feeling of soulful insistence? If buildings, spoons, restaurants look and emit decadence, could it then be as beautiful as it is made to aesthetically be if the restaurant feeds the wealthy and deprives the poor? It is not to the extent in which things are made, but the lives that we lead that uncover the beauty in art; it is when the poor live well, when wars cease, and Western civilization releases its dying grasp on the Americas, Africa, and Asia, that beauty can exist. It is the inseparability of the process of freedom with our responsibility to the future which spurs the purpose of creation. 

Bauhaus: The Means of Living 

“We must keep our moral and spiritual progress abreast with our scientific and technological advances. This poses another dilemma of modern man. We have allowed our civilization to outdistance our culture. Professor MacIver follows the German sociologist, Alfred Weber, in pointing out the distinction between culture and civilization. Civilization refers to what we use; culture refers to what we are. Civilization is that complex of devices, instrumentalities, mechanisms and techniques by means of which we live. Culture is that realm of ends expressed in art, literature, religion and morals for which at best we live.”  Martin Luther King Jr. 

So how must we become fuller human beings? There was a small blip of a moment in modern history when Western Architecture was naively attempting to synthesize two seemingly antithetical developments in society. At the turn of the 20th century, the need for freedom in Africa and Asia merged in time with the collapse of Europe, even as Europe recklessly dominated the world. The political life of the West was torn through the competing interests of the lives of people and power-hungry men in congress and corporations; through the stratifications of labour, and the reckless profits gained from colonial conquest. The Weimar Republic was severely divided, as Dr. W.E.B Du Bois puts it in his ‘Color and Democracy’,

“The upper classes of workers, shopkeepers, and civil servants, with the still powerful influence of the Junkers and the captains of industry on one side and the rising threat of the proletariat on the other. In big Industry, the power of engineers and technicians has increased, and they and salaried clerks rose in comparison with the hand laborers. An extraordinary revolution ensued. It was a class struggle, but there was no unity in the groups on either side. The bourgeois were divided into big landholders, captains of industry, leaders in the Catholic Church, and many of the petty bourgeois. The laborers were even more hopelessly divided into Social- Democrats and Communists and such petty bourgeois as grim necessity forced into the laboring class”.

The tensions between the interests of manufacturing, industry, as well as the ideological direction of the Republic, soon became tenuous up until the seizure of power by the Nazis. Surrounded by the desire of democracy nationally, Germany was additionally faced with the struggling African Continent, particularly the Congo, Cameroon, parts of modern day Namibia, Togo, struggling against colonial rule. 

World War One jump-started the collapse of the West. It was what Dr. Du Bois calls the “jealous war” to exploit races of Africa and Asia. Similarly, the Soviet Experiment of 1917 exceeded the written manifestos of Marx and Engels and inspired German Socialists of the “tremendous task imposed upon the proletariat. As an opponent of capitalism and all Imperialist aims, the proletarian Government of Russia intends proposing a general armistice in order to bring about peace that would exclude all annexations, overt or covert on any side. The hope of avoiding a winter campaign has thereby been strengthened, but it will simply not be realized if the German proletariat simply watch events in Russia as a sympathetic spectator.” The German ‘Bauhaus’, as well as the Russian ‘Vhukemas’ schools of Architecture both came out of this stage of history.

We will deal strictly with Bauhaus in the Weimar Republic to show the contradictions of idealism. The purpose of this architecture school during a time of war and intense poverty was, at least seemingly, for the betterment of people. By World War One, poverty in Germany was exaggerated by an accumulated debt where “The food for a family of four persons which cost 60 marks a week in April 1919, cost 198 marks by September 1920, and 230 marks by November 1920. Certain items such as lard, ham, tea and eggs rose to between thirty and forty times the pre-war price. On the bright side – in contrast to Austria – the official unemployed figure was low, and only 375,000 people were on the dole.” By 1919 the Socialist Democratic Party developed services like welfare, health, and education — with a population who were not able to save valued money, which in turn was rapidly depreciated through loans given to Germany by America and Britain, and the effects of reparations from the Treaty of Versailles. 

Democracy for Germany meant the economic uplift of the masses of workers, which industry owners and leaders could not adhere to. The Weimar Republics’ search of Democracy was then answered in the negative through Hitler, financed by industry. 

The Bauhaus Architecture school of Weimar Germany started in 1919, and grew until it was taken down and divested by the Nazi Party in 1933.  This architecture school was based in the applied arts, architecture, and design. With a minimalist style, the Bauhaus School founded itself upon principles of totality — the works created convey their overall intentions. The works of art thus aren’t simply for decoration. For Bauhaus, architecture isn’t  without decoration, and design without a concrete function, but in turn how these sections of craftsmanship can be combined into a crafted item. Form follows the function of a tool, like a lamp shaped according to the direction of a light source. The aesthetic of a structure follows the true nature of the material used; thus the hiding of a  steel pole with the use of a curtain becomes unnecessary due to the purpose of the steel, which is in place for structural support. 

To name architectural developments, Adolf Meyer and George Muche were concerned with single family living and economic construction. Muche’s experimental house intended to be the start of Bauhaus housing developments which never proceeded beyond organizational preparations. Hannes Meyer, who took over as Bauhaus director in 1927-8 and was dismissed in 1930 for being a communist and subsequently emigrated to the Soviet Union with a group of former Bauhaus students, developed balconies for multi-family living.

Ethical principles formulated the first program of the Bauhaus school “to spread the realization among the German people that it is not only improper but outright stupid to execute work with one’s hands only for the sake of appearance and without love”. Fixated with the Lyonel Feininger woodcut print named the “Cathedral of Socialism”, tying together the ideal of a true and complete synthesis of work and art, Bauhaus first director Walter Gropius writes 

“The ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building! To embellish buildings was once the noblest function of the fine arts; they were the indispensable components of great architecture. Today the arts exist in isolation, from which they can be rescued only through the conscious cooperative effort of all craftsmen. Architects, painters, and sculptors must recognize anew and learn to grasp the composite character of a building both as an entity and in its separate parts.” 

But what happens when the ideal of living disregards reality? To what extent will this ideal be effective for the worker, in this case, in Germany, unemployed? Or, in a destabilized country by America and Britain, what would the synthesis of technology and art mean for a devalued currency, besides give a “glorified work study with pupils serving as cheap labor to help with product lines”? While the Bauhaus school extended their ideations to the state in a pseudo socialist evolution of industry, the Bauhaus school was relatively small and had an elite tendency in its members concern of their own gains by individual self-expression.  Earlier in the Germany of 1919, the martyred Rosa Luxemburg had developed these objections in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution, with respect to the vogue for worker’s cooperative organizations in Germany: “The great flaw of communal schemes was that they tried to find a way around the reality of class struggle; without confronting the actual divisions of society, inevitably, utopian schemes either remain dilettantish and marginal, or they adapt themselves to the needs of the wealthy, or they are crushed.”

Bauhaus illustrated how the composite varieties of modern technology can be synthesized to be used interdisciplinarily. Yet, in order for Bauhaus to be truly progressive, it would have had to unify around a purpose. For example, what would have happened if Germany was able to get rid of its colonial territories in order for the Weimar communism to ascend the limitations of  Western civilized life? What would have happened if the Republic fellowed deeply with the Russian communists and the rest of Asia and Africa thrusting towards freedom? The Bauhaus artists would have to think on these terms, or their claims about art’s purpose would just have been elite jargon. 

There must be an ideal to strive towards, but not an ideal that hides the truth. To forge the way to freedom, it isn’t enough to get stuck in stoic materialism, or in this case, to make art based upon  what is perceived to be “political”. Art does not go as far as it deserves to go through a set of ungrounded ideals. Without grounding oneself in reality, a person becomes isolated, obscure, and irresponsible to a historical time and place.

Paul Robeson, as an artist, and freedom fighter shows us how the synthesis of means and ends, on a high moral grounding can be ascertained. In order to live, we control the actions we make — we are the actions we make. When we love life, we are determined with hope that life can become better, and actively commit ourselves so society can be so. 

Paul Robeson: The Infinite Capacity of a People’s Truth

“In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  Martin Luther King Jr.

Paul Robeson states in a speech that

“Every artist, every scientist, must decide NOW where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. Through the destruction- in certain countries- of the greatest of man’s literary heritages, through the propagation of false ideas of racial and national superiority, the artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged. The battlefront is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear.”

Paul Robeson was a man of the people, the world, and what he says he followed up with his actions. A communist, actor, singer, athlete, and a heart larger than just him in singularity; the memory of Paul Robeson stretches from the USSR, Korea, China, Spain, Wales, India, Nigeria, the Dark continent at large. Through the urging of the African American folk tradition Robeson comes from and is held accountable by people. The significance of Robeson in this article is to define the purpose of creating. It is to not  back away from the justice deserved by an oppressed or colonized group of people. 

First and foremost, Paul Robeson was determined to justify that the oppressed had civilized life. This calls for living principles centered on peace, truth, and justice. From his talk for South African relief to his deep connections to the daily worker, his role in the AFL-CIO in urging the unification of black and white labour, his vast traveling and performing; Paul Robeson is wholly based in progressive principles. Paul Robeson states at a Madison Square Garden meeting in 1946,

“The race is on- in Africa as in every other part of the world – the race between the forces of progress and democracy on the one side and the forces of imperialism and reaction on the other. And Africa, with its immense undeveloped and unmeasured wealth of resources, is a major prize which the imperialists covet and which we, the anti-imperialists, must defend.” 

There was no separation between the road to freedom and how Paul Robeson was to live his life. It is justly asserted that for Robeson, “song is his weapon”. Through his personal relationship to America Robeson was responsible to the goal of a truly democratic union of American states; and in turn responsible for the civilizational traditions of the East, West; of the African, because of the heritage of the African American; of the Hebrew because of Robesons’ recognition to the Jew, and Spanish, struggling for peace, of the Russian due to their desire for democracy; of China, Ethiopia, and the West Indies due to their call for freedom.

Paul Robeson asserts that the “so-called primitive people” create concrete symbology, rather than abstract concepts. He continues to state that

“All the Great civilizations of the East (with possibly the exception of India) have been built up by people with this type of mind. It is a mentality that has given us giants like Confucius, Mencius, and Lao-Tze. More than likely it was the kind of thinking that gave us the understanding and wisdom of a person like Jesus Christ. It has given us the wonders of Central American architecture and Chinese art. It has in fact, given us the full flower of all the highest possibilities in man- with the single exception of applied science. That was left to a section of Western man to achieve on that he bases his assertion of superiority.”

Paul Robeson speaks to the new kind of abstraction, the spontaneity of genius that allows the will of the human being to evolve into a joyous and loving state. This can not happen in the environment of over-intellectualizing of sustained and scientific fact suffocating Western civilization. 

Paul Robeson saw the similarities of Rhythm, of Language, and the common decency within Asia, Africa, South America, to define the relationship African Americans have to civilization. Phillip Foner writes that Paul Robeson “studied linguistics and African languages at the School of Oriental Languages in London, learned Swahili, Zulu, Menda, Ashanti, Ibo, Efik, Edo, Yoruba,and Egyptian, and, as early as the 1930s, wrote scholarly articles on African culture and linguistics. “Africa,” Paul Robeson emphasized in a 1936 interview, “has a culture– a distinctive culture — which is ancient but not barbarous.” 

Figures like Paul Robeson assert that the African American has born a civilization. Harry Haywood writes in his article “The Negro Nation”,

“To the glory of poetry, it may be said that in literature Negro poets raised most clearly and feelingly the ringing tones of struggle for liberation. Standing highest among these bell-like singers are such contemporary poets as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Sterling Brown. Among the younger poets are Owen Dodson, Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker. The interpretative writings of Alain Locke, the novels of Arna Bontemps, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, the poetry of James Weldon Johnson, the biographical work of Shirley Graham, the plays of Theodore Ward, the dramatic interpretations of Canada Lee, have enhanced the treasury of American and world literature and art. The great people’s artist and leader, Paul Robeson, is a towering example of the magnificent contributions of the Negro people in the world of music and drama. William Grant Still, outstanding contemporary Negro composer; Marian Anderson, world famous contralto; Richard Barthe, foremost Negro sculptor; Ernest Crichlow, prominent illustrator and caricaturist, and Hale Woodruff, prize-winning muralist, are only a few of the many creative Negro talents in these fields. In the roster of creative writers who have dealt and deal now with Negro life are names of Negroes who vie for top honors with all other writers in the United States.” 

Haywood continues to write how culture is an important facet of a new dawning civilization, in reference to Joseph Stalin who

“was chiefly responsible for formulating the successful program for solving the problem of Russia’s many nations, has defined a nation as an ‘historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.” The validity of this definition has been attested by the fact that it has served as the theoretical cornerstone for the building of that unique fraternity of free and equal nations known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Negroes in the United States manifest all these attributes of nationhood listed in the concise and classic definition of Stalin. They are “a nation within a nation.” 

The lives of people in America are not isolated, nor does history have a time limit. We are not stuck in the rule of the Western World, nor can we deny the age of how the slow defeat of Western neocolonialism stands to the sustained economies of modern China and Russia. That, what is organically created through the African American cultural tradition is a part of the essential core of progression in the United States. 

The synthesis of science and love is due to the indivisibility of thinking and feeling. Today, we consider that there is a civilization of the African American traditional life in the movement of freedom of the 20th century and which is led by the civilizations of the East tied to the deep connection of Africa. African Americans today still in need to be released from Western imperialism domestically in order to fulfill this national and rightful potentiality and democratic legacy for America to truly progress. The complexities of culture and life between Africa and the West are distinct — but the complexities come from Africa, not the West. It is through the centrality of Africa where the West can rejoin the rest of humanity.

 Thus, it was the African American, already turned to the immense population of our world in the search for democracy, peace, and justice, that teaches the West the moral alignment of peace weighted upon the individual task towards true freedom.

Further Reading

  • W.E.B. Du Bois, Color and Democracy
  • W.E.B. Du Bois, World and Africa
  • Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, and Interviews, a Centennial Celebration
  • Martin Luther King, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches
  • Martin Luther King, Strive Towards Freedom
  • Harry Haywood, The Negro Nation

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