Escapism and Alienation from German Expressionism to Glitch Art

I wrote this essay in 2017 for a self-driven project at College, but decided I wanted to publish it on my blog.

This project addressed the recurrent alienated reactions to a changing world through art in the early 20th century and recent internet culture – the glitch art and “aesthetics” shared online by people like me, and the isolation that this art both brings and addresses.  

German Expressionism

An example is German Expressionism. Expressionism started around 1905 as an evolution of and reaction to prior movements, most notably Post-Impressionism, and a challenging of traditional art teachings. Though there were expressionist artists in other countries, it gained its German connotations when applied to groups Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reite in 1914. 

Street, Dresden by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1919

German Expressionists can be grouped by the left-wing, anti-war attitudes of its artists rather than a definitive style, as the art itself was varied. Some trends can be seen, however, such as paintings with bold, exaggerated or arbitrary colours employed for emotion and expression, opposing commonplace objective realism.

This use of unusual colours links to the contemporary French movement Fauvism and the attitudes of Matisse. Fauvists also believed bold colours could be used for expression, and also drew from Post-Impressionism. Other trends in expressionist paintings include rough or gestural strokes and purposefully flat or distorted perspectives, similar to Futurism. This involvement with other contemporary movements (Fauvism, Futurism, Dada…) demonstrates Expressionism’s modernity, experimentalism, and breadth of avant-garde cultural inspirations.  

Perhaps more important to German Expressionism than painting is printmaking, which most artists of the movement worked with. The popularity of woodcuts, bold colours, dark/black outlines and flat perspectives, as well as the rejection of the more traditional 3D realism taught in academies at the time, can be linked to a passion for exotic art from other cultures and visits abroad. Kandinsky was inspired by remote Russian towns, Emil Nolde and others took inspiration from Oceanic art, and there was a broad interest in African art throughout the movement. Primitivism is a common theme due to contextual, historical factors as well as visual appeal.  

Somali Dance by Max Pechstein, 1910

One such factor is the radical urbanisation and modernisation of Germany since the unification in 1871, and the alienation this modern lifestyle causes. A lot of Expressionists depicted their contemporaries, and people they encountered on trips to rural areas and abroad, bathing, dancing, and generally at leisure – a more “authentic” human experience in nature.  

Houses at Night by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1912

That’s not to say they didn’t join their Italian futurist neighbours in celebration of the vibrancy of the city – they were just more sceptical of it, using the dynamic perspectives seen in Futurism in conjunction with their bold colours and dark strokes, resulting in sometimes overstimulating and intimidating cityscapes.

An example is the sets for the 1920 film Das Kabinett Des Dr.Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari), where buildings are skewed and painted with artificial shadows to disorientate the viewer.  

A set from Das Kabinett Des Dr.Caligari, 1920

When war broke out in 1914, many expressionist artists volunteered for or otherwise partook in active service, some of whom suffered breakdowns, lived their lives thereafter with post-traumatic stress disorder, or died in action. During and after the war, many devoted themselves to creating pacifist art and posters, joining communist groups and otherwise protesting against war, and later the fascism of the 20s.  

The Parents (Plate 3) by 
Käthe Kollwitz
The Last Ones (Plate 10) by Max Beckmann, 1919

Following the war, Germany was in a state of inflation and famine, with strikes, riots and rallies. With unstable leadership and a rising nationalism as a reaction to their alienation within Europe, and poverty owing to the war and subsequent reparations, German artists defiantly depicted the poverty, class divide and war as viscerally as possible through Expressionism, despite works sometimes being deemed treasonous or blasphemous.   

In spite of the hardship and inflation of the 20s, the Weimar Republic was decadent and sleazy, with endless cabarets for the wealthy. Out of disgust and hatred for the war and the state of the country came a new movement to oppose Expressionism -Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), doing away with the emotional abstraction of Expressionism and instead objectively exposing the ugly truths of post-war society.  

Großstadt (Big City/Metropolis) by Otto Dix, 1928

The aspect of Expressionism I wanted to distil in my work was art as a means of expressing an individual’s relation to the modernising world around them – the individual’s state of mind, their surrounding social and economic state, collective anxieties and yearnings vs individual anxieties and yearnings- rather than a literal depiction of what the artist sees. Particularly, I wanted to emphasise modernisation resulting in Expressionism as an outlet for individuals establishing where they fit in a seemingly new world with yet unwritten artistic rules. This leads me to Dada. 


 (For a more extensive essay on Dada, see Here.)

Dada, born in 1916 – the middle of the First World War – initially centred around Cabaret Voltaire, a club in Zurich, Switzerland. Artists from both sides of the war came to Zurich which was neutral. The artistic vocabulary at the time – the traditional, conservative disciplines taught across Europe – didn’t seem appropriate or adequate following the atrocity and absurdity of the war, so the Dadaists sought to sweep away all existing art to make way for their own. 

Karawane by Hugo Ball, 1917

Dada was, especially in the beginning in Zurich, expressed in a range of arts rather than specifically visually. The Dadaists were innovative and experimental, with ‘sound poems’ in multiple languages or made-up languages, and later they created photomontages and ready-mades, leaving a lasting influence.  

Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany by Hannah Hoch, 1919

Another crucial aspect is their numerous manifestos declaring the meaning of Dada, and the opinion on other art. “DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING”; “Art isn’t serious, I assure you”; “every pictorial or plastic work is unnecessary” – Dada believed prior art to be too logical and subservient to the bourgeoisie.  

The means by which Dadaists created their new poems and photomontages were purposefully unpredictable. Newspaper clippings, torn paintings or cut out text would be dropped from a height, and their arrangements would be recorded as art. This recording of reordering of records of the world’s current disorder meant that, in their own absurd and chaotic way, the Dadaists could bring order to the absurdity and chaos their art existed in, which nonsensically makes an absurd amount of sense. Methods and techniques over which the artist has little control (such as automatic drawing) and processes providing results which unpredictable or unreproducible were experimented with. The artist had little control, reflecting the lack of control in the world at the time.  

In “Dada Manifesto” by Tristan Tzara, 1918, it is stated “The new artist creates a world […] this world is neither specified nor defined in the work, it belongs, in its innumerable variations, to the spectator. For its creator it has neither cause nor theory.” And “Art is a private thing, the artist makes it for himself; a comprehensible work is the product of a journalist” – a sentiment that contradicts contemporary opinion, saying instead the artist makes art for himself rather than consumers, but the world created within belongs to the audience. 

This release of control, purposefully meaningless ism, opposition to logic and chaotic ordering of a disorderly modern world bring me onto my final subject – glitch art, “aesthetics”, vapourwave, and memes. Their boundaries are blurred, as glitch art can be ~aesthetic~, and aesthetics are closely associated with vapourwave, and vaporwave itself became a meme at one point. As with Expressionism and Dada, they are more easily explained theoretically before visually. 

Memes (a brief mention)

A meme I saw (and related to) on Tumblr around the time I wrote this essay

Internet memes are fast-evolving humorous (though sometimes pointedly unfunny) pieces of media circulated socially online. Some satirise current events or pop culture, but many are surreal or meaningless. Memes gain popularity for their relatability or relevancy, then lose it as they become mainstream. When memes are used by “normies” (people outside meme culture (which is in itself an ironic term)), they are seen to be dead, much as Dada denounces art praised or understood by journalists. Memes are in many ways Dada. Like Expressionism and Dadaism, memes rise as a new, self-aware artistic means of expression to suit the individual following a period of unprecedented change – not industrialisation, not war, but a generation raised with the internet and computers. 

Image-based memes are similar to Dada photomontage, in that there will be a meme template (a framework of a joke) and people may create iterations with public figures pasted over for satirical or absurdist affect. Memes in themselves aren’t art, but give context to aesthetics, glitch art and vaporwave.  

Vaporwave and aesthetics

A form of “plunderphonics”, Vaporwave is a genre of music based on sampling and editing songs and sounds with certain “aesthetics” to create new music. The plunderphonics aspect of Vapourwave echoes the cut-and-paste of Dada to repurpose found media. Vaporwave holds themes of capitalism and consumerism, though whether it’s a condemnation or celebration is ambiguous.  

The music aims to fit a set of usually late 80s – 90s aesthetics that has come to be known as simply “aesthetic” – Greek marble statues, empty malls, blues and magentas, Miami, Windows ’95 to XP, primitive 3D graphics, wireframes, Japanese text, house plants, sunsets, pastel colours, lonely cityscapes, neon lights, old anime and pop culture are all “aesthetic”. It is difficult to classify aesthetic; it’s intuitive.

Neon Aesthetic || Vaporwave’ by DeviantArt user Odinwanna 
A good example of Aesthetics (potted plants, marble statue, computer interface, neon lights, melancholy)

The sounds used in vaporwave include muzak, dial tones, stretched and pitch-shifted 80s funk songs, and synth lines, resulting in a melancholy-yet-comforting, empty, futuristic nostalgia for a past most listeners never witnessed. Vaporwave reached internet notoriety around 2015 when the 2011 album ‘Floral Shoppe’ became a meme.  

Image result for floral shoppe
The cover of ‘Floral Shoppe’ by Macintosh Plus

Glitch Art

Glitch art is created by causing an error in displayed data or photography. It’s relative online popularity coincides with vaporwave aesthetics – sometimes, images or collages of aesthetic tropes are “glitched” to evoke technology of the 80s and 90s – crt scan lines, damaged vhs displays and applied anaglyph 3D are used to steep these images with aesthetics and “mood”.  

A still from ‘Marble’ by Corey Johnson, 2015

Glitch art can be analogue or digital. Analogue glitches involve manipulating hardware or physical media. Light leaks and cross processing with old film cameras are possibly the most mainstream examples of glitching, as they are simulated by filters on Instagram, for example, to give a vintage lomography feel to users’ images. Digital glitch methods give a more recent, aesthetic feel to images, usually by means of manually manipulating the data of a file (usually an image, sometimes video) – this is called databending. 

A still from the music video of ‘Evident Utensil’ by Chairlift, which heavily employs Datamoshing, 2009
An untitled image created by Tumblr account Doctor-Autobot, an ‘automated art generator’.

As an experimental and sometimes unpredictable process, like those of dada, glitching is a versatile practice with many uncontrollable outcomes.  
Many glitched images recall the wild palettes of expressionist paintings; some become abstracted and cannot be understood, like dada, relying on intuitive relatability for popularity, like a meme.  

One of my pieces of Glitch Art

Aesthetics and glitch art continue this theme of unprecedented new art arising from intense change, but unlike Expressionism and Dada arising to address and depict the new world pessimistically, aesthetics create an escapist melancholy utopia using the very materials of the information age that causes this alienation, creating a social phenomenon for, by, and about isolated masses. This generation’s intuitive engagement with aesthetics show a new symbiosis of man and data, reaching comfort within the human error and loneliness inherent in this age of information, that are both the means for and content of this new art form.  

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