Is Art Mightier Than War?

John Cusack on Hitler, politics and his new movie 'Max.'

Continued from page 2

I think this is the century of both. [Max represents] the other world view, the one Hitler tried to kill. He's just a wonderful human: progressive, humanistic, compassionate, honest. He believes art has the power to transform the world. He gets back from the trenches and says, "Irony is for suckers." And he means it. He means it the way Phil Berrigan meant it. Berrigan killed people in World War Two and came back to earn his stripes in the anti-war crusade. Max has the same experience. It wasn't an abstraction.

There is a lot of talk in the movie about the art, both Hitler's and art in general.
Art is spiritual. Both Hitler and Max have come back from the war as damaged goods. Max uses art as a confessional, to deconstruct the imperialist war that led us to the trenches. Hitler wants to use his art to reinforce these romantic notions of war and to reconstruct the imperialist world to lead us to the next war. Max tells him, "You can be a modern artist, but you have to pay the price, and that's honesty. Can you be that voluptuous with yourself?" Well, Hitler obviously couldn't. Because then he would have to take ownership of his life. Max, on the other hand, is basically taking ownership of his life in the movie.

Even faced with Hitler's anti-semitism, Max calls it "kitsch," which is the worst sin he can imagine.
There's a wonderful book called "The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age" by Modris Eksteins which defines kitsch as easy beauty without consequences, superficiality. But when applied to politics and taken to its extreme, he says, kitsch is the mask of death. Fascism was all aesthetics. There was no core principle to it. There was no truth to it. Even the idea of a master race, where was this blond, blue-eyed Aryan quality they talked of? They were all just creating it. When aesthetics become an end in themselves, you have kitsch, this sentimental vision with no ballast. Kitsch is more dangerous than it looks when taken to the extreme.

Do you think American politics today is kitsch?
It's all aesthetics. And even the people who are covering politics don't question whether that's right or not. They just tell you, "Bush is doing a wonderful job of convincing people he is compassionate." It's a very successful con job. We've stopped questioning that it's all theater. We all know it. It's just disgusting. One day Trent Lott says what he says about the South and lo and behold the next day President Bush is reading to multicolored children at the White House. It's just pure theater; it's kitsch.

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