Think about our relationship to current events: Who (or what) do we listen to? Immediately, one thinks of the media. Whether present in print, radio, or television broadcast, journalists are integral to the guidance of public knowledge, perception, and emotions towards the world they live in. Having an accredited voice in the political world is exceptionally powerful, especially when it comes from a citizen rather than a leader. It is thus no surprise that during their rise to power, Nazi leaders overtook German printing presses and news outlets in order to spew propagandistic ideas and silence political criticism. There were strict guidelines as to what stories could be published and how they were to be written; journalists who objected with the truth of the times were often fired, or even sent to concentration camps.
Learning about this made me wonder what the world would be like without freedom of the press. How did people get ‘truthful’ news during the Nazi regime?
Perhaps people weren’t completely blind to accurate reports of the situation at hand; perhaps they had to look, rather than listen, for it.
I recently had the opportunity to view some of Hannah Hoch’s DADAist collages at the Berlinische Gallerie, which was categorized as “Degenerate Art” during the Nazi regime, and thus banned from exhibition. While pondering what made her work so threatening to the Nazi party, I realized that her form and content resembled a piece of journalism. This idea is best exemplified when contemplating Hoch’s well known collage DADA-Rundschau (1919). The photomontage was created with photos, newspaper clippings, and watercolor. By physically dismantling printed (and reprinted) news, Höch worked to assemble an alternative perspective to what was visibly going on in the political world. The title itself translates to “DADA-Review”, which can be interpreted to mean a look around at the current state of society, with difficult questions being asked and corrections being made. A viewer can find a scramble of newspaper headlines and slogans complimented with less-than-flattering images of German political leaders in bathing suits – sporting flowers in place of their genitals- along with President Woodrow Wilson angelically hovering above them. It can be interpreted on the one hand as a criticism of the current political climate, as she symbolically removes the manhood of German leaders while connoting American leaders as ‘good’. While it appears to be unorganized, the jumbled nature of the piece was certainly intended by Höch, who is attempting to make sense of the ‘jumble’ that is the society. Essentially, journalism has the same goal of making sense out of the visible situations while critically commenting on invisible structures, and providing a condensed assessment of reality. Journalists deliberately choose certain quotes, images, and sound bites to capture the attention of the audience and bring one’s focus to certain events or characters. To create DADA-Rundschau, Höch truly worked as a journalist, finding and publicly elucidating uncovered stories.
Through basic mathematical thinking, if the technique used to create a conventional piece of journalism and a collage – cutting and pasting – and their consequent end results – banishment – are the same, their function must be perceived similarly to the Nazi party and thus be similar in nature. No, Hannah Höch’s original piece does not claim to depict a factually and spatially accurate reality; she is not trying to get viewers to believe that Woodrow Wilson can fly, or that German soldiers walk around each day with floating heads. Unlike commonplace news, the collage is journalism that is not immediately accessible. It is not dumbed down for easy understanding. It cannot be skimmed on a morning commute with a coffee in one hand and headphones in your ears. It cannot be shared with the click of a button. The collage asks not only to be read but also to be individually contemplated and interpreted. Unlike journalists who – despite being inevitably biased human beings – work to achieve total neutrality, Höch was proudly associated with the DADA movement. Her agenda and bias is already assumed before looking at her work, and this can be quickly understood rather taking attention away from the point she is trying to make. Through her collages, Höch establishes a two-way conversation about current events in her society – exactly the type of journalism that every society needs.