CONFORMITY IS NO PLACE FOR ME

CONFORMITY IS NO PLACE FOR ME

If art has a rock genre, then Gottfried Helnwein is a rock star. Helnwein concerns himself with psychological and sociological anxiety, historical issues, and political topics. His work can be hard to digest because his subject is the human condition. The metaphor of the wounded child, scarred physically and emotionally, dominates Helnwein’s art. His works often reference controversial issues from recent history, especially Nazi rule. Our favorite boomer-generation provocateur talks to Johannes Grenzfurthner about history and politics, and the future of what could be called humanity.

Entropy and the Psyche

JG You've been active in pop culture, in art, for almost five decades, and what you've achieved is incredible. I remember the impact your paintings had on me as a teenager. What can you tell teenagers now, compared to your youth in the 1960s? What advice do you have?

GH Well, it was a different time, growing up in Vienna in the 50s. It was like being born in hell, because in the aftermath of WWII, this city was really a dark place. In my earliest memory, as a little child, I felt like a stranger who just landed in the wrong place. I felt I didn't belong here. I perceived my surroundings as ugly and hostile – all the grown-ups were grouchy, bitter, and depressed. Even though I had nothing to compare it with, I had the feeling something was seriously wrong. What I didn't know at that time was that my parents' generation had just lost two world wars and, in the process, accomplished one of the biggest genocides in history. 

I guess I was an annoying child because I was always asking questions. But I didn't get any answers. Nobody talked. People seemed to be unable to speak about the past, or to remember anything. They were in a state of total denial. A whole generation seemed to be stuck in collective amnesia. The only thing I ever heard in school about that time was this stupid sentence "Austria was the first victim of Adolf Hitler." That was it. 

But in a way, Austrians were very smart. When Stalin offered to withdraw his troops if we became a neutral country, Austrians agreed, and we were free. The allied occupying forces left and turned the justice system over to the Austrians. That meant that all the war criminals were tried in Austrian courts, by Austrians. 

I remember, in the early 60s, reading about the trial against former SS Officer Franz Murer. A guy who had destroyed the Jewish ghetto of Vilnius, a spiritual center of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe, and exterminated almost the whole population of some 80,000 people. He killed many of them with his own hands. He tortured people. There was one report of an incident that stuck in my mind that I'll never forget. Murer ordered one of the Jews to put his hands into the door frame. Then Murer slammed the door until his victim's fingers fell off. 

The few witnesses that survived that horror and had the courage to travel to this country and testify were received with hostility, called liars and laughed at. Their suffering was dismissed as fabrication. Someone in the courtroom even threw up a Hitler salute. That monster Murer was acquitted. He walked home a free man. On that day, all the flower shops in Graz were empty, cleared out by the people for the celebration. When I read that, I was in shock. Something inside me broke. I distanced myself from the world of my parents, their tradition, their culture, their values. I didn't want to be part of it. It was beyond my grasp, how they could have committed crimes on that scale. When I looked at them, I just couldn't see it. These mediocre, boring, dull subservient, gray uncool folks and been the Nazis? Shiny boots, silver skull-and-bones on their black SS uniforms, and all? The demonic forces of inconceivable evil?

PHOTO: THOMAS SMETANA
PHOTO: THOMAS SMETANA

I was dumbfounded. I didn't understand, but became obsessed with trying to. That brought me on a life-long quest for answers. Most of my generation must have felt the same way, because in the lat 60s all hell broke loose when young people, mainly students, took to the streets and rebelled against the establishment. Against a system we perceived as corrupt and rotten to the core. In Germany and Paris, in Europe and America. It was a furious, somewhat naive, but honest and enthusiastic attempt to break this cycle of oppression, corruption, hypocrisy and endless war. In vain, of course. Because history has the annoying tendency to repeat itself. 

A new empire rose from the ashes of the vanquished one. Many members of the American military-industrial complex, especially Allen Dulles, the head of the intelligence agency OSS (a precursor of the CIA), were fascinated by the efficiency of the Nazi machinery. Dulles became friends with Himmler's deputy, the war criminal and SS General Karl Wolff, and made sure he didn't hang in Nuremberg. In the secret program Operation Paperclip, the US Army brought 1,600 top-Nazis – scientists, doctors, and psychiatrists – to America. People who had experimented on prisoners in concentration camps. Among them war criminals and mass murderers like Klaus Barbie.

General Reinhard Gehlen, Hitler's chief intelligence officer on the Eastern Front – one of the worst war criminals, responsible for the death of millions – was their favourite. They saved him from prosecution, and they hired him to resurrect and oversee his vast network to spy for the CIA. His organisation helped over 5,000 Nazi war criminals, like Eichmann and Mengele, to flee Europe to South and Central America to avoid prosecution. In 1955, the West German government took over the Gehlen Organization, where Gehlen founded the BND (Federal Intelligence Service), which he staffed with former Gestapo and SS criminals. He ran the agency until 1968. 

Hans Globke, the executive Nazi official for Jewish Affairs in the Ministry of the Interior, co-created the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Race Laws that gave the Nazi Party the legal grounds for the discrimination and prosecution of Jews, setting the path to the Holocaust. After the war, he became the éminence grise, the most influential public official in the government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and was the German’s main liaison with NATO and other western intelligence services, especially the CIA.

As Noam Chomsky said, the Nazis won the war. Injustice, terror, warfare, and violence didn’t end with the fall of the Third Reich. We were already in new wars against Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

It was a historic necessity for our generation to revolt against the establishment. So, I started to research political affairs and events, and the history of violence. Eventually, I ran into forensic photographs of the bodies of dead children, kids who had been abused and killed in Austria and Germany, often by family members. These images are burned into my memory. I couldn’t get rid of them. I tried to share my questions, feelings, and doubts with others, but I didn’t know how. And that was the moment when I realized that I had to become an artist. I sat down and started to paint these little watercolors of children, mostly bandaged and wounded. I didn’t care about style or technique. I didn’t know if anybody would ever care to look at that stuff, or if it would mean anything to others. I didn’t care what others would think about it. And that’s how it all started.

That wasn’t exactly the answer to your questions, but that’s what came to mind.

JG No problem. That leads into our theme of entropy as a poetic concept, that things decay, things fall apart, systems fall apart, people fall apart. When you think about the last 50 years, of all the cruel things you witnessed, is there hope left?

GH There is hope. If individuals trust themselves and their dreams, look around, make their own observations, think for themselves, and use their own senses. Then they can judge by logic and reasoning, drawing their own conclusions and sticking to their own values. But it’s a risky endeavor because it’ll bring you into conflict with the official narrative.

Authorities will always try to tell you how you’re supposed to perceive the world around you. What you must like and what to reject. Politicians, parents, teachers, preachers, self-appointed “experts” mainstream media, and “experts” on the internet. If you decide to stick to your own moral values and put them above society’s morals, there’s hope. But you must be aware that you’ll upset lots of people, and you have to be ready to be lonely at times.

Most people like to be part of a group with a collective belief system. Belief systems are practical and cozy, because they explain the world, and all big questions are answered. It saves you from any doubt and the trouble of being alert, from asking questions, from researching, and from finding out for yourself. More importantly, you’re part of a group of likeminded people that think and feel like you do. Who believe in the same things you do. It’s very reassuring when you tell each other how right you are and how wrong all those others are.

But when I think of this, I have to think of Mark Twain, who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect”.

JG One of my favorite quotes is by Michel Foucault. He says, “It’s not important what you want to know but why you want to know it.” It’s like aiming your view at something that most people aren’t aware of. Whatever you do, whatever you think, you’re always viewing only from a particular position.

GH Any belief system conditions you to see only things you’re supposed to see, but it makes you blind to anything you’re not allowed to perceive, even if it happens right in front of you. Through various education systems throughout history, people have been convinced to abandon their own values and dreams. They have been programmed to think and behave in certain ways. So, people have developed a good, workable system of selective perception.

But you can always find some people who can’t be broken and properly programmed—artists, writers, and thinkers. Nothing scares authoritarians more than art and free creation. Why did Hitler burn mountains of books and paintings, and ban art? Why was Stalin—the master over the life and death of almost 300 million people, a man who commanded the biggest army and secret service that ever existed—afraid of a poem written by Anna Akhmatova? Why was Mao so obsessed with destroying China’s cultural heritage? Why did FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, while denying the existence of organized crime in the US, put so much effort into harassing and spying on artists from Hemingway and Elvis to Thomas Mann and John Lennon?

Don’t wait for somebody to grant you freedom. It will never happen. If you want freedom, you have to seize it. Creating art is one way of doing it. For me, it’s the most effective way. On this planet, creating means standing up, rebelling, and resisting. It means striking back.

ARTWORK: GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN, RIGHTEOUS MAN V
ARTWORK: GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN, RIGHTEOUS MAN V

Entropy and the Human Condition

JG For me, the big conspiracy behind everything is capitalism.

GH No, it’s not capitalism—it’s mankind. Since the start, elites have ruled the masses under different labels—monarchies, empires, theocracies, capitalism, communism, fascism. Whatever their fancy names might be, it’s always the same. Self-appointed authorities trying to destroy the dignity, purity, uniqueness, and autonomy of individuals and brainwash them into becoming herd animals. It’s true, though, that our current neo-capitalistic system is getting quite astute at that. It obviously analyzed past authoritarian ruling systems, examined their mistakes, their vulnerabilities, and their successes, and then implemented that knowledge. In older totalitarian regimes, the tyrant was known, so he was a potential target. The death of the dictator could end the tyranny. In our current system, the rulers are hidden behind international corporations, organizations, banks and trusts—the so called military-industrial complex. We don’t really know who they are. Politicians come and go. They aren’t the ones that make the big decisions.

Another weakness of past dictatorships was scarcity. People starved. They stood in long lines, hoping to get food or other necessities for their survival. And as history shows, suffering can lead to revolution.

Our current consumerism dictatorship does quite the opposite. We have too much of everything. That includes too much unnecessary, confusing, and distracting information; cheap entertainment; and things we don’t need. The obvious purpose is to overwhelm us and turn us into apathetic slaves to consumerism.

In a speech in 1961, Aldous Huxley predicted what we are experiencing right now. He said, “There will be, in the next generation or so, a... method of making people love their servitude and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda, or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.”

JG We run into a wall at some point. Global resources are exploited, and there’s the end of oil. We want to keep our way of living. We need to replace it with some other form of energy, but it doesn’t exist. We also need energy to switch to a new form of energy. We’re on a dead-end street, and it seems the dead-end is close.

GH I think there is unlimited potential energy in our universe. Nicola Tesla said, “Electric power is everywhere, present in unlimited quantities, and can drive the world’s machinery without the need for coal, oil, or gas.”

Tesla states in his work that we have an infinite source of energy floating through the ether in the form of charged electrons. The capitalistic elite could not let that happen, of course, because it violates the core principle of capitalism. Thus, banker JP Morgan destroyed Tesla’s lab, bankrupted and crushed him, thereby permanently removing Tesla’s unacceptable threat of producing and giving away free energy. Nature is not the problem. Homo Sapiens is.

Back to your quote of Foucault, “why you want to know.” The answer is because you believe in the humanitarian imperative. If you have empathy—if you respect and care for other human beings and organisms—if that’s why you want to know, then you’ll find the right answers. Things will start to fall into place. If you’re looking for profit, power, and control, you’ll come up with different answers and solutions. You’ll keep your country in a permanent state of war, for example, because it gives you maximum control and profit.

And that is exactly what the war-machine of the Anglo-American Empire does. We live in a state of perpetual war, and we don’t even notice it. While we sleep and eat, watch a movie or make love, someone’s home, family, life, and body are being blown into a thousand pieces in our names. Once every 12 minutes. The United States military drops an explosive with a strength you can hardly comprehend every 12 minutes.

George W. Bush dropped 70,000 bombs, but Nobel Peace Laureate Barack Obama dropped 100,000 bombs in seven countries. He out-bombed Bush by 30,000 bombs and 2 countries. Obama’s drone program saw more strikes in his first year than Bush carried out during his entire presidency. Those drone bombings killed more people in six years than the 300-year-long Spanish Inquisition. According to the CIA’s documents, people on the kill list, those who were targeted, accounted for only 2 percent of the deaths those drone strikes caused. Thousands of others, including children, were collateral damage.

The Pentagon’s numbers show that during George W. Bush’s 8 years he averaged 24 bombs dropped per day, which is 8,750 per year. Over the course of Obama’s time in office, his military dropped 34 bombs per day, 12,500 per year. And in Trump’s first year in office, he averaged 121 bombs dropped per day, for an annual total of 44,096. Trump’s military dropped 44,000 bombs in his first year in office.

In the 70s, my wife and her girlfriend went on a trip through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Afghanistan, where they stayed for quite a while. It was the most beautiful country she had ever seen. She could go wherever she wanted, and she always felt safe. People were warm and welcoming, and the girls hardly ever had to pay for anything. They were always invited. That was Afghanistan. Paradise.

Why is this country now, only a few decades later, hell? Because the Soviet empire and then the American empire had to “help” this country by invading, raping, and looting it. When you look at the country now, the favorite phrase of American generals comes to mind. “We’ll bomb you back to the Stone Age.” That’s a promise that they keep. Now, while the people suffer, drug lords produce 95 percent of the world’s raw opium. American and allied troops oversee the worldwide trade of illegal drugs.

ARTWORK: GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN
ARTWORK: GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN

Ideologic Entropy

JG We spend astronomical amounts on defense. It’s incredible how much money the US spends on war. Nobody’s investing a dime in infrastructure.

GH The US has no money for education or a functioning healthcare system as we know it in Europe. Many Americans live on the level of the so-called “Third World.”

From the early- to mid-1900s, Los Angeles had a streetcar system as a popular mode of transportation. It went along Broadway and throughout the Los Angeles region. By the 1920s, it had developed into the largest trolley system in the world. But then, General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, and other companies bought the streetcar system and destroyed it. Then, as far as I know, they threw the streetcars into the sea just to make sure that everybody had to have a car. They even ripped out the tracks, so that there would never be a streetcar system in LA again. From a strict capitalist viewpoint, it’s logical. Profit justifies it all.

JG The big religion of America is individuality, but that individuality is a conformist form of individuality. It’s always driven by fashion.

GH Yes, because along with that system comes the most sophisticated propaganda machine of all time. At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the founding fathers of modern propaganda and public brainwashing, Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, began his work. He was an expert in mass psychology. Bernays worked for the advertising industry, big corporations, political parties, and the government. He touted the idea that the “masses” are too stupid to make their own decisions. Therefore, their minds can and should be manipulated by the capable few. He said, “Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and constitute an invisible government which should be the true ruling power.”

He also said, “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” His best-known campaigns include a 1929 effort to promote female smoking by branding cigarettes as feminist “Torches of Freedom.” The first strategy was to persuade women to smoke cigarettes instead of eating. Bernays began by promoting the ideal of thinness itself, using photographers, artists, newspapers, and magazines to promote the special beauty of thin women. Medical authorities promoted cigarettes over sweets.

Bernays also worked for the United Fruit Company in the 1950s. He was involved in the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government in 1954. Goebbels was one of his great admirers and [ed: through his books, Bernays claims] his best student.

JG One last question for you. What do you think is your most radical opinion?

GH I always wanted freedom and independence more than anything else. I want to look for myself, think my own thoughts, and dream my own dreams. I want to draw my own conclusions, and I want to make my own decisions. I don’t need any belief-system or self-appointed authorities to tell me how I should live or feel or think. I was never violent; I am no danger to society in any way—so I don’t need to be under surveillance.  I don’t need to be disciplined, monitored, or controlled by anybody. I can take care of myself.

I guess I am a very inquisitive person. All my life, I wanted to know what’s really going on, and I keep asking questions. For some, this might be annoying. Also, I’m somewhat obsessed with the concept of fairness and justice. I hate injustice. I hate to see people being hurt, abused, humiliated, and suppressed. Maybe some consider this radical and think of me as a pain in the ass. They’re welcome, but I have no intention of shutting up.

JG What can I say? Thanks for being a pain in the ass.

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