Avant-garde movements easily lend themselves to totalitarian appropriation. It’s difficult to admit, but true that progressive art and reactionary politics often go together. Avant-garde art is as complicit in the rise of the fascist revolutionary aesthetic today as it has been historically. We know about the attraction of Ezra Pound and other artists to hyper-aestheticization, but the influence has worked the other way, too: Symbolism, Futurism, Dadaism, Constructivism, and other avant-garde movements deeply inspired totalitarian political leaders. Similar strains of two-way interaction can be identified today. As always, those in the forefront of the most challenging artistic movements find themselves lending ammunition to the constructors of the aggressively nationalist political style.
Aside from the well-known example of Pound, others who have succumbed to totalitarian cultural politics—such as Gottfried Benn, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti—weren’t aberrations either. We can speculate about the specific artistic concerns of those who give in to cultic aesthetics. To the extent that the historical avant-garde represents strains of irrationalism, mysticism, sensualism, and activism, it blends in with authoritarian politics’ similar tendencies. Certain strains of aesthetic modernism explicitly glorify violence, as a necessary means of disrupting bourgeois conformity; both historically and in the present, fascism could hardly be expected to find better stylistic support, although of course where the artistic visionaries would want to overturn existing (and outmoded) class relations, fascism seeks to give them new legitimacy.
Of course, there cannot be facile identification between the avant-garde and totalitarian art, but certain historical moments seem to be particularly conducive to the perennial re-emergence of fascist cultural production. Andrew Hewitt follows Peter Burger in differentiating between modernism and the avant-garde, seeing fascist aesthetics as exemplifying the rupture between the two. Hewitt does not suggest, of course, that the avant-garde and fascism are identical. But in noting that postmodernist thinkers like Lyotard engage themselves with both avant-garde hyper-aestheticization and “postfascist pragmatics,” Hewitt points to a similar dangerous rupture in the present moment.
Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, wrote in his 1909 manifesto: “Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.” Love of speed and struggle, scorn for feminism and moralism, and glorification of the technologies of industrialism that romantics tended to scoff at—these tendencies marked the Futurists, and after that, to some extent or other, the subsequent avant-gardist movements. The past is a junkyard—its great cultural artifacts included—that the masses only engage with at risk of paralysis and exhaustion. The ransacking of the Baghdad museum is the literalization of the Futurist ethic.
Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “aestheticizing of political life” is a key place to begin exploring totalitarian stylistic effects. Benjamin says, “The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose ‘sense for sameness in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique.” The reduction of uniqueness to sameness by means of reproducibility is a manifestation of the relentless urge for authenticity on the part of the masses. When this urge reaches its fever pitch we’re usually witness to the kind of rupture Ezra Pound symbolized in the thirties and postmodernists like Lyotard do today. Hitler’s and Stalin’s political theatrics have their correlary today in postmodernism’s obsession with spectacle that breaks down barriers between art and life, politics being the common arena of enactment.
Photography and film are the paradigmatic examples of reproducible art, serving no ritualistic function as traditional art did. Benjamin’s insight is that the social function of art, displaced from ritual, relocates itself in the practice of politics. If film as montage, the art form most susceptible to improvement, lends itself to the cult of the audience, what can we say about the counterrevolutionary potential of the Internet and other new technologies? Technologies of art that begin by appearing egalitarian in the revolutionary sense end up being fascized. Reality TV lets us all be movie actors with our own scripts. The Internet lets everyone be a writer. The process is familiar: fascism replaces the possibility of class consciousness with its peculiar brand of corruption. The advent of film presaged a certain kind of fascism; so does the advent of the Internet.
It is a good idea to try to construct a transnational or transhistorical stylistics of fascism. The pure view of reality is less and less possible in an age dominated by the illusion that every person is a potential artist or writer. With each advance in the technology of art, for a while the masses are simultaneously hypnotized by and immunized against the fascist corruption. But after a certain point, the immunization seems to lose effectiveness, and only the hypnosis remains. The degradation of the materials of art in the ages of fascism is the perennial constant. Our collective psychoses and hallucinations are now being projected on mass screens globally available on an unprecedented scale.
Art for the masses inflicted with attention deficit disorder can be nothing but hypnotizing when the expert critic loses his social role as mediator of standards and values. We would do well to look out for the forms of art reception in vogue at the present historical turning point. In the new means of perception, we can see the forms by which propagandistic art is again attempting to organize (or demobilize) the working classes on a global level. As Benjamin noticed in the thirties, the masses are granted the (illusive) right to express themselves, while their actual legal rights are being taken away. Fascism reduces politics to aesthetic expression, which finds its highest value in war. Traditional social relations remain intact while the masses are offered the illusion of a mass movement. Normal politics, based on reason and policy, is squeezed out in the media’s rush to idolize the most masculine political leader, as with George Bush’s “Top Gun” carrier landing.
CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News channel the poetry of war, the highest form of expression for the fascist mode of representation. Embedded reporters satisfy the appetite of masses back home reared on a diet of virtual war, played out on the video terminal. The masses’ mechanisms of receptivity have been altered in the late decades of the information revolution, to allow no screen to dehypnotize them at critical points of absorption. The new aesthetic politics of fascism capitalizes on this receptivity by blocking out the critical apparatus whereby the masses might cease to participate in their own suicide. Fox News’s slogan “fair and balanced” is taken at face value by its millions of followers.
If modernism was extraordinarily preoccupied with physicality, early twentieth century avant-gardism carried this to obsession. The similar late twentieth-century disillusionment with intellectuality, in favor of instinct and spontaneity, sets the stage for a reification of the body that can easily culminate in the ideology of another Alfred Rosenberg. The signs of this cultural project are littered all over the landscape.
And the poet laureate of the new fascism? George Bush unconsciously liberates words from their traditional meaning (setting forth a new syntax that condemns bourgeois norms) and celebrates masculinity and physicality at his ranch as well as the White House (enforcing a strict athletic regime on his staff). In totalitarian imagery, sport is glorified to the point of heroism. Before becoming governor of Texas, Bush was part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Bush now plays blood sport with the nation’s treasure. Women are strictly excluded from this battlefield (except when they are damsels in distress to be rescued by virile Americans, as in the case of Pfc. Jessica Lynch).
In the earlier fascistic style, the man of letters would turn into the man of action. Now the man of action makes no pretense of having been a man of letters. The masses love this sensibility. We don’t need traditional institutions when we can worship manly virtues. For the first time, Bush has succeeded at a business: he has transformed politics, warfare, and empire into the most saleable consumer items. The aura around the leader is enough to seal the deal.
As Koepnik says, totalitarian cultural politics demolishes “peculiarly modern boundaries between modes of cognition, experience, and expression.” The idea is to make politics beautiful, try to make the whole of life into “a unified work of art.” Postmodern culture’s fascination with spectacle and reproducible representation creates a situation where “culture and politics,” and “media and power,” blur indistinguishably. Where once there was Goebbels, now there is Murdoch, with the same power to shape the fantasy and self-image of the representative bourgeois. More problematic for a resurrection of modernity that would attack the fascist aesthetic, the high priests of postmodernism deny the possibility of the autonomy of art—or politics.
After experiencing a relatively calm liberal interlude in the middle and late decades of the twentieth century, we find eerie similarities between the early years of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Postmodernism’s concern with spectacle, often in the sense of positive appreciation, makes the categories of politics and aesthetics impossible to distinguish. Hence, the double bind confronting the critic of the reviving sacralization of politics. The most popular tool of resistance itself is blunted. None of us critics fully repudiates the fascist civic religion.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Reproducibility.” In Selected Writings: Volume 3, 1935-1938. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland et al. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2002.
Burger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Hewitt, Andrew. Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Avant-Garde. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.
Koepnick, Lutz. Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Mangan, J. A., ed. Superman Supreme: Fascist Body as Political Icon – Global Fascism. Portland, Oregon: Frank Cass, 2000.
Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Let’s Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991.
Anis Shivani’s novel Karachi Raj will be published in 2013. His books include The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), Against the Workshop (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). His novel in progress is called Abruzzi, 1936. He has recently finished a poetry book called Soraya and is working on another called Empire. He is also writing a new book of criticism called Plastic Realism: Neoliberal Discourse in the New American Novel. (updated 6/2013)