Art and Totalitarianism(Fascism & Falangism page; initially posted at The Watch)
Totalitarian societies are countries where the rulers are locked in a war against the ruled. I've discussed two varieties, falangism and fascism. It would be a mistake to say that either has arrived here yet, and I hope readers of my other posts don't think I've said as much; but certainly American society is vulnerable to falangist traits. Falangism is the sort of political violence that comes abruptly, in a coup or a civil war, or as the consequence of a huge disaster. It's centripetal; it's amenable to libertarian rhetoric, and the places where radical libertarian policies took root have usually been falangist dictatorships like Chile's and Guatemala's. One of my postings, "Techno-falangism," was not about falangism at all, but about a certain type of sensibility that can lead to falangism: namely, a radical affinity for progress, an unambivalent love of advanced technology and a desire to silence those who are in spiritual rebellion from it. It was written two months before the Iraqi invasion (and posted here much later), and I wrote it originally to illustrate the dangers that this attitude posed…to the rest of the human race. Ray Bradury's Martian Chronicles brilliantly captured this conflict in modern American society, and in fact, Bradbury himself was the perfect specimen of American by straddling this divide. No essay I'll ever write will be as revealing and as fun to read as his writings.
In a posting about totalitarianism and architecture I urged those who could to e-mail me examples (photos, links) of falangist architecture. I had posted many links to photos of fascist architecture, such as Speer's work for Hitler and Guerrini's for Mussolini. But I was frustrated by the paucity of samples of falangist architecture. (I was also struck by the lack of decent examples of Japanese militarist architecture. The seat of the Japanese legislature was completed in 1936, and does look very ponderous, but isn't really a good example because it was designed by a popular competition held in 1917! The reason, of course, is that architects in Japan were trying to assimilate modern-Western--architectural techniques and no public language of architecture had evolved at that time.) I posted some shots of a mausoleum commissioned by Franco for the dead of the Spanish Civil War, but the mausoleum is not a compelling example: it looks like it would fit in quite nicely at Forest Lawn Memorian Park in Los Angeles, and it's architectural vocabulary is not surprising considering its function.
A number of friends and correspondents later told me-ones, I mean, who had travelled in Latin America-that the architecture of falangist regimes was exceptionally boring. The ugly, grandiose monuments of Brasilia would make perfect specimens of fascist art, but they were commissioned by a modernizing liberal president in what was then a democratic republic. The size and scope of the monument is something normally confined to regimes with abslute power, but in the heart of Europe, a thoroughly democratic and free society has carried out a gigantic recontruction of Berlin-accompanied, I will hasten to add, by intense controversy and compromise. There was a lack of any shred of nationalist self-expression, and that was of course the case in the construction of the modernist capital in Islamabad, Pakistan and the Mubarak Scientific Complex in Egypt. Falangist states sit unconfortably with nationalism; they really prefer an ideology of modernity, of efficiency and progress.
What was this Nazi aesthetic; what kind of "art" came of it, and why do we concern ourselves with it now? As Spotts suggests, the Nazi aesthetic had several interpenetrating parts, including idealizations of purity, violence and the human form. In fact, the resulting "art" encompassed much more than the kitsch statuary and paintings so easy to dismiss now: It also included Nazi pageantry and regalia, films and political choreography, architecture and, without too much of a stretch, even the so-called "theaters" of war and mass murder, as well. What makes Spotts's new book so important is that, along with "Prelude to a Nightmare," an exhibit last summer at the Williams College Museum of Art, and foundational books in this area by Jonathan Petropoulos and Brigitte Hamann, it restores to the historical record the role aesthetics actually played in the Nazi Reich and its policies. It makes absolutely clear that a Nazi aesthetic was part and parcel of Nazi ideology, and not just an ornamental byproduct of it.The centralizing zeal of the fascist may seem far removed from the professed libertarianism of the politcal right we know in this country. But the grandiosity of the modern Walmart gives me pause.
Not to be snarky or silly, but there has been an astonishing trend towards consolidation. Now, not only is the individual rendered a cipher in the boundless landscape of the IKEA department store; all style, all cultural point of reference is similary reduced to a packageable product. I seriously doubt that this was the goal of the architects or the commissioners of your neighborhood Sam's Club, but Albrecht Speer also seemed a little startled in his memoirs by the fact that his own designs rendered human users into a "visual zero."