Four Theses on the Aesthetics of Fascism (2003-2015)

Thesis #1: The Solitude of Monuments

“I monumenti debbono giganteggiare nella loro necessaria solitudine”

“Monuments must dominate by means of their necessary solitude” (Mussolini, 1936)

These photographic images represent important monuments and works of art that were housed during the Second World War in temporary architectural constructions in Italy. Similar photographs exist for all the other countries involved in the conflict, which leads us to imagine what the urban landscape of Europe looked like during those years.

These wrappings of brick, sandbags and mattresses, poor protection in the case of a direct bombardment nevertheless preserved the frescos and sculptures from the potential effects of an explosion that might occur nearby.

In the documentation of the services of the Italian national patrimony (Direzione Generale delle Arti, La protezione del patrimonio artistico nazionale dalle offese della Guerra aerea [Protection of the national artistic heritage from wartime aerial attacks] these works that were imprisoned and removed from the gaze of spectators for whose benefit they had been conceived, appear to us in the limbo of a catastrophe that, for having been announced, is already present, and sometimes takes the form of the devastation that will make of these beautiful churches a pile of anti-esthetic debris.

The quote from Mussolini that is my epigraph constitutes a manifesto, it seems to me, capable of being taken word by word as an announcement of the catastrophe to come: “monument,” “dominate,” “necessary,” solitude.” It is on the basis of such an ideology that the ancient buildings of Rome, during the 20 years of fascism, were “cleansed,” liberated from all historical stratification and superposition: entire residential neighborhoods (as well as one or two hills) were razed around these monuments in order to render them more visible, in order to give them the status of a symbolic icon, from which one could draw one’s resources.

A reasonably representative example of this thinking is the tabula rasa produced around the Mausoleum of Augustus, which remains as an open wound in the middle of the city, inflicted upon it in the name of an equation between the Roman and Fascist empires. Yet it was a monument where the struggle still took place between, on one side, modernism and post-futurism (somewhat supported by Mussolini, who saw in it the realization of his “new man”), and on the other, a neo-imperial classicism supported by most of the Gerarchi [Fascist hierarchy] of the regime. Such a struggle, which became public and explicit around 1934, was temporarily resolved by the evident compromise of the Italian pavilion of the 1937 Exposition Universelle in Paris. But towards the end of the decade rationalist architects were obliged to bow before the demands of monumental representation, and a cultural politics that was subordinated to that of Nazi Germany.

During the same years in Germany, there was an absence of veritable esthetic conflicts, but one can point to a cohabitation between a “Dorian” official line – linear, monumental, fiercely opposed to bourgeois and individualist fantasy and experiment – and a strong and sentimental nostalgia for a lost age. The coexistence of these two sentiments might lead us to say that fascism is kitsch. And that is because kitsch, the voluntarist representation of harmony, “is a degraded form of myth” (Saul Friedländer, Reflections of Nazism, New York 1984).

But is there not a striking similarity between the temporary carapaces that I asm showing here, and the architectural realizations of these two regimes? And why do we experience, let’s admit it, a fascination for these formless forms?

Thesis #2 Die Ruinenwerttheorie/The Theory of Ruin Value

“In this context I should perhaps dedicate a few words to the so-called Theory of Ruin Value, which is not Hitler’s. It is my own theory!

I had occasion to see how the rubble from renewing the tramway system in Nuremberg, made of iron and cement, were spread all around it. What an unpleasant impression that pile of trash produced! Seeing it, I told myself that we should not construct our most important edifices with reinforced concrete but, on the contrary, draw on the construction techniques of the Ancients, so as to render such structures agreeable to sight, even if in ruins. Following that, I tried to go deeper into my ideas concerning this, and I realized a large drawing, unfortunately lost, of the Nuremberg Zeppelinfeld. It looked like a ruin covered in ivy. When I submitted my design to Hitler some of his collaborators were there, and they considered it a sacrilege to imagine that Hitler’s Reich might last less than for all eternity.

But Hitler considered that how long his monuments might last was a discussion worth having. He knew to what extent Mussolini’s fascism was upheld by the presence of the imperial buildings of Rome, icons of, or memorials to a bygone era from which one sought to draw one’s resources.

No doubt it was because of the enormous costs of such construction techniques that only a few select buildings – of Hitler’s choosing – were to be constructed according to that theory: the Nuremberg Stadium, for example, the military parade ground, and, in Berlin, the Soldatenhalle and the grand assembly hall, Hitler’s palace and perhaps also the Victory Arch.” (Albert Speer, Technik und Macht, Esslingen 1979)

As an introduction to these remarks it is perhaps interesting to remember that Speer’s Zeppelinfeld, “the world’s largest tribune,” which welcomed 100,000 members of his Party is – although it has been divested of the most evident marks of its original function such as the colonnades and giant eagle – today a recreational park where both car racing and open air rock concerts take place.

Indeed, what interests me in Speer’s discourse is the equivalence that he draws between a ruin and a monument. The monument always has a finger pointing somewhere; it always indicates a direction in time, even if it is there for remembering (Denkmal in German) or for admonishing (Mahnmal). As Leopardi already noted, in the middle of the romantic period (in his Zibaldone di pensieri), one builds a monument to counter the idea of finitude.

I find it interesting to reflect on how a regime at the height of its power can already be interested in the forms of its own demise. For my part, I am interested in “unconscious” ruins. The images used for this work were taken in three places: 1) in Rome, in the Antiquarium comunale of Celio, a veritable open cemetery for archeological relics that – too fragmentary, dispersed or anonymous – didn’t even find a home in some museum warehouse; 2) in Bagnoli, near Naples, in the disaffected or soon to be demolished industrial buildings of the Italsider; and 3) in Potsdam, in the parks where the Kings of Prussia built their own form of identification with classical antiquity during the romantic period.

These piles of rubble are supposedly the antithesis of what Hitler and Speer intended by “ruin value.” At the same time, I am not sure that what made me jump over the fences of these sites in order to photograph them was not a version, perhaps more conscious or more “de-constructed,” of a similar attraction for the ruin in and of itself. Of course, this was not the pathetic nostalgia for a Mediterranean world that took pride in an ancient history and a monumental past, a nostalgia that pushed many German aristocrats to construct artificial ruins [Künstliche Ruine] of painted wood and plaster in the parks of their chateaux. But this fascination for romantic ruins, quite obvious in Speer’s text, and which comes to him directly from the 18th century, is typical for rational beings who gamble their own persistence in future time.

When I photographed the Norman tower site, with its “Roman” arcades and “Greek” temple (this was in 2003), I found it quite amusing that it was in the process of being restored to its “original fakeness.”

I’d like to show here, in parentheses, several images illustrating an esthetic of the ruin. It seems to me that all of them bare witness, in their diversity, to the function of the ruin as a hinge in the linear continuity of time: these are “pre-Benjaminian” images. The fall is not yet the catastrophe.

Capriccio di rovine (Caprice of Ruins) by Giovambattista Piranesi, 1756. Please note the size of the characters in relation to that of the piled up vestiges.

Rovine di una galleria di statue nella Villa Adriana (Ruins in a statue gallery in Hadrian’s Villa), Piranesi, finished in 1770.

The Artist’s Despair before the grandeur of ancient ruins, Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1780.

View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins, Hubert Robert. This enlightened and learned artist, projects himself into the future while actively participating in the acquisitions and construction of the new Louvre Museum around 1795.

Thesis #3: Sentimentalisierung ist Verbrechen / Sentimentalizing is a crime

“Art does not find is basis in time, but only in peoples” (Adolf Hitler, 1937

“The artist who thinks he must paint for his time or to serve the taste of time has not understood the Führer. The stakes are for all eternity! To create the eternal on the basis of the temporal, that is the sense of all human enterprise” (Baldur von Schirach, 1941)

The Balilla (named for a young Genoan who, by throwing the first stone, gave the signal for the insurrection against the Austrian occupier in 1746) were children aged from six to twelve who were incorporated into the numerous paramilitary units under Italian fascism (between 3 and 6 one was a son of the wolf /Figlio della Lupa; between 13 and 18, Avanguardista; from 18 on, Giovane Italiano)

In the photographic pose (of course every photograph isolates and “iconizes” its subject) the child is “promised,” consigned by the adults responsible for him to the regime, which will guarantee for him the future into which he is inscribed. That is what is shown in the three variants on this theme that I am proposing in this documentation: a child in uniform giving the fascist salute; a child in uniform with a club; a child in uniform with a portrait of Il Duce. The logical consequence of those images is found here: the stamp on the postcard bears the date June 1941, year 19 of the fascist era. The US hadn’t yet entered the war.

The tenderness implied in placing the young child in front of the photographic lens, the same tenderness as when we take photos of our own children, also carries a threat: this child, who is already a soldier, will be in the camp of the conquerors. His uniform protects him already, while at the same time giving him the symbolic and ideological points of reference for his adult life. At the same time, we know that this father, with all the pride in the world, having lead his son to the corner photographic studio, is an Abraham who is using the lens in the place of the sacrificial knife: “This child is dying,” Chris Fynsk would say (Infant Figures, Stanford UP, 2000).

Indeed, the infans, the speechless child, cannot say by which end he would like to end. These children, subject to photographic surgery – wasn’t I also put in front of a large black apparatus in the back room of a studio that smelled of mold and Odradek, after being dressed up as a little Bersagliere/infantryman, on my head a strange round and stiff hat decorated with rooster feathers? – these children inevitably make me think of those animals that were still being used even recently for scientific experiments.

What finally attracts us in the iconography of these experiences is the fact that its subject is alienated from its individual multiplicity in order to extract the signs of a single one of its attributes. As a result it is known to us as a reified sign. In the same way we observe and interpret that gestures of a loved one, his or her breathing even, as signs that are addressed to us, without seeing that that being is far from us and from our own fascism, that is to say far from the will to coopt the other within our system.

Thesis #4. Colpi proibiti/Forbidden Blows

“Because, for the fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, or has value, outside of the State” (Enciclopedia italiana, vol. XIV (1932), entry on “Fascism,” chapter “Doctrine,” signed Benito Mussolini, but written by the philosopher Giovanni Gentile)

But what does fascism and its esthetics have to do with this work, entitled Forbidden Blows? In fact it is nothing other than the simple reproduction of two plates from the Enciclopedia italiana, illustrations for the article on Pugilato/Boxing, showing defensive blows as well as forbidden ones (which are also listed and included, it goes without saying, in order to be sanctioned).

When we look at these images with a minimum of attention we see how these brave boxers have been placed against a background inspired by classicism. It is probably the Fascist Academy of Physical Education, built between 1926 and 1932, based on the designs of that most official architect Del Debbio, and completed by the time the article appeared in volume 38 of the Encyclopedia (published in 1935).

In fact, as the Encyclopedia article reminds us, boxers, whether amateur or professional, were integrated into the Italian Pugilist Federation, which was attached to the Italian National Olympic Committee, which depended in turn on the National Fascist Party. Only Germany had a similar organization, whereas “in the other European nations federations were social entities without any investment by the constituted powers.”

The context of these images, as well as the information provided by the editor of the Encyclopedia, tell us that we are looking at fascist boxers. But my question is: can a boxer be fascist? Or, to put it another way, can there be fascist and non-fascist boxing? And what would democratic boxing look like? Like me, you have no answer to that question. For one can be boxer and democratic, but not a democratic boxer.

In the same way one might ask; can a child be fascist? And an artist?

All the particulars of fascist esthetics mentioned here (a-contextuality, a-temporality, cooptation, dependence) are not unknown to me. And my own artistic practice is not exempt from the kitsch implied by all of these procedures (de-contextualization, change of scale, reproduction ad libitum, repetitiveness in multiplying images).

What is it then that explains my own fascination for these subjects (the esthetics of Evil accompanied by nomenclatures, classifications, incantatory enumerations, and scientific experiment for which the human is the subject, all these anthropologies and anthropometries that assuredly resemble a theatre of sadism)? What is my own relation to these Balilla photographed, these boxers boxing in the void, and these builders of nothingness?

SP, 2003-2015

Translated from French by David Wills

(Find here the related images: Quatre thèses…)


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