In a recent essay,[i] Andrew D. Chapman throws both Postmodernism and Surrealism into the “Fascism” pot. I won’t say anything here about whether Postmodernism belongs there or not, although I think this should be examined on a case-by-case basis.[ii] I doubt that such a blanket classification would stand up to scrutiny for all works and authors commonly associated with the postmodernist movement; but that is not the subject I would like to discuss here. Nevertheless, assigning the Fascism label to the artistic current of Surrealism doesn’t seem to make much sense to me and cannot be left unchallenged.
If we allow such an extension of the scope of the term “Fascism,” we are going reduce the discriminatory power of the term. At a time when instances of Fascism are increasing again in different parts of the world, I consider this dangerous. If anything is wrong with Postmodernism or with Surrealism, we should try to find out what it is and – if necessary – introduce new terms for the problems we are seeing, not widen the scope of existing terms that have a different meaning and are important for our understanding of current political phenomena in many countries, including, for example, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, the US, Italy, and some others.
As an example of Surrealism, Chapman presents a painting by Max Ernst–
Surrealism is essentially fascistic—its entire point is to put, say, an elephant, a Sudanese corn bin, a headless nude woman, and other manifestly discordant materials on an operating table and to force the viewer to deal with that random assembly.
Nothing justifies the juxtaposition, and this itself is the point of that juxtaposition.
I think Chapman misunderstands completely what Fascist art is. Fascist art does not contain any “random assembly” of elements. Fascist art is in no way arbitrary, it is on the contrary highly regulated in an authoritarian way. It is characterized by fixed, controlled “values” that are expressed both in content and form. In Fascist states, these “values” are enforced by censorship and institutions such as the Nazi “Reichskulturkammer,”[iii] by defamation campaigns such as the exhibition on “degenerate art” and by the ideologization of artists and audiences. The conformity of art and artists is enforced in such ideological systems by coercive means up to and including torture and murder. A playful kind of art, as it appears in the Dadaist and Surrealist works of Ernst, is impossible in a Fascist environment.[iv]
Before dealing in more detail with what fascist art, and similar art from other ideological contexts, actually looks like, let me say a few words about Max Ernst.[v] (Some literature on Max Ernst – in German – is given below;[vi],[vii],[viii] and I am sure there are excellent books about him in English as well). Max Ernst was one of the artists whose works were shown by the Nazis in the infamous exhibition “Entartete Kunst”[ix] (a Nazi term that can be translated as “degenerate art”). His painting “La Belle Jardiniere,” painted in 1925, was confiscated by the Nazis in 1937 and disappeared after being shown in that exhibition. It has been lost ever since. The following picture shows Goebbels[x] and Hitler at the exhibition. On the right side is Ernst’s painting.[xi]
In 1919, Ernst had been one of the co-founders of the Dadaist movement. From 1922 on, he lived in Paris. During the war, he fled to the United States together with the art collector Peggy Guggenheim, whom he subsequently married. Guggenheim helped several other artists to leave Europe. In view of this biography, it seems to be a rather strange idea to associate Ernst with Fascism. Of course, one should look at artists on a case-by-case basis, just as is the case with philosophers. The artist Salvador Dali (who is generally considered as part of the Surrealist direction of art) is said to have been an admirer of the Spanish dictator Franco and a friend of the German sculptor Arno Breker, who was one of the leading sculptors of Nazi Germany. The expressionist painter Emil Nolde is known to have sympathized with the Nazi movement although his own paintings where declared degenerate art by the Nazis. But in the case of Max Ernst, making a connection with Fascism seems absurd.
Let us have a look now at some art that really is Fascist. As an example, let’s look at Arno Breker. The following picture shows the entrance to Hitler’s “Reichskanzlei”:
The sculptures to the left and right are works of Breker. THAT is fascist art. Here is a close-up of the left one (“Die Partei”):
This art is authoritarian, ideological and pompous. It shows a total lack of any sense of humor or playfulness, and it is highly kitschy. Just as ideologies are characterized by prohibitions and impossibilities of thinking, by a suppression of mental creativity and flexibility and of the possibility of reflection, so kitsch is characterized by the suppression of artistic creativity and artistic reflection. Very often, as in this case, ideology and kitsch go together. Ideological thinking is characterized by the absence of reflection. By reflection, I mean the presence of a meta-level of thinking from which thoughts and ideas, concepts and ways of thinking (including thoughts on that meta-level itself) can be critically reviewed and can also be changed. Similarly, in the area of art, the absence of reflection leads to kitsch. The creative process stagnates. The result is dull pseudo-art. Certain forms might also acquire a status comparable to the dogmas of ideologies. Art that does not conform to these forms is then perceived as aberrant. Interestingly, different ideologies tend to lead to quite similar artistic expressions, e.g., in what is known as “socialist realism,” in Christian religious kitsch, etc.
Both in philosophy and in art, an excess of reflection and creativity, a questioning of everything on all levels, can lead to nonsense. But this is not harmful if the recipient does not fail to use his capacity for reason properly. An overdose of incoherence, as it seems to exist in some areas of postmodern thought, may lead to nonsense. The results of exaggerated logicism, however, are just as absurd.[xii] Logical reason without creativity leads to boredom and stagnation, and if paired with authoritarian structures, also to Fascism or similar ideologies; and creativity without logical reason leads to chaos and nonsense.
But both do not harm if such thinking is exposed to rational and creative criticism (including satirical humor), i.e., the two mental capacities must be used in a balanced way. Conversely, a lack of reflection and creativity leads to ideological blindness and kitsch. The nonsense that we encounter in Dadaism, for example, can be regarded as providing a positive exercise, an antidote against the stagnation of thought and artistic expression as we find them in fascism and similar ideologies. Likewise, a temporary incoherence of thought is not harmful if we are then trying to rearrange our ideas into something coherent again. Moving along an incoherent path of thought enables us to get out of the confines of a closed system of thinking and thus provides the basis for developing each such system into a new, more comprehensive one, something that cannot be done by logical derivations inside the given system of thought. Since this process can undermine the closed system of thought of an ideology, creative thinking and creative art are generally regarded as dangerous by the adherents of closed ideologies. We should therefore value them as positive contributors in the fight against Fascism, instead of wrongly assigning the Fascism label to them.
[i] A.D. Chapman, “Thoughts On The Relationship Between Postmodernism And Fascism,” https://againstprofphil.org/2019/04/10/thoughts-on-the-relationship-between-postmodernism-and-fascism/.
[ii] A more moderate view of Postmodernism has been developed by Kevin Currie-Knight: “Postmodernism as Truth in Advertising”, The Electric Agora (June 2019), https://theelectricagora.com/2019/06/13/postmodernism-as-truth-in-advertising/
[iv] The same is true for philosophy in a fascist environment. The philosophy of Nazi Germany, of fascist Italy or of Austria at the time of “Austro-Faschismus” is authoritarian and moves within strict limits. It is not at all “philosophically committed to individual and cultural relativism” (to cite Chapman). Instead, Fascism has very definite “values” that are enforced in an authoritarian fashion.
[v] I’ve had the opportunity to study works by him directly, both in the Centre Pompidou in Paris and in the Max Ernst Museum in his hometown of Brühl, a museum that I’ve visited repeatedly during the years I lived in Cologne. I’m not a professional art critic! But from this personal exposure to the works of Max Ernst, I do consider myself qualified to make my own judgments about his art.
[vi] U. Bishoff, Max Ernst, (Köln Taschen, 1987).
[vii] W. Spies, Max Ernst, 1950 – 1970 Die Rückkehr der Schönen Gärtnerin (Köln: Dumont, 1970).
[viii] M. Steinhauser, Introduction to “Max Ernst: Dadamax,“ (München: Piper, 1979).
[xi] Shown here is a subsection of the original photograph.
[xii] See, e.g., P. Unger, Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014).
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