An Artless Society (the neo-Christian Reich)
The Third Reich took great pride in its artistic vision. Even the death camps were seen to serve an aesthetic function; the ‘beautification of the world through violence’, as a well-known documentary puts it. And while the Reich narrowed the definition of what could constitute art by rejecting modernism in all its forms, it did preserve one of two basic elements of what art, in its essence, accomplishes; it presents for us an ideal. This ideal is at once one of form and one of content. The form is irreal in that not only does it not exist in reality – it is both an amalgam of historical types and cultural desires – it also exists beyond the real in the presence of an archetype. The content precedence given over to the plastic arts in the Reich spoke to its executives’ penchant for realizing the ‘new man’, a eugenics-inspired pastiche of Victorian cultural levels theory and organismic evolution. Between Spencer, the oft-misrecognized ‘social Darwinist’ and Tylor, the major anthropologist of non-relativistic cultural studies, the stage was set for an anthropometry of art.
And yet while the National Socialists armed their artists with not only state funding but also a retrogressive vision of the essence of humankind – in it, it was the anatomy of sculpture that was most fascinating; during Hitler’s ‘Dyskabolos’ address he intones with all due caution that we today could not think to consider ourselves a successful race unless and until we achieve or even surpass the form represented in Greek classical art – that favored the physical ‘look’ as an expression of an inner health, we today have taken both their conceptions of health and esthetics as at least commercial ideals for all to strive towards. The ‘mongrel man’ remains with us in the guises of obesity, addiction, laziness, to name a few. And though we are certainly correct to disarm the edge of this once visionary sword while preserving the reach of its therapeutic blade, I wonder if the two can be so easily separated in practice.
The Nazis understood half of the presence of art in society, the half that validated their own sensibilities. But by far the majority of us today share those same ideals, and this is evidenced by our reaction to any type of art that challenges them, not to mention any other challenge emanating from other cultural spheres, including that of science. Durkheim shrugged off this kind of resistance to science, just as every authentic artist does for art. But the rest of us cannot afford such blitheness. Not the least while there is a powerful political movement afoot whose sole goal is to return to Eden, the ultimate result of a logic that seeks to beautify through violence. And through their critique of other cultural forms, including art, they have a most willing audience in those of us who would never turn their way through religious suasion alone.
Instead of proselytizing superstition, the advance guard of the neo-Christian alliance attacks aspects of culture that on the face of it, many of us would instantly agree need to be curtailed or even vanquished. Criminality, pornography, drugs, come to mind. But, as riders to these widely agreed upon human failings, the Neo-Christian will smuggle in assaults on art via pornography, addiction as an illness via drugs, poverty and class struggle via criminality. Indeed, one may well suspect that the criticism of ‘non-partisan’ social problems is seen only as a vehicle for this critic to undermine essential aspects not only of a democracy, but of the ethical society itself.
We are receptive to these more calculated attacks because its seems, once again, on the face of it, that the rationality guiding them should be acceptable to any sane human being. We know that obesity, addiction, or the anti-social or misogynistic aspects of the sex industry are not ideals, either cultural or moral. We tolerate them without full acceptance because they express the wider marginalia of a free society. In attacking them directly, we must redefine what we understand by human freedom, trending it away from its shadowy verges which, when enacted, are always tantamount to the nth degree of having the freedom to immolate oneself upon one’s own desires. We children of the Enlightenment, our parents equally Rousseau and De Sade, embrace the joy of ecstasy with the sorrow of nothingness. Ours is a Dionysian existence made into a commodity fetish.
To all of this the Christian would cringe with a genuine sorrow, and in this we ourselves can agree to a point. But the neo-Christian rejects this fuller human freedom by editing, moralizing, censoring, erasing. His is the faux sadness of pity, for in vice he does not see the underside of virtue but rather the leverage to promote his own wider vice. ‘If this is humanistic freedom’, he exclaims, ‘better then to be a slave!’. In their slavishness, the place of art is reduced to decoration, for while a fascist welcomes the art of the past, and particularly the forms which evolved within his own cultural antecedents, and while he also understands that art presents an ideal form for humanity to strive towards, the neo-fascist does neither. The new fascism of today, neo-Christian and neo-conservative, has no conception of art whatsoever. The nude is pornographic, just as is nakedness immoral. Puritanical in its genesis, not unique to America but having its hearthstone there, neo-fascism deliberately mistakes prudishness for prudence, neurosis for mere caution. Its desired Reich is yet lower than that previous, shockingly, given what we know. It is lower and less noble because it does not even have the half-understanding of art that the Nazis did. What it presents to the rest of us is a vision of an artless society.
From this observation we are but one step from as well suggesting that such a society would also have no culture. The anthropological definition, in its origins begrudging and still heavily hierarchized, attains through its Boasian relativism only the sense that humanity expresses its shared essence in a multiplicity of manners and mannerisms alike. The liberating quality of cultural relativism was almost immediately used by the Reich to justify its criminal practices – ‘this is our culture after all, and no two may be judged by one another or even directly compared’ – and thus this logical entailment of relativism is now used to justify unfreedom, often chanting the shallow terms ‘morality’, ‘principle’, ‘standard’. Either way, the individual, conscious of her own potential freedom and yet also self-conscious about expressing it, is left unsupported. On the one side, relativism defeats itself by extending its logic to the death camps, and on the other, it opens itself to external defeat by declaring that its enemies also have the absolute right to their own druthers. The throw-away line ‘well, its all relative’, today represents a fatal error, not in morality per se, but rather in existential authenticity.
The only way to resist and overcome neo-fascism is through a step-by-step advance through the dueling Herculean pillars of ideal form and adorational desire. Though it may be ironic that the purveyors of the Third Reich would view those of the Fourth as themselves a mongrel ‘race’, it is through this very viewpoint, itself fraught with risk, that we can best defeat the artless society. Once again, this is the case precisely due to the fact that the majority of us understand art the way the Nazis themselves did. This is certainly an indictment upon us – our half-hearted conception of art represents in us a genuine decadence rather than a mere desireful lust which is expressed in the pressing presence of pornography, for instance – but it is the half-step away from neo-fascism that is nevertheless necessary to avoid a sterner collective fate. The fullest comprehending of the presence of art in society is too much of a threat to that very fabric to be taken in a single step. For art does not alone represent an ideal, but rather speaks into being the oversoul of our shared humanity and thus puts the lie to any sensibility that we can remain aloof to our equally shared existential condition. The ‘scandal of art’, as Ricoeur states, balances and confronts the ‘scandal of the false consciousness’. In doing so, it oft comes across as itself not mere scandal but rather as a palpable evil. But to recognize the authentic evil in the aesthetic object would be to but give away another weapon to the neo-fascist, and one that the rest of us, in our headlong flight from our own feared freedom, would be only too willing to wield.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in aesthetics, ethics, religion, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.