This was written over a decade ago, so please, please don’t judge it too harshly. My writing sucked, I know, I’m over it. I’m just publishing it because one of my favorite readers and commenters asked.
One of the most fascinating issues surrounding the history of the modernist art in the XXth century is its relationship with the totalitarian regimes that are themselves an invention of this century. There are interesting parallels in the way that modernist art was treated in the Soviet Union, the Nazi Germany and the Fascist Italy. It has been pointed out that in their fight for power, and then in the first years of working towards establishing their respective regimes Communists, Nazis and Fascists did not reject or persecute the artistic avant-gardes. To the contrary, as Eksteins demonstrates in Rites of Spring, there are numerous affinities between the modernist way of seeing the world and the ideas that brought Nazis to power in Germany. In the case of the Soviet Union, avant-garde artists were not initially controlled by the government. More than that, as Margolin points out in The Struggle for Utopia, these artists wanted to participate in the project that the communists were supposedly trying to carry out, and strived to either adapt their art to these goals, or to interpret it in ways that would be helpful to the program of changing the society. Yet again, there seems to be a genuine interest on the part of the modernist artists towards this political system, and even a certain identification with its goals. As for Fascist Italy, as Stone demonstrates in The Patron State, Fascist cultural functionaries created a system of patronage in which avant-garde artists were afforded an unparalleled government support irrespective of the political content of their work and their artistic affiliations. At the same time, some groups of modernist artists, such as the Futurists, genuinely and consistently supported Fascist ideas and the Fascist government, seeing them as related to and reflective of their own vision.
In spite of the initial support that these totalitarian regimes first accorded to the artistic avant-gardes and the modernists’ affinities with some of the ideas that inspired the rise to power of Nazism, Fascism and Communism, there comes a point in the history of all three of these regimes when they reject, to a greater or lesser degree, the modernist art they initially supported. While the Nazis in Germany organize the Degenerate Art Exhibition to signal their dismissal of this kind of art, there is a similar (although a less successful, as Stone demonstrates) tendency to denounce modernist art in Fascist Italy. In the most extreme case of all, the Soviet Union not only completely withdraws its support for avant-garde artists, but also chooses to prohibit creative efforts in any style other than that of Socialist Realism. The Western modernism, and later post-modernism, would not be criticized or denounced for the simple reason that their very existence will be concealed from the reading public. Taking into the account the initial attraction between the ideas that inspire modernist art and the ideology that brings to power these totalitarian systems, one is bound to wonder: why do these political regimes always seem to arrive at a point where they feel the necessity to reject, condemn and even conceal the existence of modernist art? If, as Stone suggests, “the dictatorships of the twentieth century all located aesthetics at the core of their centralizing drives” (3), and the aesthetics in question was that of modernist art, then why would this aesthetics eventually come to be perceived by the dictators as incompatible with the needs of their totalitarian regimes?
Continue reading “The Fate of Modernist Art in the Totalitarian Systems: Love or Hate?”