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Capturing an Aesthetic of Action

There was a critique here not long ago addressing the dearth of genuine artistic involvement across the spectrum of the new reactionary political movements. The complaint the author voiced, which the author carried with some aplomb, was that the political phenomenon of neoreaction has become all too mundane: “the right wing tends toward overly rigid, Apollonian thinking, where overt politics and economics are the only things that matter.” Where art is valued, he asserts, conversation “quickly devolves into 'how can we use this to red pill people.'” The result is a failure on the part of the right wing to both appreciate art and to create it.

This critique is not new; in fact, in many ways it seems to echo the same feeling of disappointment in the contemporary artistic culture of Fin-de-siècle Europe. Everything had come to serve some sort of mundane purpose—art had become falsely idealistic, bombastic and jingoistic, or merely kitsch. The Decadents, the Symbolists, the Impressionists—in both poetry and painting, sculpture and theatre, poured their venom on the Academic style as an embodiment of the cheap and philistine bourgeois aesthetic. It is the critique that gave rise to l’art pour l’art, in which the artistic creation serves no higher purpose than its own existence—an aesthetic philosophy reflective of the era of cultural discontent and nihilism in which it arose.

The origin of the complaint, though, is the very driving force of conventional conservatism itself, which is at its heart a bourgeois phenomenon. Anyone coming from this milieu will inevitably carry with him certain tendencies and habits of thought that define the mercantile and practical mind of the American Mittelstand. The aesthetic of the Mittelstand is Kitsch; it is the philistine value of something for its superficial or even collectable quality. Those who gather works of art for their practical use are very little different from those who collect them for their worldly value: both are driven by the essentially bourgeoisie quantitative evaluation. This, however, is the state of the world: even leftist artistic evaluation is little more than a cheap “personal statement”, reflective of a desire to signal and confirm one’s relationship to the wider community of criticism. Perhaps, rather than looking to the Apollonian tendencies of the right-wing, it is better to reflect on the state of Western art itself.

The Faustian Failure

Spengler did this. He considered the West itself, and the portrait he painted was bleak and believable, observing that

The Age has itself become vulgar, and most people have no idea to what extent they are themselves tainted. The bad manners of all parliaments, the general tendency to connive at a rather shady business transaction if it promises to bring in money without work, jazz and Negro dances as the spiritual outlet in all circles of society, women painted like prostitutes, the efforts of writers to win popularity by ridiculing in their novels and plays the correctness of well-bred people, and the bad taste shown even by the nobility and old princely families in throwing off every kind of social restraint and time-honoured custom: all of these go to prove that it is now the vulgar mob that gives the tone.

The chief flaw of this critique of right-wing arts, therefore, is the failure to recognize the clear reality that the civilization that conservatives value and purport to preserve, the Faustian West, is simply no longer capable of artistic creation as such. Spengler again:

The modern artist is a workman, not a creator. He sets unbroken spectrum-colours side by side. The subtle script, the dance of brush-strokes, give way to crude commonplaces, pilings and mixings and daubings of points, squares, broad inorganic masses. The whitewashed brush and the trowel appear in the painter's equipment; the oil-priming of the canvas is brought into the scheme of execution and in places left bare. It is a risky art, meticulous, cold, diseased—an art for over-developed nerves, but scientific to the last degree, energetic in everything that relates to the conquest of technical obstacles, acutely assertive of programme.

To build a true “Aesthetic of Counterrevolution”, therefore, it is necessary to determine which medium still has the capacity for real creativity, where the cultural vitality ebbing throughout our civilization remains at high-tide. When Spengler spoke of high art, he claimed that Impressionism and Wagner (specifically Tristan) represented the last real artistic phenomena of the Faustian soul. The truly Faustian achievement of Wagner, however, was the creation of an artistic sensual experience that was total in its embrace: Gesamtkunstwerk. Wagner lived Gesamtkunstwerk and his works were meant to be founding myths, all-embracing works of art, political statements, and conscious push-back against the “Hebraizing” influence on German artistic life.

Wagner has been criticized, ironically, for cutting off Opera from the broad masses; making it an experience rather than entertainment. Even Spengler does not mention the public quality of Wagner’s work and the unity between cultural creation and the self-conscious re-assertion of a lost form of expression in the Faustian world. Only Medieval mystery plays could claim such all-encompassing relevance, and then only because the world that produced them was so thoroughly saturated in the concerns of Christendom.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

What Wagner sought can perhaps be better viewed from an outside perspective. Yukio Mishima is hailed as one of Japan’s greatest modern writers—perhaps the greatest. He is a man speckled by contradictions as well. Chief among these is his relationship with the West: a Japanese author writing chiefly works focused on Japanese self-discovery and identity, he remained nevertheless desperate throughout his entire career to keep the Western spotlight on him. He sought Western translators for all his works, worked with Western publishing houses, and marked the personal turning point in his own life, giving him clarity in his vision, was a visit to Greece. Mishima wrote of harmony between the pen and the sword, and on the surface this has just the right sound to convince casual readers that it is of purely Eastern origin, full of the incomprehensible mysticism of the Asiatic races. However, taken in the context of Mishima’s own life, and the guilt that pursued him throughout his life because he had failed to die for the Emperor in the 1940s, it is clear that his writing would not have been possible without Meiji Restoration.

It is evidenced in his work as well: true, he was dedicated to traditional Japanese art-forms such as Noh theatre, and bushido, particularly seppuku, is a central theme of his work, but of his most famous works, nearly all occur not only after the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but indeed after the Taisho Period. His fantasies often stray into the realm of Jodo Bukkyo, and other Shinto and Buddhistic idylls, but his historical dramas and stories are planted firmly in modern Japan, which he spent his life trying to make sense of. This places him in the unique position of being a foreigner whom Western minds can draw distinct lessons from. When his career was at its apogee, the generation of Western readers who found his works only met a curiosity from the East, a great foreign and cosmopolitan experience to add to their collection, proving to themselves and others that they too were citizens of the global village in good standing. Now, the weary Western observer stares into the radiation-darkened mirror of Japan and finds Mishima, a deracinated bushi groping desperately for those thin red strings which bind him to his ancient culture and ancestral values, which in their turn consistently escape him because his hands are full of the baggage of alien values deposited in the course of the Weimerican corruption of his people.

This makes Mishima’s concern with the unity of pen and sword particularly relevant: in addition to being the Japanese contemporary of the late Faustian struggle with identity and meaning, Mishima is uncovering the means whereby Wagner’s flower becomes fruit. He sought to live in action what he created for his audience: to become as fully and as completely Japanese as the spirit of his art. His first attempt took the form of his fitness essays collected in Sun and Steel; he followed this with his foray into film with Yūkoku, which was silent for a reason: it did not fully speak the language Mishima sought to communicate in. Like Osamu in Kyōko no Ie, Mishima complains that in the end, he is growing weary of stage blood. Thus was the Tatenokai born—neither fully a political party nor really a militia, the so-called “shield society” was really political theatre in the spirit of the Dionysia: theatre as religious ritual, as Japanese nationalist politics inevitably must be due to the inextricable link between the Emperor and Shinto religiosity.

Mythmaking in the Twentieth Century

Spengler himself recognized the Western equivalent of this when he wrote disparagingly of the National Socialist movement as “a party-theatre of flags, parades, and uniforms” that concealed “sober reality”; of Hitler, he added, “what Germany needs is a hero, not an heroic-tenor”. Though in his bitter realization that the blonde barbarian was not as he desired him to be, Spengler missed one of the most astute observations about the Nazi movement. As one might expect from a political movement headed by a man who considered himself above all else an artist, National Socialism in its ritual and pageant represented more or less a Teutonic Tatenokai: a unification of pen and sword, of art and action. The great realist himself briefly mistook Hitler the artist for a manifestation of the coming Caesar.

The understanding of National Socialism as pageant is the only way to sufficiently explain the breadth of its ideological contradictions. Every action Hitler took as leader of the Party makes clear sense only if one views the actions as brushstrokes on a greater creation. Biographers have repeatedly belittled and attacked Hitler for trying to “create a world in which he was important” or molding Germany to his own image. Historians never tire of pointing out that the greatest devotee to the Hitler Cult was Hitler himself. However, in belittling him as merely a lucky, petty narcissist, they must throw their arms in the air when confronted with his tremendous successes—which has given rise to all sorts of occult explanations ranging from possession of certain mystical artifacts to a sort of mass-hypnosis.

Hitler’s course of action, however, suggests something else altogether. Nearly as soon as Hitler took over, the NSDAP began a campaign of adopting various ideologues for their quality, not as thinkers, but as ideologues. Speaking of the North Koreans, B.R. Myers has pointed out that the inherent absurdity of Juche thought suggests that the motivation and real beliefs of the North Korean people are not reflected in the hodge-podge of imitation Maoism and Marxist rhetoric in the official texts of the North Korean regime. Consider this representative excerpt from a textbook on Juche:

Juche-ness, party spirit, working class spirit and mass spirit are the fundamental characteristics of revolutionary literature. In literature, Juche-ness, party spirit, working class spirit and mass spirit are inextricably connected. Juche-ness, party spirit, working class spirit and mass spirit determine the social personality of literature and its value.

Juche thought, therefore, “exists to be praised, and not to be read”. Hitler regarded the ideology of National Socialism to be essentially the same, which is why he derided it in private frequently, mocking Alfred Rosenberg’s theories and Himmler’s occult fascination. And when he offered praise he pointed constantly to the way in which Germans distinguished themselves as representative of an Aryan spirit rather than to adherence to a given ideological tenet. The outward sign was the defining quality of his movement, which is why the National Socialist State functioned the way it did (i.e. largely independent of Hitler’s direct involvement, despite his personal claims to absolute power) and why Hitler, despite being moody and given to manic-depressive spells, was nevertheless a fairly predictable man to those who knew him. He spoke constantly of his “vision” for Germany, of the “great plan” he had.

One runs the risk here of merely parroting Allied propaganda which maintained that Hitler was incapable of good governance because he thought he was a Wagnerian hero. This is far too simplistic: Hitler was not trying to be a Wagnerian hero, he was trying to be a great German artist, and took as his model the man he regarded as the greatest artist Germany had ever produced. In other words, far from merely the “heroic tenor” Spengler accused him of being, Hitler’s real goal was to be the writer, conductor, set designer, and leading star of a great work of art which brought the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk out of a theatrical fantasy setting and into the real world. He sought, in other words, to make culture follow art rather than art culture.

Art and Action in the Twilight

It necessarily follows that there is a grave error being made by those who self-identify as National Socialists. National Socialism cannot exist outside of Hitler’s grand creation; it does not have the philosophical cohesion necessary to do so—which is why there are so many debates about its relationship to any number of religions, and why Susan Sontag compared possession of Nazi memorabilia to pornography collections. The aesthetic of National Socialism always outweighs any ideological consideration—even the rationale of its anti-Semitism is, to an extent, obscured behind the perfected caricature it created of the villainous Jew, a culmination of stereotypes and vilification. The torchlight parades, the rigid marches, the blood-red banners and stark swastika symbol are all defining qualities of National Socialism. The same cannot be said of Fascism generally; no other Fascist movement views its outward appearance so essentially as Hitlerian National Socialism.

Which brings us to a discussion of mass politics generally. The contention of the above argument is ultimately that Hitler perfected mass politics as a visible phenomenon; he united culture and art, and in the end his living art work was destroyed because of the destruction that had to be done to create it. Hitler, however, worked on a massive scale. Mishima worked on a much smaller one (though, admittedly, his work had a similar end). But their efforts were essentially the same: make art into action.

Can art remain merely art in the wake of these things? The turn towards decay and collapse began long before May 1945, but there can be no doubt that some turn, some change did occur as a result of the Second World War. Subsequently, the total absence of creative spirit in the formal arts has been in turn ignored and mocked: ignored by the vast majority of the art world, and openly mocked by pop-iconoclasts like Andy Warhol and Frank Zappa. In either case, nothing of great artistic value was created.

The critique, therefore, of the Alt-Right being too pragmatic and bourgeois conservatism being too trite is missing an essential piece of information: art now is not, and cannot be, art of the early 20th century and before. Art now has only one avenue, namely an art of action; not the cheap, kitsch “performance art” of the bankrupt cultural elite, but art in action, an art-form that shifts the world. The profuse employment of irony in meme culture reflects this. Political action and political change was effected last year on the basis of a subculture of creativity wholly devoted to fundamentally altering the way in which people perceive reality. This is, before anything else, an artistic undertaking. In an age of popular consumption, high culture is fossilized—civilization cannot be constructed with artistic expression and art returns to its essential roots as a means to convey reality and awaken sentiment. Meme culture does this, not as individual works, but rather as a sort of collective work. An individual catch-phrase, image, or thought-form is not art: the way in which they weave themselves together through conscious construction is.

I will close with Spengler’s reflection on the future of creative power in an elderly civilization:

In our own case there were books and ideas by the thousand; but, scattered, disconnected, limited by the horizons of specialisms as they were, they incited, depressed and confounded but could not free. Hence, though these questions are seen, their identity is missed. Consider those art-problems that (though never comprehended in their depths) were evinced in the disputes between form and content, line and space, drawing and colour, in the notion of style, in the idea of Impressionism and the music of Wagner. Consider the decline of art and the failing authority of science; the grave problems arising out of the victory of the megalopolis over the country-side, such as childlessness and land-depopulation; the place in society of a fluctuating Fourth Estate; the crisis in materialism, in Socialism, in parliamentary government; the position of the individual vis-a-vis the State; the problem of private property with its pendant the problem of marriage. Consider at the same time one fact taken from what is apparently an entirely different field, the voluminous work that was being done in the domain of folk-psychology on the origins of myths, arts, religions and thought — and done, moreover, no longer from an ideal but from a strictly morphological standpoint.

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