In Oliver Hirschbiegel’s endlessly memed 2004 German film Downfall, about Adolf Hitler’s last delusional, self-obsessed days toward the end of the Second World War, there is an unsettling scene that stands out in a movie made up of them. Hitler, as played with reptilian efficacy by Bruno Ganz, crouches down and stares through a white plaster miniature of a planned triumphal arch. As the camera pans out, we see that Hitler is intensely studying an entire city of these models, a reimagined new Berlin that was to be called “Germania.” About the size of several pool tables linked together, the Third Reich’s architect Albert Speer has assembled what looks like a fascist model railroad town, a reconceived capital of monumental columns and widened boulevards, of neoclassical statues and massive marble buildings.
The dictator circles around the table, slowly, pompously, and reverentially considering the design, while delivering an encomium for the assembled officials and their secretaries (including Speer) about past architectural wonders, such as the Acropolis, which Germania will supposedly supplant. Finally, he pauses in front of the ribbed dome of the Volkshalle, which was to have been sixteen times larger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica, so huge that it would have had its own weather patterns underneath the roof. “You know Speer, there’s an advantage to those bombings,” Hitler says, amid the distant sound of Soviet incendiaries exploding over Berlin’s streets. “It’s easier to clean up debris than to demolish everything ourselves.” He’d of course be dead within a few months.
If Marxists supposedly read art through a didactic political lens, then fascists reformulate society and politics into their own twisted work of art.
In Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, Frederic Spotts writes that Germania was to rival “imperial Rome;” “at every turn vast plazas, gigantic state buildings, great thoroughfares, columns, towers, statues, reliefs, arches, baths, theatres, forums, temples, memorials, bridges, palaces, museums, stadiums, tombs, fountains, galleries, obelisks” were to be built, with all of it to “speak for its creator and memorialize him for one thousand years.” The scene from Downfall is disturbing in the manner that all implied counterfactuals about the outcome of the war are disturbing, for it asks us to envision a monstrous Germania, which thankfully never came to pass. But it’s also disturbing in another way: Hitler’s intense focus and concentrated attention, the way he slowly considers Speers’ models as if a spectator at an architectural museum, remind us that his original desire was to be an artist and that he harbored pretensions to such a vocation until the moment he put a pistol to his temple. It reminds us in turn that there is perhaps something a bit totalitarian in the singular obsessions of the artist, in their belief that they’re worthy to remake the world—what Ron Rosenbaum calls in Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil “demonic connoisseurship.”
The German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin famously argued in his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that, in a manner that’s broadly the opposite of communist authoritarianism, fascism tends towards an aestheticization of politics. If Marxists supposedly read art through a didactic political lens, then fascists reformulate society and politics into their own twisted work of art. This is what Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels claimed when he said that politics is the “highest and most comprehensive art there is.” Hitler, who was obsessed with design and art, arguably saw the nation itself as a canvas on which he could force his visions. This is what critic Terry Eagleton describes in The Ideology of the Aesthetic whereby the “wholesale aestheticization of society had found its grotesque apotheosis for a brief moment in fascism, with its panoply of myths, symbols and orgiastic spectacles.”
Crucially the aestheticization of society also involved a type of weaponized art critique. Nazis attacked the modernist avant-garde as decadent and depraved, Jewish and Bolshevik, mounting their most famous assault at the 1937 Exhibition of Degenerate Art in Munich, which included paintings and sculptures by seminal figures like Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, George Grosz, Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Piet Mondrian, and Wassily Kandinsky (all the pieces had been confiscated and displayed against their creators’ wishes). Hitler claimed that such work “[insulted] German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form.” His aesthetics were markedly revanchist; Spotts writes that the “classical style was the hallmark,” that slavish imitation of Greek and Roman antecedents architecturally and artistically “exemplified Hitler’s new Germany.”
This aesthetic conservatism, even when it borders on reactionary kitsch, is always worth wearily paying attention to when it rears its head in public discourse. Such is the case with the draft of an executive order from the Trump administration predictably titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” obtained by Cathleen McGuigan of Architectural Record the day before the president’s “acquittal” during his impeachment trial and largely overshadowed by that event. The proposal was presumed by some to have been authored by, among others, Justin Shubow. A member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, director of something called the National Civic Art Society, and one of the self-described “aesthetic guardians of Washington, D.C.,” Shubow’s tastes are decidedly conservative. To that end, the draft proposes to form a President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture, whereby “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style.”
The draft named names when it came to federal buildings whose style the authors found—perhaps—decadent. These include structures like San Francisco’s federal building and the U.S. courthouses in Austin and Miami. With unusual language for an executive order, the draftees decried “brutalism and deconstructivism.” Even the title of the draft is strange for an executive order, and brings to mind Susan Sontag’s observation about Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in her classic New York Review of Books essay “Fascinating Fascism,” where the critic explains that that ideology “also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today . . . the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty.” Critics of the draft noted how it had purposefully misinterpreted and added to the language from the 1962 “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” written by the then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The future New York Senator wrote that federal architecture “must provide visual testimony to the dignity . . . of the American government.” But also that, true to the principles of an open, creative, and flexible society, “an official style must be avoided.” Moynihan concluded that rather than mandated official stipulations, “design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa.” Needless to say, the order has a rather different intent, even if it cribbed much of Moynihan’s language, specifically demanding a culturally and politically loaded aesthetic.
Alarm over the proposal was swift and warranted. Adam Rogers at Wired wrote that the order “might be one of the most blatantly authoritarian things the government has yet attempted.” At Slate, Morgan Baskin argued that “for centuries, autocrats, authoritarians, and dictators have held a fascination with using architecture as a political tool . . . while also dismissing modern architectural styles.” She writes that the “current crop of far-right world leaders with authoritarian impulses is no different—and that now appears to include President Donald Trump.” The American Institute of Architects took the step of directly condemning the proposal, writing that the profession is “committed to honoring our past as well as reflecting our future progress, protecting the freedom of thought and expressions that are essential to democracy.”
Despite the protestations of the Degenerate Art Exhibition, bad-faith defenders of the EO draft could, with some reasoning, claim that modernism has been the aesthetic purview of totalitarians. Brutalist monotony has long been associated with Soviet authoritarianism, but fascist leaders also had their dalliances with modernism, from Benito Mussolini’s enthusiasms for avant-garde futurist design to the Nazi sympathies of American modernist architect Philip Johnson (who would go on to partially design the Trump International Hotel and Tower off of Columbus Circle in New York). It’s equally easy to envision an argument which rightly points out how much of federal architecture is neoclassical anyhow. Washington, D.C., is a veritable fantasy of the ancient past, and the White House and Capitol are among the most prominent examples of neoclassicism (the EO draft’s authors extolled the style as the aesthetic of “democratic Athens” and “republican Rome”). Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the nation’s capital was explicitly classical, and not for nothing did Thomas Jefferson christen the neighborhood which would house the Congress after Rome’s Capitoline Hill. Ironically, it was the city’s 1899 Old Post Office which significantly disrupted the neoclassicism of the city center with its Romanesque façade. Today, that building houses the Trump International Hotel.
What’s disingenuous about those sorts of defenses is how expertly they side-step historical context. D.C.’s historical aesthetic was born from both the fashions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as from the founding generation’s enthusiasms for seeing themselves as inheritors of Roman republicanism (but not of Roman imperialism, as the Italian fascists would). While it would be fallacious to see the Capitol dome as fascistic because it’s neoclassical, we can’t ignore that new classical edifices are seen differently coming as they do after Speer’s nightmare of the Volkshalle. Most importantly, any condemnation of the authoritarian proposal must be grounded not in a denunciation of neoclassicism per se, but rather the decree of compulsion which animates the order. As Rogers writes, “forget about the aesthetics. State mandates for what counts as culture are always signs of creeping authoritarianism—banning architectural styles comes from the same file as banning books and declaring paintings degenerate.”
For the ideologue, aesthetics is enacted with politics in mind. Nothing is neutral, and everything makes a political argument.
Thinking about the order only in terms of marble edifices and columned porticos is ignoring what’s truly disturbing about its argument. We shouldn’t just be concerned with what Shubow and his colleagues like; we should be equally concerned about what they don’t like. And therein the true comparison between past authoritarianism and its current embryonic form most fully comes into focus. The proposal bemoans that modernist federal buildings reject a poorly defined version of “our national values,” that they have “little aesthetic appeal” and should be forbidden. In 2019, Shubow’s associate Catesby Leigh wrote in City Journal that mandated classical architecture is necessary for a “renewal of American civilization.” With obsessions over cultural purity and an imagined Edenic past, the proposed executive order partakes in the perennial fascistic fantasizing about an eternal return to primordial greatness. The authors write that neoclassicism would mark “an end to madness” in American architecture, and that said madness is the result of academic “cliques of chatterboxes, dilettantes, and art swindlers” whose designs revealed “an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.” Just kidding—Hitler said that. But you can almost see our tweedy neoclassical partisans declaiming that “from this moment we shall conduct a merciless war against the remnants of our cultural disintegration.”
The Western chauvinism of neoclassical obsession belies a noxious belief in what culture matters and what culture doesn’t. That’s fundamentally the word that’s being fought over: culture. Long a critical term of the left, “culture” has been appropriated by factions of the far-right, who use it not just for its traditional (and thus sympathetic to their aims) connotations of “high culture,” but in the more critical sense in which left-wing scholars have long used it as well. This is the mantra of Andrew Breitbart, who said that “politics is downstream from culture,” a concept appropriated directly from the political thought of the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci and has often been quoted by Breitbart’s inheritor, the Rasputinesque Svengali Steve Bannon
What’s important about this formulation is an acknowledgement that for the ideologue, aesthetics is enacted with politics in mind. Nothing is neutral, and everything makes a political argument. When the EO draft tells us that its goal is to “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” this is not a disinterested exclamation of civic high-mindedness, but an argument about what—and who—matters. It’s telling that the website of the conservative National Civic Art Society claims to extol “dignity, beauty, and harmony” when the administration for which it works sought, for the fourth year in a row, to defund the National Endowment for the Humanities mere days after the draft was reported on. To anyone actually concerned with such values, the abolishing of the NEH would be anathema, as that agency has been intrinsically involved in the democratic preservation of the United States’ cultural inheritance, in all of its glorious diversity and plentitude. Instead, the debate, as ever, is between two visions of culture; one which sees culture as simply a repository for that which is defined as great by those who believe they have the authority to declare such things, and the other which sees it as the endlessly generative interplay of free ideas. “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” has little to actually do with beauty, or culture, or even buildings, and everything to do with power: raw, naked, and unrepentant.