Russell Smith: The alt-right vs. the avant-garde
Anish Kapoor’s stainless steel Cloud Gate sculpture was one of the images that flickered behind a recent NRA video that espoused the dangers of the contemporary world. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
Many people were alarmed by the National Rifle Association video that gained wide circulation on social media last week. The official spokesperson of the NRA, talk-show host Dana Loesch, rails against all sorts of contemporary dangers – criticizing the U.S. President, protesting in the streets – and stops just short of a call to armed insurrection.
Much has been said about the content of the speech, but I was also intrigued by the choice of images that flickered rapidly as the speech unfolded. The montage was of all sorts of apparently random things. Ordinary building were intercut with footage of political demonstrations. Some of the photos were of contemporary art and architecture. One brief image was of a swirly Frank Gehry building (the Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra); one was of Anish Kapoor’s shining egg sculpture in Chicago, Cloud Gate.
So they are not random after all. Art, particularly avant-gardist art, has long been the target of conservatives in all countries. Art is part of the great fraud that is being perpetrated on ordinary people: It is an extension of the media and therefore always fake news. The speech is explicit about the role of art in the hoax: “They use their singers and comedy stars and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again,” Loesch says.
A less widely circulated alt-right (a U.S.-based white nationalist movement) video lecture also appeared at the end of June, this one specifically about the role of architecture in the fraudulent liberal conspiracy. This one, made and promoted by the far-right site Infowars, is an anti-architecture narrative spoken by British-born activist Paul Joseph Watson. It is titled Why Modern Architecture Sucks. It has, so far, more than 300,000 views. The 35-year-old Watson is an Infowars editor-at-large and a contributor to The Alex Jones Show, the radio branch of Infowars. Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist who believes that the Sandy Hook elementary-school shooting was, as with the moon landing, staged by the U.S. government.
Watson’s polemic against “modern” architecture (which includes all trends in postwar architecture, including postmodernism) is a familiar one. We heard it from Prince Charles in the 1980s. Architecture that respects the “form follows function” dictum, as well as the more ornate experiments of recent years, is stark and ugly and inhuman. The grand old cities of Britain have been disfigured by monstrous concrete housing projects and public buildings. This ugliness leads to alienation and social problems. People don’t want to live in high-rises. Concrete, glass and steel are cold building materials. People lost cozy neighbourhoods when row-house slums were torn down.
And he makes well-known charges of totalitarian tendencies against the most famous of idealistic modernists, especially Le Corbusier. In this, he is not at all wrong. Le Corbusier did hold quite a few alarming beliefs. He did see architecture as a form of social engineering and he did have links to fascism – and if his rigid planned cities had ever been constructed, they would have been a social nightmare.
Nor is Watson wrong that the famous failed housing projects of the sixties and seventies, and the most unpopular of brutalist buildings, were designed by left-wing idealists. Brutalism was the product of a heady optimistic time that envisioned classless equality in what was probably a naive way.
Watson goes farther. Modernist architecture is not just socialistic, but “inherently totalitarian.” It aims to take away our freedoms. It represents globalism itself. The globalist goal is to make the whole planet identical. If we revere the local and reject the global, we retain architectural idiosyncrasies and charm.
This echoes the nationalism of the right: National differences are valuable; we must protect our national identity from foreign influences and religions. This is why free trade and open borders are bad. (By the way, the supposed enemies of this local/national culture are not just Muslim. The comments that follow this video quickly turn to overt anti-Semitism, with many posters embedding artists’ and architects’ names in triple parentheses, code for Jewish identity. A comment such as “(((Who’s))) behind modern art?” is a veiled suggestion that art is Jewish.)
Watson singles out one particularly daring recent building, the art museum in Graz, Austria, built in 2003 by Colin Fournier and Peter Cook to look like a giant blob with sucker-like protrusions. Watson hates it of course, but its particularly gleeful about its being an art museum. Of course it is! Contemporary art is just as decadent.
What is the problem with new art and architecture? The word postmodernist comes up here – not to describe actual postmodernism (in architecture, that category would actually include nostalgic pastiches of the kind that Watson seems to favour) but to mean everything that is new and bad. In some conservative circles right now, the word is used interchangeably with “politically correct” and “Marxist.” Watson rails against “… the relativist, collectivist, postmodernist lie that objective standards of beauty don’t exist.”
He is not the first political thinker to deride the cosmopolitan tendencies of avant-gardist art, nor to think of it as degenerate (though he carefully avoids using that word). He is wrong about a number of things. Postmodernism doesn’t mean what he thinks it does and it is explicitly opposed to the modernism he so despises. Furthermore, the authoritarian tendencies of utopists such as le Corbusier, as well as the failures of mid-century social-housing plans, have been critiqued to death by the very artists he thinks are complicit. But he is right about one thing: There is a very strong link between contemporary artists and left-wing political thought, even radical leftist thought. He is not wrong to see impulses toward equality and cultural internationalism in all this odd stuff; he is not wrong to see it influenced by academic political theory.
The alt-rightists are not very clear, however, on what they would like to see replace contemporary art and architecture. Right now, they hate Shakespeare just as much as they hate Renzo Piano, just as much as they hate Saturday Night Live. What kind of art is left? Are they going to be brave enough to say that they despise the idea of art itself?