The politics of aesthetics: Mussolini and fascist Italy

For politics not to be a dirty word that reflected the failing political class’s capacity for endless debates and conservative behaviour, it had to play a role much more active and daring; politics was supposed to change a society’s whole way of living and thinking.

This article is the first in an occasional series on ‘The Political Aesthetics of Power and Protest,’ the subject of a one-day workshop held at the University of Warwick this September. Democracy, since it does not function through command or coercion, requires instead a constant renewal of sets of symbols - symbols which appeal to people and instil in them a sense of belonging and identification. Increasing disenchantment and disillusion with the state, with political institutions, their practices and performance, makes it more important to explore the place of this aestheticisation of political language, the aesthetics of protest as well as of power. 

Power has forever been entwined with a symbolic apparatus in charge of representing it.  From Louis the XIV in France to Queen Victoria in England, images and rituals have served to strengthen people’s connections to governing institutions; symbols and rites make power more tangible and appealing. 

In the eighteenth century there also emerged a whole philosophical movement that argued that beauty could articulate political morality. Beauty was supposed to motivate people’s actions with the indirect result of guiding them towards the common good.  As aesthetics slowly became entangled with politics, competing interpretations of how this relationship should unfold came to the fore.  Eventually beauty was conceived instrumentally, reduced to style, and devoid of content.  Fascism was one of the first movements to take advantage of aesthetics’ original radical political impulse while also simplifying its moral reach.  Mussolini’s approach to politics is an extreme example of the degrading process aesthetics underwent at the turn of the twentieth century, a most perniciously successful implementation of the aestheticization of politics.

As several scholars have argued, the concept of autonomous, disinterested art emerged as the result of a complex historical process originating in the eighteenth century in Britain. At the time, moralists of the calibre of Addison, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Alison set out to address the impact of egoism and instrumentality on ethical questions. Lord Shaftesbury, in particular, developed a notion of disinterestedness, at first linked to moral issues. Later disinterestedness became the core concept of modern aesthetic theory and the key methodological principle in the newly emerging discipline of aesthetics. 

Shaftesbury was opposed to the idea of considering ethics in terms of an action’s consequences, i.e., whether or not the action had positive effects on the common good. He argued that disinterestedness served to overcome what he considered the false choice between egoism and altruism; disinterestedness implied that moral life was not concerned with action but instead was fundamentally concerned with harmony and contemplation. Within this framework, virtuous “man” was like an art lover, and virtue was not about making the right decisions in order to reach worthy ends; rather, it stood for “no other than the love of order and beauty.”

At first preoccupied with moral issues, over time Shaftesbury turned his ethical concerns into an aesthetically informed theory that emphasized the importance of beauty and contemplation when defining a virtuous person. Thus, whereas he had originally discussed disinterest in opposition to interest in practical actions, Shaftesbury later employed disinterest to refer to the “virtuous man” as a spectator keen on contemplating the beauty of both manners and morals. Disinterestedness was contrary to action and also dismissive of the desire to possess or use a thing; it emphasized the perceiving act when contemplating an object rather than the object being contemplated.  

Disinterestedness was connected with aesthetics rather than ethics, and emphasis was increasingly placed on the recipients’ experience and their capacity to contemplate an object. As long as one remained a spectator, one’s experience of an object would supposedly be disinterested because it was based solely on perception. The perceptual experience of beauty was then emphasized rather than the qualities that made a thing beautiful. This new perspective on experience marked the birth of aesthetics as a distinctive realm.

Good taste

Eventually, “good taste” was adopted as an evaluative tool and linked to the pleasure of the imagination and lack of desire for possessions. In Germany, judgment of taste became central to Kant’s influential redefinition of aesthetic essence and came to be identified by Kant with the human ability to share experiences in comparison to animals. For Kant, disinterestedness in aesthetic judgment signified that taste, though subjective because based on feelings rather than concepts, was not arbitrary or private. It involved, at least in principle, the existence of what he called a sensus communis, or common sense, intended not in the ordinary meaning of simple but rather in the sense of shared.

Aesthetic judgment for Kant required consensual understanding within a collectivity. Thus, on the one hand, disinterestedness implied that the crucial factor in our experience of a beautiful object was not the object itself but the feelings of enjoyment it aroused in us. On the other hand, through reference to sensus communis, disinterestedness also implied that those feelings, being in principle communicable and inter-subjective, were not based on personal or sensual gratification and did not implicate a utilitarian dimension. Kant’s famous definition of art as “purposiveness without purpose” helped solidify the identification of the aesthetic realm with non-instrumental ends.  For Kant, this did not mean that art should be disconnected from social life. In contrast, art provided an ideal space within which to envision a public forum away from concrete political or governmental action and where enlightened citizens could freely discuss political issues. Art was a self-proclaimed non-political space in which politics, however, worked as a motivational engine. In this sense, although seemingly founded on separation, modern aesthetics originated in relation to politics, domesticating the masses, with all their desires and impulses and winning them to democratic politics.

Mussolini’s concept of power

How is all this discussion of aesthetics connected to Mussolini and to the centrality of aesthetics in Mussolini’s conception and exercise of power?  What do I mean by “conception of” power?  In my view, Mussolini’s subscription to aesthetics ensured that symbols, art and rituals were all seen as contributing to a transformative, moulding power.  They deeply informed how Mussolini conceived and exercised power. 

Mussolini subscribed to the notion of aesthetics promoted by the art for art’s sake movement, that is, the notion of art as autonomous and self-referential and detached from worldly matters. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, Mussolini had a great intuition about the crucial role of affect in politics, an intuition that, combined with his approach to aesthetics, gave way to the strange and lethal alchemy that we know of as fascism.

Walter Benjamin was the first to associate fascism with an aesthetic approach to politics – an approach that he saw as representative of modern antinomies.  The evocative and disturbing image Benjamin conjured to make his argument was the comparison of bombed-out sites in Ethiopia to blooming flowers – a comparison drawn by the leader of the Futurist avant-garde movement, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, from the height of the flying plane dropping those bombs during Italy’s colonial war.  For Benjamin, such an image implied an aestheticized view of violence and war, of destruction and pain, an artistic transfiguration that overcame bodily material reality.  Benjamin argued that the deadening of sense perception reflected in the image of blooming flowers instead of mangled Ethiopian bodies paradoxically ensued from a heightened sensitivity to which modern life’s fast pace subjected its dwellers.  For example, the shock experienced in combat is transformed and sublated via the remote perspective from high in the sky and out of the mechanical invention of the time, the airplane. 

For Benjamin, the paradox was that what he called ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’, rather than fulfilling its “natural” mission of freeing people from the chains of an enchanted vision of the world - one that made people feel miniscule and in awe of authority - ended up instead becoming an instrument of domination.  Liberation was countered by submission.  Freed from the dogma of the Church and other institutions, thanks to the availability of information and new technologies, the so-called masses were nevertheless prey to re-enchantment, especially through new charismatic styles of politics that fed off myths and rituals: the case of Mussolini’s Italy (and, of course, Nazi Germany too).

This idea of “anaesthetized aesthetics,” to use an expression by Susan Buck-Morss, perfectly captures Mussolini’s approach to politics and his role in the government of the polity.  How was his politics anaesthetic?  In my research of Mussolini’s writings and speeches, the trope of the politician as artist emerged as one of the strongest and most frequent, and not as a mere formula or superficial reference but as a core feature of Mussolini’s own understanding of politics.

In Mussolini’s view, for politics not to be a dirty word that reflected the failing political class’s capacity for endless debates and conservative behaviour, it had to play a role much more active and daring; politics was supposed to change a society’s whole way of living and thinking.  The issue was not one of mere shifts in government: the old game of political compromises and formulas.  With fascism, the goal was to revolutionize the meaning of politics itself in order to construct a new Italy on the ruins of the old one. 

Here is where the idea of the politician as artist comes in. The artist politician destroys in order to create.  “Moulding,” “sculpting,” and “shaping” were terms that became familiar in Mussolini’s discourse when he referred to the masses and their transformation into ideal fascist models.  Politics was an art for Mussolini, and he liked to think of himself as a sculptor who alone could render hard material into malleable constructions, pliable artifacts. Is there anything more radical in terms of disregard for people, or more opposed to the rules of democratic participation, than this approach that considers people as things? - an approach that in my opinion overlaps with and defines totalitarianism. 

The second element of fascism’s aesthetic politics was the expressive means employed by Mussolini, as a result of his underpinning idea of a disciplined, organized harmonious "aesthetic" form that is supposed to define the whole of Italian society under fascism - to actualize his role as artist politician.  This is certainly the more familiar, visually evident, and even at times caricatured aspect of fascism’s aesthetic politics.  It encompasses the plethora of rituals and symbols, which attracted the attention of many, including Hitler as well as Stalin, especially during the early years of the regime. 

In part the natural outcome of a movement that wanted to distinguish itself from traditional politics, in part a reflection of the youthful character of its members, and in part an expression of cultural trends of the time, fascism emerged as a semiotically rich phenomenon.  Uniforms of adherents, although not colourful, were distinctive; ritualistic ceremonies and gestures identified the special nature of the group; myths framed the cultural horizon of its followers, and so on and so forth. Such semiotic excess did not merely emerge at the origins of the movement, but continued to be augmented over time with new or newly redefined symbolic means.  Their importance within the regime increased, at times exponentially, such as in the case of the Roman salute or the goose step, and of course of the myth of Mussolini, which was at the centre of this highly orchestrated ritualistic apparatus. 

Though shifting in style and focus over the years, Mussolini’s centrality in the fascist constellation remained unchallenged, unsurpassed, and ever growing indeed, gaining traction also thanks to the ability of the media to diffuse Mussolini’s image via the printed press, cinema, and the radio.  From lion tamer to rural worker, motorcyclist, father, commander, Mussolini’s figure affirmed fascism’s value and helped build fascism as a longstanding regime.  Two decades – not an insignificant stretch of time.  

A new Italian man

This leads me to the last element of my discussion: the effectiveness of Mussolini’s aesthetic approach to politics.  The question is tricky because there is no exact way to know the answer. 

What motivates me to raise this issue is however not so much the desire to find definite answers but the need to emphasize once again that Mussolini’s deep subscription to an aestheticized understanding of politics led him to play down, or not necessarily focus on, the outcome of his approach.  Mussolini believed that the goal of remaking the Italians would naturally be attained.  It was not an issue of if or how. Changes in the Italians’ gestures, rituals, ways of speaking, writing, etc. would necessarily bring about the change Mussolini was pursuing: a new Italian man would be born out of this artistic endeavour. 

Mussolini had undeniable faith in this project and was not very rational about it, I would underline, which again demonstrates the radical nature of his subscription to an aesthetic understanding of politics.  More strategic objectives often took a back seat in his agenda, something that in different ways we find typical of the other totalitarian experiments in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Aesthetic goals were absolute and independent of any ethical issues.

Fascism’s aesthetic politics does not imply that all connections between aesthetic and politics are pernicious. Not only Kant’s theory but a whole Marxist tradition has shown the radical potential of aesthetics.  Aesthetics in sum does not necessarily engender fascist or authoritarian outcomes.  But we need to make some distinctions, especially when it comes to the question of the affective, emotional side of aesthetic politics.  We cannot leave the monopoly over expressive politics to those who abuse it. 

Benjamin’s analysis of fascism is very instructive. Benjamin identified two different and somewhat incongruous ways fascism approached aesthetics: one, as art proper in its historical incarnation of art for art’s sake, and the other, as a discourse of the body.  For Benjamin, fascism’s brutal subscription to the aesthetic model of self-referentiality, conveyed by the idea of the politician as a sculptor violently shaping the polity, showed its affinity with the art for art’s sake movement. At the same time, fascism’s ability to produce ritual values and solicit emotions indicated the use of aesthetics in its Greek meaning of bodily sensations (aisthesis).  Fascism gave the masses the chance to express themselves; yet, Benjamin argued, fascism still treated the masses as raw material.  It objectified them and deprived them of their human qualities.  Fascism’s extreme reliance on aesthetics undermined aesthetics’ own essence.  I would argue that it also hampered aesthetics’ potential as a stimulant for constructing a true community as opposed to a fake imposed one.

This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament research programme at the University of Warwick and the Leverhulme Trust.

About the author

Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi is Professor of Sociology, University of California Santa Barbara. Intellectual and research interests mainly fall within the areas of politics and culture. More specifically, she is concerned with studying the political as a site of cultural discourse, cultural identity, and cultural production. She is the author of Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy and Rethinking the Political: The Sacred, Aesthetic Politics, and the Collège de Sociologie.