In the 1920s, sweaty-palmed intellos all over the world followed Lenin’s example, dreaming up ever more picturesque totalitarian movements. Art played a major role in all of them—in the costumes and regalia, the posters and pageants, and especially in the hijacking of serious art to promote party goals.
The artists themselves would learn the lesson and retool it for their own purposes. Le Corbusier drilled modernist architects into the CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) in 1928. For the first time, art had a movement organized on political lines, with manifestos, rules, solemn congresses, and a publicity machine.
Le Corbusier’s personal politics, like his ideas for redesigning cities, were profoundly totalitarian. He kept it vague enough, though, hedging his bets so that he could serve whatever new masters—communist or fascist—might eventually emerge in Europe. (During the war he would serve Vichy.)
More importantly, in an increasingly academic and hierarchical world, he and his followers saw that the road to ideological triumph lay in gaining control of the new positions of influence—professorships and critic’s columns. When modernists started pouring out of Nazi Germany into America after 1933, that is just what they did, infiltrating and then taking over the architectural schools, eventually imposing their creed on a country where nearly everyone despised it.
They and the cheerleading critics who passed through their schools have ruled American architecture ever since. Other art movements eagerly learned the same tricks. Interestingly, many of the early protagonists were communists such as Clement Greenberg, the highbrow critic who almost singlehandedly foisted Abstract Expressionism on an unsuspecting world in the 1940s.
Like any good communist, Greenberg was well-schooled in agitprop techniques. He popularized the terms “avant-garde” and “kitsch” in the US, fashioning them into the precise aesthetic counterparts of “progressive” and “reactionary.” If not committed to the first, you were obviously mired in the second.
And on and on, right up to the thrones and dominations of Sham Art that squat above the big galleries and art schools today. Sham Artists, though most may still be fashionable Sham Radicals, no longer worry about taking over the world. Today they’re little more than hipster nihilists, glad to hold the role of anointed tastemakers and positively itchy for any chance of a good strong pull on the public teat. They’ll lecture us philistines about what art really is, knowing all the while that every work they create, every essay they write, is a juicy hocker spat in art’s face.
How do we get rid of them, short of some cathartic mob violence? That’s the real joke—we can’t. This bizarre virus, this self-organizing, self-replicating, cancerous intellectual cabal, is a disease that only appears in free, open societies. No cure has yet been found, though after all the sound and fury of the bloody 20th century we at least seem to be building up a little resistance. Maybe it’s time to dust off that old tutu in the back of your closet; maybe all we can do is laugh.
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