The centennial of Fascism is a dubious anniversary to mark. As scholar Ara H. Merjian recounts in this issue, on March 23, 1919, Benito Mussolini launched a political movement—nationalist, authoritarian, racist—that responded to specific conditions in Italy yet inspired reactionary movements across the globe in the 1920s and ’30s. As right-wing populists spewing rhetoric that echoes Mussolini’s assume power around the world today, from Hungary to Brazil to the United States, the grim lessons of the twentieth century demand renewed attention.
The role of art and culture in Fascism might seem like a mere footnote in that pursuit. What do paintings matter when mass murder is on the political agenda? But culture was central to Fascist ideology, which critic Walter Benjamin defined as “the aestheticization of politics.” Unlike some other totalitarian systems, Italian Fascism did not foster an aesthetic rooted in the past, at least not exclusively. “At once revolutionary and reactionary, avant-garde and return-to-order, Fascism thrived on cultural paradox,” Merjian argues. Outwardly anti-intellectual, the Fascists nonetheless found early support among Futurist artists and poets. The sleek modernist buildings of the Fascist state stand as concrete expressions of an ideology devoted to melding contemporary aesthetics with Italy’s Classical heritage.
It’s hardly possible to imagine Donald Trump and the crowds who gather at his rallies finding much to value in the contemporary art that is discussed and celebrated in these pages. Still, Trump’s supreme tackiness, his know-nothing world of gold veneer, masks a more complex relationship between the American far-right and the art world. Critics like Ben Davis, writing in the Baffler, have noted that prominent art collectors like Wilbur Ross serve in his cabinet. His daughter Ivanka has a collection that includes work by artists featured in this magazine.
Our own “cultural paradox” invariably invites charges of hypocrisy and inspires disillusionment. Such circumstances reportedly contributed to Cady Noland’s furious, near-total exit from the art world following an exhibition of her work in 2000. A retrospective that opened in Frankfurt last fall offered a rare opportunity to take stock of Noland’s practice, and it afforded us an even rarer opportunity to feature her work on the cover. Since Trump took office, it’s become common to cite the quip that “when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” The line, often erroneously credited to Sinclair Lewis, captures something of Noland’s vision. For the past three decades, in her sculptures, prints, and installations, Noland has channeled an aesthetic of American fascism, conjuring a world of flags, cheap beer, and chrome, and tapping into a current of violence running through everyday life. As Leah Pires argues in her review, the retrospective makes the case for Noland’s prescience, the artist’s work offering a sharp diagnosis of our contemporary malaise.
As a young artist working in Chile in the 1960s and ’70s, Cecilia Vicuña worked in a wide variety of mediums, imagining powerful alternative realities just as brutal authoritarians were on the rise throughout South America. For this issue, the artist worked with Miguel A. López, the curator of her retrospective set to open next month at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, to present a portfolio of her rarely seen early works. Many of her pieces from the time, whether performances or objects, express solidarity with militant struggles from Vietnam to South America while offering an aesthetic of anti-fascism, countering the empty monumentality favored by Mussolini and his imitators with ephemerality and lightness.