Aesthetic Definitions of Fascism

Dani Carron

Beyond the search for political or historical definitions, a common theme that struck me in this week’s readings was the authors’ engagement with the aesthetics of fascism. The readings touched on several prominent historical examples, including the recognizable coloured shirts associated with fascist movements & their followers (Finchelstein 18), as well as fascists’ interests in the aesthetics of architecture, modernity, race, health & body (Paxton 13). Several authors made these aesthetics fundamental to their introduction of fascism as a subject: Robert Paxton refers to fascism as “the most self-consciously visual of all political forms” (9), while de Grazia quotes Susan Sontag in referring to the United States “being beguiled by fascism’s kitschy aesthetics.” It seems that aesthetics are essential both to fascists themselves, as they pursue a power and cosmology rooted in particular aesthetics, and to the public interacting with them, as these aesthetics allow them to both admire and participate in fascist politics. As Paxton describes, fascism harnessed the power of emotions through dramatic displays and rituals, and while these images (falsely) dominate our notions of fascist regimes, this nonetheless points to the emotional traction of fascist aesthetics among various publics.

Having established aesthetics as an essential component of fascist power-wielding, I wonder if it might be worth pursuing this theme further into the realm of definition. What value might an aesthetic definition, rather than a political, ideological or literal one, offer both researchers and the wider public? To a non-academic audience, are aesthetics more easily communicated than complex definitions or critical debate? Do they leave room for nuance otherwise not enabled by finite definition? Within a contemporary context, having an understanding the aesthetic coding of fascism might prove useful within visual-centric media – and the contemporary far-right, more broadly, have already been using particular aesthetics to signal value systems that would otherwise be frowned upon (or easily identified) if made explicit.

There might be objections to this approach, despite the inclusion of aesthetics in nearly all of this week’s readings. Some authors expressed concern for studying ‘style’ over content, particularly in regards to populism (Finchelstein 2, and Mudde 578). Paxton raises issues with definitions outright, arguing that these present processes as a stagnant framed “picture” or “frozen statuary” (14). Despite this visual imagery, however, I’d suggest that aesthetics are more amenable to transnational connections, differences and transformations than strict ‘universal’ political definitions. In the case of fascism, aesthetics (and the emotions they invoke) appear to stand in for traditional ideology in the forms of discourse & literature, which Paxton questions even exists in the case of fascism (18) – thus, rather than trying to shape fascism in the image of traditional political thought, it might be more fruitful to learn to identify it by its own particular means of communication and power-making.

Works Cited

Victoria de Grazia, “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism” Zocalo Public Square, August 13th 2020. 

Federico Finchelstein, “Introduction: Thinking Fascism and Populism in terms of the Past.” In From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017), pp 1-30.

Cas Mudde, “Populism in Europe: An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism” (The Government and Opposition/Leonard Schapiro Lecture 2019). Government and Opposition, (2021): 1-21.

Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York, 2004), pp 3-23.