The Lameness of Evil

Phil Ford

Here’s something really weird, and kind of disturbing: Nazi propaganda swing jazz. Four words that were never meant to go together.

One of the things I write about a lot is “the aesthetic” — a rather abstract term for the sense of beauty, or the domain of beauty, and the role it plays in our lives and in the responses we have to works of art. In the late 1970s, when Pierre Bourdieu wrote Distinction, his masterpiece of cultural sociology, he could write that the domain of the aesthetic is “the area par excellence of the denial of the social.” Which meant that “the social” — the domain of meanings that artworks gather from their circulation within our social existence rather than meanings they might be said to possess inherently and autonomously — got short shrift in understandings of art. Bourdieu complained that the sociologist trying to understand the social meanings of art woud get accused of philistinism. But if that was true then, it’s not true now, at least in the American academy. Sociological readings of art (especially popular music, which is most of what I write about) are now the norm, and those who wish to talk about beauty and pleasure find themselves under a cloud of suspicion — like they’re trying to cover something up, or change the subject, or appeal to a discredited metaphysics.

And (this explains what all this has to do with the Nazi propaganda swing) there’s the Leni Riefenstahl problem. Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will demonstrates that beauty doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with morality. Can, in fact, be put in the service of evil just as easily as it can be put to good. And as we all know, Hitler idolized Wagner, Nazi concentration camp guards unwound by listening to Beethoven and Schubert, and the Nazis had the sharpest uniforms. The image of the Nazi aesthete is something of stock character, like the thin-lipped pragmatic Yankee and the voluptuary Frenchman. (I remember seeing a skit on Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s comedy show “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” where Laurie played a Nazi aesthete loudly admiring art and making literary allusions.) Maybe beauty, or an excessive attachment to it, tends towards evil? After all, as we’ve all heard, choose heaven for the climate, hell for the company.

Which means, among other things, that beauty becomes the New Transgressive Thing, for example in the movie American Beauty, or a siren song we warn our students about, telling them to plug their ears and lash themselves to the mast of critical theory. But what if this reaction to the aesthetic is just another alibi for the Protestant distrust of pleasure? As my man Dave Hickey likes to say, of American art and art criticism, “there’s always a reason not to show naked people.”

The main thing to note abut the Nazi propaganda swing of “Charlie and his Orchestra” is that it’s really bad. “Charlie” sounds like some lost, mad Shmenge Brother. “I Got Rhythm,” for example, is so stiffly unswinging it performs a kind of self-deconstruction. In truth, not a lot of good music got written in Nazi Germany. Given Hitler’s kitsch aesthetics and the deployment of the full apparatus of the totalitarian State to remodel Germany in its image, how could it be otherwise? The subjection of the artist to the all-powerful State is as likely to result in stuff like Charlie and his Orchestra as Triumph of the Will. Not always, of course — Richard Strauss wrote Capriccio during the War, and look at Shostakovich and Tarkovsky and Bulgakov in the Soviet Union. But the idea that beauty is somehow naturally the plaything of evil men is just a conventional image, and the idea that totalitarian politics has some dark affinity with beauty is merely a version of it.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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