In one of his most influential essays, “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, published in 1936, Walter Benjamin criticized the fascist implications of the “Aestheticization of Politics”. More specifically, he focuses on the associations of new emergent media with fascism and mainly with respect to their relationships with the public. In his essay, he describes a newly formed perception as the result of the advent of film and photography in the twentieth century and discusses its effects on society. For Benjamin, media were exploited by fascism in order to retain and even enforce their power to the public. Nonetheless, Benjamin’s thoughts of this particular subject are not as apparent as the motto itself. Thus, his opinion of aestheticized politics is still debated.
One of the principal elements of Benjamin’s argumentative approach can be summarized in his following statement, “The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life”. In this statement neither he considers fascism synonym to aestheticizing politics, nor does he assume that fascism is the logical aftermath of politics’ aestheticization, as often presumed. On the contrary, Benjamin explains, “All efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war”.
Nonetheless, the structure of his argumentative statement can lead to the idea that only fascism practices this aestheticization of politics, which in its climax leads to war. Thus, it can be argued that he did not support other political ideologies, such as communism, which also politicized arts (Wolin 184). Furthermore, one should not ignore those aestheticizing politics is the main element of any bourgeois society, even the capitalist one, where it is mere illusion to consider that art is not manipulated to serve its economic foundations and interactions.
His other major argument relates fascism to aestheticized politics as a means of constructing sophistication, in which needs are separated from expression and aesthetics offer service against the mass's civil rights. As he states, “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.” Furthermore, he explains that in events such as big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and, finally, in situations of war, all of which are captured by digital and sound means, the masses address themselves in an upfront way. This process is intimately connected with the development of the techniques of reproduction and photography; these techniques were emerging for the first time in his era. Undoubtedly, mass movements are usually distinguished more evidently by a camera than by the naked eye.
It is apparent that Benjamin was immensely fascinated by the way technology influenced social relationships. However, he ignores the way economics are formed and function, thus risking excluding an economic base in his examination. Certainly, he considers that fascism attempted to produce an illusionary, false aesthetic satisfaction and self-expression of the masses in order to sustain the existent property affairs. Thus, he successfully manages to highlight the purposeful connection between aestheticization and dominance protection and conservation.
Nonetheless, this concept can be further extended to explain that it is not technology means that generate the medium for the masses’ expression. Aestheticization of politics can only be effective when it is based on the imitation of the masses’ original and authentic expressions. During the years of struggles for labor rights, the fascist stage coordinators adopted to claim fascism as the solution to the economic crisis (Martin 42). As a result, they created an aesthetic mimicry of the workers’ struggles, adding elements of reminiscence of grandeur, i.e. grandiose public building – monuments, ceremonies of Germany’s dominance, movies regarding this dominance, and projections of an emerging Aryan racial superiority. Hitler removed all decision-making processes from the public and meticulously staged this political isolation, using arts (Haug 178).
Today, aestheticization, and not only in regards to politics, is present in everyday life. As an example, U.S. politics regarding war are presented. The U.S. weaponry exports are its biggest economic power. Talking about football, for American citizens it is considered as a pastime. Every time the football season starts, fans eagerly welcome and watch finely presented man-made warfare scenes, while at the same time, they completely ignore the meaning and connotations of America’s foreign policy. By distracting the citizens with football, the citizens’ most primitive instincts are aroused, their anger is saturated during the games, and consequently, their combative mood against society’s injustice is soothed. Simultaneously, they are left with the illusion of political interaction. The aftermath is continuous wars with immense human losses, as the citizens have become detached from reality, through an endless and passionate consumption of contemporary combative entertainment. This perspective, thus, can be seen as a precise example of the representation of the aestheticization of politics.