Saul Friedlander has famously defined death kitsch as the bedrock of Nazi aesthetics, an effectively staged transfiguration by fire and klieg lights like the Gotterdamerung of Wagner’s imagining brought into life by Hitler, who was excited by fire and blood. Of death kitsch, Friedlander writes:
It as often been said that one of the characteristics of kitsch is precisely the neutralization of “extreme situations,” particularly death, by turning them into some sentimental idyll. This is undoubtedly true at the level of kitsch production, hardly so at the level of individual experience, when one has to imagine or face death. As I have just mentioned, whatever the kitsch images surrounding one, death creates an authentic feeling of loneliness and dread. Basically, at the level of individual experience, kitsch and death remain incompatible. The juxtaposition of these two contradictory elements represents the foundation of a certain religious aesthetic, and, in my opinion, the bedrock of Nazi aesthetics as well as the new evocation of Nazism.
— Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, 27
Though Friedlander does not say so, I have often thought the apex of death kitsch was the human skin lampshade on the human bone lamp base sported by the commandant of Buchenwald. This banalization of evil is at the heart of the popular support fascism seeks and finds.
Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect who has died, aged 104, is arguably the avatar of the kind of sex kitsch widely practiced in Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, and Franco’s fascist aesthetic, as well as in the machismo aesthetic practiced by their brothers in Communism and Latin American caudillo culture. The little known, but essential criticism of Brasilia, the planned city Niemeyer, a lifelong Communist, started to design in 1957 is that no workers’ housing was built in the peoples’ Utopia then, or now. The planned city is surrounded by 60-year-old favelas and a proud and lively off-grid candango culture of three generations of the brown people who built the deserted central city. In this walkable neighborhood of low brick buildings, sidewalks, stores, bars and brothels, the Cudade Livre, did Niemeyer and his colleagues themselves disport when building the antiseptic city beautiful.
“We would sit in a club,” he writes, “and happily watch the social mixing taking place in this forsaken backwater. The liquor flowed while our colleagues — the architects, engineers and construction workers — danced together around the wooden-plank floor.There was a mood of nostalgia for home and the distant places where these men had come fromto work together in Brasilia” (Niemeyer, 72).
The modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, 1904-2012, who built an urban theory for Brazil based on his Stalinist, and not Marxist, principles. He arguably built Brasilia, the planned city which is the capital of Brazil, according to fascist, and not communitarian, aesthetics.
The outstanding work of 20th century Marxists — Walter Benjamin, Mike Davis and Marshall Berman — has been to establish, persuasively, that cities — if not the revolution itself — are for pedestrians, that modernity itself exists in the revolutionary mix of classes, sexes, genders, and races on the sidewalks of the metropolis. Berman defines
….modernism as any attempt by modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization, to get a grip on the modern world and make themselves at home in it. This is a broader and more inclusive idea of modernism than those generally found in scholarly books. It implies an open and expansive way of understanding culture; very different from the curatorial approach that breaks up human activity into fragments and locks the fragments into cases, labeled by time,place, language, genre and academic discipline.
— All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, 5
I’ve been chewing over Berman, the great Marxist humanist who is the urban theorist of the Bronx destroyed by Robert Moses’ expressway, of the skanky old Times Square Disneyfied by Giuliani, and the godfather of post-modern Marx studies in America, since I first read All That Is Solid Melts Into Air in the 1980s. Opening its now yellow-edged pages, I find an essay on Niemeyer, heavily highlighted by a forgotten me in pink — what else? — Berman fulminating on the soullessness of Brasilia. Like an old friend, it is a manifesto I had entirely forgotten.
Berman went to Brazil in 1987 to discuss his great book on urban theory, quoted above. Everywhere he went — including Brasilia — Brazilians told him that planned city, designed after Le Corbusier by Lucio Costa and Niemeyer, had nothing in it for them. Today, they call Brasilia fantasy island — “ilha da fantasia”. Berman writes
…one’s overall feeling — confirmed by every Brazilian I met — is of immense empty spaces in which the individual feels lost, as alone as a man on the moon. There is a deliberate lack of public space in which people can meet and talk, or simply look at each other and hang around. The great tradition of Latin urbanism, in which city life is organized around a plaza mayor, is explicitly rejected.
(Op. cit., 7)
And here Berman defined the clash of modernisms, if not precisely the fascist hand of sex kitsch, the anomaly for which Niemeyer and Brasilia must forever stand:
Brasilia’s design might have made perfect sense for the capital of a military dictatorship, ruled by generals who wanted people kept at a distance, kept apart and kept down. As the capital of a democracy, however, it is a scandal. If Brazil is going to stay democratic, I argued in public discussions….it needs democratic public space ion whcih people can come and assemble freely from all over the country, to talk to each other and address their government — because, in a democracy, it is after all their government — and debate their needs and desires, and communicate their will.
Niemeyer himself was appalled, and sputtered that Brasilia represented the hopes of the people of Brazil and any attack on its architecture or design was an attack on the people of Brazil. Like a good dialectician, Berman synthesized this antithesis to his thesis and decided that of course the people of Brazil desired modernity, but that the modernity Niemeyer and Costa had laid on them in the design of Brasilia was the sterile, techno engineered reality based on classical forms. He does not explore its connection, through the Brazilians’ co-optation of Le Corbusier’s city planning, to the tradition of proscriptive, coercive, explicitly imperialistic, French colonial urbanism directly inherited by and subsumed by Le Corbusier. This French modernism — partly based in rational, explicitly racist and sexist French urban theory of the late 19th century entailing crowd control, according to the foremost scholar of French planned cities — was intended to perfect and complete the urban organism such that it might expand, in a clone-like fashion, but it would never change. The city of Niemeyer was perfect and complete; indeed in his 2000 memoir he says the city’s modernism represented “the importance of our country” (Niemeyer, 72).
“Niemeyer should have known,” writes Berman, “that a modernist work which deprived people of some of the basic modern prerogatives — to speak, to assemble, to argue, to communicate their needs — would be bound to make numerous enemies.” Those alienated from the sterile spaces of Brasilia would equally be alienated by the lack of sidewalks in America’s suburban developments and would, Berman wrote, in the ’60s and ’70s, begin to develop the alternate modernism “that would assert the presence and the dignity of all the people who had been left out.” There’s a reason the Mad Ave euphemism for the world-wide dominance of African-American culture — which, arguably, arose from hip-hop’s birth in the very south Bronx wilderness created by Moses’ murderous highway — is “urban”. It doesn’t take a village. It takes a sidewalk.
Indeed the riposte of Niemeyer — who joined the Brazilian Communist Party in the mid-1940s (Niemeyer, 46) — to Berman is found throughout Niemeyer’s autobiography. Echoes of his argument surface in the nationalist defense of Brasilia’s architecture all over the internet. This seemingly anodyne description of Brasilia’s charm is also its manifesto as a fascist city. Two professors and eight graduate students travelled to Brasilia in 2007 to take it in. The professors’ account is a retort to Berman, whose idea that Latin American urban space is a grid organized around a plaza is taken as an insult to Brazil’s much more organic Portuguese heritage.* Fernando Lara, a Brazilian architect and professor of Latin American urbanism, writes:
…its system of roads is efficient and rarely congested. In fact, it is a shining success when compared to many other highway-driven cities, such as Los Angeles. Brasilia’s success in this regard reveals a troubling assumption made by its critics, one that goes to the heart of western expectations of a Latin American city. For planners in the United States and Northern Europe, Latin American cities are understood as gridded cities, with a central plaza and streets filled with people selling their wares or enjoying outdoor cafes. However, many of these images are based on the evolution of urban planning in Spanish-speaking cities in Latin America. Portugal and its colonial settlements in Brazil never followed this type of urban development. Portuguese and Brazilian cities rarely had central plazas or gridded streets. Instead, planning tended to be organic, following access to ports, with the population centers hugging the coasts. Hence, to criticize Brasilia for not having central plazas filled with local inhabitants and streets filled with more pedestrians than cars, is to ignore Brazilian urban planning history and to level unfair expectations.
This geographic imbalance also relates to the criticism of monumental public spaces in Brasilia. These heavenly iconic spaces are not bustling with people like in the Zocalo in Mexico City, or the Huaycaypata in Cuzco, Peru. Instead, the major public spaces in Brasilia serve as expansive places to showcase iconic buildings. They are not meant to be inhabited by crowds, but to be seen through car windows by those driving by, or by small groups of people who have arrived with the sole purpose to view the architectural monuments to Brazil’s future, much as one stands to view an artwork in a museum.
Fernando Lara, Brazilian architect and historian of Latin American urbanism, UT, Austin.
Lara’s throwaway lines — that Portuguese colonial “planning tended to be organic”, that public space serves “to showcase iconic buildings” to be viewed from a passing car — are the central arguments that Brasilia is an anti-democratic, and in Berman’s rubric, an anti-Marxist, space. I suspect that Niemeyer’s sex kitsch buildings, set off in Costa/Corbu’s forbidding driveby spaces, make it a fascist space.
The widely-discussed effectiveness of fascist architecture depends on spectacle, creating a space in which architecture — or light effects, such as the iconic pillars of light at the Nuremberg Rally — transfigures, in a raptus-like emotional transaction, individual spectators into one. One strategy is dwarfing spectators, another applying the scientific principles of crowd control first invented by the French to contain the frightening crowds of women who emerged in the late 19th century on the newly-created sidewalks of Haussmann’s Paris to go shopping at the newly-invented department stores. (This social phenomenon of modernity, as Berman calls it, is piercingly rendered by the magnificent social observer Zola in his 1883 novel, The Ladies’ Paradise.) Later the French built cities in Morocco, Madagascar and Indochina deploying these anti-democratic architectural strategies.
This corsage pin by Lalique was chosen as the logo for a National Gallery exhibit of Art Nouveau. Depicting women as a pestilence was the explicit result of the fear of crowds of women unleashed by the creation of sidewalks in Paris and the invention of department stores.
In a 1975 essay, Fascinating Fascism, culture critic Susan Sontag pinpointed the erotic nature of fascist aesthetics — “vivid encounters of beautiful male bodies and death”. In it, Sontag posits the fascist aesthetic checklist. So powerfully does it resonate with Umberto Eco’s signs of fascism, written 20 years later, Sontag’s still stands as the best practices definition of fascist aesthetics:
— celebration of the primitive
— preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort
— exaltation of egomania and servitude, domination and enslavement
— pageantry of massed groups, turning of people into things, the massed groups of people and things arranged around a leader or force [or iconic, monumental architecture]
— orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets
— virile posing vs. ceaseless motion in choreography
— glamorizes surrender, mindlessness, death
One becomes, as Berman establishes, in the spectator crowd fascism turns us into, the subject as well as the object of a modernism.
I’m cutting to the chase here of many important distinctions: one becomes the subject of fascist modernity if fascism is, as the seminal 20th century Marxists argue, the inevitable antithesis to the thesis of revolutionary modernism. Fascism is modernity, no matter how many cults of tradition — Kinder, Kuche, Kirche — it exploits. No one has done the work of synthesizing Marxist and fascist aesthetics of spectacle, though the ground work in fascist spectacle has been persuasively established by such scholars as Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, who describes the anomaly of Mussolini’s own modernism in the exploitation of modern advertising and polemic sales strategies, media and technology, while adding an acrylic techno sheen to the powerfully transfiguring pre-modern strategies of imperial sized buildings, ritual, symbols, tradition, and the very demagoguery on which Greece and Rome were founded. Writes Falasca-Zamponi,
The erection of buildings and the remaking of the urban landscape, as well as the invention of new rituals and the establishment of pageant celebrations, were intended to contribute to the sacralization of the state under the aegis of the fascist government. The existence of the state depended on peoples’ faith in it. Faith in the state was assured by a mass liturgy whose function was to educate the Italians, making them new citizens and imparting a higher morality.
Let’s all throw our gold wedding rings into the cauldron for Benito’s war chest, and make the point that Benito’s own magnificent planned city, Asmara, in Ethiopia, is the only other modern imperial outpost to deploy Niemeyer’s beloved curves as its central motif. The Italians called those curves Art Deco, and there, at the end of the earth, Asmara slowly returns to the desert from which Mussolini brought it forth. I submit Asmara, like Brasilia, is sex kitsch.
Niemeyer was the favored architect of the Brazilian president who decided Brasilia should rise from the wasteland at the center of the 3.3 million square mile nation, the world’s fifth largest. He writes that he declined a commission and designed Brasilia on the salary of a public servant, 40,000 cruzeiros antigos a month (Niemeyer, 71). This can be seen as a sign of Niemeyer’s communitarian altruism, freedom from capitalist ideology, ambition of Ayn Rand proportions, or the subtle coercion of a government whose political police still called the president’s fair-haired boy in for interrogation on account of his membership in the Communist Party. In his account of the interrogation, Niemeyer uses the racist Brazilian term, negrinho, to refer to the typist (Niemeyer, 90).
That the oppression of women is the point man of fascism is the issue that renders me beady-eyed in Niemeyer’s curvilinear Brasilia. He keeps saying curvilinearity is pretty girls and Einstein’s universe. I think it is Brazilian contrarianism in the tradition of Nasser’s Third World, Communist intransigence, and fascist sex kitsch. In the dedication of his autobiography, The Curves of Time, Niemeyer writes
I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of a beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein.
The curves could well be seen — Niemeyer does see them — as a principled Einsteinian protest against Le Corbusier’s coercive city beautiful. But when the curves are only in the monuments set one by one, by the Corbu rubric, far away in the center of a ritualistic empty space, one is not moving off the idea that the city is a perfected and completed (and therefore, possibly fascist) ideal form through which the movement of people is coercive and barely permitted. When, in a typical remark, Niemeyer says on one occasion the Brazilian engineers had taught the old world architects they had little to learn, I understood much of Niemeyer’s contrarianism. Building a city in the middle of nowhere is Faust’s own imperialist apotheosis — that’s when the devil shows up to claim Faust’s soul. It is as well, part and parcel of Brazil’s impetus to deforest the planet of the Amazonian rainforest and forcibly remove the aborigines from the site of the Belo Monte dam.
The traditional riposte of the Brazilians to world protest has as much to do with Nasser’s leadership of non-aligned Third World as it does with Brazilian nationalism. You can hear it in Niemeyer’s response to Berman, and in Lara’s 21st century playback. The U.S. old growth forests are gone, they argue, and no Yankee imperialist is going to tell us to stop the genocidal deportation of Indians or cap emissions you fail to do yourself. You can see this nationalism, or exceptionalism, in Fernando Lara’s truthful observation that Brazil is not Latin America, and its urbanism developed differently from that in former Spanish colonies. However, for Lara to assert that Brazil has no tradition of plazas, or democratic space, doesn’t mean Berman is wrong in saying Brasilia has no public space and is therefore not a city for democracy; under Berman’s Marxist rubric, it can also be seen as a tacit admission that Portuguese urban tradition is fascist. Lara’s ill-considered use of the word “organic” to describe the development of Portuguese colonial cities in Brazil can suggest the conflation by 20th century fascism of “organic” tradition — Kinder, Kirche, Kuche — with oppressive modern political tactics. Fascism is totally organic. Nothing could be more organic than genocide.
Nor is there anything more organic than pornography as kitsch. Gillo Dorfles, the pioneer scholar of kitsch — like Niemeyer, a centenarian — defined the terms of the argument in 1969.
Setting aside the modernists’ problem inherent in the definition of “beauty” as a mandarin taste for elites, and “kitsch” as garbage art for the proles, Dorfles defines kitsch as bad taste. (Another awesome thing he does is finger Salvador Dali and fascist, caudillo Surrealism itself as kitsch, for which service to humanity he should be given a Nobel Peace Prize.) What’s wrong with it, Dorfles writes, is that it is a lie, a lie much more easily replicated in modern media (this would be part of Benjamin’s Marxist argument about replication), and that the cultural elite are extreme victims of it. There are a million more brain freeze zingers to live by in his 1969 masterpiece. The one which concerns the death and afterlife of Oscar Niemeyer is this one:
Bad taste in politics begins therefore with modern dictatorships, and for an obvious reason: in the past, people could accept the fact that a man was endowed — by fate or by the divinity — with super human powers….Nowadays, whenever art has to bow to politics — or generally speaking, to some sort of ideology, even a religious one — it immediately becomes kitsch.
Dorfles goes on to publish the excerpt of Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay, The Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Dorfles notes it was written during the rise of “blatantly kitsch movements in Nazism, fascism, and Zdanovian Stalinism.” Greenberg, one of modernism’s seminal art critics, scans fascist spectacle and says Marxism is the only medium for high culture and the avant-garde:
Where today a political regime establishes an official cultural policy, it is for the sake of demagogy. If kitsch is the official tendency of culture in Germany, Italy and Russia, it is not because their respective governments are controlled by philistines, but because kitsch is the culture of the masses in these countries, as it is everywhere else….the main trouble with avant-garde art and literature, from the point of view of fascists and Stalinists, is not that they are too critical, but that they are too “innocent’, that it is too difficult to inject effective propaganda into them, that kitsch is more pliable to this end. Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact with the ‘soul’ of the people….Today we no longer look to socialism for a new culture — as inevitably one will appear, once we do have socialism. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.
When Niemeyer claims Brasilia represents the people and to attack his city is to attack the people of Brazil, he is sounding very much like the fascist Greenberg describes. For the city to represent of the people of Brazil — even though Brasilia arose from no referendum more popular than the election of the president who ordered its construction, and there was no peoples’ input into either Costa’s city layout or Niemeyer’s building blueprints — its makers had to claim to represent the peoples’ desire for modernity. Whether or not the Brazilian people desired the modernity Niemeyer gave them is still — as Lara’s 2007 defense of Brasilia suggests — entirely debatable. Is a planned city organic enough for Lara’s defense of Portuguese colonial urbanism in the first place? Is planned inherently fascist and “organic” inherently democratic? The proof is in the pudding. Are there large public gathering spaces in Brasilia which are not designed to compel spectatorship of Niemeyer’s state structures? No.
Having established that kitsch is basically a lie, and basically fascist propaganda, Dorfles and his culture warriors go on to discuss porn as kitsch. This is where the Niemeyer problem of sex kitsch gets good. In the teeth of pornography, Dorfles gets down to as good a definition of kitsch as there is:
Even ethics have their kitsch, and here one should consider two fundamental facts:
1.) that kitsch is essentially the falsification of sentiments and the substitution of spurious sentiments for real ones. That is to say real feeling becomes sentimentality; this is the moral argument against kitsch.
2.) that where ethics are in evidence the aesthetic component suffers.
Ugo Volli goes on to define pornokitsch as “false, sickly, sugary and slightly cold-blooded pornography adapted for kitsch-man” (Dorfles, 224) — kitsch-man being Dorfles’ rubber-necking spectator of modern life, the man of bad taste as he behaves when confronted by a work of art (Dorfles, 15).
Niemeyer insists all his designs are based on the bodies of the girls he watched from his office window on Copacabana beach. It seems macho, it seems imbued with Brazilian contrarianism, it seems, with Niemeyer’s many Iberian pronouncements on the nature of life as a sigh, as a relentless fatalistic trivialization of the aspirations of the people of Brazil. Arguably, it’s not too far away from saying all the people of Brazil aspire to is the watermelon they’re all eating in Black Orpheus. Booty and bossa nova. It adds, perhaps, some credence to the suspicion of racism on Niemeyer’s part in the negrinho comment.
One scene from the bossa nova film, Black Orpheus, which has received troubled comment. It was released in 1959, at the time Niemeyer and Costa began to design Brasilia.
It has escaped the notice of no critic that the two domes of the National Congress he built in Brasilia are either breasts or buttocks. When Frank Gehry visited, Niemeyer showed him a photograph of women sunbathing on the beach, alternately facing up and facing down. He told Gehry it explained everything. Years later, whe the New York Times architecture critic sees the National Congress buildings, he sees the girls from Copacabana again, in Brasilia: “They are beautiful and bizarre, isolated landmarks, marooned in the antiseptic environment, which they partly humanize by their erotic and symbolic charge. There in the distance is the National Congress, smartly off axis, with its vertical slabs balanced by two domes, half-melons, like Niemeyer’s female bathers, one facing up, the other down.” The BBC interviewer told the story of spending hours with Niemeyer in his office in front of a huge abstract photograph. Only later did the interviewer realize it wasn’t sand dunes, but female buttocks.
The National Congress buildings by Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia, the planned capital city of Brazil.
So as the congressmen who represent the people of Brazil meet in a building representing beach bunny body parts, set in an enormous empty plaza that even a defender like Lara notes is designed not for democratic gatherings but for driveby viewing, how does Niemeyer symbolize a museum? Museums are the place where nations build their own myths. How does Niemeyer design the national cathedral of Brasil? With the same kind of trivialized and syrupy kitsch symbolism with which Niemeyer sexualizes federal buildings, thus trivializing and dismissing the democratic function of public space.
The 2002 Museu Oscar Niemeyer he designed in Curitiba he called “a sculptural eye”. It has a base tiled — in a modern take on the venerable Portuguese tradition of azulejos — with a naked woman, frolicking with an arc which literally repeats the shape of the eye looming so panoptically above her. Foucault says the panopticon represents modern surveillance society. There’s a lot to think about here about Surrealism, the fragmentation of capitalist trophies Berman mentions, and the fascist aesthetic inherent in museumizing an amputated and abstracted body part.
Museu Oscar Niemeyer, Curitiba, Brazil
The cathedral of Brasilia is either a crown of thorns or a flower. When Kimmelman visited in 2005, it was empty. The glass windows were broken, it was full of the humid air of the vast bog that is central Brazil, birds nested in the upper struts and “A butterfly bumped against me, and I watched it zigzag toward the ceiling, into the sunlight.”
Oscar Niemeyer’s national cathedral at Brasilia.
To the candangos, the unaccommodated people of color who built it, back in the late ’50s, it must have looked like nothing so much as a rib roast.
*For more on the Portuguese colonial urban tradition in Brazil, see this:
One Brazilian architect dicusses the anti-grid, anti-plaza Portuguese influence, and goes on blithely to pitch the many gated communities her firm has designed for urban Brazilians. The market demands them, she says. They are “permeable”, she says — architect-speak meaning pedestrians can walk through them. Gated communities, qua their racist, libertarian, tax revolt, and elitist origins, are anathema to the other great American urban theorist, the Marxist Mike Davis.
(c) 2012 Jeannette Smyth