It seems we are on the inside, looking out, of a storm of change in politics currently. While change is almost always seen as an unwelcome visitor, these particular winds of change can quite firmly be stated as going very much in the wrong direction. Historically, in times such as these, wherein society is craving order, simplicity, and security, art often desires the same; and we bear witness to a ‘call to order’ – a return to classical tradition. Most vehemently was this seen during and after the First World War, with Picasso’s neoclassical turn, Gino Severini’s 1916 series of figurative paintings exemplary in ‘Maternity’, and Juan Gris’s mid-war return to figure subjects and old master paintings.
‘Identity Evropa’, American neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization, propaganda posters featuring Michelangelo’s David and the Apollo Belvedere, U.S. University Campuses, 2017 (Photo: Twitter)
Fascism breeds out of similar social unrest. Consider not only the years before the First and Second World Wars, but Italy before Mussolini, the state of America before Trump’s election, Britain before the Brexit vote. Adolf Hitler, in particular, saw the values of his regime reflected in the Hellenistic beauty canon; look no further than the opening scenes of Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematic documentation of the 1936 Olympics, ‘Olympia, Festival of Nations’ to see how transparently classical imagery was adopted by the regime. Here, the Diskobolos is manifest as the glories of Classical Greece reborn in Nazi Germany, as the marble softens to become an Aryan male athlete. This Roman copy of the Greek original was bought by Hitler in 1938.
Throughout history, the adopted authority and order of the Classical past has given a false origin story and a projected sense of power to fascist organisations. Mussolini, too, utilised romanità, a heritage from ancient Rome, to give his Italy a unified sense of nation, attempting to instil himself as the new Augustus and to give a new Nietzschean heroic identity to the Italian Man. In 1909, Mussolini wrote in the journal La Voce, “Rome, as it was in the times of Augustus, remains the city towards which men of all nations turn – and whoever loves Rome, must love Italy (…) Italy is preparing a new epoch in the history of humanity.”
It’s chilling to look at Greek and Roman history and see it through the eyes of fascism. Whenever this topic is brought up at classical conferences or seminars, it is swiftly skipped over as a thing of the past, a firmly historical perversion. I think we’re all aware that fascism and far-right politics is barely a thing of the past anymore. During the Charlottesville Protests shields and placards bearing ‘fasces’ were everywhere. Originally simply a symbolic bundle of rods around an axe, as a sign of Roman regal rule adopted from the Etruscans by early emperors of Rome, many nationalist and alt-right groups such as Vanguard America have long appropriated the insignia of ancient Rome in an attempt to connect their current movements to the bygone power and legitimacy of the Roman empire.
The appropriation is visible everywhere – online commentators such as Sargon of Akkad, probably the most well-known appropriator of antique history in this contemporary moment, is not alone in utilising, once again, classical pseudonyms and forms to imply order and strength. Concerningly, he has recently been announced as UK candidate to the European Parliament, should we be taking part in the elections in May. While there can be no strict objection to right-wing commentators such as Sargon of Akkad, as political commentary, of course, demands polarity, there exists a dark precedent in the abuse of classical authority.
Classical iconography is, however, also being utilised to give authority to more welcome movements: contemporary swellings of feminist reappraisal of ancient women through works such as Madeline Miller’s bestseller Circe, Medusa with the Head of Perseus by Luciano Garbati and Pat Barker's Silence of the Girls are encouraging a more positive re-examination of classical imagery. The Carter’s viral video to ‘Apes**t’ opens with a kneeling angel-winged man, a reference to the film Looking for Langston, with Beyoncé mimicking the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a potent symbol of her victory as an enduringly successful and powerful black woman.
For your interest, Pharos is compiling an ‘Onomasticon’ on far-right commentators utilising classical pseudonyms, while also documenting hateful or damaging actions promoted in the name of ancient history: http://pages.vassar.edu/pharos/onomasticon-of-classical-pseudonyms-and-avatars/