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Inside the far right’s growing obsession with art

From the Nazi's degenerate art exhibitions to the present-day culture wars, the most annoying new art history accounts on the internet are drawing from a long tradition

Twitter is littered with accounts with profile pictures of Roman busts and names like ‘The Trad Aesthete”, which post pompous tweets about art and architecture. This isn’t new, but the far-right’s turn towards visual art is a more recent development. In the past few weeks, there has been a spate of tweets attacking such modernist upstarts as Picasso, Duchamp, and the Impressionists. While some of these accounts wear their white supremacy on their sleeves, others cloak this allegiance under more innocuous language and imagery. This is more pernicious, as it acts as a way of luring in reasonable people: just about everyone can enjoy a picture of a rustic Italian village, recognise that some contemporary architecture is tacky, and agree with anodyne statements such as “beauty is nice”.

But many of these individuals are harbouring – and disseminating – extremely reactionary views, and while a few random Twitter accounts aren’t influential in and of themselves, the far-right ideology they promote is resurgent across the world. Many commenters have been quick to point out the similarities between these present-day attacks on modern art and the aesthetic ideals of the Nazis, and it’s undeniable that these parallels exist. But rather than being a deliberate throwback, it’s important to understand this phenomenon as being rooted in our own historical context.

By comparing modern art with conventional depictions of rural scenes and able-bodied white people, this digital subculture is expressing a specific hierarchy of values. It’s about returning to a lost halcyon age of (implicitly white) western civilisation, which is sometimes Ancient Greece, sometimes the Renaissance, and sometimes Mad Men. It expresses a desire to return to “the natural order of things”, which has been degraded by modernity and multiculturalism, and conceptualises beauty as something which is eternal and objective.

What’s common to almost all of these Twitter accounts is the implicit idea that traditional western culture is under attack. In this sense, it echoes the far-right, white supremacist conspiracy theory of the “Great Replacement” which claims there is an intentional effort by the elites to reduce the white population of the global north by encouraging mass immigration. It’s unclear which ‘elites’ are perpetuating this dastardly scheme, but presumably not the same ones deporting refugees to Rwanda or leaving them to drown in the Mediterranean. Even though it’s usually expressed with a degree of plausible deniability, versions of this theory are beginning to crop up in the mainstream: conservative writer Douglas Murray recently spoke about “the war on white people, [...] the war on our history, the war on our religious inheritance and our philosophical inheritance, [...] the war on our cultural inheritance.” 

Here in Britain, you can see these anxieties at play in successive moral panics around culture, whether that’s statues of slave traders being torn down; National Heritage being deemed “woke” or the endless, feverish anticipation of the day that Shakespeare is finally cancelled. Modernism, in all its forms, is seen as an attack on traditional British values. “The current reactionary effort to tie together historical memory, heritage and the built environment – through statue wars, fights over country houses and preserved natural landscapes, and the naming of historic buildings – aims broadly at an anti-modernist agenda, even while admitting some forms of modernism to a ‘quintessentially English’ canon,” says Peter Mitchell, author of Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves.

Ever since the glorious day in the summer of 2020, when the people of Bristol yeeted a statute of a slave trader into the harbour, statues have been at the forefront of the British right’s cultural anxieties. “It’s interesting to look at how public artwork is discussed by the likes of the Save our Statues Twitter account,” says Mitchell. “It’s one obviously cranky guy who does stuff like laying a wreath of flowers reading ‘HERO’ at the base of Captain Cook’s statue on Australia Day, but he says out loud what’s really at stake in his enthusiasm for a certain monumental aesthetics: it’s about race, masculinity and the threatened dignity of the great white historical male, and the panicked sense that the barbarians are banging at the gates demanding entry.” This is the same anxiety being expressed by all these Twitter accounts pretending that ‘Guernica’ is inferior to some kitsch Hallmark illustration of a nubile young maiden frolicking with a goose.

Of course, not everyone who lionises “beauty” and “tradition” is a fascist. Even though these might be conservative ideals, they’re not always a smokescreen for extreme views – some people are just boring. But even though there isn’t always a direct line between the Nazis and the present-day traditionalists, there are nonetheless some disturbing parallels to their views on art. “It is vital to consider the historical context,” Dr Jacques Schuhmacher, who is the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Provenance and Spoilation Curator at the V&A, tells Dazed. “In the Nazis’ world view, one of the many ways Jewish people were supposed to be undermining the German people was by promoting ‘degeneracy’ and, thus, discord, which the Nazis saw as antithetical to ‘racial unity’.” When the Nazis came to power, many Jewish curators and museum directors were removed from their posts, while Jewish collectors and dealers were robbed of their artworks. 

In July 1937, the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition opened in Munich, consisting of 650 modernist pieces which had been confiscated from museums throughout Germany. At the same time, the regime organised a major show of works of art deemed to promote the values of the Nazi regime. “This exhibition was defined by its stark contrast to the pieces in the Degenerate Art exhibition,” says Dr Schumacker. “Instead of paintings denouncing the gruesome nature of the recent war, the visitors to the ‘Great German Art’ exhibition could admire paintings invoking comradeship and heroism. Instead of images of prostitutes, they could appreciate paintings and sculptures celebrating motherhood. Instead of allegedly meaningless abstract paintings, here they could enjoy the beauty of naturalistic landscapes. And, instead of sculptures characterised as disturbingly disproportionate, they were meant to feel inspired by sculptures which followed the principles of antiquity. If similar juxtapositions are made today that openly call particular art forms ‘degenerate’, then this is certainly disturbing.” Most far-right art history accounts today are sly enough not to openly use the word ‘degenerate’, but they nonetheless uphold a similar hierarchy of aesthetic values. 

It’s worth considering the far-right’s rhetoric in its historical context. However, it’s also important to realise that these aesthetic trends are emerging from forces within our own society. Greg Foley, an independent researcher in political philosophy, is wary of remarks that imagine events on the political right as straightforward attempts at imitating the Nazis. “This reproduces a common tendency to isolate fascism as a discrete historical phenomenon, occurring at a specific point in history in a particular social context, which any and all subsequent right-wing or reactionary movements are merely drawing from like a guide,” Foley tells Dazed. It ignores the question of how and why these ideas were cultivated, and the broader tendencies which allow them to take root even in liberal societies like our own.

It’s certainly disturbing to see people getting thousands of retweets for parroting Nazi terminology, but the truth is that neither the UK nor the US has any need to import far-right ideologies. When it comes to “tradition”, we have plenty of our own to work with.