When I watched the movie 300 about two months ago, I was astounded, in the proverbial jaw-dropping way, to be seeing a film that struck me as one of the purest examples of a fascist aesthetic ever filmed, rivaling even a film like Triumph of the Will for the sheer promotional quality of its ideological implications, and in fact exploring more deeply than Triumph many aspects of fascist ideology. It’s amazing, in fact, that 300 makes Triumph of the Will look rather reticent regarding the ugliest parts of fascism. That a film this starkly fascist could have been made in the U.S. in 2006 and toured the usual run of suburban and urban multiplexes seems to me both intensely fascinating and horrifying. Whether it surprises me is something I’m still trying to figure out.
When I posted a brief Facebook (where I’ve been spending a lot of time lately) comment about the fascism of 300, a friend of mine wrote back to challenge me to define what I meant by “fascist aesthetic.” So, thanks to John, I put together the list below.
This list doesn’t for the most part describe my individual take on fascist art. I consider it just more or less a description of the main elements of fascist art work as it was defined by Hitler and other artist-fascists at work in the Nazi regime and elsewhere. If you would like my personal take on fascist art though, I’m happy to offer it: I don’t like it. Now there’s a surprise. Fascist art works through an avoidance of history and any actual material conditions of the world. It offers a violent mythology and epic cartoon designed to blur and hide anything resembling actual history.
As Michael Theune pointed out in his response to me on Facebook, another thing that 300 illustrates is that a fascist aesthetic can indeed result in a boring film, not to mention an absolutely preposterous one. Still, by watching the film with the sound off and my own alternative soundtrack blaring, as well as with a generous serving of long commercial breaks courtesy of TNT (you don’t think I rented the damn thing, do you?), I was able to watch 300 in compact snippets that really highlighted the film’s affects and goals.
Of course, an argument can be made that the Spartans, the subject of the film, really were the world’s first main proto-fascists. Still, nothing about 300 is designed to be historically accurate, so claiming that historical accuracy was the reason behind taking such an approach obviously won’t wash.
And now my list of the basic characteristics of fascist art:
1) Belief in the moral corruption and physical and mental inferiority of dark-skinned people, homosexuals, and the physically disabled (all of which groups are, in fact, more or less interchangeable, in some degree).
2) Belief that the only true calling for a man is that of soldier, and that there is no greater honor than to die for one's country.
3) A promotion of the muscled male physique in a standardized, glorified way.
4) Belief that governments and democracy are corrupt hindrances to the activities of great moral soldier-leaders, who deserve the right to make decisions for all without the input of corrupt, morally and physically weak others.
5) A monumental, cleanly lined architecture whose goal is to emphasize physical strength both of building and of human physique.
6) Obfuscations about freedom and conformity; all free men must look, think, and act alike.
7) A sense of being a small, embattled moral elite in a world of corruption and decadence.
8) As that small, embattled elite, the group must finally die in defense of its values. Oddly, in fascist art, success is less beautiful and emotionally fulfilling than death.
9) A mythological landscape on which the fascist drama can be played out, one that describes even the environment of the world as a pure function of fascist values. No actual material messiness is allowed in the details.
This list may not be complete, but I hope it’s at least a good start. Of course, many of these values can be found in other art that is by no means fascist. It's the total combination of these characteristics that makes for fascist art, and that also makes 300 such a significant and unexpected new addition to the genre.