Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Oh, You Brute

I am currently enjoying Owen Hatherley's Leftist aesthetic tract Militant Modernism & strongly suggest you purchase a copy (preferably from your local bookshop if you're in the UK as encouraged by Hatherley's blog, though being in Australia I had little choice but to use the ethereal, non-unionised hand of Amazon).

The book is a defence of modernism in both its much admired 'pure' 1920s form, but also its much derided post-war concrete phase. Hatherley reminds us that modernism was as much a political movement as an aesthetic one, and praises not only the forms of modernism but the unapologetic socialist ideals it often expressed. He views the post-1960s attack on Brutalist architecture as a shunning of the Bevanite legacy and a retrospective attack on Britain's only genuinely socialist government. I am with him entirely here. It is without doubt a victory for the forces of conservatism that this post-war vision of a utopian urban future has been made a byword for ugliness, undesirability and decay and suppressed by the reactionary detritus of a mythical England.

It is not the 'carbuncle' denouncing atavists who are the real enemies to Hatherley though. For him it is those who seek to historicise and heritage list modernism that do the most damage. This museum-fetish defence of modernism divorces aesthetics from idealism and sanitises the modernist impulse. It condemns the use of architecture as a leftwing political tool whilst rescuing its more 'civilised' flourishes for bourgeois indulgence; effectively reducing modernism to little more than a genre of cutlery design.

This simultaneous veneration of the modernist aesthetic and denunciation of its aims came strikingly to mind when looking at the cover of my other reading material of the moment, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. In my edition this anti-communist novel is clothed in a constructivist inspired cover.

Constructivism, as any sixth form Marxist will tell you, was inspired by the Utopian dreams of the 1917 revolution and was the pre-eminent artistic style in the Soviet Union in the period immediately after the civil war. Its bold graphic designs signified the revolutionary values of progress, justice and hope for the future. However, Koestler's novel does not document this period, it takes place in the darkest recesses of Stalin's purges, by which time the avant-garde experimentations of the constructivists had been smashed and replaced with the kitschy, ever-smiling workers of socialist realism. Why then the constructivist aesthetic?

The historical argument here is that the violence and mass-murder of the 1930s USSR was not a perversion of the revolutionary zeal of 1917, but rather a natural progression of it. This is also the argument of Koestler, whose persecuted protagonist, Rubashov, is not an ideological dissident but a former hero of the revolution. We learn that Rubashov has himself been an executioner of class enemies and continues to justify the use of violence in pursuit of utopia if required. His objection to his incarceration is not that the regime is brutally repressive, just that it is repressing the wrong man. There is no epiphany that the whole Bolshevik dream is a fraud - if Rubashov were pardoned he would be more than happy to continue the revolutionary drive himself and imprison others whose actions and beliefs threaten to derail the course of history.

Koestler's argument (prefiguring Orwell) is that this murderous mindset is inherent in communism. However laudable its stated aims, Bolshevism must always be totalitarian, and totalitarianism must always lead to bloodshed. In this, the choice of cover design compliments perfectly Koestler's intent.

What I can't decide is whether this political aesthetic is intentional, or whether some historically illiterate Gen Y designer, surrounded by Franz Ferdinand albums, has simply heard the word 'Soviet' and indiscriminately ransacked the modernist catalogue; making a concise political argument purely by mistake.