Weaponizing art: why are nationalists so obsessed with classics?

Written by: Zuzanna Kozlowska

‘Beauty and tradition matters’ reminds us Architectural Revival, a Twitter account listed as one of those ‘That Will Make You Proud to be European’, to cite the far-right website Defend Europa. Unsurprisingly, the account is followed by thousands of nationalist users, both anonymous and public figures, including British activist Paul Joseph Watson and Polish politician Krzysztof Bosak. The omnipresent theme of the posts is a critique of modern art, followed by praise of Greco-Roman aesthetics. As the page is just one of many that links classical culture with contemporary nationalism, the question has to be asked: why is the Western far-right so obsessed with classics?

Given their beliefs in national exceptionalism, one would initially assume that nationalists would be mostly preoccupied with folk art and other distinct expressions of ‘ethnic culture’. After all, nineteenth-century romantic nationalism has clearly demonstrated that traditional folk songs, proverbs and myths can be effectively used to construct the idea of national culture and as such establish both physical and symbolic control of the landscape.

Yet, historically speaking, nationalists’ fascination with classical art is just as old as their interest in folklore. The cult of Greek body among the nineteenth-century French nationalists, Mussolini’s obsession with ancient Rome or Hitler’s famous infatuation with the Discobolus – the sculpture he perceived as the embodiment of the Aryan race – are just a few examples indicating that despite ethnic differences, the praise of classics is a common characteristic shared by Western nationalists. It should not surprise us, then, that contemporary far-right movements once again embrace the tradition of Greco-Roman aesthetics and repetitively incorporate it into their visual rhetoric.

As Sarah Bond, Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa, explains, the use of classical imagery by alt-right groups serves several purposes. First, by equating the pristine ‘whiteness’ of classical art with beauty, it establishes both cultural and racial hierarchy that places everyone and everything ‘of colour’ at its bottom. Second, it links white male European identity to gods and heroes of the Greco-Roman tradition, giving contemporary nationalists cultural capital to recognise as theirs. Third, through references to ancient Rome and Greece, it creates a narrative that begins with antiquity and continues through the medieval and modern periods, placing contemporary white supremacy at the very beginning and very end of history. The overall rhetoric is clear: classical culture is portrayed as western heritage that needs to be celebrated and protected by all white nationalists, regardless of their background.

What is most important to notice, however, is a link between classics and nationalist obsession with cultural decline. As Donna Zuckerberg points out, the main idea behind the use of classical aesthetics is to create a sense of threat. ‘Just as the greatness of ancient Rome has declined because of barbarians – says the nationalist message – our culture will too, unless we do something about it.’ By establishing the narrative of decline, Western far-right activists thus position themselves not as white supremacists (because it just sounds so terrible, doesn’t it?) but rather as defenders of Western civilization, fighting for their own survival. From this perspective, their glorification of classical art becomes part of cultural war or, as Guillaume Faye would put it, part of ‘metapolitics’ – a fight for domination that goes beyond the sphere of the state.

The misuse of classical art by groups such as Identity Evropa shows thus something more alarming than just ‘interest’ in the culture of ancient Rome and Greece. It demonstrates that unless we start talking about how the ancient world really looked like, we might not be able to reclaim classics from the hands of white nationalists. What should give us hope, though, are the initiatives that aim to show the real story behind ancient art – full of colour and indifference to questions of race or ethnic identity.

Large polychrome tauroctony relief of Mithras killing a bull, originally from the mithraeum of S. Stefano Rotonodo (end of 3rd century CE), now at the Baths of Diocletian Museum, Rome (photo by Carole Raddato/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Featured image: Discobolus I (by Albert/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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