This Is (Not) a Gallows
From the Series: American Fascism
In a coruscating 1937 essay entitled “Jugglers’ Fair Beneath the Gallows,” the German philosopher-critic Ernst Bloch (1991, 75) wrote:
It is getting crazy and ever crazier. What is an honest, a talented person to do in this country. His simple existence is a danger to him, he must conceal it. Every kind of talent endangers the life of the person who possesses it, apart from that of cringing. Artists, who are such, are openly threatened with castration or prison; this is no joke, such mouths do not make jokes. People have learnt to take the ridiculous seriously.
Learning to take the ridiculous seriously—deadly seriously—is one of the soul-crushing demands of fascism. Perhaps this lesson could even be imagined as a defining feature of fascism, albeit not one that is commonly included in the roster of fascism’s definitively necessary elements. The ridiculous is only ever a hair’s breadth away from the awful register of the sublime. “From the sublime to the ridiculous” is not just a throwaway line. When ridiculous threats and accusations become violently enacted, they are no longer ridiculous.
The January 6, 2021, breaching of the Capitol was preceded by the roiling festivities of the soon-to-be insurrectionary mob, a thrilling juggler’s fair with fluttering flags, caps and knitted hats (quite a few with pompoms), helmets and flak vests, masks (but not too many), hockey sticks and flagpoles, zip ties and bullhorns, baseball bats and nooses. At least one of those nooses came complete with a gallows. The noose was orange. Someone had affixed a sign to the gallows, stenciled with the words THIS IS ART, a startling image captured by the Brooklyn-based documentary photographer Radcliffe (Ruddy) Roye (2021) in a superb, unsparing photo-essay documenting Trumpist crowds from election day until inauguration day, including the day of the election certification.
To label the foul machinery of execution with a sign declaring THIS IS ART discloses a sly (fascist) inversion. If I think about art or not-art, I am reminded of Marcel Duchamp’s (rejected) attempt to exhibit a urinal, what would later come to be recognized as a “readymade,” in the New York Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in 1917 (how crazy was that, then?). I also detect a vigorous nod from the Deep State of the Unconscious toward René Magritte’s famous 1929 painting of a pipe, formally entitled La Trahison des images (The Treachery of Images); written at the bottom of the painting is “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe). To call this gallows/noose combination “art” is to say, treacherously, that this is not really a machinery of execution, we aren’t really going to hang Mike Pence, and by the way, what we say goes (and it’s fun!): a juggler’s fair beneath the gallows.
The ascription of the status of art to a working hangman’s gallows in the midst of a jolly insurrection fomented by the former American führer might seem to work as a protective talisman. As such, it perversely accords with the events about which Bloch was writing in 1937, the same year that a fascist denunciation of “degenerate art” was staged in Munich through a notorious exhibition of furiously ridiculed and excoriated modernist art (including Klee, Picasso, Kandinsky) that had been confiscated from German museums; this exhibition ran concurrently with another one, the “Great German Art Exhibition” and its display of beautiful Aryan heroes, mothers, and children. Afterward, much of the “degenerate art” was sold by the Nazis and what wasn’t was burned in Berlin.
To proclaim that THIS IS ART on a monstrous Home Depot’d gallows in front of the Capitol on January 6 was to declaim that because this is “art,” no need to take it seriously (wink wink): “art” is about false images and lying about an object’s real use (Duchamp’s urinal, a gallows as a representation of itself). Calling their gallows “ART” might protect those who displayed it from legal blowback, but “THIS IS ART” is actually saying “THIS IS NOT ART.” Wethepeople know it is exactly what it is: a gallows (and Hang Mike Pence!).
Descriptions of fascism often point to the adoption of a “Big Lie,” to the relentless conspiratorial propagandization of falsehoods that are then believed to be true by the “masses” (it was really antifa that stormed the capital). Yet as some anatomists of fascism have disclosed, it is precisely the lying in the leader that allows identification to occur: lying is a trait that intimately suits the leader, as it allows Wethepeople (which has now, seemingly, become a singular noun in rightist discourse and can be used in both the subjective and objective cases) to identify with the leader: “He says what I think” (a MAGA-cap slogan). The leader justifies narcissism. As Theodor Adorno (1978, 126–27) inimitably put it (inspired by Freud’s essay on group psychology):
[Freud’s] descriptions fit the picture of Hitler no less than idealizations into which the American demagogues try to style themselves. In order to allow narcissistic identification, the leader has to appear himself as absolutely narcissistic. . . . Even the fascist leader’s startling symptoms of inferiority, his resemblance to ham actors and asocial psychopaths, is thus anticipated. . . . the superman must still resemble the follower and appear as his “enlargement.”
Regarding the political system as illegitimate is not enough to produce devotion for the leader; narcissistic identification with the leader has to occur to produce the death-driven passions evinced by Wethepeople for the 45th president. It’s not as if the demagogue’s lying is a game-changer: his “saying what I think” is even more valuable when what he says is the ugly lie that I am (already) thinking.
One could say that fascism—with its perennial racism, anti-Semitism, ultranationalism, and authoritarianism—always haunts capitalism. But the ascension of a führer is the necessary X-factor to turn anticipatory right populism into metastasized fascism, disclosed by the massive transference onto the figure of the leader, the grotesquely narcissistic personality that enlarges the narcissistic regard of his subject-devotees, Wethepeople.
Within the economy of fascist untruth and the passion of identification with the leader, there is no limit to the fecundity of lying. Within that economy, the place of art becomes ever more precarious, ever more fantasized as the site where its critical treachery becomes the occasion for sly appropriation, appropriate for fascism. The jugglers’ fair beneath the gallows leaves no doubt that a gallows with a noose is never not a gallows with a noose when the violence which would secure its deathly function undergirds the ridiculous, murderous claim that THIS IS ART.
Adorno, Theodor. 1978. “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda.” In The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, 118–37. New York: Urizen Books.
Bloch, Ernst. 1991. Heritage of Our Times. Translated by Neville and Stephen Plaice. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Roye, Radcliffe. 2021. “‘God, Guns, and Trump’: Anatomy of the Crowd.” Essay by Rebecca Lee Sanchez. The New York Review, January 22.