Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Man of Steel and the Man of Plastic

A Post by Kelebek (Miguel Martinez)

(From "Chimeras" - Miguel Martinez was born in Mexico and is currently resident in Italy. Another post of him on Cassandra's legacy is available here )

This post is extremely dense of concepts and ideas and it may not be easy to evaluate by a non-Italian reader. Yet, I think it is extremely valuable for its approach that tries to examine the historical roots of how, in modern times, the Eastern/Soviet/Russian art has moved in different directions from those that the Western/European/American art has taken. All art is, basically, political in the sense that it proposes a certain view of the world. What we call "propaganda" is a form of art, not different than many others, although more direct in its attempt of presenting a specific view of the world. This post is translated from Italian, the boldface sentences are from the original. 

We are wearily trying to understand the question of the relation of our times with those of the "Age of Steel" and its remarkable disappearance. Konstantin Aleksejevic Vasiliev was a Soviet artist who died at 34 in 1976.

Above, you see how he painted the departure of the Soviet soldiers for the Great Patriotic War against the Nazi invaders, in 1941.

The three figures are the men, the woman, and the young girl (but in many similar paintings we find a young boy). It is a triplet that has a specific birthdate: the French Revolution, when the Nation takes the place of God and of the King as Sovereign.

It is good to remember that it is a modern and revolutionary vision, in fact, the first great modern vision.

The new metaphysical entity is a family, biologically built and based on the gender separation with a double sacrifice: blood for the males, sons for the females.

The second element is anonymity. In practice, we see only one of the soldiers' faces and we can think that this face is representative of all the others of the marching group that we may imagine as extending all the way to the horizon, characterized by two colors - red and gray - that represent both the foundry and the battlefield.

On a side, this fact guarantees the infinite reproducibility and substitutability of each single element of the group of soldiers, as a sort of immense assembling chain. The first world war, and the subsequent footnotes (Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism, second world war) obviously needed this illusion in order not to transform this industrial mass slaughter into nihilism.

We know that what concretely makes individuals distinguishable is their physical and psychological weaknesses, that in this painting are totally invisible. Vasiliev was painting after the arrival of the TV age, but there is nothing here of the television intimacy, the attention to the individual sympathy of the guest whom we (virtually) accept in our home, nor, either, the interactive intimacy of the Internet age.

The Man of Steel, who is only seen from a distance - in parades, on monuments, in factories - is not supposed to seduce but, in the Age of Plastics, seduction is the first social obligation: those who don't even try are condemned from the start.

In place of personal eccentricities, the Man of Steel wears a mask, that is also a model. One always wants to be the way one is portrayed, it is not by chance that the Steel Age was the "age of forging" metals, character, the physical built, the New Man.

Often, the task is really successful. There exist a true existential difference between the 1942 Soviet eigtheen-year old boy and the boy of the same age in Padua, Italy, in 2012.

The current intimacy, founded on closeness, is an endless chatting. Moments of silence in TV are simply inconceivable.

In the painting by Konstantin Vasiliev, we can imagine the sounds of thunder or of the boots, but not of voices - the Man of Steel doesn't speak. At best, although not in this painting, he sings.

The Man of Steel always lives a dramatic adventure, but he never plays games; there is here an abyss between his contact with that and that - for instance - of the people who practice extreme sports in our times.

We know that this paintings shows the greatest anti-fascist movement in history, seen from the viewpoint of the protagonists. If that wasn't anti-fascism, the very term becomes meaningless.

Yet, any contemporary observer will probably see something fascist in this image.

“Fascist” intended as a sort of global definition, is not necessarily referred to Mussolini's experience. The Italian patriots had the specific problem of never having had a hearth to defend.

D’Annunzio the exhibitionists of Fiume, who enjoyed smothering their cigars on other people's tables [1] are somehow closer to the modern sensibility than the anonymous heroes of Vasiliev, who are neither bold nor daring.

In the modern Fascism, there survives an element of the Age of Steel, but that is linked to a humankind that belongs completely to the Age of Plastics.

Here is a fascinating example, in this case from a fiercely neo-fascist group Forza Nuova.

Don't consider the words for a moment and just look at the image, including the details: the green background and the light. (the text in Italian says "Italy needs sons, not homosexuals")

Konstantin Vasiliev portraits, in the end, a threatened family.

Forza Nuova, in this poster, portraits a threatened family.

In both, there is a connection between family and country.

But, in the first case, the threat is the total annihilation and enslavement; in the second, a few small legislative adjustments that - besides - won't directly affect the family that we presume to be threatened.

But the essential difference is in the seductive engagement of the family shown by Forza Nuova: it is their fully plastic and flexible individuality that we are called to love.

And, if you think about that, the people of the poster by Forza Nuova have faces that are a hundred times more false and unreal than those in the painting by Vasiliev.

[1] Martinez alludes here to an episode that occurred after the end of the first world war when the Italian poet and politician Gabriele D'Annunzio led a militia of war veterans to occupy the city of Rijeka (known as "Fiume" in Italian) in Croatia, claiming that it was part of the Italian state, The story lasted for a couple of years until the rebels were chased away by Italian regular troops. It made a lot of noise and it may have been seen as a prototype of the Fascist "March on Rome" of a couple of years later. 


  1. Amazing article! Thank you!

    Since my Italian is poor (non-existent, though I did recognize some French cognates) I was able to consider the image without its verbal context. The image could be advertising anything--hamburgers, perhaps. Okay, not hamburgers: The FN logo precludes that! Insurance, then.

    Fascism trying to make itself attractive to consumers! :D We are really not in the 1930s, no matter what people are pleased to think. Bad times, surely, but very, very different bad times. Could even be worse bad times--I suspect that--but very different.


  2. @Gaiane

    " Bad times, surely, but very, very different bad times."


    The FN logo dates back to the "steel" age (strong red-white-black colours, straight, aggressive lines, all of which can be drawn by hand if necessary); while the photo was picked up from an advertisement somewhere, probably for a low-mortgage home, or insurance.

    One major difference between old and new "bad times" is the almost total absence, today, of mass mobilisation: in the 1920s, there were millions of young men, penned up in factories or armies, ready to throw their lives down for one cause or another, ready to "do something".

    Today, there are millions of terrified people of both sexes, in their late middle age, sealed up inside their homes, who suspect they have been badly cheated, and clicking on their smartphones to beg the state to "do something".

    1. This is a very important difference, quite so.

      In the 1920's and 30's, unemployed and destitute men had nothing at all to do except gather in the streets and squares - as far as the laws allowed.

      They could be addressed,radicalised, inspired with a cause, and set in motion.

      Now, even they have been effectively neutralised with social media and entertainment, and are at home along with the middle class staring at the glowing screen.

      Smart move!

      An affordable i-phone is the best tool for social control.

  3. @Gaiane, again...

    Another basic difference between now and the 1920s (living in Italy, the big year was 1922), which is always swept under the carpet: class warfare.

    In 1920, the relatively small Italian middle class lived in terror of what would happen, if the sharecroppers in the Tuscan farms decided to rebel, or if factory or railway workers decided to take over management of the jobs they had been assigned.

    This was an enormous issue, where the middle class found support from many other places: for example, farm labourers hated the sharecroppers as much as the middle class did, and anybody living in the cities was terrified that farmers would decide food prices on their own.

    Fascism came into power breaking down the sharecropper movement, telling urban dwellers they need not fear the farmers.

    Even today's self-styled "fascists" are not Fascist in this crucial sense of the word.

  4. Thank you Miguel, Ugo and other commentators.

    Art, literature, clothe our inner representations, reappearing from the costume-box into the theatre of our repetitive fragmented dreams. Collectively however, are we condemned to be haunted by both the Soviet Union and by fascist dreams? Should we therefore dig a bit deeper into the prequel the century before – dramatised later by Tolstoy in War and Peace? During that century Europe was to become world-dominant, only then to step off its own cliff in 1914. Do we still smell like the 1920s even if this time it is different?

    There is a strange entity looking out of the eyes in the Soviet painting. It seems other than human. Where does that entity lodge now? I have seen the strange blue glitter in life a few times in elderly men having connection to the other side in WW2. The theme of ‘punishment’ might be in there somewhere.

    Rather differently, at first sight the neo-fascist painting might be just one more advertisement with a positive if unreal message. (My lack of Italian also blanks out the words.) I was at first reminded of how the British nuclear industry portrayed for many years its most controversial site – indeed ‘War & Peace’ - fuel for atom bombs and power for kitchen toasters, super-toxic ‘hot’ ponds, and all, on a foreground where placid animals grazed on the meadows of pre-industrial organic farming. But this fascist ‘family’ political advertisement has the whiff of a religious purpose. What specifically might that purpose be? The theme of extermination shimmers like a biocide spray over a kitchen surface. Is it too fantastical to imagine this fascism attempts a future religion; some replacement monopoly of the normal?

    Sometimes, both important and timely insight is found in art and science, but not enough it seems.


  5. That photo is from a stock. I have seen it a thousand times: they use it to advertise mortgages and housing projects here in the Netherlands.

    It looks really funny in a Forza Nuova poster.

    Even though FN is a neo-fascist movement, I find the mortgage advertisements more threatening than this propaganda: the Dutch housing bubble created more conformity and gregarious instincts than a fringe political group ever will.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)