[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: (Philip Johnson) Form Follows Fascism

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The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Form Follows Fascism
January 31, 2005



    THE death last week of Philip Johnson, the nonagenarian enfant
    terrible, brought 20th-century architecture to a symbolic close. Even
    Mr. Johnson's friends sometimes doubted that he was an architect of
    the first rank, but friend and foe alike agreed that he was an
    emblematic figure of his time.

    But emblematic of what? In death, his role in American culture will
    come into sharper focus, and it's a darker picture than many have

    Traditionally, Mr. Johnson is presented as the great champion of
    modern architecture - organizer of the landmark 1932 Museum of Modern
    Art show on the International Style, and architect of the Glass House
    on his Connecticut estate, which quickly came to symbolize American
    modernism. He is equally celebrated for abandoning classical modernism
    in the late 50's and adopting in the decades that followed a
    succession of styles that mirrored the changing taste of the time.

    It hardly mattered that many of his skyscrapers were corporate
    schmaltz; he was an enlivening, generous figure, a man who charmingly
    described himself as a "whore" as he picked the corporate pocket.
    Always ready to challenge the earnest, Mr. Johnson, who understood
    Warhol as well as Mies, became both an icon and an iconoclast.

    Only one aspect marred this picture: His embrace of fascism during the
    1930's, which was mentioned only in passing in most obituaries. He
    later called his ideological infatuation "stupidity" and apologized
    whenever pressed on the matter; as a form of atonement, he designed a
    synagogue for no fee. With a few exceptions, critics typically had
    little interest in the details, granting Mr. Johnson a pass for a
    youthful indiscretion.

    Then, in 1994, Franz Schulze's biography presented this period of Mr.
    Johnson's life in some depth. Mr. Schulze's account was as sympathetic
    as possible - and many reviews of the book still played down the
    importance of Mr. Johnson's politics - but it was clear that views of
    Mr. Johnson's import for American culture would change significantly.

    Philip Johnson did not just flirt with fascism. He spent several years
    in his late 20's and early 30's - years when an artist's imagination
    usually begins to jell - consumed by fascist ideology. He tried to
    start a fascist party in the United States. He worked for Huey Long
    and Father Coughlin, writing essays on their behalf. He tried to buy
    the magazine American Mercury, then complained in a letter, "The Jews
    bought the magazine and are ruining it, naturally." He traveled
    several times to Germany. He thrilled to the Nuremberg rally of 1938
    and, after the invasion of Poland, he visited the front at the
    invitation of the Nazis.

    He approved of what he saw. "The German green uniforms made the place
    look gay and happy," he wrote in a letter. "There were not many Jews
    to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a
    stirring spectacle." As late as 1940, Mr. Johnson was defending Hitler
    to the American public. It seems that only an inquiry by the Federal
    Bureau of Investigation - and, presumably, the prospect of being
    labeled a traitor if America entered the war - led him to withdraw
    completely from politics.

    Today, any debate over an important figure with a fascist or Communist
    background easily becomes an occasion for blame games between right
    and left. Mr. Johnson is no exception. Morally serious people can have
    different views of his personal culpability.

    But what's essential is to let the shadow fall - to acknowledge that
    fascism touched something important in his sensibility. Throughout his
    life, he was an ardent admirer of Nietzsche. His understanding of the
    great philosopher was surely deeper than that of the Nazis, but he was
    overly enchanted by the idea of "a superior being," "the will to
    power" and Nietzsche's view of art. And he loved the monumental.

    In an interview published in 1973, long after he renounced fascism,
    Mr. Johnson said: "The only thing I really regret about dictatorships
    isn't the dictatorship, because I recognize that in Julius's time and
    in Justinian's time and Caesar's time they had to have dictators. I
    mean I'm not interested in politics at all. I don't see any sense to
    it. About Hitler - if he'd only been a good architect!" In discussing
    Rome, he contrasted the poor artistic achievements of the
    democratically elected Republic with those of earlier regimes. "So
    let's not be so fancy-pants about who runs the country," he concluded.
    "Let's talk about whether it's good or not."

    Mr. Johnson's observation was refreshingly hard-nosed about art's
    relation to politics: good politics is not now and never will be a
    prerequisite for good art. But his emphasis on the aesthetic as the
    only important value in art was remarkably cold-blooded. His main
    regret seems to be that contemporary republics have failed to create
    monuments that ravish the senses.

    He never became a fascist architect. But he was probably one of those
    artists - among them many Communists - whose philosophical
    sensibilities were gutted by the experience of the 30's and World War
    II. Afterward, he lived more than ever for the stylish surface,
    appearing uncomfortable with large-minded ideas even when his
    buildings reached for the sky.

    Perhaps as a consequence, his imagination developed no particular
    center. Nothing was intractable or non-negotiable. He was remarkably
    free. He could toy, sometimes beautifully, with history. He liked a
    splash. He was a playful cynic, cultivating success even as he winked
    at its vulgarity. If someone should complain, well, the problem lay
    not in the artist but in the fallen world.

    Philip Johnson now seems like an emblematic figure partly because he
    appears to have been happily, marvelously, provocatively, disturbingly
    hollow. It is an underlying fear of Western culture, one that has
    lasted since World War II, that there is no larger or ennobling
    content to mine. Mr. Johnson's main flaws as an artist - his tastes
    for razzle-dazzle and overweening scale - are equally the weaknesses
    of American secular culture. His main strengths - his openness to
    change, playfulness and urbane rejection of the Miss Grundys of the
    world - are equally it strengths.

    The beautiful Glass House will remain Mr. Johnson's signature work. It
    is the transparent heart of a collection of eclectic buildings in New
    Canaan, Conn. It's a dream house, a stylish stage set. It floats upon
    the land, eliding boundaries between inside and outside. It seems full
    of emptiness. It's not really a place to live, but was still Mr.
    Johnson's essential home. That uneasy stylishness deserves emphasis.
    Philip Johnson lived in a glass house. He threw stones, too.

    Mark Stevens is the art critic of New York magazine and the co-author
    of "De Kooning: An American Master."

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