[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: (Philip Johnson) Form Follows Fascism
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Mon Jan 31 15:41:26 UTC 2005
The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Form Follows Fascism
January 31, 2005
By MARK STEVENS
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
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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