Posts Tagged ‘ritual’

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Political Rites: Initiating Art

October 3, 2009

In recent news, the New York Times reports: “Possible Nazi Theme of Grand Prix Boss’s Orgy Draws Calls to Quit” (www.nytimes.com, 4/7/08). Having read only twelve words I know that this article is not entertaining gossip, but challenging theory. What is a Nazi Theme? Is it possible to combine Nazism with Orgies? Is this an article about social or personal psychology? Beyond the title, the article proves even more provocative. The “Grand Prix Boss” is also Max Mosley, the “younger son of Britain’s 1930’s fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, and the society beauty Diana Mitford, whose secret wedding in Berlin in October 1936 was held at the home of the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels and included Hitler as a guest of honor.”  Immediately, without any details of what occurred at the actual “orgy,” it is easy to conclude that the “Nazi Theme” is Mr. Mosley himself, who was finally caught revealing his true fascist nature. However, the presumptive response is shortsighted and relies on the same reductionist theory of essence that led to the persecution of the Jews during the Third Reich. Details of the orgy as provided by the New York Times include:

[T]wo of the women wore black-and-white striped robes in the style of prisoners’ uniforms. The video showed Mr. Mosley counting in german –“Eins! Zwei! Drei! Vier! Funf!”-as he used a leather strap to lash one of the women.“She needs more of ze punishment!” he cried in German-accented English. One woman appeared to search his hair for lice, while another called off items on an inspection list. Mr. Mosley, naked, was bound facedown and lashed more than 20 times.

This is all the evidence the newspaper provides to inform the public of how Mr. Mosley’s orgy was “Nazi Themed.” Where are the uniforms? Swastikas? Salutes? The session (as relayed by the New York Times) incorporates sadomasochistic behavior with limited German language, prisoner uniforms, and prison role-playing.

In defense of his behavior, Mr. Mosley argues “he spoke German during the sex-and-bondage session because two of the women involved were Germans, not to engage in Nazi role playing.” In addition, he also states “the garb worn by the women was ‘American convict uniforms,’” and as dismissing the Nazi allegations by saying, “The scenario was more Alcatraz than Auschwitz.”  In addition, it is important to note that all the behavior was legal and consensual. While there is no question that Mr. Mosley participated in a sadomasochistic orgy, there are doubts as to whether or not the orgy had a “Nazi Theme.” Here is the critical point of departure, where tabloid revelations become theoretical debates. In Susan Sontag’s 1974 essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” she discusses the appeal of fetishizing SS Regalia (which is without doubt a “Nazi Theme”):

[T]he perennial Englishman in a brothel being whipped is re-creating an experience. He is paying a whore to act out a piece of theater with him, to reenact or revoke the past—experiences of his schooldays or nursery which now hold for him a huge reserve of sexual energy. Today it may be the Nazi past that people invoke, in the theatricalization of sexuality, because it is those images (rather than memories) from which they hope a reserve of sexual energy can be tapped. What the French call “the English vice” could, however, be said to be something of an artful affirmation of individuality; the playlet referred, after all, to the subject’s own case history. The fad for Nazi regalia indicates something quite different: a response to an oppressive freedom of choice in sex (and in other matters), to an unbearable degree of individuality; the rehearsal of enslavement rather than its reenactment. (325)

While it is unclear whether or not the accoutrements of Mr. Mosley’s orgy were Nazi inspired, Sontag’s exploration of the relationship between sexuality and repression as it may be acted out through theatrical fascism is important. Regardless of whether Mr. Mosley’s actions were motivated by sexual gratification and/or psychological catharsis, the situation is complicated because Mr. Mosley’s lineage is sided with the oppressor, rather than with the oppressed. It is also likely that, having been raised by fascist British parents, Mr. Mosley may have many personal issues with repression and is struggling to channel these repressions in a constructive manner that include both sadistic and masochistic behavior. However, Mr. Mosley’s actions too closely resemble the oppressive, fascist fantasy of Hitler, and supercede personal psychology by collective values. The public’s reaction is strong and clear: while it is okay that Mr. Mosley’s personal behaviors are not accepted by mainstream sexuality standards, it is not acceptable for him to re-enact a violently oppressive political regime. In the public’s eye, Mr. Mosley’s behavior is ritualistically evoking the crimes of the Nazi party. Situations, like the one that surrounds Mr. Mosley, are important because they allow us to explore the emotional power that rituals provoke throughout a society. How is it that a private psycho-sexual encounter has the power to create outrage? In answering this question, it is critical that an understanding of the relationship between ritual, politics, and aesthetics be established.

While Nazi Germany and the Third Reich may be called many things, they are first a political party. The essential goal of a political party is to obtain power to influence the fate of a community. Theoretically, Democracy holds that the majority should be the deciders, while Fascism asserts that one individual should decide for the majority. In Catherine Bell’s article, “Basic Genres of Ritual Action,” she discusses political rites:

In general, political rites define power in a two-dimensional way: first, they use symbols and symbolic action to depict a group of people as a coherent and ordered community based on shared values and goals; second, they demonstrate the legitimacy of these values and goals by establishing their iconicity with the perceived values and order of the cosmos. (129)

Bell is stating that the power of political rites is focused on “symbols and symbolic action” forming a community that can then relate to a “higher power.” A bridge must be built between the higher authority, the symbol of political power, and the individual. While the initial construction is focused outward, the goal is to create a “connection” with the cosmos that will make it seem that the cosmos initiated the structure, rather than the other way around. Bell states, “It is through ritual, however, that those claiming power demonstrate how their interests are in the natural, real, or fruitful order of things” (129). How can one make a political party seem to be the natural path of a people? “When ritual is the principal medium by which power relationships are constructed, the power is usually perceived as coming from sources beyond the immediate control of the human community” (129). Bell’s statement is very important. In politics, rituals may create an authority beyond the control of a community. Ideally, the political party is expected to represent the interests of the community. However, if this is not so, political power is able to manipulate the community toward other goals. The success of political rites in bonding a group of people together depends on the strength of engagement. Symbols consolidate identification to embody the conscious and unconscious collective identity desires of a community. The artistic work of Leni Riefenstahl during the Third Reich demonstrates the power of symbols in political rites.

Celebrated as the poster-girl of Germany, Leni Riefenstahl shaped the public image of the ideal Aryan through her performances and productions. A biographer of Riefenstahl, Jurgen Trimborn describes her work and political affiliation throughout her 101 years of life. Her career began as a dancer and her work focuses on the aesthetics of the body throughout its entirety. Her networking efforts led her to become friends with Adolph Hitler shortly before he came into political power. Her friendship with Hitler provided her with abundant patronage. Her skills as artistic cinematographer were recruited to both document and artistically render the cultural climate of the time. Her film Triumph of the Will is a montage of a military rally at Nuremburg that was figure- headed by Hitler and his philosophy of a united, pure, Germany. Olympia features beautiful bodies committing astounding athletic feats during the 1936 Olympics that took place in Germany. Riefenstahl’s artistic eye had never been doubted.  However, her fusion of art and politics is frequently described as propaganda. Returning to Bell’s description of political rites, Bell emphasizes that it is important to have “symbols and symbolic action to depict a group of people as a coherent and ordered community based on shared values and goals” (129). Without a doubt, Riefenstahl created a symbolic image that mirrored the philosophy of Hitler’s regime. Sontag describes Riefenstahl’s work as “evoking some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiles, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical” (314). The aesthetic perfection of Riefenstahl’s portrayals provides evidence that divine beauty is possible on earth. However, her work also is explicit in supporting the Third Reich as the modern operating agent of this higher energy, the symbolic connection between beauty, power, and triumph is made to seem naturally affiliated with the Nazi party.

The Nazi party was exceedingly adept at accessing and utilizing the power of the political rite. Bell writes, “Political rituals, […], indicate the way in which ritual as a medium of communication and interaction does not simply express or transmit values and messages but also actually creates situations” (136). Hitler and Riefenstahl were very successful in creating “situations” that would go beyond the communication of the Nazi philosophy to embodiment. An important distinction in Riefenstahl’s work that facilitated greater symbolic meaning is that she was working as an artist, not as a journalist. While both perspectives demand authenticity, the artist has the right to an interpretive perspective. Throughout history this has proven to be dangerous territory. Where is the line between interpretation and manipulation? Artistic perspective and delusion? According to her biography, Riefenstahl claims to have been apolitical throughout Hitler’s (and her own) career and to have merely been an artist with a very powerful agent. Having read her 1938 speech in support of Hitler, she creates fellowship between the art of film and the art of nation building:

Once years ago, the Führer said that if artists knew what great tasks were in store for them in a better Germany, they would join the movement with even greater enthusiasm. Today every artist knows what also is clear to every comrade: reality is providing you with more than your fantasy ever allowed you to dream of. A Greater Germany has become a reality; we have seen it grow from year to year with increasing confidence and deep regard. The creator of Greater Germany is at the same time its most artistic member. (Trimborn 147)

Every successful political party has relied to some degree on political rites. Constructing symbols of state and ideals are intended to create a relationship between a people and their leaders. But what happens when the power of the symbols exceeds the influence of the regime? Can the association that created the symbol lose control? In her speech, Riefenstahl states: “reality is providing you with more than your fantasy ever allowed you to dream of.” Her relationship with Hitler enabled Riefenstahl access to complete creative control and unlimited funding for her artistic endeavors (art which just happened to be aligned with the taste and philosophy of her patron). Riefenstahl celebrates her success as an artist while simultaneously celebrating Hitler’s success as a political leader. Both are built on fantasy.

Sontag argues that Riefenstahl’s art embodied an aesthetic that is inseparable from her politics, a Fascist aesthetic. She describes a fascist aesthetic in the following way:

[Fascist aesthetics] flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death. (316)

What is the relationship between Fascist aesthetics and the authenticity of an artist? Riefenstahl successfully works with film to create visual metaphors, which should technically make her an artist. But what about the content that provides meaning to an artists work? Beyond the production, is there a responsibility to challenge how the audience views the world? In the 1993 Riefenstahl interviews portrayed in film “The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl,” directed by Ray Muller, Riefenstahl argues that she is interested in what is beautiful, not what is political. Throughout the film she is aggressively more interested in sharing how she filmed, rather than why. True to Sontag’s description of fascist aesthetics, Riefenstahl’s own life has embraced “two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude.” The enduring question regarding Riefenstahl’s work is whether she can be an artist, creating during and with the patronage of Nazi Germany, or is her art saturated by politics and limited to being beautifully crafted propaganda?

In regard to ritual, Riefenstahl developed the widespread success of the political rites that portrayed Germany throughout the world. She was working as an artist, but she was also working as an artist who knew her work was being read as if it were journalism. The world was viewing her work as an example of Hitler’s regime. The problem is that Riefenstahl’s work was limited to representing the grand philosophical ideals and failed to share the racist and destructive. In “Documenting Ritual,” Ronald Grimes writes about his experience working as an expert for a documentary film about ritual.

The choice of rites depicted in the film is driven almost exclusively by visual interest and the availability of footage and archival materials, not by how widespread or important the rites are not, nor how well they illustrate a category, nor by how much is known about the rite. (19)

Grimes’ experience working with the filmmakers shows that he was not expected to present the critical study of rituals; rather he was expected to support a preconceived drama of ritual made by the producers. His complaints of the producer’s narrow vision are supported by their ability to manipulate the perspectives of others through literally cutting and pasting film. The following is a description of what type of material was represented in the “documentary”:

The implied criteria for visual interest are how much movement and color there is, the recording quality of the clip, and the projected ability to attract and hold viewers’ interest. Among the aesthetic preferences exhibited by “Sacred rites and Rituals” are largeness of scale (big crowds and wide vistas are preferred), scenes involving blood or pain, actions with no obvious explanations, culturally unfamiliar sites, and actions displaying ornate or minimal clothing.

Interestingly, the standards for this documentary are similar to the “fascist aesthetics” that Susan Sontag described. Instead of engaging in the experience of ritual, the documentary turns ritual (and those who practice ritual) into “things.”  By turning ritual into a representation of “the other” or a “different thing,” it is no longer representing its original symbolic embodiment within a community; rather it has been co-opted by another perspective. In “Documenting Ritual,” Grimes explains that the problem with this process is that the viewer becomes dependent on the film to interpret the material. The audience fails to think for themselves:

[V]iewers of a “touristic” documentary are rendered dependent on the film. They could not possibly understand performances so exotic and impenetrable without experts, narrators, and filmmakers. Viewers would not perform such rites, because they are too “mysterious,” and viewers could not make intellectual sense of the rites without assistance. In contrast, the viewer of a contemplative documentary thinks, “well, that makes more sense than I would have imagined. Why not do it the way these folks do it?” Or the viewer muses, “ I would never do that, but now it makes sense why they do it that way.” (26)

The complaint against Riefenstahl is first that she was facilitating political rites that enabled the Nazi party to accomplish tremendous crimes against humanity. Secondly, that even if her intentions were to create beautiful images, she was able to do so by the commission of the Nazi party, was privileged to their inner circles, was an intimate friend of Adolph Hitler, and claimed to be an artist while failing to achieve critical engagement within her self and audience. If her failure of perception was intentional, then it was criminal, but if it was unconscious, then she becomes an initiate to the political rite she worked to establish.

In both the case of Leni Riefenstahl and Mr. Mosley’s “Nazi Themed Orgy,” the participant’s relationship to ritual helps to clarify public response. As Riefenstahl demonstrated with her work for Hitler, the energy of political rites is established by creating a connection between the individual, the symbol, and a higher cosmic energy. Because of her success in engaging a nation, and the world, through her mythic images, it is impossible to disassociate the art from what inspired its creation. Through the atrocities of Nazi Germany, the symbols of Riefenstahl’s work are invested with a cosmic power beyond the control of the artist. The effectiveness of the initiation of these symbols by the Nazi political rite is demonstrated through the public outrage expressed toward Mr. Mosley’s private acting out of abusive behavior and its vague illusions to the rituals that previously provoked world war. If Riefenstahl’s work served as Nazi propaganda and disengaged the audience from being critical, then the repercussions are found in a heightened sensitivity toward any symbolic reference to the imagery that distracted the world from preventing crimes against humanity. Consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Mosley incited a response of outrage that was absent during the original symbolic initiation.

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