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The concept of aesthetic fascism
Robert Lenkiewicz formulated the idea of aesthetic fascism to encapsulate his ideas about what happens when we form an attraction so strong towards another person that we tend to treat them as property.
It grew out of his observation of the behaviour of the street alcoholics and addicts who often appear in his paintings, people who “would cut your throat for another drink”, as he put it. Lenkiewicz noticed the deep similarity between this “addictive scenario” and what he called “the falling in love experience”. In evidence, he offered the traumatic experience of jealousy, which he regarded as being identical to the kind of withdrawal symptoms felt by addicts deprived of their drug of choice.
He noticed that the obsessive fascination with the beloved person could often lead to acts of ruthlessness and violence. “I often feel,” he said, “that in the most intense romantic scenarios… there is an undertone of ruthless psychopathic expectation, a curious heartlessness. If one had genuine concern for one’s partner then the first thing one would do is leave them.” He was sceptical about claims that in love one ‘cared’ about the other person in a selfless sense, quoting the German philosopher Nietzsche’s pithy expression: “How nicely does doggish lust beg a piece of spirit when a piece of flesh is denied it.”
He used the term ‘aesthetic’ to distinguish his idea from psychological or moral theories of behaviour. He believed we were drawn to people because of an innate physical propensity to become intoxicated or entranced “by sensations linking to desire, attraction and jealousy”. Lenkiewicz was unconvinced that such attractions even had much to do with any objective qualities possessed by the other person. “A portcullis has come down at the first glance between yourself and the other and one’s relationship is with that portcullis… one’s own aesthetic vulnerability. Some people are more or less addicted to that aesthetic vulnerability, but believe themselves to be addicted to the other person.” He regarded this as a physiological mechanism; a system of pleasure/pain inbuilt in the human body. He was fascinated by the fact that the visceral, gut feelings reported by jilted lovers, withdrawing addicts or fanatics whose beliefs were threatened, were almost invariably described in exactly the same terms.
In this context, Lenkiewicz was employing the common definition of ‘fascism’ as the tendency to deny fully human status to certain kinds of people and to exalt specific others. He felt that “the aesthetic fascism involved in saying ‘I fancy that person; I’m attracted to that person’ is quite often made of pretty unattractive stuff.” This proclivity to focus exclusively on a particular individual struck him as the dark mirror image of the fascistic impulse to persecute the stranger or outsider. Lenkiewicz was therefore very sympathetic with attempts to locate the origins of Fascism (capital F for the political phenomenon) in the physiology of the individual rather than in materialist or economic causes - 'The Mass Psychology of Fascism' by Wilhelm Reich was an important text for him.
Lenkiewicz argued that the same aesthetic mechanism was at work in our devotion to philosophical, ethical or ideological convictions. For him it was not a question of right or wrong, what he called “the moral squint”, or even of compelling evidence of truth, but of the relative strength of our attraction to one idea or another. He scarcely accepted therefore that people’s convictions could be changed by rational argument, observing that we seldom have good reasons for holding the beliefs we do.
His magnificent private library provided ample evidence of the extraordinary capacity humans have for self-delusion in thrall to fanatical belief systems. The sections on alchemy or the 16th & 17th century witch burning craze showed how the most acute intelligences of the period could hold the most insane beliefs, and be prepared to kill (or die) for them. All too often, certainty precedes atrocity. If that seemed historically remote, he could point to incidents like the disastrous FBI assault on the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas; “one fanatical belief system wiping out another”.
The tenor of Lenkiewicz’ ideas—many people thought them cold-hearted or cynical—seemed inconsistent with his amiability and generosity. Surely there was some sort of moral principle in play? He would have none of that. For him it was just a matter of being “attracted to a certain aesthetic package” that inlcuded humane treatment of less advantaged people. He was sympathetic to talk of human rights or the dignity of life but regarded such ideas as “beautiful metaphors, poetry”.
Lenkieiwcz believed that a re-evaluation of human behaviour in aesthetic and physiological terms would inevitably aid us in “enjoying life without making a nuisance of ourselves.” Our attraction towards an idea or system of belief doesn’t make it right and nor do our attractions for other people oblige them to respond to our feelings or grant us rights over them. “Once one establishes that it is an aesthetic experience one is undergoing and not something else, then a number of behaviour patterns which lead to obsessive or fanatical behaviour could evaporate.”