Degenerate Art

May 23, 2016

Today we welcome a new column on Sounds Of A Tired City: Subjective Streets. Here is the first guest piece by Raphael Shklarek.

I recently read an article posted on Femmecult entitled “Fascism in Ambient Music” by Evelyn Malinowski. Immediately I was irritated and intrigued, since I am both a big lover of ambient music and a big opponent of fascism. As the article unfolded I was more and more astonished at the bigotry it was based on. The irony was not lost on me at all and so I couldn’t help but comment on it. I don’t spend much time on comment sections on the internet because mostly what you are dealing with is a lot of shallow waters and it lets the randoms in. This topic was too close to my heart to let my thoughts go unexpressed though and so I decided to write a commentary on it. What you are about to read in this commentary is my personal opinion on the issues that the original essay tackles, namely industrial, ambient and techno music and its relationship towards fascist, brutalist aesthetics. It will further open up the discussion to the role and position of music and art in general.

Degenerate art is a term used by the nazis to describe art that didn’t adhere to their mindset. All modern and abstract art was considered un-German, foreign, jewish, communist or any other term that would have been pejorative in their context. It was therefore shunned, forbidden, burned or stolen for personal collections. Music, in particular, was to be tonal, represent the spirit of the german people and free of all modern or foreign influences, such as jazz. At the beginning of the 20th century a lot of those art forms came to life and created a new world of imagination and expression. That is of course not the ideal support for an oppressive, fascist regime. The rise of electronic music, in its own way, is an equal boom around the turn of the century and millennium that opened the portals to unseen and unheard imagination and expression. Due to globalisation and internet its influences and access ranges over the whole world. Let us just say, Hitler would not have liked electronic music.

I have thought on the topic of brutality in industrial and techno music since I first had a discussion with a friend 5 years ago about him listening to industrial rock bands such as “Feindflug” and “Eisenfunk” who have a much more obvious link to national socialism and war in general. Knowing him not to be a fascist or any other of the bad “-ists” I wondered whether or not he was sure that these bands weren’t glorifying these themes with all their war machine sounds and excerpts of Hitler speeches. He explained to me that, for him, art was meant to provoke thought and emotion, to go into territories where other human disciplines don’t or won’t. I agreed with him although I was still a little uncomfortable with hearing Hitler and tanks rolling inside a piece of music. What I noticed though, was that every time we would listen to his music, we would have incredibly interesting and long talks about the second world war, fascism, sociology, human nature and everything that this music evokes.

A few months back one of my best friends and I discussed a depiction from the Berceuse Heroique label of several individuals hung off of a tree with a group of people gathered around to watch, seemingly entertained. Was I shocked? Yes. I wasn’t so quick as others to judge it despicable and “unruly” because what is art if it is only to operate within comfort zones and if it has to fear being accused of fascism if it chooses to confront fascist aesthetics. Does that mean that someone who plays a nazi in a movie and kills an innocent person while acting should be accused of being a nazi or the producers of that movie for propelling nazi views. As far as I’m concerned the medium of cinema or even more television is an even greater tool of mass-manipulation and I don’t even want to go into the territory of how much fascist and sexist aesthetic finds its wormy places in there. Malinowski also cites Attali and his argument that “without the loud speaker, Hitler would have never conquered Germany”. That is technically true and yet so reductive. Hitler would have also never conquered Germany without the first world war, which left Germany and Austria defeated and ruled over by the victors. The Versailles contract created an identity crisis and the population at the time was jobless, poor, depressed and their heads were still full of the horrors of what had been an extraordinary war in the worst possible sense of the word. Times were miserable. Hitler would have also not conquered Germany if it wasn’t for a very disturbing and loyal-to-the-cause entourage pre-dating 1933 before he ever took up any office. Those are just some of the factors playing into one of the darkest and most twisted period of our time.

It is definitely a responsibility to have a medium at your disposable that amplifies your transmissions to reach a mass of people close and far away alike and yet I believe that the artists making industrial, ambient music take that responsibility much more serious than pop artists who play in front of thousands, filling their transmissions with nonsensical lyrics or obvious, oversexualised innuendos and often very misogynistic messages. Even though I would also find that too extreme, but if there was any link between music and fascism then I would see it much more in mass-consumed pop than in ambient music.

There is no denying that industrial and “black and white”-dominated music has a fascination with brutalism, machines, war and the male dominated ego. I would even say that no one disagrees that there is a huge male-dominance in electronic music in general and we are just starting to see that change a bit thankfully. But I find the notion ridiculous that you cannot go into darker pits without being finger-pointed as someone who adheres to the mindset of the creators of that darkness. How can something that devastating happening to a human species not have an effect on the humanity and expression thereof on the generations to come? Industrial music is a mirror of what we have become, not a catalyst. It is more fascist to generalise a population and be hostile towards art for being controversial than to live out your musical expression in peace with headphones on or standing in a warehouse with your eyes closed, no matter what clothes you wear or how snobbish and over-intellectual you may be. Of course you may be a “music-nazi” but you’re not a fascist because of it.

If one looks even closer to the definition of fascism and gets really technical about it, it would become apparent that fascism and abstract art that attracts strange, fringe-type characters is actually an oxymoron. Of course one could say “two sides of the same medallion” but I would say ask “classic” fascists – real state-authoritarian bigots – about their human values and then do the same with random crowds at an industrial, punk or techno festival and compare the two experiences. Challenging the status-quo sometimes means putting on an ugly mask that makes many people uncomfortable but it is the opposite of glorification of that status.

The beginning of the article dismisses the objectivity and the concern of the author for me. Rather, it seems, that the author mocks and, without having great insight, just straight out doesn’t like the music and the setting. I had a friend once who just felt uncomfortable and therefore categorised the music as “evil”. That is what is called bias and is not enough to link ambient music to Hitler (…). I don’t even find the article well researched because Eaux is Rrose’s label and I would not really call him or any of his peers at Sandwell District (I recommend reading THIS and THIS interview with Karl O’Connor aka Regis, co-founder of Sandwell District and an institution in industrial and techno music) or Stroboscopic Artefacts fascist as they are one of the only movements in music that propagate gender fluidity and criticism on the oppression of “pedestrian music”. They want no borders for their art and don’t choose some populist elements that would appeal to anyone. The ones it doesn’t appeal to aren’t excluded, they simply choose not to like it or to not even try it. Just as no one is forced to listen to the music or be a part of the social rituals that involve it. These are all essential corner stones in identifying fascism. A real fascist would cringe at the thought of a cross-dresser (Rrose) that plays acidic, hypnotic electronic music. The open-mindedness with which this music has to be approached in order to even listen and be able to tell whether or not you feel anything is more than most people I met are willing to do. I understand that, we are drowned in visual stimuli in our modern world and the music and its aesthetic is not “pleasing” in an obvious or conventional manner.

The charismatic leader is present but that is the case in education, politics, sports, religion, business etc. in order to be successful, it is in the job description, so to speak, and doesn’t make for danger per default. If that were the case we would need to overthrow our entire hierarchical, patriarchal society – which would be a good thing in many ways – but we certainly cannot start or stop at ambient or industrial music if we want to tackle this particular issue. Vatican Shadow’s album that contains most of the tracks cited by the author is aptly titled “It Stands to Conceal”. That was conveniently left out of the analysis as it would have shown the angle from which Fernow approaches these controversial topics of his project. Sure, one could argue that is still displaced and culturally inappropriate but that is certainly subjective and cannot lead to the conclusion that a man glorifies the “First Reich” and all its gruesome deeds.

The Columbine shooter was reportedly a big fan of KMFDM, authorities responded by banning the band from entering the country. That is the backwards mentality and – ironically – lack of responsibility of the individual we are dealing with in this article. I also want to remind of the dangers this logic poses in absolving the individual of the responsibility and limiting art to neutral territory so that it may be “safe” to consume for the lowest common denominator and even constricting the messages of art to serve the singular purpose of a controlling government entity. Because that is how real fascism operates. Oppressive and fascist regimes limit or forbid music and dancing, close down clubs and other social venues and control their population so that they shall not think for themselves.

Maybe I am a “post-internet hipster” as well but I sure am not a fascist. Once again, being fascinated and informed by occult, violence and war does NOT make you an advocator of those things. Should we shush and censor our society on the dark corners of our humanity? Should all art and music be “positive” and “uplifting”? Is it not good that our psyches get shocked a little bit and that we confront ourselves with what has happened and what is still widely going on to a certain degree, in certain places? Because that is what made us move close to where we are again now – political correctness takes everything for so long that negligence takes over and fascist parties all over Europe slowly but surely rise. The best way to repeat a mistake is to fool ourselves into forgetting that we made it. By demonising everything that is repelling, we try to repress it and evil gets room to breath again.

On a very personal note – I listen to a lot of ambient music and much of it has a penchant toward minimal, industrial and techno music. Not only do I find this article condescending and unnecessarily undercutting but it is misinformed. I have been to Berlin Atonal and yes one may laugh about all the black overalls and the undercuts and the healthy food trucks and the esoterics involved in everything that surrounds this type of crowd and venue. But it is by far the most diversified when it comes to gender, ethnicities and age. That says more about fascism than colour of clothes and unity of sound. I also have difficulty understanding the author’s adversity of the aspect that a lot of the attendees of such an event and some of the food sold there is vegan. What exactly is it about being conscious of animal lives that is to be considered fascist? Ironically again, I would consider much of the ignorance regarding animal cruelty and industrial mass-production of meat a fascist trait of modern times. Even those that aren’t vegans out of conviction and just follow some sort of “flock”, as the author puts it, aren’t doing any harm, since no being is harmed for their food intake. The only crimes they have committed here is being an annoyance to the ones who want to consume their meat in good conscience or maybe not being their most authentic selves.

The most colourful and musically diverse festival I have been to yet was Outlook. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and the music, which doesn’t tackle violent topics and is rooted more in organic sounds than in machine sounds. But this festival is majorly British and full of drunken, disorderly behaviour, pushing and let’s just say girls there aren’t exactly respect in any way.

You can never generalise but if an essay fails to see that things are not entirely the way they seem, then it is useless to me. We should always nuance everything, see them as a whole. We have enough “anti” and division in our world as it is, I don’t believe ambient music is even a tiny part of the problem. To me music, in general, is part of the solution were it not so hard to get people out of their comfort zones. Thankfully more and more people become open minded when it comes to music and modern music manages to fuse so many influences and production techniques that I believe the future is bright in that regard. This article reminds me though, that people will always find a way to be afraid, judge and stay in their conventional spaces. That is absolutely fine, I do not mind them but I would ask them not to call those, who feel differently, fascists.

Raphael Shklarek


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