The notion that art and politics are profoundly intertwined may seem remote to most Americans, give or take the occasional controversy over government support for the arts. But in Europe, where totalitarian states have trampled on free expression and appropriated the myths and rituals of art to serve their oppressive ends, it is a very different story.
As Michael Benson, an American journalist and film maker, suggests in his ominous, intellectually provocative film, Predictions of Fire, both Hitler, and art school reject and Stalin, a self-described engineer of human souls, were dictators who established states that could be viewed as enormous works of art. In building them, they appropriated and subverted the vision and energy of modern avant-garde movements. The work of Kasimir Malevich, the Russian painter who founded the geometric style known as Suprematism in 1913, is cited as a prime example.
Against this historical backdrop, Predictions of Fire examines the work of New Slovenian Arts, an ambitious esthetic movement born in Slovenia. Calling its style “retro-garde,” the movement has declared itself a borderless state and even issued passports.
In its performances and installations, it incorporates totalitarian iconography, the idea being that the horrors of the past must be confronted rather than swept away. One philosopher who is interviewed describes Europe as having an underlying predisposition toward fascism that he calls its “hidden transgression.” Every society, he maintains, has this sort of secretive dark side.
The civil war in the former Yugoslavia, in particular the inflammatory rhetoric of Serbian nationalists, are cited as evidence that the embers of fascism could flare up at any time. All it takes is some aggressive poking. A central goal of New Slovenian Arts is to expose and manipulate this hidden transgression in a process Mr. Benson calls “subversive reversal.”
Predictions of Fire, which opens today at the Film Forum, examines the movement’s three arms. The flashiest is Laibach, a rock band whose music features jackbooted industrial rhythms and harsh robotic vocals. The movements painting collective, known as Irwin, also incorporates totalitarian images, while denying individual authorship. Its theatrical arm, Red Pilot, is shown staging a grim performance piece called “The Prayer Machine.”
Predictions of Fire is part historical documentary, part art-school essay. It throws out such a dense profusion of ideas that it sometimes loses track of itself. And Mr. Benson’s stiff, academic delivery is anything but congenial. Scenes of art events are interwoven with film clips of Communist and Fascist pageants from the past that forcefully illustrate the seductive power of parades and rallies.
The film ends with a warning that Western Europe’s detachment from the turmoil in the Balkans is a denial of its own susceptibility to the same eruptive forces. They could easily flare again.