Visiting Post: The Aesthetics of Power
17 Nov 2023

Power looks good, doesn’t it? Those who wear it well look great in it. You see it at Davos, where the people parade as if their forum was a catwalk. Those in the know can detect who is wearing who – you do not need to see the label to know, darling.

They look good because… well… they must be good. It is not just the suits; it is the confidence. The easy smiles and handshakes, why, they glide across the room don’t they? Like dancers they move, and they are treated with deference by everyone, and the cameras flash away, and the podiums are large.

You can transplant the whole set to Hollywood, call it the Oscars and the exact same cues deliver the exact same take-out to observers. These people are fabulous. Better than you and me, actually… if not, then why are they all so hot?

Several powerful men, and ladies, are in fact not oil paintings. And yet they look as if they might be. Your eyes deceive you; they must be wonderful.

It is only after many decades of cocktail parties that one begins to suspect it all comes down to carefully curated cues – little social signals planted to make the rest of us feel dazzled by the brilliance of bling and couture.

I have spent more seasons than I care to disclose moving among those who dress well and shine for the cameras – and in my time I’ve picked up a thing or two about how the image of power, and power itself, are inextricably linked.

The biggest ever

The big evil threat is shown from below, because the angle makes them appear larger. The helpless victim is pictured from above, so we can look down on them. Big is powerful, small is weak – this is one of the most fundamental brush strokes of power. You would think our lizard brains would have progressed past such pettiness, but alas: observe nearly anything and the principle holds. It does not have to be physical size, mind you, although, especially for alpha gentlemen, it helps. The size of your entourage might substitute perfectly. Your gown. Your ring. The height of your Jimmy Choos if you insist.

This principle was well established a very long time ago. The Egyptians built their Pyramids to make the point. The Babylonians their hanging Gardens. It can be seen on the reliefs of the walls up the ramp to the court at Persepolis. There Darius, Emperor of Persia, ruled millions of people across more than 20 nations stretching from the Med to India. He ruled so many people who were illiterate, or spoke different languages, that he knew his cuneiform inscriptions were not enough. He needed to make his entrance, and his statement, with pictures. Carved into the very walls of your approach to his court. And a nice trick he used too – not classless scenes of combat like so many other emperors. Rather, people, in their own national uniforms and outfits, bringing treasures and tribute. A lot of it. Big, big, big troves of treasure. If so, many others brought such huge statements of support for the big chief, then I best get in line.

Darius did not restrict his PR to the capital. On your way there, next to the highway, he used the flat side of a mountain to carve the world’s very first political billboard. There he was, depicted, a man – probably average in reality – but depicted much, much larger than life. With riches, and a bow to show his wisdom and prowess, and a kindly face. Power is calm. Power can take it on the chin.

Small signs

The rules of power can be subtle, however. Not everything large is good. Those with class and taste do not like the ostentatious displays of the nouveau riche and uncultured. Sometimes the cues are small. The kind of person who gold plates a yacht might not be invited to the golf club in the Hamptons.

Case study: Florence. In 1397 Giovanni de Medici makes a fortune as a moneylender – and a dynasty is born. Art – art everywhere – not always big but always so exquisitely detailed. And those little balls you, see? Everywhere. Florence is the personal canvas of the de Medici family, and they have put their crest, with coins (not balls darling) everywhere.

Power is detailed. A lot of people paid attention to make it exceptional.

Intensely Personal

Power is vested in the faces that wield it. You can tell a lot about someone from their countenance. Look at Richelieu. You can just tell his little spies everywhere tells him things, about everyone, even me and you.

You can tell from that poker face.

He does the powerful thing and hides what he knows – the asymmetry of knowledge being a major lever in the pursuit and execution of power.

But you can see it everywhere power wants to be absolute. The face of Saddam Hussein was everywhere when Iraq was rules by him – everywhere. It was as if he was looking at you wherever you went. As if he could pick you up from any corner if he so wanted, take you to a cell, and do things to you until you confess.

The face of the Great Leader is visible in North Korea too. Not just on posters and paintings, but in statues. A portrait in every house. Prayer-like incantations said to it.

It is not the personal nature of the face that gives it power, but its ubiquity. Everyone has a personal face, but we do not all flaunt it everywhere. If we do, our faces are more than personal. They are symbols. Notice the nature of the perfectly curated face. The Leader is smiling, the leader is contemplative, the leader is pensive, strategic, brave, defiant, strong – the leader never has a bad hair day. The leader’s face, despite his looks, between you and me, is flawless.

See his smile? His kindly eyes? Reliable as a mule. But nowhere near as crude, obviously. Rather attractive in fact, given the right light.

Everyone’s Doing It

Of course, it takes more than one to tango, even Saddam knew that. Consider the humble uniform, the oldest expression of collective power. They all dress the same. That was not an ancient thing, by the way. Even the Romans were a fairly ragtag bunch, and medieval peasant armies looked nothing alike. But uniformed military units were a game changer. Struck fear into the hearts of enemies, because now you had a mass of people who were all the same, totally committed to your destruction.

Plus, when it comes to uniforms, you can really go full haute couture. Take a course in fashion design, for instance, and you would know that the single most successful designer in history was – drumroll – Chairman Mao. His grey little uniform was universally adopted by a lot of people. We digress a bit, in that Mao’s fabulous summer and winter wear was for the masses – everyone was doing it and it was all the rage. Civilians adopted it, I mean.

Back to the military, the point is not sameness but standing out. To be strong one must look strong. So, when the SS needed an outfit, the designer Hugo Boss was the one to design and give it to them. Those sleek lines. Tasteful skulls on the collar, and the double lightning SS insignia. A blend of black and grey – it looked formidable and organised, why, as if it was heralding certainty and order that would last a thousand years.

When it comes to the aesthetics of power, there was perhaps no greater engineer than Goebbels. Plagued by physical deformity he was denied a career as a soldier. He proved that the designer’s pen can be far more murderous than any sword. Goebbels’ specific genius lay in the combination of media, and his ability to harness several different channels together simultaneously. Hitler himself lay the groundwork for the Aesthetic of the Reich – the striking red, black and white – the distinctive symbol of the Swastika – the Eagle – the One Arm Salute – all referencing the Roman Empire, as Mussolini did. But Goebbels, a novelist and journalist, brought the power of that vision and a few ranting speeches to newspapers, posters, radio, cinema, and large-scale political theatre: the rally.

Few could stand at Nurenberg and not feel either in awe or awfully intimidated. The whole look and feel, the atmosphere, the on-point messaging, the multi-faceted but single-mindedness of repetitive talking points. The aesthetics were stronger, and perhaps more convincing in the end, certainly than the arguments.

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of The Will – a boring watch nowadays but at the time revolutionary filmmaking – delivers a concentrated shot straight into the main artery. Goebbels dished it out masterfully all the way until 1945.

Red Garde

The polar opposite of fascism, in the meantime, used art as artfully. What’s interesting about Soviet Art is that there are two very distinct periods.

First, the avant garde. Communism before it gains power. It deconstructs orthodoxy and rejects hierarchy. It plays with form and geometry showing how we all fit together and need no authority to direct us how survive or thrive. Together, in the whole, a new meaning emerges. This is the Communist art of the constructivists – Alexander Rodchenko’s Dance.

Then, communism after it gains power. The very deconstructive messaging it utilised to arrive at its position of pre-eminence on a hairpin turn decried as decadent and elitist.

Then emerges the Soviet Art we all know and love: ultra-realism. Wholesome well-built men and liberated ladies all toiling away in the fields and the factory’s, united by a common mission to reject the Imperialism, exploitation, and irrationality of everyone else (except us, of course).

You notice it in architecture most immediately, because the style of socialism is so brutal. Compare the concrete blocks of East Germany with some older structures in the West. Cookie cutter and mass produced built for spectacle modernist wonders in Shanghai or Pyongyang with Tokyo’s sprawl, or Seoul’s soulful high streets.

Power is personal and individual and well designed – but power is also all of us, together, undivided and indivisible.

No, After You

July 2000 at the Camp David Peace Accords. Bill Clinton hosts the Israeli Prime Minister and the head of the PLO at a summit, to carve out, hopefully, the evasive peace that everyone is hoping and praying for. At the door of the house, an interesting scene plays out. Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat each seem to want the other to walk first.

A sign of hope, it is declared. They each want the other to go first, as if they are deferring.

A beautiful moment, but completely misunderstood.

In Middle Eastern Culture, the main man goes second.

Hardly inspiring – so radically misread. Which brings us to another principle. Power is coded. It uses subtle cues, often available only to members of an in-group, to delineate and announce itself. Outsiders will often misread that. 

You Look Divine

Power goes beyond politics, of course. There is money. Mafia Lords compete by trading in exotic cats and wildlife. Why? Because they can, and they can afford it. Have you ever been a member of a yacht club? Have you ever been looked down on because your yacht is a mere 85-footer? It is all relative – and when a certain level of money gets involved – it is time to set your aim on space.

Where else is there to go?

Still, while mere multi-billionaires look towards the heavens, real power brings the heavens to us.

The murderous Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shin Rikyo built much of its following on two really bad photographs. Comically bad, in fact. It shows cult leader Ashahara Shoko, legs crossed, face contorted with exertion, essentially tush-jumping into the air. We will call it evidence of levitation and the rest is history. Cartoon series, comic books, even video games… all getting folks to join, and follow, the new divine leader. Quite successfully. Because people sometimes see power where they want to see it, where they yearn to see it, regardless of what is actually on offer.

Jim Jones’ People’s Temple – of Jonestown Massacre fame – released a lot of CDs. Nice music, too. A little unclear who exactly they mean when they say follow “Him” – but it sounds so very familiar, it can’t be all bad. Power is familiar, you see. You know it, it knows you.

The Cognoscenti

Despite all these many truths about power – it is familiar, and big, and beautiful, and rich, and strong, and familiar, and local – it is also not common but special. And this is perhaps the most important aesthetic key of power. Power is special – it knows things you do not – has things we do not have – understands things we cannot. Unless you are a billionaire your opinion is not important.

Power is wise and smart – because all these reporters are asking it its opinion about things. It is so smart, in fact, it often wears a lab coat. You could not possibly understand, but the Science is all in agreement and knows, you understand.

Power’s most fundamental key is that it looks down on those around it. It may be good power, or bad, true power, or false, real power, or pretended, kind or merciless, but mostly, it is just assumed.

And very often, once the applause dies down, it is not wearing all that much, if inspected closely.

But who wants to spoil such a fabulous evening out?