What is Totalitarian Art?

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Art Fag
What is Totalitarian Art?

Foreign Affairs

Kanan Makiya

May/June 2011

Earlier this year, the government of Iraq, in a misconceived act of outreach to the country's once dominant Sunni community, began restoring a dilapidated monument in Baghdad. Originally constructed in the late 1980s as a celebration of Iraq's supposed triumph in its war against Iran, the Victory Arch was partially dismantled in 2008 by Sadrist elements who were eventually stopped by orders from the Iraqi prime minister. The monument consists of two sets of giant forearms and hands brandishing swords, draped with a net containing a gruesome collection of enemy helmets. Conceived by Saddam Hussein himself and carried out by the Iraqi sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmat using casts of Saddam's own arms, it is such an outstanding example of totalitarian kitsch that I used it as a lens through which to view the degradation of culture in Iraq under the Baathist regime in my 1991 book The Monument .

An Iraqi Soldier passing the Victory Arch in Baghdad, June 2008

But what exactly makes something totalitarian art? In his important and encyclopedic tome on the art produced under the twentieth century's four most brutal political systems -- the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People's Republic of China -- Igor Golomstock makes it clear that he is writing not about "art under totalitarian regimes" but rather about "totalitarian art," a particular cultural phenomenon with its own ideology, aesthetics, and style. This type of art did not arise because of common threads running through Soviet, German, Italian, and Chinese culture; the cultural traditions of the countries, Golomstock holds, are "simply too diverse" to explain the stylistic and thematic similarities among totalitarian works. He collects these similarities under the term "total realism," a genre that has its roots in the socialist realist art of the Soviet Union after 1932, when Stalin decreed it the only type of art acceptable.

One cannot think of a more perfect example of the totalitarian artistic impulse than Saddam's insistence that a cast of his own forearms be used as the mold from which the Victory Arch was to be made. But in general, depictions of the leader, perhaps the most common subject of total realism, had to be mythologized. It would not do, for example, for a Soviet artist to depict Stalin as the short, pockmarked, bandy-legged man that he really was. His physical attributes, as in F. S. Shurpin's portrait The Morning of Our Fatherland , had to undergo the same transformation as Stalin's version of history, to be turned into what the writer Milan Kundera so eloquently referred to as "the beautifying lie." To make this point even more explicit, in this new edition of the book (it was first published in 1990), Golomstock has added a postscript on totalitarian art in Saddam's Iraq. Although the art of that era was produced in a largely Arab and overwhelmingly Muslim culture, it still fits into the same paradigm as the art produced in Maoist China. As Golomstock argues, the similarities within totalitarian art demonstrate "the universality of the mechanisms of totalitarian culture."

An image of Saddam Hussein that covers a wall in Baghdad, September 1989

Golomstock arrived at this insight in the late 1950s when he was working as a children's guide in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, in Moscow. He discovered that children who were well versed in the Stalinist art of the previous decades were unable to tell the difference between Nazi and Soviet works. "It was then," he writes, "in the bowels of the totalitarian system, 'in the belly of the whale,' that I first had the idea of this book: it arose from an intuitive sense of the strange closeness between two artistic systems that were . . . ideologically hostile to one another."

By cataloging and reproducing hundreds of images, some never before published, of paintings, posters, and sculptures and juxtaposing Soviet, German, Italian, and Chinese works to one another, Golomstock has fleshed out that original intuition. His exploration of these works, and his unearthing of the multitude of stories surrounding their origin, production, and fate, is invaluable. Totalitarian Art is an indispensable work of reference on the art produced under four regimes that, between them, are responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people.

Golomstock's story about Soviet schoolchildren is eerily reminiscent of how Oleg Grabar opened his groundbreaking 1973 book, The Formation of Islamic Art . Grabar noted that if a person with a "modicum of artistic culture" were leafing through hundreds of images of major works of art from all over the world, he would, without fail, be able to identify those that experts label "Islamic art." But what makes Islamic art unique? Grabar was quick to show that it had little, if anything, to do with Islam. Many works of art made by or for non-Muslims are appropriately studied as examples of Islamic art. There is, after all, a Taj Mahal in India made by Indians drawing on Hindu, pre-Islamic traditions and a Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem made by Christian artisans whose craft was Byzantine in origin. Yet experts regard both architectural masterpieces as unquestionably Islamic. What is Islamic about the art, Grabar writes, is its "special overlay, a deforming or refracting prism which transformed, at times temporarily and imperfectly, at other times permanently, some local energies or traditions."

In its early centuries, Islamic civilization was a fusion of many preexisting cultures, which in turn gave birth to new forms of literature and art that are recognizable as Islamic, even centuries after the original creative spark died out. There is such a thing as Islamic art, comparable to Gothic or baroque art, because of a centuries-long historical juncture that transformed ethnic and geographic traditions and created a new kind of symbiosis between local modes of artistic expression and pan-Islamic ones. Historians may not yet fully understand how a particular tile made in Muslim Spain came to bear an uncanny and elusive resemblance to one made in Hyderabad, India, but as Grabar has demonstrated, they do know that both are indubitably Islamic.


Vasily Yakovlev , Portrait of Georgy Zhukov (1946)​
The same elusive and unselfconscious creative impulse cannot be found in state-sponsored totalitarian art. To begin with, it is often indistinguishable from propaganda. Consider the amateurish poster of Saddam on a white horse (à la Vasily Yaklovev's portrait of the Soviet marshal Georgy Zhukov) that was plastered all over Baghdad in 1989 -- the year he rode under his Victory Arch on that very horse. Because they are so bound up with the state and its politics, the works of totalitarian art rarely outlast the regimes that produced them; they are quickly consigned to oblivion or destroyed outright by enraged populations. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, jubilant Baghdadis clambered on top of the toppled bronze statue of Saddam in Firdos Square and dragged the severed head through the streets. Totalitarian art, in other words, seems to be rejected once the political conditions that led to its creation are lifted. The art that has survived in Germany and the former Soviet Union has only recently begun to be pulled out of museum basements, largely for the purpose of study, not admiration.

More important, totalitarian art has not yet produced masterpieces that, irrespective of the odious systems that birthed them, could be said to have made permanent contributions to human culture. Perhaps this is because, unlike Islamic art, for example, totalitarian art's production has everything to do with a top-down, state-driven project to bring about an aesthetic and spiritual union of government and people according to a prefixed dogma.

Benito Mussolini was the first political leader to propagate the idea that art should serve the revolution and the state. But Italian fascism was never quite able to realize this vision. It was never able to fully fuse ideology, organization, and terror into the kind of state-run cultural machine that Mussolini's own fascist doctrine called for. Whereas Hitler and Stalin used both threats and rewards to co-opt artists, Mussolini used only the latter, and so pre-Fascist Italian culture was never laid to waste the way German and Russian culture were. The concrete implementation of the concept of total realism -- in paint, marble, and building materials -- was left to Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, and Mao's China. Italy's inability to realize the totalitarian cultural project highlights how unimaginable such a project would have been in the formative centuries of Islam, when no state or empire had the resources, repressive agencies, or organizational wherewithal to bring about the necessary fusion that Mussolini called for and that Hitler and Stalin put into effect. Totalitarianism is a twentieth-century enterprise that would have been impossible to realize in premodern, nonindustrialized societies.

To be sure, Islamic and totalitarian art do have something in common. Behind both lay an originally political and ideological impetus, not an artistic one, that made new aesthetic forms possible. Both can be precisely dated, since Muslim sources document when different lands became Islamic and the beginnings of totalitarianism can be pinned down in the twentieth century with even greater precision. The day the Third Reich collapsed in 1945 ended the German experiment with total realism, and the day the statue in Firdos Square came tumbling down in 2003 ended Iraq's. The Soviet Union's fascination with the form reached its apogee between 1946 and 1953, only to wither away in later decades.

But Golomstock does much more than provide the political markers for the start and the end of full-blown totalitarian culture. He makes a cultural argument that there was a nexus between totalitarianism and modernism. "We shall never be able to understand the nature of totalitarian culture," he writes, "unless we examine its ideological sources in what it referred to with contempt as 'modernism.'" In his problematic first chapter, "Modernism and Totalitarianism," Golomstock writes of a "hereditary link" between the avant-garde movement of the first decades of the twentieth century, which by and large welcomed the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the total realism movements of the 1930s and 1940s, which he sees as that revolution's offspring. Totalitarian regimes, he argues, disguise themselves in the revolutionary garb of modernist art in their early stages, before turning to "the most conservative and outmoded" cultural traditions once they have legitimated themselves.

F.S. Shurpin, The Morning of Our Fatherland (1948)​
Unfortunately, in making this ideological connection between some avant-garde artists and the total realists, Golomstock has lost sight of the initial experience in the 1950s that brought him to all the important insights of this book. If he were to place works by such giants of early modernism as Umberto Boccioni and Wassily Kandinsky side by side with works by such total realists as Yakovlev and Heinrich Knirr, he would find that the children he had taught in the 1950s would have no trouble at all telling them apart. (The children would, of course, not know the names of the modernists, because these had been erased from art history books, just as their works had been removed from museums.) The stylistic gap between the two groups is so large that it is senseless to claim that evolving ideologies somehow connect them. Contrary to Golomstock's reasoning, an artist should not qualify as the progenitor of totalitarian art simply because he or she hailed fascism and revolution in Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century.

The fundamental distinction that needs to be made here, one ignored by Golomstock, is between, on the one hand, an artist's rhetoric and the political ideas he or she holds (including the meaning given to his or her own work) and, on the other hand, the work itself and how it speaks to fellow artists and viewers of art in society at large. It does not really matter if Boccioni, the great Italian sculptor and painter, joined forces with Mussolini. What matters is that he learned from such modernist giants as Georges Braque and Constantin Brancusi and went on to help shape cubist sculpture in Europe, influencing such important artists as Raymond Duchamp-Villon, C. R. W. Nevinson, and Wyndham Lewis -- who were as removed from totalitarian ideas and movements as it was possible to be. Boccioni, then, was both an artist and an Italian Fascist, but his work is not remotely connected with totalitarian art.


Heinrich Knirr , Portrait of Adolf Hitler (1939)​
The crucial element in the creation of totalitarian culture was the involvement of the state, not indirectly, through the financing of culture, but directly, by imposing a "dictatorship of taste," as the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky enthusiastically called it. To find, as in post-Baathist Iraq, boxes of files containing hundreds of pages of correspondence from the Office of the President providing guidance on the minutiae of wall posters and paintings and murals and monuments made in Baghdad under Saddam, even as he was waging wars with Iran, Kuwait, and the United States: this is the true measure of totalitarian culture, not what this or that Iraqi artist said about art before Saddam even came to power.

The fact that artists, even great ones, have acquiesced in, collaborated in, and even argued for state organization of art and culture is beside the point; it is the implementation of the supposed necessity of that organization, so thoroughly documented by Golomstock, that ultimately creates the universal forms of totalitarian art that even schoolchildren can immediately recognize as such. Moreover, it matters how good these artists are at what they do. Golomstock acknowledges this in his postscript on totalitarian art in Iraq. No Iraqi artist working for Saddam, he writes, "was as gifted as Arno Breker, Vera Mukhina or Alexander Gerasimov" -- all artists who worked under Hitler or Stalin.

This statement betrays Golomstock's overly hasty observations about Iraqi art, whose quality he fails to appreciate. Totalitarian art is only interesting when the best artistic talent engages in it, and this is what happened in Iraq. Under Hitler, many of the best artists went into exile, continuing modernism on the more welcoming shores of the Unites States. (The consequences of choosing not to flee can be severe: the poet Mayakovsky stayed on in Stalin's Russia, which may have had something to do with why he shot himself in 1930.) In Iraq, by contrast, most of the talented artists of the 1950s and 1960s collaborated with the new regime. Ghani Hikmat and Khalid al-Rahal, two of the most promising young Iraqi talents in the 1960s, went on to carry out such total realist monstrosities as the Victory Arch and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in the 1980s. They did so because their project of the reappropriation of Iraqi turath , or "heritage," was hijacked by the Baath Party, which found it politically parallel to its own idea of a Baathist-led "renaissance" of Arabness.

After 1968, once the totalitarian machinery of the state had been set up, the government poured money into the arts. Over time, it directed artistic life to fit state-driven political goals, to the point where Saddam himself began designing monuments. What the Iraqi experience shows, when the pre-totalitarian works of Iraqi artists are compared with the later totalitarian works that were dictated by the Saddam regime, is how much the work of the individual artist was transformed into something quite unrecognizable from what it used to be. Totalitarian art is the lifeless and mindless outcome of that dictation.