What Is Totalitarian Art? Cultural Kitsch From Stalin to Saddam

Kanan Makiya in Foreign Affairs:

ScreenHunter_05 Apr. 30 14.49 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.”

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